Now that fall has finally arrived, changing our diets with the change of season feels intuitive. With the advent of cooler temperatures, it just seems natural to crave heartier foods. And we’re fortunate in this region to have so many local farms producing seasonal foods that offer the most nutrition and flavor in their freshness. But once we’ve gone to the local farm market and loaded up our bags with all that bounty, the question becomes, what to make for dinner?
Nirmala’s Kitchen spice shop and cooking school on New Paltz Road in Highland is just the place to get inspiration. Located on a 15-acre farm, the spice shop is housed in a former tack-room on the property. Parking is available right off the driveway, so it’s easy to just pull in and browse. The kitchen inside the residence, where cooking classes are held, is a few steps away, equipped with gleaming, state-of-the-art appliances, as sleek and contemporary as the spice shop is country.
Fusing cultures through food has long been the mission of Nirmala’s Kitchen, says Nirmala Narine, the proprietor of both businesses. The spice shop and cooking school she opened last fall are the most recent offshoots of the global food product business she launched in 2002, with the idea that home cooks with access to exotic spices could replicate international cuisines without leaving the comforts of home.
Narine has traveled to more than 167 countries in the last 15 years in search of ingredients for her Nirmala’s Kitchen line of products. “I’m not reinventing anything or suggesting people need to learn long, complicated cooking processes,” she says. “Spices just take simple food up to another height.”
The spice shop retains the structure’s original hand-hewn beams, its rustic interior complemented by the fragrances of the spice blends it contains wafting through the air. There are rock salts and grains along with the spices, and one-of-a-kind antiques from Narine’s travels around the world nestled next to the cookbooks she’s authored, In Nirmala’s Kitchen: Everyday World Cuisine, and Nirmala’s Edible Diaries, a combination travel memoir and recipe source. She carries a selection of artisanal skin-care products created with natural ingredients sourced from local farms, including her own, and a resident goat provides milk for handmade soaps made with lavender grown in the fields there.
Shop hours are currently Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., but it’s a small, owner-operated kind of shop, so those hours are subject to change, especially when the holidays get closer; consult her Facebook page for updates before visiting.
Energetic and upbeat, Narine can often be found during shop hours behind the counter of the spice shop dispensing advice. She says she thinks it’s important to meet her customers face-to-face, since her business is built on personalized service. The shop has become something of a sanctuary for people, she adds, who end up telling her their stories in the process of seeking spices to cure their ails. “It’s almost a therapy shop! They come in and talk about diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, divorces… everything comes out! And I love that. If I can give them some sense of comfort, I’m happy.”
Cooking classes in Narine’s kitchen are generally held for no more than ten people at a time, even though the large space can easily accommodate that many. But she says she prefers a more intimate group of 4-6, where people can have a quality experience and personal attention. Classes are booked through the Eventbrite.com website, with individuals welcome to sign up as well as small groups.
Narine learned to cook at the age of six in a tiny kitchen with no running water or electricity. She was born in Guyana, South America to parents of Indian descent. Her father worked in the sugar cane fields and her mother was a rice farmer. As a young girl, Narine walked from village to village, selling food from her basket. The family immigrated to Queens, New York, when she was 11.
She’s come a long way since then, cooking alongside Martha Stewart on TV many times and hosting her own television series, Nirmala’s Spice World, since 2013. The show is seen internationally on the ZLiving network, dubbed into ten languages. And with a soft spot for children living in poverty, Narine established the nonprofit Nirmala’s Global Village to rescue Third World children sold into slavery by teaching them a trade such as farming. She’s also written a young adult novel to inspire young girls: Ellishiva Cinnamon and the Sixth Element, a fantasy tale with a resourceful young female heroine.
One of the most intriguing classes Narine offers at the Highland farm is “The Hudson Valley Spice Route,” which Narine describes as a “sensory spice-tasting tour.” The class is held in the spice shop, where participants explore the sensory notes of the spices; their scents and taste in raw form or in spice teas and tisanes. Attendees learn about the history of spices and their culinary and medicinal properties, then make their own spice blend to take home, using an antique mortar and pestle. The hour-long sessions are limited to six people and are family friendly for kids 12 years of age and older.
Three-hour, hands-on cooking classes held in the farm’s kitchen include “Intro to Spices,” where students learn how to use spices to add depth of flavor, texture, nutrients and color. Attendees make a classic masala, curry and rubs, and dishes that pair well with them.
The three-hour “Ayurveda Mindful Eating” class teaches mindful practices based on Ayurvedic principles, which can help a person change unhealthy relationships with food and eating. Attendees prepare a vegetarian dish made with spices and fresh ingredients to savor and start practicing the mindful eating skills learned.
In Ayurvedic practices, health is defined as a balance between body, mind, spirit and social connectedness. But that doesn’t mean talking on your phone while eating is allowed, or talking at all, for that matter. “Back home, at our dinner table, you weren’t allowed to speak,” says Narine. “You were supposed to look at the food in front of you and appreciate whomever had toiled all day in the hot sun growing everything on that plate. It’s about Hinduism and how the sages would eat.”
Talking while eating also allows air into the esophagus and stomach, she adds, creating distress in one’s digestion. The mindful eating class is almost like going into a retreat, Narine says, where you acquire an appreciation for what you eat and you come out feeling fulfilled.
Another aspect to mindful eating is eating according to the season. Eating the foods that nature provides for us at particular times of the year is important because as the seasons change, so do our bodies, she explains. “In the winter, there isn’t a lot of moisture in the air, and our bodies are dryer. Rather than eating that chilled salad you have in summer, you want to eat warmer things, to feed the fire in you so you can keep your body warm and supple.”
Fueling the fire within — called agni, the Sanskrit word for ‘fire’ — is desirable in the fall and winter seasons. “We all have agni inside us,” says Narine. “When you learn how to ignite that, you can speed up your metabolism.”
Nirmala’s Kitchen spice shop and cooking school are located at 690 New Paltz Road in Highland. More information is available by calling (845) 834-2363 or visit www.nirmalaskitchen.com or Facebook.