This Home Cook Went from Collecting Her Mum’s Curry Recipes to Writing an Indian Cookbook
Meera Sodha’s 2015 Indian recipe book was a bestseller and its vegetarian followup, Fresh India, is released this month. But she never intended to be a food writer.
"Hello, young man!" I say as Meera Sodha's fluffy and extremely excitable dog greets me at the door of her Walthamstow home. Later, I discover that the name of the dog licking my legs is actually Lola.
Not that Sodha minds my doggy faux pas. As she shows me into her elegant townhouse, she is keen to get straight down to business: Gujarati food.
"Today, most people think of Indian food as rich, meaty, and brown," Sodha says with a slight roll of her eyes. "In 269 BC, the Emperor Ashoka declared the state [of Gujarat] to be vegetarian all in the name of ahimsa, which is no harm towards another living being. I think the limitation on Gujarat has inspired an incredibly creative and innovative approach to cooking food."
And Sodha knows all about creative, innovative cooking. Released last year, her first book on Indian home cooking, Made in India, was a New York Times bestseller. This month sees the publication of its followup, Fresh India, which focuses on vegetarian cooking.
As successful as Sodha has been in spreading the gospel of Gujarat's fresh, boldly flavoured food, she never intended to write cookbooks. Her plan was simply to collect her mum's recipes, which she started to do while working in marketing at Innocent Drinks.
"It was only ever meant to be a personal project, and then this really strange coincidental few seconds of a conversation happened between me and a guy called Pete on the IT help desk," she explains. "He was fixing my laptop and I was telling him that I really wanted to put all these recipes into a book and he said, 'You should meet my wife, she's an editor.'"
And with that, Made in India was born.
For Fresh India, Sodha spent time with her mother in Lincolnshire, where she grew up surrounded by farms abundant with potatoes, kale, leeks, sweet corn, sugar beets, and rapeseed. She also travelled around Gujarat, collecting recipes from her aunts, visiting markets, and elbowing her way into kitchens to find out what people were cooking. Back in London, Islington's Chapel Market (where Sodha lived in "the world's smallest kitchen" before she and her husband moved to East London) was also a source of inspiration.
"I'd go to Chapel Market every day and look at what was in season, and then take it back to the kitchen and think about what spices a celeriac might go really well with," Sodha remembers.
What spices would a celeriac go with?
"In the book, I turned it into pav bhaji—it's like a Bombay street food, created for the mill workers," Sodha tells me, her eyes misting over. She describes it as "a richly spiced mash" of potatoes and carrots "with an enormous slab of butter melted into it because butter is this symbol of everything in India. It's worshipped by the gods—anything that comes from the cow is worshipped."
This is served in pav, an Indian bread roll.
"You have this very rich mash and you have this bread roll, and there's loads of butter in there. You sort of grill the bread roll with more butter and that's how it's eaten and it is divine," Sodha explains. "Even on the hottest day, you can definitely find room for it."
When writing her first cookbook, Sodha did a stage with chefs Sam and Sam Clark at iconic tapas restaurant Moro in London's Exmouth Market, which she says is one of her favourite places to eat, partly because "the food feels like it's cooked by women."
"There are loads of women in the kitchen there, and Sam—female Sam Clark—is often on the pass," she explains. "I think you can really feel [her] femininity running through the food. It's such a great restaurant, but the food's not been primed and primped within an inch of its life, it's very generous and plentiful and delicious. It feels like the best possible version of home cooking to me."
This home cooking style is the bread and butter (or the dal and rice) of Sodha's food philosophy.
"When I was growing up, my mum would cook my sister and I dinner after she picked us up from school, and before the end of Neighbours—is that right?" she muses. "She can't have spent that long cooking it, and there'd be fresh chapattis on the table every night, and dal and rice and the most beautiful curries. Often more than one—we were very lucky."
Back in her Walthamstow kitchen, Sodha makes me her kaju katli or cashew fudge: two neat, pale piles of tessellated diamonds studded with dried rose petals in a shallow copper dish. Sodha says that she makes her own Indian sweets because it's the only way to control the sugar. Occasionally though, she craves gulab jaman, which she picks up from the Ambala down the road. The milk-fried doughnuts are soaked in sugar syrup and served with cream or ice cream.
Sodha enjoys kulfi too, which is like a denser, creamier Indian ice cream. Her own version uses salted jaggery, an unrefined palm sugar which she gets from a Pakistani shop in Walthamstow. But you can buy it from Amazon too, she adds.
I try a piece of jaggery. It has the texture of stale fudge but a toffee, tangy sweetness that melts on my tongue and tastes like dates.
"I melt it until it's almost burning, because that's where you get the good flavours from,"explains Sodha. "Then add cream and evaporated milk to the mixture and a pinch of salt, and the jaggery and that's it! Then you just cool it down and pour it into the kulfi moulds, and two hours later, you have something thrilling."
With my mouth full of fudge and jaggery, I wholeheartedly believe her.