Yesterday I took a cooking class. I have been dying to learn how to cool the local foods and tried in vain to find a cooking class in Dhaka. But here in Kolkata, there are many. Through a friend in Dhaka who recommended Travel East India, I found this local lady here in Kolkata who gives cooking classes in her home, cooking every day type dishes – this was exactly what I wanted! Meet Rajashi.
I caught the metro from Park St Station to Kalighat Station (about 5 stops) for the grand sum of 5 rupees. You just had to follow the crowds to find the metro station. The train was jammed with workers, trying to get on and get off the train simultaneously. I tucked myself into the relative safety to the right of the doors but eventually got sucked onto the train with the rush. I hung on to the overhead rails like everyone else, the men sat on the seats and the women seemed to all congregate close to one another. Despite the train being jammed, no one touched anyone else, there was maybe a few centimeters of clear space around everyone, and no one interacted. Big city trains I guess. I’ve been on a number of busy metros in many big cities but I have to say I have never experienced anything like this (it was all good). After about 10 mins, I pealed myself out of the train at Kalighat Station. I was then swept along to the exit with the crowds, no need to ask for directions, and I suspect it would be my own tough if I wanted to go the opposite way.
I found myself surfacing onto the street in the midst of a multitude of snack stalls all selling breakfast to hungry commuters. The concept of grab n’ go for sure was established in India. It must have been, except it is more of a cram n’go. Kati rolls filled with curried veggies, rotis with eggs, chickpea curry … on little metal plates quickly consumed standing by the stall, or in some cases if you were lucky, sitting on a crocked-y old bench balancing your food on your knee, minding your purse and avoiding elbows of passersby all at the same time. No photos sorry, I was not keen to pull out my camera in the melee.
I asked which way to Triangular Park and off I set to walk the 20 mins or so to get there. Not a tourist in sight! Just many folks heading to work, to school, scurrying along. Shop and stall owners setting up their wares – ready made clothes, shoes, kitchen ware, pharmacies, saree shops, mens shirt tailors …. you name it, it was there. I passed a few private clinics and one hospital with ambulances buzzing on and out. Noise noise everywhere, it is relentless. It was not long before I reached our meeting place so I rested in the shade in an attempt to cool down and catch some kind of a breeze before meeting Rajashi. The temperatures are not too hot at all these day but when humidity hits over 75%, it tends to bring me to the edge.
A smiling Rajashi came along (I was easy to spot) and we made our way to her apartment. We sat and chatted a while sipping on iced jaljiras – a cooling drink made up of cumin, black pepper, lime juice, salt and water – it did the trick. Btw, another cooling drink I have tried is a mix of tamarind, lime juice, grated ginger and water, I’ll have to try this one at home, maybe with a splash of spiced rum added. Back to Rajashi. Rajashi is married for 29 years, has a son and a daughter (she must have been a teenager when she had them!) both having left home for study and work. She and her husband live with her mother in law in a small 2 bed apartment with a sizeable kitchen. I loved her kitchen, it has everything she needed to cook, everything in easily accessible containers and zero appliances save for a pressure cooker that she swears by and one of those foot knife things that I also saw in Nepal (and the name of it escapes me).
Her pots are well seasoned and everything is cooked on 4 gas burners. No oven (no one in their right mind would cook anything in an oven at this time of year anyway!) We set to with our cooking class.
First dish was a simple and quick chola dal. The lentils had already been cooked in water to al dente. She combined a bunch of spices, diced tomato, dried red chilli and some bay leaves with mustard seed oil and when cooked, in go some sultanas and cashew nuts, then throw in the cooked lentils along with a few peas. Add a teaspoon of ghee and it’s ready. Quick, delicious and healthy. No onions or garlic as these are known to heat up the body, which in this heat you want to avoid.
Next up was a simple okra curry. Normally I do not like okra, it’s the texture that gets me as I do not like the mush sensation. But I had not tasted Rajashi’s okra! I am now converted. Saute the okra with fenugreek in mustard seed oil, mix a bunch of spices into yoghurt (Rajashi makes her own yogurt, it was sour and creamy, just how I like it) and then toss the yogurt/spice mix into the okra, mix, add some extra plain yogurt and voila, it’s done. Easy peasy. Again no onions or garlic given the time of year.
Next we made a chicken curry (with onions and garlic but only because she wanted to show me how to make it). I have made Vij’s chicken curry recipe a few times and it takes a little bit of work, but this curry was quick and full of flavor. Si –you would love this recipe J Marinade the bone-in chicken (bone-in = more flavour) in a bunch of spices with yoghurt for at least one hour. In a hot pan with mustard seed oil, saute the onion, ginger and garlic, add in some more spices & diced tomato, chuck in the chicken pieces and cover, letting both the tomatoes and chicken leak their juices. Add some water after a while and let it bubble on medium heat for another 20 mins, until the chicken is cooked. Stir in chopped cilantro and a few peas – hey presto – the fastest chicken curry I ever saw!
Given Rajashi knew I have spent the past 7 months in Nepal and Bangladesh, she felt I might be “riced out” so opted to show me some breads instead. Brilliant! I had already learned how to make chapatis by Rina in Nepal so we settled on making paratha and puri. Both are the same recipe – atta flour, salt & water, knead into a ball and let it sit to ‘rest’. Parathas are rolled thicker than a chapati in a triangular shape and can be stuffed with spinach, thick dal, potato etc and are then dry fried on a scorching pan, flip to the other side, then add some safflower oil and press down on the paratha t make it balloon with air. Keep flipping (you cannot walk away) and it’s done in a jiffy. We did not stuff our paratha, we already had enough food going.
The puri was the same dough but rolled thinly and using a container to make a round shape. It is deep-fried for literally seconds, again pushing down to make it balloon, flip it over and within seconds it’s done. Rajashi has a handy round raised wooden block to make the rolling of any breads much easier – will have to get me one of them.
We dashed back into the relative cool of the sitting/dining area and drank copious glasses of water to try to cool off. It was so hot I did not feel like eating our feast, but I had a taste of everything. I can honestly say it was one of the best meals I ate, really delicious.
I like medium spicy foods but the food can be adjusted to suit all heat levels (take note Judi, Kathy and a few others). I have not shared the exact recipes only because I will have to do a Kolkata Night back on Bowen once I get home – so it will be a surprise. If any of you cook-types ever find your way to Kolkata, you just gotta take a cooking class with Rajeshi. It’s been a definite highlight! PS The metro was not quite as crowded on the way home.