Indian made effortless
‘The tails of prawns are such a beautiful orange colour that it is far better to leave them on,” says Anjum Anand, the woman dubbed the Indian Nigella Lawson following her popular BBC TV series Indian Food Made Easy.
The closest I usually get to cooking Anand’s coconut and mustard prawns is making the sorrowful fish-finger sandwiches laden with ketchup I eat on a regular basis. Anand is attempting to haul me out of my food rut, a dark place littered with chocolate wrappers and empty Coke cans.
It isn’t that my mother didn’t cook Indian food. I remember her plucking the beady eye from pilchards, rolling roti and mixing spices but “you smell of curry” was a common insult in Manchester playgrounds in the 1980s, so the aromas did not make my mouth water but rather my blood boil. Although my single mother had a job, Indian food also seemed to represent a woman tied to the kitchen, duty bound. My fish-fingers, I thought as I brandished them aloft, would fend off any pigeonholing of me.
Now that I am a little older and beginning to suffer from lack of vegetables, I am keen to eat more healthily and learn more about my culinary heritage. It is changing attitudes such as mine that ensure Anand attracts the “brown pound” as well as a mainstream audience. “People ask me if [British] Indians buy my book, and of course they do. We were out there like everyone else, at university, and didn’t really spend time in the kitchen with our mums.”
When it comes to food, says Anand, we have shot ourselves in the foot. “We go to the gym to be healthy. We take vitamins to be healthy. But eating healthy food does most of the work for you.”
Anand’s popularity is largely due to the way she adapts traditional Indian recipes to help fit cooking good food into a hectic, modern lifestyle. “I don’t want to be in the kitchen for two hours making a vegetable stew, which is what my mother would do. I cook like someone of our generation. I lighten everything. I freshen everything,” she says.
Her television series and upcoming book, Anjum’s New Indian, aims to reveal the healthy aspects of Indian food and promote the diversity of regional dishes, eroding the preconceptions that she was surprised to discover on returning to England aged 15 from Switzerland, where she grew up. “I heard that stereotype of having a curry on a Friday night and I didn’t know what the hell it meant because, for me, Indian food is home food.” A “respect for ingredients” is her key philosophy.
Born in London, Anand dreamed of following in the footsteps of her businessman father. “I thought, ‘I’m going to do something with my life. I’m not going to be a housewife like my mother and her mother’.” After the age of 12 she never spent any time in the kitchen and went on to study business at university, ending up in a job she hated. “I saw myself living the rest of my life in this office. It was soul-destroying,” she says.
It was when Anand was trying to lose weight that she taught herself how to cook the food her mother used to make. She found that it was an activity she “absolutely loved” and began to write about it. She didn’t give up in the face of 30 rejections from publishers, and says that it was her tenacity, naivety, luck and sheer love of food that pulled her through. “Every time in my food career when I think it’s not working or it’s too slow, something keeps me at it.” Her first book, Indian Every Day: light, healthy Indian Food went on to sell more than 30,000 copies. Her last book, Indian Food Made Easy, toppled Harry Potter off the Amazon bestseller list.
“I’m happiest when cooking,” she muses, as a scrumptious scent spreads and my stomach rumbles rudely. “I love pottering about, looking at fresh ingredients. When I’m cooking I feel at peace. I feel contentment. It’s calming, methodical. You’re not trying to solve global poverty, you’re just chopping coriander.”
It is soon time to test the fruits of our labour. The coconut, coriander and mustard awaken taste buds I never knew I had. I dream about hosting a dinner party where there is not a fish finger in sight for, next, I shall attempt Keralan salmon wraps, followed by Goan prawn cake and perhaps then some battered Amritsari sole.
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