We didn’t know any Hindi when we got to India. We were helpless when ordering food in a restaurant and often just pointed to something. On our first few days, dinner was usually a complete surprise. “Oh! Okra! Did you know they eat okra here?” Didn’t see that one coming. There were times when we wound up with rice, naan, and potatoes. But others when a beautiful, mystery dish showed up. For me, that was Sahi Paneer, a rich, creamy, ever so slightly spicy tomato curry style dish with chunks of cheese (paneer). It was delicious and I knew my dad would love it.
The thing is though, I don’t usually cook Indian food. I don’t really know how the spices work together, but know that one dish often has tons of different spices. And what makes it so saucy? How’d you get so tasty? I silently ask the plate in front of me. I wanted to be able to come home and make Sahi Paneer for my family, but didn’t really know where to start.
There are signs for Indian cooking classes all over Rishikesh. We went to a few restaurants that were advertising cooking classes to test out the kind of food we’d be learning to make, but were disappointed by the results: too rich, too salty, or just plain nasty. But we all know that the best kind of cooking is home cooking. So that is where we took our class, in a home.
Our class was about an hour and a half and ended with a delicious lunch of Sahi Paneer, Aloo Palak (potato in spinach sauce), Aloo Parantha (potato filled flatbread) and Vegetable Biryani (spiced rice with vegetables). All of the chopping was done ahead of time and the measuring done with a single spoon. Our job was to take pictures and write down how many teaspoons of turmeric goes into each dish. Our teacher claimed that his English was “not so good,” yet he knew all of the English words for spices, vegetables, and tools. Maybe it was thanks to the English- Hindi picture charts hanging around the room, or thanks to his daughters who speak English very well and were assisting with explanations.
Our teacher’s cooking style was “a bit of this and a bit of that,” “a big spoonful of salt, a half spoonful of garam masala,” though he did give measurements for our sake. Every dish started by heating oil and cumin seeds and at some point, a bit of chili and garam masala were added. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the very rich Sahi Paneer wasn’t made with cream, but with cashew nut milk. Who knew?
I enjoyed watching someone cook easily and comfortably with flavors and spices that are foreign to me. The benefit of the cooking class, versus trying out a recipe from the internet, is that we had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in someone’s home, cooking with their dad who is a good cook. Subol was laid back, friendly, and an informative teacher, which is exactly how my dad taught me how to cook. Except I had to chop more in those lessons.
We’ve gotten pretty used to people trying to sell us things, so I was ready to say, “No, thank you” when the barefoot owner of Beten Waru pulled up a chair next to us and asked, “You like a very special dinner, special just for you? Six hundred people have my special chicken and not one say any bad thing. A spicy chicken, vegey-tables, rice. And then after, fruits. All different fruits. You must tell me one day ahead so my staff can prepare.” At $25 USD, it wasn’t keeping within our $20/day food budget, but I wanted special chicken. We could skimp on some lunches to even it out for special chicken. “Could I watch you cook?” I asked, as if I made it a learning experience it would make me feel better about blowing the budget. “No problem,” he smiled.
Iluh (pronounced ee-loo) and Ari were making dinner that night. They do just about everything from keeping the rooms to grounds maintenance to making the Chicken Tutu, our special chicken. They kindly let me take pictures while they worked and told stories in impressive English while they prepared dinner.
Chicken Tutu is a whole chicken, steamed first in water and then in a chili and garlic sauce, served with stir-fried veggies and rice. It might not sound like much, but it is. It is indeed a special chicken.
Note: There are several ingredients that you might not have at home. Lord knows I don’t usually have shrimp paste on hand. So either get a new ingredient and have a go at something totally foreign, or leave it out. I’m pretty sure it is going to be good regardless.
Chicken Tutu: a Laid Back Recipe as observed at Beten Waru in Amed, Bali
Get the rice cooking, then the chicken, then work on the veggies.
- A whole chicken (get a good one, don’t mess around with any old bull shit Perdue bird)
- A handful of whole, peeled garlic cloves (actually a handful, maybe 10 or more cloves?)
- 3 or 4 medium-spicy chilis, seeded
- a knob (2″) of fresh ginger, sliced
- Small knob (1″) of fresh turmeric, or 1tsp dried turmeric
- Pinch of brown sugar
- Enough oil to make everything into a sauce
- 1-2 stalks of Lemongrass
Blitz the garlic, chilis, ginger, and turmeric into a loose puree. Simmer gently to cook the garlic. Add a pinch of brown sugar and salt to taste. Steam the chicken until cooked, about 30-45 minutes. Drain most of the water. Pour the delicious puree over the chicken and rub some on the inside as well. Add a little water to the pot and submerge the two lengths of lemongrass in water. Continue to simmer until you finish the veggies.
- Sliced shallots, maybe 5 of them
- 3-4 sliced spicy chilis
- Diced garlic
- Prawn paste
- Sliced green beans
- Sliced carrots
- Roughly chopped cabbage
- Freshly grated coconut (When in the states, I’ll use unsweetened, dried coconut)
Sautee the first three ingredients in a little oil. Add a small amount of prawn paste. Iluh crumbled what looked like 1/8-1/4 tsp into the pan from a larger block. In a separate pan, steam the beans, carrots and cabbage. Drain the steamed veg and add to the shallot mixture. Add the grated coconut and a pinch of salt and continue to sauté for until the coconut is heated through and nicely combined.
Plate the rice and the veggies and serve the chicken whole, in the center to be shared. Serve with a Bintang or other tasty pilsner. Enjoy!
**Big thanks to Iluh and Ari for my cooking class!