Why British food writer Zoe Perrett loves Indian curries
Zoe Perrett with Pervin and Cyrus Todiwala of Cafe Spice Namaste in London
I first met Zoe on Twitter where she is known as @TheSpiceScribe. Her love for Indian food was infectious. I had rarely come across someone who is so curious about Indian food and loved talking about it.
A little digging around threw up a surprise. I found out that @TheSpiceScribe was not Indian, but a young British girl named Zoe Perrett. What made her interest and knowledge in Indian food was really fascinating. Then I realised that perhaps this was not so strange. London, after all, is where all the action in Indian food is happening with exciting new Indian restaurants opening up by the dozen.
I met Zoe later when I went to London and we got along like a house on fire. She is one of the warmest human beings I have come across. Her desire to learn about a food culture that’s not her own is truly humbling.
I had a chat with Zoe Perrett on what inspired her to start writing about Indian food, the challenges she faced and what keeps her going.
What sparked off your love for Indian food?
In all honesty, I don’t know! But I’ll try and offer some insight...
Although her remit was pretty staunchly British, I think my late grandma’s cooking was responsible for a sort of innate yen for Indian food. Nanny Win made rice pudding rich with tinned ‘Tip Top’ milk that imbued it with a flavour I recapture instantly with a bite of kheer, malai kulfi or milky bhurfi today. She used mutton (in the UK, referring to aged lamb, not goat) to make me savoury mince that was much like kheema with the masala missing; and cooked me egg-and-chip teas any Parsi would be proud of. In fact, I shared these memories and a recipe in her honour in Bawi Bride Perzen Patel’s ‘#BestKeptSecrets: Eedu Edition’ e-book.
As a child in England, my early encounters with Indian cuisine were inevitably the typical British Indian restaurant – or ‘curryhouse’ – offerings; ball-shaped onion bhajis and mild, sweet and creamy coconut kormas or ‘malayas’ (basically the very same thing with the addition of ‘exotic’ fruits like lychees or pineapple – or, indeed, both!) scooped up with wedges of naan or ladled over lurid tricolour pilau. In spite of a degree of evolution at the top end, this kind of cheap, pseudo-‘Indian’ food has been long interwoven into the fabric of almost all Brits’ lives – whether it’s a microwave meal, a takeaway, or a restaurant meal. In our household, Dad had often relished fresh shingaras and the like in colleagues’ homes, and loved authentic stuff, so the curryhouse cured his cravings to an extent!
One summer when I was a teenager, we embarked on an adventure exploring the myriad cuisines on offer in London; South Indian amongst them. Compared with curryhouse food (largely loose and sometimes rather avant garde interpretations of North Indian fare, and largely heavy, over-spiced, and underwhelming), it was a revelation.
But there was – and is – so much world food to discover here that any further exploration kind of fell by the wayside until much later, when, in my 20s, I realised that Indian cuisine somehow grabs me like no other. It simply makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, as though I’m tapping into long-forgotten memories – except I know, rationally, that these don’t exist!
In spite of such a long-winded answer here, I usually condense it into a nutshell and simply say; ‘the food supplies the tie the umbilical cord did not’.
How did you decide to write about Indian food? Who has been your biggest influence?
After leaving Uni, I was writing for a variety of food blogs and websites as I tried to pursue a career in journalism, and just ended up covering a lot of Indian topics as they were the assignments that piqued interest – spanning interviews, restaurant and product reviews, recipe posts and suchlike... earning me nicknames like ‘The Curry Queen’ (quite ironic as that word is one I’m not big on!) and a reputation amongst bloggers, PR persons and peers as ‘that white English girl who knows a lot about Indian food’.
My writing has always been quite personal, so I didn’t really have any guides or mentors as such - although Christina Walker (founder of sites including Mostly Asian Food and author of Capital Spice) has become a dear friend and is greatly supportive. Also, of course, my Dad, and the ‘extended family’ I’m so grateful to have in the form of the ‘Cafe Spice clan’ - Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala, Gina McAdam, and Nitin Kapoor. And my friend Nilanjani Pai, who not only knows more about regional cuisine that anyone I know, but will always give me a very straight-down-the-line opinion where needed.
What do you like about Indian food the most?
What do I NOT like would be an easier question. The fact that teasing the best from spices is complete art form; the richness and diversity of the endless cuisines of a country too many feel can all fall simply under the umbrella term ‘Indian food’; how a single ingredient or even just the way it’s treated can tie a dish to a specific place; the exciting and terrifying notion that in one’s lifetime they will barely scratch the surface of even one region or community’s cuisine, let alone the whole country’s...
How easy or difficult has it been to be seen as a credible authority on Indian food despite being British?
I’d say I’m starting on the back foot; as is anyone who comes to a cuisine with only enthusiasm and no inherent knowledge. But in my mind, ignorance is also a plus point – if you grow up with something, you often don’t realise how special it is, or question why things are done in certain ways; it’s easy to become a bit bored and blind to its merits. As a blank slate, I want to know it all!
It’s odd because however much I learn I know it’s a tiny drop in a vast ocean; but I realise when I talk to others about Indian food that perhaps I have got somewhere with my own quest for knowledge. Indians have told me I’ve inspired them to relish their own cuisine afresh and that my enthusiasm has sparked their own interest to dig deeper, and there is really little I could hear that would me as happy as that.
How open have Indians been to your writing about Indian food?
For the most part, massively supportive – if a little puzzled as to why I do so (which doesn’t help when, as I’ve told you, I’m not great as explaining my motivations) I’d say that, if we’re subscribing somewhat to stereotypes, Indians love sharing and they do so brilliantly – be it food, hospitality, knowledge, or strong opinions.. and I love having all those things shared with me.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share while covering Indian food stories?
Oh gosh – if it wasn’t interesting I wouldn’t still be doing it! Meeting you through Indian food blogging and sharing Vietnamese food in East London; introducing diners to new regional treats as front-of-house at Nilanjani Dilling Pai’s Damn Good Curry supperclubs; serving jhalmuri to 500 hungry folks out of the back of Angus Denoon’s The Everybody Love Love Jhalmuri Express van; meeting the legendary Manjit Gill at his Bukhara pop-up in London... and very, very many more.
Who are the Indian food restaurateurs that you admire? Name that one Indian restaurant in London, which is likely to wow Indians from India.
I think it’s hard to gauge what would impress; I guess it’s dependent on expectation – whether you’re impressed by a chef successfully recreating a true, undiluted taste of India in the UK, or redefine the cuisine entirely with clever, modern interpretations and fusion. Also, personally, I prefer small neighbourhood places like Thiru Annathapuram in East Ham – a very authentic, no-frills joint that my dear, dear friend and food sister Ashanti Omkar introduced me to.
Chefs I’d name-check who balance remarkable respect for authenticity with an interest in innovation are Alfred Prasad (ex Tamarind Collection, new venue in the pipeline), Ashish Bhatia (Turban Street Cafe), Palash Mitra (Scarfes Bar), and Gautham Iyer (Iyers in Cork, Ireland). Cyrus never stops innovating and championing British produce, but at Assado and Cafe Spice Namaste, you can get a pretty decent and unadulterated taste of Goa, Bombay, and Parsi cuisine. And down in Brighton, Kanthi Kiran Thamma is doing a sterling job introducing South England to South Indian cuisine.
Who are the Indian food writers you refer to?
I have over 200 cookbooks on various Indian cuisines, so there’s a wealth to choose from. Pushpesh Pant’s India is a magnum Opus, and of course one cannot fail to refer to Madhur Jaffrey. For Bengali food, Sandeepa ‘Bong Mom Cookbook’ Datta Mukherjee. For frank and entertaining commentary on India’s dining scene, Marryam Reshii – and yourself! For learning about niche street foods from a man obsessed, ‘Chowder Singh’ Mohit Balachandran. For Parsi cuisine and boundless enthusiasm on food in general, Perzen Patel, the ‘Bawi Bride’. For interesting recipes, Dassana Amit and Purabi Naha. And, all based here, Maunika Gowardhan, Meera Sodha, and Anjali Pathak present both authentic and modern spins on Indian cuisines from young, fresh, personal perspectives in their books and online.
What is the most exciting thing about Indian food in London?
If you dig in deep you can find regional, authentic fare from almost anywhere – you just have to know where to look. An increasing number of people are realising that and demanding more from Indian food than those curryhouse offerings I referenced, although of course that tradition has its role in British society. The dining scene here is incredibly dynamic at present; and the scope for sharing your cuisine as a streetfood trader, pop-up restaurateur, supperclub host, or start-up producers is endless. That shift is feeding a sort of revolution whereby people can finally present the food they’ve always wanted to, made as it should be – and, happily and largely, it receives a warm reception.
Do you have any favourite genres within Indian food?
Having dipped into lots of regional flavour palettes, I find that MY palate has an affinity with the food of Kerala and Bengal. I also love Tamilian stuff, and have a bit of a soft spot for Parsi food, which can be elusive but is luckily available here because of Cyrus Todiwala (and I promise, that’s not the only reason I befriended him!).
Can you share an Indian recipe you like to cook at home?
A typical quick dinner will just be some veggies; whatever’s to hand at home, shredded or roughly chopped and stir-fried till almost done. Then I’ll heat up some coconut oil, throw in a couple of chillies, some urad dal, mustard seeds, heeng, and curry leaves, crackle it all, and throw into the veggies with some grated coconut meat and salt, steaming it for a couple of minutes under a lid to let the flavours blend. There’s not much that method doesn’t taste great with, but shredded white cabbage, pumpkin, beets, or green beans are perfect. I’m also pretty good at kadhi and dal.