It’s vacation time. And in today’s age of exactness, distinctiveness and the need for specificity of experiences, a vacation is no longer just a vacation. It’s a specific kind of tourism, and tourism comes in a variety of forms.
For the wealthy and middle-class, there is adventure tourism, wildlife tourism, cultural tourism, educational tourism, medical tourism, historical tourism, and religious tourism, to name a few. For others, it’s simply native tourism. Native tourism is where you take an annual trip to your native place to meet your wife and children and celebrate the fact that your wife is pregnant with your fourth child, though you haven’t met her in months.
But my kind of tourism, of course, is the gastronomic kind. I never actually set off with the idea of planning a trip with food in mind, but by the time I leave the shores of Mumbai and board the plane, my eating plans are almost always searched, researched, booked, and frozen.
But I’ve got a confession to make. After a week of travelling and eating the best food in the world, I start quietly craving and hankering for Indian food. Maybe it is the spice and pungency that my desi palate is so accustomed to. I normally start off looking for a good Sichuan restaurant and then work my way up to some Thai food, Malaysian food, and then completely surrender myself to a “foreign-cooked Indian meal”. It is most often quite disappointing, but vaguely satisfies some emotional need, even if momentarily, over an actual gustatory one.
So, when I actually do encounter the food of a great Indian chef in a foreign land, I gush with admiration and feel an overwhelming sense of fraternity, kinship and community. Like a Floyd Cardoz of Tabla in New York and White Street fame, or Vikas Khanna (who seems so grounded like he never left India for New York), or Sriram Aylur of Quillon, Karm Sethi of Gymkhana or my dear friend Manoj Vasaikar of India Zing, both in London, or the extremely clever skills of Gaggan Anand in Bangkok. I know they are like a soothing balm in my travels — a home that I can always go back to.
But this time, I made a friend in the small market town of Thornbury in South Gloucestershire, a few miles out of Bristol in England. A true to heart and form “Punjabi kudi” who grew up in Bengal. She’s Chef Romy Gill. She runs a small eatery called Romy’s Kitchen on the picturesque main street of this sleepy town. And don’t be mistaken by her small town credentials. She’s bouncing all over the place, be it pop-ups in fashionable London digs or cooking demos at a Salmon Whiskey festival in Northern Ireland. She’s what I call a chef in boots. That’s because she’s the only chef I know who slaves in her country kitchen herself, with bright red lipstick in a tight pair of jeans and knee-high boots.
I’ve known her for nearly eight years now, and she’s a real go-to, when you miss a good home-cooked Indian meal. So, on a really cold morning, I stepped into her eatery, which is painted in shades of olive green and festooned with just the right amount of Indian things. Along with a glass of local apple cider beer, I happily dug into her crab cakes — spicy desi-style crabmeat with masala, pan-fried crisp. Samosas stuffed with mince and some stuffed with potatoes. A Bengal-style goat curry, which was a welcome relief from all the lamb you eat when you are out of India. Indo-Chinese paneer, which was paneer cooked Chinese style, with onion and garlic and panch-phoron (east-Indian spice mix of cumin, mustard, methi, kalonji seeds and fennel), served with tamarind and apple chutney and a Rajasthani laal mass, made with wild boar.
The meal just made me want to give her a big warm hug, which I did. Of course If I had it my way, after giving her a big hug I’d give her a bloody Knighthood, or shall I say Damehood. But hold it, she just got one. Yes, my dear Romy has just been awarded with an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Here’s to her, and to all my favourite Indian chefs, in faraway lands.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar