Suitcase and World: Cooking with Jyoti.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cooking with Jyoti.

oday is my cooking class with Jyoti Agarwal. I found Jyoti on the internet when I Googled "cooking class Delhi" months ago.  We exchanged emails to work out the details of the two cooking classes that I would take with Jyoti. As the date of my departure to India neared, I followed up with confirmation emails to Jyoti to make sure she had not forgotten about me and to also affirm that I was indeed serious about taking cooking lessons from her.

Yesterday, I spoke with her on the phone to firm up our plans. Today, our day will start at 11:30 and we agreed that I would go to her house. I had Ruby arrange for the driver to show up at the hotel at 10:30am as she estimated it would take about an hour to get to Jyoti's.

The driver, Gurvinder Singh, showed up an hour early and I was barely ready so the poor guy had to wait. Besides, I didn't want to show up at Jyoti's house too early. He was getting antsy waiting for me so at about 10:15am, I gave him the greenlight to hit the road.

Despite having to stop once to fill up on gas and at least 2 times to ask for directions, we arrived at Jyoti's house about an hour later. She lives in a housing complex that's typical of homes in this part of the world - the Asian equivalent of a townhouse community is as best as I can equate it to in the US. I walked up the stairs to her front door, rang the doorbell and a few seconds later, was greeted by the smiling face of a person that I assumed, from the way he was dressed, was Jyoti's houseboy. As I entered the home, I was greeted by Jyoti She had just returned home from running some errands and since I was early asked if wouldn't mind waiting while she got changed. She looked perfectly fine to me but I can understand the desire to dress up a bit in front of strangers and so I waited while she got ready.

Jyoti's home is, again, very modest by US standards but very comfortable by Indian standards. I think she is middle class and here, even the middle class can afford servants and so in addition to her houseboy, she has a young woman working for her. The family pictures on the wall told me she has two sons and a husband. Later on, she told me that she lost her husband when he passed away in 2004. In addiiton to our shared love for cooking (she's a self professed *foodie*) and the fact that we are both single, we also discovered we're exactly the same age.....probably the main reason why we related so well to each other.

Jyoti is a die hard foodie. There was little time for introductory chitchat.....we got down to the business of cooking almost immediately. Today's cooking session was to focus specifically on South Indian and Jyoti had printed out a set of recipes for me - very simple and basic dishes - that we cook from.

My first lesson was on Indian spices and seasonings with emphasis on the ones that dominate South Indian cooking. Jyoti pulled out all her spice containers and explained the use of each. Some, for example turmeric have medicinal value as well. She reminded me of how you can use turmeric paste as an antiseptic as well to stop bleeding. I remember that as a child, my grandmother using to stop minor cuts from bleeding.

As she was showing me her spice tin, Jyoti was surprised by how much I knew about the ingredients. Up until now, I had never let on that I, too, am a foodie. She was figuring that out quickly and our cooking lessons progressed very smoothly as I could easily follow along with what she was doing. As I told her, the technique was what I was most interested in so I asked a lot of questions about tips and tricks to cooking South Indian food that I know that I would not likely find in any cook book. You need a seasoned cook to teach you the *secrets* and she graciously shared her knowledge and cooking experience with me.

Before we started our cooking lesson, Jyoti wanted to get going on making some batters because these often take time to set up before you can use them. In addition to knowing what the ingredients are and their proportions, I also wanted to know what the proper consistencies were for the various batters so I was constantly stirring the liquid mixtures so I could get a good idea of just how thick or thin a batter needed to be.

Our cooking lesson began with the basics of frying the spices typically used in South Indian cooking - she referred to it as tempering the spices. Basically, into the hot oil goes small pinches of hing (otherwise known as asafoetida), small mustard seeds, big mustard seeds, channa dal and urad dal. Lastly, a few curry leaves and red and/or green pepper. Cook all this in the oil for a few minutes to release essential oils and aromas and then add whatever other ingredients make up the dish.

Our first dish was a simple dish of semolina cooked in the above ingredients. A very simple but tasty dish that can also be made into a complete meal with the addition of small amounts of meat and veggies. It took us all of about 5 minutes to whip up the dish.....something that I can easily do at the end of work day.

I learned how to make the potato filling for dosas as well as several chutneys - the classic coconut, green and tomato.

I also learned how to make the batters for vada which is made from finely ground urad dal, idli/dosa which is a finely ground mix of rice and urad dal and a lentil/chick pea batter for making fried potato balls.

And....what is a South Indian meal without rice so we cooked up some lemon rice.

Lastly, cause she felt for some reason that I needed to know how to make a meat dish,we quickly whipped up a chicken curry following a recipe that she had just gotten from a friend. As a seasoned cook, Jyoti improvised on the recipe as she went along.....instinctively knowing what to add more of and what to hold back on.

After we cooked up a storm, it was time to eat. While Jyoti and I chatted with her son in her living room, her helpers set the table and laid out all the food we had cooked. Oh my God, it wasn't until I saw everything laid out on the table that I realized just how much we had cooked. Luckily, Jyoti's son, who is a healthy 20 year old has a good appetite!

As we ate our lunch, we also worked out our plan for our get together on Oct 4th which will include a trip to the market to buy some items that I definitely want to bring home with me. That day's lesson will focus on Northern Indian cuisine so we'll pick up whatever ingredients we'll need for the session as well. I will arrange for the driver to take us around - a lot easier than trying to catch taxis wherever we have to go and here, taxis are so reasonably priced - about 600 rupees to go 80km in matter how much time that might take.

After we gorged on all the food, Jyoti insisted we make dessert. According to her, no Indian meal is complete without dessert so we went into the kitchen and I watched her whip up a small batch of semolina halwa. I must say that her version was much, much better than either the one I had at the Seikh Gurudwara in Old Delhi or the one that Anu Wadhwa had made the night before. The secret is to really brown the semolina and to add some ghee as a finishing touch. What you end up with is a wonderful caramel -ly flavor to the halwa. Although I was stuffed from the main meal, the halwa was so delicious, I managed to scrape the bowl clean.

Jyoti and I had never talked about an "end" time to our day but since i have to be back at the hotel by no later than 5pm to meet up with the tour group, I told her we had to end our lesson at 3:30pm. This time, the driver showed up on time but we were running late. I didn't want to keep him waiting for too long so I signed Jyoti's guest book and paid her the fee.

I had such a wonderful time with Jyoti today - it's nice that we were able to bond over the love of food. Not to mention that I now know at least the basics of South Indian cuisine and with that, I plan to experiment on a few dishes when I get home :-)