Michael Pollan in his show ‘Cooked’ talks about how human beings are the only species that cook their food. He explains how cooking is responsible for our evolution because we spend less time chewing because of cooking. While the science of cooking seems very fascinating, I believe that cooking is a very fine art form and our mothers, grandmas, aunts and everyone who ever cooked for us are artists. I was very pleasantly surprised when one of my very good friends Shirin Subhani started a Facebook Page called ‘Shirin’s Kitchen’. She was teaching Indian cooking classes at her home and I found the whole concept extremely captivating. Shirin comes from a Computer Science background and it seemed to me like she was following her heart as she cooked and celebrated Indian Food with her adopted city of Seattle.
Zohra: Shirin, it is a pleasure to be talking to you via Jaggery. Thank you for taking time off your busy schedule and talking with me. Could you start of by telling us about your journey – about how your path led you to Shirin’s Kitchen?
Shirin: Zohra, I am very excited to be sharing my story with your readers. Thank you for this opportunity. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve really enjoyed having friends over and sharing meals with them. When my older son started Kindergarten seven years ago, it was at a very special school where I found myself in a lovely community with wonderful families and loving and dedicated staff. I started inviting other parents and teachers home, and cooking for them. They received my food with a lot of appreciation and love, and it inspired me to cook more.
A few of them were interested in learning how to make Indian food so I started having them in my kitchen and teaching them some of my favorite dishes. As I did this more and more, I realized how much I was enjoying the experience, and so were my ‘students’. Many of them encouraged me to formalize the process more and assured me that there were others who’d be interested in learning to make Indian food. With their loving support and motivation, I started Shirin’s Kitchen.
Zohra: Thank you for that Shirin. It’s quite wonderful to realize that there are people out there that seem to be not only interested in eating food but making it too! Seems like you have a very good community of enthusiastic cheerleaders encouraging you amongst your community. I can see where your passion and love for this comes from. So, what do you love most about what you do?
Shirin: Yes, I am very grateful for all the support and love I have been blessed with!
I came up with the tag line Connect-Create-Celebrate to describe my cooking classes and the combination of these three aspects is really what I seem to love the most. Connecting with people, Creating delicious and nutritious food together, and Celebrating our efforts by sharing a meal.
I also send people home with little spice boxes (masala dabbas), which include all the needed spices for the dishes they learn to make, including some of my own homemade spice blends and it gives me a lot of joy to put these boxes together.
Witnessing people getting more comfortable with new recipes, sending them back with spices, and then hearing back from them that they’ve recreated those very dishes in their own kitchens makes me really happy!
Zohra: That’s very nice Shirin. You had mentioned to me earlier that one of your favorite food-based novels is Chitra Divakaruni’s ‘Mistress of Spices’. Any other inspirations?
‘Mistress of Spices’ so beautifully captures the essence of so many Indian Spices; as I delve into the magical world of spices myself, Divakaruni’s words are a beautiful inspiration.
I loved her spice-a-day assignment in the story – “Each spice has a special day to it. For turmeric it is Sunday, when light drips fat and butter-colored into the bins to be soaked up glowing, when you pray to the nine planets for love and luck.”
Recently, I started reading chef Vikas Khanna’s books as well and am enjoying his journey with spices as well. His beautiful cookbooks, descriptions and stories are very inspiring. ’Bliss of Spices’ is what’s on my shelf right now and I am learning so much from it!
I also have a couple of wonderful websites which I like to look at for recipes and recipe ideas, including my favorites – Veg Recipes Of India with very helpful photo instructions for each step and Monsoon Spice, with beautiful photos and stories!
Zohra: Those sound great. Spice-a-day reminds me of Tilo’s Fenugreek Wednesdays. “Fennel, which is the spice for Wednesdays, the day of averages, of middle-aged people. . . . Fennel . . . smelling of changes to come.”
On that note, I want to ask you what plans are cooking and what can we smell in the future in Shirin’s Kitchen?
My classes are still new and so far, most of my students have been friends and friends of friends. This has been a great experience and I feel ready now to also welcome new people to my kitchen, people who are completely new to me, and cook with them. I recently started cooking with kids as well and loved that, so look forward to more kids’ classes as well. Currently, I am in the process of completing a series of guest chef classes, where I invited other friends and family who love to cook to come in and do special classes. I get to learn a lot from them too. In my last class, I had my friend Deepa Hazra who taught us Bengali dishes from her hometown Calcutta. She taught dishes using vegetables like Bitter Gourd, Drumsticks and Plantains, vegetables that I don’t commonly cook with. It was a great learning experience to cook outside of my comfort zone. I am hoping that I can do more of these guest chef presentations and also expand my students and my horizons.
Zohra: That sounds very exciting. I see that there seems to be a lot of planning in your classes. I think there was one time where you did South Indian breakfasts like Idli, Dosa, Wada etc. Another time where you did Rice dishes. Where do you get your class/recipes/ideas from?
Shirin: A lot of class ideas come from people telling me what they want to learn. Others are based on what I think would be fun to teach. Many of my recipes are based on what I’ve learnt from my mother or my mother-in-law. My sons are pretty picky eaters too, so I’ve had to get extra creative with my recipes to appeal to their palates.
Zohra: It is quite heart-warming to see that your family seems to be supporting your venture. I think one time your aunt did a class too. How do your kids and your husband react to Shirin’s Kitchen?
Shirin: My kids seem to love the fact that I do cooking classes and it was my little one who encouraged me to get going with Shirin’s Kitchen. They love that their friends and teachers are learning to appreciate and cook Indian food and seem proud of their mom for enabling that. My husband is a good cook himself and I am looking forward to doing events with him in the future as well, our very first Date Night cooking class is coming up soon where we will be co-teaching.
Zohra: Very nice. Basically you are not only bringing the whole of Seattle together but your family as well. Great work Shirin. Tell us, as I am very interested to know and I am sure our readers are as well, as to how non-desis react to Indian food? Do they find it easy/hard to cook? Do they enjoy the process or get overwhelmed sometimes?
I love how much people seem to love Indian food! The different vegetables, the spices, the completely different ways of cooking the same dish, the colors, the flavors, the smells, all of it makes for a wonderful and fun experience.
Sometimes people do start off a little intimidated, especially by the number of spices involved but my job is to make them relax, help them see spices as friends and learn to pay attention to and trust their senses. One of my challenges is that I don’t measure things typically and my students are often used to exact measurements so look for those. Encouraging them to add a pinch of this, a handful of that, and taste and adjust as you go can be hard at times, but they do slowly lean into it and end up getting comfortable with the idea by the time they are done.
They come in thinking they might find it hard, and are often pleasantly surprised with how easily they are able to follow recipes and cook up something delicious. I’ve often had people sitting down at the table, taking a bite of the food and going, ‘Wow, did I really make that?’
Zohra: Wow Shirin, that is so wonderfully put – “help them see spices as friends and learn to pay attention to and trust their senses”. I am sure there are many experiences and things that happen in the kitchen. Any interesting anecdote(s) you want to share that happened in Shirin’s Kitchen?
A couple months ago, I was setting up for a class where two of my students were going to be folks I had never met before (friends of a friend). It was almost class time and I was running terribly behind. It had been a somewhat chaotic morning with the kids and my kitchen was in somewhat of a mess. Typically, I have everything all neat and tidy, stations all set up, and chai and snacks ready at the table before folks arrive. On that particular day, I was far from ready when there was a knock on the door.
I took a few deep breaths and decided to embrace the chaos. Instead of apologizing, I welcomed the two ladies with, ‘I have a special treat for you today. You’ve already seen my kitchen picture perfect on Facebook, here you get to see the behind the scenes version, the setup process in action!’ The women had big smiles on their faces and told me to relax and take all the time I needed to setup.
They were in their sixties, friends for 35 years, having met each other because their kids were in preschool together. ‘Our kids got over us but we never did,’ they shared. Between lots of laughs and loving conversation, I got my kitchen all sorted out and set up and probably served one of my best cups of chai that day! They loved the entire experience and never having cooked Indian food before, embraced the new dishes and touched my heart with the openness and excitement with which they paid attention to and enjoyed every small thing. I have stayed in touch with them and look forward to having them back in my kitchen soon!
Zohra: What a fun story! Shirin, I read some of the reviews that people who took your classes left on your FB page and have gathered that you have come up with a very creative structure to your class that starts with chai and ends with a meal. Typically, how many hours do you spend on a class? Could you explain more about what happens in a typical class? Also, I would love to know what your favorite snacks/dishes are?
You remember the tag line I mentioned earlier – Connect, Create, Celebrate? That pretty much defines the structure of my classes.
Each class typically run up to 4 hours long. The session starts with everyone sitting around the table and connecting over a cup of my adrak chai and other munchies, usually comprising some of my own favorite childhood snacks. As folks sip their chai and get acquainted with each other, I familiarize everyone with the dishes they will be cooking and answer any questions they may have. I ask folks to pick the dish/dishes that jump out at them and choose what they would like to make. By themselves or with a partner, they then start creating. Doing all the prep and then all the cooking, each person is responsible for their dish from start to end, with me watching over and guiding as needed. Once all the dishes are made, we eat a meal together, enjoying the fruits of our labor! As we eat, I introduce them to their masala dabbas and each spice in the dabba that they will be taking home with them.
As for my favorite snacks and dishes, they seem to keep changing all the time but some of my all-time favorite snacks with chai are Parle-G and Bourbon biscuits. I have to be careful with them because I can easily finish entire packs, dipping them into my chai one at a time! I love any dishes that are paneer-based, Saag Paneer is something I can eat all the time, especially with Zeera Rice. I recently learnt how to make Paneer Makhmali and really enjoy that as well. And of course, any kind of Raitas are right up there among my favorites also.
Zohra: Thank you Shirin for that wonderful tete-a-tete. It’s amazing to see what all you are doing and the kind of experiences you are having in Shirin’s Kitchen. It seems like you are bringing together so many people (and your family too) in sharing the happiness of making food that you love for the people that you love. We at JaggeryLit wish you all the success as you move forward, and I hope to do an interview with you after you are finished establishing Shirin’s Kitchen Empire. I look forward to speaking with you again. Good Luck!
Shirin: Thank You Zohra, this was a great opportunity for some pause and reflection. Hope your readers enjoy reading about my adventures.
For those interested in what’s happening in Shirin’s Kitchen, please be sure to like her facebook page: Shirin’s Kitchen Facebook Page