I had arranged for a private cookery lesson from a Brahman lady named Shashi. After being widowed fourteen years ago with two small children to care for and no means of support other than taking in occasional washing, she had started cookery lessons for tourists, despite not speaking any English, let alone French and Portuguese, which have been the languages of some of her clients. Today her business is thriving and she has moved from a one room house to renting a multi-storey one where she teaches Indian cooking. She gives as many as two or three classes a day, with up to nine persons in each, as well as holding cookery demonstrations at nearby hotels (though, needless to say, at those you simply watch, while the private lessons are hands-on and you get to consume the results).
Shashi’s English is now almost perfect and was learned purely from teaching her classes and talking to those attending them. Remarkably, though, given how she deftly guides you through the fourteen-page document she hands you on arrival, containing the recipes you are going to learn to cook, she still can’t read or write the language.
My second cookery lesson was given by the aunt of my guide at her son’s heritage haveli in Bundi, a town that is certainly off the tourist track but worth a visit. The hill palace, which was once the home of the Maharaja of Bundi, is far more interesting visually than the comparatively stark Amber Fort at Jaipur.
Both lessons were quite an eye-opener, revealing a few secrets about Indian cooking and demystifying what can, at times, look hugely complicated when you read the list of ingredients. Everything could easily be replicated at home, even down to making your own paneer (Indian cheese, often translated on menus as cottage cheese). Indeed, Shashi was quite clear that Indian cooking is really just a series of little magic tricks. The cooking apparatus used is very simple: gas-powered counter-top stoves for cooking on, and all equipment is basic stainless steel. The standard cooking pots are handleless, carried and poured from using a metal clamp that looks like a cross between something in your toolbox and a medieval torture device for pulling out fingernails.
Instead of providing a long list of what was cooked and how, I thought I’d share some of the tips and secrets I learnt. These will be useful to anyone who likes to cook authentic Indian, or Indian-inspired dishes at home. A number of the dishes and versions of them I’ve eaten elsewhere on my travels, and they could easily be adapted to Western cuisine and flavour palates, like a pea and morel mushroom curry in cream, which I think would work well with chicken.
Spices ground at home are key to Indian cooking and, when it comes to grinding spices, it is best to use something akin to a coffee grinder on its finest setting as neither a blender nor a pestle and mortar will achieve the required results. An interesting tip suggested by Shashi was to soak peeled onions in water for about ten minutes. Then when you come to chopping them they won’t make your eyes run. In fact, the onions they use in India are small by British standards and, while they look red, are reminiscent of shallots in the way they cook and taste.
The main cooking fats used are mustard oil and sunflower oil; both can be used a number of times and are not particularly greasy. It must be said that, while what is eaten in India is of course determined by what is grown in the local conditions (not to mention religious factors too), Indians ensure their food, or part of it, has some health benefits. So, as much of the cooking involves frying, sunflower oil is used, being less greasy than other cooking fats, while other dishes are eaten, for example, because they help digestion or blood pressure. In fact, Shashi was quite forthright in chastising Britishers, as many Indians still call the British, for adding cream to some curries. She advised using powdered cashew nuts instead – it’s far healthier and frankly tastes a lot better; rather than reducing the flavour of the dish, it makes it creamier while adding a nuttiness.
The addition of hot oil to dishes is a great way to make them lighter. For instance, a tablespoon of hot oil and the same of lemon juice helps to make the rice fluffier, and oil does the same to pakora batter. I’m told that pancakes also come out light and fluffy if you add hot oil to the batter. It even has the miraculous ability of turning paneer from a hard cheese to a soft, sponge-like consistency when fried. The cheese becomes such a sponge that it soaks up any sauce and, more importantly, given its own lack of taste, the flavour of what it is cooked in. As an aside, baking soda can be used to speed up some cooking.
For those of you, and I’d imagine this means all of you, who find Indian food can make you bloated and/or gassy, both ladies spoke of asafoetida, or hing as they call it. Apparently eating this herb will reduce gassiness (the cause of which I’m told is the chickpeas). The addition of it to dahl was suggested as a way to incorporate it into your meal.
Of course the seasons also affect what is cooked when. So, when mangoes are in season, they dry strips of them to be blitzed to a powder and used for making mango chutney when fresh mangos are unavailable. Having made mango chutney this way with Shashi, I can tell you it produces a far more sour chutney, but it is particularly good accompanied by coriander chutney, which acts to balance it and allow the dish you’re eating it with to stand out.
Certain combinations of ingredients are de rigeur. Aubergines are almost always combined with potato as the potato acts to remove their bitterness during cooking. Of course, the aubergines in India also differ from ours; rather than the large type we have, they are not much bigger than a golf ball. If you‘re cooking them in India, you can throw them in whole with no preparation needed, unlike ours, which you will need to cut into chunks first and soak in salt water for ten minutes, before patting dry and adding them to your dish to cook.
In both cookery lessons I was shown how to make chapatis. A quick way to cook them and get them to puff up is to put them in a naked gas hob flame – if you’re going to try this remember to use kitchen tongs not your hands. They are made from the same base dough as many Indian breads, the real difference being in how they are then prepared. Indian cooking is about versatility as much as it is flavour. The same base sauces are used, the same base bread dough is used and the same batter is used for pakora as for Bundi yoghurt and no doubt a number of other dishes. And no Indian dessert is complete if not based on sugar and condensed milk.
While I learnt much in both lessons, just as much was learnt from walking the streets and reading the menus in restaurants, which will be the focus of next week’s article, my last on India