Indian Cookery Course with the RNIB
Last weekend I went along to an exciting new project launched by some volunteers as part of the RNIB, a charity aimed at supporting people living with sight loss. It was an Indian cookery lesson, run by a lady called Kim Jaye, who like myself loves cooking and has a passion for helping other visually impaired people to lead a healthy and independent lifestyle. She is also visually impaired herself. As soon as I heard about her ambition to set up and run cooking lessons for visually impaired people, I knew I had to try and get involved. I went along to the first or pilot one, to see what it was all about. I also roped my Mum in to coming along with me.
This first one was held at St. Vincent’s School for the Blind in Liverpool, but the aim is to role it out across the northwest. As it was in Liverpool, it gave me a great excuse to go home and spend a little time with my friends and family, which was nice. Mum and I arrived at around 10.30 to be greeted by homemade lemon drizzle cake and coffee or tea. Everyone seemed really relaxed and organised, which was a great start. There was already one other visually impaired girl there and we were waiting for a few more. Unfortunately a couple had to cancel so there only ended up being 4 of us who were there to learn, along with a couple of sighted volunteers to help out and of course Kim Jaye.
The first hour was spent sat chatting, getting a feel for how much we knew about Indian cuisine and how comfortable we were at cooking. One of the most enjoyable parts of the day was when we got to take a closer look, feel and smell of some typically Indian ingredients. There were of course the classics, such as cumin seeds, turmeric, chilli, cinnamon and ginger, but there were a few that I had never come across before including swajana, a long thin vegetable, kind of like a very long runner bean, that goes in to curries and has a similar texture to broad beans. You eat it by scraping out the innards with your teeth. Then there was karela, an oval vegetable similar to an avocado but with a far more knobbly skin. It has a very bitter taste and Indians like to juice it and drink it to help prevent diabetes. This part of the day felt really organised and well planned, meaning that we were all feeling pretty comfortable and looking forward to the day ahead.
Once this was done, it was time to head through to the kitchen and actually start cooking. We spent a little time getting to grips with our cooking areas. We all had a section with some equipment and ingredients laid out ready for us. Then there were a couple of sighted volunteers floating around ready to help if we needed. The first frustrating part for me was that the recipe sheets were not provided in an accessible format. This seems a little unorganised as we are all well aware of the struggles for reading print when you can’t see. A simple solution would have been to have them in a PDF format to email us or to have asked in advance what format we would like them in. This meant I had to have sighted assistance to tell me what I needed to do next and made me often feel like I didn’t know what I was meant to be doing.
The first thing we were to cook was the onions for our curry sauce base. We were required to prepare the onions, then use a food processor to shred them. This was the first hiccup. No one seemed to know how to work the food processor. Eventually we fathomed it out and got it working, but this took up valuable time. Once the onions were all suitably shredded, it was time to fry them in curry oil and cumin seeds for what turns out to be ages! I’ve never thought to fry onions for over 30 minutes, but this is what we did, adding water every so often to decaramilise them and stop them sticking to the bottom of the pan. Visually the onions go really very dark and most people would accidentally take them for burnt, but they weren’t. One of the best parts of this cooking course was that Kim Jaye was also sight impaired and so able to give us all far more useful advice on how to know when things were cooked. This was mainly feeling through the spoon when you stir. Initially the onions feel very loose, then they go soft, then they go mushy and finally when they are ready, they start to coagulate and stick together again to form a ball. At this point you add your chilli, garlic, ginger and spices, as well as your tin of tomatoes. Then you keep going with cooking it, adding more water to loosen the sauce and tasting to check your spicing.
The final step is to add your other ingredients to make your curry. I decided to make a chickpea and cauliflower curry, so at this point in went my 2 ingredients and then I left it for around another 15 minutes to finish off. I have never spent that long cooking a curry in my life before, but it was worth it. The end result was really very tasty. It was also very spicy! But thanks to the cooking method not in a bad way, as the flavours had had time to absorb and balance out.
Unfortunately the actual starting of cooking the curry was delayed somewhat as no one could work out how to turn the gas on for the cookers. This is one of the many problems faced when running a cooking course in a kitchen that you are not familiar with. Also, using kitchens designed for schools have a lot of health and safety regulations, which means there are several restrictions and safety protocols to follow. It was very obvious that no one had considered this when planning. This was further emphasised when it quickly became apparent there were no potato peelers. Our second task involved peeling and cooking potatoes for mashing, to go in to the next dish we would make. We spent several minutes hunting around for one at least, but nothing was to be found, again wasting time. Finally we gave up and just peeled them with a knife, while also still keeping an eye on our curries. I was already starting to feel a little frazzled, so I can’t imagine how the volunteers felt who were running around like headless chickens trying to find things, organise and help everyone.
We eventually all got our potatoes peeled, diced and ready to cook, but yet another problem came up. We didn’t have enough pans big enough to cook them. Finally though we scraped by and got there, but by this point we were way behind schedule, everyone seemed frazzled and running on empty. It would have been a good point to stop, have a break, a drink and a refresh, but instead we ploughed on through, after being supplied with a glass of water.
They did however realise that if we continued as we were, we would never finish on time and would probably have still been there when it got dark. So the volunteers stepped in again to save the day by taking over some of the tasks and combining most things in to one big batch, rather than us all doing our own separate ones. This meant that our second dish of spicy mash potato wraps were a joint effort. Personally though I thought this actually worked really well and could be considered as something to carry forward to other courses. Sharing tasks and delegating means that so much more gets done, but we all still learned how to make them.
The final thing to make was lamb kebabs. We did all make our own mixture, but we used a group made chilli, garlic and ginger paste and diced onions. Again this actually worked well, helping to cut down on time and keep us on track. Combining the mixture and shaping the meat kebabs was quite therapeutic and stress relieving. I enjoyed getting stuck in and getting my hands messy.
Once these went in the oven, it was finally time to sit down and debrief. We had been non-stop in the kitchen for over 3 hours and I was exhausted. I also had a massive head ache, The heat from the kitchen had made the place feel very warm on top of all the stress and running around that was going on. I was also starving and all the tasty smells coming from the kitchen wasn’t helping with this.
While the meat kebabs cooked and the volunteers cleaned up. we all sat and had a drink, while Kim Jaye showed us some traditional Indian sari’s and demonstrated how to wear them. I really enjoyed this part, in some ways more than the cooking, as it wasn’t expected and was very educational, while also being relaxed.
We eventually got to eat the fruits of our labour at the end. Fortunately at least it all tasted really good. Instead of just eating what we had cooked ourselves, we shared the curries we had made with everyone and tried each others, I thought this was a good touch. We were also left with lots of food to take home and as it was all freezable, great to keep and look forward to on another day.
I know when you do something for the first time it never quite goes to plan and that is the beauty of running this cookery course as a pilot. There were definitely a lot of things that could be learnt from it and improved upon, but in principle I did really enjoy the whole experience. I felt exhausted from it though and so I can only imagine how the volunteers felt. I hope it hasn’t put them off from doing it again though as I am sure, with a little polishing and ironing out the cracks, it has the potential to be really good.
It wouldn’t take much to make it a lot sharper and less stressful for all involved. Things like ensuring we have access to all the necessary equipment from the start and making sure that we know how to work everything would be a great start. Another suggestion would be that all the time consuming preparation like shredding onions, peeling potatoes, making your own garlic, chilli and ginger paste and mashing potatoes could be ready prepared. Then the teacher could talk us through the process and demonstrate if necessary, but we wouldn’t waste time and create as much mess doing it ourselves. One of the major problems with us all preparing and shredding so many onions meant that everyone started to really struggle with streaming eyes and crying from them. This was actually quite uncomfortable and didn’t help with my headache.
I really hope that the RNIB and everyone involved is able to listen to the feedback and act on it, so that we can create a slicker cooking experience. It has the potential to help many blind and visually impaired people to develop an enjoyment of cooking and food, while encouraging them to live more independently and healthily. These are 2 things that I am very passionate about and so am very keen to help support the project in the future. It is very exciting and I hope one day I can be more involved and maybe take a couple of courses of my own.
On a personal note, I really can’t wait to try my new indian cookery skills learnt, out at home and to create more curry recipes using my new found understanding of the process. When I do, I will be sure to share my new recipes on here.
Thank you for reading and speak soon.