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In the north Indian state of Rajasthan, the ‘blue city’ of Jodhpur draws visitors from across the world. It is rich with medieval Rajput architecture and bustling marketplaces. Yet according to the travel review website Trip Advisor, the number one tourist attraction isn’t the imposing Mehrangarh Fort or the grand Umaid Bhawan Palace, but a cookery school in a family kitchen no bigger than a closet. And it is run by a woman.
Rekha Sharma is the business brain and driving force behind Spice Paradise, a cooking school and spice emporium. She is supported by her husband Anil, and in just four years she has made her humble Rajasthani cookery class into a top draw for travellers.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be such an anomaly if it were in a cosmopolitan metropolis such as Mumbai or New Delhi. But in Rajasthan - like the vast majority of India - it is often frowned upon for women to take the lead in matters of business.
“In a place like Rajasthan - a man supporting a woman - that’s something very, very different,” says Rekha, surrounded by packets of spices in her tiny home. “In any business, that’s something you won’t find in Rajasthan. No man wants his woman to be above him. But he (Anil) wants me to do this.”
The small house near the bustling Clock Tower area became a grocery store with just a single bag of rice, some fifteen years ago. Then Anil began selling his spices - fragrant blends for biryani rice, curries and chai masala tea. But with two young daughters to support, the family fell upon hard times.
“Then I asked to help my husband sell the spices,” recalls Rekha. “One day, an Italian guy came and said he could buy the spices but he didn’t know how to cook them. I brought him to my small kitchen, and tried to teach him simple things - chai masala and things like that.”
Rekha’s first cookery student tried to give her money for the class, but Rekha refused. “Really, I never knew that cooking classes could take place and that I could earn out of it. I didn’t want any money, but he said he’d seen cooking classes all over the world and this would support my business. He said I could be very successful.”
Today, Rekha’s classes can last for up to six hours. In that time small groups can learn how to make Rajasthani delicacies such as saffron makhania lassi yoghurt drinks, palak paneer spinach with Indian cottage cheese and aam ki launji mango chutney. The beautiful biryani rice is like a work of art, resplendent with rubies of pomegranate seeds and shreds of varkh or edible silver foil. And the best thing about Rekha’s classes? Whatever you cook, you eat.
Although you won’t find Spice Paradise in any guide book, word of Rekha’s cooking classes have spread like wildfire on the internet. There’s a steady stream of budding chefs signing up, even in the quiet summer months. But to get to where she is today has been far from a smooth ride.
Like many Asian women living in tightly-knit societies constricted by centuries of gender inequality, Rekha faces daily challenges. But her success is a sign that India is slowly changing. “Many people think women are only good for washing and cooking,” says Rekha. “But we need to change. My mother-in-law now looks at me and says, ‘yes, I am very proud to have you.’ I say all women should show their own talent.” “I want to set an example for all the women and all the men in the city. I want all our spice packages to be in every home in the whole world. In every kitchen.”