Interview: Meera Sodha

Categories: Features

Meera Sodha on how history, family and identity are essential to a dish

Words: Clare Finney

Smelling a pomegranate. Reaching the height of the stove. A moment of intimacy with a parent. Every professional cook has their Damascus moment, but there can’t be many who, like Meera Sodha, experienced that epiphany in the greasy light of a Brick Lane curry house.

“I remember it very specifically. I came to university in London, and I went to Brick Lane with some friends—not because I knew it was real, but just in that sense you might stray into McDonald’s when you crave a burger. But when my friends turned to me and asked ‘what shall we order?’, it dawned on me they thought this was actually what I had grown up eating.”

Horrified, she rang her mum, demanding the recipes for the food they really ate: black dal makhani; vegetable sambar with coconut and tamarind; sausage and potato curry—a tribute to her Lincolnshire upbringing.

Generations of knowledge
“But I don’t have any recipes. I have never written anything down,” Meera’s mother explained. “If you want to learn, you’ll need to come over and watch me.” Suddenly fearful that generations of knowledge might be lost through her ignorance, Meera booked the next train home.

The result, after five years, an economics degree and a stint working in marketing, was her debut book: Made in India. Within each dish lies a potent story of immigration, persecution, hard work and home.

“For the first 18 years of my life I’d eat dinner with aunts, uncles and grandparents, and I’d never think how it got there—how we got there,” exclaims Meera. “But when you’re cooking it’s different: understanding each dish is important, and as I spoke to my mum I found out things I’d never have known.”

Salmon and spinach curry
Her mum’s salmon and spinach curry, for example, was devised largely to accommodate the kids’ love of salmon. “Of course it’s not Indian when I think about it,” Meera laughs. “We don’t eat salmon there!”

A plantain dish her mum had always cooked, matoke, was another adaptation—inspired by the food eaten by Asians living in Africa during the early 20th century. “I learnt so much about what my grandparents ate in poverty, about their life in Uganda then Lincolnshire. Now every time I cook these dishes I feel connected to generations long gone.”

She thinks of her grandfather in Uganda, forced to abandon a thriving empire of businesses and flee to Britain when Idi Amin turned on the Asian community, expelling them from the country. She thinks of her grandmother, and her constant creativity in applying the principles of Indian cooking first to Ugandan, then to British produce.

Home and security
“When everything is changing, your food is a grounding: eating the food you grew up with gives you a sense of home and security.” As in other immigrant communities, age-old methods were fiercely preserved—to the extent that when visiting India, Meera found people there more open to change than at home.

“In Mumbai you’ll find people far more open to using, say, pre-prepared spice blends instead of making their own” —a move unheard of in her family. That said, even those modernists in Mumbai would draw the line at generic ‘curry powder’. “No Indian uses curry powder,” says Meera.

Though mentioned often in the recipes of some of Britain’s most eminent chefs, Meera remains suspicious of the way it bypasses the nuances of Asian spices. “You lose all idea of what black pepper can do when used as a spice, or why cumin and coriander work. I feel a bit frustrated by it, to be honest.”

As English as spag bol
Yet for all her curry powder criticism, she is “absolutely delighted” that chefs are adopting and adapting Indian cuisine. “I love that a chicken curry feels as English as spag bol does.” Say ‘sag’ to the average man on the street and he’ll—well, he’ll look at you strangely, but he’ll know it’s an Indian dish with spinach.

“Britain has had a relationship with India since the 1600s so perhaps it’s not that surprising, but I still think it’s pretty impressive,” she says proudly. “We just need to broaden horizons. But I do think people are looking for more authentic food.”

Hence that Brick Lane epiphany. If Meera’s “bright, intelligent uni friends” thought that the food born of the sailors from Bangladesh who settled in Brick Lane and adapted their own dishes to the English palate was ‘Indian’—well, she had work to do.

Critically acclaimed
“My plan initially was to print the recipes I’d written and show them around friends and colleagues. Then a guy in IT suggested I meet his wife, a book publisher”; the result was a critically acclaimed book.

This was no mean feat. Beyond rolling the odd chapatti, Meera’s childhood was spent being told to “get out the kitchen and do your homework”. Coming back four years later, she had to learn almost from a standing start. “I’d ask mum what quantities she was using and she had no idea. It was such a natural process to her.”

Using baby formula spoons—“regular teaspoons don’t fit inside our traditional spice tins”—Meera’s mum cooked instinctively, throwing things in the pan with abandon. “She knew how to balance flavour—to taste as she went, and adjust accordingly. That was one of the most important lessons she taught me: to taste as you go.”

Level teaspoons
Meera made her use level teaspoons and watched every process, noting how the dish looked and tasted. “Learning this way, I developed an understanding of spice and the combinations that proved really helpful when it came to the book.”

Our conversation turns to her famous wooden spoon: once her mum’s, now Meera’s. Dented at one side through years of being thwacked on a saucepan, it sums up the mentality of her family when they arrived in the UK.

“They made do. They used everything—every leftover scrap went into another dish—and it’s cooked so many meals for us. Two a day for 20 years!” she exclaims proudly. “That spoon is my most precious object. I even pack it with me sometimes,” she tells me seriously. I glance at her bag, half expecting a wooden handle to be peeking out—but it’s at home resting.

Sodha family form
“I’ve spent the morning recipe testing. This second book has been more challenging as I’m working with some veg I’ve not used before.” Though applying Indian principles, she is following Sodha family form in using what’s available in her local area.

Though Meera hates the word, the new book will technically be vegetarian and feature recipes from other regions of India, as well as Gujarat. “There are more non-meat eaters in India than in the rest of the world put together. That’s a lot of ideas—but it’s still daunting.”

A second book is tough—like that musical cliché, the ‘difficult second album’. “You want it to be good enough to sit on a coffee table, and good enough to get sticky and splattered with use.” That’s a tall order for even the most experienced food writers, but Meera is no stranger to hard work.

This is the woman who went from complete novice to respected food writer in just a few years. She’s from a line of serially successful men and women who have risen from rags to riches several times over—and she’s exceptionally talented. It may be there aren’t many cooks who’ve been converted by a Brick Lane curry house, but Meera is no ordinary cook.