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.
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.
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.
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.