I first met Parul on a Friday afternoon in late winter. The recent brutal weather had left me dreaming of warmth, and I found it at Parul’s house. She had selected me along with three other women to participate in a free Indian cooking lesson, a generous gift of time and expertise offered through a fabulous Facebook group called Buy Nothing Westport. That day, she taught us to make sabudana khichdi, a vegetarian dish made with tapioca balls, carrots, peanuts, and spices. Most evident during the lesson was Parul’s love of her food and culture.
A few weeks after our lesson, I met Parul again at her home. She greeted me with ginger tea in beautiful tea cups from India and homemade rava kesari, a sweet snack made with flour and topped with nuts. We talked about her love of cooking and her dream to rent a commercial kitchen so she can bring vegetarian Indian home cooking to the community.
Parul is originally from Uttar Pradesh in northern India, home to the Taj Mahal. She grew up with food influenced from her birth place, and from that of her mother’s, Punjab. “I used to sit and watch shows that teach you how to make Indian sweets. And when my mother would take an afternoon nap, I would sneak into the kitchen and make the sweets. I would make so many, my mother wasn’t sure how we would consume them all! She used to scold me, but we laugh about it today.”
Parul’s cooking is a mix of these influences from her childhood and the cooking style of her husband’s homeland: “I married a Rajastani, so that’s mixed in too.” Her favorite dishes are rajma rice (from Uttar Pradesh) and gatta curry (from Punjab). Her culinary influences are from northern India. “I have never been to the south,” she says of her native land.
Home cooking using fresh ingredients is one passion for Parul. Before she moved to the United States, she left a career in IT development. “I love that too. If I sit in front of a computer and start programming, I forget I have a husband and children! I once missed my anniversary dinner because I was working on an IT issue [at my old job].” she laughs. She feels that way about cooking too: “Cooking is an art and I get lost in it.”
Indian cooking uses many spices and herbs. These are not just for flavor, Parul shares with me, but each has its own medicinal value. For example, “cumin seeds increase the metabolic rate, and turmeric is an anti-inflammatory.”
Parul shares her love of cooking as a way to connect with others. She joined the Buy Nothing group after she moved to Westport, Connecticut. The group allows members in a community to offer items for free to other group members. Parul did not have many material gifts to offer, so she donated her time and passion for homemade vegetarian Indian food in the form of cooking classes. The response was so overwhelming that she plans to offer classes every month.
Cooking is her way too to share the different cuisines of India with a broader population. “Most non-Indian people only know about Punjabi food like butter chicken.” In Indian restaurants in the U.S., Parul says, the food is limited to a handful of common dishes, the names of which sometimes perplex her. “What they call ‘saag’ is not saag,” she says. Saag paneer, the dish known in U.S. restaurants to include spinach, is called palak paneer in India. Palak means spinach. Saag paneer is usually made with mustard greens.
What is unique about her class is not only the ingredients (c’mon, who has cooked with tapioca pearls before!), but Parul’s ability to impart her love of the cuisine. She sources most of her ingredients at Patel Brothers in Norwalk, Connecticut. However, she doesn’t expect you to. “My husband suggested a kit with small amounts of the ingredients. People will not want to go to Patel Brothers and buy big quantities of these items.” Taking his advice, Parul offers a kit that includes measured portions of the ingredients in her recipes so that class participants can easily make the recipe again at home without having to invest in ingredients which they don’t normally use.
It takes Parul two days to prepare for each cooking class. Like a true home cook, she doesn’t measure ingredients when she cooks for herself nor does she use written recipes. For each class, then, she must capture the art of cooking on paper, and carefully measure the right amount of each ingredient.
The most important part of cooking, though, is love and positivity. “In my culture, we say ‘prashad,’ or preparing food for the gods. If the mind is pure and positive, it reflects in the taste of your food. When mothers cook for their families, they put their heart in it and you can taste it.” She adds that if you are not in a good mental state, negative vibes may creep into your food and the taste will suffer. Luckily, Parul has a lot of love to go around. She is also teaching this philosophy to her two sons along with cooking techniques. Her oldest son, who is 12, can already make ginger tea and is learning to roll chapatis.
Besides Indian food, Parul also loves Mexican, Thai, and Chinese foods. “I love fajitas and especially the salsa.” Casa Villa in was a frequent haunt of hers when she lived in Stamford, Connecticut. Her whole family loves Mexican food because “it’s the same as Indian food” but with slightly different spices: “tortillas are like chapatis; Mexican salsas and sauces are like chutneys; beans are like rajma curry.”
By the end of our visit, I was salivating for more food from her homeland. I asked her if any area restaurants serve the dishes we discussed. Unfortunately, she is not aware of a restaurant that offers these regional dishes. For now, if you are not lucky enough to live in Westport and participate in one of her free cooking classes through the Buy Nothing group, you will have to wait until Parul gets access to that commercial kitchen.
Parul had shared that her mother and her grandmother would eat paratha and mango in the summer evenings. I don’t know what Parul’s childhood neighborhood looked like or where she lived in Uttar Pradesh. But in my imagination, I see three generations of women – Parul, her mother, and her grandmother – sitting on the grass in front of the Taj Mahal on a late summer evening, sharing paratha and mango, and laughing about those times when Parul made too many sweets while her mother was napping.
If you know where Parul can rent use of a commercial kitchen near Westport, Connecticut, please comment below or contact Parul on her facebook page. You can follow Parul on Facebook/Parul.Kitchenette.
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