Queens, known as “The World’s Borough,” is the most diverse county in the US. As home to immigrants from around the world, it makes sense that the League of Kitchens, an organization that runs cooking classes taught by immigrant women, would hold some of them in Queens. I had the chance to attend one of them, and I was fortunate enough to get a spot in the Trinidadian Cooking class (disclosure: this class was free of charge). Our group gained so much from our experience – we deepened our appreciation for the art of cooking, expanded our knowledge of cooking techniques, learned about another culture through the lens of food, and took great joy in sharing several traditional dishes with each other.
Classes with the League of Kitchens offer a chance to learn about a new cuisine directly from someone who has lived in it all their life; classes take place in the instructor’s home, where they are most comfortable. In other words, this is the real deal. There are two class types: Immersion, which lasts a total of five and a half hours and includes lunch and several hours of cooking. Taste Of is much shorter at two and a half hours, and involves an hour and a half of cooking and a light snack. All students are given a recipe booklet to take home; ingredients, recipes, and shopping sources are included. You also get to eat everything you cooked, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to take home leftovers.
Dolly Sirju teaches the Trini class, with roti cooking help from her daughter, Mandy (she’s a serious pro at this). She originally connected with League of Kitchens via an ad on Craigslist (other instructors were contacted through their community’s cultural organization), and after Lisa Gross, the League’s founder, tasted her food – which, in Dolly’s words, “wakes up the mouth” – there was no doubt that she would be part of the League. She now leads three classes a month.
Dolly grew up in Trinidad, moved to Canada, then to Queens, then to Florida, and back to Queens. “This place has everything!” she says about the borough. “I can find anything I need here; it’s like the whole world is in Queens.” She especially loves South Ozone Park. When she was renting she prayed, “If you send me a house please make sure it’s here in this neighborhood.” Thankfully, her prayers were answered.
Her kids love her food. After spending some time in Trinidad, they told her, “Mom, you gotta get into the kitchen and make something for us! Your cooking is the best.” And they’re not joking, her food was excellent. Two of the six attendees had heard of Dolly’s class in particular, and told it was not to be missed.
Indian, African, Spanish, Caribbean and Chinese food cultures influence Trini cuisine, and it can be quite spicy through its use of curry powder and hot peppers; it is incredibly flavorful. We started out the day with a helping of pelau, a traditional Trinidadian stew with chicken, beans, and rice, with a little bit of green salad for lunch. There were six of us, ranging from locals to tourists. We chatted with each other, and everyone enjoyed the spicy food. Conversation was filled with stories and chitchat about what we do and enjoy outside of the class. Dolly shared a number of memories from her life of cooking.
Since this class is immersive, we all participated in preparing each dish, whether it was cooking down the curry powder and onions in water and oil for the goat curry, peeling potatoes for the Channa and Aloo, or working with the roti dough. We got to observe a lot, ask questions, and Dolly gave us some tips, too. She taught us how to determine if a habanero is on the hotter side (the green ones tend to have hotter seeds). We learned why grinding up garlic with water helps it to not burn (the water creates a buffer against the heat). She also told us how to substitute herbs available here for those she gets in Trinidad (Caribbean flat thyme can be replaced by curly parsley).
I’ve alluded to the menu but here it is in full: Mango Chow (raw mango with a mix of herbs, garlic, and peppers), Curry Goat, Channa and Aloo (chickpeas and potatoes), yellow split pea dal, and Buss-Up-Shut Roti. About that last one – it’s called that because after you cook the roti through you tear it on the tawa (a traditional cast iron griddle), so that it resembles a “busted up shirt.” We used it to scoop up everything during our final meal of the day. And although the mango, goat, and chickpeas all implemented a similar flavor profile – any combination of ground herbal green seasoning (scallions, parsley, and shado beni AKA culantro), garlic, and habanero, as well as curry powder – the resulting dishes tasted distinctively different, and when the garlic and habanero were raw they were much spicier than when they were cooked down.
For me, the most striking dish was the Channa and Aloo – the chickpeas were incredibly soft and creamy but held their shape extremely well. Perhaps it was the disintegrated potato’s starchiness that contributed to the wonderful texture. The split peas for dal totally transformed as they boiled, creating a very smooth soup.
We boiled the goat curry on high for a couple of hours, yielding meat that was quite tender and easy to eat. Dolly taught us a way to handle goat, something she learned from her parents: rinse the meat with fresh lemon halves three times, and then with powdered cloves. The cloves and lemon help ameliorate any gaminess, and the resulting dish did not taste gamy at all.
Overall, this session is good for beginners and relaxed proficient home chefs. Dolly is very easy going and although she admits it’s tiring, she loves teaching these classes. It’s obvious that she finds great satisfaction in her work with League of Kitchens.
Pricing ranges between $95 and $149 for one class. This might seem high, but instructors are paid well for their time doing prep, instruction, and cleanup, and before they become an official instructor, they go through months of extensive training. Teaching something they are experts at is quite an empowering thing, and they deserve a lot of respect for the creative and hard work they do. It is at such a high level, League of Kitchens yields a slew of satisfied customers, with minds, hearts, and bellies full.
To sign up for a class, head to the League of Kitchens website.