Megan Abbott

ROMY GILL

Megan Abbott
ROMY GILL

Originally published on food52.com

Romy Gill greets us from the driveway of her house, which is nestled in the countryside of South Gloustershire just outside Bristol. My parallel parking doesn’t go well, and I end up leaving the car skewered on the road like a kicked-off shoe. She hugs us both warmly and steers us into her home, where the smell of cooking hits us between the eyes. Her husband fixes us a tray of sweet, cardamom-spiked chai, and we settle down in the living room in front of an open fire as the pots bubble away in the kitchen.

Romy is a self-taught British-Indian cook and food writer. She owns a restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen, in the market village of Thornbury, which has been quietly celebrated since it opened in 2013. It occupies a romantic little stone cottage, the interior peppered with heirlooms – an old radio from West Bengal; copper pans; a stack of her favourite cookbooks. She hosts talks, cookery classes and pop-ups all over the world, and has carved out a reputation for bright, light, seasonal dishes rooted in her Indian heritage. In 2016, she was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to the hospitality industry.

One of a small clutch of female Indian chef-owners in the UK, Romy’s cooking is far removed from the dishes found on the menu of typical Indian restaurants in the UK. She strives to celebrate authentic Indian cooking, as well as the potential of hyper-local produce. Romy’s Kitchen often features dishes like wild boar, pigeon, quail and gurnard - ingredients that she tasted for the very first time when she arrived in England, cooked with Indian spices and often in a flaming tandoor. There is a garden behind the restaurant, where she and her husband grow most of the vegetables that end up on the plate: plump, meaty squash; radishes; beetroots; broad beans. She isn’t strict with her representation of Indian food (in fact, today we scoop up an ‘Indian guacamole’ made with mint, coriander and chilli, which Romy exclaims is “no way authentic!”), experimenting homegrown meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, with the spice-spiked flavours of her native country as a continuous reference point. Her cooking has been called ‘Anglo-Indian’ countless times, but to Romy, that doesn’t quite fit. “I wouldn’t want to label it.” She says. “I prefer to use the term ‘local’. It’s just about what I can get in this area. For my restaurant, I don’t buy anything out of the southwest. We are so lucky with the produce here, from goat to game like venison, and amazing milk, butter and yogurt from local farms. I make sure I use what’s around me and learn to put my take on it. Some Indian chefs might not like it, but that’s what I want to do.”

Romy grew up in Burnpur, a small industrial township in West Bengal where her father worked on a steel plant. As a child she joined her mother in the kitchen, taking in the daily tasks of frying, kneading and boiling, the instinctual adding of spices and the lack of scales or instructions. Yet Romy was a hesitant cook. “When I was growing up, I hated cooking. For me, it was all about eating.” She says. Her husband chuckles under his breath. “At that time, there was no TV. Everyone played cricket or badminton, or learned to cook. I’d talk to my mum in the kitchen, it was just where I’d spend the most time with her. I’d watch her cooking, but my instinct was never to help.”

People travelled from across India to work on the same steam plant as Romy’s father, and this offered her a rare insight into the head-spinning diversity of the country’s cuisine. During social gatherings, families from the area would each bring a different dish, cooked in the style of their own state. “Many people in India only eat the food of their state.” Romy explains over another round of chai. “Living where we did, we were exposed to all the flavours of the country. I was very lucky in that way.”

During train journeys back to her parent’s native Punjab, which would take longer than 24 hours, Romy would indulge her curiosity for street food. Each station along the way would have its own style of street food – puffed naan; fried chickpeas; sliced guava sold from tiny counters beside the tracks. “It was always so fascinating.” She says. “I’m still like a child whenever I go back. I get excited to see the food and try everything and be inspired. The real food of India is out on the street. And this is my fight with chefs who cook Indian food but don’t show that stuff. I think street food is better than eating at a five-star restaurant. It’s a journey.”

When Romy married and moved to England in ‘94, she landed in a country of unfamiliar smells, tastes and sounds. The television programmes were different, the weather was damp, the Indian restaurants served chicken korma and poppadoms with mango chutney, washed down with pints of lager. “People forget that when you come to a different country, you leave behind your friends, your family and the food you grew up with.” She remembers. She began pining for the food of her country, and after a childhood of distractedly observing her mother in the kitchen, she began to cook. “I didn’t eat pizzas, or burgers…for me, that was totally alien. I was craving Indian food. And at that time, cooking it was the only option.”

She began to feel at home in this new, unfamiliar place, recreating the smells and flavours of the country she’d left behind. “I started using any ingredients I could find, but using it in an Indian way.” She recalls. “I found that cooking was very natural and instinctual. Still today, I don’t weigh anything or follow recipes. I grew up with my mum or grandma saying ‘a pinch of this or that’. They don’t even taste their cooking, they just know.” Soon, she was hosting cooking classes for locals keen to learn about authentic Indian flavours. After that launched her own line of sauces, chutneys, pickles and spice mixes. “In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to open a restaurant.” She smiles.

After we drain the last of the chai, Romy ushers us into the kitchen, where the dining table groans with five-spice tandoori mackerel with charred silvery skin, curries (glossy Malabar prawn curry; spicy lamb), white rice peppered with cumin, autumnal vegetables (beetroots with nigella seeds; crunchy fennel salad with dill and thinly sliced pears; turnips with cumin and chilli; the non-Indian fluffy guacamole). There is a dark, creamy dal makhani, and a bowl of sliced onions with lemon and salt – a ‘palette cleanser’ inspired by her father. Romy’s fearless use of international flavours is apparent in every bite. A bowl of chopped paneer – one of the ballasts of Indian cooking – is mixed with chilli, honey and soy sauce as a nod to the Chinese diaspora in India. The lamb curry is inspired by an Iranian friend. A silver dish of her homemade tamarind chutney injects sweet, sour heat into the whole meal. The whole thing tastes utterly Indian, yet somehow completely unique. It is easy to understand how Romy’s reputation as a cook and a business woman flourished so fast – she is sure of herself, yet delivers everything with a familial grace and a twinkle in her eye. With her encouragement, we help ourselves to more, and more after that. “Indian cooking is all about this – a gathering.” She says, “It brings people together.” She packs us up a silver tiffin tin of leftovers, sending us away with the spices still dancing on our tongues. We last about 25 minutes of the journey before opening it back up. “Growing up, many people in my village didn’t have fridges, so it was all about everyday cooking.” She says. “My ‘thing’ has become local and seasonal cooking. But that’s just what I grew up with. It’s the most natural thing in the world to me.”