I wrote this piece for the Guardian to explain where my love of cooking came from and how our Indian kitchen travelled to England by way of Gujarat and Uganda. To see the original piece which was published on the Guardian website on 5th July, click here
One night when I was out with some university friends, on Brick Lane in London, which is famous for curry, they all turned to me and asked what to order. I was horrified that they thought the curry house menu, with its vivid orange sauces, baby food spinach and sugar-sweetened chicken kormas was similar to what I’d grown up eating.
The next day I called Mum for recipes and was astonished when she said she had nothing written down. She’d watched her own mother cooking and learned by doing, which is how all the women in the family had learned to cook. I booked the next train home and feverishly started to collect the family recipes, hovering over Mum with paper and a pen, noting everything down.
Growing up, Mum and Dad never talked much about their early life in Uganda, but fragments of it lay all over the house. The thing that cast the biggest spell over me was my mother’s wooden spoon. This spoon that never left her side in the kitchen. Every day and year after year, this spoon created dishes full of personality, fire and spice. It connected us as a family back to the journey across continents and cultures that had led us to a teacakes-and-tennis-whites village in Lincolnshire.
My mother had bought it for pennies days after she arrived as a political refugee. She had been caught up in the now well-documented story of the dictator Idi Amin. Tyrant, self-appointed “King of Scotland” and then the president of Uganda, Amin woke up one day in 1972 and gave all 60,000 Asians living there 90 days’ notice to leave the country or he would kill them. He’d already started to torture, abduct and kill the supporters of his predecessor, Milton Obote, en masse and was increasingly uneasy with the growing success of the Ugandan Asians who dominated the retail and manufacturing sectors.
My grandfather was one of many successful Indian businessmen in Uganda. He had originally travelled west from Gujarat by boat with his brother and father lured by the British government’s promises of prosperity and passports to Indians willing to help build the Ugandan economy.
It was a time ripe for anyone with ambitions and good ideas. He helped to set up a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Kenya and a printing press. Keen to display his newfound status, he employed a Ugandan cook, Sufariano, who was taught all our Gujarati family recipes by my grandmother in her pidgin Swahili. The family ate like kings, enjoying the rewards for which my industrious grandfather had worked so hard.
But on 29 September 1972 they, along with thousands of other Indians, were forced to leave everything they owned behind: homes, businesses, money and friends. They were lucky to have made it to Entebbe airport where the British government had chartered planes to take them to the UK.
Being headstrong and independent, my grandfather refused the help offered by government hand-outs and instead chose to live where there were jobs, which was away from where other Indian communities were settling. He took a job as a lorry driver for a steelworks company in Scunthorpe. They had arrived in Lincolnshire, one suitcase between five of them, my grandparents, mother and her two brothers and £50 with which to start a new life.
My grandfather worked long hours and saved enough money to open his own shop, which he and my grandmother ran. As they worked to rebuild their lives, my mother, then 17, was charged with feeding the family. With everything having changed around her – country, culture, school and friendships – life wasn’t easy. Their arrival was only four years after Enoch Powell’s racially charged Rivers of Blood speech and foreigners were still very much outsiders: so much so that my family’s arrival into the village was covered by the local newspaper.
Against this chaotic backdrop, the one constant in my mother’s life was being able to create a sense of home by continuing to cook the same food they had eaten in India and then Uganda.
Most of the food she cooked originated from the Kathiawar peninsula in Gujarat, from where we trace our bloodlines. Ringan nu orro or charred smokey aubergines, thepla, spiced breads made with fenugreek, rajma, a silky stew of kidney beans and toor dal were all favourites. Some things were a culinary mishmash of east African and Indian food, such as matoke, a spiced mash of unripe bananas, or chilli mogo, chips made from cassava, coated in chilli and salt.
Many spices and ingredients were hard to come by in rural England in the 1970s. With no mangoes for chutney, other ingredients, such as apples from the tree in the garden, took their place. Groceries were limited and they were reliant on long trips to Leicester and the east Midlands to buy spices, flour, Indian vegetables and pulses. At 18, Mum fell for my father, who was also Ugandan Asian. They’d met in their teens in Pacwach, on the western Nile and reconnected when my father heard that my mother’s family were in Lincolnshire.
A few years into marriage, when my father had a job at the gas board, my sister was born. Day to day life was tough, dal became a daily staple through necessity and poverty taught Mum how to use every ingredient she could get her hands on.
As Dad started to earn a little more and I was born, the family menu began to expand. We moved to the country and living in Lincolnshire, one of the UK’s biggest agricultural areas, meant our kitchen was never short of fresh, colourful produce.
My mother cooked voraciously, creating new, exciting dishes daily. She curried everything from wild pheasant to beetroot, butternut squash and Lincolnshire sausages. I ate all these things without ever understanding the creative brilliance with which my mother was performing in the kitchen with her wooden spoon.
It was only after I left Lincolnshire to go to university in London, that I realised how easy life had been. I couldn’t cook properly at all. Although the kitchen had been the heart of the family home, as soon as we’d eaten I’d be encouraged to go and study. So after the Brick Lane outing, when I began to study how Mum cooked at her kitchen table, I would militantly make sure that every teaspoon was level. Then, slowly and surely, I began to cook without recipes, throwing things into pots and pans with gay abandon. Mum said the secret was to taste everything at every stage to learn the properties of ingredients and how they behave; the rest – perfectly round chapatis and neat triangular samosas – would come with practice.
With every hour I spent with my mother collecting these recipes, I realised that each dish was in fact an ode to a particular time, place or memory. Every recipe had a family story embedded in it. The salmon and spinach curry was inspired by childhood trips to fish in the Nile and play with baby crocodiles. I learned all about my grandfather’s eccentricities – how he would cook a whole antelope wrapped in banana leaves in the earth, a recipe that had now evolved into a roast lamb dish – and my mother’s youth came alive in front of my eyes.
I spent time with my grandmother too, she told me what grew in her mother’s garden and how she used to walk by the sea in Porbandar as a girl. (Her love of Scarborough suddenly made a lot more sense.)
She passed down recipes in a way that could easily be remembered later on, alone in the kitchen: “When the spoon stands up in the mixture, it’s done” or when the dough is “as soft as your earlobe”. More importantly, she taught me that food is more than sustenance – it is family, love and history, no matter which country you happen to be in.
On my 30th birthday, my mother gave me the wooden spoon with a note that read, simply, “Happy cooking”. It’s the most treasured item I own. One day, I will pass it on, but first I need to create my own part of the family story.