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In addition to helping more than 21,000 mostly low-income Missoula County residents get food each year, the Missoula Food Bank also is helping them learn techniques to put healthy, low-cost, home-cooked meals on the table.

Vicki Jardine had never tried Indian food before, so she decided to take one of the Missoula Food Bank’s free cooking classes in the Bill & Rosemary Gallagher Learning Kitchen last week.

“I’ve never eaten Indian food, so what a great opportunity to experience it,” she said. “It never crossed my mind to try Indian food until I saw the opportunity to take this class. It’s amazing.”

Taught by local expert Nanda Smith, the class drew a capacity crowd of 18 last Thursday night, with some on the waiting list. Smith, a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement, was teaching recipes for street food from the southern part of India, such as kachoris (mashed peas and spices inside cooked dough), curry rice and halva (a sweet treat made out of cream of rice cereal, cinnamon and raisins).

“There are a lot of Hari Krishna restaurants, and most of them are buffets and they are all vegetarian,” Smith explained to the class. “Most of them are attached to temples. They’re very rich in culture. So I’m going to take you into the world of South Indian cuisine, where you’ll find a lot of street food vendors giving out these items.”

The goal of the cooking classes, which are registered through the Lifelong Learning Center, is to give people the skills to use cheap ingredients at home in new and exciting ways.

“We started the classes when we moved in this summer,” said Jamie Breidenbach, Missoula Food Bank program services coordinator. “They’ve gained more traction since then.

"We just want to bring the community together. The goal is to have another reason why people come to the Missoula Food Bank to make it a more welcoming and comfortable place.”

The instructors are mostly volunteers and ingredients and tools are provided. The roomy commercial kitchen includes five demonstration tables so people can get hands-on while the teacher goes over the finer points of the recipe.

“We get a grant from the Missoula Fresh Market to use ingredients from their store,” Breidenbach explained. “Most of the food in the cooking class has come from that grant, so we’re very grateful to them for giving us the opportunity to make it possible.”

Some of the other classes are designed to give people the skills they need to make their groceries last longer.

“Some of our classes will be focused on how do you keep a chicken from being dry or bring bread back to life,” she explained. “We have other instructors that have taken recipes out of recipe books and others that teach people how to cook using items that are down there.”

For the group on Thursday night, it was evident that the cooking almost took a backburner to the new friendships that were forming among complete strangers as they chatted about their lives in between sautéing diced ginger, cumin and turmeric in butter.

“It’s about having some fun and bringing all of the Missoula community together, and food is a great way to do that,” Breidenbach said.

For more information, visit missoulaclasses.com or call the Missoula Food Bank at 406-549-0543.

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