Published September 29th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Jyoti Mukharji plucks two jars from her kitchen spice drawer, unscrews the lids, and invites her cooking school students to pass the contents under their noses.
A gentle sniff illustrates the difference between two types of cardamom: green, which is delicate and sweet and will add flavor to a jackfruit korma; and black, which is smoky, robust, pungent and used in various lentil dishes.
As a young girl growing up in northern India, Mukharji barely ever set foot in the kitchen. Like most upper-middle-class Indians, she grew up eating meals cooked by the family’s servants. Even so, she has the advantage of centuries of culinary wisdom, as if it was embedded in her DNA.
“I never had to learn which garnish is used for which lentil, it just comes naturally,” says the woman who trained to be a physician but eventually found her joy in teaching cooking classes. “Subconsciously, I think we absorb without even trying to do it simply by being part of the household.”
Since 2010, Mukharji has quietly welcomed nearly 5,000 students into her Prairie Village home for her popular Indian cooking classes, many of which sell out within 24 hours.
As more Americans explore vegan and vegetarian fare, the varied regional cuisine of India offers a wide array of options. Northern India may favor the rich curries, like those represented in Kansas City restaurants. But her husband’s family is from eastern India, where fish and rice are predominant. Even the application of the same spices can vary across the subcontinent.
Mukharji’s menus fall into three broad categories: vegetarian, non-vegetarian and street food. A recent class highlighted jackfruit, a large tropical fruit with a pebbly green exterior and a slightly sweet interior. In a city known for its barbecue, jackfruit is likely more familiar serving as a meat substitute than the star of a vegetarian curry.
Students also watch her prepare recipes for pappad (aka pappadum), mango lassi, baingan bharta (a roasted eggplant dish with onions and tomatoes), tandoori roti (the quintessential flatbread of northern India), and vanilla custard with fresh fruit.
Guests remove their shoes at the front door to the sounds of an indoor waterfall. They are led to the adjacent kitchen and invited to slip into a dining chair or a barstool facing the long kitchen island.
Class discussions include the unique pungency of fresh (not ground) turmeric, the best mango variety (Kent) to seek out at an Indian market and its season, and Mukharji’s favorite brand of atta flour, a whole wheat flour used to make flatbreads.
At the end of the three-hour class, students gather in the formal dining room to eat the meal they have watched their teacher cook.
“I don’t advertise or anything,” Mukharji says of the devoted following who find their way to her kitchen. “It’s all word-of-mouth. I don’t have a website or Facebook page. Once you come to a class, you’re on my email list.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Mukharji’s class roster included a yoga instructor, a retired couple based in Dallas but back home for the weekend, a cookbook author, and several members of the women’s culinary organization Les Dames d’Escoffier.
Nancy Leazer, a retired jail warden who lives near Kauffman Stadium, currently holds the record for most classes attended.
“Obviously, Jyoti is so gracious and welcoming. You always feel when you go there that she really wants you there,” says Leazer, who has signed up for 74 classes and counting. “But one of the things that keeps me coming back, above and beyond our friendship, is I like the food.”
Leazer has created a spreadsheet to keep track of her favorite recipes, such as pakora, a spiced fritter which can be made with a combination of potato, eggplant, onion, cauliflower or spinach.
An avid baseball fan, Leazer frequently invites friends over for a selection of Indian appetizers before a Kansas City Royals home game.
“In Indian cooking, there are so many sweet and savory and crunchy appetizers with different fillings and sauces that are fun and easy to whip up and serve,” Leazer says. “When friends come over or family visits, they always expect Indian food from me.”
Mukharji enrolled in medical school at age 16, initially against her father’s wishes. While attending university, she met fellow student Jhulan Mukharji.
The couple eventually married and moved to the United States to pursue careers in medicine 44 years ago. Jhulan Mukharji is a practicing cardiologist, but when one of their three sons was diagnosed with a form of autism, Jyoti decided she was needed at home.
While serving as a board member for Head Start, she donated an Indian dinner for eight for a fundraiser. A few years later, when another board member offered to prepare a Greek dinner in her own home, the Indian dinner format changed to a cooking class.
Mukharji had never taught a cooking class, but the experience was transformational.
“It was like I … wasn’t on earth,” recalls Mukharji, pausing to search for the words to explain the precise moment she found her calling. “It was like I was on another planet. It was then that my passion to teach as a little girl, and my passion to cook, just all came together in that afternoon. I felt like I had seen God. It was just so beautiful!”
In 2019, she formed a nonprofit to formally donate the proceeds from Jyoti’s Indian Kitchen to an array of charitable causes, including the B.E. Smith Family Center at Advent Health and Gift of Life, a pediatric transplant organization.
Her class and dinner party for 12 has raised as much as $4,500 at a silent auction. Rather than providing a cooking demonstration with a meal she has prepared in advance, Mukharji cooks in real time, serving guests the same meal they have watched her prepare in front of them.
“I was just amazed she was actually making our dinner in those quantities,” says Karen Adler, a local cookbook author who recently attended her first class. “If I was making stews myself, I’d be hovering, stirring when needed, adding this or that. It would make me nervous, but she was quite confident.”
Mukharji never seems to lose her train of thought while teaching a class, no matter how many pots might need stirring.
“I’m very at ease and comfortable performing,” she says. “I know being able to talk and to cook at the same time, and remember what you have done, it’s not easy. But it doesn’t make me nervous or anxious. Talks just flow out. It’s like musicians. They can make music on the spur of the moment.”
Preparation for each weekend’s cooking class starts several days in advance, and she is quick to honor the contributions of her family.
Her oldest son, Arnob, routinely helps with shopping for groceries. During dinner, Mukharji proudly plays music by Darlingside, an indie folk rock band, which features her middle son, Auyon. Her youngest son, Aroop, is currently typing the manuscript for a forthcoming cookbook. Her husband remains her taste tester, helping her to create a line of refrigerator condiments, such as mint chutney or guava jam, which she soft sells after class.
Even Chiku, the family’s 12-year-old Bichon Shih Tzu mix dog named for the sweet fruit sapota, takes part in the class, greeting guests with a friendly sniff before curling up on a rug next to the stove.
Chiku’s daily diet includes a mild Indian chicken stew Mukharji has carefully calibrated for a delicate stomach. The pampered pooch also receives snacks of milk, sometimes with pieces of chapati, an Indian flatbread.
The pooch’s pampered lifestyle prompted a friend to deadpan: “Remind me to come back someday as Jyoti’s dog!”
When a reporter arrives for a one-on-one interview, the ever-gracious hostess has prepared a “light and healthy” lunch of boiled black chickpeas, fruit salad and fresh-squeezed lemonade, Indian-style. The sweet-tart lemon juice and sugar mix includes a hint of rock salt, a trick used in the hot climate of India to replenish the nutrients lost through sweat.
“It gives me a lot of joy to feed,” she says. “In the Indian culture, it doesn’t matter what time someone calls on you, they cannot leave without something to eat and drink. And if they happen to arrive at lunchtime, guess what, they get lucky and get to eat with the family.”
To sign up for a class, email her at email@example.com.
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. You can follow Silva at @jillsilvafood.