The Hungry Engineer

South Austin Masala

Chaya Rao's Indian Cooking Classes

28 Jul 2009

We’ve eaten a variety of delicious Indian food all over town, but every time I’ve tried to prepare it at home, it’s been an unqualified failure. Imagine my delight at being invited to a trial-run Indian cooking class at the lovely home of Chaya Rao. That evening’s class ended with some of the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten. And now that I’ve had a few weeks now to try the recipes myself, I have to say, thanks to Chaya, I’ve come closer than ever before to producing acceptable Indian fare at home.

masala dabba

Note: I have to apologize up front for the photos. Sean wasn’t able to attend the class, and I’m a pretty poor substitute when it comes to the skill and attentiveness required for decent photography.

A few weekends ago, I trekked way down to south Austin to meet a dozen or so other Austin food-lovers at Chaya’s house for the much anticipated cooking class. We gathered around the island in her large and beautifully appointed kitchen and observed this tiny dynamo at work. She chatted, she mixed drinks, she diced tomatoes, she squeezed limes, and she cooked and cooked and cooked. We talked about the pattern of her classes, her background, the origins of the food she was preparing, and the preparation steps in the dishes she was showing us. This included ingredient details, ingredient options, and equipment discussions as well. All this was punctuated by sizzling and steaming from a variety of humongous pots and pans and the occasional blast from the pressure cooker.

One of the more interesting things I learned through the evening is that the reason so many of my attempts probably failed before is that I wasn’t brave enough with the seasonings. I was again and again amazed at the amount of seasonings she added to things. With a simple kitchen teaspoon, she poured serrano chiles, chili pepper, coriander, cumin, salt, etc. into these dishes, and they all came out tasting perfectly balanced and well-seasoned.

(I will say though that trying the as-written recipes at home has occasionally produced mouth-searing concoctions that in the end caused more pain than enjoyment. I’m convinced at this point that years of practice have given Chaya an innate feel for how things are to be spiced and balanced and only time and practice will improve these things for me.)

batata vada with carrot slaw

We started our culinary adventure with batata vada. (Every time I say that aloud, I feel like I’m channeling my inner Harry Potter and magicking my ingredients instead of cooking them.) Batata vada are balls of cooked and riced potatoes mixed with a variety of seasonings that are dipped in a seasoned chickpea flour batter and fried. She served them with two types of chutney: date-and-tamarind and cilantro-and-mint. On the side, she served an intensely flavorful carrot slaw.

cardamom mojito

Just for a treat, she showed us how to make cardamom mojitos. Unlike far too many restaurant mojitos, Chaya’s weren’t sickly sweet concoctions. Muddled mint and soaked cardamom pods made the drink a little messy but incredibly aromatic.

dhal soup

Next up, Dhal soup. This is the sort of soup I could eat every day and never get tired of. It’s full of legume goodness (she suggests two kinds of dhal: mung dhal and toor dhal), is a vibrant marigold yellow-orange color, and treats the taster to a slowly building heat that underscores rather than overpowers the multitude of additional flavorings in the soup.

saag paneer

The crescendo of the meal happened well after the end time of the class. Chaya had shown us how to make vegetable biriyani and saag paneer (Sean’s favorite Indian dish). The biriyani, rice and a plethora of crisp-fresh veggies stir-fried and mixed with an elaborately spiced yogurt sauce, was easily one of my favorite dishes of the night. The saag paneer was different than any I had ever eaten before. For one, Chaya is generous with her paneer. For another, she uses fresh spinach. The color was a vibrant emerald green and the flavor was more refined than in any other version of saag paneer I’ve ever tasted. She served these with raita and store-bought naan.

biriyani, saag paneer, and naan

The meal ended, late at night and after much wonderful conversation, with rabdi, a sort of cooked-milk dessert, and mangoes. Though achingly full at this point, I happily indulged. Even as late as it was, it was difficult saying our goodbyes and heading home after such a perfect evening. The food was beyond fantastic, the company and conversation were engaging, and Chaya and her family were wonderful hosts.

rabdi and mango

Chaya has taught cooking classes at both Whole Foods and Central Market, and now she will also be teaching small group classes privately in her home. Her food is spectacular and her warm personality will invite even the shiest among us to ask questions. I would heartily recommend her courses to anyone with even the slightest interest in authentic Indian cooking.

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