Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Cooking heaven with Anila

Today was the day for my vegetarian thali cookery course with Anila - I'd met her at the Real Food festival earlier this year, and swooped on her marvellous shredded mango chutney. I've never been without a jar of since. She'd mentioned that she ran cookery courses, and I signed up over the summer. She runs her courses from her home in Walton on Thames in a big and airy kitchen overlooking her garden and behind it, her allotment. My fellow course member was John - a lovely gent who claimed he wasn't a good cook because 'I only cook what I like to eat', but soon proved he was a demon in the kitchen.
First, Anila took us through all the pulses, including one I've never cooked with: toover dal, or skinned and split pigeon peas. They're the yellow ones with the shiny appearance. With these, she was going to make the dal - often served at weddings in the state of Gujarat. Many Gujaratis, including Anila, eshew onions and garlic, and instead use asafoetida (or hing) as a key flavouring. Asafoetida pongs like hell in its raw state, but mellows to add a tang when it's cooked.
The dal went into one of Anila's many pressure cookers - this one is from India and shrieks horribly every five minutes or so, like something out of Hogwarts.
I'd spotted okra in the vegetable line-up: very exciting because shame to say, I've never eaten it before because of its slimy reputation. Ha! said Anila - it only gets slimy if it gets wet. So after a quick wash, John and I carefully dried each okra before chopping them up.
Into the pan with some oil, and Anila added fenugreek seeds, hing and the okra. Then more spices and it was done.
Next up was a cauliflower curry with peas. But first, John and I snapped the stalks off green chillis and Anila peeled ginger before whipping out her Moulinex mini chopper. She apologised for the taped-up bowl but John and I both admired this bit of kit, and then discovered that we owned the same small wet and dry grinder which we loved but thought too small. This somehow merged into talk about Masterchef: The Professionals, which we'd all followed with varying degrees of delight and horror. I think this is called a meeting of minds - or maybe a meeting of stomachs.
John said that his wife would never believe that he was cooking cauliflower, so Anila and I grabbed cameras to provide photographic evidence.
Cumin is a key spice here, and the smell was fantastic. While John and I paused for a minute, Anila used one of her curry sauces to whip up a saag paneer.
Then it was time for John and I to get busy with an aubergine and potato curry. Then Anila got us chopping for a kind of Indian slaw - sambaro, or carrot, cabbage and chilli stir fry. Talk returned to Masterchef and the guys who didn't know what 'julienne' was. John's julienned carrots were pretty darned good.
Anila stir-fried the cabbage and carrot with asatofoeda, mustard seeds and turmeric - another fantastic smell whafted through the kitchen.
John's special request for the day had been Anila's samosas. He's a devotee, having sampled them several times at farmers markets. John mashed the potatoes while I scrapped them into a bowl; then Anila added peas, carrots and sweetcorn and John got down to bashing the filling into shape.

While that was happening, Anila whipped up one of the taste sensations of the day: a cucumber and banana raita.
This is a mix of greek yoghurt, peeled and de-seeded cucumber, chopped banana, a little chopped green chilli, salt and a finishing touch of mustard seeds fried off in oil. Cooling and heavenly. Before John and I got on with the samosas, Anila started on the dessert - halva. It begins with an enormous wodge of ghee (or unsalted butter) - my eyebrows shot up at the amount. It's pudding! said Anila, and I was struck by the frugality of the savoury dishes and the luxuriousness of the pud. Semolina is added to the melted butter, and as Anila stirred, it underwent amazing changes in consistency, from stiff to runny. Then it was time to add the milk and water. Anila took it over to the window for the explosive addition...
...then it was back to the stove for another alchemical evolution as the sugar went in. The mix became soft then stiff again, and a final cinnamon/cardomom spice combination finished the dish. Back to those samosas.
Very wisely, before entrusting us to the samosa pastry, Anila wanted John and I to practise our folding on paper. John was brilliant and got it first time. I was abjectly awful, getting my angles hopelessly wrong until Anila did a bit of hand holding. John stormed away, turning out some fantastic little parcels.
Eventually, we had a plate of respectable samosas - just don't look too carefully at mine.
Anila got out the deep fat fryer and popped them in to cook. Finally, it was time to make chappatis. A glug of oil is added to wholewheat flour, then in goes hot water and it's time to knead the mix. Then the dough is measured into fist-sized balls, and it's out with the rolling pins.
John and I both found this tricky but Anila, who's been rolling chapatti since she was seven, is a roti genius. The perfect circle!
John and I both got rolled our chapattis too thinly, so they didn't quite puff up like Anilas - but as she said, practise makes perfect.
Finally, after a meditative pause, it was time to thali up. We'd cooked ten dishes in five hours, and the final thali looked superb.
One dish which Anila whipped up that I haven't mentioned is black-eyed peas in her own curry sauce - fantastic. My own favourites were the cauliflower curry, the black-eyed peas, the raita, the okra, the samosas and the halva...but it was all lovely, and a feast for the senses. I didn't have room to sample the cabbage stir fry until I got home (Anila loaded us up with doggy bags and boxes) but that's a winner too.
We certainly didn't miss onions and garlic in the food, and it's a very interesting experience to be without an ingredient that's so important in European food. A good day? You bet. A very friendly atmosphere, an uplifting learning curve with a great teacher, and a fellow foodie found in John. He's promised to sample purple sprouting broccoli if I try his favourite, steak tartare.
I returned home with some Anila pickles, chutney and curry sauces and new knowledge of Gujarati vegetarain cuisine, plus a goody bag that includes a new spice box with spices and all the recipes of the day. Thank you, Anila and John, for a memorable feast.


Anonymous said...

I love it! Very creative!That's actually really cool.


mangocheeks said...

Missing reading your blog entries. I hope your well Fran :D

mangocheeks said...

I do hope your well Fran, I am missing reading your blog. Warm wishes