A Life In Food


‘I think I’ll go for the self-catered accommodation…’, I say to the girl next to me as I push a grey mush of mushrooms and cabbage around my plate. It’s 2005, I am eighteen years old and I am attending a university open day, where the catering neatly demonstrates my frustration with dreadful vegetarian food. I have always been vegetarian; I have eaten some disappointing meals and find that my food choices can be a great way to bring out the stupid and ignorant in people.

At school I discovered a new world of food beyond my mother’s cooking. A world of brown, of unpleasant foreign smells, of boiled vegetables, drowning in more brown. Of bean burgers, of chips and salad now supposedly being a meal, of horrid plates of boiled lentils. Apparently this was what vegetarians ate. Things have improved since but I still eat an awful lot of risotto. Whether dinner party, Michelin starred restaurant, wedding or Wetherspoons, it is always risotto. I like risotto but sometimes I’d like something else please. I am not talking about a portobello mushroom filled with sweet potato mash. I do not consider this to be a proper meal. (While we’re here, I’d like to add a note to the wedding caterer I spoke to: Welsh rarebit is cheese on toast. IF I WANTED TO SERVE CHEESE ON TOAST TO MY WEDDING GUESTS, I’D HIRE A TEENAGE BOY WHO HAD JUST LEFT HOME. I was under the impression you were a professional caterer. Maybe you could take a peep at the 870 million vegetarian recipes that pop up on Google.)

I grew up in a religious community where everyone was vegetarian. It feels normal to me. Growing up, there was endless, amazing food. I don’t think my mother ever stopped cooking. She made bread, and the smell filled the house. She made delicious yoghurt which we ate all summer. She would make big batches of samosas to take with us when we visited friends and everyone who came through the house would be fed.

We spent a lot of time at the temple. Most of all I remember the kitchen. On a Sunday or for a big festival, well over a hundred people would need to be fed. The kitchen never stopped, never stopped deep frying. I remember the hubbub, the warmth, the tempting smells. Enormous vats of milk were turned into great discs of paneer, chopped up and fried. Puris or chapattis rolled by the dozen, puffing up pleasingly as they cooked or perhaps the Mancunian would make potato stuffed parathas. Savoury pastries were filled and folded, samosas or kachoris. Maybe pakoras if rolling pastry was too much for that day. Great vats of subji were hauled out of the kitchen to feed everyone, along with dal and lemon rice studded with peas and cashews. Then came the dessert. Kheer or saffron-laced shrikhand, gulab jamuns, warm and bathed in a sticky rose flavoured syrup, buttery halava and an enormous cake big enough for everyone to have a piece.

Sometimes people ask me what we ate for Christmas dinner. Christmas is a festival, a gathering, so we went to the temple and ate what we ate on every other festival, as described above. I don’t feel any attachment to a traditional Christmas dinner or Sunday roast. It’s all a bit alien to me. My Linda McCartney bake is inferior, you tell me. But you told me this was the appropriate substitute. Why did you give it to me then? Should I say I’m enjoying it even though it’s supposedly a bit rubbish? It might be rude to criticise your approach to cooking; boiling vegetables and covering them in brown to go with your slices of grey-brown that smell funny.

I get asked so many questions. Have I ever tried meat? Am I not dying to try it? Do I live on Quorn products? Have I really always been vegetarian? Do I really get enough protein from my diet? I feel tempted to roll up my jeans and let you feel my legs; my sturdy calves that prevented me from finding knee boots that zipped up as a teenager. Maybe next we could discuss if you felt I’ve grown properly and I could invite you to comment on the ample embonpoint that announced itself one day when I was 12.

I don’t mind the questions so much. It’s the rudeness and ignorance that bother me. It usually starts with the jokes. I am prickly but you would be too if you’d eaten as many mushroom atrocities as I have. It may then be followed by some genuine rudeness; perhaps you’ll point blank refuse to eat my cooking or tell me why I’d be an irresponsible mother if I fed my imaginary future children a vegetarian diet. I’m not convinced that you’re actually joking at all if you are so scathing.

I’m also puzzled. I grew up in an ex-council house in Belfast. I used to read my dad’s Sunday Times and imagine living in London, where I’d do exciting cultural things with broad minded people in a diverse world city and I’d just blend in, in an unremarkable way. I’m intrigued that you’re so interested, that you find such novelty in life choices different to yours, your inability to comprehend that my life experience isn’t the same as yours, that there might be a world of rich experiences you’re not familar with. I would fear coming across as ignorant, were I to express such attitudes. When I moved to London to embark on another Russell Group degree, started reading the Guardian (such a lovely Ottolenghi column), began buying Emma Bridgewater mugs and hosting dinner parties where I invited people to brûlée their own creme brûlée with a culinary blow torch, I expected more of the affluent, educated Home Counties middle classes.

A part of me wonders what I’d be like if I did eat meat. I certainly wouldn’t trade my chapatti making mother for one who fed me fish fingers. Would I lose all my culinary expertise? Would I refer to béchamel sauce as lasagne sauce? Would I Ioudly crow about the inadequacies of diets different to mine before revealing that I am unable to tell the difference between olive oil and balsamic vinegar? Would I throw away the sambar masala, the curry leaves, the kala namak, the ras-el-hanout and the nigella seeds? Simply be happy with jars of Uncle Ben’s sauce? Would I give away my cookbooks – clear the shelves of Yamuna, Ottolenghi, Meera Sodha, Kurma and Anna Jones? Deride any food that requires culinary effort because I could just eat chicken instead? Would I be rude about unfamiliar food, like a child, turning my nose up at vegetables? Would I ask my hosts if they were vegan, as they produced a warm camembert from the oven?

In case you’re wondering, I once accidentally ate some chicken from a food stall on Brick Lane. I promptly requested a refund and took my custom elsewhere. I was underwhelmed. It was kind of chewy and well, meh. Based on people’s enthusiasm for chicken and disdain for vegetarianism, I had half expected the earth to move and for my mind to be blown. That I’d suddenly see that my palak paneer WAS lacking all along and that everything needed to contain chicken from now on, that in Beyoncé’s words, I’d had a taste of the honey and now I wanted the whole beehive. But I didn’t. I went and bought a falafel, fresh from the fryer, wrapped in warm bread and doused in hummus and tahini which I got all over my chops.

My dad turned sixty in August. We had a party and at his request, I made potato samosas with two types of chutney – date&tamarind and coriander. I made dal, a recipe given to me by a Gujarati lady in Edgware and rice with cinnamon bark and a bay leaf. I made matar paneer, a must for any special occasion, garnishing it with fresh mint. I made puris, rolling them out on the kitchen table and watching them puff up in the wok of hot oil. I let the yoghurt hang for two days and added cardamom, saffron, rose water and pistachio to make shrikhand. The saffron turned it a pleasing shade of yellow. I served the gulab jamuns warm in ramekins of rose syrup. My guests suggested that they didn’t need chocolate cake on top of everything else – I ignored them.

After lunch we sat in the garden, the leftovers boxed up for packed lunches the next day. Surrounded by friends and family, slightly too full, with a kitchen that smelt of coriander, deep frying and rose water, things were exactly as they should be.

(The photo at the top was taken at the Indian Tiffin Room in Leeds, which I whole-heartedly recommend. I was amused to note a handful of reluctant, token non-vegetarian options on the menu. We ordered the thali and were delighted with it.)