Spicy secrets of Indian food
by Gála Zöldessy
October 17, 2007 08:00 am | I will never forget my first real cooking lesson in India, which was given by my dear Mukhti (whose name so aptly means Nirvana in Sanskrit), the Punjabi wife of my Indian "older brother."
I felt privy to some highly confidential secrets, being invited into her large, basic, but perfectly equipped, kitchen, together with her young, newlywed niece.
We were together initiated into some of the mysteries of making the perfect chapati, curried vegetables, chutneys, and even the special ceremonial sweets for Janmashtami (Krishna's birthday).
The reason I felt so privileged was that, even in India, Mukhti's cooking would be a challenge for any other good Indian wife to compete with. I got my lesson from a true master.
And so I arrived at Allen Diwan's class at his Kashmir restaurant, very curious as to how it would compare, keeping in mind that restaurant food is almost never the same as that made at home.
I had already done my homework on Diwan, finding out that he was actually Pakistani, born and raised in Kuwait and then the UK, before arriving first in Budapest in 1998 as a medical student.
Halfway through, as he was struggling, he had, as he puts it, "a vision from God." He saw that he was to open an Indian restaurant, and so he did: first Diwan Tandoori on Alkotmány utca, then Kama Sutra and, finally, Kashmir as of last year (I had already noticed the improvement in the quality of the food, and the aesthetically refined makeover).
A long table was laid with all the ingredients for a four-course meal carefully prepared and neatly arranged, with the colorful, fragrant dishes of spices - about 20 of them - prominent before us.
The niches in the wall behind glowed with the light of candles behind the sculptures, like six small altars.
When at least 15 of us had filed in to take our places in two rows, Diwan made his entrance, flanked by his two sous-chefs.
"Sziasztok!," he greeted us as old friends - and asked us all to introduce ourselves.
Then he began to give us all the background information we would need to understand the basics of Indian cuisine and its diversity, before explaining the different dishes we would learn to make over the next two hours (including the tasting in-between): first of all, the indispensable Masala chai (spiced Indian tea), an appetizer of channa salad (Punjabi chickpeas), followed by the main course of Yakhni Pulao (mutton pilaf), as well as a fragrant sweet and sour fish with poori (whole wheat deep fried Indian bread), finally topped off with a dessert of Seviya Kheer (sweet Vermicelli pudding).
All the while he was precisely chopping and mixing, he was explaining all the ingredients, passing some of them around to smell and taste, and even comparing the Indian and Hungarian cuisines, and convivially responding to questions.
We learned cardinal tips like the difference between chopping by hand and using a blender, the order of spices and other ingredients, possible substitutions, getting the essential taste of spices without having to chew on them by tying them in a cloth like a sachet of herbes de Provence, as well as how to be sure that each grain of Basmati rice will be separate and not sticky.
We were all totally satisfied - which was apparent by the round of applause our teacher received at the end - as well as the total silences that enveloped the room as we "tasted" the food (providing us with a filling dinner).
Share the knowledge
We were also promised all the recipes by email, and Diwan asked us to give him feedback after trying his recipes at home.
Diwan told me that, now that Hungary is finally opening up to foreign cultures, he feels it's time to share not only the cuisine, but also the knowledge, to enable Hungarians to judge the quality.
He has been offering the course for about four months now, usually on two occasions, with about 20 students each time, the majority of whom are Hungarian - though this time, there was one non-Hungarian for whom he summarized in English. He estimates that he has taught 200 people already.
While Diwan has been cooking since he was 14, for the past six months, he has been continually training in London with Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star, at his restaurant, Benares.
I hope Diwan will also attain his star.
Participation in the cooking class is Ft5,000/ person.
Registration and further inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
Arany János utca 13, District V.
Tel: 354 1806.
(with a second restaurant in Debrecen)