Thursday, January 26, 2006

Spice Heaven: North Indian Cooking Classes

In Rajasthan, we made it to the promised land of mythic architecture and dramatic color...not to mention cuisine and cooking classes. Here, the colors and textures of sauce rival the bright, rich fabrics that hang from market stalls, and spice is king.

Powdery pyramids of saffron, turmeric, coriander and cumin are piled high on the streets and wooden carts laden with fresh green chilies, cardamon, ginger and red onion roll by in nearly minute intervals. Spices here are fresh, bright and plentiful, and like Rajasthan's patchwork textiles, when mixed together by talented hands, true art emerges.

We thoroughly enjoyed two days of truly awesome culinary lessons with Sushma Soni and her husband Jairja at the Art Loft Guest House, and we redefined the term "fat and happy". Trust me! Andy and I spent about ten hours in their home and picked our most favorite dishes to learn as souvenir. We feel so satisfied--from both the recipes and relationship--as a cooking interaction offers an amazing opportunity to share questions, answers and laughter on both food and life with other people.

Sushma is a true mistress of spice--she grows, picks, roasts and blends her own into lovely masalas that make dishes sing in perfect spice harmony. She jokingly refers to her own personal blend of garam masala as 'magic masala' but there is truth to that statement.~> read more

Masalas or spice blends are the magic of Indian cooking and now that we've sampled, savored and soaked up knowledge from various cooking wizards, I have such a deep respect, a near 'bow down' admiration, for the spice palates, patience and blending abilities of Indian chefs.

We spent our first day with Sushma mastering our favorite vegetarian dishes: chai, rose lassis (yogurt drinks), chana masala (chickpeas in spicy tomato gravy), muttar gobi (cauliflower and peas), dal makhani (lentils and beans in spicy sauce), palak paneer (spinach with paneer, a tofu-type cheese) and stuffed chapathis (bread). Amazing, incredible, filling in every way! And the chile brightening white cauliflower, green peas with black fennel polka dots, deep dal earth tones made orange-gold with turmeric, saffron and pistachio swirled through yogurt like an anstract painting. Definitely check out the brilliant photos.

We learned little secrets to nearly every dish that I've packed away and plan to bring home to America. Who knew there was black cardamon and black cumin seeds? Who knew that roasting each spice alone and carefully, grinding separately and then mixing into one masala yields the most aromatic and delicious flavors? By sprinkling a half teaspoon of garam masala on at the end of cooking, that last moment when things are bubbling as you remove it from the flame, you'll elevate dishes to an artful level as the spices steam quicky and taste extra fresh-flavorful upon serving.

And, mango powder, anyone? Dried whole ginger pieces? Mix these with cumin seeds for a chaat masala and you have a new way to serve corn or roast chilies! Andy was especially enamored with the 'amchur' or mango powder and got serious direction from Sushma on how to dry unripe mangoes in the shade for a few days, peel and then grind into powder. Mango powder, fennel, fennugreek, rich tomato gravies and the ever-present tandoor oven differentiate the tastes of Northern Indian cuisine over other regions. Smokier, tangier, richer, redder sauces cover vegetables and meat in Rajasthan, and Sushma showed us the way to make these colorful pastes with only a touch of butter and then gently boil them until the masala separates from oil for better, healthier food.

And again, as we learned from others, making the special paste of garlic, ginger, chilies and onion with patience and care is the foundation of any good Indian sauce. Pounding, rolling or gently processing these just until the aromas of each spice is present, then stirring together into a thick sauce for cooking on high heat is ritual in the Indian kitchen. As is the flame dance, high for sauces, low for adding spices, medium for simmering and fire for giving breads that tasty barbeque browned edge. (At this point, after all of the yumminess, Andy is fully on board with building a tandoori oven in our future backyard or balcony. YES!)

Day Two with Sushma brought more favorites: pakoras (vegetable fritters), paneer tikka masala (Andy's favorite tandoor dish with a smokey, chili sauce), butter masala and naan. Gram or chickpea flour is used for the fried vegetable fritters called pakoras, which we've eaten frequently as late afternoon snacks, and it pairs beautifully with fennel and cumin needs. And let it be said: I need to do more cooking with chickpea flour! Sushma also told us about a special pakora she makes for her husband using fresh chilies and Andy's eyes lit up, so she made him ones that were stuffed with mango powder, cumin and salt and fried them up. He loved them...again, that mango powder! She was pleased since they're her own invention, and Jairja was impressed with Andy's daredevil palate. And all three of them made sure I'd copied down that recipe precisely!

Tikka is a deep orange spice rub that goes on meat, fish, potatoes or paneer for hours of marination and then barbequed to perfection in a tandoori oven. As Andy's eaten this dish east, west, south and north in India, I had to make sure we learned its nuances for a possible recreation back home. So Sushma patiently showed us the long process of tikka: cutting chilies, tomatoes, capsicum, gently blending spices into masala, adding slowly-drained whole buffalo milk yogurt, all while making note of what it's real color should be--a true salmon hue, not the garish pink-orange restaurants serve, said she with emphasis. Let it be said now, when Andy and I return to the States and eat Indian food, I think we may be *very* annoying customers.

Also, let me just take a moment for a word on dairy... Holy cow! Or more appropriately, holy water buffalo! The dairy Sushma uses for her food was outrageous and it was all about whole products and freshness. And, fat...who are we kidding? Fat adds flavor. And fat was the name of the game with her yogurt, paneer, milk and more. Neither Andy nor I had ever tasted such rich, drained, whole-milk pure cream flavor before. Andy even whispered to me, "If we go back to Denver, we'll have to get Royal Crest Dairy to deliver us milk!" And later acquiesced to the idea of me having a water buffalo in the backyard. Sushma's stuff was really, really amazing -- the most creamy lassis and sauces -- and I expressed my dismay at never being able to recreate the flavors back home. She told me that another American had taken some classes and written her with a substitution, so she rummaged through her drawers and found the letter. Her American student had the perfect ingredient for others abroad to use: Deven Double Cream! That's right -- the clotted cream used for cream teas that is heavier than whipping cream. My heart literally began to ache...dammit. Needless to say, I'll be limiting my use of the double cream in future cooking to alleviate the chances of double bypass, but that was educational.

Sushma then thread what were the most humongous skewers I'd ever seen (over 2 feet long) with tikka vegetables and paneer, laid them to cook on her special kitchen version of the tandoori oven, and the scent was heavenly. Spice, chili, smoke perfume. Jairja came in for the actual cooking of the tikka, and donned a flowery apron to roast, toast and gently singe it all to perfection. He proudly told us how Sushma had taught him to cook and that when he's alone or traveling, he makes delicious real Indian food for himself. She looked on in amusement and exasperation, and they cooked the tikka in tandem. It was a great moment to experience. Even though we're from half a world away, Andy and I completely identified with their genuine interaction, love of food and the joy of sharing it with others.


Anonymous Mommy Moore said...

What a story, Tiffany. I wish I were with you guys to taste some of these concoctions--my mouth kind of waters, but it all sounds a little scarey too!!! Will you please bring me a little saffron?

11:40 PM  
Anonymous Heather Branan said...

This sounds incredible! I promise to be an attentive prep chef doing anything you ask, if only you will cook for me when you return dear friends?

We miss you and are relishing each and every story you post. It all sounds so amazing! Enjoy every second. Love, Heather

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading your story of the cooking classes and all the special spices, my mind is swimming with all the variety. Next time you come see us in Orlando, you get to cook and we will be your guests! The mango powder sounds very good. Mango sustained me through a summer in Maui a long time ago and I still love it! Have fun, SUE SAALFRANK

3:35 PM  
Anonymous Marjie said...

Tiffany, what a wonderful experience for you and Andy to share.I will ask John to start looking on ebay for a water buffalo.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, your cooking class stories blow my mind! :O) Are we really sisters? So glad Andy is right there with you and I can just see you two raising a baby water buffalo! Miss you both! Love, Wendy

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice to read your review since we will stay there in December. Cooking class definitely sounds worth it. S.S. from Germany

8:51 AM  

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