lessons learned

There is no way I can do this justice in writing, but here goes:

About a year ago, I took a cooking class with Vikram Vij of Vij’s (and Rangoli and Vij’s Railway Express) at the Dirty Apron.

I noticed one of his classes about six months prior on the Dirty Apron website, which was already full. I signed myself up on the waitlist anyway, and about two months later, received an email saying they had just scheduled another class. Two hours after the email was sent, I logged onto their website, to find the class already full. Disappointed, I signed up for the waitlist again. Four days before the class, I got a call saying they’d had a cancellation and I could take it!

I arrived 15 minutes early and was thrown off to be so enthusiastically greeted by an Indian man with bright blue eyes. While all the students waited in the dining room before the class started, Vikram would come in and out with plates of appetizers, personally introducing himself to each of us.

A Dirty Apron staff member then formally introduced Vikram to us – and mentioned that the class had originally filled up only fifteen minutes after it was posted. Despite a few late cancellations, on the day of the class there were still over 200 people on the waitlist.

In the kitchen studio, Vikram was energetic and passionate as he talked to us about India, about his restaurants and, of course, about food. I loved when he made fun of pretentious sommeliers, and said that we should support our local Okanagan wines (because if we don’t, why would the rest of the world?) Vikram’s philosophy is that the wine should be delicious, the food should be delicious and nothing else matters.

When we got down to cooking, one of his two helpers (both adorable Indian women with limited English) attached herself to me. I think she was concerned that I would burn the place down. Or something.

She wasn’t far off, because after I poured olive oil on my hands to flatten out my naan bread, I picked up the whipping cream to add to my curry – and the container slid out of my oily hands and splattered all over the floor.

Mess aside, the evening was amazing and food was unbelievable. The other students I talked to were also interesting and fun to share with – it was fascinating how different all of our dishes tasted despite using exactly the same measurements and ingredients.

Vikram was hilarious and genuine, and his passion for food was infectious. He makes Indian culture accessible in a casual way to Westerners. He called Ghandi “Ghandiji” (Indians add –ji to the end of a name to symbolize affection) and talked about Ayurvedic properties of spices, but also told dirty jokes and serves beef at his restaurant. It’s impossible not to love him – I left the class wishing I could do it all again the next day.

The main message I left the class with was that cooking should be done with the gut. Recipes don’t need to be followed word for word, and food should always be tasted throughout the process so you can adjust it to your preferences. With that in mind, here’s my take on one of Vij’s recipes.

Vegetarian Curry

The flavour and strength of each spice will depend on when you add them, and how much you use, and probably a million other things. Taste test frequently, and don’t be afraid to abandon the instructions and do your own thing.

Adapted from Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey

Ingredients

two medium-sized yams, peeled and chopped into approximately one inch cubes
one third cup grapeseed oil
one onion, peeled and diced
about a garlic and a half worth of cloves, peeled and finely chopped (use a garlic press if you’re lazy and above the controversy)
four tablespoons peeled, grated ginger root
four cups tomatoes, somewhere between pureed and smashed (please don’t use canned. Bonus if you go to a farmer’s market and ask to buy all their bruised tomatoes for cheap)
half tablespoon turmeric
one tablespoon cumin
one tablespoon ground coriander seed
one teaspoon fenugreek
one tablespoon paprika (use the spicy paprika, not the sweet one)
one tablespoon sea salt
eight cups water

Directions

Boil the yams in a large pot until they’re cooked through. Set aside to cool.
Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large saucepan. Add the onions and cook until translucent. If they start to burn, add a bit of water that will boil off. Add the garlic and saute for two minutes, then the ginger and saute for another minute. Stir in the tomatoes.
Turn the heat down to medium. Add your spices – this is where things get interesting. Make sure to taste test. Saute for about another five minutes, stirring occasionally so the bottom doesn’t burn.
In the meantime, grab your cooked yams. Mash about half of them, and leave the other half as chunks. Add along with the water to the curry. Stir well and bring to a boil. Then lower the heat to low and let simmer for five to ten minutes. Serve over basmati rice with naan bread.

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