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An Afternoon with Arvinda

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By Michele Chandler

I had the pleasure of taking one of Arvinda Chauhan’s classes last summer, and realized quickly her depth and breadth of knowledge of Indian cuisine and culture, not to mention the fact that she was the first person I’d ever met who had a working Tandoori oven in her backyard!

Arvinda and I spent an afternoon walking Little India on Gerrard Street East so I could learn more about the mysteries of an Indian kitchen.

We began our tour at the Udupi Palace (1460 Gerrard St. E., 416-405-8138) for lunch. The restaurant is named for a town in Southern India and specializes in vegetarian cuisine, specifically the Dosa, a thin rice crepe that overflows off the plate and is filled with vegetable mixtures. A side dish of coconut chutney serves to enhance the crispy crepe and spicy filling nicely.

Arvinda is from the Gujurat province, located in central west India. She explains that the food from there is often fried, so she leans towards the healthier Kerala-type of cuisine from the south.

Her grandmother can be credited with providing a lot of Arvinda’s culinary knowledge. The chef spent much time with her sage relative, learning the traditional Indian methods of food preparation and culinary rituals. Arvinda lives an Ayurvedic lifestyle, which incorporates not only healthy eating, but also attention to the mind-body-spirit connection as a form of health prevention. Culinarily, this translates to wholesome, organic fruits and vegetables exclusively used in her dishes.

We walked down Gerrard to Kohinoor Foods (1443 Gerrard St. E, 416-778-8049) to identify some of the ingredients Arvinda uses.

A common Ayurvedic ingredient is the bitter melon. The vegetable is found in many Indian dishes both for its flavour and health benefits. Known as “karela” in north India, the vegetable is peeled, then soaked or rubbed with salt to remove some of the bitterness. Medicinally, the gourd is respected for its blood-cleansing properties.

Another celebrated ingredient is moringa, the drumstick vegetable, which is used to enhance the flavours of curries, or in dishes all by itself. Named for its visual appearance of a drummer’s stick, the tree pods are scraped and cut into two-inch pieces. Then the fragrant vegetable is steamed or sautéed gently to preserve its texture.

Drumsticks contains about seven times more Vitamin C than oranges and four times more calcium than milk - a powerhouse, nutritionally.

Arvinda then promised some decadence to follow all this incredibly healthy eating - a visit to a paan shop.

The Baldev Paan Cold Drink House (1399 Gerrard St. E., 416-463-7226) put a whole new spin on the after-dinner mint. Paan shops are prolific in India, but in Toronto, unfortunately, they are still one of Little India’s best kept secrets.

Paan or betel nut leaf chewing goes back thousands of years, but the addition of a cornucopia of contrasting ingredients has evolved into a post-meal ritual in the motherland. Small bowls filled with ingredients ranging in vibrant colours and textures are sprinkled onto the triangle-shaped, live leaf. Fennel seeds, coconut, rose petals and the betel nut itself are all used as filling on a “made-to-order” basis.

The trick with the finished triangular packet of flavours presented to me, is to chew continuously, until the fibrous centre of the betel nut leaf is all that is left. Some of the flavours are strong, so I didn’t quite make it to the bitter end!

Arvinda saved the home-style Gujurat store for the last stop. Surti Sweet Mart specializes in fried dishes, like pakoras, as well as regional desserts. Patra is a regional appetizer that consists of alvi leaves wrapped around a sweetened, chickpea paste, then steamed and fried. The store also has an extensive selection of Gujurati finger foods that can be brought home and reheated for cocktail hour.

The store also houses an extensive selection of barfi, or milk-based desserts. The distinguishing ingredient about barfi dishes from other milk desserts, is the addition of lentil flour to the wide range of flavoured Indian squares.

Very sweet and aromatic, barfi desserts bring the exotic connotations of India immediately to mind.

Arvinda packs me off with one last dish: jalebi. Not for those watching either their cholesterol or sugar levels, this bright orange confection, resembles an Indian pretzel, except the deep-fried batter is dipped in a sugar syrup and left to harden. Easy to take, but only in small doses.

My afternoon sojourn took me places that I would not have ventured into without her guidance and expertise, and I came away with a wonderful appreciation of this small slice of culinary paradise, luckily located in our fair city.

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