Chef and author Meera Sodha at home in London. (Tom Jamieson/NYT)
Maybe my mother and grandmother should have been the ones to teach me their repertory of satisfying vegetarian dishes from Gujarat. But they never measure or write anything down.
So instead, I learned to make my everyday comfort foods – dals seasoned with fried garlic and spices, lively single-subject vegetable dishes – from Meera Sodha.
Meera, 35, has written two cookbooks with cult followings, and recently started writing a column for The Guardian about vegan cooking. Though her recipes take inspiration from all over, they express what Meera describes in her latest
book, Fresh India as her own Gujarati sensibility: “creative, fresh and always vegetable first.”
On a trip to London, looking for a cooking lesson, I met Meera at her home in Walthamstow, where we rolled chapatis side by side as her Airedale terrier trotted around the kitchen. My chapatis were slow to come together, imperfectly shaped, but Meera was a patient instructor.
While researching vegetarian dishes for the book, in India, she had run into cooks who wouldn’t share what they knew, who had said she couldn’t possibly replicate their food at home. But one of Meera’s gifts is that she can not only recreate and improve on the familiar – she can also streamline techniques and edit flavours, then clearly instruct others how to do the same. Meera showed me how to make bharela ringan, the baby eggplant cooked until thoroughly tender, with a mixture of blitzed coconut, peanuts and chillies inside. It wasn’t as time-consuming or as complex as my grandmother had led me to believe.
By the time I got back to Brooklyn, I wanted to make Meera’s vegetarian recipes part of my weekly routine. I started with her basic moong dal, and graduated to her quick-cooking dal made from red lentils and finished with coconut milk, served with a pile of tender kale on top.
To make her summery recipe for a Gujarati corn-on-the-cob curry, a simple sauce of yogurt thickened with chickpea flour, I hunted down the sugary corn that made its way to Brooklyn markets in mid-September.
Stranded with two small heads of broccoli and no inspiration, I turned to her recipe for malai broccoli. Her adaptation of the cream sauce was a lean, bright and intensely delicious update: a mix of ground almonds with cream cheese and Greek yogurt, spiked with nutmeg and squished into every last crevice of the broccoli florets. Roasted on high heat for about 20 minutes, the mixture became golden brown in places, and the broccoli charred, expanding its flavour.
Meera got the idea after trying a similar dish in Goa. “You know when you realise what you’re eating is just so magnificent, and there’s a sort of rip in the atmosphere?” she said. “My brain started racing and I thought, how do I make this?”
Back in her London kitchen, she tinkered until she figured it out. “To develop a recipe, I have to trust my tongue,” she said.
In Fresh India, Meera traces a line from the variety and sophistication of seasonal Gujarati cooking back to the 3rd century B.C., when the emperor Ashoka banned the slaughter of animals. The region’s vegetarian cuisine has flourished over many centuries, and as families have left the region with their foods, they have adapted their dishes in new homes all over the world.
Meera’s grandfather and great-grandfather left India for Uganda. When her parents were exiled from that country in 1972, along with many thousands of Ugandan-Asians, they settled in England.
Meera was born and raised there, in a farming village in Lincolnshire, down the road from fields of potatoes and rainbow chard. She watched as her mother took to these new local ingredients and rearranged them like a musician. Meera came to understand how spontaneity, resourcefulness and the ability to adapt define good home cooking.
Andaz is a Hindi word meaning “style,” and to say a cook has andaz is a great compliment, Meera said. Some people may use the term to mean a gift for making a dish one’s own, or the ability to make food with a special harmony. Meera describes andaz as a kind of knowledge, particular to a cuisine that is rooted in oral tradition, that can only be learned through observation and apprenticeship, mistakes and repetition.
“It’s a sense of judgment that’s built up through doing,” she said.