My Favourite Dish: Urvashi Roe
Tony Naylor chats to food writer, Urvashi about her favourite dish and the 5 key ingredients to Gujarati cuisine.
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love.
Born in Tanzania to Gujarati parents, Urvashi Roe, former Great British Bake Off contestant, food writer and tutor shares her love of snacks and comfort food that celebrates her cultural heritage.
See Urvashi's Vaghareli rotli (spiced rotli soup) recipe.
Urvashi's Favourite Dish
Food is, quite simply, a way of communicating, believes Urvashi Roe. It breaks the ice and gets people talking. “People form relationships around food, communicating something of their life and what they're passionate about. Every day, we break down barriers through food,” she says.
This explains why, at the same time as forging a highly successful corporate career, the 51-year-old works part-time as a cookery tutor, writer, stylist and recipe developer. A former contestant on The Great British Bake Off, Urvashi ran a community café in north London during a career break and recently published her debut cookbook, Biting Biting: snacking Gujarati-style (£20, Kitchen Press).
The book is an exploration of all kinds of tasty snacks, such as samosas, kachori and chickpea flour fafra crispbreads – known collectively as farsan.
Born in Tanzania (her Gujarati family left East Africa for London in the 1970s), Urvashi is a languages graduate who saw how food brought international students together while studying in Europe. She sees the book as her contribution to helping people get to know traditional foods from the Gujarati region. “At the age of five, coming from Dodoma in Tanzania to this alien city, London, was very stressful. I didn’t speak English well. I was very shy. We were bullied on the estate where we lived and then again at school. Food was my comfort blanket. I’d go home after school to the familiar smells of incense in the air and Mum cooking rotli, dhal and shaak – something I could relate to – and, in that way, home felt safe.
“At first, we lived in one-room spaces in Tooting and Southall. Our Hanwell flat was the first place where we could invite relatives over for jamvanu [dinner parties] and sleepovers. Everyone would cook their specialty dish and I’d stay up late with my cousins listening to Bollywood music and eating Mum’s epic mithee sev, a dish of buttery, sweet vermicelli cooked in ghee, toasted and softened in sugar and water, to which I now add double cream.
“I first learned to cook when I was eight. Gujaratis are traditionally vegetarian, and Mum taught me how to make shaak (a general term for any Gujarati vegetarian main meal) for my dad while she was away in Tanzania. All shaaks are made with the same core spices; mustard and cumin seeds are added to hot oil, then the vegetables, followed by salt, chilli powder, turmeric, cumin and ground coriander. That’s the basic recipe.
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“After my O-Levels (equivalent to GCSEs), I was taught to cook in earnest. I hated it. Knowing how to cook was ‘table stakes’; a way to ensure a future husband and his family would treat you well, and I was fuming that, while my friends were holidaying in Greece, every day that summer Mum taught me a new dish.
“It was later, while studying in Cologne in Germany and Aix-en-Provence in France, that I fell in love with food. For a time, it was all pasta and bread and cheese, or getting into the amazing food my Mauritian, Colombian and Italian housemates cooked. But when I got homesick, all I wanted to cook was Gujarati food. That’s when I was grateful for my mum’s recipes.
“These days, I often crave falooda, a rose syrup milkshake I discovered while visiting my dad’s home village of Rajkot. When I was pregnant, my poor husband had to drive me on countless journeys across London, day and night, to get my fix. My daughters are at university now but, if we go shopping in Wembley, they know the drill: first, falooda at Sakonis (sakonis.co.uk), shopping, then ‘biting biting’ snacks at Maru Bhajia House (maru-bhajia.com). Bhajia are battered, deep-fried snacks, such as onion bhajis, and Maru does the best potato bhajia.
“In Gujarat, nothing is wasted, and my recipe for vaghareli rotli (wholemeal flatbreads) uses stale rotli in a soup. When I was a teenager, Dad would eat this at weekends for lunch, quietly reading the paper. In winter, you might add ginger or garlic or ‘warming’ spices, such as cloves, star anise and cinnamon. You can even leave out the chilli and, in summer, add tomatoes, roasted vegetables or halloumi. Gujarati cooking is very modular like that. Whenever I cook vaghareli rotli, I melt into calmness. It’s a very restorative dish.”
5 key ingredients to Gujarati cooking
“Clarified butter, made by gently simmering butter and skimming off the impurities. You could use unsalted butter instead, but ghee gives a deeper flavour and silkier finish. In Gujarati culture, ghee is used in prayer, for health (to moisturise dry skin), and it’s mixed into the first mushed rice babies eat.”
“Also known as jaggery – concentrated sugar cane juice comes in blocks that you shave bits off. It’s the best sweetness.
In dhals, you sometimes use gor to balance the acidity, as you might add sugar to a tomato pasta sauce.”
“Nutritious, protein-rich chickpea flour. Used in [spicy, savoury] poodla pancakes, as the base for making deep-fried bhajia or
in sweet treats like mohanthal.”
“A Gujarati staple in dhals and more. I teach a pulses course at Demuths Cookery School in Bath, and it takes an hour to go through the pulses we use. Looking at my shelf, I’ve got 10 up there. My mum would have even more.”
“Another staple, whether boiled, used in desserts, such as rice pudding-like kheer, or ground into flour to make poppadums. Gujaratis use rice in many Hindu blessings. When we moved into our house, I put rice on the doorstep from sunrise to sunset so any evil spirits would be absorbed into it.”
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