Originally published on food52.com
There is a cluster of palms waving in Meera Sodha’s garden. The leaves are wide and sturdy, unfurling from a hairy trunk rooted in a terracotta pot. Fixing a gaze on them, it’s easy to forget we’re in East London and not shored up on some South Indian bank. “I’m really addicted to palms at the moment.” She remarks, pulling me from my daydream, “They remind me of Kerala. And I miss Kerala.”
We have been meaning to visit Meera for a while now. We’ve followed her work for a long time, all but destroying her first book ‘Made in India’ with splashes of coconut milk and hot oil. We’ve seen her slide gently into the UK food scene, showcasing the food of her Gujarati heritage and paving a space for authentic Indian cuisine in a country with a somewhat distorted view of it. The interview date was set back a couple of times as Meera moved from her “tiny” flat into a “much more grown up” townhouse in Walthamstow, East London. “My husband and I hosted Christmas here. That’s when you know you’ve really grown up.” She laughs. By the time she opened the door to us, most of the boxes had been unpacked and her haul of Indian relics had made their way onto the walls, the shelves and the kitchen cupboards. A bright yellow sign made by an old painter in Mumbai; a faded box of matches with a golden tiger printed on the front; a row of tiffin tins; four painted gods, rendered in pinks and emeralds by an artist said to have “epitomised Indian beauty”; a bookshelf bursting with Indian cookbooks; a pot of thin, hand painted Gujarati rolling pins. Her home may be new, but it is brimming with pieces of the country that made her.
Growing up, Meera’s interest in cooking remained limited. She would help her mother out in the kitchen, “rolling wonky chapattis and peering over the countertop”, but her interest stopped there. “In any Indian family you grow up in the kitchen.” She says. “It’s the cornerstone of the home. I knew something about cooking, but I didn’t learn how to cook properly. I was quite a rebellious teenager. There weren’t many Indians at my school in Hull, and I was always really worried about going to school with my uniform smelling of onions!” It wasn’t until starting university in London that a desire to get back into the kitchen was sparked. In fact, it happened in the space of a few minutes, sitting around a table with a group of friends at a “horrible” Indian restaurant on Brick Lane. “All of my friends turned to me and asked what they should order.” She tells us. “I looked down the menu at all the kormas and jalfrezis. It was not the kind of food I’d grown up eating. I suddenly wanted to be able to show them the kind of incredible food I’d grown up with. The food in those places comes in varying hues of brown and orange. It’s so rich and heavy, and it’s created this massive misconception about what real Indian food is in this country. So I was determined to show my friends what real Indian food looked like. The only problem was I couldn’t create a meal.”
So, like many of us in a time of need, she called on her mother for help. “I phoned mum and
asked her to email me some recipes.” Meera smiles, “She said “If you want to learn you’re going to have to come over and watch me.”” Like many Indian cooks, Meera’s mother relies on ‘andazz’ in the kitchen – the use of instinct. “She would just throw things into pans with abandon, it was difficult for her to transcribe the recipes.” She explains. So began Meera’s quest to gather up the family recipes, hurtling from London to her parent’s little village in Lincolnshire to sit peering over the counter once again as her mother cooked. This time, though, her chapattis were not as wonky. “That early time of not cooking helped me.” She explains, “I think if you reject something then come back to it later, you see it through different eyes. It helps to be an outsider sometimes. You learn to think about it in a different way. It’s like when I brought my first boyfriend over and suddenly realised that my mum had doilies all over the shelves. I’d been so used to it before and suddenly it seemed ridiculous!”
The food that Meera was learning was from Gujarat, the westernmost region of India that her family hails from. The flavours, smells and textures of her cooking paint a vivid picture of her family story, one that reads like an epic novel. Back in the 1950s, her grandfather moved from Gujarat to Uganda, following the promise of economic opportunity by the British government, who also offered up British passports. He set up several businesses, from a printing press to a cola bottling factory to an orange juice company with Tilda. Yet this success came at the time of the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who ordered all Asians living in the country to hand over their businesses and leave within 90 days, or they would be killed. Planes were charted by the British government, and Meera’s grandfather, grandmother and mother left Uganda for Scunthorpe, an industrial town in the East of England. “My grandpa was a very proud man.” Meera tells us, “He was told about lorry driving jobs in Scunthorpe, so he went there. When he came to the UK he had all of these gorgeous suits and patent shoes. He swapped them for steel toed boots. He just brushed himself down and got on with it. They all did.”
Meera’s mother was 16 at the time, and “excited” to be in England in the 1970s, a time of flares, Top of the Pops and fish and chips. “It was a pretty cool time in England. And they were the first Indian family in the village. It even hit the papers!” Meera laughs. “The vicar came over, people brought cakes. But there was some animosity at that time, too. There were a lot of people telling them to close their windows when they were cooking. Mum doesn’t like to talk about that part. Mostly, it was an incredibly positive experience. The locals did everything from teaching them English to showing them how to use the washing machine! She says that food brought her together with people. They’d cook samosas and give them to their neighbours and it seemed to break down the barriers. As food always does.”
In her first book, Made in India, Meera delves into the country through its food. She has travelled India extensively, and stays there for “a couple of months” each year. “I love elbowing my way into kitchens in India and seeing what people are cooking for themselves and their families.” She explains, “There is always a story behind the food. That’s what makes it so amazing to write about.” Her next book, Fresh India, offers a spectrum of vegetarian recipes so rich and colourful, the lack of meat goes completely unnoticed. “There’s a common misconception about Indian food over here. When you think of curry, you think of meat.” She says, “I wanted to showcase all of the incredible vegetarian food. I didn’t want to write it for vegetarians. The point is, if you go to India, the food is lighter and fresher. There are 500 million vegetarians there. That’s real Indian food. Gujaratis are particularly known for their vegetarian food, because there was an empire in 269BC that outlawed the slaughter of any animal.” “The only reason my family started eating meat was because my grandfather got really into hunting in Uganda.” She continues, “He was a bit of a tearaway. He would hunt antelopes and cook them in pits in the ground. So my mum developed a taste for meat along with him.”
England’s produce infused Meera’s mother’s cooking, and in turn, Meera’s own. Particularly after their move to a “tiny” village in Lincolnshire when she was young. “I grew up in a farming community in Lincolnshire surrounded by leeks, potatoes, beetroot and cauliflowers.” She says. “Neighbours would tie a brace of pheasants on our door handle as a gift. Mum would cook pheasant curry and give it to the locals. She learnt how to not cook vegetables to death like a lot of Indian cooks do. She learnt to use the produce around her. Particularly in the early days when it was hard to find the right spices and herbs for Indian recipes.” She goes over to a tall wooden shelf stacked with jars of cumin, coriander seeds and a metre-long stick of Sri Lankan cinnamon. “If anyone was going to India, mum and dad would ask them to bring back fresh turmeric.” She opens a silver tin, and the space around it fills with perfume. “She won’t let me buy it from the shop. It has to have the right level of oil and the right smell. This is very good turmeric.”
As we talk (and talk, and talk), Meera starts “knocking up some food” from her new book, throwing fragrant curry leaves into a pan of hot oil. She makes creamy beetroot pachadi, a Sri Lankan dal with coconut and lime kale, tamarind and caramelised onion rice, aubergine pickle and a punchy coriander chutney, all served with flaky South Indian parathas. She talks us through her kitchen essentials: the coconut grater clamped onto the surface, the spice grinder she “can’t do without”, the old spice tin that her mother and all of her “aunties” have. “They all have the same tin with a Cow and Gate plastic milk spoon in it. Word spread through the community that this little spoon fit it perfectly!” The most precious object in her kitchen is a timeworn wooden spoon that belonged to her mother, who gave it to her for her 30th birthday. It is dark and marked by hundreds of hours of cooking, with a dent on one side from years of being banged on the edge of saucepans. “Cooking is really nostalgic for me.” She says, “I guess it’s because my family came over here with just a suitcase, I’m terrified of losing family recipes. They’re like memories.”
Lunch ends with date and nut balls in a thick coat of cocoa, followed by two cones of sweet, salty jaggery kulfis. Which we eat in seconds. She sends us away with a slab of cashew fudge, sprinkled with dried rose and sliced into diamonds. “It’s the spirit of my mother in me. I have to feed people!” She laughs, as she wraps up the giant parcel and walks us out onto the porch. Four hours have never passed by so quickly.