The Ojai area about 70 miles north of Los Angeles is never more lovely than on a fall afternoon. It is always lovely, of course -- that's why was used to represent Shangri-La in the movies -- but something about the fall, when the withering summer heat has passed and a soft breeze kicks up, is just magical.
It was in this setting that we eight eager cooking enthusiasts came to learn a bit about Pakistani cooking from the talented Dodo Mufti.
Two men well-known in the local food scene hosted the class in a sweet farmstyle hideaway on a hill outside of town. They have a fabulous kitchen that manages to be both professional and cozy at the same time - it features both an industrial-strength Viking range AND three Laborador Retrievers (one in each color).
Dodo is originally from Bombay (Mumbai) India and learned to cook at the side of her mother-in-law, a Pakistani.
Pakistani food has much in common with Northern Indian cuisine, explained Dodo and her husband Tariq. The garam masala spice mixes are ground exceedingly fine, dishes are served with a variety of chutneys, and usually, meals from the Muslim country are meat-based, unlike the more vegetarian Hindu south. But today's adventure was pure vegetarian, a perfect lunch meal for a warm day.
In fact, Dodo said, the eggplant dish would only be served as a lunch, never as a dinner. Like the musical ragas that are only played at certain times of the day, there are dishes that are inextricably tied to a certain meal. And they are eaten in a certain fashion: when rice is served, bread is not.
Onions for Tahiri
Dodo began by explaining how to slice an onion in very thin strips for Tahiri, a rice and potato dish. The onions need to be fine and even so they caramelize perfectly before potatoes are added to a pan of the cooked onions, oil and spices. The potato chunks are partially cooked, then put with the other ingredients into a rice cooker.
Potatoes, onions and spices for Tahiri
Very long-grain basmati rice is added and the whole thing simmers into a rich, tasty combination that Tariq described as a "lazy mom dish." Obviously Tariq didn't grow up in a place where Cheez-whiz and crackers are a lazy mom dish.
Dodo also made Borani, a dish of sauteed eggplant slices layered with yogurt that has been mixed with a lot of fresh, pressed garlic. Then that is topped with Anaheim chiles that have been cut into chunks and sauteed with lots of oil, cumin and carom seed (also called "ajwain" in India).
Preparing layers of eggplant for Borani
The finished dish
When the dish is finished, there are pools of oil on top of the yogurt, a sight you never see in the fat-phobic United States. Dodo explained that you could take as much oil or as little as you wanted when you served yourself.
"And when it comes to matters of food," she said, smiling, "I rather think that more is better than less."
The Tahiri was served with a garlic-and-chili powder-based Red chutney and a mint and chile-based Green chutney. Dodo also brought along some tomato chutney and a lemon pickle for us to taste.
The finished meal
The flavors of the food danced like fireworks on our tongues as we ate our lunch. With our meal, we drank a Rancho Sisquoc Riesling or a Santa Barbara Winery Pinot Noir, two fruity, not-too-dry wines to go with the spiced dishes. Good conversation made the food even tastier, and when we finally left about 2 pm, the warm feelings that a satisfying meal and pleasant company bring followed us out the door like a soft Ojai breeze.