Curry Favor: Cooking instructor Ranjana Bhargava shares the secrets of traditional Indian cuisine

Ranjana Bhargava teaches about spices; photo by Elly Fishman

Ranjana Bhargava teaches about spices; photo by Elly Fishman

“In India, when a guest first enters your home, whether royal or beggars, it is custom for the host to offer tea,” says Ranjana Bhargava as she turns down the burner beneath the boiling pot of milk. Seven mugs stand adjacent to the stove, one for each student in tonight’s North Indian cooking class in Bhargava’s South Shore home. Bhargava, whose apron covers her traditional salwar kameez tunic, stands stove-side as she soaks several teabags into the milk, watching it rise and fall as though breathing. The kitchen walls are lined with wooden cabinets, some entirely filled with various kinds of lentils, others with enormous sacks of Indian spices. The weight of the long, narrow kitchen is centered on the island stove. As students arrive, each takes a seat around the island and Bhargava starts the class. She begins with spices: spices from every region ranging from cumin and turmeric to saffron and dried pomegranate seeds. “Every dish has to have something tart, something spicy, and something salty,” explains Bhargava. Bhargava, throughout her life in the kitchen, has written on every single Indian spice. “So many recipes use Indian spices, but people don’t know how to cook with them,” she explains. “I want to educate in order to help expand the knowledge of cooking.”

After reviewing the array of spices with the seven students, Bhargava passes out a pamphlet of eleven recipes, all of which will be prepared, cooked, and enjoyed within the three-hour class time. She begins with two kinds of chutney, coriander, and tamarind, then moves to samosas, daal, ringed eggplant, and bhindi (okra) and eventually ends with halwa, a wheat-based dessert made with milk. Bhargava teaches four rotating varieties of vegetarian Indian cuisine: quick meals, regional cuisine of India, Muglai cooking, and tonight’s menu, the basics of North Indian meals. “This is a nostalgic meal for me,” Bhargava reflects. “This is my mother’s food. She was a simple cook.” As Bhargava chops, fries, and kneads, she weaves her own stories into the instructions. From her experiences growing up in an orthodox Hindu household in India, to the moment she first met her husband–their marriage was arranged–Bhargava’s stories are present in each vegetable, curry, and bread.

Bhargava has been telling her stories over food for thirty years. She has taught classes of all sizes, ranging from a one-hundred-person seminar to individual lessons. Over the years, she has taught everywhere from the Hyde Park Co-op supermarket to Macy’s and the Taste of Chicago.

When Bhargava left India and came to the States in 1968, she had only two suitcases in hand. “I didn’t know how to cook,” she says. “At home, my kitchen was an Orthodox Hindu kitchen. At school I played with Muslims, Christians, all different kinds of children, so I wasn’t allowed to help prepare our food.” Two days after Bhargava arrived in Chicago, she met her husband for the first time. Both Bhargava and her husband were vegetarians, and learning to cook became more than a personal desire. While living on the South Side of Chicago, where there were almost no vegetarian restaurants, cooking was a necessity. As the years went by, Bhargava experimented in the kitchen, eventually becoming a true master of the craft. Now, all those who encounter Bhargava, including her South Shore neighbors, know her talents. Bhargava’s home, and particularly her kitchen, has become a haven for people from every walk of life to learn how to eat Indian food and learn Indian traditions.

Over the years, Bhargava’s mission in the kitchen took new shapes. “I wanted to show how simple and healthy Indian meals can be. If students have three hours to cook for their entire week, what can they cook, and for cheap?” Bhargava suggests three staples in the vegetarian Indian diet: rice dishes, masalas, and bread. But more than simply expose students to quick meals, Bhargava hopes to eventually expand the availability of vegetarian food throughout the South Side. Bhargava is currently in discussion with the Chicago Park District over incorporating her cooking classes into their activities throughout the city as a way to promote healthy, vegetarian lifestyles. “There are almost no options for vegetarians on the South Side,” says Bhargava. “And none of which are healthy.” One of Bhargava’s many goals is to show South Side vegetarians that vegetables do not have to be fried or soaked in butter and oil in order to taste good. Through classes, seminars, and even a few books in the works, Bhargava’s hopes for a vegetarian movement seem to hold no bounds. Although Bhargava’s goals are grand, some of her greatest satisfactions still come from small victories: “If my students go home and even just try to make daal, if they’ve gotten anything out of my classes, it’s worth it.”

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