Thali's Chef Prasad: A Lesson in Spice @ Clarke Culinary Center

Sarah Green

A lesson in spice, a lesson in life - a cooking class with Prasad Chirnomula is both. Purely charming and ridiculously modest, Chef Prasad (of the Indian restaurants THALI and THALI TOO and of the former Oaxaca in Westport) recently taught a group of eager foodies some very important secrets regarding the art of cooking Indian at Norwalk's prestigious Clarke Culinary CenterClarke offers the best in high end kitchens and top quality appliances as well as wonderful cooking classes where top notch chef Gods let a small groups of mortals watch and learn. So we came, we saw, we watched and we ate. But it wasn't just food that Chef Prasad cooked up- it was more like the creation of a warm, breezy sunset. Chef Prasad created a palate of color. 

Yellow -The thought of the complex flavors and the many spices that are involved in most Indian cuisine seemed daunting at first. Yet as the evening rolled on, the most important ingredient, it seemed, was temperament. Best advice came first, "No rush in cooking. Learn from your mistakes and have a Margarita!" We were happy to oblige. We sat and sipped and watched in wonder as Prasad prepared dish after dish with flare and ease (though having a Sous Chef do all your slicing, dicing and CLEANING surely helps!).  First up on the menu was CHAT - sprouted Mung Beans served with both tamarind and cilantro chutneys. The Mung beans, though a two day process to prepare (you must soak the beans, drain through a dampened cloth, and repeat for 48 hours) are worth the effort. Served with potato and red onion, this refreshing dish is the perfect appetizer. The Mung beans have a delightfully bouncy consistency and a rich, smooth flavor, kicked to life by the tangy tamarind and the fragrant cilantro. This artist's palate was already coming to life with the rich, deep colors on the dish. According to Prasad, it's not just the taste and the aroma but how the items are put on the plate that adds to the experience. "I'm freaky (sic) to put things on the table in just the right dimension - it's like art." 

White -Next came the KONKAN CRAB. Here, exquisite Jumbo Lump Crab meat was tempered with a garlic and ginger paste, mild mustard seeds and was sauteed in fresh coconut milk - CHAOKAH brand is the way to go. Chef Prasad also incorporated Curry Leaf in this dish and assured us that "No respectable chef or mother for that matter would ever use curry powder!" I lowered my head in shame as I had clearly been disreputable up to that point. ("No more," I promised myself and quickly finished what was left of my Margarita and requested another!) Another key ingredient here was the addition of Juahillo chili. "Guajillo?" I hear you wonder. Yes, the Mexican chili Guajillo. It is not surprising that Prasad borrows and barters from Mexican to Indian and vice versa. According to him, these two culinary cuisines use many of the same staples : rice, chili, cilantro, garlic and lime. And this chef sees no reason why ingredients from both can't be interchanged. He explained, "Indian food is about adding more of what you've got!"

Red- Chef also prepared a delectable CHICKEN CURRY. Here, onion, stewed tomatoes, tumeric, cayenne pepper, black bean curd, green cardemom, two types of cumin and the chicken itself stews to create its own stock. Never add ready made stocks as, according to Prasad, you don't need to. The ingredients make plenty of their own juices and this adds to the authenticity of flavor in all the chef's dishes. And to serve as a mattress to this royal dish, a bed of green chili and mint infused basmati rice. This rice was a specialty of Prasad's mother and was made for the chef on his birthday each year. This rice holds a special place in his heart and as he says, "Rice HAS to be perfect." (Chef Prasad prefers Falak Basmati from Patel Brothers on CT Ave in Norwalk.)  It must be salted at the beginning of the cooking process, not after, as this affects the flavor. And chef recommends cooking rice on HIGH 80% and on LOW for the last 20% of cooking, once most of the water has evaporated. And that famous "rice advice" about not opening the lid during cooking? Chef Prasad disagrees. Open it and check. The chef needs to see. Once the water has evaporated and the heat is on low, then leave it alone. 

Orange and Yellow and Red - The TINDORA STIR FRY. Tindora, or IVY GOURD was stir fried with garlic, two types of cumin (Shah and Jeera), dry roasted coriander and yellow lentils. The flavors were rich and the colors vibrant and alive. The crunch of the gourd combined with the warm, aromatic rice and the spicy and flavorful chicken made for a carnival on the tongue. Prasad manages to bring the flavor of each ingredient to the front of each bite and this takes patience and care. "For me," he says, "it's flavors - 10 on 10 on 10!" And he settles for nothing less. 

And it is no wonder that Chef Prasad has earned the kudos that he so deserves. He recently won 'Battle of the Chefs" in New Haven and "smoked out" the kitchen at the James Beard House in NYC. He calls himself the "grandfather of Indian cuisine in Connecticut" and he is a proud pappa.  He likes when other chefs imitate him and loves when they taste his food and then use his ideas in their own restaurants. According to him, "It is an honor." The honor was all ours, Chef Prasad. Thank you. That was a lesson in passion.