Our stop in Delhi, India, was a little shorter than anticipated, but we managed to fill our bellies in several unique ways. In addition to being spoiled by the chefs at the JW Marriott Delhi, we took a traditional Indian cooking class, in a family’s home.
We had been fed so much food in our first 36 hours at the Delhi Marriott, that I was looking forward to escaping the hotel for a Sunday night dinner that I hoped would not involve 10 or more courses. A home cooked meal with an Indian family was the perfect way to check out the local food scene.
Being Invited Into a Family’s Home
Any time we are invited into someone’s home in a new country, I start to get a little giddy. When the average tourist only sees inside a hotel room when traveling, seeing a local apartment or home, to see how people live, is a truly unique experience.
We met our guide, Komal, a recent university student, in central Delhi. She escorted us to her family’s home, in a suburb of Delhi. I realized quickly that this was an area of Delhi we never would have seen otherwise, without our friendly escort.
As soon as we entered Komal’s family home, her mother and grandmother greeted us enthusiastically. Komal’s mother immediately greeted us with a traditional Hindu welcome, placing a bit of red powder on our third eye, between the eyebrows. She also greeted us with a less traditional Hindu welcome – a big hug. I immediately felt like family.
After a quick tour of the apartment, we squeezed into the petite but functional kitchen to start our traditional Indian cooking class.
The Secret to Successful Indian Cooking
The funny thing: Komal doesn’t cook. Her mother made numerous jokes about this fact, as she guided us in our Indian cooking class. First, they showed off their collection of Indian spices.
When we were living in the US, and cooking regularly, Indian food was one cuisine we could never quite master. We had an Indian cookbook, but every time we reviewed a recipe, it had about a thousand ingredients and spices. It all just seemed overwhelming. We learned to make buttered chicken, with tomatoes and yogurt, but that was about it.
At our Indian cooking class, though, we learned it is not as difficult as it seemed to cook great Indian food at home. The secret to Indian cooking is in the spices.
Most recipes in Indian cookbooks included garam masala, which is actually a blend of a dozen of spices, often including ground peppercorns, cumin, and cardamom. In many Asian markets in the US or Europe, it’s possible to buy a garam masala already mixed. When living in the US, we bought garam masala during a trip to Istanbul. I always thought this was cheating a bit. I assumed that to make authentic Indian food, we needed to blend the spices at home.
During our Indian cooking class, though, we learned the secret to home cooking. Many families buy their garam masala, and other spices, already ground. They keep them handy for cooking and refill when needed. What a revelation. Looks like I wasn’t cheating by buying my spices. What a relief.
A Speedy Indian Cooking Class
I think Komal’s mother could become the Rachel Ray of Delhi. Once she let us in on her secret about keeping the spices stocked, she taught us how to make a quick tea, and a 20 minute dinner.
Indians often eat dinner very late, at 10 pm or even later. After our time in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, we were slightly disappointed to hear this. I was hoping Indian dinner would be at a more “normal” time, like many Southeast Asian countries. To eat this late, Indians will have an afternoon tea, or a snack, around 6 or 7pm.
We joined Komal and her mother in the small kitchen to make a snack of fried pakoras and chai tea.
We mixed all the ingredients for the pakoras until it made a wet batter.
I carefully placed some of the pakora batter into a frying pan bubbling with oil, and watched the tea mix on the stove top. It was all much easier to make than I originally thought.
For our 20 minute meal, we mixed the ingredients for paneer masala, a soft Indian cottage cheese, and one of my favorite things to eat in the world. Another secret: they purchase the paneer at the store, although they swore it was not hard to make at home.
We rolled the dough for a fried bread called puri. The puri is rolled on a small marble board with a small rolling pin. Having just come from a pasta making class in Emilia Romagna, where it takes a good long while to roll pasta dough thin enough to make decent pasta, this was a breeze. It took only a few seconds for each individual puri.
Eric came in with his strong man muscles and pretty much smooshed the puri dough in his first attempt. With his second attempt, he was a lot more successful. We also learned to make rice in a pressure cooker and made a sweet semolina based dessert on the stove top.
The main reason Komal chose these three dishes was to demonstrate that it is not difficult to make Indian food. Once you have your spice kit ready, including the multi-ingredient garam masala, the dinner only takes 20 minutes to prepare. Something I found fascinating. I always assumed that Indian food was more labor intensive. And, she was right. It took about 20 minutes to make everything, including the rice. This is a typical meal made at home on a weekday evening.
We sat around the family table, eating with Komal, proud of the results of our cooking class. Her mother and grandmother looked on, and sipped their tea, but didn’t join us, primarily because we ate at 6pm, well before the traditional dinner time in India.
Learning About Indian Culture
Perhaps because Komal doesn’t cook, she offered us some cultural lessons during our Indian cooking class, so that her mother wasn’t doing all the work. After we finished our tea, Komal showed us photos of her uncle’s wedding. Part of this was to let our bellies digest between courses. But, Komal also wanted to explain to us the Big Fat Indian Wedding.
Often a week long affair, an Indian wedding culminates in an all night wedding party, involving silver and jewels, white horses, and fire. Intrigued, I volunteered to return for Komal’s wedding, as she blushed at the notion. I wondered if her mother would make her learn how to cook in order to find a husband. I didn’t dare ask.
Once completely stuffed with paneer and other treats, Komal had one more surprise in store for me. She and her mother dressed me in a traditional Indian sari, something I’ve always wanted to do. They wrapped six meters of fabric around my body, tucking it in just the right places to keep it secure. I felt like a princess, even with my midriff showing, as is customary. They normally dress the men who visit as well, but Eric was just too big.
I certainly enjoyed learning to cook dishes that I previously assumed were too complicated to attempt in my own kitchen. But, what I loved the most, was the opportunity to be welcomed into an Indian family’s home, where we were welcomed with open arms.
We were hosted by Viator Travel on our Delhi Cultural Experience: Cook And Eat With a Local Family, and supported by the JW Marriott Delhi Aerocity during our stay in Delhi, but my views are my own. Indian cooking class tours start at $50 per person.
For more information about India, see our India Travel Guide, for information on accommodations, what to eat, and tours to book. While in Delhi, we stayed at the JW Marriott New Delhi – we definitely recommend it!
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new Food and Drink Destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.