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Discovering India in the Kitchen

Discovering India in the Kitchen

With the abundance of gastronomic delights found all over India, it’s easy to take meals for granted.  We often forget that the buttery naan and velvety palak paneer found at most restaurants was conjured up with the dexterity of a person all too familiar with how much spice is too much. To fully appreciate the labor of love that goes into preparing these gorgeous dishes, I took my research to the place where it all begins: the kitchen.

Masala

Brewing up a welcome batch of fresh Masala Chai

With over ninety-six cooking classes to choose from in Udaipur, I knew I was in the right place. Ranking number one is Shashi’s Cooking Class (http://shashicookingclasses.blogspot.in/). The fiery Shashi oversees the kitchen with brazenness reminiscent to that of Chef Gordon Ramsay. Despite being in her mid-fifties, she supervises the class with a youthful confidence, well aware of the power she holds over her learners. One session costs 800 INR and clocks in at approx. 4-5 hours. There is usually a morning and night session everyday. The menu for the day is comprised of 14 to 15 dishes depending on the availability of ingredients. Each class participant leaves with a booklet of all the recipes.

IndIngredients

Magic Sauce: the base ingredients for any Masala curry — first up: Eggplant Masala

Hard at work with the first curry

Hard at work with the first curry

What I liked about the class is that it maintained its Indian identity from start to finish. The beauty of cooking a specific type of cuisine in its birthplace is that its cultural significance is not ignored. After an arranged rickshaw drops you off at Shashi’s home, you are invited to the table as a welcomed guest. Shashi’s daughter-in-law applies bhindi to all the ladies, an adornment reserved for only females. At the table, a friend we made in Agra surprisingly greeted me. Solen, a Turkish lady, left her job and is on a mission to cook with as many locals around the world as possible (visit her blog — www.eatravels.com). Immediately, the familiar face put me in a good mood. Wearing a kurta and with my bhindi in place, I looked like a proper Indian girl!

Mixing up Raita which is similar to Tzatziki

Mixing up Raita which is similar to Tzatziki

On today’s menu: Masala Chai, Coriander Chutney, Dry Mango Chutney, three different variations of basic Masala curry (Butter Paneer, Potato Eggplant Masala, and Spinach Potato), Veg Biryani, Jeera Biryani, Veggie Pakora, Chapatti, Potato Parantha, Tomato and Cheese Naan, Lauki-ka-Raita, and Sweet Parantha. It was an insane amount of food and the undertaking was overwhelming. More of a kitchenette then a full-blown kitchen, the participants circled around a surgical table in the middle of the space. Besides Tim, Solen, and I, five other attendees accompanied us: a British couple living in Spain, a Canadian couple, and a Belgian lady. Shashi’s oldest son and his wife served as her apprentices. Cooking and cleaning was a family affair. The son acted an extension of Shashi, even leading the class at times. It was a lovely sight seeing these family dynamics play out in the kitchen setting. Shashi was very much the matriarch of the family and each command was instantly followed.

Fried Pakora with a dollop of Mint Chutney and Dry Mango Chutney

Fried Pakora with a dollop of Mint Chutney and Dry Mango Chutney

 The class itself is more of a cooking demonstration as opposed to a hands-on experience. We, the students, were relegated to the menial tasks such as chopping, grinding, stirring, and kneading. With so many cooks in the kitchen, it made sense. She was especially fond of showing the boys who was boss! If you are looking for an interactive lesson, this might not be the place for you. But Shashi is so knowledgeable in the art of cooking that if you value the education more than the experience, this is the way to go. She also has a wealth of kitchen hacks such as how to measure the readiness of oil using a wooden spoon to even creating homemade paneer (Indian cheese). The ingenuity she says is widespread, remarking constantly,  “it’s because Indian women are very clever.” The amount of tips she shared, an obvious indicator of the time this woman has spent in the kitchen, fascinated me. What sets her lesson apart from others is not only the quality of the food but the elation every person experiences. It was a kitchen full of smiles! We burst out in laughter as she continuously mimicked the sound of a blender “krrrr-krrrrr-krrrr” or how she beautified herself and posed with her concoctions every chance she could get. She would even scoot her way into solo pics!
CookingIndian

Shashi supervising my stirring technique while chopping up bits of cashew

By the end of the five hours, exhaustion was written on everyone’s faces and Shashi had to take out stools to keep us from falling over. And imagine: we were just watching, not even cooking! The best part of my time in the kitchen was being tasked with rolling out the chapatis. If anyone has ever said making chapatis is simple, slap them across the face (I mean it). You need a gentle touch and lots of patience to serve up the most important item on the Indian menu. I kept butchering my chapatis to which Shashi would make me start over from step one. A finished chapati is one that is formed into a perfect circle. Success for me that day was when I found the rhythm needed to achieve the shape and Shashi gave me a smile of approval.

Solen, my Turkish sister, alongside Shashi, showing off our chapatis

Solen, my Turkish sister, alongside Shashi, showing off our chapatis

 

The Aloo Parantha filling piled onto rolled out chapati dough and then carefully wrapped up into an octagon shape The Aloo Parantha filling piled onto rolled out chapati dough and then carefully wrapped up into an octagon shape

The Aloo Parantha filling piled onto rolled out chapati dough and then carefully wrapped up into an octagon shape

When the last of the chapatis were toasted on the iron skillet, we were ushered into the dining room. The table was set very modestly but as the dishes poured out from the kitchen, the bland tablecloth looked more lively. It was the best meal I’ve had in India, and no meal has compared since! All the guests were silent as we stuffed ourselves silly with our breakfast/lunch/dinner of the day. This was probably one of the few times I’ve savored each bite deliberately, fastidiously trying to make out every ingredient used. The tomato-and-cheese smothered naan, with a tomato salsa and raita topping, was the highlight of the dinner (although the others disagreed dubbing the Butter Paneer Masala the “real”winner.) Shashi ended her course by gifting participants with a red-string bracelet to further demonstrate the unending hospitality Indians shower upon their guests. The behind-the-scenes look at what I was eating made me value a side of India people only sample, but never fully get to indulge in.

The class cooking together

The class cooking together

Team Shashi before saying goodbye

Team Shashi before saying goodbye

Have you ever taken a cooking class abroad that you loved? If so, share the details below! xoxo, Izzy


Izzy Pulido is a Bostonian by way of the Philippines who loves to vagabond. At twenty-seven, she's traded in gallivanting around Europe for the 9-to-5 grind... but don't count out the vagabonding! With a new long distance relationship, she's bringing American travel to the forefront. She lives for good times, good food, and good peeps.

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