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kiran's Indian Kitchen

Chronogram, April 2005

Mistress of Spices
Kiran Ramgotra Sancious

By Pauline Uchmanowicz | Photos by Jim Fossett

Pungent powders and cooking oils coat the air with tantalizing odors when Kiran Ramgotra Sancious conducts "Indian Home Cooking" classes in her clients' homes. Lyrically describing the qualities of each ingredient and enchanted dish, she presides over the festivities dressed in a silky sari and traditional handcrafted apron. "I want to create the whole authentic aesthetic experience of preparing food in an Indian kitchen," Ramgotra Sancious imparts, her reverence for the art recalling the manner of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's culinary heroine in The Mistress of Spices. The novel revolves around Tilo, an Indian woman with magical powers who runs an Oakland spice shop from which she dispenses cures for troubled customers. Similar to Tilo, Ramgotra Sancious tailors her hands-on sessions to individual tastes and dietary preferences. Each small-group lesson culminates in a sit-down family meal. Such classes—part cooking demonstration and part performance—have joined the 24-hour Food Network, culinary tours, and vacation cooking schools in the latest trend of "entertainment cookery."

The spice mistress cultivated her culinary finesse growing up in a family of lively, garrulous cooks, their legacy stretching back several generations to Punjabi Sikhs from northern India. (A wheat-basket farming region, Punjab, meaning "land of five rivers," is known for its hearty peasant food.) Part of the Indian diaspora, their descendants immigrated to Kenya, where Ramgotra Sancious's father was born in a seacoast town on the shores of Lake Victoria; her India-born mother moved to Nairobi at the age of three. Childhood friends who united in an approved love match (as opposed to an arranged marriage), the couple later lived in London, where the young husband completed medical school and Kiran and two siblings (brother and sister), were born. Resettling in Saskatchewan, Canada, the Kenya transplants raised their offspring in Saskatoon (Joni Mitchell's hometown), a city set on a river (reminiscent of Punjab as well as Lake Victoria) with a thriving Indian population. Here the children learned to stain their hands with turmeric, ginger, and cayenne pepper.

Ramgotra Sancious's classes—part cooking demo and part performance—have joined culinary tours and vacation cooking schools in the latest trend of "entertainment cookery."
"It was drilled into us—and I mean drilled—that we had to learn to cook; we didn't have any choice," Ramgotra Sancious recollects. Throughout her childhood, the Ramgotra clan customarily hosted big, extended family gatherings. "My mother was always cooking. My father was also a great chef with a love of seafood dishes. Our Martha Stewart-like kitchen was huge, gorgeous and sophisticated, with a 10-foot maple island. Before the local Sikhs had a temple, the temple was at our house, where every Sunday 20 women would be cooking for sometimes a hundred people." According to Ramgotra Sancious, Sikhs believe in feeding the stomach as a prelude to fortifying the spirit. "The midday common meal known as langer (serving others) stretched into afternoon tea, maybe a snack, and Indian desserts. No one wanted to leave and everyone got to take food home."

Ramgotra Sancious transported the cooking skills perfected in her youth to Vancouver, where she worked in the fashion industry during her 20s. Eschewing restaurants, she preferred cooking and hosting dinner parties at home. Over the next decade, she provided friends with lessons in Indian cookery. During this same period, she met David Sancious, noted pianist and keyboard player whose catalogue includes recordings with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Seal, and other celebrated acts. Kiran and David married in 1999, and made Woodstock their home.

A desire to preserve her culinary ancestry instigated Ramgotra Sancious's most recent foray into entertainment cookery. "I used to only keep recipes in my head," she admits. But fearing dishes passed down from her great-great-grandmother would disappear as younger family members continued to intermarry, she began writing down cooking instructions and amusing anecdotes about growing up in a boisterous Indian family for her nieces and nephews. This material has spawned her nearly completed first cookbook, Food Time Stories, for which she will soon seek a publisher. More than a hundred recipes later, she decided to launch formal cooking classes, offering students printed versions of selected items. "I was not that eager to give away my family's secrets; I had to meditate on that. But this is a fast food nation, and the medicinal, nutritious property of Indian food has been known for thousands of years," says Ramgotra Sancious, whose clients include the terminally ill. "At times I feel like I'm channeling my father [the physician] and my maternal grandmother [a homeopathic herbalist]. Everyone should eat the Indian way."

Ramgotra Sancious teaches personalized Indian home cooking classes
During a typical two-hour tutorial, students learn Ramgotra Sancious's "five-step design," a layering procession of onion, ginger, garlic, chili, and tomato that's the foundation of most Indian dishes. Featured menus include vegetables, legumes (a mainstay in Indian homes), curries (meat, chicken, fish, or vegetable), and specialty breads. Attending a recent class along with five others, I learned to prepare alu gobhi subji (potato and cauliflower curry), tikka masala (mild chicken curry in a tomato-based sauce), and naan (puffy bread).

Ramgotra Sancious began with an overview of commonly used spices (which she prefers grinding) essential to Indian recipes. Displayed in a masala dubba (inherited from her grandmother and also spelled dhuba, dabba, and duubo), a round stainless steel container resembling a cookie tin with smaller, round lidless containers arranged inside (six around the edges and one in the middle), its panoply includes cumin, mustard seeds, coriander, turmeric, clove, cardamom, cayenne pepper, and garam masala. This last, most potent offering is a blend perfected by the maestro's great-grandmother. "Every Indian household has its own garam masala," according to our instructor. Masala literally means "spice," and a typical garam contains cumin, coriander, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, and clove. With sleight-of-hand deftness, she then jiggled several cloves of garlic in a small, closed-lid saucepan until their skins magically fell away. "You can never have too much garlic or ginger," she said. "I like to add cayenne generously too. I'm not talking about burning spice but nice heat. Tasting all the elements is what Indian cooking is about."

At the heart of many dishes is tarka masala, carmelized onions accented by a mélange of spices. To prepare, we warmed a cast-iron skillet for several minutes before adding and heating canola oil. The spice mistress then drew from the masala dubba, tossing in mustard seeds; once they started to pop she quickly added crushed cumin and coriander seeds. Layering in the five-fold foundation (selecting the fiery habañero chili pepper) and stirring the spice blend with a favored slotted spoon, she combined chopped onions, sautéing them on low heat until golden brown (about 15 minutes). A tablespoon of minced garlic, a half-cup of chopped tomatoes, two tablespoons of tomato paste, cayenne, and salt came next. After cooking for 10 minutes (until the tomatoes softened and absorbed the mixture), we let it cool down before pureeing the potion in a food processor until well blended.

All the while the tarka masala took form, we worked in stages to prepare other parts of the meal. Resurrecting her parents' former teaching style, the animated spice mistress' effervescent personality and expansive sense of humor belied her sharp and directive ability to keep us on task. Some students worked with Ramgotra Sancious to make the naan (which she insists is easy but I fear trying on my own), hand-kneading ingredients into dough, then rolling, shaping and baking. Others executed prerequisite dicing and chopping of vegetable ingredients (cauliflower, Yukon gold potato, carrot, and onion) for the alu gobhi subji. Our instructor had prepared the chicken breasts, cut into cubes, hours earlier in a marinade of goat-milk yogurt blended with ginger, turmeric, cumin, salt, cilantro (including stems for added flavor), and lime. We also learned techniques for perfecting basmati rice (with fresh or frozen peas), including washing and soaking the grain, and spicing the cooking water with clove and cardamom.

The final cooking stages of the vegetable dish required layering ingredients in a stockpot of heated tarka, adding vegetable stock (water may be substituted), salt, and turmeric, and bringing it to a boil, then simmering for 30 minutes. Next we lightly fried the marinated chicken, then removed and set it aside, adding tarka to that pot. Folding in heavy cream, we brought the mixture to boiling and then simmered, slipping in the chicken pieces and cooking for 10 more minutes. Both dishes were presented sprinkled with garam masala and fresh cilantro.

Our plates garnished with fresh spinach, we served ourselves buffet style, sitting down at a dining table decorated with colorful scarves. We washed down the sumptuous meal with Shiraz, pinot noir, Indian pale ale, and Flying Horse lager. For dessert, our instructor/host served us Burfi, leaf-shaped cookies made from almond and pistachio arranged on a plate like the Dharma Chakra, the spoke-wheeled center of the Indian flag.

"I get the occasional 'I don't know how to cook,' which is great," Ramgotra Sancious tells us as we record our comments in a journal she breaks out at the end of each culinary lesson. "It's great to set people who are green on a path. Indian cooking is labor intensive, but once you learn to make the basic preparations you can store those and pull together a meal at any time." Toasting her words, we clicked glasses of cold champagne to the spice mistress, thankful for our passage to India.