Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cooking up a storm...

Yes, that is me. And yes, that is my class in that advertisement. My class, as in, a class that I taught - to actual people. Nope, not kidding - not even a little bit! I did - I actually, unbelievably, incredibly taught an Indian cooking class!! Now, I consider myself a fairly decent cook - but I'm not winning any prizes anytime for my cooking - and I'm definitely far, far from being an expert!! But as an Indian with a lot of non-Indian friends who love Indian cooking - I'm suddenly an authority on anything even remotely Indian!! Anyway, I don't exactly remember how or when I signed on for this cooking thing - but there it was, I was official an Indian 'cooker' with my own 'cookery class'!!t

The first thing was to decide on the menu. Recipes I was comfortable with, and could easily demonstrate, availability of ingredients, something simple, but yet, with a big wow factor....hmm, tough call!! Tried a whole bunch of different things at home - much to Ajey's delight!, went through my recipe books, even emailed by favorite food blogger - Nupur of One Hot Stove for help! So here's what I came up with - a basic tomato-onion curry with chickpeas, yellow potato bhaji, cucumber raita, vegetable pulao and Indian tea, chai - the last one by popular demand!! It is one of the mysteries of life to me why people pay exorbitant prices for a Chai latte at Starbucks - rather than brew a quick cup at home!!

While planning my menu, it occurred to me that most of my intended audience would have no idea about the various spices we use in Indian cuisine - so I decided to make a presentation explaining different spices, and their importance. I had a lot of fun researching this - learnt many thing too!! Of course, it is common knowledge that turmeric has antiseptic and anti-carcinogenic properties, and that garlic is good for cardiovascular health - but did you know that chili powder helps to increase absorption of iron from beans and legumes, or that cardamom can be used to treat depression?? Fascinating stuff - why we eat what we eat!! And although I do say it myself - I came up with a really good Powerpoint to go with my spice display!

Spice display

Initially, I was thinking that I would be doing the cooking and my 'students' would watch, take notes, ask questions - more like a demo. Then I found out that that everyone would cook together - our lavish school kitchen has 6 cooktops, one for me - and with a total of 15 people signed up, groups of 3 at each of the remaining 5. This meant I had to totally revamp my strategy - get the logistics sorted, putting together grocery lists, making sure I had every little detail down - can someone please remind me why I signed up for this??!!!

With the possibility of so many things going wrong, I decided to do a trial run at home - would get a better feel for the time needed, and also my mock audience - my friends TW, MW and VH - could tell me if I was making any sense, or if I needed to explain something more. That went better than I was expecting - finished cooking all the dishes in just under an hour - add the time for the spice presentation, and the the time needed for everyone else to  cook - another hour for sure! Feeling pretty confident at this time. The other advantage of doing the trial, my friends would be able to walk around and help other people while I was cooking!

Next was the packing!! First, making mini-spice racks for all the work stations - couldn't forget anything - down to oil, sugar and even salt. All the other ingredients - vegetables, yogurt, chick-pea cans, milk, tea, sugar, my cooking vessels, spatulas, it was endless! Once it was all assembled, next step was to get everything in the car - and then into the school. MW and TW to the rescue again - I dropped off 3 bags for them to bring, and my very helpful driver, Chen Shifu, helped me carry the rest to the the school kitchen! Just goes to show how formidably organized I can get if I set my mind to it!!

Ready to go!

Setup in the school kitchen!

Ingredients at each station

In spite of all the preparations, I still ran into a couple of issues! The spice presentation went off pretty smoothly - next I walked everyone through the recipes we would be making, explaining the ingredients and the procedure. Now onto the cooking - and a problem which almost derailed the whole afternoon! The school cooktops are induction, not flame - for safety reasons, obviously - I knew that, I had used one just last week with the Year 4 chapatis. What I did not know - not all pots and pans work on induction stoves - and to my dismay, not a single one that I brought with me was ok. In all of my failure mode analysis - what, I am an engineer! - this had never come up. Verge of panic - saved by my friends, searching for appropriate pans in the school kitchen! Disaster averted!!

It was smooth sailing after that. All my dishes turned out exactly as expected - and I guess my instructions were clear enough that most everyone came up with good food too!! There were a couple of mixups - adding the turmeric too late, forgetting the tomato puree, but no major issues. I did manage to catch one potentially disastrous mistake - I had boxes of Kitchen King masala for everyone to take home - this masala also needed to be added to the chickpea curry - and 1 person almost emptied the entire box into their curry!!! Ok, most important lesson of the day, people - when it comes to spice, less is definitely more!!

In action!

Whew! What a day! I hope that everyone enjoyed the afternoon, and was able to learn something new!! I did get some really good positive feedback - one woman asked me if I was a professional chef, now that really made my day! The most appreciation was for something so trivial that I burst out laughing at all the oohs and aahs - for the raita, I chop cucumbers in a particular way, holding the knife along the length of the cutting board, the blade pointing up - so the chopped cucumber is somewhere between small cubes and fine grated. Nothing special - that's how it's done in countless Indian homes - in this kitchen, it was like I had performed an extraordinary conjuring trick!!

I'm not going to downplay this and say it was a piece of a cake - it most definitely wasn't. There was a lot of work I had to put in - after all, if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right! - the preparations were on a war scale, and needed military precision - not exaggerating, it was crazy how many times I checked and double-checked everything - I was paranoid about reaching school and then finding I forgot something! Really happy that all the hard work paid off!! I got asked if I took orders - no, sorry, I don't - and there were a number of women who asked when the next class would be - but I'm thinking that this is firmly in the 'been-there-done-that' category - no encores in the foreseeable future!!

Yes, I really did - I taught an Indian cooking class! Pinch me, somebody!!

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