“Didi, I am very-very happy,” said the 2nd grade teacher to me with a twinkle in her eye. The way she says very, very is as if it is one word that she must rush through to get to happy. We were sitting in the forest that lies further up the mountainside from the school. Upon the forest floor lay a blanket of dry, fallen pine needles that her students were playing in as if it were snow.
The evening before we went to the market and purchased a plethora of vegetables – almost every kind that was on offer in our small marketplace. We soaked 12 types of dal, weighed out rice, and created little baggies of spices. As we were prepared the ingredients of a local staple, kitchari, for transport into the forest, I realized that the field trip was going to be less about teaching the students how to cook in nature or how to speak about cooking in English, and more about sharing an experience with them.
Once in the forest, we found a safe spot to build the fire and set the children to work washing the vegetables in the nearby stream and chopping them. The adults built the fire and explained every step to the 2nd graders in Hindi and then in English. The students were very attentive, sitting in a semi-circle around the fire jotting down notes in their copybooks. Suman-mam, the teacher, told us all about her childhood experiences cooking in the forests of Garhwal and sent the kids to find big leaves that we would use as plates.
The feast that ensued was incredibly delicious, but the really memorable part was the sense of connectedness amongst the students and teachers who shared in the preparation and consumption of a meal, and between us and the beautiful environment that provided us with everything from plates, to water, to a breathtaking view. In this connectedness the children do more than learn, they develop.
(Feeds 3-4; amounts are approximate – tap into your inner-chef to judge)
1 cup rice
1 cup dal (as many types as you can muster, though split mung dal and yellow lentils are the foundation)
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
mustard s and celery seeds are very tasty, but not necessary
whole coriander seeds or coriander powder
fresh coriander (cilantro)
Vegetables: as many as you can muster. Suggestions: half of a cauliflower, a few potatoes (sweet potatoes/yams work nicely), 1 aubergine, 2 carrots, some kind of dark leafy green (spinach, kale, mustard greens), 2 tomatoes. The amount of each vegetable you need depends on how many you plan on adding.
- Heat a large pot or pressure cooker. Once hot, add a few tablespoons of oil.
- Once the oil heats, add a teaspoon each of cumin, mustard, and celery seeds (if you are using whole coriander seeds, add them at this stage). Once the seeds brown and start to pop, add the chopped onions.
- Once the onion browns, add the ginger and garlic (grind rather than chop for more flavour) and chopped chilies. Also add a spoonful of turmeric and a spoonful of coriander powder (only add powder if you did not use coriander seeds). Add a large pinch of salt, stir for 30 seconds and enjoy the rich fragrance.
- Next add the soaked and rinsed dal and sautee for a moment. Let the lentils get covered in the paste you just created. Add the chopped root vegetables and stir all together. Add a half-cup of water. Add the leafy greens and let them reduce.
- Add the rice. Stir. Add another large pinch of salt. Add water to the point that it covers all of the ingredients and then extends a few cm above the ingredients (~about 4 cups). If using a pressure cooker, cover and let cook for 2-3 whistles. If using a pot, cover and let simmer (stirring occasionally) for ~30 minutes. You can cook it to the consistency that you like.
- Lastly, add salt to taste and garnish with freshly chopped cilantro/coriander.