Indian food has a reputation for being intimidating and complicated. Here, Meera Sodha talks about her book of family recipes and how easy it is to create them at home. All photos by David Loftus.
Meera Sodha did not realise how good a cook her mother was until she left her family home in Lincolnshire to go to university. ‘I came to London and had so many bad meals,’ she says. ‘Most of them were at the university canteen, but I remember one particular night I went out for a curry with friends and they said, “Meera, what should we order?” I was horrified when the food came out in various shades of red and brown and they thought this was what I had grown up eating.’
That night Sodha vowed to collect all of her mother’s recipes, some of which were originally her ancestors’ and had existed for generations without being written down or recorded. ‘I started to get really panicky that if I didn’t write down these recipes they would disappear,’ she says. She has been cooking them for her friends ever since.
What began as a personal project has, 14 years later, been published as a book. Made in India. Cooked in Britain: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen is a lively collection written by Sodha as she hovered over her mother’s shoulder at the stove. ‘I didn’t mean to publish a book,’ Sodha says. ‘It started as a project to make sure I had the recipes safe, and then it took off in the most fairy-tale way.’
Sodha was working in marketing for the drinks company Innocent in 2012 when Peter Gowlett, who worked in Innocent’s IT department, said she should meet his wife, Briony, an editor, as Sodha’s family recipes sounded to him like a good idea for a book. By the end of that year Sodha not only had a book deal, she had won an Innocent scholarship of £1,000, which enabled her to go on a foodie road trip around India. Some recipes that she picked up on her travels are also included in the book. ‘It was the best way to go travelling,’ she says. ‘I would be peering over people’s shoulders and asking them what I should eat. Indians are so passionate about food that the moment you ask, “What is your favourite thing to eat?” this enormous watermelon smile appears and they are so happy to tell you.’
Sodha’s family is originally from Gujarat, the region north of Mumbai and south of Pakistan, and came to Britain from Uganda in October 1972, following Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians living in the country. From her great-grandmother’s kitchen in Gujarat to her grandma’s in Uganda and her mum’s in Lincolnshire, Sodha’s book is a celebration of Gujarati home cooking. ‘Gujarati cooking has never really been recorded in cookery books before,’ she says. ‘Gujaratis were among the first groups of Indian immigrants in the 1970s, but they opened corner shops and became doctors and accountants; they didn’t do what Bengalis and Bangladeshis have done with food, so Gujarati cooking mostly stayed at home.’
The fact that her family found themselves in Lincolnshire, one of Britain’s biggest agricultural counties, meant they adapted many recipes they knew to use local produce. ‘The village I grew up in is the kind of place where if someone has too many courgettes growing in their garden they will kindly hang a bag for you on your front door,’ Sodha says.
Sodha, 32, who graduated from LSE in 2003 with a degree in industrial relations, wants to show the world how easy Indian cookery can be. ‘Indian food has a reputation for being intimidating and complicated, but this is a myth,’ she writes in the book. ‘The majority of Indian home cooking is fresh, simple and quick.’ She thinks that if you know how to season with salt and pepper, you can learn easily what cumin can do.
One of the most important lessons her mother taught her is to use her own judgment when she cooks. ‘She told me to taste my dish,’ Sodha says. ‘You should taste it from the beginning to the end, and if you feel like it is a bit dull, you might add a little bit of lemon or chilli to make it sprightlier.’
She certainly makes it sound simple. Thankfully, the book also contains some suggestions of how to rescue a dish if, for example, you find that the lemon you just added was a little bit too much. Ultimately, she wants everybody to cook instinctively. A section at the end of the book explains the roles individual spices play. ‘I think it is important for me to say that cloves are so punchy that it could ruin your dish,’ she says. ‘As much as possible I am trying to get people to understand their ingredients.’
Sodha may have grown up in an Indian home kitchen, ‘making wonky chapattis from an early age’, as she puts it, but she has experience working in professional kitchens, too. The Innocent office is opposite Dock Kitchen in west London, and after she chatted to the chefs there one day they invited her into their kitchen. She has since worked at Karam Sethi’s restaurants Trishna and Gymkhana, in the West End, and in July is taking over Le Coq, a neighbourhood restaurant near her home in Islington. She is constantly looking for ‘food heroes’, people to learn from, but says there is still nothing quite like going home to her mum’s chicken curry.
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MUM’S CHICKEN CURRY
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For the recipe, click here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/10922316/Lamb-raan-recipe.html
SAUTEED SPRING VEG WITH SPICES
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For the recipe, click here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/10922358/Quick-chapattis-recipe.html