An Indian Cooking Lesson
Last night we were invited to dinner at Sir and Madame Vohra’s house. They are both from Delhi and Sir Vohra is a professor here at GCBS. They are both in their late fifties/ early sixties and are extremely friendly and accommodating. Ishban, the Canadian professor, the Director, and Alka, a young, very nice and friendly Indian professor, were also invited to dinner. Earlier in the day I mentioned to Alka that I would like to learn how to cook Indian food, so she invited me to go with her to the Vohra’s house early to help prepare dinner…or at least to observe. I agreed that this was a great idea, and met her at 4:30 for a short 10 minute walk to the Vohra’s. Jim stayed behind at the guest house and came to the Vohra’s for dinner at 7:00. When we arrived, we knocked on the door, but in classic Bhutanese style (and I guess Indian too) this preparation meeting was not previously arranged. Sir and Madame Vohra were taking a nap, but after knocking several times, Madame Vohra came to the door with a smile and welcomed us in. We sat in the sitting area chatting for a while… they chatted in Hindi mostly, while I simply sat there smiling kind of awkwardly, not knowing what to do. Madame explained that she had already prepared the okra dish (in India they call okra “lady fingers”) and the kidney beans dish, but that I could watch Alka prepare the potato dish. She also said that her domestic help was coming at 6:30 to help clean and to make the chapati or roti. Chapati/ roti is very similar to naan and according to Madame Vohra is called chapati when it is brushed with ghee and roti when it is plain.
After a while of chatting and drinking tea, I followed Madame and Alka into a small kitchen to observe them cook. Madame had already boiled several potatoes, so Alka began making the potato dish by peeling them. She then cut the potatoes into small chunks, put a decent amount of oil in a pan, lit the small propane stove and turned the dial to medium. No exact measurements were used for the spices of course. From years of experience, Madame and Alka simply knew by heart how much of each spice was needed. First, Alka put approximately a large spoon full of mustard seeds in the oil until they started to pop. She then added about the same amount of mustard seeds to the oil, then some turmeric powder, salt and coriander powder mixed with crushed fenugreek seeds. Afterward, she added the potatoes and stirred into the oil and spices. She let them cook for a couple of minutes, stirring them occasionally while she chopped two small red chilis. She then added the chopped chilis, some mango powder and some garam masala (which she called black pepper, but is much different than our black pepper). She stirred all of this into the potatoes and cooked them for several minutes longer until they were done! Pretty easy once you figure out how much of each spice to use! Madame explained that the okra or lady fingers are cooked with the same spices and that once they are cooked you can add onion if you like, which she then added to the already cooked okra sitting in a nearby pan.
I next learned how to prepare the rice. Madame does not simply boil the plain basmati rice. Instead she prepares “jerra rice”, which is basmati rice with onion, salt and cumin seeds (jeera in Hindi). For one “glass” of dry rice (about the size of a water glass) she cooked one chopped onion in oil for several minutes, then added a small amount of cumin seeds and about one spoon of salt. She then put two glasses of water (double the amount of rice) and the glass of rice and stirred. She turned the propane stove up to high and covered the rice until it started to boil, then stirred the rice, recovered the pan and turned the stove down to “sim” (aka low or to simmer). She simmered the rice for ten minutes, then turned the stove off and let the rice sit covered on the stove for another 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, tada! You have jeera rice!
Lastly, I observed Madame’s domestic help prepare chapati. She took some wheat flour and added water to make a dough. She added a small amount of water at a time as she kneaded the dough until it was perfect, and then kneaded the dough for a while longer. Once the dough was to her liking, she rolled a little bit at a time into a rectangle shaped patty and cooked it on a pan. She flipped the chapati and brushed the exposed side with Ghee (a sort of butter product), then flipped it and brushed the other side with Ghee also. She did this over and over until all the dough was used. Everyone arrived around 7:00 and we all enjoyed the delicious food. After dinner we sat around drinking tea and telling stories, then for dessert Madame brought out a delicious custard with freshly cut banana and mango in individually prepared bowls. It was a wonderful ending to a wonderful day!