With all kinds of education, there are many schools of thought. Some believe in neat uniforms, strict rules and corporal punishment. Some advocate mimicry and the regular regurgitation of lengthy processes learnt by heart. Some consider students as mere materials to be poked and prodded, shaped and moulded. And some simply recognise the educator and student symbiosis, and believe both should have a whale of a time getting wiser.
Word to the wise – the latter approach is advocated wholeheartedly by Nikita Gulhane; chief Spice Monkey at his eponymous cookery school. Which is actually also his family home in North London. Making your way up the steps, you’d never guess that this would be where one would learn the steps to making the most marvellous Maharashtrian cuisine. But you’ll soon learn that this is the place where that’s exactly the case.
My favourite way to gather gyaan on matters culinary is by hanging around the kitchens of culinary-minded mates and their families. So it is at the Spice Monkey set-up; so was I sold on it from the off. It might be Nikita fronting the operation, but he makes no secret of the fact that his mother – the diminutive Mrs G – plays a vital role in the operation, and always does at least one ‘star turn’ with the students.
She might be small in stature, but I reckon underestimating that Mrs G could be a fatal mistake. Throughout the day, she hustles, bustles, cajoles and corrects. Despite being unjustly robbed of both taste and smell, Mrs G is a master of her craft and a tough lady to please. A compliment on my ‘perfect’ chapatti dough gave me more of a rush than the large lump of jaggery I’d just nicked from a jar.
There’s something about that Spice Monkey that makes you mischievous. Nikita has an excellent rappor with students; fooling me into thinking he was already firm friends with the further five in the Advanced class I attended. Not so at the outset, maybe – but by the end of the day, we all felt brilliantly bonded. With a great big grin permanently in place, Nikita perpetually teases and spins tall tales. And no-one can get enough of it.
On many cookery courses, it’s hard to get enough of whatever you came for; be it knowledge, skills, or just great food. Here, you’re sated on all fronts. Information is shared rather than sermons delivered; Nikita’s keen to spark conversation and debate, and find out what we want to know rather than tell us what he wants us to know.
When your group want to know everything, as ours does, you’ve got your work cut out. We start with spices – eyeballing, sniffing and nibbling until we nail the names. Not just the ‘usual suspects’ – the ingredients with which Nikita reckons you can create something cracking out of almost any foodstuff; but more esoteric items like the dagad phool that smells like porcini mushrooms, and the fruity-sour-smoky kokum that adds intrigue to the refreshing concoction, sol kadi.
Our notes during the day are merely mental, with all recipes and information emailed latterly. It’s a clever trick which gets you pricking up your ears and paying eagle-eyed attention. Anyhow, printed information would only be a hindrance at this stage – there’s certainly no time to doodle in the margins with a full morning of masala-making in the pipeline.
Nikita introduces a range of mixtures peculiar to Maharashtra and unique to his clan. Since all of us are sadly bereft of a definitive ‘family masala’, he suggests we experiment at home in order to establish a long-lasting legacy which our descendents can proudly say dates all the way back to 2014. An excellent idea. Also excellent is the coarsely-ground peanutty concoction we keep furtively pinching up and scarfing down, and the pungent aroma of freshly pureed and tadka’d green chilli paste.
By this time, we’re all getting a little giddy with the sensory overload, so it’s high time to reload ourselves with tumblers of Mrs G’s marvellous medicine – or, rather, her masala chai. It’s zingy with ginger and makes clever use of the spice husks we’ve cast aside making masalas. And it’s the perfect pairing for a snackerel of poha that manages to minimise our munchies as it keeps us light on our feet.
Then it’s time to find our feet once again get all hands on deck to cook up our feast. The mutton we marinated in yogurt and ginger-garlic paste is added to the onion paste we’ve taken to a tawny hue, the Kolhapuri curry left to blip and bubble as we slit and stuff baby aubergines with the masala made with fresh coconut flesh we had such fun scraping from the shell. Mrs G deftly divides the mixture into balls and leaves us to stuff each brinjal with one of the little laddoos.
Talking laddoos, we do indeed have besan to hand, but it’s not for making Ganesh’s most fave mithai. Instead, it’s added to yogurt for the Maharastrian version of kadhi, which we tip over the flash-fried okra – bar a few lady’s fingers that become the victims of Nikita’s demonstration on how to find the freshest specimens by popping the pops and flicking the tips.
Chapatti-making starts with Mrs G tipping each of us a portion of atta from a big tin whose padlock I’m sorely tempted to click shut and hide the key from Nikita for no other reason than it’d be a good wheeze and would be thoroughly in keeping with the tone of the day. I resist, though, and stick to rolling out decidedly non-circular discs of dough instead. I feel a little better about my misshapen creations when Mrs G assures me it doesn’t matter a jot.
You more often hear it’s size that doesn’t matter, not shape, but it’s still gratifying to hear. After all, I’ve always been a bit of a square peg in a round hole myself, so why shouldn’t my roti rolling reflect that character trait? We flip the flatbreads literally out of the frying pan into the fire, grinning like goons as they balloon.
Nikita must have witnessed many of his student’s bellies do just the same, because now he insists we upend almost an entire box of icing sugar into thick curd. As much of this clove-and-saffron-scented shrikhand is spooned into our mouths as our serving dishes. Meanwhile, Mrs G is laying the table for a very late lunch, serving forth the dishes that make up our Maharashtrian feast.
Glasses and plates are filled and refilled until bellies are full and we’re filled with pride at having cooked such a cracking banquet. We came, we saw, we conquered techniques, and had some pretty jolly japes with the awesome ape as we did so. Nikita is a terrific teacher. If you love to gobble up knowledge, the Spice Monkey is one primate for whom you’ll happily pay more than peanuts.
- For more information on Spice Monkey and forthcoming cookery classes, click here.
- To read Nikita’s blog, click here.
- Follow @SpiceMonkey on Twitter and ‘Like’ Spice Monkey on Facebook.
- Nikita was Recipe & Series Consultant for ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s ‘Curry Nation‘.
- View behind the scenes footage of Nikita cooking for Phaidon’s ‘India‘ by Pushpesh Pant here.