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“You don’t want to make the dish too hot, or your guests will start flying” says Roni. “So rather than cutting the chillies up small, just slice them in half. That way they’re easier to take out if things are too spicy”.
I’m in a small kitchen in Varkala in South Kerala, taking Roni’s lunchtime cookery class. I’ve chosen my 5 dishes (Onion Bhajis, Masala Dosa, Daal Fry, Fish Malabari and Vegetable Biriani) and now I’m required to get my hands dirty. Literally.
For us Brits, Onion Bhajis are so familiar that they barely need introducing. But here goes anyway: sliced onions and chillies, mixed with Bhaji Powder (Daal or Lentil Powder) and deep-fried until nice and crispy.
Although I’ve been making curries for years, I’ve never actually made Onion Bhajis. It’s a messy business: I mix the ingredients by hand with water until they form a sticky paste. Then I squeeze the mixture carefully to get the correct consistency. Roni heats some oil in a deep pan, and drops in a few curry leaves. Once it’s sizzling, I carefully drop in a few handfuls of the mixture and watch it all cook.
When the bhajis have turned a nice golden brown, I remove them with a spoon and drain them on a kitchen towel. Then comes the best bit: eating them! (With Green Chilli Dip, available in shops).
Ingredients: Sliced onions; Halved Green Chillies; Kashmiri Chilli Powder (to taste); Rock Salt (to taste); Bhaji Powder; Water
I tasted my first Masala Dosa back in 1994 in New Delhi. In the intervening decades they’ve become, frankly, a bit of an obsession. So how could I pass up the opportunity to make my own?
Roni explains that we’ll be making a breakfast Dosa, rather than an evening Dosa. An evening Dosa is a light, crisp pancake folded over a small amount of soft potato, served with a sambar (coconut dip) and a vegetable curry (*sigh*). A breakfast Dosa is an altogether thicker pancake, with a large amount of potato curry, and designed to set the eater up for the day.
The Dosa itself is the simplest part of this: “Always buy the wet Dosa powder”, explains Roni. This comes in a plastic bag and we simply squeeze out enough for 1 Dosa.
The potato curry is made using pre-boiled potatoes, cut into small chunks. To this, we add chopped onions, chopped green chillies, Kashmiri Chilli Powder, Turmeric Powder, Salt and Curry Leaves (“The curry leaves are necessary” Roni says firmly).
Fry all the ingredients together in a small amount of oil. Add water, and allow to cook until thick. (Break the potatoes up into bite-size pieces).
The Dosa is cooked in a dry frying pan. Roni insists that I toss it myself (none of that namby-pamby turning it with a spatula that I usually resort to) and, once it has browned, we move it to a plate. Roni tops it with potato curry and I tuck in with a fork.
And there’s a new breakfast option in town!
Ingredients: Wet Masala Dosa Mix; Boiled, Diced Potatoes; Chopped Onion; Chopped Green Chillies; Kashmiri Chilli Powder; Turmeric Powder; Salt to taste
I like lentils, and I certainly eat a lot of Daal when I’m in India. Yet somehow I’ve never quite got the hang of cooking them at home. Time to put that omission to rest.
Roni measures out 50g of yellow lentils, adds them to a pan with ‘a bit’ of water and brings them to the boil. Once they have softened, he drains off the excess water. They’re now ready for the next stage.
Add black mustard seeds (a couple of teaspoons) and curry leaves into a tablespoon of hot oil. When this starts to smoke, add the Daal and fry for a few minutes. At the end (and not before), add salt to taste.
The result is satisfyingly nutty and very much like something I’d cook for an easy supper on a winter’s night.
Ingredients: 50g yellow lentils (boiled & drained) ; curry leaves; black mustard seeds; salt to taste
No Indian cookery class would be complete without a rice dish, and I’ve chosen Vegetable Biryani. Beloved of vegetarian travellers at India and at home, I want to know the best way to make this.
Our vegetables are onions, carrots and green beans. I chop them up, then fry them in some oil with chopped chillies and some dry masala mix. (Also known as Garam Masala, this is a blend of dry, ground spices. It’s widely available or you can make your own).
Roni has already cooked some basmati rice, which is sitting on the side. Once the vegetables have softened, he takes them off the heat, then layers the rice on top and smooths it down. It then stays like that until we’re ready to eat.
Ingredients: Chopped vegetables (we used carrots, onions and green beans, but I think most vegetables would be fine); Green Chillies; Garam Masala; Basmati Rice (cooked)
It would be positively criminal to take a cookery class in Kerala and NOT learn how to make a seafood curry.
The one I’ve chosen is a coconut-based curry, which means I get to try out the coconut scraper, a utensil attached to the worktop that must surely be unique to Kerala!
After Roni and I (we take it in turns, it’s quite easy…) have scraped half a coconut onto a plate, it goes into a blender with turmeric powder, Kashmiri chilli, salt and enough water to make a thin paste.
(If you don’t have a coconut scraper, or you can’t get fresh coconut, Roni suggests using coconut milk).
Then slice some onions and soften them in some oil. Add the coconut paste and two roughly chopped tomatoes. Add the fish (we’re using tuna, but any chunky fish will do) in large chunks, top up with water to cover and simmer for about 20mins (or until the fish is cooked).
Ingredients: Chunky Fish (tuna or barracuda is perfect); sliced onions; grated coconut (or coconut milk); tomatoes; turmeric powder; Kashmiri chilli powder
Now that the cooking is finished, I settle down outside to eat as much of the meal as I can. The Vegetable Biryani, Daal Fry, Masala Dosa and Onion Bhajis are delicious, and I’m looking forward to cooking them at home. The tuna fish is, to me, a bit dry (I’m not a fan of tuna fish). But the sauce is tasty and, if I could get fresh coconut, I’d also consider making this chez moi. (I can’t imagine getting the same results with coconut milk).
The biggest issue though, is the sheer quantity of food. We’ve made enough for 3-4 people and I can’t even make a decent dent in it. Roni re-assures me that the staff will happily tuck in!
So here’s the low-down:
Good to Know
Cost: Rs1200 (this was for 1 person; may be cheaper if there are several of you)
Frequency: Daily, but needs to be pre-booked (see below)
Location: Kerala Bamboo House, Varkala, Kerala, India
Choices: Choose from Veg & Non-Veg options for each dish. You pre-select your food so that this can be purchased.
Pluses: It’s a very hands-on class, and that was great for me as I like getting involved. Also, Roni ran a class for me alone, which not everybody will do.
Minuses: The kitchen had no A/C and was VERY hot. (I drank 1L of water in the making of this blog post).
Spices: Spices are widely and cheaply available in Kerala. If you take a cookery class, your tutor will gladly advise on what to buy. If you’re planning on cooking Keralan/Indian food at home, then do buy your spices here. They will be a fraction of the cost! After all, this is the home of the spice trade 😉