Take in the Indian food shot above. The mutton keema is adapted from a recipe by my beloved Dishhoom, the paratha was bought in frozen, while the date and tamarind chutney and coriander/mint dip were both home-made. Star of the impromptu tiffin, though, is hidden under that tangle of radish sprouts. Step into the spotlight Gurdeep Loyal’s Punjabi Ranchero.
It comes from his Mother Tongue (4th Estate, £28) and follows the template of this utterly utterly distinctive cookbook, whose playful manifesto proclaims: “Food is a living form of culture that evolves: its boundaries are fluid, blurred, porous and dynamic… authenticity is an unending reel of culinary snapshots, an evolving spectrum that captures many transformative moments along flavourful journeys in generations of kitchens.”
So where we are at with this “second generation British Indian food writer and home cook, a descendant of Punjabi farmers and Leicester market traders with big appetites” is a dish such as this ‘Aloo Chaat Wedge Salad with a Pink Peppercorn Ranch Dressing’. Potatoes and chaat masala meet American iceberg lettuce dressing. His aim? To marry the “same splendidly kitsch garnishing skills as Indian street snacks” with the “Fanny Craddock meets breakfast buffet school of culinary arts.” Cue some ‘visual mood board’ fantasy about the iconic Fanny sporting a sari on Christmas Day!
Like all the 100 determinedly hybrid recipes in his debut collection, it works a treat. Hard to imagine in advance Gurdeep’s anarchically fusion take, Lasagne Rolls with Kasunda Keema (the recipe for which is at the end of this piece), but I was won over by his introduction to it. A charming, accomplished writer, he is as good on intros as tweaking traditional food styles.
“It was the daytime clubbing scene where the boundaries of bhangra and Asian underground were pushed, blending Punjabi folk music, classical Indian melodies and Bollywood anthems with hip hop, R’n’B, soul, dance and garage. I remember South Asian friends bunking off college on Wednesday afternoons, heels in their bags, to get to afternoon raves.
“Created by and for the diaspora, they served a generation of young adults, united by a need to party coupled with a need to be at home in time to make roti. I encountered offshoots of the scene much later, through the queer-desi night Club Kali and sporadic bhangra DJs that played Popstarz at the Apollo. Those 2am moments on the dance floor were rare times I could be every layer of my identity at once, illuminating with lasers what was often concealed by the code-switching of my life by daylight. Identity is like lasagne: each layer unique, but transformed when brought together as a whole.”
A professional level cellist, 39-year-old Gurdeep can’t resist peppering his food writing with musical analogies. Born in Leicester, he has pursued his passion for flavours across an eclectic career path that has included helping grow Innocent Drinks and exploring global food trends for Harrods and Marks & Spencer. All this while coping with plural identities as a British-born son of Punjabi immigrants. He recognises the irony of the title Mother Tongue when his mother will never have the English language skills to read it.
And, of course, there is another Loyal identity – as a gay man. It’s not the kind of memoir that dwells on prejudice and the struggles that brings. For that try The Go-Between by the equally flamboyant Osman Yousefzada (Canongate £14.99). He wrote: “My parents come from an underclass; they were illiterate and couldn’t read or write in any language.…they came from humble rural areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan and moved to the UK in the early 1970s to fill the low-level jobs no one else wanted.”
Much of his account is of a child perceptively exploring the confines of the immigrant ‘ghetto’ that was Balsall Heath, Birmingham and the restrictions on women, particularly his beloved mother and sisters. Eventually, he breaks through the barriers to reach university in London, starting his own fashion label (Beyoncé and Lady Gaga were clients) and more recently becoming renowned as a multi-disciplinary artist.
Brought up in America, another gifted gay writer Mayukh Sen trades less on his Asian descent (Bengali). His own breakthrough book of 2021, deals with the marginalisation of female voices within a patriarchal 20th century culinary culture. Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women who Revolutionised Food in America (Norton, £11.39) profiles cookery writers familiar to me on this side of the Pond – Italian champion Marcella Hazan and Indian Julie Sahni, restaurateur and recipe rival of the higher profile Madhur Jaffrey – but the remaining five were equally fascinating in their struggles to promote their authentic cooking styles.
These may seem yesterday’s battles when we now have a bewildering proliferation of cookbooks defining authentic cuisines of nations, even regions. And with one click online you can source multiple variants of one exotic recipe or other. In the midst of this tumult my tip is to seek out those second generation Asian writers who are not on repeat, who have loyalty to tradition but bend it to their own culinary will.
I’d first recommend the remarkable Nik Sharma, California-based molecular biologist/photographer/cookbook author and, a theme developing, also gay. Start with Saison (Chronicle Books, £25), then move on to the more challenging, science-based The Flavor Equation (Chronicle Books, £26) and perhaps his A Brown Table website.
In the UK women writers are to the fore. Sumayya Usmani blends an expectation-defying memoir and a contemporary take on her native Pakistani cuisine in Andaza (Murdoch £20). Meera Sodha’s Made in India and Fresh India (both Penguin Figtree, £20) are my go-to weekday meal gospels. Her story, too, is one of emigration. She was born in Lincolnshire to Ugandan Indian parents and the cross-fertilisation shows in a dish like a brussels sprout thoran and she is not too purist to promote a curry featuring a Lincolnshire sausage. On the fipside, I’m not sure how much beaching up in Coventry from the Tamil northern tip of Sri Lanka has influenced Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s recently restaurant Rambutan near Borough Market. Her cookbook of that same name is a retro look at the (delicious) family food she grew up with and its transformation in exile, while not shying away from the tragic sectarian strife of her homeland.
More recently another second generation Punjabi, Sarah Woods, in her Desi Kitchen (Penguin, £30), has charted the diaspora of a variety of regional Indian cuisines in assorted UK regions, again recognising the mutations of ‘authentic’ dishes. Ravinder Boghal, Kenyan-born to Indian parents, doesn’t even claim, in her Marylebone restaurant Jikoni and the cookbook of the same name to be remotely ‘traditional’. ‘Proudly inauthentic recipes from an immigrant kitchen’ is the sub-heading of Jikoni (Bloomsbury, £26).
I’m a big fan of Ravinder’s paneer gnudi with saag or clove-smoked venison samosas with beetroot chutney but, for the moment, I‘m loyally smitten with Gurdap. Oh, those Coconut Crab Crumpets with Railway Crispy Eggs (I kid you not), Tahini Chalai Chicken Wings, Hariyali Coconut Fish Pie, Miso-Masala Fried Chicken Sando, Desi Kofta Meatballs with Sticky Mango-Lime Tomatoes, Sweet Chilli-Gunpowder Roasted Cauliflower, and Chocolate-Orange Jalebis. Pure genius. Meanwhile, finally, lasagne as you’ve never known it…
Kasundi keema lasagne rolls
For the kasundi keema:
2 tbsp ghee
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed
1 tbsp black mustard seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
8 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
2 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
2 tsp chilli flakes
500g minced lamb (20 per cent fat)
2 tbsp Garam Masala (see page 23)
2 tsp fine sea salt
5 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
½ x 400g can of chopped tomatoes
For the cheese paste:
200g mature Cheddar cheese, grated
2 tsp cumin seeds, crushed
3 tbsp coarse semolina
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
For the greens:
200g cavolo nero, coarse stalks removed
1 tbsp English mustard
4 garlic cloves, very finely chopped or grated
4 tbsp lemon juice
For the lasagne rolls and tarkha:
10-12 lasagne sheets
500g jar of tomato pasta sauce
2 tbsp vegetable oil
30–35 fresh curry leaves
1½ tbsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp chilli flakes
To make the keema, heat the ghee in a large pan, add the onions and cook for 7–8 minutes until golden.
Next add the coriander, mustard and cumin seeds, cooking for another 2–3 minutes, before adding the garlic, ginger and chilli flakes. Now add the lamb, browning for 4–6 minutes before mixing through the garam masala and salt. Finally add the tomato purée, sugar and vinegar, along with the tomatoes. Simmer and reduce for 5–7 minutes, then set aside.
To make the cheese paste, mix all the ingredients together into a crumbly mixture.
For the greens, boil the cavolo nero in salted water for 5–6 minutes until tender, then blend with the mustard, garlic and lemon juice into a thick smooth paste. Add a little water if needed, then let it cool.
Preheat the oven to 200°C fan.
Cover the lasagne sheets with boiling water and leave for 4–5 minutes to soften a little. Slice each lasagne sheet down the middle lengthways, making 2 strips ready for rolling.
Take one pasta strip, spread with 1 tablespoon of the mustard greens, sprinkle over some cheese paste and finally add a spoon of keema. Roll up tightly into a snail. Repeat to form all the lasagne rolls.
Pour the jarred tomato pasta sauce into an ovenproof dish and tightly pack in the lasagne rolls. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for a final 10–15 minutes until piping hot and crusty on top.
Meanwhile, for the tarkha, heat the vegetable oil in a pan, then add the curry leaves, mustard seeds and chilli flakes. Sizzle for 1 minute, then drizzle over the baked lasagne rolls just before serving.