I took three cooking classes on my big trip in 2013 and 2014. One in Nepal and two in India. Each one left me with their own special memories. The one in Kathmandu began with a trip to a local shop to buy ingredients so you get to see how locals buy their food. The next was in Thekkady, India and part of an organized tour. The instructor looked like Jerry Stiller (Ben Stiller’s dad, played George Costanza’s dad on Seinfeld) and I found a gigantic tick crawling up my leg. The third one was in Varkala, a beach town in Kerala on the southwestern coast of India.
I Guess You Could Call This a Review of Khan’s Cooking Class, Varkala, India
I had come to Varkala looking for one relaxing week in India with no running around, sightseeing, big city noise. I wanted to take some yoga classes and some cooking classes, maybe do some writing, but in general be lazy, and Varkala seemed like a good place for these pursuits. On my speculative recommendation (I had never been there before), three friends I met on the organized tour came to Varkala as well, so I had some company at dinner, but the days I had mostly to myself.
I found Khan’s Cooking Class via some postings around the town. Maybe I read about it online first, I can’t remember. It got some pretty solid reviews online, so I called to reserve a spot. Of the three cooking classes I took on my trip, this one had the best food. Also, it was in a small group setting so I think I learned more in it than in the tour group class. I forgot everything later, of course, but that’s my own damn fault.
The class takes place in Khan’s open air kitchen from which he cooks dinner nightly for whomever shows up. You have to pay for this dinner — it works like a really loosely run restaurant. If no one shows up, he doesn’t cook. He said some friends once showed up at 3 a.m. so he woke up and cooked for them. I couldn’t live like that. I need some notice. He gets fresh ingredients from his garden out back. Coconut trees are everywhere in that part of India, so the coconuts come fresh as well. The main building is a guest house which seems to be run just as loosely.
There were five of us in the class. An older British couple, a Polish couple about my age (the guy reminded me of one of my uncles), and me. We left our shoes on the ground beside the concrete slab of the kitchen floor. Barefoot cooking class.
“It can be learned, but can it be taught?”
This guy Khan knows how to cook, no question. But can he teach cooking? I think good cooks in general don’t really know what they’re doing. What I mean is, you can follow all their instructions to a T and get a result that doesn’t approach the quality of what they throw together on their worst day. Cooking has always seemed to me a form of magic whose practitioners know a few more of its enigmatic secrets than non-cooks and rely heavily on intuition.
I think my problem is I’m too left-brained when it comes to cooking. Too literal with the instructions. I don’t have a culinary sixth sense to tell me when to increase the heat, remove a lid, or spontaneously add some spice. I’ve been told I’d be good at baking, where exactness in necessary and spontaneity works against you.
Case in point: At one point during the class, I volunteered to stir the rice. I don’t need training in how to stir stuff, but I had cut my thumb moments earlier (more on that later) and was looking to contribute to the meal in a way that kept my bloody thumb away from the food. Khan told me to stir once, let it boil for a while, give it another stir, wait again, stir again, etc. Feeling like I needed some more specific instructions, perhaps sensing I was witnessing some the above-mentioned magic and needing to pin it down, I asked how long should each interval of waiting be. (Not my exact words.) He considered this for a second, shrugged, and said “Oh, about six seconds.” I looked up at the others and said “I’m going to count this out. Exactly six seconds!” I got a laugh out of that, my type-A exactitude standing in such contrast to Khan’s laid back demeanor.
Can Khan teach cooking? The real question is can anyone teach cooking?
About the thumb. One of the first tasks in this class was to shred fresh coconut to be used in the coconut rice. The basic idea is to scrape the inside of a halved coconut over a sharp, toothed shoehorn-shaped grater that’s anchored down in some way. The harder you push and the faster you scrape, the faster the job gets done.
I volunteered. I had done this in the Thekkady class and so was perhaps too confident. Within seconds I had let the coconut slip and got a flesh wound up the side of my right thumb. Khan said no problem. He had me run it under cold water (which would have been my first move anyway). Then he got some turmeric off the shelf and said we’d use this to staunch the bleeding, disinfect it, and help it heal faster. I thought that was a bold promise for a curry spice, but when in Rome…
The purported health benefits of turmeric are legion. Do a search online and you’ll see. In India they use it for many health and hygiene purposes, including toothpaste. Turmeric toothpaste.
He poured some turmeric on my thumb and I wrapped it in a paper towel, gripping it firmly to maintain pressure, a basic first aid technique. East-meets-West medicine.
As the class proceeded, Khan asked me a few times if I would like to help do this or that — cut vegetables, dole out spices. I thought I shouldn’t because, well, I’m bleeding and people are going to eat this food, so I declined each time until the rice stirring opportunity arose.
One of these jobs was to cut some kind of root vegetable, carrots maybe. The Polish guy who looks, sounds, and laughs like one of my uncles readily volunteered. Khan showed him what particular angle to cut at, demonstrating with a superhuman speed obviously the result of years of experience. If you know the movie Aliens, think of that scene where the android played by Lance Henriksen does the knife game on Bill Paxton’s hand. That fast. The Polish guy seemed like a smart dude, but he got it in his head to cut the carrots at the same superhuman speed. He says it — I’m not interpreting his intent from body language and facial expression. His demeanor was effectively “Hey, watch this!” I’m holding my bloody thumb thinking this can’t be good. He plants his feet, squares his shoulders with the cutting board — deep breath and —
He slices his thumb straight away. The cut is deep and ugly. There’s a flap. It’s surprising how much flesh there is between a thumb’s skin and bone. He grips this thumb, spasming forward with each wave of pain. There is way more blood than with my incident. His girlfriend rushes to his side. (Honestly, I don’t remember what she did. She might have stood there shaking her head.)
Khan was totally unphased. He went and got the turmeric.
So the Polish guy and I stood to one side holding our cut thumbs as the others got on with it. We checked his thumb ten minutes later. I remember thinking turmeric is cool and all, but it’s not magic, and at what point do you put down the spices and go get stitches? But it’s a foreign country and not knowing your way around you tend to downplay your injuries just to avoid the hassle. To an extent, of course.
I should comment on the barefoot part. Food gets dropped, you try not to step on it. Ants form lines to get the food and you try not to step on them. You’re feet don’t stay clean. It’s not a big deal.
In the grand tradition of cooking classes, after the cooking you all sit down to eat what you made. The food was very good. The kind of food you hope to find in India. Fortunately, there was good conversation as well. The Polish guy is not a dumb-dumb as the incident with the knife would suggest.
The next morning I ran into the Polish couple at a restaurant and joined them for breakfast. I told them about another Polish couple who were walking the Camino de Santiago at the same time I was. I told them that this couple wore big Polish flags on their backpacks, and the guy shakes his head and laughs. “Polish people love flags,” he said, and then explained how Poles bring local flags to soccer games and the smallest towns have the biggest flags.
A few days later I told my friends about the class and that you can get dinner there. “Think of it as a really casual restaurant. He cooks different things every night and it’s always good! It’s one price and you never know what you’re going to get but you know it’ll be great!” So we went by around 7 p.m. and, well, he wasn’t cooking that night. He had gone to the city to take care of some business.
I can recommend Khan’s Cooking Class in Varkala, Kerala, India.
(January 13, 2014 at Varkala, Kerala, India)
Cooking classes I took in…
Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal: Social Tours, Cook Like a Local
Thekkady, Kerala, India: Bar-B-Que
Varkala, Kerala, India: Kahn’s Cooking Class