Saturday, August 4, 2012

“Chasing Flavors” from New York to Mysore is delicious...

I arrived to Mysore in the early morning hours of August first and promptly took myself around the corner for a hot cup of chai. Some of my most vivid memories of this city are its flavors: the afore mentioned sweet chai at Amaruth’s, fresh coconut water and the crispiness of a masala dosa. And in some small way, south Indian food reminds me vaguely of the American soul food we get back in Harlem. The spices in each culture come together to create a community feeling around a dish…as if it’s saying: this food is for family.

Back in New York, Land Yoga (the fantastic little shala in Harlem where I practice and teach) had the opportunity to be a part of Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s community book launch for his memoir Yes, Chef. Chef Marcus is the owner and executive chef at Red Rooster on Lenox Ave in Harlem.

The Land team with Chef Marcus Samuelsson.

I just finished reading the book we were celebrating that day back in June. Yes, Chef was an incredibly inspiring read…just what I need for my first few days abroad. Marcus is leading the kind of international life I’ve always been interested in. 

He’s concerned with blending cultures and cuisines while feeding people and passions. His hard work as a chef took him from Sweden to Austria, across the globe on a cruise ship, from New York to Paris and finally, back to the country of his birth, Ethiopia. In all of his successful (and some honestly not successful) ventures as a chef, he describes his driving force to be the chasing of flavors. He’s interested in blending traditional with non-traditional, African with Swedish, street food with fine dining, and quite simply, I think that’s awesome. 

In a continuation of the cooking theme, I took myself over to Anu’s kitchen yesterday for my first Indian cooking class. If you’ve been to Mysore, you surely know the lovely Anu and Ganesh. They run a little restaurant, cooking classes and arrange taxis and apartments for us needing yoga students. I’ve eaten Anu’s delicious food many times before, but this was the first time I’ve taken her class. With the words of Yes, Chef still ringing in my ears, I was really ready to roll up my sleeves and get creative with some Indian ingredients!

     We spent the day making three dishes:

Vegetable Khichri

Baingan Bharta

Stuffed Parathas

Anu is creative, kind and conscious in her cooking. Everything is fresh, healthy and organic when possible. She started the lesson with a peek inside her masala box, a metal spice box filled with the staples of Indian cooking.

We learned about mustard seeds (added to hot oil, they supposedly reduce free radicals), fennel (good for digestion), asafotida (a sattvic garlic substitute) and turmeric (with its myriad of health benefits from anti-inflammation to skin antiseptic). I learned that a lot of the flavor of Indian cooking comes from adding the spices to the oil or ghee before cooking. (PS - Allison, all the dishes are gluten free, except the parathas!)

In the kitchen we blended ghee with spices and then added cauliflower, peas and spinach. The dal (lentils) and rice joined them to simmer in the pot for this really simple, flavorful dish: Vegetable Khichri. 
Veggies getting all spiced up!

She showed us how to roast and peel an eggplant on the open flame of a gas burner (!) and sauté it with tomatoes to make the Baingan Bharata.

Peeling the eggplant.

But my favorite part was rolling out the parathas. Parathas are basically an oily, stuffed chapatti (bread, like a tortilla). We made dough from whole-wheat flower, water and a little salt. The filling was potato, cheese and grated cauliflower rolled into golf ball sized balls. We then wrapped the dough around the filling, molding it like pottery, and rolled them carefully out to be fried.

Stuffing parathas.

Rolling out dough.

Sitting down to eat our feast, she made sure to encourage us to work with what we have back home. If we can’t get our hands on traditional Indian spices or ingredients, make these recipes with something else. Don’t have ajwain? Try oregano! Perhaps we could try the Baingan Bharta sauce over pasta in a kind of India meets Italy medely. There are no rules with her recipes. Chase interesting flavors. Maybe, she says, you’ll come up with something more delicious! That’s certainly what Marcus’s Red Rooster is doing in Harlem, and that’s what I’ve become inspired to do here in India, and as I continue my adventures next month in Paris. Bon appetite!

The feast! Clockwise from the right: stuffed parata, green coconut chutney, 
beets, cucumber salad, vegetable khichri, baingan baratha.

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