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Shivani Dhamija walks around the large table in the middle of the kitchen, putting a couple of pieces of raw chicken into the bowl in front of each of the 10 people here for her cooking class. Chicken vindaloo, zeera aloo, basmati rice and naan are on the menu tonight in the kitchen at Veith House, the non-profit in Halifax’s north where Dhamija teaches Indian cooking to groups made up mostly of beginners.
A few minutes ago, the class prepared a spicy red paste by chopping garlic, adding peppercorns, dried hot peppers, and other ingredients. Now it’s time for the next step. Dhamija encourages her students to rub the spice paste all over the chicken so that it will absorb as much flavour as possible.
Dhamija said one of the common misconceptions about Indian food is that it has to have a lot of heat. Her husband, also from India, doesn’t like spicy dishes. “A lot of people come to my class thinking Indian food is always spicy. Yes, it can be spicy, but it’s flavourful too.”
Born in West Bengal, India Dhamija has been offering cooking classes in Halifax since she moved here in 2012. She studied public relations, but the move to cooking happened organically.
While she was working at the Canada Games Centre, “one of my friends asked if I could prepare meals for a friend who was a bachelor and didn’t like to cook,” she says. “I set up a Facebook page, and within a week I started getting likes from people who wanted this kind of service. Then people started asking me if I did cooking classes, so I did it.”
She also started a service that cooks and delivers traditional Indian meals to students and office workers in Halifax. She prepares the meals at her Clayton Park home, and her husband takes care of delivery. “I don’t make a lot of money with my meal delivery service,” she says, “but there are so many students out there who cannot cook.”
A generation ago, many Atlantic Canadians saw Indian food as wildly exotic. That’s changing, but Dhamija says some people still find the idea of cooking Indian dishes at home intimidating. She suggests that beginners start with simple but tasty recipes like red lentil curry and potatoes with cumin.
Acupuncturist Ali Jopp moved to Halifax from Victoria, British Columbia in January, and signed up for Dhamija’s curry class. Jopp enjoys cooking, but didn’t have much experience with Indian food. She says the class gave her confidence to try the recipes at home.
“We all worked together,” says Jopp. “I liked that approach quite a bit. And it’s so tactile and sensory that you really understand, it’s not like reading a recipe in a book.” Jopp said that Indian recipes can sometimes seem intimidating, and she appreciates how Dhamija’s approach breaks them into manageable steps: “When the oil is spattering you add the chilies, and when they smell like this, that’s when you know that they’re done.”
Dhamija offers classes with seasonal themes, like summer cooking, or focuses on a particular dish, like pakoras or samosas.
“Initially it was tough,” she says. “I still feel people are not ready to experiment. I can fill up a butter chicken class quickly, but when I do something like a veggie class, it takes a lot more time to fill up. I still feel I’m struggling to tell people Indian food is not just butter chicken and naan.”
Butter chicken is the big seller for 4S Catering, which sells Indian food at two farmers’ markets in Charlottetown. “We sell out every day,” co-owner Sheena Sunil says. Sunil runs the company with her husband, chef Sunil Daniel. The couple are originally from Kerala in Southern India but came to PEI about five years ago.
She said customers sometimes tell her they’ve tried to cook Indian dishes following YouTube videos, but they just don’t taste the same. Sunil says chefs who make videos don’t always reveal their full recipes, and the quality of the spices is key.
“A lot of people will buy ingredients like a curry paste from the Superstore, but we don’t do that,” she says. Like Dhamija, Sunil buys whole seeds and grinds them herself. “It’s kind of hard to find all the spices in Charlottetown. We go to Halifax, Moncton, or India. It’s kind of expensive to get spices from India. When my family or someone else comes to visit we’ll pay them to bring some. It’s expensive but it’s worth it.”
While not all ingredients for Indian meals are readily available, Dhamija says it’s improved dramatically in the five years she’s lived in Halifax:
“In Montreal or Toronto people are more ready to experiment. There are so many immigrants and different people and different cultures – but it’s coming to Nova Scotia. When I came over here I didn’t see many brown faces. Now I see so many. I think it will gradually change.”