'I wrote a book about veganism because I was p***ed off that people don't understand the link between India and plant-based food'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Chef and author Romy Gill's food reflects her move from West Bengal to Gloucestershire, and her many travels across the lesser-known territories of India as a food writer.

In an interview with The Staff Canteen on the Grilled podcast series co-hosted by TSC editor Cara Houchen and chef Aktar Islam, Romy explained that deciding on the identity of her restaurant, Romy's Kitchen, wasn't too hard, as she knew it was going to revolve around street food. 

"My cooking, the technique and the flavour was always all about street food," she explained.

She creates dishes with South Western England ingredients, combining those ideas with street food she knew, came across and loved - think spicy crab and coconut pâté, or tamarind octopus with bengal Panch Phoron. 

Don't fear being unique

At the same time, she said, "you have to go back to your roots but not be afraid of creating something that's yours. I can't be [Aktar] or Atul or Cyrus or anyone else in the industry." 

"The food wasn't just about me," she explained. "It was about the taste."

"I wanted to give people the roots I grew up with. It couldn't be the food that was served in curry houses or anywhere else." 

Specifically, Romy's food was a fierce challenge to the British palate's understanding of the diversity of Indian food.

"When people say Indian food... Please don't generalise about Indian food."

"It's important that we acknowledge that," she said, "years ago we would have said 'Indian food' without knowing that we speak different languages, we look different, we have different rituals, cultures." 

Just within the state of Punjab, for example, there are dozens of different dialects and cuisines. 

She said:  I've been to the Himalayas, if you eat the food of Ladakh, if you eat the food of shepherds in Kashmir, it's completely different to when you go to the North East: the way they ferment pork, they hardly use any spices, their fermenting and pickling is completely different from any states of India."

"Now, people have started to understand that Indian food is very regional and the regions are very different to one another." 

"As a writer, I travelled to these places for ideas and then came back and incorporated that in my cooking, so that's why I was different."

"That's why a lot of food critics started to come in - because I was different." 

As well as being host to celebrity guest chef events, book clubs, whisky and wine tastings, this desire to draw herself apart from the other chefs cooking Indian food resulted in a lot of vegetarian dishes - partly because the Punjabi Sikh community eat mostly vegetarian food - and though it hit the zeitgeist, the chef is insistent that she never meant to chase hype.

'India isn't a country of veganism, but we cherish plant-based food'

"I was not going to write a vegan book," Romy said, referring to her 2019 cookbook, Zaika: Vegan recipes from India. 

"But after seeing all the pulled pork and this and that, I told my publishers, 'I really want to write a vegan book because people need to understand that India isn't a country of veganism, but we really cherish it." 

"There was no such word in India - and when I came here I didn't know what veganism was, we used to talk about vegetables or plant-based." 

"Indian food isn't vegan food, but we cherish plant-based food." 

"Growing up in India, especially in Bengal when my dad worked in a steel plant, we only had meat for celebrations or if somebody passed. 

"It was not every day. Even if there was a Thali - we had different dishes.

"I told my publishers that I want to write a vegan book because I'm fed up of people not understanding that Indian food is normally lentils, vegetables, paneer or tofu.

Rather than a response to the Western hype around veganism, she explained, "I was p***ed off, I was cross that people do not understand the link between India and veganism. India cherishes veganism."

Aktar pointed out that part of the reason why he no longer offers a vegan tasting menu at Opheem is that some areas of India do feature dairy products quite heavily in their cuisine and that making them vegan was somehow almost taking away from the essence and the spirit of the food that we're trying to represent."  

However, Romy retorted that "not everybody has ghee or butter every day because normal cooking is with normal oil." She explained that Indian food is organically vegetarian, and doesn't rely on substitutes or fake meats.

"We don't think about meat or veg, it just happens naturally to be vegan - so for me, so-called 'pulled pork' or making watermelon look like steak, things like that really annoy me." 

Astounted by the 'vegan chicken' contestants are given on Ready Steady Cook, she said: "Call it soy protein!

"Why do you have to call a product chicken when you say you're vegan?" 

"Vegan cheese has become huge, but forget it," she added.

"If you don't want to put dairy in your body, then don't eat it. That's what my book was." 

A homage to her mum who had recently passed, the book focused on the food they both grew up eating.

"When people talk about veganism, I think they have a completely different mindset to me,"she said. 

"A lot of punjabi, sikh people are vegetarian," Romy explained, as are a lot of hindus. 

"I just eat everything, I cook everything - I respect people, but it's what I put in my body, it's mine." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 12th May 2021

'I wrote a book about veganism because I was p***ed off that people don't understand the link between India and plant-based food'