Nutritionist and chef Mala Patel helps guide and refine culinary repertoires, creating homemade, multicourse Indian feasts during her classes. Combining comprehensive demonstrations with a hands-on cooking experience, balanced with an insightful understanding of the benefits of Indian cuisine and its relationship to good health in sessions such as 3 Week complete cooking session, Classic vegetarian cuisine, Classic non-vegetarian cuisine, Muglai feast, Street side foods from India, Snack and appetizers from India, South Indian Exotic Escape and Passage to North India. Small classes consisting of no more than 10 -12 chefs-in-training intimately explore chicken and veggie dishes flavored by aromatic spices, garlic, ginger, and green chilies. She says, "I don't classify myself as a gourmet chef - I'm a good cook and an even better teacher, and I teach from my heart, My specialty is simplifying food in a way that a novice could do it."
Mala grew up cooking alongside her mother, Jaya Patel, in Midwestern India, where she loved concocting new varieties of her favorite dishes. She credits her mother with teaching her "pre-prep-arations," - such as chopping and freezing garlic, ginger and green chilies for future use, she also learned practical and flexible approaches to cooking.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
By PAT CAHILL
Mala Patel, of Wilbraham, was planning to become a dietitian in a hospital after she earned her food and nutrition degree at Maharaja Sayajirao University in her native Gujarat, India.
Instead, she has become a popular cooking teacher giving hands-on - and often sold-out - classes in her ethnic cuisine around the Pioneer Valley.
"I never thought I would use my degree this way," says Patel, who moved to this country in 1985.
Now she's entering a new phase of her cooking career. She and her husband recently purchased the Wilbraham Inn, which includes a large kitchen area for holding all-day cooking seminars.
Her first event of the kind, a "Whole Day Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Cultural Retreat," will be offered Feb. 16 from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
at the Wilbraham Inn. Cost is $120, and participants who want to stay overnight have the option of a room in the same motel at a discount price of $59.
The retreat will include breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, demonstrations & hands-on cooking, and a big dose of Indian culture, including Yoga & breathing exercises, music and a beauty treatment called (yikes!) eyebrow-threading.
Patel says her introductory courses always feature the cooking of northern India, because that is the style most familiar to Americans and also because it's popular even in regions of India that have their own distinctive cuisine.
She explains that northern cooking is characterized by lots of onions, garlic and a spice mix that includes cloves, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper and cardamom. "It keeps the body warm," Patel explains. "Plus it gives a lot of flavor."
The cuisine of southern India is the spiciest, says Patel. Typical are its rice cakes called "idli" and crepes called "dosa."
Her native Gujarat, in the middle western part of India, is mostly vegetarian and favors a simpler menu. It includes roasted thin chapatis, or flatbread, yogurt, lentil-rice soups and pan-fried rather than deep-fried vegetables.
One habit peculiar to the middle west, says Patel, is that dessert is served alongside the meal, not at the end.
People in India also have "tea" at 4 or 5 p.m. to tide them over until dinner, a custom left over from years as a British colony. Tea includes not only the beverage, but a "light snack" such as pakora, little bean-based appetizers rolled into balls and fried in hot oil.
During our visit, Patel cooked up a batch of pakoras called daalwada, containing lentils, onions and cilantro. Some pakoras are made with chick peas, and for a spicier effect can include ground chilis.
Patel says vegetarians in India get their protein from a wide variety of beans, even in snack foods. "So even if they're fried," she says, "they're packed with nutrition."
Among the highlights of the cooking retreat will be the"Samosa" & "pav-bhaji" that the group will make for lunch. Patel describes it as "a vegetarian sloppy Joe" and "a favorite streetside food in India."
Pauv-bhaji contains onions, garlic, tomatoes, eggplant, cauliflower, peas, potatoes and carrots. "It's a very healthy dish and an all-time favorite for all age groups," says Patel.
She discusses with her students the health-giving values not only of foods but of spices, some of which are used for home remedies in India. "Every time I add a spice, I cover its medicinal value," she says.
At the retreat, she will make paneer, or home-made cheese, with spinach for extra nutrition. Students will also sample a host of other Indian dishes, including rice dishes, a curry dish and the potato-stuffed triangles of pastry called somosas.
Patel likes to leave some down time to share kitchen tips such as chopping and freezing garlic in advance.
She tries to infuse her students with the confidence to improvise and substitute rather than giving up for lack of an ingredient. "I tell them, 'If you don't have this, you can still do this!'" she says.
She urges them to start cooking the dishes they have learned from her as soon as they get home.
Growing up in India, Patel got a big infusion of confidence from her dad, who praised her constantly. Her mom taught her all the "tips and tricks" of Indian cooking and soon turned over the making of fancier dishes to her little daughter
When her parents first emigrated to this country, Patel was left behind because she had just reached adulthood. So at 21, she took charge of the household and cooked for her two older brothers.
Her marriage was arranged with an exchange of photos. She and her husband became the first Indian couple to be married in Rhode Island. They have two children.
For nine years Patel was a cardiac monitoring technician at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and at Holyoke Medical Center, where she was also a medical secretary.
Since 2002, she has taught a variety of classes on Indian cooking, including such themes as "South Indian Exotic Escape" and "Soups and Sandwiches of India." She teaches in community centers, hospitals, private homes and other sites.
A favorite of hers is the kitchen classroom at Lamson and Goodnow Cutlery in Northampton, where a course she will be teaching to 24 people in March is already filled and has a waiting list. So take heed: The retreat on Feb. 16 is limited to 10-12 people. To learn more, call Patel at (413) 543-1138 or e-mail email@example.com.
In the meantime, Patel offers this recipe from northern India. It takes 25 minutes and can be frozen for a month.
Directions: Hold eggplants by the stems over fire to burn skin. When skin blackens, hold under running water and gently scrub it off.
Or: Oil the eggplants, microwave them in a loose-lidded bowl for 3-4 minutes, and peel them.
Mash eggplants to a puree. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add cumin seeds, let them "splutter" (simmer), then add ginger and garlic. Stir-fry for a minute.
Add onions, all dry "masalas" (spices) except red chili powder, and stir-fry for a minute more.
Add tomatoes, eggplant, salt, lemon juice and stir. Simmer for five minutes.
Put in serving bowl.
(Optional: Just before serving, heat ghee in a small pan. Hold pan over bowl, add chili powder, and pour immediately over eggplant mix. Don't let the chili powder burn.)
Garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve hot with an Indian bread such as tandoori roti, paratha