Instructor Shakti Singh gives Natasha Mistry of Toronto a whiff during a cooking class in Udaipur, India. Singh has operated his Spice Box store and associated cooking classes since 2000.
Scott Colby/Toronto Star
UDAIPUR, INDIA—The instructions of our Indian cooking teacher will ring in our ears forever. “One cup rrrrice, two cups vater,” Shakti Singh commanded repeatedly, establishing his air of authority — a pretense that lasted until his next joke.
It was Day four of a 21-day trip to India in November and my girlfriend Natasha and I were having what would be one of our most enjoyable experiences of our adventurous holiday.
We already knew the proper rice-to-water ratio, but now, not even a falling coconut to the head will dislodge Shakti’s instructions.
Besides being tall, dark and charming, Shakti is also a savvy businessman. He has owned his store, The Spice Box in the picturesque Rajasthani city of Udaipur, since 2000. He quickly realized that to separate himself from the competition, he should give cooking lessons as a hook to get tourists to buy more spices. The classes (700 rupees, $17.50 Cdn. each) became a hit among travellers eager to learn how to recapture some of the joys of Indian food when they return home.
It was a sun-soaked afternoon and the breeze through the open windows was welcomed by our class of nine. The seven others, six women and one man from Australia and Toronto, were winding up their two-week tour.
Over the next three hours, Shakti explained the healing properties of food and the magic of the spice box — an Indian kitchen staple — as we prepared, or helped prepare, our meal.
A standard Indian spice box contains brown cumin, fennel seeds, brown mustard seeds, turmeric powder, coriander seed powder, red chili powder and fenugreek seeds. Salt is outside the spice box, Shakti explained. there are four types of curries in India: basic, tomato-based, milk-based and yoghurt-based. aside from his five-page recipe instructions, this is pretty much the extent of my notes.
I learn by doing and observing the activity in the khari (cooking vessel). Shakti, taking it easy on the two men in the group, had us in front of the class first with a simple task — making masala chai. I tried to follow his instructions, but I appeared to be too slow on some steps. He also appeared to change some instructions on the fly. If you don’t know, masala chai is to India what espresso is to Italy. We were frequently offered chai. In the market it can be a welcome drink or an accompaniment to doing business. It is sweet and spicy and made with strong Assam tea.
The end result was some pretty tasty tea, to Shakti’s credit, not mine. He took the opportunity to mock my talents as a chai wallah. “You should start your own business: scottchaiwallah.com,” he teased to much laughter.
I was relieved to take a seat as the women were summoned to do the difficult work of making the actual meal of khadai paneer (a saucy, cheese-based dish), malai kofta (potato balls in a cream sauce) and biryani rice. Shakti and a teenage assistant did some of the work in advance, allowing us more time to chat and eat.
This is important because chatting seems to be Shakti’s forte. A warm and gracious man, he admitted the best part of his business is meeting tourists. his English is strong and he is one of the few people we met in Rajasthan who has travelled outside India. Shakti worked briefly as a chef in Japan.
Before we ate, we all took one more turn at the portable gas stoves to make chapatis. The balls of dough “should feel like chewing gum,” Shakti advised, pinching it between his fingers. We rolled them out and tossed them in the pan, waiting for them to magically puff up to indicate they are cooked.
Finally, it was time to eat and everyone was delighted with the meal. For dessert, Shakti forced golab jamons on the group. Our protests of being full fell on deaf ears and we all ate multiple servings of the syrupy dough balls. Shakti suggested we jump up and down to make room for at least one more.
After the lesson, Natasha and I lingered in his spice shop and Shakti asked his assistant for more masala chai. He asked about our lives, explained the joys of life in Udaipur and explained more of the medicinal properties of food. Shakti is a proponent of Ayurvedic medicine and talk turned to the Ayurvedic spa he runs. He is also in the process of building an ecotourist resort on the outskirts of Udaipur.
Our guide arrived and we had to go. Shakti invited us for breakfast in his home the next day with his extended family of 10. It was a genuine offer he extends to many tourists, but our morning was booked. Feeling a genuine friendliness here, we popped into the Spice Box several more times to chat before we left Udaipur.
One weekend recently I followed Shakti’s notes and made masala chai for Natasha and myself. I wished Shakti was at our table, sipping tea, telling us his tales.