It was in November 2010 that I got the book proposal and I was beginning to wrap up my life in London at the time. It was a very bittersweet time. The excitement for the cookbook was overshadowed by the sadness I was feeling at leaving the city that had become home to me, indeed the only city that has ever felt like home. Not least because I really grew as a cook during my 5+ years in London town, improving my Indian cooking by leaps and bounds, learning how to bake bread, perfecting my falafels (seriously, they’re awesome), my Pad Thai (equally awesome, it’s all in the sauce), and mastering my brownie, carrot cake and baked cheesecake recipes (thank you to my sister’s colleagues at the Ernest Bevin College in Tooting, who were eager and generous guinea pigs for my baking experiments). You may wonder where I got the time for all this cooking. I was a graduate student working from home for most of my years in the UK and cooking was my favourite displacement activity. When I couldn’t face the umpteenth rewrite of a thesis chapter, I would throw off my duvet (yes, I worked in bed), skip down to the kitchen 2 steps at a time, fire up the gas, rustle up my favourite Gujarati potato curry (a healthy version is in the cookbook) and all would be well with the world again! I know, I’m going off on one of my tangents. Where was I again? Ah yes, leaving and loving London. So, in the midst of this big move from London to Mombasa, Shalini made me this fabulous offer of the cookbook and, while I jumped at it in theory, it was a rather slow starter in practice.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, I already had a collection of Indian recipes from my mum. Few people can cook like my mum. It’s not just her creativity and her talent, it’s the loving endeavour she puts into the whole process. I like to think I have inherited that from my mum but that would be wishful thinking, I have a very long way to go. I began by looking through my recipe collection with new eyes, the eyes of someone concerned with healthiness and nutrition. Now, these were not entirely alien concepts to me – I eat responsibly 80% of the time – but I had never imagined they would be primary considerations for me when writing an Indian cookbook. So many questions came gushing forth. Is healthy Indian food an oxymoron? Is it possible to have healthy AND tasty Indian food? Will any of my recipes pass the ‘healthy’ test? Does healthy mean fat free and low carb? What do I mean by healthy? No, yes, yes, no and by healthy I mean moderate portions (very important) of well balanced (in terms of fat, protein, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and other nutrients) meals. So, while onion bhajis, samosas, and butter chicken will not be in the book because they do not pass my gruelling healthiness test, there are several curries, stir-frys, bakes, grills, and salads that have made the cut in tasteful (!) fashion.
In those remaining weeks in London, I started to rewrite and test the recipes I already had. I started with a classic, the chicken curry. I have made this many times, using a generous amount of butter and oil to fry the onions that form the base of the curry. I tried it again with considerably less fat in a non-stick wok, considerably more tomatoes and fresh coriander and a good amount of cumin and black pepper. With a small portion of steamed rice and a raw salad of carrot, cucumber and lots of red onion (a perk of being single), it was delicious and filling. Tomato based curries with lots of fresh herbs, garlic, ginger, and spices are so tasty and so healthy and I have a few of them in my book, albeit with enough variations to keep them distinctive and interesting. One of the wonderful things about growing up in Mombasa was that several different Asian and African communities lived in very close proximity to each other and shared their culinary wisdom. Gujarati, South Indian, Punjabi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Swahili food were all a part of my upbringing and this has helped me to bring nuances to my food. And the wonderful thing about living in London is that the education I received in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Thai food has only increased the range of ingredients I have to choose from. It seems I am back to loving London, so I think I’ll end here for now. Next week I’ll talk more about writing and testing healthy versions of the classics, the invention of fusion recipes and healthy Indian desserts (which was as difficult as it sounds!) Eat well and Just Jhoom everyone!