Cooking in India

Lauren and I wanted our trip to India to include learning about the regional cuisine of India. We attempted to book cooking classes online that were found in travel books and Google searches. We also inquired at some of our hotels if it was possible to observe some of their chefs. The Claridges Hotel in Delhi was receptive to our request and on our second night in Delhi, arranged with the chef of their Indian restaurant to give us a demonstration of Tandoori cooking.

Unfortunately our demonstration was cut short because while I was standing over the 800 degree oven watching how the Naan bread was being made, I fainted. Not sure why except I was a little jet lagged and had contracted a viral bronchitis from someone before I left home and had taken some Indian cold medicine which made me feel weird. So our second night ended with a visit by an Indian doctor that the hotel had contacted to make sure I was OK which I was.

Our next cooking experience was in Jaipur with a chef we had arranged a class with online. We were to meet at his home in the late afternoon after our touring around the city and have our driver drop us off and pick us up. After getting lost trying to find his house, we arrived about an hour later than we had agreed upon. Lokesh Mathur was our chef’s name and he showed us into his living room and told us a little about his background and told us he was changing careers and had built three new rooms onto his house to accommodate guests and was planning to have a Bed & Breakfast that will have an emphasis on cooking. I think we were his first customers. After a welcome drink served by his 14 year old son, who was also the official photographer for the website, we went into Lokesh’s kitchen.

He had done all the prep work ahead of time so all that was left for us to do was observe while he prepared a typical Rajasthani Thali which consisted of eight little dishes on one plate each containing many ingredients and spices. One of the things we noticed about cooking in India was that men are the primary chefs in commercial kitchens. In America the ratio of male to female chef is 10 to 1. In India, I that ratio is substantially higher. As a result when you take cooking classes w/ the male cooks, they tend to be a little more into the didactic type of class and you are in the role of observer rather than an interactive get your hands in the food kind of role.

Other things we learned about the ingredients of Indian cooking is everything is fresh and mostly vegetable based. Some of the primary spices used in many dishes include mustard seeds, coriander, cumin, turmeric, garam masala, & salt. Fresh veges include: onion, garlic, tomatoes, green chilies & hot red chilies. In Rajasthan, Ghee is the primary cooking oil and Cow Dung that has been sun dried and mixed w/ hay is a common fuel especially in the rural areas. Also Buttermilk is a common ingredient to add a tangy taste to dishes. If meat is prepared, it is mostly chicken and shrimp. There is a great variety of vegetable dishes that are based on what is in season.

Our Rajasthani cooking class took about 4 hours to prepare 8 dishes and at the end of it we sat down at Lokesh’s dining table and ate. Something’s were better than others. The lentils were creamy & well seasoned. The Basmati rice was fluffy and perfectly cooked. The chicken Curry was delicious. There was a very liquidy Buttermilk dish thatwas good but too much like drinking straight Buttermilk for my taste.

The desert we baked in the cow dung was a sugary powdery dish that was okay but hardly worth all the time & effort it took to make it. I found the Indian food in Northern India to be quite heavy & very spicy. The food in Southern India was much lighter and not as heavily spiced.

We tried to reserve additional classes in other parts of Rajasthan but didn’t get an opportunity until we reached Cochin in Southern India. We observed the chef at our hotel as he prepared a lovely lunch for us which consisted of a seafood curry, rice, lentils, chapati, a vegetable dish & some fresh cucumbers & tomatoes. It took him about an hour to cook everything and unlike Northern India where the cooking fuel is Ghee, he used Safflower Oil. Our lunch took about an hour to cook and we were served on the patio of our hotel and everything was elegantly presented. We didn’t get to observe any more cooking until we were on our houseboat in the backwaters of Kerala. We had a chef on board who took us to a local fish market in the village where we got to pick out the seafood for our dinner. We selected some huge freshwater prawns and crabs.Back on the houseboat we watched our chef prepare curried prawn and sautéed crab,  dal, green beans, rice, curried chicken & naan. We had to eat our dinner in one of the bedrooms instead of the dining room because we were docked for the evening and the bugs and Mosquitos were oppressive. After eating, all we were able to do was get ready for bed.

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