When I planned my trip to India, cooking classes were high on the itinerary; with all the delicious food available on the subcontinent, surely I should learn a few culinary secrets myself? Kerala, my first destination, seemed to be a good place to get started: with mouth-watering fish curry, fiery sambar and flavourful spice blends, Keralan food was delicious.
I opted to take a class in Munnar named ‘Nimi’s Lip Smacking Dishes of Kerala,’ which had a mention in Lonely Planet and great reviews on TripAdvisor. Nimi Sunilkumar, who runs the class, has a growing culinary reputation. Her second book, ‘Nimi’s Lip Smacking Dishes of Kerala,’ was awarded titles at the 2013 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, while her latest, ‘4 O’Clock Temptations of Kerala,‘ received the award for ‘Best Indian Cookbook’ in 2015 at Gourmand.
As Nimi was travelling, it took a few emails to sort out a suitable day on which the course was running, but my patience paid off, as the class lived up to expectations in every way.
Unlike some classes, which run to a strict two-hour schedule, Nimi’s class goes on as long as necessary, depending on the participants’ questions. In our case, we arrived at 3pm and left at around 7.30 – after eating the delicious food we’d prepared.
Nimi started the class by talking us through the ingredients typically found in a Keralan kitchen, allowing us to smell and taste all of the ingredients. She outlined which varieties of spice we should use, and how to identify freshness. Although some of the ingredients were familiar, there were also new ones, such as dried garcinia fruit, which is apparently essential in fish curry. There were other secrets, such as the necessity of using coconut oil as a fat and the widespread use of Kashmiri chilli powder, which is much milder than the ‘red hot’ version! I took copious notes, although sadly lost these when I dropped my iPhone among the boulders of Hampi. I’m planning to return to Munnar in April with some friends, and am hoping to do another class with Nimi – next time I will make sure to email the notes to myself!
After we’d looked at the Keralan kitchen, we made five dishes together: string hoppers, sambar with shallots, chicken stew in coconut milk, a bean stir fry called achinga thoran, and banana doughnuts. The class was fairly hands on – whilst there’s only one stove, everyone chops and gets involved with other processes, such as pressing the string hoppers (which was super fun!). Nimi also makes sure everyone gets a turn at the stove, so the resulting food was a collaborative effort.
When we finished, we sat down to eat the fruits of our labor, along with some rice and parathas that suddenly appeared. The food was delicious: the sambar had a complex flavour and, while piquant, was not overwhelmingly spicy, while the stew was delicate with incredibly tender chicken. Stringhoppers are always a winner and, unsurprisingly, the banana doughnuts were very quickly devoured!
Nimi was very knowledgeable and clearly passionate about food – a self-taught cook, she loves the cuisine of Kerala and wants to share it with others. The other participants were also lovely and were keen foodies, which made for a very enjoyable afternoon. The price was reasonable at 1500 rupees, for which you also receive a free copy of ‘Lip Smacking Dishes of Kerala.’ You’d easily pay £15 for the cookbook on its own in the UK, so it was great to have it provided.
The only potential downside is that some of the dishes require specialist equipment not easily available in the UK – for the string hoppers, for example, you do really need an idlyappam pan, as well as a press. I can completely understand why this is, as authentic Keralan cooking requires different equipment than Western fare, but if you’re serious about replicating the food at home, you might need to go to one of Munnar’s kitchen shops.
Overall, though, this was a fantastic afternoon – I just hope all the cooking classes I go to are as good as this! A definite must-do if you’re in Munnar.