The ethnic restaurants in this town have convincing methods of thought control. While standing in front of my refrigerator I can’t stop imagining all the offerings I can find outside my kitchen: the smell of Aslam's Rasoi's sizzling lamb chops seeps out of the oven and the tender texture of Thep Phanom's pumpkin curry pops up from the spice drawer. It's not long before I’ve shelved my DIY dinner plans and I'm mindlessly pulling apart chopsticks and mispronouncing foreign dishes at a local eatery.
Okay, maybe conspiracy goes a bit far – I did tack all those menus on the fridge door myself – but at the very least it's outright intimidation. Who wants to labor over a mushy and tasteless rendition of Pad Thai when there are so many tantalizing and authentic options around that someone else can make for you? With so many excellent restaurants from around the world to choose from, it’s easy (although expensive) to eat out every night of the week. But all hope is not lost. I am setting out to overcome the international food conspiracy by taking three lessons from the makers themselves. If you can't beat 'em . . .
I decide to start with the basics at Tante Marie's Cooking School. Lessons are usually held at more classroom-like settings in several spaces downtown, but for the six-session Mediterranean cooking course I am at the palatial Pac Heights house of Tante Marie's director, Mary Risley, and it's a home literally built for cooking lessons.
I walk in past the study filled with cookbooks – some of which were written by Mary herself – and into the dining room/kitchen/patio/garden complex. The space is filled with several range tops, ovens, sinks, and yards upon yards of a wooden countertop, on which is a spread of local produce and North African spices.
The seven other students slowly filter in and as we all nibble on merguez sausages, I realize I'm the only man and one of the few first-timers. Our instructor for the night, Margaret Hemley, is a former student who recently completed the degree program. She'll be teaching us to cook North African cuisine and has an impressive stack of 15 recipes. Harira, pastilla, shakshouka, and khubz are among the list of unfamiliar dishes; and when it comes time to choose, I timidly select a tagine because at least I can say it without making an ass out of myself.
It's a bit of a disappointment to focus only on one dish, but the range of basic skills Margaret shows at the start of the class are comprehensive for all the dishes. Like a fool, I had always cut around olive pits instead of squeezing them out with the side of a knife, and I spent ages picking off cilantro leaves when two or three deft knife strokes would do for a whole bunch. This cooking class is the most expensive of my three lessons, at $690 for a series of six, but tips on how to toast spices and efficiently slice vegetables make it worth every penny.
By the end of the night I'm feeling pretty confident about my tagine: The chicken is tender and the lemon juice, olives, and fennel reduce to a well-blended, thick sauce. I'm almost ready to brag about it until the proprietress comes downstairs to join us for dinner. Mary's an aging pistol with a sharp sense of humor and a serious appreciation for food. She's built a cooking class empire from the ground up and I'm sweating the final test of my tagine. With her first wisecrack, lopsided smile, and offer of wine, it soon becomes clear that she has come to socialize not judge. She lets the wine and food compliments flow and the atmosphere quickly turns from classroom to a night out.
My girlfriend and I arrive late to my next cooking lesson. In fact, we’ve misplaced the address, but among the rows of similar looking houses in the Outer Sunset, Mama Thai Cooking Club is easy to spot. The door to the street is open, incense burns in the serene courtyard, and I can already tell I'm going to like the pace of the lesson.
Jirayu, the mastermind behind Mama Thai's, welcomes us into her home. She's a startlingly sarcastic and wide-smiled woman who has brought the beauty and fire of Thai cooking from her homeland of central Thailand. The decor is accordingly soothing, tasteful, and intriguing with neat subtle Asian decorations (wood carvings) and not-so-subtle ones (a Thai liquor bottle with a full baby cobra nestled inside).
Jirayu begins the lesson by going over the ingredients and I realize why my few attempts at Thai cuisine have failed. Without fresh lemongrass, galangal, and chili, I might as well have been heating up Thai Kitchen in my microwave. She recommends Sunset Supermarket for basic ingredients, and Battambang Market in the Tenderloin for harder to come by things like kaffir lime leaves and galangal.
From the start it's clear the classes are going to be 100% hands-on. My girlfriend and I have individual gas burners and we’ll be cooking all three dishes – yellow curry beef rolls, Tom Kha Gai (Thai coconut chicken soup), and red curry shrimp – in their entirety.
Before the lesson began, I told Jirayu we like it hot, and we soon find out that she delivers. Her homemade curry crams 35 chilies into six ounces and we're literally crying as we start to sauté the sauce for our first course, yellow curry beef rolls.
As we move on to the soup and red curry shrimp, Jirayu teaches us how to manipulate Thai ingredients. We melt palm sugar into curry paste, bruise kaffir lime leaves with our hands, and pound out flavor from lemongrass and galangal with a giant mortar and pestle. Once we move on to the actual cooking, Jirayu pretty much stays out of the way, swooping in occasionally to turn down a high burner, or giving a slight eyebrow raise (okay, it's official, my rolls aren't winning any beauty contest).
Every dish turns out beautifully and leaves us dumbfounded at our own success. For the primer on where to find ingredients and how to get the most out of them, the lesson is well worth $175 for two people; throw in a three-course meal and enough leftovers to feed a barbarous, drunken horde (my roommates) and you've got an exceptional bargain.
My next class is with Shanta, a chef specializing in international vegetarian cuisine. Shanta and her daughter have invaded my kitchen to teach me and eight friends how to cook Gujarati, the cuisine of northwest India.
Shanta has been taking food seriously since Nixon was declaring everything liberal as a state-threatening conspiracy. A few days before our lesson, she stopped by my house to make sure my kitchen is up to snuff (ample space, no wiretaps). Over tea she told me how she got involved in seditious food acts in the ’70s. As a member of the San Francisco Food Conspiracy, Shanta actively plotted against the state by shopping at farmers’ markets, taking phone orders, and distributing dangerously local, organic, unprocessed (that is, unpatriotic) food to hungry, left-wing hippies all across the Bay Area. Fortunately, today’s chefs can freely practice their art of cooking seasonal, fresh, and healthy without causing another Red Scare.
Shanta wastes no time putting us to work. Within minutes, the smoothly greased chaos of an Indian kitchen has taken over the space and everyone in it.
As the chai brews in a giant pot, Shanta explains the spices and produce we’re using and suggests markets to find them, including Other Avenues, the co-op that she co-manages, and the Jai Ho Indian Grocery in the Western Addition. Then my guests and I start getting dirty – dipping vegetables in chickpea batter, frying them to make pakoras.
We sit down to enjoy the pakoras, chai, and a continuation of Shanta's story. As it turns out, the Food Conspiracy wasn't exactly a major Cold War player, but it did launch the co-op movement in San Francisco and its legacy includes such paragons of paranormal, fresh-food activity as Rainbow Grocery, the Cheese Board Collective, and Other Avenues. In addition to giving lessons, Shanta released a cookbook (which she sweetly donates to my house) and became famous for publishing the recipe of the Gujarati marijuana drink – Bhang.
After devouring the fried vegetables, we turn the kitchen into a communal chapati-rolling factory. We all take turns, with varying degrees of success, trying to imitate her perfectly round and paper-thin flat bread. We also make some stuffed vegetables, which together with the chapati, make a lovely and absurdly healthy meal that we enjoy with a few nice bottles of wine. At $35, the class is priced for the public, and while it isn't as intensive as my other experiences, it is by far the most casual and relaxed.
By the end of the night we've spun out a three-course meal, and although we don't make the famous Bhang drink, I am pleasantly buzzed on spices, chai, and the satisfaction of successfully cooking ethnic food in the confines of my own home.
Cooking classes from Tante Marie's Cooking School, Mama Thai Cooking Club, and Shanta's Vegetarian Ethnic Kitchen can all be booked online. And if you’re looking to learn how to cook with super local produce, check out Mariposa Kitchen, where Caroline, a spunky young host who will show you what to do with ingredients from nearby farmers’ markets.