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Adventures in Indian Cooking

a plate of food on a table

I have an insatiable curiosity to try as many different cuisines and variety of dishes during my lifetime as possible. Apart from simply how food tastes, I’m fascinated by the social, geographical and historical factors that influence the evolution of culinary traditions. Food can bridge understanding between people and I love anything that can do that. It’s so much fun to explore a new ingredient and discover how to coax out and combine flavors to recreate the taste that explodes on my tongue when I have that first bite. But there are cuisines and dishes that are so seemingly complex that it can be daunting to jump in and experiment all alone, so I seek out guidance.

As a longtime lover of Indian cuisine, I decided to tackle it in my kitchen. Like the real deal. Even though I’ve explored a bit on my own, I knew it was time to sign up for a class and I chose CulinAerie near Thomas Circle in DC. CulinAerie describes itself as a recreational culinary school. I’ve always described myself as an avid home cook but now I’m calling myself a recreational cook. That’s perfect. CulinAerie offers hands-on lessons, not just demonstrations. My class focused on Royal Indian cuisine–recipes from chefs who cooked for Indian emperors!

The instructor Rupen Rao has published two cookbooks on Indian cuisine, one of which features Ayurvedic cooking that focuses on the dietary needs of each person depending on their body type. Fascinating stuff. But that’s a post for another day. Rupen was friendly, knowledgeable and very funny. And he learned to cook from his mom, so big points. I very much enjoyed his cookbook. Yes, of course I bought it. I openly admit to having a cookbook problem.

The ingredients were laid out for each one of us when we entered the classroom. On the menu was Chicken Korma (a cashew cream sauce), Kashmir Lamb Stew, Garlic Spinach, Caraway Perfumed Rice and Indian Rice Pudding with Mango Mousse.

The first step to making Chicken Korma is to marinate the chicken in yogurt and spices like garlic, ginger, coriander, turmeric, sweet paprika and jalapeño pepper. Once those flavors start to get to know each other, caramelize the onions. Ghee (or clarified butter) is often used in Indian cooking instead of oil. Making your own ghee isn’t hard, just a matter of removing the milk solids from melted butter. But you can also buy it at Asian markets, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

We added chopped onions to a hot saucepan with ghee and let them slowly caramelize, being careful to stir them regularly over medium heat. Once the onions were nice and browned, we removed them and added cardamom, cloves, cinnamon,  ghee,  the caramelized onions, cashews, chicken stock, garam masala and nutmeg in a blender. Then we added this mixture to the chicken and cook.

You can serve white basmati rice cooked with ghee, caraway seeds, cilantro and salt. You’ll be amazed by how much flavor the caraway seeds add to the rice. Absolutely delicious. Before starting on the lamb dish, we made the spinach. Pretty simple but so flavorful. Sauté jalapeno, garlic and onions until softened, then add spinach. Salt to taste and voila!

Kashmir Lamb Stew is best with tougher cuts of lamb. The key is letting it cook for a long time at low heat. First step is to sauté peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom, onions and garlic until fragrant. Then we created a separate mixture of ground spices combined with yogurt. Once the lamb is cooked with the spices, the yogurt mixture is added and brought to a simmer.

For the Rice Pudding with Mango Mousse, the key is to heat the milk first before adding rice. Once the rice is tender, he added the sugar, cardamom and nuts. Make sure to use Alphonso mango pulp and mix with heavy cream. Adding sugar slows down the cooking process, so it should always be added at the end. Thanks to Rupen for that important tip!

I was stuffed by the end of the night, but I had to try a few bites of that creamy goodness. Indian rice pudding is not as sweet as American rice pudding, and canned Alphonso mangoes from a good Indian market are amazing. As close to right off the tree as you’ll get.

Suffice it to say, I was satisfied by my class and learned a lot, but I didn’t want to stop there. I made the fish and mango curry from the cookbook for a recent dinner party with out-of-town friends. This dish called for green mangoes which I was very familiar with thanks to my time in the Dominican Republic, but for the first time ever, all the mangoes at the grocery store were ripe! So I hit an Asian supermarket, and found both green mangoes and curry leaves.

This dish definitely wouldn’t have been the same without proper ingredients. Thankfully, I can take advantage of living in DC where I can access all kinds of international markets that allow me to experiment with flavors and practice making some of the most complex and delicious cuisines in the world. No cuisine should be too intimidating to try. Ask for help if you need it, but never be afraid to explore, in or out of the kitchen.