The Art of Indian Cooking
Former physician and self-taught chef Jyoti Mukharji invites Kansas Citians into her Prairie Village kitchen to learn about Indian cuisine.
When Jyoti Mukharji hosted her first Indian cooking class on Feb. 6, 2010, for a group that had won the experience at an auction, her husband had been secretly observing her work from another room. After the class ended, her husband said, “It seems you really had a good time.”
“I think he saw my face was glowing, I was radiant. I had a halo around my head. It was like I had really gotten transported into another world,” Mukharji says. “So he said, ‘Why don’t you do this as a hobby?’ … Here I am today, with almost 2,800-plus people through my kitchen… It’s all word of mouth.”
What started as a prize at a local auction has turned into a full-fledged business for Mukharji. After a recent class, 435 stuck around to ask her about her culinary skills, her Indian roots and her all-time favorite dishes.
How would you say your classes have evolved over the past seven years?
I’ve tried different concepts, and that was fusion cooking. I find that people actually want to learn traditional [Indian] cooking rather than fusion.
If I go heavy on the appetizer — something that takes longer to make — then I will usually have a salad in the main course because it generally doesn’t take as much effort. It’s just something that I’ve figured out over a period of time that I have to balance. I usually do about six dishes, including the rice, so I’m able to get it done. I used to have them [students] for two and a half hours, then I made it to three hours because I felt like I could not accomplish what I wanted to do.
How do you keep the class exciting for you, when you’ve cooked and eaten these traditional Indian dishes for so many years?
I just find it exciting when I’m able to share what I know, and that is what keeps me going. It’s very gratifying to share what you know, and it doesn’t matter if I have to repeat it 20 times.
During your classes, you discuss the many health benefits of the spices used in Indian cuisine. Can you elaborate on your view as food being medicine?
Spices are a very integral part of ayurvedic medicine. What we practice in America is allopathic medicine, where you have antibiotics and other drugs. Ayurvedic medicine is all-natural and it’s all herbal. So, that’s where the spices come in. For instance, cumin. If cumin is soaked, it is very good for the digestive health of the gut. If you soak cumin seeds in water and then you drink that water, that water is equivalent to tonic water for the gut. It’s anti-inflammatory. Same with coriander. Coriander is so strongly antibacterial that if you add it to food, it will increase the shelf life of the food. Clove oil is very good for pain; ginger is anti-gas. Turmeric is anti-cancer. It’s rich in antioxidants. It’s also a very prominent antiaging spice.
Are your recipes mostly passed down from relatives, or do you create most of the recipes yourself?
They are family recipes. I do try and experiment with food myself, and my husband is my guinea pig. He is very fond of all kinds of foods, and so am I.
Tell me about your experience living in India. How have the cultural traditions in your home country influenced your life as it is today?
We have certainly adapted to the Western culture. For instance, if I was living in India, I would have servants. Even if I was fond of cooking and wanted to cook like my mother and my mother-in-law, the cutting, chopping, grinding of spices is all done by the servants. Here, you have to do everything yourself. It was good that we came when we were young because we got used to the lifestyle. Now, I would find it very difficult to have somebody walking in to do the cooking for me.
You grow some of the ingredients you use in your backyard greenhouse. How did you get into gardening?
I grow curry leaves, basil, mint, green chilies, eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes. My mom is a huge gardener, or she used to be. She won a lot of prizes for her vegetable garden. That’s where my inspiration comes from.
When you’re not cooking at home, where do you go for authentic Indian food?
For Indian food? No. [laughs] I love to eat French. I love Spanish food. I love to eat any ethnic cuisine but our own. If I do go to New York or Chicago or L.A. or San Francisco, I would not mind visiting an Indian restaurant and eating there. It’s different, and it’s a good way to see what others are doing. You get tired of your own restaurants here… but if I had to go eat Indian food, I would go to Touch of Asia, which is one of our very good Indian restaurants here.
If you could plan the perfect Indian menu — appetizer, entree and dessert —what dishes would that include?
For an appetizer, I would do pakoras, cauliflower or vegetable pakoras. My husband definitely prefers meat. As I’ve gotten older, I definitely prefer vegetarian, but I would do a butter chicken or a traditional chicken curry. I love that any time. I do enjoy a fruit cream that I make. It’s my mother’s recipe. It is cream and sugar and fresh fruit.
Chicken Curry with Aloo
Serves 6-8 people
1 whole chicken, cut into small pieces (bones included)
2 large potatoes, quartered
1/2 cup canola oil
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
4 green cardamoms
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, grated
1 1/2-inch piece ginger, grated
1 12-ounce can tomato sauce
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
Salt, to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste
1/4 teaspoon garam masala (available at Indian grocery stores)
1 tablespoon cilantro
Heat the oil in a deep pan on medium. Add bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cardamoms and cloves. After 1 minute, add onions and potatoes. Sauté until onions are light brown. Add tomato sauce, ginger, garlic and turmeric. Sauté for a few minutes, until oil separates from sauce.
Add the chicken, salt and cayenne pepper. Saute until chicken is browned, about 10 minutes. Cover and cook on low heat for 10 minutes, or until chicken and potatoes are done.
Garnish with garam masala and cilantro. Can be served with rice or Indian flatbread.