The lessons of the day

There is much to learn in India, and how you receive its wisdom can happen in many ways.

Don, for example, chose to add to his already voluminous knowledge of Indian cooking by taking a class in that art. More on that from him.

Together we went to the nearby Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple, which has been here at least since the 17th century. This magnificent Hindu temple has a constant stream of the faithful making floral and other offerings to the many images of Ganesh shown in altars and friezes. While pictures are not allowed inside, I did take some of and from the outside to show the riotous colors and and numbers of worshipers. There is even a shoe-check service.

Our other stop was at the Institut Français de Pondichéry, a grand 19th century mansion, which now is a major research center for Indian culture. It must have been quite the colonial centerpiece.

And then there was the usual street action and local real estate, always wonderful to observe.

Don’s Food Corner

This was a full-time food day today. It started with breakfast of masala dosa — the crispy crepe-like creation of southern India that can be partially filled with different kinds of spicy vegetable combinations. Today the filling was potato and onions. The dosa always comes with a few condiments for dipping, usually, like today, coconut chutney, a tomato sauce and sambar, a thin lentil stew. It was very fine but only one, compared to the mountains of dosas we were served at the Intercontinental, was a little light for a complete breakfast without a substantial bit of protein. I had to supplement the dosa with some French pastries that seem to be everywhere in French-skewed Pondicherry.

The centerpiece of the day was a four-hour cooking class that included a shopping tour of the city’s market. The students in the class consisted of me and three French ladies. I made the mistake of telling them when we started that I understood some French and spoke somewhat less. Well, that was good enough for everyone and ninety percent of the next four hours was in French. It was good and clear French, but French nonetheless. Despite this I was able to follow along pretty well, mostly because I have a pretty good foundation in the basics of Indian cooking techniques.

The best part of the experience was navigating through the market place while our teacher picked up all the ingredients needed for the meal that we were to prepare. The market scene was a dazzling assault of colors, smells and unfamiliar as well as variations on familiar foods — all piled high and seemingly without any order. Happily, our teacher knew her way around zeroing in specifically on certain vendors in each section of the market.

Different sections focused on different specialties — a zone for people selling banana leaves, another with mounds of cilantro and mint, another for rice, another for a wide variety dried legumes, another for fresh tamarind, another for poultry (and we’re talking live poultry that was slaughtered in front of you so that you knew it was fresh!) as well as other areas for fruit, vegetables, garlic (mountains of garlic), onions and spices. 

Back at the cultural center where the actual class was held, we spent a good half hour preparing the various ingredients. Peeling the garlic and ginger, chopping the tomatoes and onions, peeling and grating the carrots, rinsing and drying the rice, shucking the fresh peas. The French ladies were very skilled at this work, as you would expect. They knew how to carefully and quickly dice tomatoes and onions and mince coriander and mint without any instruction. I was happy that I was able to keep up a pretty good standard against these obviously kitchen-savvy ladies. 

The dishes prepared were: chicken masala, vegetable biryani, sambar, an okra and tomato/onion “salad,” and for dessert a carrot pudding called gajar ka halwa.

Without detailing everything that happened, I would say that the basic techniques differed very little from the ones I have learned over the years by following the precise and detailed directions in Madhur Jaffrey’s various books. Today our teacher cooked by taking a bit of this and a bit of that, a handful of this and a half handful of that, seemingly to casually throw things together. I know, however, and the French ladies agreed that everything that was being done was carefully calculated and properly “measured” — but calculated and measured through years of practice. 

The most significant difference in the way I had been doing Indian cooking and what I saw today was that every dish used a pressure cooker. Not automatic pressure cookers, but old-timey ones that were set directly on a burner and deftly controlled by the teacher. She had a few of those babies whistling away at one time. What a time saver. I know how long these various dishes take to make and the pressure cookers had everything done in one quarter the time. I guess I’ll have to look into getting a pressure cooker. 

The other thing that seemed different to me was that the sauces were thinner than I expected. I questioned this and was told that thicker sauces, while perhaps preferred in the north, were not good for digestion, or as the teacher so eloquently put it: “It would send you to the toilet.”

While the pressure cookers were doing their jobs and the grated carrot was boiling away in milk for the dessert, tea was served in the garden and I was left alone with the French ladies and tried to have a conversation — in French. The youngest of the ladies had lived for a while in Texas — the only place in the United States she had ever visited. I asked why Texas? She had been sent there as an exchange student. I couldn’t hide my horror: “They sent you to Texas to learn English.” She answered in equal horror: “I know.” Her description of a Texas barbecue — mostly in French but a little in English with a touch of a Texas accent — was hilarious. The other French ladies were aghast, especially when the younger woman described the huge slabs of meat that were just thrown on the grill and served without sauce. “So big!”

Ultimately, all our efforts were miraculously finished at almost exactly the same time. All was served on a banana leaf — the traditional way in south India. We were encouraged to eat with our fingers as our teacher tried to instruct, but she gave in and finally produced some spoons. Interestingly, although everyone was expected to eat with our fingers, there were no napkins in sight and none appeared. I tried to see what our teacher did after she ate everything with her fingers but it remains a mystery. She didn’t lick her fingers, but somehow all the combined and thin-sauced mess on her fingers disappeared. I was eating with a spoon and still had to kind of wipe my fingers off inside my pants pockets. (Time for another laundry.) The one thing that was missing was any kind of bread. I’m going to have to find a bread-making course before leaving India. It’s the one area I am not comfortable with. 

All in all, the market trip, the prep work, the actual cooking and the eating of the meal was completed in about three and a half hours. I have made similar Indian meals of the same complexity and it took me two days! 




2 thoughts on “The lessons of the day

  1. After so many blessings you would need a break! Too bad your vacation coincided with Lakshmi.
    Don, the market pictures are so vibrant, I can smell the curry leaves and cilantro all the way in Brooklyn. Miss this skinny okras that we don’t get here in the US.

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