When I sit down for class on Thursday night at Kalachandji's Community Hall, my classmate Bob leans over to me and explains that a lot of people don't like curry. So he pulls out that night's recipe list and goes through them, ingredient by ingredient.
"Look, yogurt, turmeric, eggplant, potato, and yeah, curry leaves, but that's not very much. So you can't say that you don't like curry."
I don't remember saying anything like that, but I eagerly agree with him. "I mean, curry refers to so many things, how can you..."
"Just let me finish," he interrupts. Then he goes through the remaining three recipes. None of them have the C-word listed. Bob says that only the "uneducated or unpalatable" look at a place like Kalachandji's, remember they don't like curry and pass it by, since vegetarian Indian cuisine is clearly delicious and endless. Then Bob gives me his card and asks me to lunch sometime.
Not a bad start.
The two-hour class allowed students to relax in folding chairs while we tracked master chef Manjuali Devi's actions in the wobbly mirror above her. Chef Devi led the one-woman show easily, juggling three massive pots on gas burners (and unfortunately, I only mean that figuratively), chopping, mixing, simmering and maintaining casual conversation. The multi-tasking was pretty impressive. But Devi has been teaching these classes since 1995, so it's not like this was her first rodeo.
To make up for only having two hands, many of the vegetables and panir had been chopped and fried, respectively, before class. More cut-corners included prepackaged sambhar powder. A student asked why Devi didn't make her sambhar powder from scratch, and she answered that it would be too overwhelming for this class. And that was pretty off-putting until Devi explained that to make sambhar powder from scratch you've got to throw together red chilies, curry leaves (sorry, Bob), coriander, cumin and pretty much the rest of your spice rack together. And then you grind it and roast it, and maybe you grind it again -- I don't know. I did get overwhelmed. So yeah, keep it, I trust in the prepackaged.
Speaking of spices and of the prepackaged, Devi explained the medicinal-bordering-on-magical qualities of turmeric, a pungent, orange-yellow spice made from the root of Curcuma longa (and don't you feel worldly?) She said that turmeric and honey is excellent for soothing coughs. Someone else told me that doctors give turmeric and black pepper to cancer patients because the spice's anti-inflammatory qualities help reduce tumor. I'm pretty sure cancer doesn't work that way, but what do I know?
But seriously, the recipes. Up to bat first was supposed to be a cold summer sambhar soup, but Devi took one step outside and immediately amended the recipe to a warm buttermilk sambhar soup. Next was a matar panir (a tomato-base dish with peas, fried panir and loaded with spices), followed by a cauliflower potato rice dish (which is exactly what it sounds like. Devi explained that it's a "left-over rice" dish, but you could chunk in some cashew's if you want to get exotic.) She finished up with beet puris, palm-sized purple pouches fried in hot oil. So even if vegetarian cuisine isn't strictly healthy, it's definitely delicious.
After Devi finished preparing all the recipes, the class grabbed paper trays and served themselves. The food was pungent and full-bodied, and pleasantly warm even after being pulled off the heat for several minutes.
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Kalachandji's cooking classes are held 7-9 o'clock on Thursday nights in the Community Hall next to Kalachandji's Palace and Restaurant on Gurley Avenue in Dallas. There are eight classes in the session. You can attend them all for $150, or individually for $25. The last class is a "final exam," where students prepare a dish they learned in class and bring it to Devi's home. After she assesses their work, they have a potluck dinner.
My classmate Lily Lin has attended three of Kalachandji's cooking class series. She says this is the first one she's seen entice so many recurring students.
Kalachandji's manager Danny Thomas says the class size fluctuates between 10 and 35 students. This class attracted around 25, and when they could've been at home watching the Rangers in the World Series, that's saying something. And, at $25 a person, they're still raking in the dough.
But Thomas insists that the classes are not about the income. "It's about the love of vegetarianism," he said.