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Cooking School: Exotic India

When my friend Karen e-mailed me last week to say she had a free spot to an Indian cooking class, I couldn’t say no. I rearranged my schedule to meet her at World Kitchen downtown, in a below-ground semi-commercial kitchen/cooking school run by the City of Chicago. The whole experience reminded me again of the many hidden-gems of places, food and experiences that I have yet to explore in this city.

I was one of the few class members who had not been shopping on Devon Avenue the weekend before in preparation for the hands-on learning in the kitchen. While I’ve eaten and shopped along Devon Avenue before—usually ducking in a store for a giant bag of cumin seeds or coriander that cost $1.99 instead of the tiny $5 or $8 jars in Jewel or Dominick’s—I am now armed with a list of new bakeries and restaurants to try. And this weekend, I even made a quick trip to Patel Bros. for some new spices to cook the booklet of recipes I got to take home from the class.

The cooking class was one of the best I’ve been to, beginning with a short lecture, discussion on spices (essential to learning more about Indian cuisine) and a review of the eight recipes we would make that night. Yes, you read that right…eight recipes! I won’t recap the entire lecture, but I was again reminded about the short shelf life for spices—about 3-6 months, especially if they are ground, and I made a mental note to go through my cabinet when I got home.

The spices central to Indian cuisine are cumin, coriander, turmeric, red chiles and black mustard seeds. Cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, curry leaves, and garam masala also play central roles, and the lesser known spices (to me, anyway) of fenugreek, amchur (mango powder) and asafetida may be the key to creating authentic Indian food at home.

Each cooking team of three people had about three recipes to cook, and my team made chana masala, the traditional dish of spicy chickpeas and tomatoes; an Indian sweet pudding called halwa, with saffron, cardamom, raisins and cashews; and mango lassi. Other groups added Punjabi-style cauliflower, chicken in almond sauce, carrot salad with kokum, spiced basmati rice, and a curried lentil and vegetable stew called sambaar.

The buffet was delicious and the recipes were approachable for any home cook. While I included the chana masala recipe below, I was most impressed by the halwa, which sounded vaguely like the recipe given to me by an eager cab driver who dictated it to me from his driver’s seat when I told him I liked to cook. The halwa recipe calls for sooji, which is like farina, or cream of wheat. It’s easy to find in an Indian grocery, but I’d be interested to see if it could be recreated with a more common fine grain. Roasting the sooji imparts a deep, complex taste and a rich caramel color that while delicious for dessert, I decided is perfectly okay instead of oatmeal for breakfast.

Chana Masala
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, adapted from Madhur Jaffrey

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 fresh, hot green chili pepper, minced
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 tablespoon amchur powder (optional; imparts a sour note)
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 15-ounce can of whole tomatoes with their juices, chopped small
2/3 cup water
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 lemon (juiced)

1. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion, garlic, ginger and pepper and sauté over medium heat until translucent and starting to brown, about 5 minutes.

2. Turn heat down to medium-low and add the coriander, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, cumin seeds, amchur (if using it), paprika and garam masala. Cook onion mixture with spices for a minute or two, then add the tomatoes and any accumulated juices, scraping up any bits that have stuck to the pan.

3. Add the water and chickpeas. Simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, until chickpeas are tender and spices bloom together. Stir in salt and lemon juice.

Serves 6 to 8.

Note: This recipe has a high spice level, though it’s not overly hot. To tame the heat a bit, seed the chili pepper and cut back on the cayenne.

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