Do you know your cardamom from your cumin? Your tamarind from your turmeric? MAXINE GORDON signs up for an Indian cookery lesson

IF you suffer "aftershocks" following a dollop of dhal then you need to cook the lentils with a tiny sprinkle of asafoetida.

Yes that was news to me as well, but apparently this bright yellow powder (ground from a black rhizome that looks like coal but is part of the fennel family) counters any "gassiness" from the lentils and stops you feeling bloated.

This was one of the many interesting facts I learned about Indian spices during a workshop led by tutor Sharmini Thomas, who has been sharing the secrets of Indian cooking with the people of York for more than 20 years.

She is a regular in the city's adult education programme, as well as offering one-off cookery days (like today), but also leads team-building events where staff bond over bhaji-making.

This weekend, she will be giving demos in the York Food & Drink Festival taster event: tomorrow from 4.30pm-5pm, and on Sunday at 4pm-5pm, in St Sampson's Square, along with a whole host of other chefs. Admission is free.

Since spices – and how to select, cook and layer them – forms the heart of Indian cuisine, it made sense that this was where our cookery lesson began.

We all got to touch and smell a range of spices from Sharmini's collection – most of them were familiar-sounding to any curry lover. But the asafoetida was an eyebrow raiser to most of us.

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DELICIOUS: The meal Maxine made after a day cooking with Sharmini

We were a mixed bunch: a few had been on Sharmini's courses before. Some had come for fun, one to learn how to cook curry for her husband, another to refresh skills from a previous course. Two were colleagues on a "get-to-know-each-other-better" mission.

We worked in pairs, and I was lucky to land Andrew Farr, a keen cook, who had completed two of Sharmini's comprehensive adult ed courses. I was in good hands.

Sharmini handed out a wipe-clean recipe book detailing our challenges for the day. We were to make a chicken curry, a lentil and spinach dhal, Bombay potatoes, and fluffy rice – all in time for lunch, when Sharmini would serve a mango lassi to drink.

As she talked about the spices, it struck me how they could double as a first aid kit. Indigestion? Then chew on a cardamom seed. Cut yourself? Rub some turmeric on the wound to aid clotting (and it has anti-bacterial properties too). Toothache? Dab some ground cloves into the area. Overweight? Cumin is said to raise the metabolism and aid weight loss.

Feeling like culinary doctors, we donned our aprons and began chopping onions, garlic, ginger and chillies – ready for our dishes. It was a busy morning, with a lot to do, so I was grateful for a kitchen-mate in Andrew. As we delegated parts of each dish, and took turns clearing away and washing up, you could see that a cookery class makes for an excellent team-building initiative. He was definitely the leader (and deservedly so, as he was a curry-making veteran while I was the new recruit). For the four dishes to be ready by 1pm, we had to work as a unit.

Sharmini showed everyone how to do each part of the recipe before sending them back to their cooking stations. This was really helpful, particularly because you could see how each stage should look.

The most helpful tips I learned from the day were to use either coconut oil or sunflower oil to slow-fry onions and garlic (this way they do not burn), and, for the same reason, to mix spices with a little water to form a paste before adding to curries.

At the end, I had a sneaky taste of Sharmini's dishes to see how they compared. They tasted lovely – but so did ours. What was interesting was that each dish had a distinct flavour, rather than a ubiquitous "curry" taste. That's because Sharmini was selective with the spices in each dish and also the clever use of a "tempering" at the end. This is a spiced garnish, which is cooked down and added to each recipe before serving. For the dhal, it amounted to frying mustard seeds, curry leaves, and a shallot, with a dry red chilli, some chilli powder and turmeric. It was really lovely and lifted the earthy flavour of the dish to a more interesting height.

After the mayhem of the morning, lunch was a relaxed and enjoyable affair. Tables were placed in the middle of the kitchen, covered in a vibrant Indian table cloth. We all ate together, and everyone really enjoyed what they made. Our dishes were on the spicy side. Sharmini advised that to make them cooler, we could split the chilli in half and remove it during cooking, or take out the pips and pith before adding the chilli to the dish. The delicious lassi, made in a blender with mango pulp, milk and yoghurt, helped counter the heat of the lunch – another Indian treat I now feel confident to rustle up at home.

Cook with Sharmini:

Full-day session: June 16, 10am-4.30pm (£140)

Half-day sessions: October 6; November 24; December 8, 10am-2pm (£99)

Bespoke team building/bonding sessions are also available.

More details online:


Here, Sharmini shares her recipe for an Indian classic:

Bombay potato

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Serves: 2

Ingredients for seasoning:

Sunflower oil and ghee 1dsp each

Mustard seeds ¼ tsp

Cumin seeds ½ tsp

Curry leaves 8-10

Other ingredients:

New potatoes 300gm

Shallots (finely chopped) 2 medium

Green chilli (finely chopped)1-2

Ginger (finely chopped) 1 inch

Turmeric powder ¼ tsp

Salt to taste

Lemon juice ½ lemon (to taste)

Coriander leaves, a few (chopped finely)

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1. Place potatoes in a saucepan and cover with cold water and ½ tsp salt. Parboil till ¾ done. Drain.

2. When cool, peel the potatoes (optional) and cut them into ½ or ¼s – depending on the size of the potato. Keep aside.

3. Heat oil and ghee in a dry frying pan. When hot add seasoning, i.e. mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves. Cover pan with lid for 3-4 seconds to prevent spluttering of spices.

4. When the lovely aroma of the spices appear, add finely chopped shallots, ginger and green chilli/chillies.

5. Stir until shallots turns translucent.

6. Next, add turmeric powder and salt to taste.

7. Stir fry for a minute. Then add potatoes and stir gently till well coated with spices.

8. Cover and cook for a further 5-7 minutes on a low to medium heat, stirring gently from time to time, taking care not to break the potatoes. This helps the potatoes to absorb the flavours.

9. Add lemon juice to taste.

10. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot.

York Food and Drink Festival - Taster Weekend

YOU can learn some cookery skills, watch the pros give live demos, and browse the festival market for some of the best produce in Yorkshire at this weekend's taster event for the York Food and Drink Festival.

Entry to the festival is free, but some events require paid-for tickets, including the Food Factory on Parliament Street, where you can learn how ice-cream is made, how cocoa beans become chocolate, and how to make pasta from scratch. Sessions last an hour, running from 10.30am to 5pm. You can pre-book your slot or pay on the door – and you can take home or try on the day the goods you make. Price: £10 family ticket (four participants, including one or two adults); adult £4; child £3.

York Press: STEPHANIE MOON: "Really honoured."

At St Sampson's Square, Sharmini Thomas is just one of several cooks and chefs doing cookery demos over the weekend. Also taking part will be Rafi's Spicebox; Arvind Mamgain, Masala Craft; and York's Chocolate Story on Saturday, with chefs Oliver Farrar; Jon Appleby, of the Blue Lion Inn, East Witton, and Stephanie Moon (pictured), chef consultant at Rudding Park, sharing their know how on Sunday.

Check out the programme at: