Thursday, December 29, 2005

First Indian Cooking Class!

Even more than shopping for bright orange saris and handwoven textiles in India, I wanted to absolutely take regional cooking classes. Andy and I love Indian food and have been slaves to our cravings for vindaloo, chana masala, samosas and more. Rarely was there a better Friday night than take out from Little India (I was usually eating hot naan out of the bag in tehir parking lot because that flat bread is so delicious!) and together time over mango lassis at home.

What is that spice? Look at that sauce color! Mmm...I love fried samosas and chutney.

Alas, the journey to demystify spices, unearth special techniques and disclose secret recipes began yesterday.

We followed a unimpressive sign advertising "Cooking Classes" down a small street and to a small guesthouse and met with Maria George, a Keralan native who helps her husband run Monte Carlo Hotel and manages the tiny, primitive kitchen for its courtyard restaurant.

Maria is petite, hospitable and sweet with dark eyes and a quiet voice. Before discussing the imperatives of the class, we saw photos from her other classes and a family album of a trip to the Western Ghats, plus her daughter brought us homemade Christmas wine to sample and shortbread she'd made with Indian flair by using ghee (clarified butter). Andy and I chose the menu, deciding to tackle his favorite vindaloo--with fish instead of meat for picky me -- along with a Keralan vegetable, rice and our favorite fried goodness, samosas. Our class was arranged for 3pm and we arrived promptly with a bottle of water, camera and the kitchen geek could write it all down.

In the kitchen, Maria is still petite, hospitable and sweet, but also very focused and agile...we're all dodging 2 children, 1 grandma, 2 hired girls, 1 hired boy and a dog named Apu in an 8' x 12' space where chai-filled glasses and trays of banana lassis get whisked downstairs via barefoot delivery to the courtyard.

We sat at a narrow table with bowls and plates filled with fragrant ingredients: mustard seed, cumin, cilantro/coriander, green chiles, mint, ginger, turmeric, coconut, cinnamon, cardamon and more. There were also two small silvery, freshly cleaned fish that she'd bought at the market for us to use in our vindaloo, and shredded cabbage, carrot and green bean for our vegetable thoren. Thoren is the term for a vegetable mix in Kerala that contains coconut. And nearly everything Keralan contains coconut and we're pleased by this. It's savory sweetness adds a yummy texture to even less glamourous veggies like cabbage.

We learned right off how to make spice pastes by blending garlic, ginger, mustard seeds and cumin together for the vindaloo. And then adding white vinegar!?? Who knew mustard and vinegar were the secret ingredients in this dish, and that you use Kashmiri chile powder to make its vivid pink-red color?

Andy was brave and tasted the green chiles (like serannos) raw and impressed her with his tolerance, while I madly scribbled down her measurements and directions. Maria had every recipe in her head and just measured out her spices my memory in front of us, using a "one-quarter teaspoon of turmeric" (and we're talking quite heaping teaspoons) here and "two teaspoons of cumin seed" there. She was also impressed that Andy was interested in cooking (can I just say, Andy is the BEST!) and took special care to show him how to finely chop shallots and make sure he understands that you use only 3 cloves and 3 cardamon pods for rice.

We moved on to making the mint chutney for the samosas, a spicy green delight of chiles, mint, cilantro, ginger, tamarind, onion and garlic. Maria chopped everything roughly, and then took us out to a small standing stone block out on the backstairs that link the kitchen to the restaurant. She showed us how she rolls this stout heavy rolling pin of stone over the fresh spices to create the best paste. Quickly and elegantly she rolled over the mint, chiles, cilantro and more, squeezing out zesty smells that tinged our noses to create a moist green puddle of chutney. It was SO awesome -- she just talked about how she learned to cook from her mother, aunts and husband's mother, and told us to roll gently but firmly to get crush for flavor...all while her kids and helpers ran trays of tea and snacks up and down the narrow stairs!

Our beloved samosas were the most work and the most fun to make. We learned how Maria pressure cooks the potatoes and peas (and for the record Andy told her: "We'll definitely buy a pressure cooker when we get home") and that the secret spice which has puzzled me in every samosa bite is oregano...seeds. Who knew there were oregano seeds and they're used a ton in North Indian cuisine? I equate oregano with only pizza no longer.

And, I learned about the secret rhythm of cooking Indian spices. Put the onions in first and saute alone, then turn down the flame and add turmeric. Don't let it get too hot or it will discolor the food and always add it first to the onions! Then, add the garlic, saute, and then the ginger. Ginger can burn so it's nevery added first, and adding a small piece of chopped ginger to cauliflower or cabbage will help erase their bitter taste. These basics are the foundation for most masalas and dishes in South India, and always get your cooking oil hot enough to pop mustard seeds but never too hot to burn cumin seeds. Maria defintely had a rhythm to the way she moved and monitored the gas flame on the stove and made us look at its level for each step of a dish.

Occasionally, Maria would jump into the kitchen to help someone cook a dish for a customer and her daughter constantly brought us treats to sample. Fried salty batter drops with cumin seed, some candy that tasted like fig newton filling, a bit of Christmas plum cake and, of course, chai...yum! Chai is a mystery and adventure every time you drink it here: sometimes it has cloves and sometimes it has cardamon and sometimes it has both or none. Always with milk and scalding hot, this is not the sweet Oregon chai you're buying at Cost Plus or Safeway for sure. It tastes and seems more rustic and individual.

Her husband's mother lives there and cooks for the restaraunt too, and she'd shuffle by in flip flops, a wild patterned muu-muu house dress and what I swear were men's horn-rimmed glasses, and show us fresh curry leaves, a different chile or explain who'd just arrived to visit and drink chai.

Samosa dough was our last endeavor, and she quickly mixed a batter reminiscent of pie dough that used coconut oil as the fat and grabbed a special Indian rolling pin that is about 8", made of dark wood and 1 1/2" wide in the middle but scaling smaller on each end. They're triangular pockets of fried dough and filling in their final form and Maria had Andy working the dough and learning how to make perfect cones with seamed edges and perfect folds. She was moving his hands in the right ways to get proportion and closure with the dough and I just looked on and imbibed the scene and spicy smells.

After 3 3/4 hours of talking, learning and working in Maria's kitchen, we got to indulge in our feast of fish vindaloo, vegetable thoren, samosas with mint chutney and rice. Everything was amazing...pungent and fresh, delicious and demystified! We stayed talking with Maria and her husband for a while longer and then waddled out 4 1/2 hours after wandering in, contented by both food and knowledge.

A few photos from the cooking class are posted here:


Anonymous marjie said...

This was fascinating and I loved thepictures!

8:35 PM  
Blogger jskalet said...

tiffany, i felt like i was right there in that kitchen.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Wendy said...

Yeah, I loved the pictures and all your commentary. Sorry Tiffy, but you are a kitchen geek! :o) I am so happy that you got to learn so much and that was just your first class!

6:21 PM  
Blogger HOLIDAY SHOP said...

Cooking class.............then there was a feast! Keep up the good work. Here's a few Curry Recipes to try from my Blog - then there was another feast!??

8:40 AM  

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