It’s late on a Sunday afternoon and I’m perched on a stool in Jyoti Mukharji’s fragrant Prairie Village kitchen, engrossed in one of her Indian cooking classes.
A dozen of us are gathered today, mesmerized as Jyoti easily glides between a granite counter top neatly arranged with white bowls of precisely measured, vibrantly hued spices and a well-worn stove.
I’m here for another chapter in my journey of learning how to cook authentic Indian food.
Effortlessly preparing dishes from her childhood in India, Jyoti sprinkles bits of history and nuggets of culture amongst the cooking instructions.
Mixing the batter for the vegetable pakoras, she patiently answers questions and offers humorous stories of her three boys growing up and eating traditional Indian food in the Heartland. Passing around jars containing tiny unfamiliar orbs of this and mocha-colored powders of that, Jyoti, trained as a physician, passionately expounds the medicinal qualities of spices.
My fellow students and I sip water and make notes in the margins of the recipe handouts, hungrily awaiting the first taste of the fritters that will be served, Jyoti says, with a mint curry dipping sauce.
In addition to being an excellent cook, Jyoti — soft-spoken and impossibly elegant — possesses an instinctive ability to make you not only feel welcome, but truly at home, surrounded by her exotic decor and burbling fountain in the foyer and the heady, distinctive scent of so many home-cooked meals that gently hug the air.
When you’re in Jyoti’s kitchen it’s a natural reflex to inhale deeply and hold the memory of that scent because — although you don’t realize it quite yet — that smell means something special, invaluable.
I’ve spent many hours in this kitchen with Jyoti, at first attending Indian Street Food, Vegetarian Curries and High Tea classes with the sole intention of gaining knowledge to artfully prepare Indian cuisine.
I wanted to experience Indian food beyond the heavily sauced and creamed dishes served in many restaurants, which Jyoti refers to as the Tex-Mex version of real Indian cooking.
Raptured by black channa curry (black garbanzo bean curry) and bharva baingan (baby eggplant stuffed with dry spices and roasted to perfection) and mishit doi (Bengali sweet yogurt), I confidently took my new found skills back to my own kitchen.
On a few occasions it became a pungent laboratory as I tried to recreate a dish Jyoti had so masterfully demonstrated, carefully following the recipe her son Aroop typed for the takeaway, recalling snippets of conversation from a particular class.
So I was convinced — my reasons for being a regular student at Jyoti’s were pure.
Or so I thought.
Today as Jyoti piles a platter high with pakoras and puts the final touches on an aromatic chicken korma with aloo and at the end of the communal dinner serves the dozen of us snowy-white scoops of vanilla ice cream drizzled with a bright orange mango puree, my true motivation for becoming a cooking class loyalist is revealed.
Comfort. Sheer comfort — that’s what I crave.
To breathe in the perfumed air, bear witness to priceless memories, learn a technique to coax honest flavor from ingredients. To become familiar with something so unfamiliar it feels like an inseparable part of my heritage — that it could have come from my grandmother’s Midwest kitchen, even though Jyoti Mukharji grew up cooking and eating on a different continent, in an entirely different world, than Mary Lewis and her scalloped potatoes and meatloaf and apple pie.
And at Jyoti’s, amongst potted herbs and jars of jewel-colored spices and remnants of today’s pakoras, I finally understand.
Comfort, for me, is found in the scent and stories of a kitchen.Vegetable Pakoras Makes 6 to 8 servings 2 cups of besan (gram flour, available in the Indian store, Ambica) 1 teaspoon of coriander powder 1/2 teaspoon of cumin powder 1/2 teaspoon of dried mango powder Pinch of baking soda Salt to taste Cayenne pepper to taste 1 cup of water 2 tbsp of vegetable oil 1 medium to large potato, peeled and cubed into very small pieces 1 large onion, peeled and chopped into small pieces 1 chopped jalapeno 3 tbsp of chopped cilantro 2 cups of vegetable oil for frying
Mix all of the dry ingredients. Add water and 2 tablespoons of oil to form a pancake-like batter. Add potatoes, onions, jalapeno and cilantro.
Heat the 2 cups of oil in a wok or a deep pan. When oil is hot (but not smoking), drop a small spoonful of batter. If it floats to the top, the oil is ready for frying. Drop several spoonfuls of batter and fry on medium heat til golden brown. Drain and place on a paper towel to the side (to soak extra oil), and repeat with the rest of the batter.Chicken Korma with Aloo
A savory chicken curry with potatoesMakes 6 to 8 A little more than 1/4 cup canola oil 2 bay leaves 1 cinnamon stick 4 green cardamoms 4 cloves 6 crushed black peppercorns 1 medium onion, finely chopped 2 medium potatoes, quartered 1 8 oz can tomato sauce 1.5-inch piece of ginger, grated 4 cloves of garlic, grated 1/4 tsp turmeric 1.5 lbs boneless chicken thighs, fat trimmed 4 skinless chicken legs Salt to taste Cayenne pepper (ground) to taste 1/2 cup plain, non-fat or low-fat yogurt, beaten
For garnish:2 teaspoon garam masala (Available at Ambica at 91st Street and Metcalf Avenue in Overalnd Park) 1 tablespoon cilantro
Heat the oil in a deep pan on medium. Add bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cardamoms, cloves, and black peppercorns. After a minute or so, add chopped onion and potatoes. Sauté until onions are light brown. Add tomato sauce, ginger, garlic, and turmeric, and sauté for a few minutes until the oil separates out of the sauce.
Add the chicken, salt, and pepper, and sauté until the chicken changes color (roughly 10 minutes). Cover and cook on low-heat for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes and chicken are done. Add the yogurt, mix well, cover, and turn off the flame.
Serve hot and garnish with garam masala and cilantro. Can be served with rice or Indian flatbread.
Source: These recipes are from Jyoti Mukharji’s ‘Art of Indian Cooking’ class. For more information on classes, contact her at email@example.com
. She also teaches classes at Jet Pabst’s cookery store in Lee’s Summit, A Thyme for Everything.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper's Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.