Even as the conversation around food has begun to revolve around nutrition and diets, Amanda Clegg and Victoria Byrne have brought their book Hope and Spice, to India. At the launch event at the British High Commissioner’s at his residence in Delhi, they spoke about their experiences working with the not-for-profit Asha Community Health and Development Society.
The duo went into the not-often-spoken-about communities in 12 of Delhi’s districts — Seelampur, Trilokpuri, Mayapuri, Anna Nagar, Tigri, Peeragarhi to name a few — and documented how the women choose ingredients and cooked with limited resources.
Over 11 months, 100 women cooked for Amanda and Victoria, who recorded their conversations and documented the cooking methods. Their biggest takeaway: the realisation of the joy of community sharing.
“These are invisible women but have a vibrant food culture. The world would never have been able to hear their stories. As they spend a lot of time at home, food for them is a form of expression,” says Amanda, who has been coming to India every year from 2008, though her connection to the country goes back to when her maternal grandmother lived in Calcutta and her paternal grandfather worked in an oil refinery in Digboi, Assam, where her father was born.
Amanda says most of the home style Indian dishes can be eaten as a wholesome meal. “There is Dal Tadka and Allo Saag, Allo Tamatar, Bharta, which are eaten in Indian homes as a balanced meal. This is not what people in the West associate with your kind of food. So this is what we are popularising the world over,” she says, of the book that was launched in the U.K. last October and in America last month.
There are 64 dishes, mostly vegetarian, with text and images in this coffee table book. From Seelampur there’s biryani, qorma and kofta; from Kusumpur Pahari where a substantial number of South Indians live, there’s Lemon Rice, Fish Fry, Coconut Fish Curry. Bengalis, Malayali, Tamilians, Kashmiris, who have made Delhi their home over the years, have been featured. Excerpts from a conversation with the authors, who also took the pictures.
What factors helped you decide to write this book?
Amanda: For the past 11 years, I have been visiting Delhi to spend time with communities where Asha works. I love hearing stories of these women. I came to know how they were trained and encouraged to get their children educated. Back home, I work in food innovation and am a passionate cook. So I was curious to learn how these women with limited resources cook for their families. I have a family too in Britain and I wanted to have a conversation with these women about the domestic aspects of their lives. That is when the idea of a book was born.
Was seeing them cook in a tiny kitchen an eye-opener for you?
Amanda: Back home, we have such large kitchens with multiple equipment but they don’t have cooking skills. They rely on supermarkets. Here they work without equipment right from scratch taking the right blend of spices and creating vibrant dishes, which are fantastic. Although they don’t have resources, the food they cook is seasonal and really tasty. We can learn so much from them.
What are your favourites from Hope and Spice, and can you tell us the stories behind them?
Amanda: One of my favourite recipes is Mutton Kofta. It was from a lady called Pinky, living in Chandarpuri. Every woman came with one dish. She surprised me when she arrived with a tray of three dishes and a beautiful romali roti. Her creativity and passion for food was quite evident. We included a picture of her and her dish in this book. Like her, it was generosity of these women to have hosted us with food which they cook occasionally. It is a recipe that I cook regularly. My husband and kids love it as it can be cooked in half an hour. It breaks the myth that Indian food is complicated. It is really so tasty that it has personal favourite.
Victoria: For me it was spicy papad. In Britain we call it papadom. We loved watching how women make flat breads. They are dexterous with their hands. Ramkali, a grandmother from Jeevan Nagar Ashram who never cooked outside her family, made Besan Papads for me. We don’t make flat breads back home. The next day, Ramkali sent a pile of papodams wrapped especially for us to take with us home.
What is the common thread that runs through all the 12 communities?
A change has come about in their lives. As we work for Asha, we organised pot luck lunches where everyone brings something. Women learnt that the roti they brought with them is the same as the roti made by other ladies, who don’t live in their locality. Normally, they were not sharing lunch with ladies of other castes. They now have a sense of community feeling and even share cooking tips with each other.
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