I was reading the local paper in January when I came across an article about a Pakistani cooking class at the Raindrop Turkish House. Unfamiliar with both, I emailed the author for more information. Soon after, I received a phone call from Michelle Newman, who organizes the international cooking class series – And so began my enthusiastic association with the Flavors of San Antonio program.
Classes take place once a month and are taught mainly by amateur cooks from different countries sharing their family’s treasured recipes. Some of them are immigrants eager to share their culture and cuisine. People from all backgrounds, professions, and religions unite over food, and the proceeds from the $20 classes are donated to various charities and nonprofits. In the past, the entry fees funded a new refrigerator for the Raindrop Turkish House and dance costumes for the Philippine Women of America. This explains why the classes are often referred to as “cooking for a cause.”
The first class I attended in February took place at the Raindrop House, was taught by a research scientist from Southwest Research Institute, and featured Russian cuisine. I instantly became hooked; the group’s enthusiasm was so contagious, I wanted to return for more and share the experience with my friends.
Being from South India, I was anxious to share my culture and cuisine, so I volunteered to teach participants how to prepare some native specialties. In March, my friends Mathiri Mani and Sumitha Mudiliar, who are from the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, joined me in my endeavor, even insisting that we create aprons decorated with the Indian flag.
We kicked off our class with a geography lesson using a large framed map of India. I explained that India is home to 29 states, each with different dialects, food, and culture. I pointed out the location of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, my home state.
We taught participants how to make dosa – thin, golden-brown, crispy crepes made from lentil and rice flour and filled with curried potatoes. Sumitha made coconut chutney to complement the dosa, Mathiri made lentil curry, and I cooked puttu, a breakfast dish made of rice and coconut. We also made a dessert with rice and jaggery, a sugar made from palm trees.
As is the case in most Flavors of San Antonio classes, regardless of the country represented, our dishes generated a lot of questions and discussion of culture and traditions.
Two months later, my friend Simrit Singh and her mother, Harbinder Singh, who are from northern India, hosted a Punjabi cooking class at the Sikh Center of San Antonio. After giving a presentation about the Sikh religion, Simrit and her friends prepared about 10 Punjabi vegetarian dishes including roti, cumin rice, rajma, raita, sag paneer, dhal, and kheer.
Students learned about tadka, a Hindi word describing the Indian cooking technique of adding mustard seeds, curry leaves, and other exotic spices to hot oil. This infuses the oil with rich aroma and flavors and is the basis for most Indian cooking.
With around 40 students in attendance, the class was a huge success. It raised more than $650, which was donated to the temple for its kitchen expansion. Students loved the class so much, they requested another one be scheduled for later this year.
Our Azerbaijani, Romanian, Thai, and Ethiopian classes have been equally well-attended and successful. Over time, I’ve noticed participants’ hunger to learn more about other customs, which makes these classes golden opportunities to exchange elements of different cultures.
Cooking for a cause and contributing the profit to charity has become a passion for me. Every month, I look forward to the upcoming international classes – Sri Lankan being one of the next to be featured in the fall.
Perhaps one reason I enjoy these classes and the discourse so much is because I am a veteran who has been in the United States for the past 47 years. Born in India and raised in Tanzania, my life has been interesting and unconventional. My father worked for the Ministry of Health under the British regime in Tanzania; as a young girl scout guide, I had the honor of curtsying before Prince Phillip when he visited Dar es Salaam. I also had the privilege of interacting with American missionaries, who told me I should come to the U.S., the land of opportunity. I followed through on my determination to graduate from medical school and embark on that journey in 1971.
After my residency in pediatrics, I became a U.S. citizen and joined the Army Medical Corps. Many people ask me why I did that. When I was a girl scout guide, I loved wearing a uniform and the discipline the service taught me. Moreover, the thought of traveling and being on assignment in Europe appealed to me. My first assignment was at Keller Army Community Hospital in West Point, New York. Twenty years later, I returned to Keller as the first female Commander – without a doubt the pinnacle of my career.
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Now that I’m retired, I spend much of my time volunteering, training for and participating in marathons, and gardening – succulents are my favorite.
Due to my passion to serve those in need, I have traveled to Guatemala and Puerto Rico on medical missions – to care for poor children and victims of Hurricane Maria, respectively. Being of Indian origin, I am actively involved with the San Antonio United Malayalee Association. I have always believed in giving back to one’s community, and the international cooking classes are a fun and engaging way to do just that.
I will be teaching my next Indian cooking class this Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10 a.m. at the Raindrop Turkish House. We will feature seven traditional Indian dishes as well as a Sari-wrapping demonstration, and proceeds will go toward a new oven for the Raindrop House.
So, to my fellow retirees, I say: There’s lots to do in San Antonio – time to get up, out, and engaged!
Michelle Newman, founder and organizer of Flavors of San Antonio, contributed to this commentary.