For the past six years, Jyoti Mukharji has opened her home kitchen to teach Kansas Citians about Indian cuisine.
But to her fans, her classes are more than just about cooking. Mukharji peppers her talk with personal stories and health tips, then the class ends in a dinner party around her dining room table.
Even though she has lived in Kansas City for nearly 30 years, the fragrant aromas of spices bring her back to her childhood house in Lucknow, India, where she lived with her parents and older brother.
And while she hasn't visited that house in half a century, it still holds such happy memories for her.
“We were just so well-nurtured and taken care of, and food was an important part of nurturing,” she told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.
Everything was made from scratch by their longtime cook; nothing was processed or canned, she said. And from a young age, she was curious about what her mother and their cook were doing in the kitchen.
Mukharji got into teaching cooking classes through a rather circuitous route.
When she was in high school, she decided to go to medical school. She was accepted, but when it came time to enroll, her father refused to take her. He was a doctor himself, and the women of his generation rarely went to medical school.
A family friend, who was more progressive, took Mukharji and her mother to get her admissions. Once she was in, Mukharji said her father didn’t have any problems, especially when he realized that in her class of 110 students, 65 were women.
Mukharji also defied expectations with her marriage.
At that time in India, she said, people didn't date; parents arranged marriages for their kids.
"It is a marriage of families," she said. "So, love marriages at that time when we were growing up, 45 to 50 years ago, it was just not something that was considered appropriate. It was defying the culture and tradition that had been set by our forefathers."
Mukharji met her now-husband when they were both 17 during their first year at medical school. They were in the anatomy dissection hall. He’s an artist, and he brought her a sketch that he drew of her.
They saw each other on the sly. They were from different parts of India, and even though they are both Indians and Hindu, their culture, language and religion were very different, she said.
"It was not something to be shared," she said about their courtship. "You were considered to be not a very good character if you were hanging out with guys or especially with one guy. It was not easy, but we had a wonderful time."
They got caught a few times — once by her uncle, a cardiologist, who had seen her riding on the back of her husband's scooter.
Her parents were very upset, she said. Then, her brother, who was studying medicine in another city, stepped in. Her brother told their parents that he would keep tabs on her because she had to finish her studies, and that he would make sure that she kept her promise not to see this guy.
But Mukharji and her husband kept dating. They couldn’t not see each other; they had classes and study sessions together. Also, their roll numbers (each student was assigned a number) were 34 and 35, which meant they were next to each other all the time.
They got married after her husband came to the United States to do his residency. They’ll be married 39 years this January.
Mukharji also finished med school; she did her residency and fellowship in the States and specialized in hematopathology and bone marrow biopsies.
But then, she quit medicine to raise their three boys. It wasn’t hard to leave medicine, she said. Her eldest son has an offshoot of autism called pervasive developmental disorder, and she wanted to help him.
When he was diagnosed, she said, it was heartbreaking.
“It’s like you are planning on a vacation and you’re going to London, and suddenly the flight diverts and you’re in Paris, and you don’t have a clue what is going on,” she said.
“I always say, please don’t feel sorry for me. If I had to do it again, this is exactly the way I would do it. I have a wonderful, full life, I’m a very happy mother, our other two boys are extremely motivated and big achievers and we are very, very blessed.”
Their eldest son is 34, she said, and a “contributing citizen of the United States.” He’s very social, loves being around people, and he has a job in the kitchen of a retirement home.
“He’s an angel we’ve been blessed with; he keeps our light on all the time. He is an amazing human being and a privilege to have.”
It was through her son that she started her cooking classes.
When her eldest son was a senior in high school, she wanted to give back to the community. Her family had gotten a lot of help and support, and his teachers were wonderful, she said.
Mukharji started volunteering for Head Start. When the organization had a silent auction, she donated a dinner for eight. Then, when another friend donated a Greek dinner, Mukharji was asked to donate a cooking class so that the group didn’t have to auction two dinners.
“I said I’ve never done one in my life,” Mukharji recalls. But she took to teaching immediately. Afterwards, her husband remarked that she seemed to enjoy it.
Her classes have become a serious hobby for her — one that has connected her to her roots and to her medical background. Through cooking, she remembers the love and nurturing that went into her family’s meals as a child. And she considers food to be medicine; spices, in particular, have amazing influences on the digestive tract.
Her classes have also become a family affair. Her husband, with his artistic eye, helps with the menus. Her youngest son also helps with the menus and keeps her recipe bank. Her middle son is a musician, and she plays his music during her class. And her eldest son, who lives with them, helps clean up after the classes.
She’s pleased that she and her husband have passed on their love of food to their kids.
“Fortunately, we are so blessed that we were able to give them that gift that was given to us by our parents,” she said.
Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.