A few dishes make food writer Gurdeep Loyal feel nostalgic, but there’s one in particular that makes him go positively misty-eyed: samosas.
“It’s the classic Indian chaat snack – they have been present in every single family celebration,” Loyal says.
“Whether it’s a birthday, someone passing an exam, or someone moving into a new house – dare I say it, even when sad things happen, we will have samosas because everyone knows they’re the thing that will lift people up. So I feel very nostalgic about samosas.”
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t up for giving his own spin on the classic recipe. In his debut cookbook, Mother Tongue, Loyal makes new versions of some of the most-loved recipes of his childhood. “My samosas in the book are harissa, paneer, fennel seed and pistachio – so mixing in Middle Eastern flavours and paneer into my own take on a samosa.”
The remixed recipes don’t stop there. He’s given the British classic, roast chicken, a global interpretation with curry leaf, lemongrass and Aleppo pepper, and then there are the fishcakes.
“Something quintessentially British, which is fishcakes, which I’ve inflected with loads of Punjabi spices, which is from my culture, but then I’ve topped that with a Chinese smacked cucumber,” he describes. “I’ve inflected that with amchoor, which is a very Indian ingredient… That amalgamates all of those things which is what I am, which is British and Punjabi, but very worldly in terms of my approach to flavour.”
Now based in east London, the 39-year-old grew up in Leicester, and says: “I’m from a big Punjabi family of big eaters – the only way to be Punjabi. We have a culture that is based around food, and a family who lives and breathes food in everything we do.
“So a lot of the things we ate was my mum’s Punjabi home cooking – such as keema and tandoori chicken and lots of interesting curries, really buttery daals. It is salt, fat, sugar-heavy, and we are a big whisky-drinking family – as lots of Punjabi people are – so big, bold flavours, unapologetic with everything, very liberal in many different ways.”
And Loyal says he “didn’t really have a choice” but to help out with the cooking as a child. “It was very much getting involved, particularly because we are a family that has always put on quite big parties, quite big weddings, and these are big four or five day events where food is the epicentre of it.”
Loyal’s culinary adventures growing up weren’t just limited to Punjabi food. “We were a family who were very adventurous in terms of what we ate, and being from Leicester – which is a multi-ethnic city in itself, we used to eat Caribbean takeaways all the time,” he remembers. “All our friends and neighbours were from different parts of India, so while the food we ate at home was Punjabi, I grew up eating food from Bengal, Kerala, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
“It was really exciting growing up in Leicester because I got to experience all these sorts of different cultures, but equally, as with any kids, we loved pizza, pasta, burgers and American junk food – and our parents were really happy to indulge us, because they loved it just as much as we did.”
Despite an obsession with food growing up, he didn’t work in the industry immediately. He started his career as a management consultant, and “very quickly realised it was not something I felt passionate about, or could ever be passionate about”, so he quit to join a then-relatively unknown startup called Innocent Drinks.
At the time, Loyal remembers his parents asking, “What’s a startup?” but he never looked back. “It was the most exciting, pioneering company – in many ways, they changed the way consumers were spoken to.” He then became head of marketing for food, restaurants and wine at Harrods and spent some time as the head of futures trends at M&S, before becoming a food writer – he now has a monthly column in Olive Magazine exploring ingredients from all around the world.
Now, he’s releasing his debut cookbook – and he certainly didn’t go down the traditional route with his recipes.
“I think you can preserve your heritage by putting your own spin on things,” Loyal reflects.
“I wasn’t overly concerned with preserving things exactly as my mum did them, because she did them different to her mum, and her mum did them different to her mum – they all put their own stamp on things.”
But there were a few occasions where he’d ask his mother for a recipe, only to get an infuriatingly imprecise answer – causing Loyal to say: “When you say a handful, exactly what do you mean? Whose hand is it – my hand or your hand?”
With so many global flavours in the book, Loyal is conscious of appreciating, not appropriating, food – and he wants others to do the same.
“Appropriation is ultimately about one person in a position of power and using that power over a community. Have a think about what position of power you might hold over this community. Is there a legacy of colonialism, or is there a legacy of repression of one community to another?
“Just be mindful of that – I think it’s really important to engage with communities if you want to cook from their cultures, but also don’t be afraid of it. Don’t say, well I’m not Jamaican, I can’t use Jamaican ingredients… You absolutely can, but go and find out why those cultures are rooted to those ingredients. Why does Jamaican food have allspice and pimento and all these sorts of ingredients in it?”
Loyal recognises food can be “such an emotive and emotional facet to identity”, but says: “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out and be adventurous and curious. It’s about having a genuine curiosity and interest in the community you’re going to borrow from.”
Mother Tongue: Flavours Of A Second Generation is published by Fourth Estate, priced £26. Photography by Jax Walker
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