Why Nigella Lawson wants to visit India and cook for you
In an exclusive chat from her home in London, the queen of food porn reveals that her name is the English word for the Indian spice ‘kalonji’brunch Updated: Nov 18, 2017 22:00 IST
Nigella Lawson is so quintessentially British that it is hard to imagine her in an Indian kitchen. The Queen of Food Porn (as she has been dubbed by the international media) has almost always been seen in her own beautifully resourced kitchen on her television shows, flirting with ingredients, and using tongue-in-cheek euphemisms to make regular, everyday food so sexy that it would make any censor board deeply uncomfortable (not to mention ravenous).
Yet, fabulously fit after losing a couple of kilos (and unfortunately a few of her curves), Nigella, the 57-year-old cookery show presenter and author, says that her kitchen would not be her kitchen if she did not have cumin (jeera) and lime pickle on her shelves.
She is clearly also familiar with many more Indian ingredients, pointing out with a grin that her name is the English translation of the Indian spice kalonji (nigella seed), and that as a citizen of a country where Indian food is the most popular takeaway, it’s hard not to know what it is – and what it can be. That explains why there are so many India-themed recipes in her books, including her latest, At My Table, which celebrates the magic of home cooking.
Food and geography
To know what Indian food can be, however, Nigella knows she must visit India. She has no immediate plans to visit the country, however, she’s a huge fan of the UK-born cookbook author Meera Sodha.
Her other favourite recipe books are by food and travel writer Madhur Jaffrey – in fact, Madhur’s recipes were the ones Nigella cooked her first Indian meals from.
“As a cook, it really helps if you are following a recipe written by someone who understands the geographical and other constraints in which you are cooking,” says Nigella. Having eaten Indian food at restaurants in the UK, and in the homes of friends of Indian origin, she knows that any cuisine taken out of its home country will be different from the original. “The produce in the UK cannot be the same as you’d get in India, for example, but I’m keen to learn what I can,” she says.
If she were to visit India, then, Nigella would do her best to be invited to homes. “I always seek home cooking,” she says. “I know that certain areas in India have certain culinary specialities, and I really want to be able to travel and taste the food of each region – and I very much hope to be able to sample proper family food, too and, I hope, come back having learnt to cook some of it!”
“AS A COOK, IT REALLY HELPS IF YOU ARE FOLLOWING A RECIPE WRITTEN BY SOMEONE WHO UNDERSTANDS THE GEOGRAPHY YOU ARE IN. THE PRODUCE WE GET IN THE UK CANNOT BE THE SAME AS YOU’D GET IN INDIA”
In particular, she wants to learn “how to make all those wonderful breads.” While she did once learn to make chapatis, she didn’t practice enough to be proficient at it. Which means on this yet-unplanned India trip, Nigella will have to limit the number of Indian breads she wants to make so that she’ll have the time to properly learn the techniques, “and ensure I have time to practise until my hands know how to make them by themselves!”
For now though, Nigella is grateful when her Indian friends share their family recipes with her, because aside from the fact that such recipes are truly original, they also instigate other recipes. “I’m often inspired by Indian cooking even when the recipe itself isn’t in itself Indian,” says Nigella. “I’ve got a very simple dal in At My Table, which is very much an interpretation and not an authentic Indian dal, and I’ve got an Indian-Spiced Chicken Traybake, which is not remotely Indian, but I wanted to use and celebrate those wonderful flavours.”
So a simple tray of cubed potatoes and chicken thighs is gorgeously enhanced by the addition of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, nigella seeds, turmeric and garlic. And a fabulous sandwich can be made with any leftover chicken by mixing it with some mayonnaise, mango chutney and garam masala.
It is rarely just one spice working alone, but the interplay between a few as they mix together in the pot that makes cooking so magical, says Nigella. “Still, having said that, I’d have to say pretty emphatically that I would not want to have to cook without cumin in my kitchen,” she says. “I don’t think I’d ever let that happen, though! Its rich, earthy, almost-citrusy savouriness lends itself to so many dishes from so many cultures.” She’s even used the humble jeera in her baking, as proved by the recipe of a plain, but aromatic Cumin Seed Loaf Cake, and she’s obviously fond of kalonji.
Cooking for Nigella is about confidence. Which is why so many of her TV shows and books target the nervous-in-the-kitchen neophyte, as well as the argh-cooking-takes-too-long food-takeaway addict.
So she spends a lot of time perfecting her recipes to make them reliable and understandable. “I have to have absolute faith in the recipes, and know that the reader can, too,” she says. “And because I know that the recipes work, I feel confident that someone who doesn’t cook could follow the steps easily.”
At My Table features several recipes for the cookery-challenged. “For instance, I have a Chicken and Pea Traybake, which is absolutely effortless,” says Nigella. To make it you just open a big packet of frozen peas, slice some leeks and mix them on a baking tray along with some seasoning, garlic and oil, sit some chicken thighs on top and roast in an oven.
Her Emergency Brownies and Lemon Tendercake are similarly designed for cooking novices. All the ingredients for the brownies are mixed and then poured into a foil tray and baked, and the eggless Lemon Tendercake is fantastically fuss-free too. Just stir the ingredients together, pour into a tin, shove in an oven, and then, once the slightly fluffy cake is baked and cooled, top it with coconut milk yogurt and a blueberry compote.
“But you have such fantastic fruit in India, that you could top with that if you wanted,” says Nigella. “I haven’t tried it with mango, but I imagine it would be wonderful!”
At My Table is similar to Nigella’s other cookbooks in voice, her feelings about food and her palate. “But its structure is different,” she says. “I knew even before I wrote the book that I didn’t want it to have chapters; I needed it to flow freely.”
“I LOVE INSTAGRAM. BUT THERE IS A CERTAIN KIND OF COOKING, HOME COOKING, WHICH TASTES WONDERFUL, BUT ISN’T PHOTOGENIC”
So while there’s no overarching narrative or theme, the recipes tell the story. “I’ve always believed in the importance of home cooking. And by home cooking, I mean what it is to be a home cook,” she says.
Two of her favourite recipes from the book are the Butternut and Sweet Potato Curry and Coriander and Jalapeño Salsa. “The reason I’ve put them together here is that while making the television series, and after the book was finished, I happened to be making the curry for supper, and had made the salsa to eat first, with some tortilla chips to dip into it. The next day, I heated up some curry for myself, and topped it with a dollop of the salsa, and the two were just so fabulous together, I’ve served them like that ever since,” she explains.
The curry is a happy mix of ingredients from her kitchen and is very much part of her love affair with fresh turmeric!
Her favourite desserts include Vanilla Layer Cake with Ermine Icing, which is a family treat meant for celebrations first made for her daughter’s birthday two years ago, as well as the Rose and Pepper Pavlova and the Sticky Toffee Pudding.
Better than sex
You can almost imagine her pausing and thinking for a few seconds, before impishly adding her No-Churn Salted Caramel Ice Cream, which is oh-so-fabulous with the Sticky Toffee Pudding, and for a moment, even though this interview is not conducted in person, you are drawn into her Queen of Food Porn persona, something she says comes naturally to her.
“My shows are not scripted at all. That was something I insisted on from the very beginning. And when I think back, I feel very grateful that I was allowed that freedom, because I really don’t think I could work from a script,” says Nigella.
Of course, she thinks about what she’s going to say beforehand. “The director says ‘Action!’ and I start cooking, and I talk my way through it, explaining what’s happening, saying what comes into my mind,” she says.
Because of that, she’s sometimes drawn into social media controversy, as she was this September when she said, “Instagram can make a cook despair.” “I love Instagram,” Nigella defends herself. “But what I was saying simply was that there is a certain kind of cooking, home cooking, which tastes wonderful but isn’t photogenic.”
She’s so right. What really matters about food is how it tastes.
From HT Brunch, November 19, 2017
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First Published: Nov 18, 2017 22:00 IST