Cooking with Poonam

When I met Poonam Singh at the North Indian restaurant, she was also here for the food-tasting. During the meal, I observed how a good cook can vouch for the authentic taste of cuisine she’s familiar with.

Poonam Singh, a gracious host and a good cook
I paid attention to her comments about the cuisine and learnt that she is familiar with North Indian food because she grew up eating and preparing it.  Besides reviewing the food that day, I got to know her better.   

Poonam, who comes from North-East India, has lived in Johor Baru for almost four years. Her husband’s work brought her and their family first to Singapore, where they lived for three years before they moved to JB.

While she got acquainted with the city she now calls home and made many friends, Poonam longed to do something useful with her skills in cooking and baking.

With her husband’s support, she started conducting baking classes at Puteri Harbour.  Her famous cinnamon rolls is one of the popular items baked in class.

Poonam and Sashi with their dinner guests
When they entertained guests at home, there was always an interesting menu of home-cooked North Indian dishes, complete with dessert. Guests who were impressed with her cooking skills often asked her for recipes and how to prepare this or that dish.

So it was a natural process for Poonam to become a teacher and guide to help those who are keen on learning how to prepare various types of food, cakes or pastries. 

Two years ago, she started giving cooking lessons to small groups of up to 15 people, usually held in one of their homes in Horizon Hills, East Ledang, Puteri Harbour or Bukit Indah.  This was both fun and challenging because she had to lug the necessary kitchen equipment along as most of the client’s homes were not equipped for preparing North Indian cuisine!

Her cooking classes are held once a week.  Almost once a month, she would accept an invitation to be a private chef to cook a sensational meal at a client’s kitchen which was graciously served to guests in their home.

Pumpkin Pakora sizzling in the pan
As the popularity of her North Indian cuisine is being spread by word-of-mouth, Poonam is keeping busy with conducting cooking classes or catering for small groups of up to 25 people.

Besides these activities, Poonam also prepares North Indian condiments like mango chutney and ready-to-cook masala paste, packed in 500gm bottles for sale online through her Facebook page, Poonam Spice Kitchen. 

Using only fresh ingredients and quality spices from India, Poonam blends and bottles them regularly as orders are received.  To meet the rising demand, she visits India at least twice a year to buy selected spices to use with her products.

“Indians love to have guests over.  Guests are considered as gods!” said Poonam when she invited me over for a North Indian cooking-dining experience.

Poonam giving me tips on how to knead the dough
While I was delighted with the prospect of enjoying a Poonam-home-cooked North Indian dinner, I was apprehensive about the hands-on cooking part. I hope she was not counting on me to do much cooking – that may spoil the meal – but since there would be others to volunteer for the cooking, I accepted her kind invite.

When I arrived, Poonam was in the kitchen, busy with a pan of sizzling Pumpkin Pakora.  These were slices of pumpkin coated in a light batter, sprinkled with nigella sativa seeds.  When the freshly-fried slices were sufficiently cooled, I bit into fried pumpkin flavoured with a mild, nutty onion taste from the seeds. Mmm… delicious!

“Well,” I thought to myself as munched on the Pumpkin Pakora, “If this was what homemade delicacies tasted like, I’m more than ready for a home-cooked meal!”

Poonam the gracious host, gently turned the tables on her guests by switching into teacher-mode as she outlined the items that we would be preparing to cook for dinner. 

Adding chickpeas to the fragrant masala in the pan 
She explained that bhatoora or bhatura bread is a fluffy, deep-fried leavened bread usually eaten with chickpea curry or chole masala, in a traditional North Indian meal called chole bhatura.

When she asked for a volunteer to knead the bread dough, there were many who volunteered me! 

Ready to be a good sport, I did not hesitate to remove my ring and washed my hands to prepare for this task.

Then Poonam placed a mixing bowl in front of me and started measuring ingredients in: white flour, yoghurt, cooking oil and milk.  After giving a quick demo on how to knead, she smoothly handed the job over to me.

The touch of flour in my bare hands triggered off memories of secondary school Home-Science classes and how I used to make raisin rock buns – that literally felt like rocks – by using the rubbing-in method.  

Chole masala [Right] and a bunch of strawberry roses [Left]
“No,” Poonam contradicted my thoughts, as she directed me to put more effort into kneading and blending the ingredients to the required consistency before it was set aside to rise while the chole masala gravy was prepared.

As in most Indian gravies, distinct flavours are from the blend of spices and Poonam spared no effort in showing us the range of raw spices and ingredients – naming them one by one – before selecting the required items to put into the blender. 

This handy gadget is probably one of the modern conveniences that Indian kitchens are using to blend spices instead of the traditional stone grinder. With a quick electric whirr, the spices are speedily blended and ready for use!

The delicious aroma of Chole masala
reminds Florence of her dad's famous curry!
As the blended spices sizzled in the hot pan, its mouth-watering fragrance filled the kitchen and whet my appetite for the taste of chole masala and freshly fried bhatura!

But our meal was not just chole bhatura as Poonam had prepared an array of dishes in advance.  Ever the gracious host, she was aware that we might not get to eat until midnight if we were to cook all the items she had laid out on the dining table!

She had pre-cooked two recipes that originated from Assam; Chicken Masala with potatoes and Potato with Green Peas.  Oven barbecued chicken drumsticks that were marinated overnight were topped in a tasty sauce made with fresh ingredients like garlic, ginger, chillie, sesame oil and yoghurt.

There was also Aloo Tikki or potato cutlets and a refreshing chickpea salad to complement the dishes that were served with Jeera or zeera rice, white rice dotted with cumin seeds.

Rolling out the risen dough and frying bhatura under
Poonam's watchful eyes!
For dessert, Poonam had baked a selection of Nankhatai, Indian shortbread cookies, as well as prepared kheer, a rice pudding made with boiled rice, wheat, milk and sugar with delightful bits of cardamom, raisins, saffron, cashews, pistachios and almonds.  She even found time to carve fresh strawberries into roses and presented them in a tiny vase!

Dinner was ready to be served when her husband, Sashi, arrived home from work.

With the pan of oil ready heated, the bhatura dough that was left to rise, was rolled into small balls by hand and then flattened using a rolling pin. These round pancake-like dough was deep-fried in the hot oil until they puffed up into soft and fluffy ‘flying saucers’ and were served hot!

You will agree that there’s nothing tastier than a home-cooked meal but it was even more meaningful and memorable when the dishes were prepared with love and care, along with chole bhatura that was made by amateurs (us!) step-by-step, patiently guided by Poonam.

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