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Meet Shruti Mehta, Popularising The Art Of Indian Cooking

Nirmala Garimella

There is an age old adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Not true if you were to be present at the Indian cooking classes that Shruti Mehta takes at the Newton North High school. Here one too many cooks, 14 in all add the spice to the broth in a decidedly friendly, and flavorful way.

Shruti Mehta, who works at Putnam, dons the chef’s cap and apron some evenings and teaches Indian cooking to the mainstream community. This evening, is one such, for which we are invited to participate to try our hand at a bit of alchemy, with a group of 4 men and 10 women to transform Shruti’s bag of groceries into a memorable and tasty meal. The lesson unfolds – today, the meal consist of Aaloo Gobi, Spinach Dal, Mixed vegetable Pulao and the traditional Kheer.

What the class does is it tells you how to make a great dish – to understand that is it not magic. Shruti brings in her enthusiasm, a passion for food and cooking and above all to share her knowledge of cooking.

“Try to follow the recipe as they are listed in my instruction sheet”, advises Shruti Mehta , who has been taking Indian cooking classes at Newton for the last 15 years. “When I say 10 cups of cauliflower, measure it in a bowl. Pay attention and you will know it will not go wrong”. She introduces the Kheer thus: Generally this is not a fancy dessert. Traditionally it is made with left over rice.

It is an informal atmosphere and at times humorous. At each stage Shruti is handing out free tips and advice. “Keep the flame on low and don’t heat the oil in the beginning or the spices will burn”. She advises the group making spinach dal. Bella and Mariana, two amateur but enthusiastic learners want to know if the onions should be translucent. “Are these enough”, they ask and are reassured as Shruti nods. Slicing the carrots requires practice. It is obvious that wielding a knife can be an also part of the learning experience.

“I come to this class because my wife does not want to teach me”, says Mark Bridger,” Just as she would not learn driving from me”, he says wryly. “But it is kind of fun and I do fairly well and of course I love Indian cooking”.

Virginia another participant coos, “Shruti is such a wonderful teacher. She takes private lessons on Wednesday nights and I would highly recommend those” Virginia hails from Gujarat and she has come to the class with her daughter. Helena Sylvester is a diehard Indian food fan. She has adopted two children from Madras ages 6 and 8 and is a cheerful, talkative person “I enjoy cooking South Indian food, making idlis and upma” she says,” but as you know nothing is easy”.

The room is full of cooking aromas. A earnest looking man in blond hair is shaking pans, adding ingredients, commenting on the food's progress. He rushes into the kitchen pantry with an enormous sieve and come out with a round pan. Once the pot is simmering, a soft lull settles into the room. This is followed soon by an aroma of the food which emanates in the air. We walk around, talking, and go about our assignments.Within a half hour, a group of strangers has become a gathering of chatting friends. There's a natural camaraderie in cooking. Once the dishes are put to simmer the hub of activity cools down. People settle down in their chairs and talk about babies, spices and and the days work. As sociability gains an upper hand, we drift away, leaving Shruti to talk to the participants at the dinner. As the table is set in what is a flavorful one hour, we are delighted with the offering that is given in our plates. The food pleasantly tastes ..ummm delicious.

I caught up with Shruti later to talk about her interests.

Nirmala:How did this idea of taking cooking classes germinate?

Shruti:When we moved to Needham in 1976, it was all white neighborhood. We were the first ethnic family that a lot of my neighbors ever met. Two of my neighbors were quite interested in our culture and food. I used to let them taste what I made on a day to day basis. One of them suggested that I should teach a class at the Adult Education. She even wrote out a recommendation for the director of Adult Education. I went for an interview and was hired. I have been teaching ever since.

Nirmala:How long have you been doing this.Is it a hobby or you are formally trained in this.

Shruti: It started as a necessity because I was a very fussy eater. I would not touch anything if it did not look appealing. I was the youngest in my family and had done hardly any cooking. There was not much vegetarian food available in the restaurants in early seventies. I would start to cook at about 10 in the morning. I would taste and keep adding spices until it was tolerable. Sometimes, it never tasted right even after many additions of different spices. Then by 2 pm, I would give up and throw it out and start all over again.

Nirmala:What is your priority when you train your students to cook ?

Shruti:I like to keep the recipes and directions as simple as possible. It is important that a recipe must fit on one page. If it looks too long, some students get nervous about trying it.

Nirmala Do you give tips, shopping lists. list of spices etc.

Shruti:I always explain what the spice is, it's interaction with different foods, whether it is a root or a plant or sap of a tree, what are its medicinal values, and how and when it can be substituted with something else.

Nirmala: DO you also give private lessons ?

Shruti:I have a private class every week in Newton Center. The realtor who sold me the house knew that my kitchen was unfit to teach a class. Maryanne Figoni offered me her big, modern kitchen. I have about 8 to 10 students who attend that class on a regular basis.

Nirmala:Do you find it a challenge to teach Indian cooking What is the best method or approach to popularize it to the students ?

Shruti:Indian food has become very popular in the last 10 years. All my students who come to the class already are quite familiar with the names of the dishes like Saag Paneer and Aloo Matar, Pakoras and Samosas etc. So, there is no need to popularize the food. The students come to learn because the food is already popular. The challenge is in keeping the directions simple and taking as many short cuts as you can to simplify the entire process.

To quote one of my students, Ruth Landsman, who is a Yoga teacher and a regular at my classes, "In the Indian Vegetarian class, I learned that food can be flavorful, nutritious, meatless, fast and easy and that, with the right staples on hand, it was possible to cook up a meal in a matter of moments. And do it cheaply! So thank you to Shruti Mehta who simplified recipes and explained substitutions so that I was able to feel confident enough to "fly without the safety net" of a recipe."

Nirmala: Have you ever thought of writing a cookery book

Shruti:A cook book will be a fitting climax to the experience of teaching.

Nirmala:Can you share some details about your family, children ?

Shruti:My children, when in pre school and middle school, used to be very happy when I had a class. Because that meant that they would get to eat Pizza. Now, my son, Neel is constantly asking me for recipes to pass on to his various colleagues and bosses. He is the one pushing me to write a cook book. My daughter, Sapna, though not interested in cooking, is my best critic because she is very direct and very honest. My husband is the one I have to thank for everything I have been able to accomplish as I am assured his full support in all my projects.

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Shruti Mehta

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