The League of Kitchens: Virtual Cooking Classes Taught by Immigrant Women

Photo By Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I logged onto a virtual online cooking class to make an authentic Indonesian recipe with Shandra Woworuntu, an immigrant who had escaped political turmoil in Jakarta and moved to Queens in 2001. “I was kidnapped and sold,” she revealed as part of her introduction. “And I escaped.”

A virtual cooking class for authentic Indonesian recipes

Shandra is a culinary instructor at League of Kitchens, an organization that employs immigrant women to teach the traditional cuisines of their homelands. Before she joined the League of Kitchens, Shandra—a college-educated, financial banking analyst—had been homeless and living on $150 a month. These days she lives in Astoria with her family, calling upon the culinary knowledge she learned as a child in Manado, the capital city of the Indonesian province of North Sulawesi.

That evening, she taught us a traditional Indonesian recipe for Gulai Udang ala Padang (shrimp curry and potatoes) and Nasi Kuning (yellow coconut rice)—recipes from her mother-in-law who lives on the island of Sumatra­, one of 17,000 remote islands in Indonesia.

“Indonesian culture is so rich and diverse, with over 200 ethnic groups—each with their own language and dialect,” Shandra explained. “We use many different flavors: spicy, sour, sweet, salty.”

 

Ingredients for Gulai Udang ala Padang and Nasi Kuning [Shana Liebman]

The colorful still-life next to my laptop included a thick brown root called galanga, fresh turmeric (which resembles orange caterpillars), Jasmine rice, Persian cucumbers, Indian bay leaves, pandan, and lime leaves.

 “We don’t use MSG or chicken stock,” Shandra told us. “We use a lot of white pepper. Black pepper is something fancy in our country. And a pinch of sugar is our umami. Indonesians love sugar!”

 

Shandra teaching a League of Kitchens cooking class [League of Kitchens]

Shandra taught us how to make a fragrant paste called Bumbu—with ginger, turmeric, garlic, shallots, candlenuts, and a long red chile—traditionally made by grinding the ingredients with a stone on a larger flatter stone. We used a blender, then cooked it down and added it to coconut milk to make the sauce for the dish. Despite a few modern-day shortcuts, the two authentic Indonesian recipes were complex—using hard-to-find, culture-specific ingredients. Nothing was simplified or dumbed down. This was how Shandra’s family would cook this meal.

 

An authentic Indonesian recipe: Curry shrimp with coconut rice [League of Kitchens]

Two hours and many steps later, Shandra showed us her stunning platter—yellow rice molded into a triangular tower on spliced green banana leaves. Frizzled shallots and finely sliced omelet topped the creamy turmeric-coconut shrimp and potatoes. It was a comforting, complex, and delicious dish—and my version was graciously devoured by my family as soon as I logged off.

 What is the League of Kitchens?

League of Kitchens launched in 2004 as an in-person class conducted in the New York City homes of immigrant women. Since the pandemic, however, it has evolved into an invaluable virtual experience—available to anyone. They offer 2-6 classes every weekend and virtual cooking classes for groups–—birthdays, showers, or corporate team-building events—during the week. Lisa Gross, who started the organization soon after graduate school, says she was relieved to discover that the virtual format works so well.

“Cooking in your kitchen with your stuff, live-coached by an instructor, is an amazing learning experience,” Gross said. While students don’t get to appreciate the tactile environment of their teacher’s personal kitchen, they can still watch her cook (via two camera angles), and they are guided by a facilitator who makes sure no student falls behind. Gross also believes that cooking complicated recipes at home builds culinary confidence.

The League of Kitchen’s virtual cooking classes are a far cry from a TV show or a YouTube video. As Gross says: “You can’t show the screen your dough, or how your spice mixture is looking, and if it’s cooked enough.” Gross has been told that there is a “magical feeling” in these classes. “We had students say multiple times, ‘Damira, I feel like somehow you reached through the screen and deposited your food in my kitchen.'”

 

Shandra using a banana leaf to plate her shrimp recipe with rice [League of Kitchens]

In addition to learning new recipes and experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients, these cooking classes are cultural understanding lessons. “Most interactions, either between immigrants and non-immigrants or between immigrants of different groups, are service-based. It’s like the person at the bodega, or the dry cleaner, or the waiter at the restaurant,” Gross says. “And with the League of Kitchens’ classes, the instructor is the expert, the host, and they are sharing in a way that is unique, and generous, and intimate. And I think people appreciate that and feel a new connection to people from other cultures or other experiences.”

Gross, who has a background in participatory public art and social practices, founded the League of Kitchens for this reason. Frustrated that she never learned to cook Korean food from her Korean grandmother, she set out to learn from other sources but quickly found that “there are so often little tips and tricks and ways of doing things that are very sensory-based and easier to learn from a person.” She fantasized about finding another Korean grandmother—and then launched League of Kitchens and hired a Korean grandmother, along with female teachers from countries like Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Argentina, Korea, Indonesia. 

History is “Her-Story”

Finding good teachers was tricky—and Gross used non-profit groups, Facebook, Craigslist, and word of mouth. While none of the women she hired had ever taught cooking classes, they were “extraordinary home cooks who do everything from scratch, using traditional techniques and methods, and who are great hosts, and teachers, and are very personable,” Gross explains. Storytelling is a significant element of the League of Kitchens virtual cooking classes. Many of the instructors reveal harrowing personal stories and details from their culture, families, and history while sharing their food.

For example, Mab from Iran is a well-known women’s rights and gay rights activist who came to the U.S. as a political refugee. She often tells stories about being in prison and likes to demo a cocktail that her co-activists drank underground. “This drink represents a kind of freedom and pleasure of that community,” Gross says.

 

The League of Kitchens’ instructors come from all over the world [League of Kitchens]

League of Kitchens not only preserves these historical recipes, but it also recognizes and celebrates the teachers’ culinary knowledge and expertise—something many of these women have never experienced in their own cultures. In fact, many have only known their role as an “ordinary housewife” when, in fact, they are cultural linchpins.

“Women do most cooking around the world,” Gross explains. “Our instructors are culinary and cultural lineage holders in their communities who have learned these recipes from their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc.”

In other words, history is “her-story.”

What’s next for League of Kitchens?

Gross is currently working on a proposal for a League of Kitchens cookbook that will document these recipes. She knows the written translations will be long and extremely detailed—and that’s the point. “I’m basically making the cookbook that I wish I had had, that captures all those subtleties,” she says.

And a pilot for a League of Kitchens cooking show called “From Grandma with Love” recently streamed on Discovery+. “It mirrors what our classes are about,” Gross adds. “We’re waiting to hear if it will be turned into a series.” 

A scene in “From Grandma with Love” with Lisa Gross (in green shirt) [League of Kitchens]
In the meantime, League of Kitchens’ virtual cooking classes continues to educate and entertain people from all over the world. In the cooking class, I took with Shandra, the 15 students were from Vancouver, Fire Island, Baltimore, Manhattan, Ithaca, Seattle, New Jersey, and Utah. Many were friends or relatives who lived far away from one another and had chosen the Saturday evening class to connect virtually. 

Shandra was delighted that her virtual cooking class was uniting loved ones. “Food is a celebration,” she told us. “Cooking food, eating together, and having a conversation is a moment to bring people together.”

 

GULAI UDANG ALA PADANG (Shrimp Curry with Potatoes)

Courtesy of Shandra Woworuntu and the League of Kitchens

  • Makes: 4 servings
  • Prep: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • One 1 ½-inch long by a 1-inch-wide piece of ginger (about .7 ounces)
  • One 3-inch long by a ½-inch wide piece of fresh turmeric (about .8 ounces)
  • 6 small garlic cloves
  • One 6-inch piece of a fresh lemongrass stem
  • One 1-inch long by ½-inch wide piece of fresh galangal (about .3 ounces), (Optional – See Cook’s Notes)
  • 4 medium shallots (about 3 large or 5 small)
  • 3 medium Yukon gold potatoes (about 1 pound)
  • 6 candlenuts or blanched hazelnuts or blanched almonds (see Cook’s Notes)
  • 7 tablespoons vegetable or coconut oil
  • 3 tablespoons of water
  • ½ to 1 long red chile pepper (or to your desired heat level)
  • ½ teaspoon coriander powder
  • 3 fresh lime leaves or rind of ½ a lime (see Cook’s Notes)
  • 2 large Indian bay leaves (see Cook’s Notes)
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • One 14-ounce can of coconut milk (preferably a Thai brand, not Goya), not shaken
  • 1 ½ teaspoons fine salt
  • 1 ½ pounds large shrimp, shelled with tail left on, deveined

Directions

  • Scrape off the ginger skin with the back of a small knife. Spear the knife through the center of the turmeric and char over a flame for about 30 seconds; this helps to remove the bitterness. Scrape off the skin from the turmeric with the back of the knife. Peel and smash the garlic; trim the root end. Pound the lemongrass with the heel of a chef’s knife. Slice the galangal, if using, into 3 thick pieces. Peel the shallots.
  • Peel and cut the potatoes into ½-inch cubes. Put potatoes into a medium bowl and cover with water.
  • Add the ginger, turmeric, garlic, whole shallots, candlenuts, 3 tablespoons of the oil, and 3 tablespoons of water to a blender. If using the red chile, snap off the stem end and add to the blender. Blend into a smooth paste. Stir in the coriander powder.
  • Add four tablespoons of oil to a large skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in the blended paste, lime leaves (or lime rind), bay leaves, lemongrass, and galangal if using. Cook paste, stirring to incorporate the oil until the paste becomes thicker and dries up a little, and the oil starts to separate from the paste, 8 to 10 minutes.
  • Drain the potatoes and add to the paste, stirring to coat. Add a ½ cup of water and stir. Cook until they are about halfway done, about 20 minutes. Then add the can of coconut milk and cook, occasionally stirring, until the potatoes are about 80% done, about 25 minutes. The coconut milk should not boil; it should be at a slow bubble.
  • When the potatoes are almost done, stir in the salt and sugar and add the shrimp. Cook, stirring until the potatoes and shrimp are cooked through. Take care not to overcook the shrimp.

Cook’s Notes:

  • A member of the ginger family, galangal packs more of a punch, giving a spicy, earthy flavor to dishes.
  • Candlenuts, a common ingredient in Indonesian and Pandang cooking, are oil-rich nuts used as a thickening and flavoring agent for sauces and pastes and must be cooked. Hazelnuts are a close substitute for their richness and texture.
  • Fresh lime leaves have a potent scent and flavor reminiscent of multiple citrus fruits and are widely used in Southeast Asian cuisine.
  • Indian bay leaves are in the same family as the more common laurel bay leaves but are longer and wider. They impart more of a clove-cinnamon flavor.