The city of Udaipur in Rajasthan is famous for the beautiful lake at its heart. It’s been the setting for many movies, with the James Bond franchise’s Octopussy the best known by Americans. We couldn’t believe how many of Udaipur’s guesthouses advertise that they screen Octopussy every single night. Steve and I passed on that, but we did take a boat ride on the water one morning, and we enjoyed the splendid lake views from various rooftop restaurants. What I’ll remember most, however, are the hours we spent in Shashi’s kitchen.
We wound up there because a listing in the “Activities” section of the Lonely Planet’s Udaipur chapter raved about Shashi’s cooking classes. I emailed to see if we could join one and got a response saying the 5:30 pm Saturday (11/17) class had two openings. This was a stretch; on Saturday we had to set the alarm in Jodhpur for 6 am to catch a train. After that five-hour journey, our taxi got stuck in a giant traffic jam. But we didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so precisely at 5:30 pm we walked into a trim little kitchen on the upper floor of a building down the street from our hotel.
Along with Steve and me, the students also included two friendly middle-aged British couples and an adorable pair of French almost-newlyweds who were traveling the world on a six-month sabbatical. Shashi appeared and silently tied little friendship bracelets on each of our wrists (women’s on the left and men’s on the right.) She applied a red stick-on bindi dot in the middle of each woman’s forehead, and more red on our hairlines (the indicator that a woman is married.) Then she sat and told us her story.
She’d been born abut 50 years ago in a village 200 km outside Udaipur. At 19 her family arranged her marriage to a man she’d never met before. But he was handsome and understanding, and they were happy to be blessed with two boys. The kids were 7 and 5, when one day Shashi’s husband was murdered. She didn’t explain the circumstances, but today her face still bears traces of the depth of that tragedy.
It went far beyond the loss of her husband. Rules binding the Brahman caste (into which she was born) declared that she could never remarry (though she was only 32.) She lacked the education to work in any of the limited professions acceptable for Brahmans (traditionally teachers and priests or professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers.) She had no relatives who would take in her and her little boys; no savings or social assistance. To survive, she washed the clothes of foreign tourists and cleaned neighbors’ homes, but she had to do this furtively, because of the caste restrictions.
She hinted at the suffering in those years. Eventually she and her boys got to know an Irish tourist who learned what a good cook she was. He urged her to offer cooking classes to tourists. That seemed impossible; she spoke no English. The Irish guy nonetheless encouraged her, and Shashi screwed up her courage. Somehow it worked. The tourists came. Little by little, she learned English. When a Lonely Planet writer included her in the guidebook’s Udaipur chapter several years ago, that was her big breakthrough. Now, even though her competition has exploded, Shashi teaches two classes daily 5 or 6 months of the year. She’s hardly rich, but through grit and hard work, she’s made a life from the ashes.
We glimpsed her drive once our class got underway. I’ve taken many cooking classes in my life, but none that approached the scope of what this woman covered. She started by teaching us how to make masala chai, the spicy tea that’s ubiquitous in India. We sipped it while we watched her prepare a spicy chickpea-flour batter in which we immersed onion and potato slices.We deep-fried them, then gobbled them down, dipped in two kinds of chutney (coriander and mango) both of which Shashi showed us how to make.
We moved on to the “magic sauce” that’s at the heart of so many Indian dishes. Shashi’s younger son Ashish (who assisted her throughout the night, both in cooking and teaching) explained that if you start with this, you can quickly spin off countless seemingly different dishes. At its base is garlic, ginger, and onion sautéed in oil and then enlivened with key spices: cumin seed, coriander, chili, turmeric, and salt.We made the magic sauce, then we used it to makes several dishes, including curried chickpeas….deep-fried cheese in a tomato-butter sauce, and a vegetable pulao.As each dish was completed, Shashi stacked it on its predecessors,a teasing metal tower that grew more maddeningly tempting as the hours went by, and we grew more and more tired and hungry. But there was more to learn, and lots of joking and laughter to distract us as we toiled. We made chapatti dough; learned out to knead it and cook it on a skillet.Many hands make good chapatti.
We made naan dough, and Shashi demanded that we all handle acquire a basic proficiency with that.
The naan rounds puff up magically as you fry and roast them.
It was well after 10 before we all took seats around the table and dug into the spread we’d created. I can report that everything tasted delicious; it ranked among the best food Steve and I have eaten anywhere on this trip. The conversation flowed, lubricated not by any drop of alcohol but by the common work we’d just shared.
Shashi confided that she doesn’t always enjoy the larger groups, those as big as our eight-some. Sometimes people don’t get along, and some are difficult. But we were good people, she pronounced. I felt as warmed by her praise as I was by the chiles in the food we were digesting. It was clear to me she was not just a good teacher but also a good human being. It was a pleasure to learn that about each other. Preparing and eating a great meal together can teach you that.