A couple of months ago, Ken, a wonderful friend from grad school mailed me one of my articles from DailyUV, excited to have stumbled upon me there. Compliment or not, I was thrilled to see his email. Ken and I had taken a couple of classes together while in school, but it was in Oxford that we truly connected. Initially, it was just that we were two socially awkward people who knew each other, but by the end of the three weeks, I (along with everyone there) fell in love with Ken, his adorable shyness, his genuine affection for the people around him, and his outstanding tales of magical fantasy. My strongest memory of him in Oxford is walking down the road to see him sitting on a bench on the sidewalk of a busy road, lost in his book, with a content smile on his face.
When I replied to his email, we got talking and he told me that my food blog had caught the eye of his colleagues at the local co-op, one of whom wanted to talk to me about teaching opportunities. Having never thought of reaching out to the co-op as a platform to talk about food, I was excited and super anxious to meet Lindsay, Director of the Culinary Learning Center at the Co-op Food Store. The Center offered culinary classes for their patrons and invited guest lecturers (me!) to conduct sessions. Psyched about the idea, I ran back home to make a class plan, nevermind that it wasn’t for another two months.
I was sure I was going to go Indian as it’s my strongest cuisine. I also wanted to pick a dish that wasn’t complicated, and since I was responsible for sourcing the ingredients, I wanted to make sure they were all locally available. I dove into my recipe box and spent days sprawled on the carpet, reading each of them, imagining how different combinations would play out, considering the two hour time limit. I finally settled on onion pakodas as an appetizer, chapatis, and my famous lick-the-bowl-clean palak paneer. I shared this with Lindsay, settled on a date, marked that on my calendar, and waited on tenterhooks for the months to pass.
A couple of days before the class, I went to the Learning Center to acclimate myself to the kitchen space and get an idea of where everything was. Lindsay was kind enough to draw me a map, but I knew that if I didn’t see it myself, I could never commit it to memory. At the same time as all this, Ni and I were impatiently waiting for the arrival of Dakota, our new foster dog, a rescue flying in all the way from Tennessee. We were to go pick him up on Saturday, which was the same day as my class. We planned it such that I could do my shopping in the morning while he picked up the dog and then I could go back later in the evening to conduct my class. Unfortunately, plans often go awry. Ni got called away on a business trip on Friday night, leaving me even more nervous about the day ahead.
I spent Friday evening cooking the same menu to check my time and method. I’d also planned to take bottles of ghee as a present for the ones taking the class. I got started on melting the butter, calculating one stick (eight tablespoons) for each person. Lindsay told me that fifteen people were taking the class, so I picked up sixteen small mason jars (just to satisfy my even number quirk). After straining the butter to get the clear, pure fat, I filled the jars halfway and set them aside to cool. Apart from the souvenir aspect of it, giving ghee as a gift allowed me the opportunity to talk about it, how it influences Indian cooking, how it’s a preferred option for fat in a lot of desserts because of its high boiling point, its overall upcoming popularity, and other advantages. As I waited for the ghee to come down to room temperature before I could close the lids, I pulled out the bar stool and re-read my earlier pieces about ghee and palak paneer just to refresh my memory.
The next morning, I put together my shopping list and made my first trip to the co-op market to pick up all the ingredients and drop them off at the Learning Center, which was right next door. I had a budget of $120, which could be expanded if absolutely necessary. So, I pulled out my calculator and started adding up as I picked up things. Everything was okay until I got to the paneer. $6.49 for each block and poof, there went my budget. I stood there in the middle of the market, with my pencil and paper balanced on the back of my cell phone, mumbling to myself as I recalculated the measurements. As each moment passed, I grew more anxious and more aware of the fact that people were looking at me. I truly missed not being able to turn to someone with a clueless look and ask to take over. After ten minutes, I finally got my new numbers, pinched a few pennies, forgot a couple of ingredients in all that confusion and walked up to the register. The bill came up to $121! I did a happy dance with the lady at the counter, pushed my trolley to the Learning Center and put everything away for later. The class was at 5 pm and my plan was to get there by 4 pm to set everything up. The time was now 1 pm.
I drove down to Un-dun, a local shop which sold cigars, CBD products, alcohol, and sex toys. Yep. Sex toys. And I was there for coal (which they sold for hookahs.) Walking in, my ID was checked and I was directed to a room behind the curtain. I walk in and the first thing I see are these huge pink dildos hung on the wall across from me and I couldn’t help a giggle slip out. Thankfully, the only other customers were too immersed in their conversation about vapes to hear me. I studiously averted my eyes to the incense stick section while I waited my turn. By the time he rang up two rolls of magic coal for me, it was ten to two. Time to pick up Dakota.
The drive to Amy’s, founder of the White River Animal Rescue, was about twenty minutes during which I put on loud Tamil music and thanked God that I had gotten a license (which is one of the biggest achievements in my life.) I never thought there would be a day when I’d be driving down the Vermont countryside on my own, to go pick up a dog! It’s crazy how life turns out. I reached just as she pulled in, all the way from Maine, where Dakota was flown into.
Amy had warned me about his size and I had seen pictures, but it was not enough to prepare me for his size. He’s not a dog, he’s a lion. He dominated the entire back of her SUV and I was worried he wouldn’t fit into Ni’s smaller Subaru, but somehow, uncomfortably, he seemed to fit. I picked up his food from her storage and away we went to introduce him to his new home. He never sat during the entire journey and kept moving about, making me antsy. I tried feeding him a treat, but he refused, so I gave up. When I took him inside the house, he promptly ran about marking his territory before I could stop him. I took him out for a quick pee, cleaned up the mess, fed him,, introduced him to his crate and by the time I got dressed and reached the Co-op Learning Center, it was four thirty in the evening.
At the Center, I quickly arranged all the ingredients, checked on the vessels we would need as a class, arranged cutting boards, placed a set of recipes on everyone’s desk, and set out my visiting cards & bottles of ghee on a table at the entrance. By quarter to five, the class was almost full and mostly couples, so in my head, I was thinking each couple would make one meal together, which meant lesser ingredients, vessels, and more importantly, lesser number of cooking stations. This may actually work out well after all!
After everyone settled down, I introduced myself, my obvious nervousness prompting a sweet couple in the front row to give me two enthusiastic thumbs up to prompt me on.
“So, let’s start with the onion pakodas. You can all pick up an onion from this basket and I think the cutting boards are in the shelf there,” I said, turning and pointing behind me. When I looked back at the class, I was met with some seriously confused looks. I stared right back at them with an even more quizzical look and then to Lindsay, who was sitting at the back of the class.
“I don’t think they want to cook, this is more of a demonstration class,” she said, coming towards me.
Huh. Crap. There goes all my planning.
I apologised to her and to everyone for the confusion and quickly shifted gears. Okay, so now I’m cooking a meal for sixteen people. I’ve done that. I’ve done that with my eyes closed and a cheesecake in the oven.
The only problem was that my proportions were all out of whack and I didn’t have the time to sit down and work new numbers, so I went with my instinct and feel. When I started chopping the onions, one of the participants pulled up another cutting board, checked how I’d like them and started chopping alongside me. Most of the people taking the class were regulars and all knew each other, helping me a lot in keeping the conversation going. There were times when I would get lost in cooking and they’d bring me back by asking questions, a completely engaging bunch! But there were times when everyone would fall silent and I’d be completely aware of all their eyes on me. The second I could sense that, all the blood would rush to my face and I’d falter in my steps. Clumsy as I am, I’m very thankful the night ended with me not hurting myself or anyone else.
Once I had made enough pakodas to go around, I offered everyone to pick up a plate and enjoy some spicy onion pakodas with a nice tamarind based sauce that Lindsay had whipped up (because I forgot to check if they had condiments,) as I moved on to the main course. For the chapatis, I measured out the flour based on the one cup for eight chapatis that I measure at home (calculating two chapatis per person,) put in a couple of dollops of ghee, a pinch of salt, and warm water. While I kneaded the dough, I shared with them how I’ve grown up watching my mom knead chapati dough every night. After a long, hard day, she’d sit down to watch her favourite tv-series, sometimes forgetting that her fingers are still working the dough. Her chapatis would come out the softest! Mine, I was a little worried about. You see, I was making these chapatis out of King Arthur whole wheat and not Indian chakki atta (super fine whole wheat which is milled by crushing the wheat in between two heavy stones) and I’d never done that before. Since I wanted all the ingredients to be easily available, this was the gamble I took. I let the dough rest while I moved to the palak paneer.
While I blanched the spinach and told them about my mom’s trick of adding a pinch of sugar, Lindsay picked up a couple of bottles of wine for the class to taste along with the food. Answering someone’s question, I kept going on with the steps until I came to the end and realised that in all my chaos a couple of days ago at the market, the ingredient I’d forgotten to pick up was ginger-garlic paste. I mentally kicked myself, already knowing how the meal would be missing the sweet nuttiness of garlic and the passive heat of ginger. Once the gravy was cooked, I added the fried paneer pieces, took it off heat and set it aside. I wanted to save the magic of the coal for the end.
The chapati gamble completely worked! When I went back to the dough, it was soft and bouncy. Excited to get started, I rolled it into a long snake and chopped off thirty two small balls starting at one end, much to Lindsay’s surprise who shared how she would’ve folded and folded until she’d get equal parts. The OCD in me rejoiced at such symmetry. I rolled a couple of chapatis and stopped because I wanted to show everyone how chapatis are made on an open fire. Before I started, I thanked my mom for the hundred million chapatis that she forced me to make when I was younger and prayed that the chapati would puff up the way it was supposed to. And it did! In fact, I enjoyed a higher success rate than I’d normally get at home. Every single one of them puffed up! The best part, after the first chapati, I went back to rolling the dough and each one of the participants stepped up and took a shot. I was overjoyed!
When the chapatis were done, I called their attention to the final step and we all oohed and aahed over the simmering magic coal as it caught on fire almost immediately. I lowered it in a cup into the gravy pot and dropped a couple of drops of oil for the ultimate theatrical effect.
Picking up a plate, everyone enjoyed their dinner and left with a full stomach, and a tiny bottle of ghee. I quickly washed some vessels, loaded up the dishwasher, and cleaned all the tables before finally heading out to end the day. I drove back home again with some loud music, this time to keep me alert, and promptly passed out on the couch with a cold beer in my hand and a lion-dog at my feet.