In the mid-1970s, a girl of Indian parentage, born in Cumbria, was wishing her mother, from Delhi, would make the kind of food her friends’ mothers made. She wasn’t ashamed – her mum was a great cook and was known for her elegance and colourful saris (she was called ‘The Butterfly’ locally because of them) – she just wanted to smell Victoria sponges and lamb hotpot when she came home from school. She wanted to fit in.
In Northern Ireland, a girl who didn’t want to fit in was thrilled if tea was food from another country – moussaka, goulash or chicken curry. The curry in her house wasn’t Indian, but she didn’t know that. Her mother’s rendition was made with Ferns’ curry paste, leftover chicken, chilli powder and raisins. This girl would have eaten anything that made her feel there was a world larger than her own.
There was one Indian family in her home town and a Chinese one in the next. They were ‘other’, yes, but she couldn’t get enough ‘otherness’. The more diverse her country became – though this seemed almost impossible as nobody wants to move to a place where people are killing each other – the more likely it was that difference and borders, a big thing in Ireland, wouldn’t matter.
The Cumbrian girl was Roopa Gulati. The Northern Irish girl was me. We wouldn’t become friends until 30 years later, but we were both about to be – unwittingly – joined.
In 1982, Madhur Jaffrey appeared in her first TV cookery series, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery. She was beautiful, poised, intelligent, an actor as well as a cook. ‘Madhur Jaffrey changed everything,’ says Roopa. ‘She cooked the same way as so many Indian mums. She brought respect for regional Indian dishes to Britain, offering many people their first taste of Indian cooking outside of takeaways. She made me appreciate the diversity of Indian food and the effort my mum put into making Punjabi meals every day. She also made me realise how important it was to write down the recipes. In India they’re handed down orally. When I asked my mum for recipes it was all “a pinch of this” and “a handful of that”. They needed to be recorded.’
In my home Madhur Jaffrey’s series was family viewing. Jaffrey hadn’t grown up cooking. When she came to England she wrote to her mother for instructions. The only way she knew whether she was getting dishes right was if they tasted like those in her memory. She wrote her first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, in 1973, but it wasn’t until the BBC series that she became famous. The book that accompanied the series – which Roopa and I both bought – was a bestseller.
Roopa’s family made regular trips down to Southall to stock up on spices, dals, chapati flour and rice. I took the train to Belfast to a wholefood shop called Sassafras (under the record shop Good Vibrations, a centre for Northern Irish punk). My copy of Jaffrey’s book is covered with ticks and crosses, denoting the dishes I could get the ingredients for and the ones I couldn’t. Kheema matar, made with mince and peas, was a goer, okra wasn’t.
Until now I’ve never cooked Indian food for Roopa, but I recently made my favourite Jaffrey dish – her Mughlai chicken – and we made the other recipes here to go with it. She breathed in the smell of the chicken in its pot. ‘It’s proper Indian spicing, Di,’ she smiled. ‘I can tell even before I taste it.’
Indian food isn’t my food but, in a way, it is. Jaffrey laid it before me. It was more than just something to eat – it fed a longing to embrace difference when my own country couldn’t. She gave Roopa a pride in her mother, Indian food and the country to which she was inextricably connected. Jaffrey made a difference to us both.