Freshly made curry powder combined with the smell of Indian cinnamon fill the air as students walk in, grab their cups of chai tea and find their name tags.
This may not be a typical culinary school cooking class, but Fharzana Elankumaran's instructs students on the art of making mixed vegetable pakoras, mint chutney, butter chicken and polao. These tastes transport her students from her Mountain View home back to her roots in the Indian subcontinent.
Having just celebrated in November the one-year anniversary of her class "I Heart Curry," 26-year-old Elankumaran's goal to bring students closer to her culture through cooking keeps growing, one finger-licking dish at a time.
"Watching my mom and grandma cook and the wonderful aroma they created always attracted me," she said, adding however that her mom never let her or her siblings into the kitchen until they finished their studying. "I was always very interested in food and cooking to begin with."
At age nine, Elankumaran said she started making her own stir-fry because she always felt comfortable in the kitchen.
Before moving to California in 2008, Elankumaran and her family lived in Maryland where they moved in 2000 from Bangladesh. Around that time Elankumaran’s mother would come home exhausted from work. Without a cookbook or Internet to research recipes, Elankumaran would experiment with ingredients and taste every spice in the house to learn to make dishes.
"My first goal was to make chicken curry like my mom," she said. "I thought to myself how can I use what’s in front of me to me to make that dish. Everyone ate what I cooked, so I guess it was edible."
By college, Elankumaran said it blew her mind away that food can be so much more interesting than she already thought. She began to read more cookbooks, taste more ingredients and learn more about cooking.
Little did Elankumaran know a passion for cooking would one day lead her to start her own business teaching Indian cooking classes.
Coryanne Hicks went to Elankumaran’s class for the first time on Nov. 29 and said she knows she’ll be back for more.
"It was clear from the very start that I was walking into someone's home and not some culinary school or sterile professional kitchen," said Hicks about the greeting she received from Elankumaran who gave her a warm smile and hugged her, "as if I were family and not a stranger she'd only spoken to through e-mail."
But for Elankumaran, it's not just about preparing the food—it's about understanding the ingredients. She combines her experience cooking with her degree in Chemistry to benefit students.
"I started to research a lot more into the food we buy every day," she said. "I always read labels. Soon I learned that there are so many chemical additives in our food that are really horrible for you. They don’t belong in food at all."
While Elankumaran instructed, Hicks said she made students feel comfortable.
"I just loved that Fharzana was able to really illuminate the heart of cooking and what it is about making a meal from scratch that has brought people together all throughout human history," Hicks said. "She makes you realize cooking isn't just about the finished product, it's about the people you share it with and the things you learn along the way."
Elankumaran hopes to expand her business to larger classes of 30 people and teaching team building classes. At this class she hosted six. She said this is the most natural next step.
"I can’t cook for the entire world but in my control I’ll make sure we that’s more generally good for us," she said. "Food should nourish us not kill."
Elankumaran teaches students how to feel comfortable making their food from scratch. She said she doesn’t want people to cook just because they’re hungry, but because they enjoy it.
For Hicks, the fact that student can ask any question no matter how big or small and Elankumaran will answer with earnest and honesty is a big deal.
“I think it's her ability to make you so comfortable,” Hicks said. “Working in a kitchen can be far from safe and for beginners like me it's pretty intimidating, but with her there, shrugging off each of my spills and continuously offering encouragement and safety advice, I felt more relaxed and confident than I ever had before. She's an excellent guide and incredible teacher.”
Wherever Elankumaran chooses to go next, she’ll have the support of her students.
"She's completely changed the way I look at cooking," Hicks said. "I'm fearless."
This article was produced through a collaboration of PatchU and the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at San Jose State University. PatchU is a Patch Media initiative to build strong relationships with colleges and universities across the country. The mission of PatchU is to connect students and faculty to opportunities at Patch.
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