Culinary Adventures with a South Indian Flair

Rich and I have been looking for good Indian cuisine ever since we dined at a little restaurant next to the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.  It was at Masala that we both fell in love with the spicy, savory, exotic and varied flavors of the spices mostly unfamiliar to us.  So when we recently had an opportunity to experience southern India hands-on via a cooking class in the city, we did not hesitate to join.

Although my husband likes to cook and bake, and we often cook together, we had never before taken a formal cooking class like this.  Beyond the requested bottle brought along (we chose San Pellegrino) we weren’t sure what to expect.  All we knew was that the dish or dishes would likely contain common Indian spices, such as cardamon, cayenne, turmeric, cumin, and curry.

I had also learned from a friend of Indian descent that the trick was in the amount of each spice used and also in the process of blending each spice together with the food.  She said she didn’t know how her mother kept them all straight in so many different dishes, but that without measuring, her mother always seemed to know exactly how much of each spice to use…and that this was the trick she marveled at, the way to master Indian cooking. This friend claimed that she somehow never got it right–no matter how many times she herself tried to replicate the dishes she watched her mother repeatedly prepare throughout her childhood.  While I felt empowered by this information, I obviously knew upfront that this new kind of cooking was going to be a challenge.  I decided I would dutifully follow the recipes provided, and save Creative Cooking 101 for another day, in the confines of my own kitchen.

We were divided into groups of five, given four separate recipes, including one for Lentils With Coconut Milk, Lentil Wafers (Pappadam), Cabbage Thoran, and Gulab Jamun.  Two of the group members were responsible for two of the dishes, while the other three (my group) were responsible for the other two. We made things easy by having the first two group members create the first two dishes listed, and our group (my husband Rich, a man named Scott, and myself) create the other two–the Cabbage Thoran, which is a vegetable stir fry (generally served with steamed rice), and Gulab Jamun, a common deep-fried fritter for dessert.

Other than the recipe provided and some occasional assistance, the groups were pretty much on their own. We began as instructed by perusing the recipe, trying to match ingredients to the spices just introduced–I had never seen fresh curry leaves before, nor cardomom. Then we were on our own, and it was interesting to see how the new environment revealed how much we take for granted while cooking independently. Plus, following this foreign recipe felt to some extent akin to trying to read the manual in order to assemble some complex, head-scratching widget.

Indeed, we shuffled about initially, not knowing exactly how to proceed, who should do what, and the extent of each cook’s responsibility.  As the men conversed, I considered how to begin.  The first thing that came to mind probably originated in a high school cooking course that’s no longer offered.  I instructed the men to begin by assembling the ingredients and then measuring them accordingly.  That way, we would have what we needed when we needed to add it.  In the meantime, I left to wash the head of cabbage, then returned to pat dry and shred it, only to discover later that my idea of shredding was a bit coarser than another group’s, which I thought looked better.  This bothered me, but first the instructor and later the internet seemed to favor my slightly thicker version of “shredded.”  The difference appeared to be in how much time each of us spent slicing the cabbage before proceeding (unless the other group used a grater that was unavailable to our group).  A minor variation, but a somewhat distracting one when you’ve never seen the dish you’re trying to prepare.

After the cabbage was prepared, I recognized the following cooking process as familiar.  This brought me some relief and as we proceeded I found myself suddenly relaxed and confident.  Long ago, when I was an economically-strapped graduate student, I used to survive all week on a head of cabbage.  With a touch of oil, I would sauté the cabbage (which, come to think of it, I shredded quite thinly back then), then season it with a bit of minced garlic, salt, pepper and on occasion, a touch of oregano or basil, whatever spice was on hand.  I called this dinner.  Often.  The sautéing process for the Cabbage Thoran was the same that I thought I had invented out of desperation in the 1980s.

I marvel at the number of spices used in Indian cuisine.  I counted ten (10) just for this cabbage side dish.

In the end, perhaps a bit ironically, Rich and I both felt that the recipes provided at this cooking class leaned more toward too little rather than too much spice.

So, as we begin to cook Indian food going forward, we expect to make adjustments as needed.  I’m sure it takes a while, too, for one’s palate to adjust.

Here is what our group’s Cabbage Thoran looked like while it was cooking:


Here is how it looked at serving time (complete with curry leaves and quartered jalapeño peppers):

cabbage thoran

The Pappadam made by the other group members:

The primary dishes–Cabbage Thoran, Lentils with Coconut Milk, Pappadam:


Here is the Gulab Jamun, rolled and ready to deep-fry:


Gulab Jamin, prepared:


We found the main dishes to be pleasantly easy on one’s digestion.

Although we didn’t learn any other significant tips worth sharing, and the recipes we received in class were family recipes exclusively shared by the leading chef, it appears that most recipes on the internet for these dishes are quite close to the those that we prepared.

The class was fun and especially worthwhile because having knowledgeable staff and experienced cooks nearby helped extend us both beyond our comfort zones.  Also, while neither of us had ever prepared Indian food before, we are already considering joining a second class, this one an even more ambitious, nine-course meal.

I’m looking forward to cooking with new flavors.

Here is a recipe for chai tea that I want to try next:

“Dad’s Official Chai Recipe”
2.5 cups water
1 cup 2-percent milk (soy or almond milk)
1/4 inch grated fresh ginger
4 pods of cardamom
1 tea bag (he swears by Orange Pekoe Tetley tea)
3 tsp sugar


IMG_0589© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved

One thought on “Culinary Adventures with a South Indian Flair

  1. This was very interesting to read! You described an experience my husband and I have never done before; attend a cooking class together. I learned how to cook from my mom, in Home Economics Class, and from my own experiences. My husband learned how to cook, from me teaching him. He has also thought of ideas-to do things a little differently-which were equally good ideas, to mine! I have adopted some of his ideas. When he cooks he does things his way; when I cook, I do things my way. It works great for us!

    We have not tried Indian cooking basically because I’m allergic to so many foods; especially spices. I am very reluctant to take a chance with a spice because there is more chance I would react to it, rather than to a new food. Hearing how this Indian cooking is different, compared to our way of cooking was intriguing to me! Thank you for sharing this experience with us!
    Especially nice was seeing the two different photo’s of the food!

Please share your thoughts.