I’ve been looking for ways to expand my horizons, and not just from a culinary perspective; I often feel like my life is a little circumscribed. A few weeks ago I was tooling around online looking for something new to try, and I came across the cooking classes at the Whole Foods Culinary Center at 6th & Lamar.
If you’re familiar with Austin you know that the 6th & Lamar Whole Foods is the flagship store, and is less a grocery store than it is an amusement park. I can wander around it for hours. It turns out they also have a cooking school. There are both demonstrative and hands-on classes, both of which involve lots of eating; they cover all sorts of subject matter from the fundamentals (knife skills, mother sauces) to the slightly wacky (a vegetarian Iron Chef session where you’re teamed with a chef and given a mystery ingredient). They have partner classes that would be great for date night, and all sorts of ethnic and regional cuisines, both vegetarian and omnivorous.
Like everything at Whole Foods, they’re not cheap, but I thought, what the hell? I haven’t been to a cooking class in nearly ten years, since my six months at culinary school; I had a little bit of money saved for something like this to shake up my routines; and they had the perfect class for me: Mumbai Street Food.
Street food is a big deal in India. Everywhere you go there are chai vendors, chaat stands, and food stalls. (Chaat means “lick,” and basically translates as “snack.”) Mumbai (Bombay) in particular is famous for its street food.
The class was taught by Shefaly Ravula, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable instructor who teaches several other Indian cooking classes at the center. It was a hands-on class, with two students at each station, and since I was solo I partnered up with a young man who ended up being grateful for my culinary knowledge. During the class I realized something interesting: there are a lot of people who don’t know a thing about cooking, and even less about Indian food. I have the benefit of some formal training, a love of Good Eats, and an addiction to cookbooks, but apparently I’m even more awesome than I thought I was in the kitchen. Who knew?
Well, besides all my friends.
The class menu included Pav Bhaji, Bhel Puri, three different chutneys, vegetable pakoras, and Masala chai. With the exception of the more time-consuming chutneys, which were assigned two teams apiece, each team of two students got to prepare all the dishes, and at the end we all sat down in the demo kitchen (which has long tables instead of work stations) and ate our food, drank wine, and discussed the recipes.
Pav Bhaji is a tomato, potato, and pea curry that is served on grilled white bread. It was pretty traditional in preparation and didn’t involve many esoteric ingredients aside from a spice blend made specifically for that recipe, which you could easily substitute with your own blend. The curry was delicious, especially on the grilled bread–Pav Bhaji is served on regular old white bread, not naan or roti, which is usually brushed with ghee. Here’s a recipe for it from Fat Free Vegan Kitchen. It ends up being more or less an Indian Sloppy Joe, only much healthier (and if you leave off the ghee, totally vegan.)
We had Tamarind-date Chutney, Cilantro-Mint Chutney, and Hot Garlic Chutney (my partner and I made the latter); I’m not big on chutneys, but it was still great fun.
All three chutneys combine in Bhel Puri, an odd dish served at room temperature that’s…well, it’s hard to describe. Bhel is a crispy snack mix that’s sort of like Chex Party Mix, made up of puffed rice, chickpea flour noodles, and this other crispy thing. You combine those with chopped onion, tomato, cooked potato, and peanuts, then mix the whole mess together with spoonfuls of the three chutneys, and eat it before it gets soggy. The cereal (I can’t really figure out what else to compare it to) goes snap! crackle! pop! when it’s mixed. It’s hard to describe the taste of the dish; it’s fresh, light, and slightly sweet from the tamarind, but also very garlicky and has a strange, but really appealing, texture. (Here’s a picture of the dish that might help explain it.) I didn’t think I would like it based on the ingredients (and the fact that I dislike raw onions and tomatoes intensely), but it was actually amazing. You can find the recipe for Bhel Puri as well as the three chutneys here. The neat thing about it was that Bhel Puri isn’t something you’ll find in a lot of Indian restaurants and mainstream cookbooks; it’s authentic and involves a shopping trip, but once you have the ingredients it’s incredibly easy.
Shefaly made the pakoras while we were eating our first two dishes, since pakoras are deep fried and don’t translate well to a class environment; pakoras are basically like veggie tempura, only vegan; the batter is made with chickpea flour and spices and has the consistency of crepe batter. Imagine Indian onion rings. Oh so tasty, and usually served with various chutneys; it’s most popular with the tamarind variety.
(Chutney in India is not a chunky salsa type thing like we commonly think of; it’s just a sauce, and is normally pourable. Some are cooked, some raw; they’re intense and complexly flavored.)
The last recipe was a typical Masala chai, and it was the only other nonvegan recipe, although it would be very easy to veganize simply by using soy milk instead of cow milk. Chai in India isn’t as spicy as what is usually served here; it’s very sweet, generally made with an unrefined sugar called jaggery. Chai is made with granulated, rather than leaf tea–granulated tea is the tiny bits left over after the leaves are separated out, and it makes for a strong chai. It’s warm, comforting, and a perfect compliment to the bright spicy flavors of Bombay street food.
I highly recommend Whole Foods’ cooking classes to anyone wanting to expand their culinary repertoire. A class would make a great birthday gift (two of the students were there for a birthday outing). The classes range from $18 for the lunchtime short courses (which are demonstrative only but do include lunch) to $65 for a 2 1/2 hour hands-on class where everything is provided (including cleanup, thank goodness). Most of the demo classes are 1 1/2 hours and are $35. The hands-on classes are small, so there’s plenty of attention from the instructor, and the facilities are wonderful (although they need to sharpen their knives). I came home with a recipe packet that had Shefaly’s pointers and recommended brands for spices and other ingredients; she also gave us information about Indian grocery stores in the area.
I plan to go back to the Culinary Center soon, and probably often if I can afford it. I figure, if I took myself to dinner and a movie I’d pay, say $20 for the meal and at least another $20 at the theater; add in the fact that you learn so much, get great recipes to try yourself, can take home your leftovers, get to drink wine, and meet people, and to me, it’s worth every penny. As I said they would make great gifts to your foodie friends.
Just coming up in April-June they have a vegan cupcake class (sold out, unfortunately), a Lunch Express vegetarian class, an intro to the Engine 2 diet (the vegan firefighter diet created here in Austin) led by its founder, Rip Esselstyn; knife skills classes; a vegetarian pizza class; Moroccan veg; a Lunch Express Indian veg; an Indian roti workshop; fundamentals of sauteeing and steaming; vegetarian Tapas; foods for Cinco de Mayo; a Thai vegan feast; soy foods; gluten free Middle Eastern mezze; and even Canning 101…and those are just the ones that sound like fun to me!
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