The first time I taught a cooking class was on a cold night in Boston in 2001. I had just gotten married and moved to the U.S. where my husband had commenced business school. My first class was an Indian cooking class and I think I only got the job because I looked Indian and they couldn't find anyone else.
Knowledge of Indian cooking in the U.S.A. was still at the stage where people associated Indian food with a handful of dishes like saag paneer and samosa and assumed that everything had 'curry' in it.
Even though curry first came to New England when it was an English colony, Indian cuisine developed here far more slowly than in the United Kingdom. At the time I moved to Boston and later NYC, some desi restaurants from India were making gulab jamuns out of Bisquick pancake mix and passing off bad Rogan Josh as Vindaloo.
I wasn't prepared at all for what my American students expected. Indians cook from experience and use 'andaaz' (estimates) for measures. Americans want exact measures for everything and I wasn't even familiar with their measuring system of pints and ounces. There is a natural curiosity in Americans to question everything - the hallmark of a working democracy, which is why New American cuisine is so evolved. I had few answers for questions like - why do Indian cook the onions for so long, why you add the curry leaves after the cumin to the hot oil.
These questions made me feel incompetent (and I was!) but it was this inadequacy that led me to research everything and understand the science of Indian cooking. Teaching cooking to Americans made me understand how important it was to know the background story, measure, test and breakdown every process.
It motivated me to include a comprehensive glossary in my first cookbook “A Sense of Spice: Recipes and Stories from a Konkan Kitchen” and catalog words, techniques and ingredients unique to the Indian culinary repertoire.
Catch Tara Deshpande Tennebaum’s talk on deconstructing Indian classics to their raw form at the launch of her new book ‘A Sense of Salad: Eat Raw, Eat More’ at Conscious Food, Mumbai on February 24, 2018 between 4-6pm.