I was born in London, but was raised in Essex, where we moved when I was three years old, but my heritage is rather more exotic. My dad came to England in 1961, amid the Windrush generation arriving from the West Indies. He is descended from indentured workers brought to the Caribbean from India after the abolition of slavery. My mum arrived here in 1956 with her parents, having been raised in the Indian subcontinent. Her father was in the British Army during the years of the British Raj and was now returning home. My parents met, married and started a family in South London, before moving to Billericay, for reasons I have never yet had fully explained.
For them, the culinary journey of discovery was the exact opposite of that travelled by English people of the time; having grown up on a diet of spicy food, curries, breads and exotic fruits. They had to adjust to the traditional English fare of Sunday roasts, fish and chips, apples and pears, fried breakfasts, pies and suet pudding. The one common denominator was a love of drinking tea. As a youngster, I remember being dragged to various friends and relatives houses and being sat on the carpet, while ladies gossiped, nibbled slices of Battenberg and sipped tea from china cups and saucers. It was accepted practice back then to tip a little tea from the cup into the sauce and sipping it from there. It’s many years since I last saw anyone do that in polite company.
My parents were keen for us to grow up fully integrated in English ways. A school dinner menu of boiled ham, boiled potatoes, boiled veg, corned beef, liver, chocolate sponge pudding, pink custard and those half-pint bottles of warm full cream milk you used to get at break time was a million miles from how my parents were brought up.
And so, at home our food tried to resemble a local diet. Of course, this being the 1970s, it meant the frying pan got good mileage. Sausages, beef burgers, fish fingers, chips, crispy pancakes and indeed anything else churned out by Bird’s Eye, Findus or Ross was out of the freezer and into the frying pan. Having a chip shop over the road only emphasised this! Notable exceptions being boil in the bag cod in butter sauce, pot noodles or pasta. I look back and feel for her, as she was keen to cook English food, but my old man would have much preferred to keep going on curry and rice. Mind you, he never had curry for breakfast, settling usually for Ready Brek and toast, though at weekends it was a paratha (pan-fried greasy flat bread) and fried eggs, which remains a treat for me every now and then. So a lot of the time, mum tried to keep everyone happy round the dinner table and quite often she would prepare meals that were hybrid versions of English and Indian cooking. Spaghetti Bolognese was one; the pasta was prepared in the traditional way, but the sauce was more Bombay than Bologna, containing chillies, coriander and garlic cloves?!? Chillies would invade everything and you had to be careful biting into any homemade burgers or sausages, as you might soon be gasping, in need of a glass of water. Cardamom pods were another minefield to be carefully navigated, as biting into one is a once in a lifetime experience. On Sundays, roast beef would come with two gravy boats, one had Bisto and the other had the sort of sauce that turned anything into a Madras. And there would always be a pile of poppadoms on the table, no matter what meal we were having. Of course, the poppadoms were cooked in the traditional fashion of being deep-fried, which is very rare in restaurants these days, but they taste much better fried. You just have to try not to think of the cholesterol levels.
Sadly, my mum is long passed away and the tastes and smells of those long ago days are now a distant memory, but if I feel a bit down, i just rustle up my favourite hybrid meal of paratha (left over from last night’s take away), smothered in strawberry jam and rolled into a cigar shape and I am eight years old again and all is well.