“Out of my family, I need to feel that I can prove I am no ordinary woman, that I am different from others,” says Yamini Joshi, the League of Kitchens’ instructor from Mumbai, India. The League of Kitchens is an immersive culinary program in New York through which immigrants teach intimate cooking workshops in their homes.
Joshi is far from ordinary. Despite many difficult life experiences, she exudes infectious energy and has been cooking exceptional Indian meals using traditional, from-scratch methods for more than 50 years.
At age 10, Joshi’s father provided her first real cooking lesson while her mother was in the hospital for the birth of one of her younger brothers.
After Joshi both undercooked and burned the kichiri (rice with split lentils and vegetable), her father gently corrected her and taught her the correct recipe.
This early mistake motivated Joshi to learn to make delicious food on her own for the family. Whether she’s rolling roti (whole wheat flat bread), carefully slicing and filling vegetables with a toasted spice mixture for sambhariya (stuffed eggplants, potatoes, shallot and tomatoes), or making the tarka (spices roasted in hot oil or ghee) for dal, Joshi, 62, now moves with an intuitive rhythm in the kitchen.
She teaches her students about the particular taste and medicinal qualities of every spice she uses, the characteristic it imparts to each dish and, with warmth and patience, she explains how to blend and enhance flavors.
Her natural talent evolved into expert skill through years of cooking for others. For Joshi, food has always been about connecting and sharing – with god, friends and family, and her community. To honor and thank god for blessing her with nourishing food, Joshi always offers the first plate of every meal she cooks on her home altar and chants a prayer over the food. A dining experience at her table begins with feelings of peace and gratitude and ends with a deep sense of physical and spiritual fulfillment.
Her passion for cooking also has helped Joshi to overcome hardship. A strained relationship with her in-laws proved to be Joshi’s greatest challenge. As with many of the other trials she would face in life, cooking became part of the solution. Banned from joining family activities, she was forced to work with the servants and withstood a constant barrage of criticism.
“My mother instilled in me the values of devotion, sacrifice and forgiveness,” she says. “I was always inspired by my mom and her advice to never shy away from hard work.” Therefore, she immersed herself in cooking and winning her in-laws’ favor through food, as she tirelessly served them for nearly 20 years.
On Joshi’s first trip to the U.S. In 1978, she was struck by the freedom of expression enjoyed by women in the U.S. “After visiting the U.S., I felt stronger and became determined that my daughters would grow up to be more independent than I had been,” she says.
Over the next 20 years, three of her four siblings — and eventually her mother and eldest daughter — all moved to the U.S. Joshi and her husband began discussing moving to the States to provide a better life for their younger daughters.
In 1999, Joshi and the two girls resettled in New York while her husband stayed in Mumbai to help manage family affairs. Joshi struggled in those early years and began working for a jewelry company in Manhattan. When her husband arrived in 2001, he took a job at a gas station to help make ends meet.
Even with the added stresses of a different country and financial constraints, Joshi never stopped cooking. She found a new group of culinary fans in her co-workers and realized for the first time that people outside of her family enjoyed her food. An office mate, impressed with Joshi’s cooking, once shared her batata vada (spiced potato fritters) with a friend who worked at a nearby bank. The friend called the next day to place an order for 200 batata vada for the bank’s office party, and Joshi took on her first professional catering job.
Today, Joshi still caters for special events, but it’s physically demanding work. She says teaching for the League of Kitchens brings her a new sense of fulfillment. “At this age, I enjoy working from home. I like the way the League of Kitchens organizes everything and teaches us new skills,” she says.
When Joshi’s not working or spending time with her daughters and grandchildren, she’s still dreaming bigger. “I have a special ability to understand flavor. I am 100 percent sure that if people eat my food, they will ask for it again and again,” she says. “I want to eventually set up a business of my own in NYC. Still, I have some energy to do something more.”
Dal, or dishes of lentils, dried beans and pulses (legumes), are eaten daily throughout India, providing an important source of protein for the country’s many vegetarians. Yamini Joshi, who first discovered mixed dal at a family wedding feast, tops her dal with a tarka, or “spice infusion” - spices and aromatics bloomed in hot oil and poured over top. This recipe is courtesy of Joshi and the League of Kitchens. Many ingredients are available at Indian markets.
- 2 cups pre-mixed dal, soaked 30 minutes, rinsed
- 5 cups water
- 1 teaspoon ghee (homemade or store bought)
- 3 Thai green chilies, slit cut on the side
- 2 cloves garlic, grated
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- Pinch asafoetida (also known as hing)
- 1 tablespoon ghee (homemade or store bought)
- 1 heaping teaspoon cumin seeds
- 12 fresh curry leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse-ground red chili powder
- Pinch asafoetida (also known as hing)
- 2 Thai green chiles, slit cut on the side
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 large or 2 small plum tomatoes, cut in small dice (3/4 cup)
- 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, coarsely chopped
For the dal, in a large saucepan, put the soaked dal and cover with the water. Add the ghee, chiles, garlic, salt, coriander, cumin seeds, turmeric and asafoetida. Bring to a boil, skim any foam, cover and simmer on low heat until soft, for 25 to 30 minutes.
For the tarka, in a small, dry saucepan heat the ghee over medium-high heat until it shimmers and/or small bubbles appear around the side, about 1 minute. Add the cumin seeds, swirl the pan gently and cook for about 10 seconds. Add the curry leaves (they will splatter), red chili powder, asafoetida, green chiles and garlic. Stir or swirl the pan for about 10 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for 30 seconds to slightly soften. Pour the tarka into the dal, bring to a boil, and simmer to soften the tomatoes, about 10 minutes. Stir in the cilantro. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Prep: 15 minutes, plus 30 minutes soaking time
Cook: 40 minutes