Back To School

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Have you ever found yourself in an adult learning situation,  only to realize that we are all just one step out of high school?  

Take a group of normal, functioning grown-ups, put them in a classroom, and watch the stereotypes emerge.

The furious scribbler, terrified of getting it wrong, who says nothing and rarely looks up from her notebook.

The know-it-all, who answers other students' questions before the instructor has a chance to open her mouth.

The petulant stickler, so concerned with pinning the teacher down on some minor point (or, even better, tripping him up), in case it is on the all-important test, that he totally misses The Big Picture. 

I, myself, completely reverted to type just last week.  

Having been invited to take part in an Indian cooking class at the home of my friend Priti (and she is, very), I arrived late, with neither pen nor paper, only to impose on a kind classmate who provided both, before letting me copy her notes.  

Hi, my name is Kate, and I am The Unprepared Disaster.  

And now I'm late with my homework: the recipe for Kamla's Choley.  

Would you believe Fred ate it?  

Didn't think so.  

The class was hosted by Priti, but the chief chef and instructor, direct from India, was her mother, Kamla.  And it was a joy to be in her kitchen.

I loved the way Kamla cooked.  Quietly.  Slowly.  Calmly.  Assuredly.  It's the kind of ease I aspire to, and am so very far from achieving.  

With (or without) an audience, I am all flap and frenzy, with pots and pans banging and dish towels flying, in a kitchen that resembles a disaster site, creating an atmosphere that is one part panic, one part comedy, and leaves everyone present panting with exhaustion by the time we reach the table.   

And yet, with Kamla, I found common ground.  

Though in complete control of all that was happening, Kamla was decidedly vaguely about cooking times and volumes, referring to a "pinch" of coriander seeds or "some" tomatoes, all of which should be cooked "until done".  Which I completely understand, as it is the way I cook myself.  

But it wasn't always.  

Many moons ago, in my single, childless youth, I was lucky enough to be given a job in the kitchen of my friend and mentor, Ann Cashion.

When I first arrived at her restaurant, Cashion's Eat Place, as a very green Garde Manger, decked out in too-clean kitchen whites, I was terrified and agonizingly aware of how little I knew.  In spite of a long and tortured academic career as an Unprepared Disaster, fear of failure - and the possibility of disappointing Ann - suddenly morphed me into an entirely new being: The Furious Scribbler.  

Following Ann around the kitchen with a little spiral notepad (that I still have today, yellowed and stained with cooking oil), I took dictation, transcribing her every word, desperate to capture, in precise and accurate detail, each and every grain of instruction she offered as she took me through the process of learning various dishes.  

For weeks, I went through that kitchen with my head down, pencil moving.  

I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.  

When my shift ended, I spent hours copying my notes into a larger book, over and over.  

I memorized every recipe and technique.  

But I didn't learn.  

Nor would I, Ann eventually pointed out, as long as I clung to my notepad and relied on prescribed instruction.  Until I stopped following, I couldn't start cooking.  

She was right.  

Reluctantly, I put my pencil down.  

How would I know how much?  How long?  When to start?  When to stop?  

I didn't.  And then I did.  By tasting, and smelling, and touching, and listening.  By feeling my way.  By focusing on the theme and not the footnotes.

Sitting stove-side last week, surrounded by the aroma of exotic spices and unfamiliar ingredients (and the sound of some pretty fierce scribbling), I watched as Kamla stirred.  Unhurried, she patiently answered requests for precise amounts with a tilt of her head or slant of her free hand, indicating that we should add "a bit" of garlic, or "not too much" turmeric.  

And I understood.  

In a kitchen several continents from the one I learned in, watching the preparation of food from a land I have never visited, I felt utterly at home.   

Kamla's Choley (Sweet & Sour Chickpeas)

250g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in 1 litre water (or use 2 cans rinsed chick peas)
one onion, chopped
one can diced tomatoes
1 inch ginger, grated or minced
1 green chili, chopped fine
1 Tablespoon garam masala 
2 teaspoons coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
small pinch chili powder
olive oil
Fresh coriander, chopped

Soak the dried chick peas in one litre of water overnight.  Drain and cover with 1 litre fresh water in a large pot and bring to the boil.  Spoon off scum and add 1 tsp salt.  Simmer, covered, for one hour.

Heat a bit of olive oil in a pan.  Add the onion and when it is halfway cooked through, add the ginger and fry for 1 minute.  Add the chili and fry one minute.  Add the tomatoes, salt to taste, and a small pinch of chili powder, turmeric, coriander powder, garam masala, and cook a few minutes.  

Drain the chickpeas, retaining the water.  Set aside a 1/2 of the chickpeas and mash, leaving the other 1/2 whole.  Add the whole chickpeas to the pan and cook 5 minutes.  Add the mashed chickpeas and some water (not too much).  Over and cook 2-3 minutes to thicken.  Garnish with chopped coriander.  

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