Meera Sodha was at one of London’s many tandoori restaurants when she was struck by the disparity between the menu’s overly rich boilerplate dishes and the fresh, vibrant Indian cooking she had eaten growing up. A capable cook when it came to spaghetti carbonara and garlic prawns, Sodha realized that if she wanted to introduce her friends to her Gujarati family’s way of eating, it meant learning to cook the food herself.
And so, on weekends, she started travelling home to Lincolnshire, northeast of London, hovering over her mother’s shoulder, and transcribing the family’s recipes. Those notes were the start of her cookbook, Made in India, which came out in North America this fall. It’s full of the vegetable-led, everyday cooking of her childhood, and tells the story of a family that left India for Africa before finally landing in Britain.
Are there markers you would consider specific to Gujarati cuisine?
By and large, what typifies Gujarati cuisine is that everything is made at home, from our chapattis or millet flour bread, and in terms of what you eat as your main meal, [which] will be two or three different vegetables. Then you’ll have pickles and yogurt. There’s an eggplant cherry tomato curry in the book – Gujaratis love their eggplants. A lot of Gujaratis are vegetarian.
Because our family had moved from Gujarat to Uganda, I couldn’t say what with my family is specifically Gujarati food. It comes from our family adapting to the different places we’ve travelled over the years. And recipes come into your kitchen vicariously through friends or travel.
The book started as a way to transcribe family recipes, but it ended up opening up the vault of your family’s history.
It added colour to the black-and-white spots of my family history. I learned what my parents ate in poverty, the character of my grandfather and how he’d go and hunt antelope and bake them in the earth to create an oven. I learned what my father would eat when he was dreaming of my mother and playing cricket with his friends in Uganda.
Why was that context, your personal history, important to include in the book?
It was a little self-indulgent in a way – whenever I go and stay with anyone, I love to know what they cook at home, what their favourite recipes are. I love to hear about what people eat at home; it’s much more fascinating than what people eat in restaurants. It is so deeply personal because the food we eat at home tells us so much more about where our families came from and who people are.
In so many ways sharing those stories allows people to see themselves in a cuisine that maybe they are not a part of.
One of the biggest questions we all have about food is how do you eat it? And how do other people eat it? Especially when it’s a new cuisine that you’re not used to.
There is a bigger, important story behind it as well. The British Raj were in power and they were pitching Africa as a land of opportunity for Indians to help bolster the economy in both Uganda and Kenya. And so there were so many Gujaratis in Uganda and Kenya specifically, including my grandfather, who was doing very, very well for himself there. And Idi Amin was a bit of a crackpot dictator and one morning told Ugandan Asians that they had 90 days to leave the country, or he’d start to kill them. They left absolutely everything behind. My family ended up in the middle of nowhere; we were the only Indian family in Lincolnshire.
Especially in such a multinational city like Toronto, I don’t think everyone questions where everyone came from, and why. And I did want to impart bits of that story with the recipes. I thought it was important to capture part of what it’s like to be family that is far flung from its original home, and what that means.
There really is something to be said for that feeling of connectivity, that continuation of history and that feeling of community based around food.
My mother, it is such a big part of who she is, is how she uses food to connect to people. To imagine one Indian family in an English farming community, it was a very unusual place to end up. And part of the joy of growing up was her using food to bring the community closer to our family.
Those unaware of the regionality of Indian cuisine might be surprised to realize how a dish is truly informed by the environment in which it is cooked. As you say in your introduction, ‘an Indian kitchen can be anywhere in the world.’
Indian food is as regional as Italian. And just the same way that Indian food is adaptable in India, it’s adaptable wherever you cook it. So then you have to question what makes Indian food Indian, and for me it’s a guiding set of techniques and principles that I’ve grown up with in my own family, that I consider Gujarati.
My family has been able to reconstruct their Gujarati kitchen in Gujarat, in Kenya, in Uganda and in Lincolnshire. I have no doubt that people will be able to reconstruct those recipes wherever they live. The only difference is that while you might be using the same spices and techniques, you might be using rabbit or pheasant or beetroot or Swiss chard or whatever ingredient grows locally to you.
This interview has been condensed and edited.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: