Posted by: Anna | March 28, 2011

Cooking Class in India, Part One

I think it was my favorite single thing I’ve done in five months of traveling, and I almost didn’t get to go at all. We waited until our second to last day to sign up for class, and by the time I went to ask about it, the class was full. I was crushed – I really wanted to go. Tommy went in and begged, and the woman running it, Shashi, agreed.

I was the first to arrive, so I had time to look around and flip through the 12 page packet of recipes. Let me explain the setup. It’s two rooms. The first has a single bed, a coffee table, a tv on a shelf on the wall, and two plastic chairs. The other has a set of shelves, a slab that serves as a countertop with two gas burners on it, and a stack of plastic stools. There is a tiny balcony. That’s it. I didn’t realize that Shashi lived in these two rooms, along with her two sons and another girl she had adopted because her parents had died.

At first, I wasn’t sure about this – Shashi wasn’t especially welcoming at first, and I wondered if maybe she was annoyed because Tommy begged her to let me come. She walked up to me and put a fuzzy red bindi (forehead dot) on my head, with no explanation. Hmmm…I worried that maybe the other students wouldn’t be fun, or that I would feel left out because they were in pairs and I was on my own. Thankfully, the rest of my class was great – two Canadians and two Brits. And Shashi was really great – my first impression was totally wrong.

During the five hours of class, she told us her life story, which was one of the most interesting parts of the day. I will share it with you, as best I can remember. She grew up in a village. At 19, she was married and moved to Udaipur to live with her husband and his family, as is the tradition. She spoke only Rajasthani, no Hindi. She had to learn Hindi to get by in Udaipur. As the new wife, she had to cook for the entire family, and they would comment on her work. She had to make 80 (eighty!) chappati (flat bread) twice a day. They have to be cooked and rolled out individually. She made curries (vegetables in sauce) – but different ones like a short order cook. One person doesn’t like cauliflower, so she makes them potato. Another doesn’t like potato, so she makes them spinach. And so on. She had two sons. And she had to do all her cooking with a scarf over her head to show respect to the other men in the house. Imagine, cooking for hours in an un-airconditioned space in 100 degree heat.

When she was 32, her husband was murdered. Her life changed; she first had to go through the year of mourning required of her caste, Brahmin. She could not leave her home at all for a year. For the first 45 days, she had to sit in the corner from sunrise to sunset and not eat. Other Brahmin women would come and sit and cry with her. At night, she would cook for her sons and eat her own meals. Her husband’s family would not help her; they refused to share the electric connection or the water connection. She had to take in laundry from a hotel (for tourists, like me – somewhere like this is where my laundry goes when I ask the hotel for laundry, I realized today). However, she had to do it in secret because Brahmin (highest, priest caste) are not allowed to do washing. She was paid 1 rupee per piece (45 rupees = $1). They didn’t have enough money to buy vegetables, so they just ate chappati (flat bread) every day. Her son was kicked out of school because they couldn’t pay his school fees.

A British couple came to her home and wanted to learn cooking. She couldn’t speak any English, so she just showed them what to do, and they wrote it down. They suggested she teach cooking classes because she was a very good cook. So she started, handing out business cards to find customers. She learned a little English from the tourists. An Australian couple typed up the recipes and sent them to her – then she had recipes to hand out. People from other nationalities translated them – French, German, Portuguese, Swedish, etc. Another Australian suggested she paint a sign on the front of her house. She did; there were more customers. A German built a website for her. Today, she is in Lonely Planet guidebook. She is busy. Her sons are grown, both almost finished with school. Today, she speaks English well enough to teach the cooking class and converse with the students. She still does not speak to her husband’s family, even though they live on the second floor of the three story building where she lives and works. They still don’t speak to her.

We started out learning to make chai, which is so common in India. She showed us how to make it with fresh herbs in the mortar and pestle. Then we all had chai. Next, we started working on pakora, which is something (mixed veg, chicken, mushroom, onion, whatever) battered in chickpea batter and deep fried. We made potato, onion, cauliflower, paneer (cheese, similar texture to feta but not tangy), and mixed veg. She gave us instructions for sweet banana pakora (deep fried bananas – I’ve had these in India, and they are awesome) and a few other kinds. Then we sat down to eat three huge plates of pakora.

Potato Pakora


1 c chickpea (gram) flour
1/2 tsp red chili powder or chopped fresh chilis
1/2 tsp coriander powder or fresh coriander
2 handfuls fresh coriander, chopped
pinch aniseseed
pinch oregano seed (not dried oregano leaves, but seeds)
1/2 tsp salt
pinch garam masala powder (Garam Masala is a spice blend of cinnamon, bay leaves, black cardamom, black pepper, and clove – you can make your own by blending those five in equal amounts in a coffee grinder or buy)
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 inch ginger, unpeeled and roughly chopped
4 c oil (soybean)
1/2 c water
Whatever kind of pakora you are making – potatoes, onions, mushrooms, mixed vegetables, cheese, chicken, etc)

1. Heat the oil in a deep pan for frying on high heat.
2. Grind garlic and ginger together in a mortar and pestle until well combined.
3. Mix dry ingredients in large bowl.
4. Add chopped coriander to dry ingredients.
5. Mix water in by hand until the consistency is that of a runny paste. Taste and adjust seasoning.
6. Add 2 tbsp hot oil to the batter.
7. Add all potatoes (or whatever) to the batter, and toss to coat.
8. When a drop of batter in the oil floats to the top, the oil is the right temperature.
9. Drop potatoes one by one in to the frying pan. Use a slotted spoon to move around and keep from sticking to each other.
10. Remove from frying pan when the batter is golden brown and drain.

With our pakora, we had two kinds of homemade chutney – coriander (cilantro) and mango powder. She also explained how to make fresh mango chutney. Mango powder chutney was interesting to see. She makes her own mango powder when mangoes are in season, then uses that for chutney when mangoes are not in season. To make it, she peels and chops mangoes. They are dried in the sun, then pulverized to make powder. It’s really tangy.

Coriander (cilantro) chutney (also works with mint or my suggestion – basil)

1 c loosely chopped cilantro, including stems
3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 hot green chili (or more, to taste), roughly chopped with seeds
1/4 tsp salt
a splash of water
1/2 lemon

1. Blend everything but lemon in food processor or blender until pureed.
2. Add juice of 1/2 a lemon.
3. Stir well.

So simple, yet really delicious. She told us pakora are party food – good for serving so people can easily eat with their hands and talk. I was so full from pakora that I coudn’t imagine how I would eat all the other things we were going to make. But I was going to try!



  1. It is lovely to hear how so many people helped her. And a simple thing like cooking for tourists made a living for her. I really like that image. You will always think of her when you make these dishes. That is such a nice legacy for her and you.

  2. The irony is striking. Her in-laws shun her and leave her and their grandchildren with such hardship, yet people who barely know her that live thousands of miles away help her change her life dramatically by doing little things. How do we understand the human mind and heart? This is inspiring and depressing. I’ll think about the inspiring part. Thanks for telling us about this experience.

  3. My wife and I attempt Indian dishes. Can you post or PDF the recipes ?

    This woman’s history is a microcosm of much that is right and wrong with India….and why much of its economic promise (as a BRIC country) may not be realized. Were she not Brahmin, she would have fared even less well. mcd

    • Mike,

      Check back in a couple days – there is a part two to this post that includes several recipes. Hopefully I communicated them clearly enough for you to replicate, and hopefully they taste as good in Dallas as they did in her kitchen!

      I agree – India is such a land of contrast. There is a survivor’s mentality to the character of the people that promises future success, and yet they are weighed down by the caste system and women’s rights problems. Incredible poverty (something like 80% of the population lives on less than $1/day), coupled with a great deal of intellectual capital. They are well positioned in that much of their industry is in technology and services – industries that can grow as the country enters economic success to a much greater degree than, say, China, with their weighting in manufacturing and how they use currency manipulation.

      Anyway, really getting off topic on Indian cooking, so I’m off the soapbox. Watch for the recipes, and enjoy! Thanks for reading.

  4. Oh my goodness, that looks and sounds so delicious. And what an amazing story. Great post.

  5. An amazing story very beautifully written. XOXOXO

  6. […] in Laos and Thorung La Pass day at Annapurna (Tommy). The week at the Indian’s ashram and Udaipur cooking class […]

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