Being British, Indian food holds a special place in my heart. In April last year, when I first got home after seven months in South America, my first wish (apart from a hot bath) was to be taken to the local curry house for a welcome home feast. That’s why, on planning my trip to India, one of the most exciting prospects was getting to try as much authentic Indian food as possible.
First I’ll admit that going to India was a bit of an afterthought. The plan had always been to spend March in Nepal but, when the opportunity arose to go to a wedding in India, it seemed like the perfect stop-off. Most people take at least a month to explore the subcontinent. We had eight days. We visited the distinctly un-touristy Bhubaneswar for the wedding itself, the at-times apocalyptic New Delhi, and – as a wildcard “we have four days, let’s just pick somewhere and go there” – Udaipur in Rajasthan, otherwise known as the Venice of the East. The other option was to go to Varanasi but apparently seeing dead bodies is not for everyone.
Udaipur is beautiful and, after the intense heat and humidity of Indonesia, it felt remarkably fresh. Rising from the serene waters of two lakes, the city is a warren of narrow streets, crammed full of a kind of gentile chaos. Either side run tall buildings topped with sunny roof terraces where you can sit, suspended above the bustle of the streets below and look out at the city, across the lakes and the palaces that appear as if they are floating on their surfaces and beyond to the mountains, hazy and faded by distance.
We’d gone a relatively long way for a short amount of time so we were unusually keen to cram in the touristy activities. One of the things that caught my eye was Shashi’s cooking class. I’ve never done a cooking class before and India seemed like the perfect place to start.
Shashi herself is a very knowledgeable and entertaining host. The story behind her cooking lessons is an inspiring one. Seventeen years ago, her husband died leaving her with two young children. As a member of the Brahman caste, remarriage wasn’t an option. Finding employment was pretty much off-limits too. She made ends meet by washing clothes, but it was a task that was forbidden to members of her caste and so she had to do it in secret, constantly threatened by shame from the community. One day, someone commented on her cooking and mentioned that she should host cooking lessons for tourists. It sounded easy in principle, but it meant that she had to learn her third language (after Rajasthani and Hindi) to even think about starting. She persevered and now tells her story and the stories behind her cooking to a captive audience. She admits that she can’t read English, so has instead memorised all thirteen pages of the notes that accompany the class (written for her by a volunteer). Throughout the cooking, she’ll shout out page numbers, commanding you to turn to page seven, thirteen, back to page five, always coming back to the most important: page four where you’ll find the instructions for the “magic sauce” – the basis from which all curries can be made.
The food is all meat-free which was particularly good because I was taking a brief stint as a vegetarian, partly fuelled by food hygiene concerns and partly out of curiosity. In India, where everything is so loaded with flavour, the vegetable dishes are just as hearty and satisfying as the meat ones. It seems like cheating to be a vegetarian here.
We started with an easy one, brewing cups of masala chai or sweet, spiced tea. As we sipped, Shashi began chopping onions for our accompanying ‘snack’ – a massive quantity of pakora: onions dipped into spiced batter and deep-fried, an Indian equivalent of the humble onion ring really. We dropped them into hot oil and watch them bubble furiously and turn golden. We ate them still steaming with homemade mango chutney. Just as we’d finished, another batch came along.
With stomachs dangerously close to being full, we began with the ‘real cooking’. There were four of us in the class and we sat round the large kitchen taking it in turns to pummel various combinations of fragrant spices into aromatic pastes and stir them into sizzling hot pans. We made three curries – a chana (chickpea) masala, a paneer butter masala and an aubergine and tomato masala. We made a rice biryani. We made four different types of bread. As the afternoon approached, the kitchen grew hotter, the dishes piled up on the back worktop, the kitchen filled with Shashi’s family, the cooking instructions intensified and I felt a little overwhelmed. Very soon though, the table filled and we were invited to sit down and feast. There was enough food for fifteen and I was reminded of the sketch of an Indian family “going for an English” and making fun of the fact that, on “going for an Indian”, English people order enough food for several days. As per standard protocol, I ate until I felt like there was a backlog of food in my throat waiting impatiently to enter my stomach when some space had been cleared. No regrets. The food was delicious.
After eating to this point of intense discomfort, I also managed to polish off two large sweet naans whose crispy dough dusted with sugar and desiccated coconut opened up a whole new stomach that is usually only reserved for post-roast-dinner cheesecake.
Cooking classes are becoming ubiquitous in many travel destinations and can be an excellent way of learning about local customs and culture. Signing up to cook with a local host is a great way to get your bearings when you’ve first arrived in a new city and might be feeling a bit lost. Through following simple recipe steps, you can ease into the unfamiliarity of new place and get recommendations for things to do and see that you wouldn’t otherwise. Food is an excellent icebreaker and it’s easy to chat with strangers through a mouth stuffed full.
I came away with a new appreciation for Indian food, a better understanding of how to throw it all together and lots of inspiration for new culinary experiments. I have to admit that after just a week of Indian food three times a day, all I currently want is a spaghetti bolognaise and an apple. Still, I’m sure that I’ll be craving the heat and richness of Indian food again soon. I’ve got Shashi’s recipe book to hand and the ingredients of the magic sauce committed to memory. I’ll report back on the results…