Cooking from the hip

Susanne and I ventured a few blocks from our apartment last night to take part in a cooking class on Indian cuisine with Our rationale was that 1) we love Indian food in all of its permutations, and 2) Walla Walla has nothing close to an Indian restaurant, so learning a few techniques and recipes is a critical life skill once we return to the desert side of the state.

We showed up, taking our aprons and washing our hands, looking at the semi-circle of a work surface, and I realized that this was 20,000 times more workspace than we have in our apartment kitchen. Our counter is roughly the size of an old 78rpm album cover, after all. Positioned in what I presumed were strategic locations for preparing the meal, was every ingredient in its own container or ramekin. It looked like the set of a television cooking show, complete with a jazzy tune filling the space as background.

Garam masala, tamarind paste, shredded fresh coconut, English cucumber and Greek yoghurt, minced ginger and garlic and bowls of grated onions—our mouths were watering, and then our leader, Bonny, started toasting up some cumin seeds. This was going to be a fun evening, we told ourselves. There were, along with Susanne and myself, two straight couples, the first of which seemed sweet, eager, and young, the second of which were the kind of twosome who communicated primarily by snarking at each other. Two coworkers who’d left their husbands at home were going to take the culinary plunge with us, and last there was an older woman who came stag. Immediately, Bonny got her started on some mango chutney.

The shy young couple was asked to start up some mango lassi, and they used the gorgeous professional blender with great trepidation, as if pushing the wrong button would release six ICBMs on Canada. Bonny worked with the young man, who for his part looked very Seattle with his wide gauge earrings and mustard-colored hoodie sweatshirt. After several minutes of pureeing, he relaxed. With a little garam masala on top, the drinks were delicious.

Everyone seemed shy about adding spices, which made me remember the time I went to my mother’s house in Arkansas (hey, the Ozarks are a popular retirement region, so no teasing) after her knee surgery. Her friends and neighbors—almost all WASPs with the culinary heritage of 1950s and 60s-era  “time-saving” meal preparation—would bring over dishes like boiled chicken atop minute rice with one can each peas and jalapeno peppers mixed in, and I would try to salvage whatever I could for her actual consumption. At the Indian cooking class in Seattle, we were at least past the fake, “semi-homemade” cooking stage. But our leader had to push us to get some spices in there.

I imagine it’s a tough business model: to have the cooking and storage equipment available and in acceptable quantities so a class never runs out of anything. There’s also the procurement of ingredients, some of which require a trip to specialty stores, and then there’s the maintenance of a clean, well functioning space, and I presume some kind of support staff. But Susanne and I wondered out loud as we walked home last night, how does one keep new clients coming in? We’re not exactly going to take the Indian class again, and only two of the customers there last night had signed up for more than one class. Perhaps it’s based on a word of mouth model—I had a great time, so I’ll tell others and they’ll take one or more classes. If it’s entertainment plus education plus a good meal, maybe that’s the approach.

For Bonny, who loves cooking, I can see the appeal. She gets to do something she loves while interacting with new people all the time. Clearly, the woman is an extrovert, engaging and personable and even by the end of three hours, seemed energetic and happy to have us there. I’m not sure I would be able to pull that off.

The sniping couple fretted over how spicy to make the green chutney, but after two serrano peppers were ground up into the cilantro mix, we peer pressured the fella—Ryan, who was also having a birthday last night—against adding any more heat. I informed him that that’s what those spinning containers of hot sauces are for. To my right, the coworkers de-seeded cucumbers and whipped up a bright and fresh raita, which in my world is called tzitziki, but I know, there are countries beyond those on the Mediterranean Sea.

We started up some potato samosas, then made the bases for chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, and a fish curry. By the end of the evening, with all of us smelling like freshly ground spice and grapeseed oil, we sat down together and talked with each other, which in an urban setting always surprises me, since strangers don’t do that very often. Maybe I’m too influenced by the Northeast, and Seattlites are all friendly with each other but I’ve failed to notice. Anything is possible.

However, having broken the ice on cooking Indian food, I suspect we’ll be pretty popular when we return to Walla Walla in January. And it’s a small enough town that I wouldn’t put it past anyone to stop me on the street and ask what time supper is.

EDIT: Part of our class was caught on video for The Seattle Times.

Photo credits to roboppy, citymama, and laura & falvio on Flickr.

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5 Comments on “Cooking from the hip”

  1. Nicoline Smits
    October 14, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    You’re making me hungry, and I’ve already eaten dinner!

    • evmaroon
      October 15, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

      Then I have achieved my goal for the day!

  2. October 15, 2010 at 6:38 am #

    I took an Indian cooking class here in Walla Walla last spring. And while it was fun and everything, and certainly an enjoyable (if expensive) way to spend an evening, it was basically nothing but adding curry powder to things. Ok, that’s not entirely true, but I was a little disappointed that we didn’t use any unusual ingredients and learn any special techniques. Of course, those unusual ingredients might be nigh impossible to find here in WW.

    What I really need is to buy a book by Madhur Jaffrey and stock up at World Spice or Penzeys next time I’m in the Big City. Because Walla Walla’s lack of Indian food is difficult for me.

    • evmaroon
      October 15, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

      That’s too bad! We definitely learned a few things about combining spices and other ingredients, and didn’t just throw some made up curry powder on everything. I was impressed at how easily Indian cuisine could fit a busy lifestyle, because you can prep the sauces ahead of time and cook the meat up quickly for a really great meal. Now I sound like I’m paid by the Indian Cooking Council. I’m not.

  3. Jeffiner
    October 16, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    Cooking Indian food actually isn’t that hard– it’s just time-consuming. This Seattleite recommends picking up a copy of 660 Curries and getting all of your ingredients (for cheap!) from Uwajimaya.

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