Well, our nnoodl adventurers had tried paddle boarding and stop motion animation in previous months, so what did I have in store for them in June? nnoodl events are booked so that weather won’t affect them, and this month’s activity was taking us on a journey to North India via Shepherds Bush for a class in Thali style cookery. This was one event that was easy to keep secret – no particular equipment required, just cool clothing which was very much in keeping with our sudden very summery spell.
We met at Shepherds Bush station and had the usual murmurs and guesses as we ventured into Westfield Shopping Centre …”a personal shopping experience?” I heard both a male and female member of our group ask with very different tones of enthusiasm.
As we approached the Jamie Oliver Cookery School, everyone seemed audibly excited, but still not 100% on the mark as they guessed the inevitable Italian cookery. But no, the chefs at this school cross various continents offering classes from Italian, to Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, and even a class in knife sharpening skills.
We were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco and an apron as we took in the impressive surroundings of our working kitchen, situated through to the back of the restaurant. We were introduced to our Chef, Francesco who explained that traditional Gujarati cuisine, as it’s known involves lots of different cooking methods and flavour combinations making it a really unique and versatile cuisine. He was going to take us through the steps needed to make a vegetarian Gujarati thali – a selection of small dishes and rice that’s traditionally served on a tray.
Now this is my kind of food, I love any little sharing dishes like tapas or mezze. As we only had limited time, Francesco explained the ingredients and cooking processes for the lentil dahl, which was now reducing down so that it was ready for our little feast later.
Firstly he talked us through the spices we would be using, by passing them around and inviting us to smell them and guess what they were. I wasn’t too bad at this bit, although couldn’t guess the mustard seeds…well, that was until he started frying them right in front of me, and those of us in his sight line had our breath taken away as we started coughing - much to his amusement. This, along with a spice base of cumin, turmeric and chilli powder was to form the base of a sambharo, a warm cabbage salad.
Francesco talked us through our knife skills next for chopping the cabbage and carrots. This is something that despite cooking a lot, I have never been taught. He demonstrated the ‘Chef claw’ and how to curl your fingers in on top of the item you are cutting, keeping the first knuckle of your finger close to the knife blade. He showed us that you use the part of the knife closer to the handle to produce that rocking movement with the knife to create that clean cutting motion. He then talked us through the chickpea masala and crispy spiced okra dishes, and finally the chapati bread.
After this overview we were paired up at our stations and we were off! I was working with Mark, who is actually my PT and a former Marine. Here’s a guy who will know about knife skills and cooking, I thought to myself. He went off to select the spices as I tried out my chopping technique. Francesco was over like a shot to direct me safely through this, in his inimitable, jokey way, all the time referring to me as ‘Chef’ even though clearly I was anything but! Our next challenge was not to move the the vegetables around as they cooked in the oil. As a fan of a stir fry this was really counter-intuitive, but he kept a beady eye on all of us “Don’t stir Chef, don’t stir!” to the point that I thought it was burning and then “..well yes, stir it now!”. All the time we were cooking the team were coming round to see if we wanted more drinks from the bar. I decided that knives and alcohol weren’t the best combination but lots of people were partaking without injury and everyone seemed to be in high spirits.
It was my turn to select the spices (it transpired later that I had possibly been a little heavy handed in my measurement of these little devils!) as Mark perfected his okra slicing. Mindful that time was not on our side, and both of us being of a slightly competitive nature, we decided to try and crack on with the chapati bread whilst cooking the other elements. This turned into something akin to Paddington Bear let loose in a kitchen as we realised there was too much water to flour, and then tried to counteract it…resulting in too much flour, and then too much water and so on. We thought we had it just about right as I rolled my little dough ball out on the small circular wooden base. Great, I thought to myself a little smugly as it looked perfectly round and just as thin as Francesco’s. Until it came to getting it OFF the board and into the pan. Stuck fast - too much liquid still in the mixture! And so back to some more flour. I later found flour in my clothes, and strangely in my handbag which hadn’t even been with me! Ah, but when we got the chapati mixture right, it was so satisfying to see them puff up into lovely little breads that we were proud of.
There was then that ‘Masterchef type call out’ as we had 5 minutes left to plate up our little Thali trays. And here is the result, and I have to say everyone did a really good job, we were suitably chuffed with ourselves!
Time to tuck into the fruits of our labours and the tastes didn’t disappoint either. Although see previous reference to a little too much spice, which did bring us both out in a bit of a sweat, but didn’t stop us loading up our plates. Everyone cheered and congratulated each other around the table in creating a meal that they would never have considered trying before.
nnoodl is taking a month off in August, and then our September and October events are fully booked, but we will be sharing details of the date of our November event shortly, so watch this space….
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.