I am no longer afraid of coconuts that look like that one on the left. I conquered the baby coconut in a few minutes in a vegan cooking class a few nights ago. That in itself was worth the price of admission, but the class held other surprises for me.
A few years ago I noticed that a local woman was offering vegan cooking classes through our adult education school. I thought about taking one, particularly a “holiday gifts” class, but I put it off. Why? Because I made assumptions about the class.
* I assumed it would be something of a Vegan 101 deal, with people asking all the vegan questions and so on.
* I assumed the teacher would be a bit of proselytizer, probably preaching to the choir. For, most of all,
* I assumed most of the class members would be vegan or wannabe vegan. I thought I might stand out as the fat vegan that others assume is actually not.
* I assumed I already know how to cook. Well, I do.
Recently, though, I saw that she was offering specialized classes and I signed up for the Thai Vegan. Who doesn’t love Thai food? And how much do we know about some of those ingredients? So I signed up.
Only a few people were there when I showed up, but I saw five tables set up with chairs and printed schedules of future classes. I sat down at one of the tables and chatted a bit with the others who were there. In no time the tables filled to capacity or nearly. There were about seventeen of us. From what I was able to tell, very few were vegan.
Then there was the teacher, Debbie. She was dressed casually, she wore little or no makeup, she was unremarkable in appearance. When enough students showed up she began teaching. She spent perhaps a half-hour or forty-five minutes telling us basic kitchen rules, like how to carry a knife or to use the Planet dish soap instead of the toxic stuff in the dispensers, and basic information about ingredients, like tamarind and lemon grass and kelp noodles, where to buy these things and how they taste. She talked a bit about her own cooking philosophy (“I never measure anything”. “I just taste.”). She went through the six recipes, briefly, to let us know how easy each dish is to make. She showed us how to open a baby coconut, get its juice and its soft meat. And then she let us free. With a suggestion that we each take a crack at a coconut, regardless of which dish we made.
The large kitchen has several surfaces. She laid out the ingredients for each dish on different surfaces. We got to choose what we wanted to work on by simply going to the counter where those ingredients were. So there were three or four people working each dish.
I decided I wanted to chop so I went to the cucumber-radish salad group. When I was through slicing up many radishes I headed over to the coconut table to try my hand and the big knife on a virgin coconut. Oh, I should note that Debbie said it’s best to leave the plastic on the coconut, the way it comes from the grocery. The plastic is put on to prevent the coconut from developing mold, and there is formaldehyde on the coconut shell, just under the plastic. So if you take off the plastic you will be letting some of that formaldehyde seep into your skin. And it isn’t necessary to take it off.
Our little group – Judy, Judy, Kathy, and John – worked together well. It looked like the other groups did too. From time to time I wandered around to see what each was doing. Could hardly wait to taste the raw coconut soup, with all of its little toppings.
When we were all done we served ourselves a great meal and had good company to boot. The final dish was a coconut cream that is like yogurt, which we had with chopped fresh pineapple. So delicious.
The entire meal was made without the usual expected ingredients. No tofu, no grains, no noodles (except the kelp noodles, which do not taste like seaweed). Can it still be Thai? Of course it can. Yet it was a clean, healthy Thai, about half raw. And it was obvious everyone enjoyed all of it.
All of this – a remarkable cooking experience – at an adult school. And it wasn’t a fringe experience, a one-off. It wasn’t a bunch of elite students in an elite kitchen. These classes, from what other students told me, are popular. I think I have an idea why.
First, the recipes are easy. One guy said to me at the end, “If I’d known it was this easy I would have gone vegan years ago”.
Second, Debbie was non-judgmental and accepting of us all. No preaching, although she lives her values.
Third, it was loosely structured and designed for fun.
Fourth, Debbie was careful to teach what needed to be taught about the ingredients, but happy to extemporize and encourage us to be willing to experiment.
You never know what you might find at your adult school, or in some other out-of-the-way classroom. And you never know how good it can be. Even more, though, you never know when your neighbors might actually go vegan!