The first proper glimpse I had that my mum was a good cook was whilst sat in my halls canteen, a couple of days after leaving home to come to university, I was eating a salad made with strawberries, sweet corn, ice-berg lettuce and peppered with resentment.
Hungry, I took some friends to come to Brick Lane with me, in search of real Indian food and woefully scanned the menu recognising nothing of my Gujarati home cooking. As the dishes came out of the kitchen, one by one, in varying shades of brown and red I protested that I’d never eaten chicken tikka so luminous that you could see from space, or dal so thick with ghee it would set when cold. Nor korma, the definition of a dessert; made with sugar and cream (with added chicken.) Or real desserts, which tasted of face cream.
And so it was that I decided, aged 18, to collect every one of my family’s recipes to share with the rest of the world.
I travelled home to Lincolnshire from London for 10 years to hover over mum with a pencil and notepad noting, timings and teaspoons-ful. Initially, I would watch mum like a hawk and bark at her if she slipped something in the pan without me noticing, and, at first my chapattis were wonky. Mum would proffer them to the table, with a ‘Look, Meera made this’ trying to legitimise my terrible attempts.
I spent a lot of time with my grandma too, watching her make rhythmically making breads and making pickles with my aunts.
Slowly, I started to take off. At first there was the dal I made (that my dad didn’t realise was mine). My chapattis became softer, rounder and equally sized then I started currying everything in sight. Eventually, cooking my family’s food everyday became second nature.
I’d find chillies in my pockets, garlic in my handbag and I started working in the kitchen as a helper at The Dock Kitchen to get some experience with new ingredients.
I even travelled around India for three months (courtesy of a scholarship from innocent drinks) on the train, eating everything I could fit into my stomach and learning everything which would fit into my brain. I stopped in Gujarat to see the house my Grandfather was born in and I collected recipes from my family there.
At some point, I was talking to a guy called Pete at the IT help desk at innocent drinks. Pete, had his ‘Hell Yes’ t-shirt on that day and asked me if I had a publisher. ‘No’ I replied. ‘I was just thinking of printing the recipes out on the work printers and handing them out to people here’.
Which was the worst thing to say to someone in IT.
Pete sent me to meet his wife Briony who, at the time, was an editor at Simon and Schuster. Over a plate of goats cheese, she urged me to write a proposal to send to an agent. I had no idea what a proposal and was but I ran home anyway and spent every night over the next three weeks creating a miniature version of the book to show to an agent.
I sent it to the agent Lutyens and Rubinstein because I had fallen in love with their bookshop on Kensington Park Road a few years ago (and people always say very nice things about them).
Within a week of sending it over, Felicity Rubinstein and Jane Finigan agreed to represent me. Within 6 weeks, I had a meeting with 6 of the biggest publishers in England and in 8 weeks there was a bidding war for my book.
One round of auctions turned into two, two into three. At each piece of news, my head span, my knees gave way, and my mother cried over the phone.
All offers on the table, I decided to go with Figtree, a little bit of Penguin. Not just because they’re Penguin (although I have a soft spot for penguins) but because I loved the meeting I had with Juliet Annan, my editor, and Sophie Missing. I remember wishing we could carry on chatting long after the meeting ended. Also because I love every bit of food writing Juliet Annan has ever published from Alex Kapranos’ Sound Bites to Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking.
Paperwork signed, terms agreed, I was left alone to cook and write.
At times, I felt like the luckiest person alive as I flew through recipes bish bash boshing them off to the tester, Hannah. Another time, I threw my fourth version of a dosa mix passed a rabbit to the back of the garden and wept. I like to think the birds didn’t judge me.
I worked from morning until night for months calling up various members of the family in search for the story behind each recipe. When it was conceived and why, whose it was and which country India, Uganda or England it originated from. I cooked every dish many times over to make sure the recipes were perfect.
Bit by bit, I pieced together this giant jigsaw puzzle of a book and then David came.
David is one of the greatest wonders of the world. David is a photographer. But not just any photographer, his photos make me me want to cook and eat food (and lick the pages of cookbooks too). He’s also Jamie Oliver’s food photographer.
Mum and I cooked up to 12 recipes a day, sweating over every pickle and pan and then in 60 seconds, David would capture a dish, perfectly.
John, The Head of Design for Penguin (what a job for the history books) and Juliet were there too (all in the photo above). They were a dream team, styling and photographing every shot with curiosity, laughter and genius. These were golden moments.
They left and now you’re up to speed. John is now busy designing the final bits (like a magician… I will share snippets soon) and we are smelling distance from the finish line and will cross it any day now…
Over the next few months and before the book launches, I plan to be in India researching (ooh) in London putting on cookery courses (aah) and some food related events (umm) and giving you little snippets of the book to whet your appetite…so come back for more news soon and come hungry…