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t’s Friday night in Los Angeles, and Tahia Lameer, wearing a red chef’s uniform and her hair in a ponytail, is conducting a filled-to-capacity class for foodie haven Sur La Table’s cooking program. The class is the culmination of her Flavors of India series, which introduced students to Indian spices, curries and vegetarian cooking and emphasizes quick, easy and healthy dishes. The menu includes Pineapple Curry Simmered in Coconut Milk, Green Peas Sautéed with Chilies, Spicy Cashew Curry, Cucumber Raita and Yogurt Rice with Mint and Cilantro.

Describing Lameer’s recipes as “simple yet flavorful,” student Kavitha Pathmarajah, an epidemiology analyst from West Hollywood, explains that they are “great for beginners because not a lot of different ingredients are involved, which makes cooking fun and easy.” Lameer doesn’t care whether you’re a beginner chef or a seasoned gourmand—her cooking classes are open to students of all skill levels. After offering a basic introduction to Indian cuisine and the spices used in the recipes, she offers a few helpful cooking hints and reviews the recipes before the students dive into preparing the dishes, working in groups. “I don’t like doing just pure demo because they don’t learn how to actually cook it then. When they actually participate is when they learn the most,” says Lameer. Pathmarajah adds, “Tahia’s teaching style is very interactive. She comes around to each group helping everyone with their questions and gives suggestions.”

tahia-lameer.jpg
Tahia in action.

Tips from Tahia’s Kitchen

Lameer offers her advice on keeping Indian food light and healthy:

1. Substitute extra-virgin olive oil for ghee.
2. When using coconut milk, use low fat instead of regular/full fat.
3. Limit intake of curries with heavy creams (i.e., kormas)/coconut milks.
4. Eat lots of daal (lentils) and channas (chick peas) for protein.
5. Take a class with Tahia!

Keep an eye on her Web site for information on upcoming classes. They are geared toward cooks of all levels, and she preps her students with a few basic cooking hints before they start in on the recipes. At a recent class she covered:

1. How to cut an onion. (Score it, then cut.)
2. How to stabilize your cutting board. (Place a rag under it.)
3. How to peel ginger. (With a teaspoon.)

Got cooking questions for Tahia? Send them to tahialameer@yahoo.com and you might see your question answered in an upcoming issue.

Culinary pioneer Julie Sahni, one of America’s leading experts on the cuisine of India, asked Lameer to teach the classes for Sur La Table. “She was promoting nontraditional chefs, people like myself who have not gone to culinary school,” says Lameer, who works in health care by day and runs Tahia’s Kitchen, her hands-on Indian vegetarian cooking classes, on the side. She enthusiastically agreed to do the classes. “One of her books is like my bible. It’s falling apart, has turmeric all over it, chili powder and garam masala.” The book she’s talking about is Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, and its author had a major influence on her passion for cooking—“my biggest inspirations are my mom and then Julie Sahni.”

Lameer got started with cooking by taking an extended learning course at Pasadena City College. “Then I asked the teacher if she needed help for her second session.” Her teacher accepted the offer and asked her to teach the class on Indian cooking. She pursued teaching opportunities whenever she could, approaching churches, schools and other groups to offer classes. “I had to be very creative,” she says of her early teaching experiences. While visiting Sri Lanka for a couple of weeks, she had an opportunity to work with master chefs at a five-star hotel, the Hilton Colombo. Rotating between various kitchens, she worked with Indian and Sri Lankan chefs. “It was really exciting. I learned so much from them,” says Lameer. “When you work full time in health care, and you’ve got a college degree and a graduate degree—these are people who don’t have any of that. It’s very humbling … They offered me so much … I would not be as good as I am right now if it was not for the people I worked with.”

Lameer learned much on that trip about the basics of cooking Indian and Sri Lankan cuisines. She explains some of the major differences: “The spice powders are different. South Indian food and Sri Lankan food have curry powders. North Indian and Pakistani food have garam masala … The curry powders are more pungent spice mixtures, where you have more curry leaves, daals, chili pepper. Whereas the garam masalas are the sweeter spices, with cinnamon, cloves, things like that, black peppers.” Another difference she notes is that with “North Indian food you have more cream and yogurt. South Indian and Sri Lankan food is more coconuts and spice. Also, Sri Lankan food has a lot more turmeric, chili powder and chili peppers.” Her Sur La Table classes introduced students to Indian foods, as well as some Sri Lankan classics like Katta Sambol (Curry/Bread/Chutney).

Lameer’s lifestyle shapes her approach to food: “I based it on the single woman who works full time, goes to the gym after work, comes home and wants to cook.”

Born in Sri Lanka to a Muslim family who moved to southern California when she was very young, Lameer attended Smith College and Boston University before returning to the Los Angeles area, for work. “I’m like the minority among the minority,” notes Lameer. “Muslims are a minority in Sri Lanka. There are no Muslim vegetarians,” she laughs. She has been a vegetarian for 15 years—she decided to become one while on Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. “I never liked meat growing up even and actually didn’t know about being vegetarian. When I went on Hajj I didn’t like how meat was presented and I just didn’t eat it. I discovered vegetarianism as a way out. So it was an escape for me, and it was a lifestyle after that.”

Her lifestyle also shapes her approach to food. “I based it on the single woman who works full time, goes to the gym after work, comes home and wants to cook … that’s not everybody … But I have to do what’s easiest for me.” Doing what’s easiest for Lameer is keeping her busy these days, as she pursues her full-time career and culinary interests on the side, including her classes, non-profit culinary consulting and independent contracting with L.A. Food Works. How does she manage it all? “Because it’s my passion. When it’s your passion you make time for it,” she says. “My dream is to one day write a cookbook.” With recipes like Eggplant Spiced with Lentils and Dried Chilies, which she describes as her “most popular,” she’s definitely got some material to work with.

Eggplant Spiced with Lentils and Dried Chilies

A roasted, bold and silky textured dish.

4 T extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds eggplant
2 T channa daal
1 T urad daal
5 T coriander seeds
1 t black peppercorns

1-3 dried red chilies (can add more for increased spiciness)
1 t garam masala
3 cups coarsely chopped Roma tomatoes
Salt to taste
Optional: cilantro (for garnish)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Pierce the eggplant with a fork around its surface area. Cover the eggplant with foil. Roast the eggplant in the oven for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes (can vary depending on oven temperatures). Remove the eggplant from the oven and let it cool. Cube the eggplant with its skin on into 1 ¼ inch pieces. Place in a separate bowl.

Heat 2 T oil in a pan on medium high heat. Fry the channa daal and the urad daal until golden brown (about 2-3 minutes). Add the coriander seeds, black peppercorns, dried red chilies, and garam masala. After 3-5 minutes, add the tomatoes and coat thoroughly with spices. Sauté spice mixture until the tomatoes wilt. Remove the pan from the heat. Place the spice mixture in the food processor and blend until smooth. Remove the spice mixture from food processor and place in separate bowl.

Heat the remaining oil in a pan on medium high heat. Toss the eggplant from the bowl and the spice mixture from the food processor back into the pan. Sauté together for 3-5 minutes. Add salt to taste. Optional: Garnish eggplant with cilantro and serve warm. Serves 4-6

Tahia Lameer’s next Indian cooking class is at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 29, at LA Foodworks in Los Angeles. The menu includes samosas, pakoras, mint chutney and more. For more information or to sign up, visit the Tahia’s Kitchen Web site. n

Pavani Yalamanchili does not dare bite into dried red chilies, but likes to see them poking through the fragrant yellow rice. Additional reporting by Vipula Yalamanchili in Los Angeles.
Published on March 26, 2007.
Photography: Courtesy of Tahia Lameer.
Comments are closed.
  1. March 27, 2007, 3:52 pm KB

    Tahia’s recipes are fantastic! I tried a couple of the recipes posted on her website– the dishes are rich in flavor, and unique in style. I’m looking forward to her cookbook.

  2. April 22, 2008, 2:09 pm Layla

    There is nothing than spending time learning to cook a new dish or two with a significant other. It really creates a bond between one another.