Photo Courtesy of Pam Wooster

February 9, 2017

GreenStar South Indian Cooking Class: South Indian Food Reproduced with Local Charms

Print More

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to snatch a spot in the South Indian Vegetarian Cooking Class hosted by GreenStar Natural Foods Market.

After paying a $20 non-member class fee, I arrived at the classroom at 702 West Buffalo St., close to the West End store, and peeked through the window. The first impression could only be described as peeping into a kaleidoscope: ingredients neatly laid out on each table, a cooking station and an overhead projector at the front.

I squirmed into my seat, not knowing what to expect. Ever wonder what a spice tastes like and how to grind, roast and make it part of your dishes without burning them or making a big splash? You are not alone. I’ve always been baffled by the sheer variety of Indian cooking and the sensory overload produced by a flavor palette of the spices.

Then I remembered Asya Ollis, the instructor of the class, who is also a manager at Agava Restaurant and sells South Indian food at Ithaca Farmer’s Market. Last year when I was reviewing Jackman’s Vineyard tomatoes at the Thursday Night Market, I topped off my night with a serving of dosa at her stall.

Asya started off with a demonstration of the most common ingredients in South India. She remarked how even though South Indian restaurants are a rare sight in this area, it was still possible to capture the essence of the cuisine through home cooking.

As we passed around samples of the spices, there were a few notable ones: mustard seeds, which crackles in high heat and can be used to gauge oil heat; curry leaves, which I learned have nothing to do with curry and are readily available fresh at GreenStar Natural Foods Market; Asafetida, an acrid spice with a strong onion-like flavor.

Then Asya proceeded to demonstrate four easy vegetarian dishes.

One of the dishes I really liked is Carrot Thoran, a stir-fry with carrots, onions, unsweetened coconut and urad dhal (dried, split pulses). The recipe involves moistening coconut and combining it with turmeric and cayenne, roasting urad dhal in a wok with mustard seeds, curry leaves, etc. and stir-frying with onions, carrots and coconut mixture until slightly tender. The result is a dish that tastes great with rice and is both tender and crunchy. I especially liked the taste of the fresh curry leaves, which a bitter-sweet aroma into the other ingredients.

Asya and her assistant, Heather, also made lime rice as side dish. The seasoning on rice is a similar frying of cashews and dhals with a variety of spices and ghee, clarified butter churned from cream. I almost never use cooking fat in my meals but it tastes really good! The flavor is freshened up by liberal use of lime juice.

Asya also demonstrated Thoor Dhal with Tomato and Onion, another dhal dish, this time cooked in a pressure cooker. At the end of the night she made Payasam, a rice pudding made from whole milk, ghee and vermicelli or pasta noodles. I only had a little due to a slight lactose intolerance, but from what I had it was a warm, balanced sweetness that I can imagine my friends liking.

I didn’t expect much to begin with, but I was really amazed at how much I ended up learning. Asya thoroughly explained what was involved in each cooking process and eagerly answered questions.

My only complaint is that the class was too small to accommodate all the demand. That said,  for those of you pondering upon learning some new cooking, she is hosting the same class again on February 28 and again in May.

Asya Ollis, the instructor, has kindly shared with us common resources a home cook in Ithaca might need to cook South Indian food.



  • *fresh curry leaves (produce section)
  • *dried shredded coconut (unsweetened), available in bulk
  • *bottled ghee – or buy unsalted butter and make yourself, coconut oil
  • *spices: black/brown mustard seeds, cardamom pods/seeds, cumin, coriander, turmeric, red chile powder
  • *dhal/lentils: urad dhal (sold in packaged bags by North Bay Trading Co., as “ivory lentils”), and chana dhal (also packaged by North Bay)
  • *long-grain white rice (plain, not basmati or jasmine)
  • *Maya Kaimal Fine Indian Foods – refrigerated and shelf stable simmer sauces, ketchup, chickpea chips and naan chips


  • Dried red chiles
  • Fresh green bird’s eye chiles
  • Asafetida powder
  • Thoor dhal
  • Tamarind pulp

Win Li:

  • Grated frozen coconut
  • Tamarind pulp
  • Fresh green bird’s eye chiles

Universal Deli on Eddy St:

  • Assorted dry goods

Syracuse: India Bazaar, 4471 E Genesee St (315) 449-4400

Horseheads: Asian Market, closed Wednesdays, 607-739-2330

NYC area: Lexington in the 20s, Jackson Heights in Queens, Edison, NJ



  • Maya Kaimal, Curried Favors, and Savoring the Spice Coast of India
  • Yamuna Devi, Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, The Art of Vegetarian Cooking (Hare Krishna cookbook – no onion or garlic)
  • Chandra Padmanabhan, Dakshin, Simply South, Southern Flavors
  • Lathika George, The Kerala Kitchen (Syrian Christian community)