Meera Sodha has made turmeric lattes and a type of mithai (Indian sweet). Rather apologetically, she notes that while things may seem to have gone a bit hipster cafe when we meet in her east London kitchen, both are old Indian recipes. She’d grown up drinking “golden milk” as a cure-all (though health claims on its behalf remain unproven, she hastens to add), and had been busy developing her own spice blend including turmeric, cinnamon and pepper. The sweets are khajur pak – traditionally made by heating dates and nuts, likely cashews, in a pan on the stove, but she blitzed them in a food processor before rolling them into balls and dusting with pistachio and cocoa. “And I added pecans because … well, who doesn’t love pecans?” This pursuit of flavour over tradition has contributed to the success of Fresh India, this year’s winner of Best New Cookbook.
Sodha, 35, isn’t keen on people who get uptight about authenticity. “I’m lucky to have straddled two worlds,” she says of her upbringing eating traditional Gujarati food made from seasonal British produce. She was born in Scunthorpe, the daughter of immigrants expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972. They had to adapt their cooking to use the produce available to them, as her grandparents had. “It’s still Gujarati cooking, but seasons change and people change, so food changes – even produce in the UK has changed wildly since my parents moved here.”
Sodha’s career in food writing began when she started to gather her family recipes, which formed the basis of her first book, Made in India. For Fresh India, it was her friends who provided the inspiration: a growing number were becoming vegetarian or vegan but struggling to see past creating a meal around meat.
Sodha is a former vegetarian, and more than half the 60-million population who live in Gujarat eat a meat-free diet. “As a result, this incredible cuisine evolved that was very innovative.” Agricultural Lincolnshire was also an inspiration: “It’s like a giant larder.”
Sodha wanted to shine a light not only on Gujarati food, but on the rich variety of Indian cooking, so at odds with the brown, indistinct rogan joshes, kormas and baltis of some high-street curry houses. “Brits have this fierce love of Indian food and I think those restaurants took that love for granted,” she says. Increasing interest in food in the UK means people travelling to India are emboldened to discover the diversity of the cuisine, and she thinks British people are also excited to use local produce in new ways. When writing recipes for Fresh India, Sodha would consider whether to use the vegetable in a twist on a traditional recipe – her matar paneer dish uses two types of peas – or to use Indian spices to create something new. “The salad section is entirely new because India doesn’t really do salads.”
She also thinks a lot about availability of ingredients when writing now, partly because when she began recording her family recipes she had to buy a lot in from India. Most of the ingredients in her recipes can be found in neighbourhood Asian shops and in supermarkets. “I know the supermarkets get attacked for many different reasons but I take my hat off to them for selling things like paneer so widely and allowing this country to cook Indian food properly.”
Ideas for a new book are still forming but taking a back seat to her seven-month-old daughter and her Guardian column The New Vegan. Vegan cookery poses a new set of challenges because of the restriction on ingredients, but she is finding it rewarding – she’s able to venture away from India to explore the cuisine and culture of different countries.
“My dream for Fresh India was that it would live in people’s kitchens,” she says, thrilled to win a category voted for by readers, “and it would be splattered by food, to the point the pages were sticking together.”
Recipes from OFM’s Best New Cookbook
Savoy cabbage, black kale and potato subji – savoy aloo gobhi
In Gujarat, cabbages and potatoes are near deities. In Lincolnshire, where they are the main crops, the same is true.
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a main course
coriander seeds 1 tsp
cumin seeds 2 tsp
rapeseed oil 3 tbsp
fresh curry leaves 15
black mustard seeds 1 tsp
brown onion 1 large, halved and thinly sliced
baby new potatoes 800g, quartered
savoy cabbage 200g, finely shredded
black kale or cavalo nero 200g, finely shredded
salt 1¼ tsp
chilli powder ½ tsp
ground turmeric ¾ tsp
Lightly grind the coriander and cumin seeds with a pestle and mortar. Put the oil into a large lidded frying pan over a medium heat and, when hot, add the curry leaves and mustard seeds. When they crackle, add the onion. Cook for around 10 minutes, until golden and sweet, stirring occasionally.
Add the crushed coriander and cumin, followed by the potatoes. Cook for 10 minutes, turning every now and then until crispy. Add a couple of tablespoons of water, cover with the lid and cook for a further 5 minutes, until the potatoes are tender and no longer resist the point of a knife.
Finally, add the shredded cabbage and black kale to the pan with a couple of tablespoons of water and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Add the salt, chilli and turmeric, mix well, cover with the lid, reduce the heat to low and cook for another 4 minutes, or until the cabbage and black kale have wilted.
Serve with a fiery pickle, hot chapattis and yogurt, or with dal and rice.
Paneer butter masala
Traditionally, this dish would be made with a few large slabs of golden butter, but for the sake of decency I’ve toned things down a bit. It’s still an extravagant dish, but channel India and enjoy yourself.
Serves 4 as a main course
hard paneer 500g, cut into 2cm cubes
unsalted butter 3 tbsp
brown onion 1 large, finely chopped
ginger 4cm, peeled and grated
garlic 6 cloves, crushed
tomato passata 800g
kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves) 1 tbsp
ground cinnamon 1 tsp
ground cloves ¼ tsp
chilli powder ½ tsp
honey 2 tbsp
salt 1½ tsp
peas (fresh or defrosted) 250g
double cream 100ml (plus extra to serve)
toasted flaked almonds a handful
Put a tablespoon of oil into a large lidded frying pan over a medium heat and, when hot, add the cubes of paneer. Fry for a couple of minutes until golden on all sides, turning regularly, then remove to a plate.
Put the butter into the same pan over a medium heat. When hot, add the onion and fry for around 10 minutes, until translucent and turning golden. Add the ginger and garlic, stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the passata. Cover with the lid and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until reduced to a lovely thick sauce.
Add the fenugreek leaves, cinnamon, cloves, chilli powder, honey and salt. Stir, then add the fried paneer, cover with a lid and cook for 5 minutes, or until cooked through. Add the peas and cream and cook for a further 5 minutes.
To serve, scatter with the almonds and drizzle with a little extra cream.
Pumpkin, black-eyed bean and coconut curry – olan
The smell of roasted pumpkin, and curry leaves sizzling in coconut oil, is enough to make anyone want to go to Kerala, which is where a variation of this dish, known as “olan”, originates.
Serves 4 as a main course
pumpkin or squash 1.2kg
garam masala 1 tbsp
salt and ground black pepper
coconut or rapeseed oil
mustard seeds 1 tsp
green finger chillies 2, slit lengthways
onion 1 large, halved and thinly sliced
garlic 3 cloves, crushed
black-eyed beans 1 x 400g tin, drained
ripe tomatoes 150g, cut into wedges
ground turmeric ⅓ tsp
coconut milk 1 x 400ml tin
fresh curry leaves 10 (optional)
Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out and discard the seeds, then cut it into crescents around 2cm at the widest part. Transfer to a big bowl, drizzle with oil, and sprinkle with the garam masala, 1 teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of black pepper. Toss to coat evenly, then arrange in a single layer. Roast for 30 minutes at 200C/gas mark 6, or until soft and tender.
Meanwhile, put 2 tablespoons of oil into a large lidded frying pan over a medium heat and, when hot, add the mustard seeds. When they pop, add the chillies and onion. Cook for 12 minutes, until the onion is soft and golden, then add the garlic. Cook for another couple of minutes, then add the beans and stir to mix together. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes until soft and jammy around the edges.
Next, add the turmeric, ⅓ teaspoon of black pepper, ½ teaspoon of salt and the coconut milk. Tip the roasted pumpkin into the pan and stir to mix. Cover with the lid and leave to heat through for 5 minutes. Check for salt and chilli, adjusting if you wish, then transfer to a serving dish.
If you like, finish off the dish with a quick curry-leaf tarka: put 2 tablespoons of oil into a small frying pan over a medium to high heat. When hot, throw in the curry leaves and let them crackle and turn translucent in the oil. Pour over the pumpkin, then serve. ofm
Fresh India: 130 Quick, Easy and Delicious Vegetarian Recipes for Every Day by Meera Sodha (Penguin, £20). To order a copy for £16.40, go to guardianbookshop.com
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