Posted by: Anna | March 30, 2011

Cooking Class in India, Part Two

At this point I realize that the first part is the warm-up for the main event: the massive Indian meal we were going to prepare. Shashi told us to pick out our curry to make. Our  recipe packet included at least ten variations on curries (vegetables or meat in sauce). We picked aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower). I never realized that most Indian food is a variation of masala, which literally mean spice, with different additions to vary the  flavor. Masala is the Indian mother sauce. Once you can make that, you can make lots of different dishes by varying the vegetables or meat, by adding yogurt or milk or cashew powder (more on that later) for creaminess, by adding butter, etc. I always thought
Indian food was complicated. Certainly there are dishes that are not like this, but for home cooking, these methods are simple and easy. They would be great for a weeknight dinner, and are pretty healthy to boot.

Essentially, the formula is this:

masala (also called curry, basically just the sauce recipe below) + vegetable, bean, meat, or cheese = meal!

Common vegetable combinations include cauliflower and potato, peas and potato, mixed vegetable, potato alone, eggplant, spinach (pureed), okra (done a little differently), pumpkin (done like okra). Chicken, fish, cheese (paneer) and lamb are also used – all added raw and cooked in the sauce for flavor. You can deep fry the paneer before adding it to the sauce for extra flavor and nicer texture, or not. You can also use tofu, although that is a western variation (Indians don’t really eat tofu, as far as I can tell). Chickpeas and lentils can also
be used (however, you add the tomato after you add the chickpeas or lentils instead of before).

Masala sauce – basic

2 tbsp oil (soybean)
pinch cumin seed
1/2 large onion, diced
1/2 large onion for mortar and pestle, chopped
1 in ginger, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
pinch garam masala
1 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp red chili powder (can use more chili powder and less coriander powder if spicier is preferred)
1/2 tsp salt
pinch turmeric
1/2 cup water
1-2 green plum tomatoes (not ripe), roughly chopped
Chopped cilantro leaves for garnish

1. Put garlic, ginger, and onion in a mortar and pestle. Add pinch of salt and grind until fine.
2. Add oil to frying pan and place over high heat.
3. Add cumin seeds to oil and allow to cook for 15 seconds.
4. Add diced onion and garlic, ginger, and onion (from mortar and pestle) to oil.
5. Place water in mortar to soak up remaining garlic, ginger and onion.
6. Once onion is browned, add pinch of garam masala powder.
7. Add coriander powder, chili powder, tumeric, and salt. Stir.
8. Add the water and leave to simmer.
9. Once the water has evaporated and the mixture is chunky but still liquid, add the vegetables to cook for five minutes.
10. Add chopped tomato. Cover and simmer 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally.
11. Check a piece of vegetable to see if it is cooked.
12. Serve topped with fresh chopped cilantro.

The basic recipe can also be varied by adding yogurt, cream, or butter at the end. Or,
you can add cashew powder along with dairy. To make cashew powder, you
take plain (not roasted or salted) cashews and put them in the blender.
Cashew powder makes the sauce richer and creamier. Dessicated coconut is
another possible variation (one I wouldn’t use – I detest coconut).
That’s it – so simple.

Next, we started working on a Vegetable Palau (the root of rice pilaf in the States). This is a healthy, vegan dish (unless you add meat or dairy or chopped hard boiled eggs, of course). This same recipe can also be used to make briyani, except you add more rice and less vegetables, and you dice the vegetables instead of julienne. This is essentially an Indian stir fry.

Vegetable Palau (serves 2)

1 bell pepper
1 bunch cauliflower
1/4 head cabbage
Bunch of green onions
3 small tomatoes (plum)
(Can use whatever vegetables are on hand or seasonal – carrots, beans, spinach, etc)
2 c rice
2 tbsp oil (soybean traditionally, but whatever is preferred)
pinch fennel seed
1/2 onion, sliced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp coriander powder
pinch turmeric
pinch garam masala
1/2 c water
6 cashew nuts, roughly chopped
15 golden raisins
chopped cilantro for garnish

1. Julienne vegetables.
2. Cook rice so it will be finished by the time the vegetables are cooked. To ensure the proper consistency of rice, cook rice in a 1 c rice: 4 c water ratio uncovered.
3. Add oil to large saute pan and place over high heat.
3. Add fennel seed and onion.
4. Once onion is browned, add julienned vegetables. Allow to soften, stirring frequently.
5. Add rest of spices.
6. Add water, stir, and cover for 2 minutes.
7. Add tomato and recover for 5 more minutes.
8. Taste vegetables to ensure doneness. Add rice and combine.
9. Add nuts and raisins and stir.
10. Top with fresh coriander leaves and serve.

While we made the palau, she gave us a recipe for Kashmiri Palau (use hard fruits instead of vegetables, ghee [clarified butter] instead of oil, season with salt, black pepper, dried coconut, cashews, and raisins). She also gave us a variation on briyani with chicken, even though she is a strict vegetarian. Shashi also rattled off recipes for five kinds of lassis (yogurt shakes), raita, and sticky rice to eat with curries.

Next, we started working on breads. I am intimidated by bread making, and Indian breads are no different. Naan is traditionally cooked in a tandoori (special) oven, but you can make it on the stove. Naan is special occasion food for Indians, although in the States, I only ever remember seeing and ordering naan as the bread option in an Indian restaurant. Maybe because that’s all I knew – I don’t know. Anyway, naan is made with white flour, and so it’s not very healthy. Daily, Indians eat chappati, a flat bread made with whole grain wheat flour. We made naan first, then made homemade yogurt cheese – amazing! – and a tomato sauce. Then we made cheese and tomato stuffed naan. But of course – one recipe idea is not enough – she said we can also cook an egg in the spicy tomato sauce and eat for breakfast or lunch on toast.

I want to share the cheese recipe because the stuff was delicious, and even if you are completely convinced you don’t like Indian food, you should try this cheese. Use it as a spread on toast or crackers or whatever.

Homemade cheese spread

1 c greek yogurt
1 clove garlic
4 whole black peppercorns
pinch salt
1 tbsp oil (olive, walnut, whatever appeals to you)

Take greek yogurt (she uses curd, but recommends greek yogurt as a good substitute at home) and place in cheesecloth. Hang for 25 minutes to allow the liquid to drip out. Meanwhile, crush garlic with the peppercorns and a pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle, or a mini food processor or coffee grinder. Place remaining yogurt in a bowl, and combine with garlic, salt, pepper, and oil. That’s it. So simple, and so good! She said it will keep 10-12 days in the fridge.

Next, we made chappati – the main food in India. Chappati is the equivalent of Chinese rice or African mealie – the staple food. The dough is simple: 1 c whole wheat flour, sifted, 1 c water, and a pinch of salt. Combine by hand in a bowl and knead for 10 minutes.

The cooking is the trick. Indians cook chappati on a plate made of cast iron. A cast iron skillet would work at home. You heat it over high heat on the stove. Roll a chappati into a perfect ball with no cracks; I am not very good at this. Then roll it flat with a rolling pin, dusting with extra flour so it doesn’t stick, exactly the same thickness all around until it is about the size of your hand. I’m not very good at this either! Next, place it on the hot plate. When tiny, almost imperceptible bubbles appear, flip it. Then take a kitchen towel, pressing slightly on the edges, and rotate it on the plate. Flip again, then place the towel in the middle (and here’s the fun part) make it spin around! Place in a basket or tin to keep it hot while cooking the next one. This is a process that I’m sure Indian women have mastered, but I am not sure I will ever master.

Of course, there are numerous variations of this – parantha (traditionally a breakfast food) uses the same dough but is rolled and cooked slightly differently. You can stuff it, season it with garlic or other spices, or make it dessert by adding sugar.

Learning to cook the way home cooks do makes me appreciate the ingenuity of the women. Pretty much every country from Italy to India has a traditional home cuisine that is efficient, cheap, and delicious. My frugal soul loves to learn more ways to use up all the odds and ends you end up with while still making tasty, inexpensive, healthy food. I left Shashi’s class with several new ideas on how to do that.

I have been thinking for a while that when I get home, I will adopt Mark Bittman’s strategy of vegan for breakfast and lunch, then whatever for dinner. Vegan is healthier (when done correctly) and certainly better for the environment and animals. However, I am not willing to give up meat entirely, so it makes a compromise I think I can live with, most days anyway. I’m especially happy because both the palau and the curries are good lunch options that can prepared, satisfyingly, entirely vegan.

We ended class gathered in the other room, eating and eating. It was all delicious, some of the best food I’ve eaten in India. I have a wonderful souvenir in the new recipes and techniques I learned at class, and I’m excited to go home and experiment with confidence. When we finished, Shashi gave each of the girls a friendship bracelet made of red thread and silver bells, along with a small elephant for good luck. Her sons chatted with us for a few minutes. It was, all in all, an incredible experience.


  1. Thanks for this, Anna. mcd

  2. I’m going to make the cheese spread XOXOX

  3. I cannot wait for you to teach me in person. I have always thought I didn’t like Indian fool but your posts, especially this one, have convinced me otherwise. Love you!

  4. […] Learning to cook Indian food in a private home, with a teacher who not only covered 10 dishes, but also could rattle off recipes for anything else anyone had eaten in India. It might have lacked the individual workstations and bustling assistants of the other cooking classes I’ve taken, but it more than made up for that in the detailed insight into actual Indian cooking. Plus, our teacher’s life story was fascinating. […]

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