#7 – Do the Spice Rack: South Indian Cookery session with Spice Manchester
Manchester – England’s second city. A busy metropolis with an exciting mix of communities and cultures. For my SPICE Manchester event the perfect opportunity presented itself to take advantage of this diversity and seize the opportunity to enjoy a private South Indian cookery course. Hosted at home by the Spice co-ordinator, a group of just four of us enjoyed an interesting session which was a life lesson as well as a cookery lesson. Our teacher was Peter, who has a stall at Altrincham market and produces South Indian food – as we were to learn, a very different proposition to the creamy, ghee laden, saturated fat soaked Indian takeaways we typically enjoy in the UK.
Peter explained that his style of cookery is all about harmony, balance and health; using ingredients grown where they are native, in season and combinations of spices for their medicinal properties rather than their flavour. Seasonality and local produce is a current foodie trend but for Peter there is so much more to it than that. He explained that where plants grow naturally, they have their own defences built into the soil. They don’t need artificial pesticides as they have everything they need in nature. Similarly, if you force food to grow outside of its natural season it needs more chemicals, more water, more of earth’s resources so it is no longer in balance but more importantly it grows under stress and this stress is ingested with the food. Foods that can be dried, like pulses, can be kept and used all year round so they are a staple of this type of cookery. This all made a lot of sense to me.
Peter’s cookery, he told us, is less about recipes and more about methods. He uses combinations of spices with different medicinal properties so that his food is both healthy and cleansing. Mustard seed, for example, is used to tell when the oil has reached the right temperature – it pops at saturation point. Overheating oil causes a chemical change in its composition which means it is not digested and goes into the body as fat. Peter maintains that as long as oil is not overheated, it is not unhealthy. He used coconut oil.
The spices Peter used, in addition to the mustard seed were:
Turmeric – purely used for colour as it has no taste. It is however an antiseptic so cleansing and healing
Cumin – to aid digestion
Fenugreek – a natural blood thinner
White lentils – very high in protein and help the bones
Cardamom – a diuretic and also a calming spice
Garlic – used especially with pulses as they are high in protein and can cause wind, which garlic counteracts
We learnt that in Indian curry powder is coriander seed based and is not hot as it is never mixed with chilli powder. We also learnt that spices should be added once other ingredients have been placed in and the temperature has lowered, as frying them on high heat effectively kills them by damaging their active properties. Peter’s methods were simple – add each of the ingredients in the right order and don’t stir them around too much, leave them to get on with it. In this way he produced for us a dahl, rice, sprouts and carrots, each with slightly different spicing.
As he worked and taught us his methods, we came on to discussing our lives and happiness. And this is where the lesson became so much more than just a cookery class. Peter explained how his principles of balance influence his whole lifestyle. He shared with us the revelation he had after a serious accident which caused him to come to a realisation that it isn’t all about money and material things and instead it’s about helping others, living sustainably and not using too many resources, sharing knowledge and doing the right thing. We had a long and fascinating discussion on this and what makes you happy in life. Five relative strangers, in a kitchen, we shared thoughts and feelings, offered advice and tried to help each other. Then we enjoyed a very tasty (although for me very spicy) meal together.
I came away knowing more about this style of cookery but also with a feeling of calm and that I’m broadly on the right track with my life. Somehow this simple session was a spiritual as well as a physical experience. This is hard to put into words and it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting when I booked the event, but it was definitely worth the trip.
When it was time to say goodbye Peter very kindly gifted me a set of his preciously sourced spices, as he was pleased I had travelled so far to take his class. I am looking forward to having some adventures in the new year as I explore this new style of cookery although the instinctive touch Peter brought to it clearly takes years to develop. Peter believes that you can feel the benefits of this kind of cooking and eating even if you only do it two or three times a week. I’m not sure I’ll manage that because I like a real diversity in my food and flavours but I am keen to try some dishes and use these precious spices.
An unexpected afternoon!