Ten years ago when Al Rodriguez and his wife, Justine Ashokar, opened Curry Masala to offer authentic Indian cuisine to Black Hills residents, they also started monthly cooking classes, never imagining that a decade later there would still be interest.

Ashokar, who teaches the classes, credits a few different factors to the popularity of her lessons. “I have repeat students who come for the social part of it," she said. "After we’re done cooking, we all eat together. Students come to meet new people and friends and families come to cook together.”

Ashokar starts each class with a lesson in the different spices, asking her students to identify them. She also wants them to understand the different medicinal value each spice can play in preventative health and how easy it is to add spices to their daily meals. “Spices are so important for health,” Askokar said.

For new students, Ashokar also corrects common misconceptions about curry. She said a lot of people either think all curry dishes are fiery hot, or only contain one spice.

Curry is a blend of five to 20 different spices and ranges in taste from mild to spicy. Some spices and herbs used in curry dishes are turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, and a variety of chili peppers.

“Curry powder mixtures are very unique to each state (in India) and each family,” Ashokar said. “And each restaurant uses their own blends of curries.”

As Ashokar instructs her students, using family favorite recipes that she learned from her grandmother, mother, and mother-in-law, she shares a lot of personal stories, relating food to family. In Indian culture, it’s important to show hospitality — to be generous — by sharing food.

“I enjoy teaching how to cook healthy Indian food,” Ashokar said. “We eat here, it has to be healthy.”

They have replaced the original version of their recipes to take out the cream and oil. And most of their recipes are naturally dairy-, gluten-, nut-free. They also offer a lot of vegan friendly recipes.

Classes are usually held on the second Sunday every other month from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the restaurant on West Main Street. Ashokar also holds special classes for groups of friends that want to take a lesson together or companies that have arranged classes for clients or employees.

All classes include learning how to make a traditional flatbread. “Our students enjoy rolling it out and making it themselves,” Ashokar said.

Students also learn how to prepare different curry combinations, a vegetable dish, which might contain potatoes, beans, lentils or cauliflower, and a meat dish which is mostly chicken based, but could also be a shrimp, fish, or beef dish.

“We also teach them how to make a rice,” Rodriguez added. “It might be a spiced, lemon, or coconut rice.”

Ashokar has demystified the process of cooking curry dishes by showing her students a particular way of doing things and breaking down the recipes into easy to follow steps that can be copied at home. “We send them home with recipes,” she said.

The recipes are varied at each session, and Ashokar is open to requests from students wanting to learn a certain dish or technique.

The couple also stocks a variety of hard to find ingredients, such as exotic spices for curry blends, a dozen different varieties of lentils, pre-made frozen flatbreads and frozen vegetables used in traditional Indian cuisine and not found at local grocery stores.

Cashew Chicken Masala

3 pounds chicken  

1 onions, julienned

3 tomatoes, diced

1 tablespoon ginger, finely ground

6-7 garlic cloves, finely ground

1 teaspoon turmeric powder 

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon coriander powder 

1 teaspoon red chili powder 

1 teaspoon garam masala 

1 teaspoon dried red chili, 4 or more to taste

1/2 cup raw cashews, ground to paste with a little water

3 lightly crushed cardamom  

1/2 stick cinnamon, broken into small pieces

4 Bay leaves

4 Cloves 

1/3 cup vegetable oil 

6 ounces coconut milk 

3 teaspoons or more of salt to taste

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Heat oil to moderate heat in a 5-quart wide pan. Add turmeric powder, cumin powder, coriander powder, chili powder, garam masala, dried red chilis, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves and cloves and stir for about 5 to 10 seconds. Add ginger paste, garlic paste, onions and tomatoes and cook stirring for about 2 minutes. Add chicken and the cashew paste and stir until the meat is coated with spices. Add coconut milk and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until chicken is cooked (about 30- 45 minutes). Serve with rice or bread.

Garlic Potato Poriyal

6 potatoes, peeled and cubed

10 curry leaves 

1 teaspoon mustard seed 

1 teaspoon white lentils, Urad Dal

2 diced tomatoes 

2 onions, julienned

6 garlic cloves, ground to paste

1 teaspoon chili powder 

1 teaspoon cumin powder 

1 teaspoon turmeric 

A pinch of Asafoetida

1/4 teaspoon Fenugreek (powered) 

3 tablespoons oil 

1 teaspoon salt or more to taste

Peel and cube the potatoes, cook them in water and set them aside. Heat oil in wide pan. Add mustard seeds to the hot oil and wait until it pops. Reduce the heat immediately and then add the remaining dry ingredients and stir for a minute. Add garlic and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the onions and tomatoes and stirred until cooked. Then add the cooked potatoes and mix well. Remove from heat and serve with rice or roti.

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