For the past 20 years, the Mehra family have been Ottawa’s ambassadors for Indian food and culture as proprietors of the East India Company restaurant.
“We’re just people who like hanging out with others,” said Nitin Mehra, executive chef, sommelier and the youngest of the kids to get into the business. “There’s no better way to do that and get paid than opening a restaurant.”
That’s why the pandemic was especially painful for the family. Even though their sauces kept selling at local grocery stores and take-out orders at the restaurant kept some revenue flowing, it was no substitute for the real thing.
“When all you want to do is shake hands, see a smiling face and feed somebody the food that is close to you, the pandemic was a waking nightmare,” said Mehra. “South Asian cooking is meant to be enjoyed family-style. It is meant to be shared, to be eaten as a collective experience.”
For the Mehras, that also means making their food and culture accessible to anyone.
Most customers new to Indian food start with that plate of butter chicken and rice, the proverbial “gateway” to the cuisine. That said, their customers who know Indian cuisine best are also fans of the food. “Our South Asian community says it’s exactly like you would have in India. I’m very proud of that,” said Mehra.
But what if you’ve thoroughly sampled the buffet, experimented with the sauces, and would like to cook the real deal at home?
The East Indian Company has you covered. “We’ve had a lot of customers approach us and say, ‘I’d like to make this but I don’t know how,’” said Mehra. “‘Can you help?’”
So the executive chefs started offering cooking classes in 2007. Now you can prepare their delicious recipes in your own kitchen, using ingredients from the grocery store, with equipment you probably have on hand.
A burner, a pan and some cooking oil
Mehra says in South Asian cooking, it’s best to let the ingredients do the talking.
“We want to demystify the food, we want to show you that you can do this at home with the best ingredients,” said Mehra. “South Asian cooking boils down to a few rules: what spices, when to add them, how to add them.”
Generally a class will start with an introduction of common terms, spices, terminology, just to get you comfortable in the environment. “When I’m formulating the menu for the cooking class, I want folks to be able to execute this themselves,” said Mehra. “It’s amazing to see someone figure out all these nuances and intricacies.”
Just hearing Mehra talk about teaching the art of cooking tandoori chicken is enough to make your mouth water.
“You want to start with your dry rub. You’ll get that in there. And then you’ll take all those dry rub ingredients and you’ll create a wet marination out of them as well. Four hours is ideal — it’s a four-hour double marination,” said Mehra. “Get that on there and get it on the barbecue or in the oven. It’s going to be phenomenal.”
The beauty of the Mehras’ expertise is they know the rules of Indian cooking so well, they can teach you how to break them.
Take the mint chutney that usually arrives with your tandoori chicken. “What I tell folks is to use chutney the same way you would use ketchup. They’re both condiments, they are meant to be dipped, they’re both meant to be served on the side, they’re meant to be spread over other items. That’s it.”
When you’re cooking Indian food, don’t forget the wine
Another little known fact about Nitin and his brother Anish is they took their passion for food a step further by becoming certified sommeliers.
“There’s a tremendous number of connections that happen with wine and South Asian cooking — it really adds a new level to the experience,” said Mehra.
“We started these classes several years back to try and demonstrate that to folks. Yes, beer and spirits are fantastic,” said Mehra. “Enjoy those with cooking, enjoy those with your meals. But have you tried a beautifully paired wine yet?”
One of Mehra’s standout dishes was a chai-flavoured crème brȗlée. “We paired that with a tawny port and it was one of my favourite things,” he said.
I guess when you know how to break the rules, it shows.
“When the room goes quiet and everyone is just eating, we nailed it,” said Mehra.
Book your spot now:
Classes are limited to 20 people and are booked on a first come basis.
Each class is $49.99/person and can be booked by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday September 27th from 6pm to 8:30.
Tuesday Oct 4th from 6pm to 8:30.