Through a little window in the street vendor's stall I see a series of 10 plastic boxes filled with what look like shredded spices, some speckled with red stuff. The man, a native of India, sells something that I find peculiar. It appears edible. Alongside the spice boxes, there's a pot of white paste and a stack of heart-shaped, green leaves. I must have given him a curious look.
"You have to try paan. Very good. No charge. Let me make you one," says the man with a big toothy grin. He puts a leaf in the palm of his hand, brushes on a little of the sticky paste and adds pinches of this spice and that before folding the leaf into a neat, triangular parcel. I take a bite. The flavor is sweet at first, then astringent, and the texture brings tree bark to mind. Subtly, I toss the odd wad into the nearest trash can. But paan is just the kind of curious item I'd hoped to learn about on a guided culinary tour of Jackson Heights, Queens.
At New York's Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), I can take a class in, let's say, Knife Skills, Hearty Winter Braises or the Essentials of Sichuan Cooking. With the holidays approaching, how about New Thanksgiving Sides? These classes sound motivating enough. But perhaps they're too much like the classes widely available in the Washington area. Then there is the fear of being a stool potato, stuck in a stainless steel teaching kitchen with one of the greatest cities in the world outside the classroom window. When in New York, I tend to be antsy. This guy wants to be out and about on the crowded streets, dabbling in an unfamiliar culture, sampling slices of thin-crust pizza and breathing in a mix of heady aromas. And that's precisely why my choice is ICE's Indian Cuisine Tour. An on-the-street food excursion -- a walking tour that takes me to specialty food shops in an ethnic neighborhood -- sounds like a friendly way to learn.
ICE runs what it calls the largest, hands-on, recreational cooking program in the world with 2,000 classes held annually -- everything from Basics of Brining to Kosher Cooking for Newlyweds. The school's 12 newly renovated teaching kitchens, four lecture rooms and wine studies center extend over 42,000 square feet on five floors of an office building in the Chelsea section of the city. Walking tours, conducted by chefs and cookbook authors, cover ground in places like Chinatown and Little Italy.
The nucleus of ICE is an accredited career program for aspiring chefs. But anyone can sign up for a half-day class. Spokesman Stephen Tave says the typical student who takes a quickie class in the recreational division of the school is a single, middle-aged professional, and about 75 percent are women. This could be a very cool way to meet like-minded people.
At 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in September, an average-size group of 12 students is asked to assemble on the north side of Roosevelt Avenue and 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens -- an easy, 30-minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan. In a borough noted as a immigrant juncture -- with neighborhoods alive with vibrant Korean, Colombian, Greek and West Indian enclaves -- this busy corner is the doorway to a thriving community of folks who hail from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It's raining sideways with a wicked wind. Cookbook author and food consultant Richard Ruben, our tour leader, takes cell call after call from the school. A composed and fairly serious fellow, Ruben, who was voted the 2003 "Cooking Teacher of the Year" by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, also gives tours of the farmers market in Union Square and Essex Street market on the Lower East Side. All but one couple bail out of the tour because of the weather. Here they come. It turns out that Carolyn and Joe Rizzo from Spring Lake, N.J., received the class as a gift from their children. And off we go as the clouds clear. Ruben tells us we will be covering about four city blocks.
Stores are opening, the scent of sandalwood drifts about. There is the odd shopper here and there. It's immediately apparent that a great many of the stores are devoted to fancy, embroidered wedding costumes for both men and women as well as elaborate, filigree gold jewelry. A tilt of the head brings a wash of saffron-colored silk in one direction and a blaze of 24-karat gild in another. We don't stop at the little stores with the big selection of the latest synthesized, techno-pop music preferred by Indian teenagers and dazzling films from Bollywood. For the next three hours our group wanders in and out of grocery stores in a casual fashion with Ruben leading the way. We smell bags of basmati rice to prove a point that the Pakistani variety is the most aromatic. Our guide has "just started playing with" powdered tamarind that, he says, avoids the mess of the fruit's seedy pulp. At a pause in the produce aisle we run our fingers across a spiny jackfruit that will work well in a curried dish. What stinks like rotten eggs? It's asafetida -- a plant resin that brings the flavor of onion to vegetarian dishes. It's best kept in a zippered plastic bag in the refrigerator. We prefer the aroma of fenugreek seeds, which Ruben calls the "nose" of a curry spice mixture. An Indian sweets shop is a new experience for the Rizzos. "I'm not quite sure what I'm looking at," says Carolyn as we troop into the narrow store that offers dozens of little, two-bite confections. I've tried intensely sweet, syrup-soaked Indian desserts before, and the experience has not been memorable. But what the heck. Now, I'm enjoying a rich, creamy cheese square as well as plump balls of milky nut meats and semolina delicately flavored with cardamom or rose water, some topped with thin sheets of edible silver. I think these sweets are superior to others because they are very fresh.
A northern Indian buffet lunch at the popular Jackson Diner with its fun 1950s decor gives us a chance to sample a lot of great vegetarian dishes. We talk about our Indian day and thank Ruben for the experience. Through the wall of windows onto 74th Street there's the sight of a kaleidoscope of sari colors and glints of sun where hours ago there was only driving rain.