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July 24, 2009

Educating eaters: the best cookery courses

As more people choose to dine in than eat out, it’s boom time for cookery schools. Three Times writers tried them out

Ren’s Kitchen — the name led me to expect one of those minimal Indian restaurants with turmeric-coloured furnishing and a framed, moving picture of a waterfall. But 28 Farm Road is a typical suburban house in Edgware, North London, or at least would be if it had a B&Q shed in the garden rather than a modern cookhouse.

Rather than working through a set menu, Renuka Patel tailors her courses to the abilities of her students — in this case, .me and Alby, my 14-year-old son. She asks us about our curry-making experience (little more than throwing random spices at a pan and hoping) and the sort of Indian food we like. I mention the Masala Dosas at our North London local, the Rasa, but apparently making stuffed pancakes is a two-day job. Instead, Ren suggests a morning making a vegetable curry, a fish curry, and rice (all the ingredients are included in the price). But first, a lesson in those things that “we are all scared of”: spices.

Tasting raw spices is enlightening. Ren guides us through these building blocks like a sommelier of seasoning, and we start to understand the purpose of the aromatics: cumin, “with a zing like brushed teeth”; black mustard seed, “the woosh of wasabi”; medicinal turmeric, “chalky with a bitter backnote”; and heat providers such as garam masala (“far too famous for its own good”).

The first food we prepare is Ren Magic Paste, a gunk made from taking a handheld blender to equal volumes of peeled root ginger and fresh green chillies. Added during cooking or even at the table, this heat provider is in several of Ren’s recipes, including Fab Vegetable Ren.

The main ingredients of this robust, flavoursome curry, says Ren, can be changed “to suit your veggie box” (we use aubergine, sweet potato and chick peas). The key is to temper the whole spices (mustard seeds, cumin and curry leaves) in oil, ideally sunflower, and add powdered spices to liquid, in this case cumin, coriander and turmeric sprinkled on the charred vegetables, along with a tin of tomatoes. Jaggery, an Indian sugar, offsets the tartness of the spices, while a little salt emboldens the flavours.

For the second dish, a Goan fish curry, Alby takes control. He whizzes up raw cumin and coriander seeds, garlic cloves, turmeric, dried chillies, a large handful of fresh coriander, cream of coconut, tamarind (a souring agent), and jaggery in a half a pint of water, which he then adds to a pan of simmering broth of onion, tomatoes, mustard seeds and curry leaves. Rather than add the cod now, Ren advises us to marinate it in lime juice when we get home, and then cook it through with the sauce.

After making the priapic rice (tip 1: wash basmati gently in warm water, tip 2: use Ren’s mum’s homemade ghee), we transfer all the food into takeaway cartons and rush home to test the results on the family. Given the absence of the usual moaning about the curry being “too spicy”, and the fact that not a scrap is left, it seems the exercise has been a success. Maybe even better than the Rasa’s Masala Dosas.

Shaun Phillips

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