By Alexandra Pecci
---- — If you think dishes like wonton soup, spring rolls, and chicken tikka masala are solely the stuff of take out menus, think again. Asian home cooking is alive and well at Northern Essex Community college, where students can learn recipes, tips, tricks, and techniques from two local Asian chefs.
This semester, the college is offering four noncredit courses that aim to demystify Asian and Indian food by taking it out of the restaurant and into the kitchen.
Asian food, from Thai to Japanese, Chinese to Indian, has skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade among people who are looking for tasty and nutritious meals.
“I think it is a shift toward healthier eating and the world becoming a smaller place,” says Shilpi Ranjan of Andover, who is teaching three Indian cooking courses at NECC. She also offers private cooking instruction through her company, E-Z Compliments.
As people travel and try new things, they’re eager to learn how to replicate at home the dishes they sample on the road. That’s where chefs like Ranjan and Phuong Lai-Matzker of Londonderry, N.H., come in.
“They have tasted it and they love it and they want to learn how to make it,” Ranjan says.
They’ll get a great start with the three classes she’s teaching: All-Time Indian Favorites, Indian Snacks and Desserts, and Indian Vegetarian Delights.
Because of her father’s job, Ranjan lived all over northern India as a child. She has traveled extensively across the southern part of the subcontinent, as well.
“I had the chance to soak in the culture from everywhere,” she says.
Her Indian cooking reflects this.
The basis for her Indian meals is simple: She always to have five colors on the plate and something from each food group, including lentils, vegetables, bread, and meat, such as chicken, fish or lamb.
She also teaches Indian cooking technique. For instance, there’s more to veggies than simply steaming them, she says. Her young children love spinach because of the way she prepares it.
“In Indian cuisine there is so much to offer with flavors and the ways it can be cooked,” she says.
She also emphasizes the importance of spices in Indian cooking, but is eager to dispel the myth that Indian food is overly hot.
“I have had people who say ‘I can’t eat Indian food because it’s very spicy,’” she says, insisting that you don’t have to “sweat it out” to enjoy Indian food.
Instead, she teaches students about traditional spices and spice blends that cooks can create to suit their own tastes. Ranjan always has cumin, coriander powder, chili powder or cayenne pepper on hand.
“And the most essential is garam masala,” she says. “Masala means a blend of spices and garam in Hindi means hot.”
Ranjan makes her own garam masala, adjusting the blend of spices to achieve the heat level that she desires.
“You can actually play around with spices. … It’s playing around with the food to get the taste that you like,” she says. “Cooking is like making art. You have a blank piece of canvas and you want to make it colorful.”
Lai-Matzker teaches her students about traditional Asian cuisine’s essential ingredients, such as soy, fish and hoisin sauces, rice, and noodles. She also emphasizes cooking techniques, including chopping food and using a wok.
Lai-Matzker says students often are intimidated by a wok. She simplifies it down for them, teaching students how hot it should be for different dishes. For example, the wok should be at a low temperature for making soups and at a medium-high heat for stir fries.
Lai-Matzker’s Asian Cuisine class at NECC covers not only dishes from her native Vietnam, but also classic dishes from China, Japan and Thailand.
She describes her classes as very hands-on. And she says learning traditional recipes will help her students feel more comfortable with unfamiliar ingredients. Eventually they will be confident enough to buy the ingredients and use them at home.
“I’m teaching home-cooked, classic meals,” she says.
It’s something she does in her own kitchen, too. As the mom to two daughters, ages 6 and 8, Lai-Matzker cooks a combination of Asian and American meals for her family.
“I want the kids to understand that there are other alternatives to healthy eating,” she says.
Although it’s great to learn how to create restaurant-worthy Asian cuisine at home, there’s perhaps an even greater payoff at the end of each class: Eating your assignment.
“They get to eat at the end of every class,” Lai-Matzker says.
NECC COOKING CLASSES All classes are on the Haverhill campus. Learn more about these non-credit courses online at necc.mass.edu/academics/courses-programs/non-credit/. Asian Cuisine Dates: Sept. 26 to Oct. 17. Cost: $109, plus $25 materials fee. All Time Indian Favorites Dates: Sept. 24 to Oct. 15 (no class 10/8). Cost: $79 plus $60 materials fee. @boxBreakerHead: Indian Snacks and Desserts Dates: Oct. 29 to Nov. 19 (no class 11/12). Cost: $79 plus $65 materials fee. Indian Vegetarian Delights Dates: Nov. 26 to Dec. 10. Cost: $79 plus $65 materials fee.