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Indian Cooking Class: Six Things I Learned from Julie Sahni; Exploding Mustard Seeds, 4-Minute Rice

I've never been able to bake bread, but in less than an hour, Julie Sahni taught me the secrets of making the most delicious chapati and potato-stuffed paratha, using a simple flour-and water-dough and a few easy techniques.

I’ve never been able to bake bread, but in less than an hour, Julie Sahni taught me the secrets of making the most delicious chapati and potato-stuffed paratha, using a simple flour-and water-dough and a few easy techniques.

When I opened my suitcase last Monday night, a sultry aroma wafted through the bedroom.

The scent of freshly roasted Indian spices—a mélange of cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, cassia stick and its leaf, and a whisper of grated nutmeg—brought back flavor memories so strong that I could almost taste the homemade tandoori chicken I’d been eating 24 hours earlier.

That evening Julie Sahni pressed a ziplock bag of ground spices into my hand just as I was leaving her Brooklyn studio. “Take it,” she said firmly. “When you get home, smell it. Look at it. Then make it yourself, using this as your guide.”

“This” was Sahni’s version of garam masala, a sumptuous blend of sweet and savory spices widely used in North Indian cooking—and just one of many remarkable things I learned in her two-day, super-intensive Classic Indian Cooking course last weekend.

You may know Julie Sahni as the author of Classic Indian Cooking (1980), which as far as I’m concerned, is the ultimate written guide to everything you need to know about the cuisine of the subcontinent. Not just a compilation of recipes, it amounts to a comprehensive course in Indian cookery, with easy-to-follow, illustrated explanations of ingredients, cookware and techniques. Most intriguing to me are the chapters devoted to the properties of spices, herbs and other seasonings.

The book, not surprisingly, is now in its 58th printing.

Julie Sahni, from her website.

Julie Sahni, from her website.

But what you might not know is that Sahni is also a brilliant instructor who teaches four or five participation courses in Indian cooking every month, ranging from 3 hours to 3-1/2 days. Classes are held in her Brooklyn studio and are limited to just three people. Somehow she also manages to sandwich in culinary tours to India, media appearances, and specialized courses on vegetarian and Ayurvedic cooking. And she’s currently writing a cookbook–her 11th– on the curries of India and southeast Asia.

Are you exhausted yet?

As for me, I signed up for the class because ever since I went to India a couple of years ago, I’ve been confused about the dishes I cooked and tasted there. The recipes I had were scrawled haphazardly while watching/helping home cooks prepare sambars and vindaloos, and even the printed handouts seemed to leave out steps. I didn’t understand much about the cooking techniques or the cultural context of the food I ate.

In two long days, Sahni, who’s been teaching for 30 years, cracked open the world of Indian cooking for me. She’s an energetic, focused teacher, patient but not coddling, with a vast knowledge of food that comes from having an insatiable curiosity and a knife-sharp memory.

Lunch, or was it dinner? Perfectly cooked 4-minute basmati rice, Goan chicken curry in spicy tamarind sauce, and delectable Bengal shrimp in coconut milk with panch phoran spices.

Lunch, or was it dinner? Perfectly cooked 4-minute basmati rice, Goan chicken curry in spicy tamarind sauce, and delectable Bengal shrimp in coconut milk with panch phoran spices.

We cooked our way across India, from the famed Tandoori Chicken of Delhi and Punjabi-Style Fragrant Cauliflower with Ginger to an Ajowan Fish Fry (the same delicately spiced grey sole served in the private clubs of Mumbai), Bengal Shrimp with Panch Phoran Spices, and Kashmir Rice Pudding with Saffron and Kishmish (Iranian raisins).

I finally learned the difference between the techniques of roasting, blooming and exploding spices–even a simple way to to keep mustard seeds from jumping out of the pan when sizzling in hot oil (cover with a lid and listen; when they stop popping, it’s safe to lift the lid and add the rest of your spices). And there was an unexpected bonus that may change my life: Sahni’s recipe for Four-Minute Basmati Rice. (Soak for 30 minutes, then cook in lots of boiling water for exactly 4 minutes.)

Of course, it helped that I was her only student. (The other attendee dropped out after last-minute complications.)

But after a week of cooking these dishes at home, I’ve discovered that the most important things I learned actually weren’t recipes, as delicious as they are, but smart tips and techniques, plus aspects of an entirely different approach to cooking—slower, more sensual, and ultimately more satisfying.

Here are just six of the many things I learned last week.

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Laying out a mise en place for spice blends such as this sumptuous garam masala ensures that none of the ingredients will be forgotten before they are roasted and ground to a fine powder.

1. First, Get Organized

“Don’t begin until you’ve set out your mise en place,” commanded Julie as I was about to dive into one of her recipes. Instead of ricocheting around the kitchen as usual, grabbing turmeric, cumin and cilantro on the fly, she taught me to set out all the spices and other seasonings in small stainless steel bowls on a plate going in a clockwise direction, beginning with the first ingredient in the recipe and ending with the last

For the Punjabi-style Cauliflower with Ginger, that meant setting up 7 small bowls, one each for cumin seeds, shredded ginger, crushed red chili flakes, turmeric, chopped plum tomato, kosher salt and chopped cilantro, in the order in which they were added to the pan. This not only forced me to pay attention to the recipe (always a problem when I’m in a hurry), but it made the actual cooking of the cauliflower a breeze. The cumin seeds were sizzled for only 15 seconds, which meant that I had to be ready to go with the ginger, chili and turmeric–or the cumin would have burned.

2. Using Cool Fluorescent Lights to Keep Spices Fresh

There are two caveats when storing spices: No heat, no light. Smart chefs like Floyd Cardoz of New York’s Tabla stash their spices in a closet separate from the bright, hot kitchens in which they cook. I’ve always kept my own spices in the pantry, which is cool, dark—and a pain to get to when I need them.

But there’s another option: Sahni keeps her spices right out in the open, on an under-cabinet rack, away from the stove, on a wall that receives only indirect natural light. When she needs illumination, she flicks on a cool fluorescent bulb installed under the cabinet: it illuminates both the counter and the spices.

“Cool fluorescents are OK, “ she told me. “That’s why Indian grocery markets are lit with fluorescent lights. They won’t cause the spices to deteriorate. “

Another tip: Streamline your jars. Sahni’s open storage works because she uses just two sizes of clear glass jars with black plastic tops. Each has a permanent place to which it is always returned; a whole spice always precedes its ground version (cumin seeds, then ground cumin).

I was shocked, however, that none of the jars were labeled. After 30 years of teaching, she knows what’s in each one. But for me, um, there was a little confusion between the paprika and ground red chili. “What did you put in here?” she asked sniffing the Bengal Shrimp with Panch Phoran Spices. “A teaspoon of chili or of paprika? “ I stuck my nose into the offending bottle. It was chili. “Don’t worry, we’ll just add a little more paprika to balance it,” she said graciously.

When shopping for long-grained basmati rice, look for the Lal Qilla Brand which has a particularly creamy taste. The Red Fort appears on its label.

When shopping for long-grained basmati rice, look for the Lal Qilla Brand which has a particularly creamy taste. The Red Fort appears on its label.

3. Be a smart shopper:

We began Sunday morning with a trip to Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights, a magnet for Indian and other South Asian shoppers around New York. As we perused the shelves and bins, Sahni dispensed pearls of advice:

Brands matter: Don’t assume that all brands are created equal. If you’re making a mango lassi, a refreshing yoghurt drink, you must use Ratna brand Alfonso Mango Pulp to get the sweet, luscious flavor of the ripe fruit. “Even fresh mangos won’t give you the right taste,” said Sahni, although she does add chunks of the fruit to the mixture. My cooking notebook was filled with scanned labels of products that give “the right taste,” among them : Lal Qilla creamy basmati rice (look for the picture of the Red Fort), Mother’s Lime Chili Pickle, and Crunchy Chor, a totally addictive spicy-hot snack cracker.

Buy a little, not a lot:
Don’t scoop up big bags of spices even if it seems cheaper to buy giant sizes. “Sometimes I think ‘I’m here, so I might as well buy a lot,’” said Sahni. “Then I get home and it just clutters up the kitchen. I get depressed and feel pressured to cook.” Indian cooking requires quite a few spices, but only a teaspoon or two at a time, so to keep them from going stale, you’re better off buying small quantities. (For more on this topic, see Alex Witchel’s New York Times article, “A Fresh Batch of Spices for True Indian Flavors”.)

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Karela, or bitter melon, is often cooked with potatoes, with spices or in curries to offset the bitterness of its flesh. It must be eaten when young, as the flesh becomes increasingly bitter and inedible as it ripens.

Shop with your eyes: “Buy vegetables as if you’re buying jewels,” said Sahni as she carefully examined a papaya, turning it over in her hand, looking at it from top to bottom. “Careful shoppers will examine each green bean, each okra, before putting it in their bag. It only takes one bad vegetable to make a dish go wrong.” She learned this technique from her mother whom she accompanied on market trips from an early age.

High turnover equals freshness: At Patel Brothers I was stunned by the freshness of the green cardamom and Indian bay (actually cassia) leaves. My local market carries the same brands, but there the spices look faded and musty. Patel’s turnover—it is a high-traffic weekend shopping destination—makes all the difference.

Another tip: In New York, savvy chefs do their spice shopping at Foods of India, a neat and tidy Lexington Avenue market where the owner, Arun Sinha, personally buys the spices and other ingredients from trusted sources. There’s no website, unfortunately, but they ship everywhere. In the small housewares room, I found a pan I’d been lusting for ever since I used it to saute tindola squash in Sahni’s class: a cast iron karahi or flat bottomed Indian wok. Ask for the store’s list of products.

4. No Special Cooking Equipment Required–Except for the Revel Grinder

I adore special cooking equipment–hence the quest for the karahi– but Sahni emphasized that I probably had almost everything I needed in my own kitchen. A cast iron skillet or two, the usual pots and pans (non-stick is useful), a strainer for draining rice, tongs for turning chapati over an open flame, well-sharpened knives, little bowls for laying out the mise en place, a mortar and pestle, and a spice grinder—really not much more is needed for Indian cooking.

Except for the Revel Wet and Dry Grinder. Better than a food processor or blender, this $30 grinder, developed by a Texas engineer, turned out the smoothest, silkiest ginger garlic paste I’ve ever seen. The secret, says Julie, is the positioning of the blades. “They’re set very low, so you can chop even a single large clove of garlic to paste.” When we used it to make the marinade for the Goan Chicken Curry , I nearly flipped out, thinking of all the velvety spice pastes I could make.

Unfortunately, the Revel is a bit elusive. The shop we visited was out of business, but it appears to be available on the web. Google the Revel Wet and Dry Grinder CCM101 for a list of vendors.

After snapping this photo of delicate tindola squash sizzling in a cast iron karahi, Sahni asked me to stow my camera and instead use my senses to absorb the smells, sounds and flavors of the dish we were cooking.

After snapping this photo of delicate tindola squash sizzling in a cast iron karahi, Sahni asked me to stow my camera and instead use my senses to absorb the smells, sounds and flavors of the dish we were cooking.

5. Stash your camera and pen.

“All right, take your camera to the bedroom,” Sahni said, after I snapped a picture of the tindola squash sizzling in the cast iron karahi. “Now,” she added. “No more photographs until the food is on the plate.”

Ahem. I was suddenly at sea. It’s been ages since I attended any kind of cooking class without my trusty appendages. (A cooking teacher in Mexico once gave me a tongue-in-cheek award as “best student” because I was always taking notes and photographs.) How else could I possibly remember the details?

Bereft of my props, my senses went into high gear:
I inhaled the fragrance of garam masala, learning to tell by smell when the spices were roasted just to the right degree of toastiness. I listened to mustard seeds explode in a covered pan—and stop popping when they were nicely browned—as we sizzled them on the stove. I watched cumin darken and fenugreek seeds turn mahoghany brown as I “bloomed” them in hot oil. I used my palate to taste and “feel” the texture of the velvety Kashmir rice pudding studded with aromatic cardamom seeds.

Somehow it worked. All week long I’ve been using these sense memories to recreate the Indian dishes I learned to cook in Sahni’s class. Without many pictures or notes, I feel a stronger, more sensual connection to the food I’ve been putting on the table–in a way, it’s nearly as pleasurable as eating in India itself.

Courtenay holding her chapati JSIS2010

Almost perfect chapati: Nicely browned and puffed like a ballon after a quick turn over the gas flame. A thrilling moment for a non-baker.

6. You too can make bread:

True confessions: I may be the only person in the universe who came up short when I tackled the famous no-knead bread recipe published in The New York Times a few years ago. “Inedible” would be putting it nicely.

Ah, but I can definitely make chapati (also known as roti)and paratha. Roti is the soul food of North India,” said Sahni as she showed me how to slam the simplest flour and water dough against the counter before rolling it out into paper-thin rounds. (OK, you have to let it rest a little too.) “Be tough with the dough,” she commanded. “If you do this everyday, you’ll never have arthritis.”

I love the smell and taste of chapati after they’ve been cooked on a hot cast iron griddle—my Mexican comal is perfect for this—and briefly charred over an open flame till they puff up like a balloon.

The same dough can be used to make savory paratha filled with potato spiced with cumin, chili and cilantro. A perfect snack, but also delicious wrapped around tandoori chicken. And what about beef fajitas marinated in lime, onion and green chiles, or barbecued pork shoulder? Or using potatoes with different herbs and spices?

I see lots of possibilities ahead.

For more on Julie Sahni’s Indian Cooking School, go to www.juliesahni.com.

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