What you eat is who you are. As people travel the world, they're learning that picking up a few recipes along the way helps in their understanding of new cultures. Shonali Muthalaly catches up with five women who open up their homes for personalised classes tailored for chefs and foodies – all in a spirited attempt to popularise local, organic, healthy home cooking

Sabitha Radhakrishna

“Cooking is the backbone of our culture,” says Sabitha, discussing how she's introduced groups of Americans, Australians and South Africans to the nuances of South Indian Cooking.

Best known for her book Aharam: Traditional Cuisine of Tamil Nadu, Sabitha began recording her family's traditional recipes years ago, and then decided the only way to ensure their survival would be by passing them on.

“A tourist company asked me to open up the house for their groups — mostly Americans, above the age of 50. I organise a sit-down meal — chapattis, chicken and potatoes are always a safe bet. Since the groups are also small, I then take them into my kitchen and teach about three dishes. Dosas are always popular. They love puris — because everyone's always fascinated by how they puff up. Then, I do thayir vadais or morkozambu with mini idlis.”

She adds, “Its traditional food, like my mother's. They think it's complicated; so, I break it down. I show the dals and explain how they're used. I explain the spices. If they're on a culinary tour, I take them to Ratna Stores. They're fascinated by potti kadais and ariasi mandis with their different kinds of rice.

Her favourite students, however, are her grandchildren, for whom she wrote Kids Kitchen last year.

Viji Varadarajan

Her first student was a Canadian chef fascinated with rasam. Then came the Japanese: Kurumi Arimoto, a cook book writer and Akemi Yoshii, a blogger. “They wanted to learn how to make kozhakattais,” laughs Viji, as she efficiently spins around her kitchen, making poha, broken wheat upma and caramelly filter coffee.

“Using the recipes she learnt from me, Kurumi did a menu plan for kindergarten kids in Tokyo. She said the food's so healthy and simple, it's perfect for them,” says Viji, adding: “We must teach people about our food.”

An author of a string of books on traditional Tamil vegetarian cooking, Viji finds herself advising people all over the world. Some of them even find their way to her kitchen. A Japanese artist is coming here next month. He bought my book, made a kozhaikaottai and showed it on Facebook! Now, he's decided to come to here to sell his paintings and learn cooking.”

Her sundal'sgone as far as Paris. “I met a girl called Sophie Girot at the local market, who asked me what to do with okra. She came here for lunch and a cooking demonstration. Now, she's translated my recipes into French to sell it in Paris.”

Regardless of what branch of cooking her students are interested in, the first class is always the same. “How to make ghee. Only then come badam halwa, morkozhambu, ridge gourd chutney… What they all love are the sundals — chickpea, peanuts, corn. They're easy, and so healthy.

Look up www.vijisamayal.org for details.

Usha Jaypee

“I've been teaching for five years, and I only do one-to-one classes,' says Usha, as she eases a tumble of freshly-chopped vegetables into a pressure cooker to demonstrate a healthy one-pot kichadi.

A fan of Jamie Oliver, Usha's passionate about home-cooked food made with organic, local ingredients. “People think cooking is difficult, cumbersome. I want to prove it's not as difficult as you think,” she says. Her wide range of students includes everyone from brides-to-be, students going abroad for the first time, and young professionals to widowers in their 60s.

“I use iron kadais, home-made masalas and like to promote vegetarianism. My one-month course consists of 12 intensive classes, over which I teach everything: arranging the kitchen, making a grocery list, cutting skills. I take students to the market and teach them how to pick vegetables.”

Usha's got a passion for millets. “We should use them more. Since there's no market, they're not pumped with fertiliser, and in this age of food-allergies, I'm yet to meet someone allergic to millets. Ragi is so nutritious; you can make anything with it. I teach people to cook for diabetics, people with high blood pressure… It's all about processes. Cooking is a science, not whims and fancies.”

Usha Jaypee can be contacted on 98410-16188.

Jigyasa Giri and Prathiba Jain

As they researched for their books, Cooking At Home with Pedatha and Sukham Ayu, Jigyasa and Prathiba realised nothing could substitute a good old-fashioned cooking class.

“I have a shelf lined with gorgeous cookery books,” says Jigyasa, talking about how she learnt most of her cooking from them. Prathiba agrees. “I've learnt a lot from Tarla Dalal and Chandra Padmanabhan. My latest book is from Ammini Ramchandran, and I'm practically drinking it up!” Prathiba chuckles.

However, they both say the recipes that really got imprinted on their minds are the ones they learnt in the kitchen.

Discussing how a physical lesson is much more powerful, Jigyasa says it's because of the visual impact. They don't take regular classes except on special request — but when they do, the focus is on technique. “We've realised over time that basic home-style recipes are fantastic for beginners. So, we teach the basics — a simple dal for example — and then based on that, ask the person to try out a variation,” says Jigyasa.

“We focus on tempering,” says Prathiba, adding that getting that right is half the battle won. “It's the first step. And, once people get that, they've cracked half of Indian cooking.”

For details, look up http://pritya.com/

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