Meera Syal is one of my favourite humans. Not only is she a brilliant actress and stunning novelist, but she makes the best vegetarian biryani I’ve ever eaten.
Her culinary skills were taught to her by her mother, Surrinder, who lives with her in north London. We talked about her mum’s rural Indian childhood, and Meera cooked me her signature dish. Her husband – comedian and actor Sanjeev Bhaskar – took the photos.
Emma: How did your mum become such a great cook?
Meera: My mum grew up in a small village in the Punjab, and her family were farm owners so they cooked whatever they had picked that day. They didn’t have fridges, ovens or kitchen appliances, and never wasted anything. Mum grew up making her own butter and yogurt, and the whey that was left over was mixed with spices and drunk as a health tonic, or used as a conditioner for hair to keep it shiny.
When she took her father his morning tea, she would swing by the goat, grab the udder and squirt the milk directly into my grandpa’s cup before delivering it. As they didn’t have easy access to doctors or pharmacists, they relied on the medicinal and nutritional value of foods and herbs. They used ginger to help digestion, garlic for colds and blood thinning, nuts to generate warmth in the body in winter, and turmeric as a natural antiseptic, which was often mixed with warm milk.
E: She taught you that side of her food culture while bringing up the family in the UK?
M: She taught us all these things, so food was always important to us. It was how we kept healthy, but also it was soul-food for my parents as it was a way of keeping their mother country alive. It abated homesickness as well as hunger, and through mum’s recipes I learned about my family history and her childhood. Hopefully I keep those foods and memories alive.
E: How hard was it for her to cook when she first got to the UK?
M: Mum said that when they first arrived in the early 60s, trying to find garlic, ginger and black pepper was like trying to score crack. (She didn’t actually say ‘crack’ – that’s my analogy!) It was only when people from India set up their own stores that suddenly spices became available and saved a whole generation’s palates. If we had British or Italian food at home, it inevitably had an Indian twist – for example, we added pasta to curry sauce and topped it with chillies.
E: What were your favourite foods?
M: Like most first-generation Indian kids, I went through a stage of thinking Indian food was boring, and I begged for ‘proper’ food like fish fingers and chips. But mostly anything English on offer in the 70s was a shocker, at least where I grew up. I couldn’t believe how vegetables were boiled to within an inch of their lives and then presented with no flavouring.
E: What was your relationship with food?
M: I loved all aspects of it, too much. I got chubby around the age of 10 and stayed there for years (quite happily, it has to be said). I always found the transformation of a bunch of random ingredients into something that could make you cry with pleasure so fascinating.
Plus our social life, with my parents’ wide circle of Punjabi friends, was centred around food. Our kitchen became an assembly line of aunties cooking vats of curries and mounds of chapatis. We all ate in shifts; kids first, men, then women.
E: Was it always the women that cooked?
M: Yes – and it always rankled me that cooking was inevitably women’s work. The men would sit next-door playing cards and telling jokes, while the women fed the armies and ate last. I know it was the same for most people of that generation. That has changed, thankfully.
I find it bemusing that most famous chefs are men, whereas I think the really creative cooks are the women who transformed whatever was in the cupboard into three meals a day. That’s proper cheffing, not doing something fancy with a blowtorch.
E: You said that you can recognise your mum’s food by ‘flavour mix’ – how does that work?
M: Every family has their own flavour footprint. We could all probably recognise our family’s macaroni cheese or dhal from 10 others if doing a blind taster.
Maybe it’s because food is emotional as well as physical, and it comes with so many associations. In our circles, every auntie also has their own way of cooking. Because nothing was written down, all these recipes were remembered and handed down through making them. So if your family liked huge amounts of chilli in their dhal, that’s how you’re probably going to cook it (and wonder why your guests have their heads in the water jug).
E: Have you got family recipes that have been passed down through your family?
M: I wish my mum would write a book. I’ve tried several times to get her to transcribe her recipes, but it’s impossible because of the instinctive way her generation cooked their food. Forget about precise quantities – it comes down to a bit of this, a splash of that, cook until you feel it’s ready.
E: Is it important that you keep these dishes authentic?
M: I’ve definitely had to reinvent some, as we can’t eat the same amounts of fats or spices. They were tailored to people living very physical, oudoor lives, and in a different climate. Cooking has to evolve to stay relevant.
E: You’ve a great reputation for bringing bakes into the dressing rooms of shows you’re in.
M: I’m a feeder, I can’t help it. I think it’s one of the loveliest ways of connecting with people. I often practice my lines while I’m cooking as they seem to go in better when I’m doing something physical (hence the endless rehearsal room treats).
There’s a wonderful connection between the creative back brain and physical body that cooking releases for me. Or maybe I’m greedy and just grab any excuse for a cake.
Find the recipe for vegetable biryani in the July 2020 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.