Chopping onions with Goldie and Pam: A morning in Paramjit’s Kitchen

Goldie Sanghera at work in Paramjit's Kitchen. Leslie Savage photo
Goldie Sanghera at work in Paramjit's Kitchen. Leslie Savage photo
Food Editor Leslie Savage
Food Editor Leslie Savage

Have you ever seen turmeric before it’s ground to yellow powder? During the morning I spent with Goldie and Pam at Paramjit’s Kitchen, I met the real thing. A wizened, golden twist of root. Turmuric is the root of the curcuma plant; you grind it to a powder for the spice that dyes food brilliant yellow and tastes mustardy, a little bitter, with a bite. Freshly ground, the aroma is tantalizing—quite unlike the dusty smell of the bottled stuff. Pam grinds theirs weekly, or daily, as needed, just like the rest of the spices they use.

Masala—it’s a Punjabi word that sort of means flavourings,” Goldie said. “It’s not one particular set of things—it’s what the cook decides to put in.”  Masala can mean both raw ingredients and to finished products.  So masala is a large part of the magic of home Indian cooking.

“We don’t buy things pre-mixed, there’s no such thing for Indian food. There’s no one curry powder. ” Nothing here is prepackaged—nor are there written recipes or formulaic dishes. The ingredients are fresh: vegetables, fruit, pulses, flavourings.

At Pam’s Kitchen, recipes are in the head. The ingredients are not just varied, but are put together through a sort of alchemy that resonates with the personalities of the cooks, the availability and freshness of different spices, herbs, beans, fruits and vegetables, and an unspoken but vast inheritance of taste and philosophy about food. Health and food principles are always an issue—turmeric fights arthritis, black pepper irritates it—and Vegan items are identified on the menu.

Revelstokians know Pam Sanghera through her food stall at the community markets, and through the fund-raising Indian banquets she has organized. Pam learned to cook from her grandmother in Punjab, and lends her name and expertise to Paramjit’s Kitchen.

Goldie, who runs the restaurant, at 32 is a chef trained in true European style, in Austria. “When I was 11 the family moved from Punjabto Salzberg,” Goldie says.  “At 16, I started to train as a chef and restaurant manager. It was school and work combined, in the European apprenticeship tradition. I did a full four years.”  After graduation, she started cooking European style in a 5-star hotel near Mondsee, Austria.

Fast forward ten years. “The family moved to Canada,” Goldie continues.  “First we went to Campbell River. I couldn’t speak any English at  all.” When the family decided to move to Revelstoke, Goldie, looking for a larger city, moved to Calgary—and with some partners opened Verve,online-skyscraper-paramjit-01 a high-end French-Italian restaurant that within a few years won Calgary’s Best New Restaurant Award.

Goldie prefers European food to Indian, but has become an outstanding Indian cook and restaurant manager, measuring by eye and hand, organizing the menu to offer both German and Indian food to local tastes, working in a small kitchen to produce copious amounts of really wonderful food. (I mean that this stuff is seriously addictive. I now want their mango chutney on everything.)

When I offered to chop onions, Goldie handed me a bowl, and I set to work. One secret of Indian cooking is a lot of finely-chopped onions, simmered slowly, stirred constantly. The onions release their sugars, which carmelize slightly as the cellulose breaks down, resulting in a dark, mushy, mild-tasting sauce base. Into this Goldie adds the masala—spices and herbs all of she has recently ground or pounded from seed, root, bark or leaf. Different masala for different dishes. I couldn’t keep track of what went into the butter chicken or the vindaloo as Goldie ladled spoonfuls of this spice or that one at breakneck speed.

“No, nothing is written down,” she admits. “My mother taught me Indian food.”

Pam’s Kitchen is a family affair, but to say that is not to underplay the talents and experience of Goldie, whose style may be intuitive but whose new menu is very savvy. Goldie’s plans include a sidewalk café next summer, but she is hesitant about the idea of expanding. “I like small,” she says, “I did a big, high-end restaurant in Calgary—this is different.”

She hands me a chai and sets down a cupful of the MOST delicious chocolate mousse I’ve ever eaten—now on the menu— and I agree, small can mean more time, perhaps more attention, and, given Goldie’s great store of good humour, more fun. Now, just pass me that mango chutney.