The South Asian dishes these women love and make over and over again

With history at the heart of many South Asian dishes, Stylist spoke to three women about the connection they feel to the food they grew up making.

There’s something about food and the effect it can have on us that goes far beyond the taste.

It has the ability to bring people together, from families and friends to entire communities –not to mention, it’s one of the few times we take our attention away from the various screens that run our lives to sit down and communicate, eat and enjoy one another’s company.

This sense of community that food can create is one of the key elements to South Asian cuisine, with many growing up enjoying a colourful selection of dishes while being surrounded by family and a sense of belonging – something which is passed down from one generation to the next.

“Asians, we show our love and affection through food,” says Lorna Nanda Gangotra, owner of The Little Indian Kitchen and star of Netflix’s The Big Family Cooking Showdown.

“Growing up, I would always see my mum cooking and a lot of my childhood memories are associated with food and family.”

For Gangotra, Indian dishes that were made from scratch in her family home like dal – a popular lentil-based dish – shaped much of her upbringing and continue to inspire every facet of her life, from her children to her career.

“My food is of the utmost importance to me and I instil that in my young children as well. I’m so passionate about it that I left my corporate career to turn my passion into my profession 13 years ago and continue that with The Little Indian Kitchen.”

Author and Great British Bake Off contestant Chetna Makan also grew up in a familial environment where cooking homemade Indian dishes further highlighted the importance of close bonds and the way food can play a role within that.  

“Indian food is all about that love in the kitchen and working together,” she says.

“But it’s also about helping. You get to cook together and have this sense of community in the kitchen.

“That speaks volumes about food when we are creating everything from scratch; everyone’s chipping in and there is never anyone left in the kitchen alone.”

Dishes like macher jhol – a traditional Bengali fish curry – to the rich and creamy chicken bharta are truly ancestral. There’s beauty in the way it’s passed down from one generation to another and how it represents loved ones coming together and sharing in this collective tradition that has been maintained for centuries.

“None of my family recipes are written down as my gran and mum cooked instinctively, but one dish I make quite often which tastes similar to my mum’s is Anjum Anand’s tadka dal,” says freelance writer Seetal Savla.

“It’s really easy to make and makes me feel a little closer to home whenever I make it.”

For the women who enjoy eating and making these meals, it serves as a reminder that there’s so much more to the food we eat way beyond the satisfaction that passes our lips.

And while we may enjoy food for a split second, it can last forever – and it’s key that it is remembered in the way it was intended.

The Indian subcontinent is home to an array of spicy and saucy dishes from various regions, but they are often grouped under the generic term “curry”, which is popular in the west.

For those from South Asian communities, the word curry does little justice to these deeply rich meals and strips them of their true identity when they are labelled as one.

“It’s great to see people embracing and enjoying our cuisine. That said, I dislike the generic use of the word curry to describe a very wide range of different dishes,” says Savla.

“There are so many varieties and that diversity gets diluted when we lump them all under one name.”

According to historian Lizzie Collingham, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Indiain 1498, and by the 1500s, they’d set up a post in Goa and saw what Indians were eating.

Collingham claims the natives would reply using a word like khari or caril – words used to describe the spices used to season a dish, as well as the finished dish.

The Portuguese became the first to start using curry or caril to refer to Indian food – a term which was picked up by the British and eventually became the generic term used to refer to the food Indians eat.

The sweeping generalisation even resulted in a recent call to ban the word, with food blogger Chaheti Bansal urging people to “cancel the word curry” due to its roots in British imperialism. 

While Gangotra says she’s “open to change and mixing cultures and food,” she feels it’s important for people to understand and identify the different dishes and not “group it all together.”

“Different regions have different names for curries, with their own flavours, spices and styles and it’s important to acknowledge that.”

This co-opting of South Asian dishes and putting them under one homogeneous term is something that many are fighting to correct – after all, it really is so much more than food.

“South Asian food is not just about the food,” says Gangotra. “It’s the atmosphere, the environment and everything in between.”

If you’re looking to try a new dish, check out these delicious recipes from Chetna Makan and Lorna Nanda Gangotra below

Chetna Makan’s tamarind aubergine curry

Chetna Makan Tamarind aubergine curry

Ingredients

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

pinch of asafoetida

2 onions, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon chilli powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

200ml (7fl oz) water

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon tamarind paste

1 aubergine, cut into fingers 5–7.5cm (2–3 inches) long

½ teaspoon salt

2–3 tablespoons sunflower oil

Method

To prepare the aubergine, place it on a plate, sprinkle with the salt and set aside for 10 minutes.

Heat the oil for the curry in a pan, add the asafoetida and let it sizzle for a few seconds. Then add the onions and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes until golden.

Heat the oil for the aubergine in a large frying pan.

Pat the aubergine fingers dry, add them to the hot oil and cook over a high heat for 2 minutes until golden.

While the aubergine is cooking, heat a small frying pan, add the fennel seeds and dry-roast over a low heat for a minute.

Use a pestle and mortar to crush them.

Add the crushed fennel seeds to the onions and cook for a minute. 

Stir in the ground spices and add the fried aubergine with the measured water. 

Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes.

Stir in the sugar and tamarind and cook over a high heat for 5 minutes until the sauce thickens, then serve.

Chetna’s 30 Minute Indian by Chetna Makan is published by Mitchell Beazley (£20)

Lorna Nanda Gangotra’s pork sorpotel

Lorna Nanda Gangotra’s Pork Sorpotel

Ingredients

1 kg boneless pork (with some fat on it) – I use pork rump

1/2 kg pork liver

1 green chilli – slit lengthways

1 small onion – quartered

2 teaspoons salt (add more or less to taste)

2 cups water

For the masala paste:

20 Kashmiri chillies – deseeded (soaked in water for approximately 15 minutes)

3 tablespoons crushed ginger

3 tablespoons crushed garlic

15 black peppercorns

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

10 cloves

3 inch stick of cinnamon

1 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons oil

2 medium onions – finely chopped

Method

Place pork joint in a large pot along with onion, salt, chilli and 2 cups water.

Cover the pot and parboil the pork for approx. 20 mins or until tender, add liver during last 10 minutes and parboil too.Drain and keep the stock aside for later use

Whilst pork is parboiling, combine all the masala paste ingredients together in a food processor or Nutri-bullet and keep aside

Next, finely dice the pork and liver

Heat up a pan, add oil and fry the diced pork and liver in batches to get a little colour

Add some oil into another pan and add the 2 finely chopped onions and fry until golden brown

Add the masala paste and meat stock and salt to taste

Bring to the boil and then lower the heat to simmer the sorpotel

Stir frequently and cook until it thickens

Serve with basmati rice and/or Indian breads

For more from Lorna Nanda Gangotra, follow her on Instagram: @lornanandagangotra and @thelittleindiankitchen

Images: Getty; Chetna Makan, Lorna Nanda Gangotra; Seetal Savla

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