Beyond Curry Powder and Soy Sauce By DEBBIE CHANG

Tuesday December 27, 2005

As a student in a professional cooking school in the Napa Valley, I knew I was lucky. Within walking distance, there were great restaurants to train at, artisan olive oil makers, and organic produce at the Farmers market. Napa Valley, however, lacked one thing. Ethnic cuisine. By ethnic, I don’t mean Asian-fusion, Rachel Ray’s “thirty-minute” version, or the high-priced “____-influenced California cuisine” (fill in the blank with your choice--Mediterranean, French, Japanese, Indian, etc.) 

Chef Barbara, my instructor, wanted to expose our class to the authentic cuisine of other cultures, and the best way to do this was to go where the people of that culture went, buy what they bought, and eat what they ate. 

This is how I found myself standing at Vik’s, an Indian grocery store located in a dimly-lit converted garage on the corner of Seventh and Allston streets in Berkeley. I was surrounded by spices. These spices weren’t in small, overpriced bottles like at the supermarket. They were arranged neatly in alphabetical order, each kind in its own airtight plastic bag and priced per pound. All eighteen of us stood silent and confused, holding our grocery baskets. Finally one student mustered up courage to speak up. 

“Where’s the curry powder?” Heather asked. 

Chef Barbara rolled her eyes and grabbed her by the arm. “Curry powder doesn’t come in a bottle. You’re in cooking school! You should make it on your own—I’ll tell you what you need. Plus, there’s more to Indian food than curry.”  

She led Heather down the aisles. We followed like trained monkeys. Chef Barbara tossed whole cumin and coriander into Heather’s basket. 

“You should always toast and ground your cumin and coriander,” she said. “The flavor is much stronger.” 

Her basket was quickly filled with the addition of tumeric, garam masala, whole black and white peppercorns, paprika, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, and mustard seeds. For under ten dollars, she could make enough curry (and whatever else Indian) to last an eternity.  

We moved next door for lunch. It was a weekday so we had no problem finding tables. Moments after sitting down, steaming, fragrant plates of lentils, potato-filled puffed breads, cubed chicken smothered with cumin yogurt, and spiced lamb arrived. Most of us had never eaten real Indian chaat before. Our initial trepidation wore off very quickly after the first bite.  

Our next stop was Ranch 99 Supermarket, off Highway 80 in Albany. Ranch 99 is akin to a Chinese Safeway, but the similarity stops at the bright florescent lighting. Some ingredients are recognizable, but for the most part, the aisles are filled with Asian sauces, oils, vinegars, Chinese vegetables, and Chinese dry goods, many labeled only in Chinese characters. The English translations also don’t necessarily help—we could read the words “Broad Bean Paste,” but none of us knew what that meant. The two of us who were of Chinese heritage (I was one of them) were no help because even though both of us knew how to eat Chinese food, neither of us knew how to cook it. 

“You are going on a scavenger hunt. We have a long list of things we need for the school year. Pick two slips out of this bag, find the ingredients and put it in our basket.”  

I opened the first slip, “Shao shing wine.” The second, “tamarind.” The first was easy. I didn’t know what it was, but I suspected that it was a cooking wine. I guessed right. It helped that the label was in bright red and said “shao shing wine.” Tamarind was harder. I knew that tamarind was a dried fruit similar to figs, but I had no idea where to find it. 

While wandering, I saw some of my other classmates closely examining cans and labels, and others searching intently for items they had never heard of like rock sugar, dry rice noodles, sea cucumber, tree ear mushrooms, and fish sauce. One student was sent back to the produce section when he brought back a watermelon instead of a wintermelon. He grumbled, “I wish my item was soy sauce. I know what that is.” 

Our final stop was Oakland’s Chinatown. We purchased woks, large and small steamers, clay pots, and an assortment of dishware, at prices much cheaper than at fancy specialty stores like Williams and Sonoma or Crate and Barrel. We also bought hundreds of Chinese spoons, small delicate plates and other knickknacks that we used to serve passed appetizers at public events held at the school. All 18 of us were needed to carry everything back to the shuttle. 

Even though our day was done, and the taste of Indian food was still fresh in our mouths, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity for fresh barbeque pork buns. Chef Barbara purchased two large pink boxes full. We stuffed them one after another into our mouths, until both boxes were empty except for a couple of bright white bread crumbs.