Wednesday, 25 January 2017

In conversation with Yemisi Aribisala - Andre Simon Book Awards

Yemisi Aribisala

Yemisi Aribisala is the author of 'Longthroat Memoirs, soups, sex and Nigerian Taste Buds', which is shortlisted as best food book with the Andre Simon Book Awards. It's wonderful to read a book by an African food writer: we rarely hear about African food, or Nigerian food, and we certainly don't hear much from black food writers, from any continent. The book is poetic, emotional, funny, and honest. One chapter in particular, The Snail Tree, took my breath away. Here was a writer combining feminism and food in a way that I hadn't read before. Unfortunately she couldn't attend the awards here in Britain, so I interviewed her over Skype from her home in South Africa.

Where are you right now?
In Somerset West.

Oh, you live in Britain?
No. I used to live in Britain years ago, but this is outside the Western Cape in South Africa.

You've got three kids to look after by yourself, so you haven't got much time for writing.
Yes, I do it when I'm doing the washing up.

Don't you find the flow of water helps the muse?
Yes. Housework is good for that too. When I lived in Nigeria, I lived in Lagos. But the book is based on Calabar, which has a border with Cameroon.

Do you miss Nigeria? Is it hard living in another country?
If you are busy enough... I find it very difficult to be bored. It's all relative - what is hard?

Your book is beautifully written, magic with words. In some ways it slightly reminds me of The Famished Road by Ben Okri. He often talks about ghosts. In your book you talk about spirits, almost witchcraft. Is that part of Nigerian culture?
It's very interesting, I would never have put the two books together. I found the Famished Road very difficult to read, very heavy. I hope Longthroat Memoirs is more accessible.

Yes, it is indeed.
We are probably more spiritual, we go to church or to mosque, and because of that we probably think a lot more about these things.

It's almost like there is a very thin veil between this world and the spirits. Is the veil thinner in Nigeria?
(Laughs.) Maybe it's an African thing as well. That's an interesting observation. The witchcraft is supposed to be funny, I'm not taking this as seriously as maybe the average Nigerian would take it. There is a thing about women who cook, they are dangerous.

I fully admit to being a witch. I can control people with my food.
You know how it is, there's something about cooking a meal for people. I find that people sit down and they come for a meal and they tell you everything. How do you explain that thing?

It is important to cook with heart. Here in the West, we never really talk like that.
I didn't want to give off that spooky -- it's not a meal, it's a seance. You have to be able to laugh about these things.

That chapter that I really loved was The Snail Tree,  about food, feminism, sex, homosexuality, abortion. It kind of broke my heart; it's a very emotional chapter. Most food writers aren't writing about those things.
Even in Nigeria when you want to write a book, you already have that pressure. I wanted to write something really genuine. Everybody wanted me to write about competence. A lot of the time I'm incompetent in carrying out this thing. There has to be this happy go lucky, sexy thing about it. I'm a mother of 3, I have a soft belly, I can't, I can't pretend.

Yes.
I couldn't put the names, I can't put my friend's name. It was the experience of three women, I had to protect... including myself. There's something about writing your own story that sounds a little bit self indulgent. If you can put it out on the table, it's easier to look at, it's easier for everyone to look at it. True story.

Very important subject.
The parallel with the appetites, it's easier to talk about sex with food.

Especially as a menopausal women. I don't have sex, I'd rather eat. It's more reliable.
You can trust, it sounds a bit cynical, you can put your trust here into food.

Absolutely.
You can eat a nice meal and you are going to be happy and there is nothing else.

Yes, it's not going to break your heart. 

I'm just going to throw some disjointed questions at you.


The writing is episodic, each chapter is like a short story. I'm a blogger too. That's kind of how we write. Blogging has brought back the short story.

It's easier to read as well.

Why do Nigerians believe in God so much?
Hmm, it's an interesting question. Why don't you believe in God so much?

The UK is a post-Christian nation.
Yes, I did live in the UK for a bit. I remember that, what the churches were like. It's not a huge affair like here. It's hard to say why, I was brought up going to church but I barely go, I don't go. It doesn't stop me believing.

Over 50% of Nigerians are Muslim now, aren't they?
We are religious. That could relate to the idea of spirituality being important. If you are engaging in spirituality every week, you go to the mid-week service, you go to church, you go for the prayer meeting. You go in and out of it. You are the first non-Nigerian interviewing me. No one has asked me that. It's so much part of our life. It's an outsider's point of view.

Also in London, one of the ways that Nigerian culture is most visible here, to me, is that Nigerian churches have taken over the places where we used to have rock 'n' roll gigs.
I had no idea. Are you serious?

Yes, like the Rainbow room in Finsbury Park, where I saw David Bowie. They shut down, now it's a Nigerian church. Where I live now in Kilburn, the Kilburn Gaumont was shut down, now a Nigerian church.
Everything you are saying is like a revelation. Rock 'n' roll is the common factor. We are very loud, aren't we?

I'm loud too. I'm slightly allergic to religion as a lot of British people are. In a sense, I was brought up with rock as a kind of religion almost. We believe in David Bowie. That's why we were all so devastated when he died. It was like a god had died.
There is a parallel there. We've had these pastors in Nigerian churches, who are dressed up in very expensive clothes. They live like superstars. It's not far-fetched. A lot of people go because of the charisma of the man. There is a spiritual gravitation towards these places.

Do you think that is why, subconsciously, they are taking over the rock 'n' roll spaces? I've never actually been in one to see the church ceremony. I've seen women outside beautifully dressed on Sundays, the headdresses, the golden head wraps. I should go to one.
I've never actually been to a mosque. I don't want to stand out.

There's humour and cynicism in this book, which I love. For instance: 'Africa is in.' You talk about branding. You say: 'I may even win a foreign prize, and I'll pretend not to love it.' 
I try my best not to be pompous. I don't want people to think, 'she's better than us'. In real life, I'm actually glad I'm not coming to the awards as I have the worst social anxiety. I have strange facial expressions, I can't control my face. (Laughs.)

I think quite a lot of writers don't feel that comfortable in social situations.
It's very hard.

The only reason I want to go because it will take place in the Goring Hotel, where Kate Middleton went before her wedding.
Very posh.

What do you think of Alexander McCall Smith?
I listen to the audio books when I wash the dishes. I bought the one that made into a TV series with that beautiful lady Jill Scott. I watched it over and over and over. He doesn't write very nicely about Nigerians. He writes nasty stuff about us. I don't know why that is.

I went to Botswana a couple of years ago, I went on a tour, to the house of Mma Ramotswe. McCall Smith spent many years there. 
She's not real!

But it was based on real places. I really enjoyed that, but one of the debates now is about cultural appropriation. Do you feel culturally appropriated?
No, I don't feel culturally appropriated. Maybe it's because it's not Nigeria. Because it's Botwana. I love Mma Ramotswe and her relationship with Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. I love that nothing dramatic happens. There's just enough trauma. There's enough trauma on Facebook. Sometimes it's tough to find stuff that doesn't traumatise me. Sometimes I just leave out the politics because I want to enjoy the contents. You know he loves Botswana. I think sometimes we over-drag this thing.

I'm sure I put my foot in it all the time. I went to a dinner party, there's this man standing with this lady and I say, 'oh is this your daughter', and he said, 'no it's my girlfriend'. I wanted to enter into the ground. I want to be able to forgive.

One of the things I like about his work, and you mention it, is the 'traditional shape' that African women have.  I'm a traditional shape. Shall I just stand up and show you my traditional shape? 
(Laughs.) This is something I feel really strong about. I'm a mother of three. There was this guy who was chatting me up on Twitter. He obviously thought that because I was a foodie, that I was larger. He was saying, 'I like women with big thighs'.

Why isn't a big fat belly an erogenous zone?
(Laughs.) Yes. It's very hard to enjoy your food. It's so hard, it's ridiculous.

I liked your cynicism about branding. 
I spoke to a TV producer and said, 'I'd like to do a food show, would you air it?' He said, 'no I want someone else because she's very slim and fabulous. I know what you mean because you think but she can't cook.' He said: 'It doesn't matter. We are just going to let her stand over the pots and just look gorgeous.' I already have body issues. Maybe that's why I prefer to watch men cook. They don't feel that pressure.

Is English your first language?
There are so many languages in Nigeria, we've had to compromise and speak English. It's not my first language but it's the language we go to school in.

What language do you count in?
English. I speak Yoruba very well, it's just I wasn't schooled in it.

In the book there's so many African/Nigerian words, I almost wanted a glossary.
That's political, there's a discussion now that's going on about this. When I was in Britain, people asked, 'can I call you Angela?'

They are saying that because you have an African name?
In London, yes. Don't you have an English name? It happened all the time. It's better now though. Nigerians are so well travelled. We go to countries and we learn to speak their language, we learn how to say their names. It isn't super human. It's not rocket science.

I can show you how many words I've circled in the book, but by the third chapter I'm starting to understand it.
That's the thing though, isn't it?

As a British person, when I go to an Indian restaurant I'll order practically in Hindi. I'll say can I have a matar paneer, a brinjal bhaji. If I go with an American, they would be like 'what the hell are you saying?' We go through an osmotic absorption of another language through its food. That's what happened to me reading your book. Eventually I understood the words. So for instance, dawadawa is like fermented...
It's the locust bean, hard to describe.

I want to try that.
It has a very, very strong aroma. Thai fish sauce doesn't hold a candle to it. It's a lot stronger, like cheese. People make it in different ways. Sometimes you can smell a bit of chocolate, sometimes it's more musty.

Is there much vegetarianism in Nigeria?
No. My publisher is vegan. I had this feeling it was hard for her to engage with the food in the book because we eat a lot of meat - not as much as Kenyans do, but we eat a lot. I know the Northerners have livestock. Same in Botswana, any country that has that livestock herding culture, they eat a lot of meat. You can see the divisions in our cuisine.

Is it to do with the terrain? I've never been to Nigeria. In Botswana it's very dry most of the year. They have one wet season, the delta where there is a lot of greenery, and they can grow stuff. Most of the country it's scrub. You have different terrains in Nigeria.
In Nigeria, if you go north, the heat is very dry. I come from the south west, Calabar, it's very humid, rainforest. This is a problem for me here in South Africa: it's really hot and dry. People say that it's ridiculous, why is a black African woman complaining about the heat? It's a different kind of heat.

Even in Cross River state, you can just drive, there is a mountainous bit, 1,500km up, and it's like you are in Britain. There are different eco-systems. How do you explain the food? The food moves up and down a lot. We are eating from a lot of different places now. We are sitting in Cape Town and we are eating everything. We are eating beans from Kenya. Eating seasonally is gone now. Calabar was like a hub. We have trucks coming down from the north, beetroot and carrots. Palm oil coming from somewhere else. If you live in the town, you see all kinds of things. You find ridiculous things, like chorizo sausages and expensive teas. It's very international in Lagos.
It's called arm choreography. First a piece of the mound of pounded yam, gari or fufu, is pulled off and rolled into a ball. It is depressed with the thumb to form a spoon and then the spoon is used to scoop the soup. The soup is reluctant or asleep and an effective scoop involves invading the soup and pulling away with a brisk tug of the arm. This is no ordinary tug, it is skilfully done so that the soup breaks away neatly without drawing messy patterns all over the utensils and the table.
Longthroat Memoirs. 
Let's talk about slime.
Don't call it that. (Laughs loudly.) I knew this was coming.

Africans, and sorry I'm talking about the whole continent here, you love a bit of slime. In the soup you have the okra, which is the only vegetable I hate because of the texture, it's mucilaginous, you talk about the draw, how it's gotta to be not too thick. 
This is me. Some people cook it and it's like this, stretching gesture, like lycra. I want to put cinnamon in ogbono soupThe people snubbing mucilage, look at cinnamon! Get the powder, put it in the bottom of a cup and pour a little water on it.

You think cinnamon does that too?
Yes, it's incredible.

When I interviewed Fuchsia Dunlop, we talked about how the Chinese like texture. In the West we are very conservative about texture. Why do Africans like mucilage? Even some of your yams are gooey.
There are all kinds of theories. We eat a lot of starches and you need something to move it.

It's a digestive thing?
To actually put it in your mouth and make it move. I don't eat the starch in the correct way. You need to see the people who eat this stuff, they almost roll it down. The starch needs some lubrication. The starch itself has to do with the farming communities here. If you are from that, you didn't eat 'til 6 in the evening. Yams are very, very nutritious - the big hairy ones not the sweet potatoes. They say you have twins because of it.

It's for fertility?
I don't know if it splits the foetus or what it does. Alice Walker mentions it in The Colour Purple, there's child who has sickle cell anaemia and everyone brings her yams. The yams kept us healthy. There is also a connection with malaria, everyone has got it in their system. They are just walking around with it. Someone needs to do the research, to find out the medicinal effect.

Also, you have yam to help with the menopause. 
Slimming pills are made from bush mango. It's mucilage.

So slime is good for you?
My father is a paediatrician, he thinks the reason we are more diabetic is because we are drinking more soft drinks: Coca Cola, Sprite. The recipe is different to what you have, we have more sugar. But in Africa we don't have food standards agencies saying there is a bit too much sugar here. In your country I find it hard to watch television because every five minutes, there is always something delicious on TV.

Another question I wanted to ask is about palm oil, which is essential to Nigerian cooking. Do you get the palm oil from Nigeria itself?
I try to buy my palm oil from one place. I know this person who makes it with conscience. You can sell it out of a jerry can. The quality control is almost zero on palm oil - that is the number one problem.

Backtrack a little bit. My husband's grandmother is alive, there's a story I write about, her husband said she mustn't come to bed in her nightie, she must come to bed naked. This woman is knocking on 90. Her ankles are this slim. This woman is eating palm oil all the time. They are so healthy. You have to question the propaganda. There's a big question mark. Like canola (rapeseed) oil, my children ate it, now we aren't supposed to eat it. My son was told to eat soya, because of all his allergies, because he can't eat cow's milk, and it was the worst WORST advice.

I've just read Tim Spector's The Diet Myth and it's all about gut microbes. We could probably talk for hours about this. Autism is so clearly associated with problems with the gut. Dr Andrew Wakefield was criticised for linking vaccines with autism. I wouldn't be surprised if he was proved to be right eventually.
If you are a mother, you see the connections. At some point we stopped the vaccines for my son. No one is saying don't vaccinate your kids. I do it with my daughter. We are told you've got to vaccinate your kid. You've got to remain vigilant.

I didn't vaccinate my daughter.
Another of these so called fringe people, a lot of what they are saying is true. In 20 years time, we may be saying oh we are sorry.

So sorry we demonised you, made you lose your livelihood. 
For the first 7, 10, 13 years, you've got to monitor it. If you lose that time, you end up with a severely disabled adult. There's nothing you can do about it.

I spoke to another mother in Britain who has two autistic sons. She makes raw fermented sauerkraut, which she injects into their mouths every day. 
The child will never be neurotypical. You want a functioning child. My son is allergic to cabbage, so sauerkraut is out of the question. The gut is an individual, the biome. You don't want to eat meat, I actually enjoy my meat, we can't exchange stomachs.

It's different for everybody. I'm gonna get my poo analysed. This guy Tim Spector runs The British gut project. 
You have to send your poo?

I'm not sure how they do the stool sample. 
There must be an easier way.

Also Maggi sauce, stock cubes? It's become an intrinsic part of African cooking.
Yes, it has. It's got to the point that every stock cube is now called Maggi.

It's just a shortcut to get that umami flavour.
Only if you don't know what the real stuff tastes like. It shouts. I know I spend a lot of money on electricity here because I'm always roasting something. I can't even imagine going back. It forced me to go and look for good salt. I'm glad we can't eat it. Not at all. I don't use Maggi at all. Not even Thai fish sauce. I use nothing with monosodium glutamate.

Are you careful because of your son's issues? You are more careful about what you put in the family diet?
Absolutely. I wouldn't cook every day if we didn't have this thing which we have to get done. It's a commitment. If it wasn't for my son, I wouldn't have written Longthroat Memoirs.

That's interesting because a food blogger I interviewed, Papilles Pupilles, became a  food writer because of her children's food allergies. 

I don't think we know much about African food in the West. There must be so many ingredients we know nothing about. We are getting some like baobab seeds. In Botswana they eat water lily bulbs. And you are part of that. It's almost an hierarchical attitude towards food, French is at the top...

And we are at the bottom. (Laughs.) I don't think there's anything you can do about that. In a sense, I don't mind...

What do you think we should discover in African food, what should we know about?
I think we should break it down. I don't even know what they eat in Cameroon. They have lots of spices - njangsang. They have a country onion I've never even heard of. You can't say Africa. It's each individual country, the diversity is amazing.

I'm thinking of, say, South America; how the food has spread. Nowadays everyone eats ceviche, which nobody ate ten years ago.
I'm thinking jollof rice. There's Senagalese jollof rice, Ghanian jollof rice.

I'm going to do the recipe in your book. But what is a 'tatase' pepper, which is mentioned as an ingredient? 
It's not a bell pepper. It's got a lot more heat. It's not sweet. Use the look, they are long. You need a large mild chilli. Like really large jalapenos. But not too hot. Have you tried Peckham Rye market? I had people calling out Shaki shaki. Obviously I look Nigerian.

What is Shaki shaki?
It's tripe. You may find the right peppers in Peckham. This was a South Asian person shouting shaki at me.

I do love London for that. We've got everything here. 

What ingredients should we know about?

Jamie Oliver used Nsala spices. There's a recipe for it, there's a pod which we use to make Suya, it's like barbecued meat but better than that.
Nsala is made of several spices: black pepper, different kinds of peppers, with different aromatics. Cubeb, long pepper, grains of paradise, hot peppers without the seeds. The recipe is in the book.

That sounds a really good thing I could try. 

Talking about authentic foods from countries prior to new world ingredients... Nigerian food has Scotch bonnet peppers, but that's new.

Even the rice. We grow rice, it looks very different from imported rice. I don't think we were eating rice. People cannot digest it. I think that's actually a good indicator as well. I don't know anyone who has a yam allergy or who can't eat palm oil. Cows milk for instance, southerners can't digest it. Northerners can, but they drink it raw. There's just a lot that has happened.

Raw milk is really good for your microbiomes in your stomach.
I don't have the courage to do it, but I hear you can digest the raw better.

It's interesting about cultural heritage and food. The relationship of African food to slave food in America, New Orleans gumbo and all that. For instance in Grenada they called it provisions, things like yam are provisions, slaves had their own little poor territory gardens where they'd grow their little provisions. In a sense, African food has travelled and become Southern food in America.
Yes, think of akara, beans that have been fried. You can find that in Cuba. The name akara is Yoruba. It's the same food they use over there, it's the same food, but it's travelled.
When I came to London, and not being able to wrap my palate around the food, it was quite traumatic. We'd go to Brixton and Peckham and buy okras. Even the texture of chicken, the texture of meat. We like our meat tough. The tougher meat is the one that is more expensive. We were shocked to find out mutton is cheaper than lamb.

Thank you so much Yemisi, it's been really great to talk to you. 

Longthroast Memoirs won the John Avery Award at the Andre Simon Book Awards last night.

Buy Longthroat memoirs here.
On Twitter: @yemisAA
On Facebook: Yemisi's Longthroat memoirs
Website (under construction): Longthroat Memoirs.

Monday, 23 January 2017

In conversation with Meera Sodha - Andre Simon book awards

Meera Sodha; Fresh India

As I drove down the narrow street in Walthamstow where Meera Sodha lives, I realised I'd gone too far, so I turned around and parked near her house. An Indian woman in a sari and winter coat stared at me. 
You know this is a one way street? 
Oh, no, I didn't. 
I walk back to my car and execute a 3-point turn, parking around the other way and hoping that no-one has witnessed this bad driving.

It's a nice street with neat suburban terraces and shiny front doors, tiled pathways and carefully tended front gardens. But Walthamstow is odd, hovering upon the edge of affordable fashionability for over a decade, half chic, mostly shabby. 

Meera and her husband haven't been here long. Meera is pregnant, her baby due in February. We sit in the kitchen near the window. She has baked some Indian spiced cookies: thick rounds of crumbly shortbread studded with leaf green pistachios. They are delicious.

I was very surprised by how well your first book did because we already have great Indian cookbooks, such as Camelia Panjabi's or Madhur Jaffrey's books.  But now I've seen Fresh India, I understand why. Because you really do have a fresh approach. It's all lighter and fresher. Not so many heavy sauces.
Indian food is very diverse. In the same way as we used to think Italian food is all pasta and pizza, Indian food is very regional. The geography of India varies so much. You've got mountains in the north, deserts in the west, jungle, the coasts. 

I'm from Gujarat via Uganda. The British government encourage people from Gujarat to go over to Uganda. We started the railways, and Gujaratis are known for being business people. Uganda was depicted as the land of opportunity. We were kicked out by Idi Amin in 1972. Traditionally, we are business people not restaurant people. The Indian curry house has a boiler plate menu. That's nothing like Gujarat home cooking that my family has eaten day in and day out. My first book was a collection of family recipes.  My family, a family of five, came with one suitcase. I've become a bit of a hoarder. 

At what age did you come to Britain?
My mum came at age 16 in 1972. I was born here. I realised I didn't know much about their past. The only way I could access it was through food. I wanted to capture these recipes. Behind every recipe was a story. That story related to what they grew in the garden. My grandfather's favourite food. How my grandfather was a vegetarian and became a meat eater. When he moved to Uganda, he became a hunter so they'd bake antelope whole. So it just happened to turn into a book.

Did you start out with a blog?
No. I wanted to capture these recipes, I was working at Innocent drinks. Someone said you should meet my wife, she's an editor. She didn't end up being my editor but I put together a proposal. I didn't know what a proposal was. I put together a collection of recipes about this family who had crossed continents and ended up in Lincolnshire.

Did you feel comfortable as a writer? Most of us got our confidence through blogs. Normally you don't jump from nothing to a book.
I was copyrighting at Innocent, which is very different to writing a book. I feel comfortable writing; I really love it. Sometimes I really have to drag the words out but when they come out... (Laughs.)

When I started my blog, I was frightened to write stuff down. I suppose I thought you had to have a degree in English or something.
Innocent is a very friendly company, but I know exactly that feeling.

'Do you have the right to write down words?'
Yes, you need validation. That someone thinks you are OK. 

Before you worked at Innocent, did you go to university? What did you study?
At university, I studied Industrial Relations. 

Political?
Yeah, I mean I wasn't going to become Arthur Scargill. I was interested in the relationship between government and people. Working with the most challenging people - I became besotted with the idea. I quite liked the whole university experience. I was in London; I went to LSE.

Was Innocent your first job out of university?
No, I set up a dating agency called Fancy An Indian, way before all these online dating things. 

Like an Indian Tinder?
Yeah. Less swiping and sex. More matching people together.

So it was open to everyone - anyone who wanted to go out with an Indian?
Yes.

I did some documentary work, researching. Then the actual TV work I did was Natural Born Dealers for ITV. (Laughs.) I also worked for The Tiffin Box. I helped them set up a restaurant in Canary Wharf seating 144 people. I was working for The Big Lunch in PR. I then set up an arts organisation with a lady called Colette where we set up pianos and pingpong balls in public spaces to try and encourage people to come together. There is still a piano in Kings Cross.

I remember that, what a great initiative.
Then I went back to Innocent to set up a big festival called Fruitstock in Regents Park with an Olympics theme. This was under Boris Johnson. But people didn't know whether to stay in London during the Olympics. We didn't sell enough tickets, so we ended up pulling the whole thing.

I met a chef called Richard who worked at the Dock Kitchen just opposite. I'd been thinking more seriously about collecting my families recipes. I was doing half-days at Innocent, sleeping on a sofa then working the rest of the day at the Dock Kitchen. That started my trajectory towards food.

Now your full time job is food writer.
The story is a bit more complex. I really wanted to collect my family's recipes and put them together in a Word document. I was leaving Innocent at the time, but there was a scholarship available at Innocent for £1,000 [which would fund the book research]. I thought, 'I really want to do this'.

It'll pay for the flight and a couple of days. 
I went to where my grandfather was born, to meet some of my cousins. I did win the scholarship. I got £1,000. I went to India and persuaded my boyfriend to come with me.

Is he Indian?
No, he's definitely very much 6'2" and blond, but has the most refined palate.

Do you speak Gujarati with your family?
I speak Gujarati. But if I go to Gujarat they can tell that I'm not from there, that my Gujarati is from Africa. There's some bits of Swahili. A lot of kitchen words. When the Gujaratis did well, which is where the animosity grew from in Idi Amin's government, they started to employ people in the house. My mum didn't grow up cooking, they had a Swahili-speaking cook. Asians who've lived in Africa use many Swahili words... Kisu means knife, for instance. And think of the restaurant Jikoni, where the chef Ravinder Bhogal is Kenyan. Jikoni means Kitchen in Swahili. I need to go to Jikoni. I've met her once, she's so lovely. 

She's a very very good cook, lots of style.
She's a real beauty.

So, going back to Swahili in kitchens...
It's sort of a family cookbook, it's got elements of Lincolnshire, elements of East Africa. Our family does eat meat, although I was vegetarian for years, and even vegan for a bit. Our family lived in a small village in Lincolnshire.

Were you the only Indians in the village?
Yes, absolutely. (Laughs.) It was great for produce. 

You incorporate some of these Lincolnshire ingredients in your books with an Indian twist.
Yes, like sausage kitchari. Nobody knows about Linconshire - it's so weird, it's such a long county. It's the agricultural hotbed of the country. The main crops are potatoes, leeks, brassicas. The farmers have to leave the land to fallow. Now that's turned into rapeseed oil, which I use all the time.

You often use rapeseed rather than ghee?
It's strange: growing up as an Indian, ghee is part of Indian mythology. It's an enormous energy source. We grew up being a little bit nervous about eating too much of it, as it would give you a ghee belly. It's a pure fat. I love homemade ghee. I love the smell of ghee. You walk down any road in India and you can smell it. We don't use masses of it, though. Rapeseed has a really high frying point. My mum used peanut or groundnut oil.

What about palm oil? Any other African ingredients that you snuck in there?
Cassava? The East African community love cassava. If you go to Wembley, there aren't that many Gujarati restaurants, but there are a couple there. You can get mogo. A lot of ingredients won't translate. Like kanga birds, which translates to quail over here, or gogol fish, which is a bit like salmon. There are some real surprises though - asparagus grows in Uganda. Plantains as well, which wouldn't originally have been used in India.

Just thinking of how many New World ingredients are in Indian cookery today, like chilli and tomato. What is the basic ancestral Indian diet?
The lineage of Indian food is so strong. K.T Achaya wrote about the history of Indian food. It's quite dry reading. You have Kitchari, an ancient Indian recipe, which is linked to kedgeree. The first recorded recipes like dal are like BC, really old, ancient recipes. Pepper was used often in meat to mask the smell as there was no refrigeration. So they used heavy, dominating spicing.

Do you think that's why India is mostly very vegetarian?
There was the principle of 'ahimsa'. Do no harm. Gujarat is known to be the vegetarian state. There are 62 million people there, the vast majority of which are vegetarian, which I think is fascinating as it's spawned this vegetable-first way of cooking. Muslim communities make more meat. It's Buddhist principles and Hindu principles come together. It's more for religious reasons rather than refrigeration.

I didn't go to Gujarat. I would have liked to have gone to Diu. 
Which is Portuguese...

So you are pregnant now?
This is my first and I'm eight months pregnant.

This is a big life change. Is your next book Indian cookery for babies?
I'm interested to see how it will change. Already, being pregnant, my palate has changed. When I had morning sickness, I didn't want to cook at all. I ate rice crispies, bland food...

By the eighth month, it gets better. I went off wine, coffee. The last month or so, it all started to come back again. When I've cooked with pregnant women, I've not said anything but I've noticed their palate is off. You can't trust their palate. Things are under seasoned. You're so sensitive, you can smell your garbage from 100 metres away.
Obviously you can't eat that much because of acid reflex.

We talk about Indian restaurant food...
My thing is home cooking. You can trace Indian food back - it's ancient. But what's bad about it, like French food, is that it hasn't progressed. There are good Indian restaurants in London.

Which Indian restaurants here do you like?
Trishna and Gymkhana. I used to work there, so I'm biased. I was a pastry chef. I did a stage. Then they said, 'do you want a job?' I realised I didn't want to work as a chef. You are in a basement. You don't cook for people you love. 

I love the coriander fish at Trishna.
The atmosphere at Trishna is different. The chefs are much more relaxed. At Gymkhana, people are chopping shallots shoulder-to-shoulder at a million miles a minute.

Do you have good knife skills?
I can chop quite quickly. I'd never call myself a chef. I've learnt from my mum and my grandma. I'd love to have more cheffy skills. My mum is the best cook I know, but she chops incredibly slowly. In fact, she uses a blunt knife. That's the thing about home cooking. 

That's the reason I started up supper clubs. There must be some brilliant Indian housewife or grandma whose house I want to eat in. I want access to their cooking. There was quite a feminist idea behind it, a way of women making money from home.
I bought your first book supper club on my iPad. You've got a Bombay mix recipe in there.

I'm very interested in making things from scratch. Of course, being vegetarian, I've always made a lot of Indian food. I get quite a lot of Indian people at my supper club, I suppose because it is vegetarian. I think a lot of British people make curries too hot and too sweet. I like souring agents, amchar. 
And of course the British are obsessed with chicken. I find it really weird. 

Yes. To me, Indian food is vegetarian but I've ordered Indian takeaway with meat-eating friends and they'll say 'that is the first Indian meal I've ever had without meat'.
In most Indian restaurants, the vegetables are the sides.

I love sides. Just give me sides! It shows a real sophistication about Indian culture that they had animal rights from so early on. I know the Greeks did too. It had a basis in health and food safety. It does say something that there is a sophistication of philosophy there. 
It's Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

They are trying to be good people. We aren't even trying.
People are trying to eat less meat these days. I bought the beautiful book by Alice Hart. If I wasn't cooking out of my books, I'd be cooking out of hers. 

Thinking of other restaurants - Gunpowder is a great restaurant in Shoreditch.

What about restaurants like Tayyabs? I love their tinda masala.
Yes, I love it, and the Lahore Kebab House. 

What do you think about French-style haute cuisine Indian food.
A lot of those restaurants did go down that route like Vivek Singhs' Cinnamon Club. I went many years ago. I didn't find heart in the food. I've not been back recently.

Indian food for business men on expenses.
I think the expense did preclude me from going down there. I am going to go to Gymkhana for my birthday or my husband's birthday. There's also Jamavar, who was the head chef for Gymkhana and Trishna. It's in Mayfair.

Which suggests it's quite expensive.
Yes, it is quite expensive, so I'll go there for the set menu at lunch. That's the good thing about being freelance.

Yeah, there's got to be some advantages.
I also like Kricket in Brixton, Sakonis in Wembley. There's amazing bhel puri in Southall - it's just a caravan so I don't know if they've got a name. Best bhel puri in the UK. Up until a couple of years ago, there wasn't much.

There were just curry houses.
Yes, and going to Wembley is a schlep.

I went there and had mixed Indian and Chinese food.
Oh yes, Chindian! They love it in India. They are cooking Indian all the time, so when they want something different, they'll have chop suey with chilli. I do love Gobi Manchuri, deep fried cauliflower with spicy sweet chilli sauce over it. It hits the spot for sure, and I can see why they love it. 

Coriander is the most popular herb on Earth, I guess because of Mexican, Indian, Thai. It used to be parsley in the UK, it's now coriander. 
Really? It's such a wimp of a herb, isn't it? I do love it though. I do love Mexican food but I grew up with the Chiquitas, Las Iguanas...

...which is actually Tex Mex. I just went to the Yucatan, which is going to be really big this year. Noma is moving over there. Mexico is just like India, people think of it as one bland cuisine. But it's very regional. They use achiote, a red berry, they make a red paste. They mix it with sour orange. It's a muddy, very authentically Mexican taste. Like Mexican saffron. There are a few, mostly American, authors that have written about Yucatan food. 
I really want to go to Mexico.

I'd like to go back to India.
I'll have to wait until this one's (pointing to her belly) about six months.

Did you ever go to Indian Veg in Chapel Market?
Yes.  I was fascinated with how many drinks they sold there; they had at least two chillers.

That's possibly where they make the money.
Possibly. No. Definitely. (Laughs.) I lived on Chapel Market for 11 years. 

That's where you wrote your first book? 
Yes, and most of my second one. We needed to move and someone mentioned casually that someone was developing the old Warner council flats. People were knocking through the bottom. I came here to photograph the Walthamstow stadium.

The dog stadium?
Yes. It's been closed down. Walthamstow has the longest market in Europe. I do try and get down there. I love how diverse it is.

Is it quite an Asian area? 
This street is. It's funny my next door neighbours are Gujarati. The walls are quite thin, and I could hear them speaking Gujarati in there. I tried to get into a Bohra household in Bombay.

What does Bohra mean?
It's a type of community, Muslim, many from Gujarat. Amazing. The mum next door just kept bringing me food. Across the main highway that you drove down to get here, the village is very white and middle class. There's a bottle neck of John Lewis shoppers further up the high street. I don't know much about the black community, I think it's Jamaican but not entirely sure. Lots of Eastern European, lots of Polish. I like the diversity, I think that's part of the joy of being in London. There's a van that parked up outside from a Transylvanian bread company. I would have thought that was quite niche but the fact they've got a van, it must be more popular than you think. For a while people were saying Walthamstow is the next big thing. 

Yeah, but I've been hearing that for years. 
People were then moving out to Leyton, Leytonstone. We were lucky, a year ago we just managed to squeeze in.

Basically one can afford a house in Walthamstow. 
Yes, you can buy one for £500,000.

So that's do-able, compared to the rest of London.
A lot of people that we know said, 'we are priced out of Walthamstow now, we have had to move even further out'. You can keep going out that way. It feels like Canary Wharf out there. It didn't have that nice development that Hackney did where the artists moved in. There's bits of it, a couple of yoga studios, there's a pizza place, where there are people with beards.

Walthamstow has a town centre.  It's really nice to be in town, a community. Blackhorse road, one stop away, they have loads of exciting stuff going on there. They have got studios there, a denim workshop, a coffee roasters.

Did you buy a house because you knew you wanted to start a family?
Yes, and we have a dog. I knew I was going to write more than one book. We tried to get quotes for changing our flat around, but the quotes were stupid. 

So you might as well buy a house.
Yes. It wasn't easy, even then we had to put together about five pots of money to do it. Mostly I'm here cooking and writing. There's space here.

This is a really nice space, a lovely space to work, to write. Do you get lonely?
I think I did when I didn't have a dog. I did when I first started. But then I realised I'm on Chapel market and I knew the community there. I feel like everyone's very nice in the food community. There's no back stabbing. I haven't encountered that. 

I have. (Laughs.)
It's not like fashion. When I have a book deal under way, it takes me a good year to write a book. Plus other jobs I can do. I get so totally engrossed in it that it's almost dangerous. I just go into a black hole of writing and reading and learning and cooking.

Actually you end up not needing company. It's affected my social skills. At that Felicity Cloake book launch where I met you last, I felt like everything I was saying came out wrong. Literally I didn't go out for 18 months, and my daughter had moved away from home at the time. When I did go out, in social situations, I was so used to being in my own head, I couldn't communicate properly.
I can see that. My husband drags me out. I can work through a day without seeing anyone.

For other people, that would be weird. If my daughter wasn't home I could easily go for a week without speaking to another person.
But you can go online.

But that's not the same. It's not using your voice.
But if you've known people for a really long time... Sometimes you can be cooking so much, so much food available. You don't have the energy for a dinner party. We do try and get people over to polish off the food.

Your first book came out when?
2014. So the next one came out 2016. 

That's really quite quick. 
There are two years between my books. A lot of people do it quicker, one and a half years between books.

I need to feed the dog. I can take her dinner through to her that might be better. If she comes in here she'll be really excited about you, she'll want to jump on you.

I hate that, I'm sorry. I'm just not a dog person. I haven't got any pets. I don't like animals. That's why I don't eat them.
Oh, right. It's not because you love animals so much.

I like vegetables. 
Fair enough.

Coconut grater; Sri Lanka

What is this thing?
That's a coconut grater. It's a Sri Lankan one. It's the best one I've found because in India you get ones that you sit on. This one looks much easier. What I used to do before I found that: I cracked the coconut, dug out the pieces with a knife, then put it through a food processor.

You crack it in half and put the end of it and turn the handle?
Yes, and it's lovely light and fluffy.

Did you get it from Sri Lanka?
I did.

I really want to go to Sri Lanka. 
You can also get this on Amazon. I don't think there an enormous mark up on them either. 

Did you put the kitchen in? 
No, it was the developers. I wouldn't have put in one so shiny.

It's not really your style?
I'd prefer more wooden, more rustic, natural materials.

It's nice having the island, though?
Yes, it is. It's a bit aspirational. (Laughs.)

I'd like an island because if you are making videos, you can face the camera and do your chopping.
Do you do videos?

Yes, I want to do more. It just seems to me that the press get their people. Then everything is about that person, then they get bored of that person and move onto someone else. It's very fickle. There's so many talented people but they don't pick widely from a range. 
Yes, I'm thinking about this documentary on clean eating. The Hemsleys didn't want to be in it. I think Ella is but it's about how she isn't. 

That's the latest thing; denying your clean eating past.
Ella's and the Hemsleys' books came out at the same time. It's very innovative stuff, making brownies out of black beans. I don't think clean eating is a good thing, but that level of innovation we haven't seen in a long time. Ella stripped out meat, gluten, sugar, dairy?

If you just replace normal sugar with other forms of sugar, is there any point? It's quite an interesting thing to do, but I've heard that the body just sees it as sugar. 
Replacing cheap sugar with more expensive version of sugar. That's the issue of clean eating, suggesting that something is much healthier for you. They should say, 'we are just promoting more wholesome ingredients that aren't refined', as opposed to saying coconut sugar is nutritionally better for you.

Gluten has been demonised. I have gluten-free friends who are coeliac - they have a problem. Nobody else does.
There are very few people who are coeliacs. People are sat in office jobs, not moving around very much. The bread is just a carb that you need to shift. People are trying to avoid having too many carbs or having a carb-heavy meal.

I personally love carbs.
So do I.

As a society, we all eat a lot less than we used to. We just aren't burning it off.
People are slightly protein-obsessed, more in America. In New York, on every single pot or packet you buy, there's the amount of grams of protein, even on a normal yoghurt. So it's really big this idea of protein is good, carbs are bad.

It'll change again though, I'm sure.
I think it's a bit more fermented these days, not this monoculture thing going on. I was slightly unfussed about sourdough until I had Pavilion's rye sourdough, on Broadway Market, which is sensational.

I've always loved sourdough. I remember getting it from San Francisco years ago.
I've never really eaten much bread. I hate the idea of toast in the mornings, it's too dry.

My whole family lives on toast. What do you have in the mornings then?
I used to love boiled eggs and coriander chutney. Because my palette changed, I've moved from savoury to sweet. Eggs and smoked salmon, or eggs and anchovy and spinach. I didn't eat breakfast for years. I hadn't grown up eating cereals or toast.

It's proper porridge weather. When I was travelling in India and Nepal, I ate porridge every day even in the summer because everywhere serves it. Spelt in a variety of interesting ways.
With date syrup or honey, it's nice.

Do you mostly do Indian cooking at home?
Yes, mostly Indian food because I want to test out something new.

You can't really relax about food once you become a food writer. Everything is a possible dish.
It's either that or I want to go back to what I love, home cooking. What I really want is a really simple cauliflower and potato curry with roti or chapattis and a bit of yoghurt. I can't shake it because it's too deep in my bones. 

It sounds like I want to be married to you as well.
Hugh, my husband, is an amazing cook. His mum wasn't a very good cook. He was self-taught. He uses Jamie, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel...

So he likes male chefs, male food writers?
There wasn't really a woman at the same time, shaking things up.

There's Delia...
...not really our generation. 

...there's Nigella. You know some men don't read books by any female authors? 
Really? Do you think that most books that are published are written by men?

The majority are written by women.
I'm sure that's not true.

It is true. (Actually, I'm not sure if it is. I think I'm totally wrong.Most readers are women. I asked my dad, 'do you ever read anything by women?' He said no. Jay Rayner wrote a whole article on it. I wonder whether the same happens with cookery books? That's why they desperately want male authors, even though 99.9% of cooking is done by women. Maybe those are the only books that men follow. 
He uses Nigella more for...

Cakes?
No, he doesn't bake. 

It's quite gendered, isn't it?
Yes. Very gendered. Nigella does like a gammon with Coca Cola. A couple of her big things, centrepieces, he cooks. He likes the simplicity of Nigel Slater. He grew up with the ease of Jamie. They all fulfilled different roles, I don't think it's because they're men.

I do think the whole thing about Jamie is that it got men cooking.
I'd agree with that. He got loads of people cooking, not just men. It's alright to cook suddenly.

He made it cool. He normalised it.
[Hugh] cooks but now he doesn't really use books. He just plays around with stuff and he's very good at it. Really simple fresh courgette salads, lots of herbs. In his head, he'd like to be somewhere between Honey and Co and Nigel Slater, simple stuff, executed well.

We both naturally gravitate towards Italian food because in India traditionally there's no emphasis on provenance. You do quite a lot to the food while it's in the pan, you stand over it and tinker with it. Whereas in Italy, if you buy gorgeous datterini tomatoes or burrata, all that hard work has been done. The beauty is in the simplicity of the ingredients. It can feel like polar opposites, these two types of cuisine. The family has always gone out for Italian food. 

In Indian cookery, there's not, say, 'the best potatoes come from this region'?
Yes, you do get that: the best rice comes from up north. You can get aged basmati, the best rice. Kholipur has the best unrefined jaggery, south east of Mumbai. And you get fresh season turmeric in Gujarat. There is a level of provenance going on. But the distribution systems are poor. 

So people tend to eat locally?
In Rajasthan, which is desert, same in Gujarat, there is a lot of local pickling going on. They string things up across the houses. It's all quite regional.

When I travelled in India, I was into food but not like now. I lived on dal bhat. The pickles that go with it really make it. One thing I'd really like is a recipe for mango pickle, which I had in South Africa. I've tried lots of recipes, and none of them have worked. I wonder if I'm using the wrong mango.
Buy the little green mangoes. I've seen them in Walthamstow now and we are in January. They should be out March/April.

The recipes say you cover them with spices then put it in the sun for three days, with mustard oil.
(Meera gets out a jar.) This is my family mango and fenugreek pickle, made by my grandma.

Can I taste it?
Yes. Use mustard or Gingelly oil... it's just sesame oil without the toasting. 

The stuff in South Africa was so addictive.
There's no easy fix to it. You haven't got the sunshine here.

So I haven't got the right mangos, or the right sunshine.
Pickling is relatively hard here because of that. This is my grandma's recipe. She claimed she couldn't remember how to do it so I sort of forced her... (Laughs.)

Are they always willing to give the recipes?
Yes. Her mind has sort of forgotten but her fingers haven't. Fenugreek is quite bitter.

(Tasting).That's pretty much it. Without the fenugreek. Is the recipe for this in your books? Can I have the recipe?
Yes, but I need to get the recipe. I need to get it from my grandma. I forgot to take it out of my mum's book last time. You don't peel the mango. You chop it, then salt the chunks, take them out of the water for 48 hours, so they become a lot smaller. A masala goes on there. I asked her make it from scratch. There'd be split yellow mustard seeds in there. Ground up though. And chilli. Plus mustard oil or gingelly oil. Once I've got the recipe, you are welcome.

I made a batch about two years ago. The mango was quite hard. This is really nice.
I don't think that is a complicated masala.

Is there a particular name for the mangos?
My mum calls it Kācī kērī, which just means raw mangos. Could be the Rajapuri mangoes? These ones are used when they are green, they come out in April. You get like a little thread of them. Try Jumbo in Walthamstow. It's sort of an African Indian shop.

I'm going to have another bash at it. You've inspired me. 
When my grandma found out I was pregnant, she said 'you'll be needing some of this'.

To start labour?
Well, they do say have ghee to make the baby slip out.

We say caster oil, probably the same principle. My daughter was three weeks late so mum brought me a cocktail flask full of orange juice, caster oil, and tequila to make it taste better. I drank the full shaker, then labour started. It's an old wives thing.

Is this how you eat at home? Does your mum cook this stuff all the time?
You have someone in the family that's known to be a good pickler. My grandma's always been the pickler, now my aunt's taken over the mantle. If you go for dinner at hers, a beautiful tray of pickles will come out. There is like 7 to 10 of them on the table. There are a couple of my favourite ones in Fresh India. They are actually really easy to make. [My aunt] Mrs Sura's lemon and red chilli pickles were always on the table. This is my second favourite one: green chilli and mustard pickle. It's got ajwain in it, which makes a big difference.

What is ajwain?
Carom seeds. It's got an aniseedy flavour. I've never seen it grown fresh. This recipe for fresh pickled turmeric is good, very simple. It's only got only three ingredients and one of them's turmeric. You can get two different types of turmeric: orange and white turmeric, the white is more subtle than the orange. I don't know the season for the white turmeric but it's more sporadic. The joy of living here is there is a Pakistani shop near here where I can buy fresh turmeric.

Do you get feedback about using too many ingredients?
I try not to use ingredients that people can't get hold of. For example, if people can't get curry leaves, not even dried curry leaves work really. I write to the buyer of supermarkets and ask them to start stocking it. There's a real difficulty as they don't have a long shelf life. They've got that citrussy smoky flavour, unusual and particular and wonderful. I use curry leaves a lot in this book.

We don't write recipes down. Especially Gujurati recipes. There is a real prestige in an Indian chef's kitchen, where you are taught something once. The recipes are passed down verbally. Sadly a lot of these recipes will be lost. 

So it's very important the work you are doing.
(Laughs.) Possibly. I'm playing around with Indian techniques with British produce. 

There seems to be a new generation of subcontinental cookery, there's Sumayya and yourself around.
I love Sumayya's book
Meera Sodha, at her home in Walthamstow

Is this Fresh India doing as well as your first book?
It was doing the same as Made in India, and now it's done better. Also it's a vegetarian cookbook. People really started buying it in the run-up to Christmas. I've now done two books and there is no clarity on what does well and why. You never really know, it could be the front cover, the styling. They have no idea why the first book did so well. 

I never really wanted to be on the telly. I feel I should try as I feel like my real purpose is in teaching people how to cook. The TV would just be another vehicle for that. I didn't have a TV for 10 years. We have one now but I hardly turn on the TV. I'm more of a Netflix person.

Me too. 
I straddle both worlds. If you look at all the greats, like Camelia Panjabi and Madhur Jaffrey, they've brought their authentic Indian recipes to a British market. But when I spoke to people, when I was putting together the book, I watched my LSE friends order from an Indian restaurant. I said, 'I can't believe what you are ordering, all those chicken kormas.' Our food is so different from this. They were really surprised. 

When I started writing down the recipes, I realised that I had to rely on ingredients that I could get at the local Sainsbury's. So I knew what it was like to be learning how to cook Indian food. I was rolling wonky chapattis but my mum was never like, 'I'm going to teach you how to cook'. They didn't want me to be a housewife. Indian parents would always try to get you to do your homework and not be in the kitchen. My mum would make dinner and tell me to do my homework. 

The Asians who came via Africa tended to be more middle class and had cooks?
Not so much. They wanted us to have a good education and have enough money. We had so much hardship. They had £50 and started from scratch. They wanted us to have a good education. 

Quite feminist actually?
Yeah. 

They want their daughters to do well. 
Yes, but go into the professions - lawyer, doctor, accountant. 

Not the arts?
No. Imagine me coming to learning to cook at the age of 18 with a limited knowledge, mum's not there, I'm questioning the use of every single ingredient. Many people are intimidated by Indian food. People would say, 'I love Indian food'. And I'd ask, 'do you cook it at home?' 'No.' There are long lists of ingredients.

My mum can get dinner on the table within 30 minutes.  I wrote the book with a view to demystifying Indian food. I wanted to show that home cooking is better than what you get in the restaurants. I think that might have caught hold of people's imaginations. They thought, 'actually I can do this'. 

It's not thick, gloopy, brown sauces. It's home cooking, you keep things fresh. You don't feed your family ghee-filled, heavy, rich food every night. It's lentils and vegetables and the occasional bit of meat. 

I love this book, Fresh India. I want to cook so many recipes from it. 
Getting nominated for the Andre Simon was a real shock for me. 

It's great all these new food writers coming in and they are celebrating them. 

Get Meera Sodha's book here: Fresh India
Website: meerasodha.com
Twitter: +Meera Sodha 
Instagram: @meerasodha


The Andre Simon food and drink award winner will be announced 24th January.