There has got to be a way for me to convince Nikita to open a Spice Monkey in the USA. First things first: convincing him to give me the recipe for the flat rice snack we had. I’m vowing to figure it out.
Today, I traveled far from Fulham to Alexandra Palace. My beginners Indian cooking class was at Nikita’s family home, and I knew upon entry that I was in for a truly authentic experience. His adorable tiny mother, Mrs. G, acted as sous chef, and despite my early arrival, they welcomed me in from the impending rain. While we were chatting, I had a look at the table that was covered in an array of colorful spices, the nucleus of any Indian recipe. Clearly, spices were going to be a large part of our conversation.
Our class took place in their greenhouse, and there were just three of us and Nikita, which was fabulous from a learner’s vantage point. We spent a solid hour pouring over the different spices, their taste, their texture, and their origins. He had everything, from dried coriander and two kinds of cardamom to mustard seeds, fenugreek, and ground red pepper. Let us not forget turmeric; my hands and nails are currently stained a gorgeous yellow hue. He even had fresh turmeric, which I had never seen nor tasted before, but it was amazing. I presumed it was ginger by it’s looks, but as they say, “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
From these spices, we created a variety of masalas. Garam masala is probably the most common and widely recognised, and in a grinder, we made our own version after toasting the different seeds in a dry pan. We also created a version that we didn’t toast at all, and it was great to be able to compare and contrast the two with our noses. Much of what we did today was sensory oriented. It was a wonderful way of getting familiar with so many spices that we have seen, heard about, or shoved to the back of our cupboards after using them just one time. One of Nikita’s biggest points was not to get overwhelmed by the options; use what you like that day, and if you leave something out (like we did a few times), c’est la vie.
Our menu today consisted of aromatic rice, Mrs. G’s chicken curry, cauliflower bhagi, potato curry, and shrikanda, an Indian dessert. I had no idea that Indians had such a sweet tooth, but evidently, that is the case, and randomly, I think the dessert may have been my favourite dish. Most people think of curry as blow-your-head-off hot, oily, and generally difficult to prepare, but I learned today that none of that is the case. In fact, with some thoughtful planning, I think an Indian feast would be the perfect way to entertain. We need to be more adventurous with our palettes in America, and it would be nice if you didn’t have to drive ten towns away to find a decent curry. I always lament that when leaving London because there are about as many Indian places here as there are Mexican joints in California. Are all of them good? Now, I think we all know the answer to that one.
Point being, don’t be discouraged when it comes to experimenting with Indian food in your own kitchen. Try your hand at it with a cookbook and only buy small quantities of the spices until you decide which combinations suit your taste best. Better yet, if you can swing it, make a trip to Spice Monkey and take a class. You’ll be happy you did. I can’t tell you how much easier it was to learn from an expert and see things firsthand. I will be back for another class with Nikita, mark my words.
For now, I’m hanging up my apron to head back to America. Next stop: California followed by a more permanent stop in Portland, Oregon. It may be time for a move into the culinary world, because with each of these classes, I realise more and more that this is what I’m meant to be doing whether it’s stirring, writing, teaching, or otherwise.
The Spice Monkey