How I travel… as a top chef
The chef, food writer and Ready Steady Cook star Romy Gill MBE on her adventures in Kashmir, how she learned to cook hotpot and dining with Yotam Ottolenghi
It was my love of Bollywood films that gave me the idea for my new book about Kashmir and Ladakh. I grew up in a small town called Burnpur in West Bengal, where the only phone was in the little hospital. We were the first family in our street to have a black-and-white television, which was like a huge wooden drum. People from the whole town would come on Sundays to watch Bollywood movies. The ones filmed in Kashmir would always involve people dancing around trees in the snow. I used to love watching those films. I would dream about white mountains – and I always wanted to go there.
In 2017 I went to Leh in Ladakh to write an article for a magazine. I was gobsmacked that the food was so different there and it made me want to go back. In November 2020, I went to do a recce to research my book and this spring I went again for longer. Kashmir has the best apricots in the world and April is when you can see the apricot blossom. There are blue-green rivers flowing through the valleys and all through the mountains near Kargil is the beautiful blossom. We saw lynx near the China-Pakistan border, wild tulips in Srinagar and ate with the Kashmiri Bakarwal shepherds.
Food in India isn’t just ‘Indian’ – it’s very regional. In India people look different, their religions are different, the languages are different, rituals are different and food is different. In Kashmir there is the cuisine of the Muslims and the cuisine of the Kashmiri Pandits, who are Hindu. Rogan josh is a Kashmiri dish but, when you eat it there cooked by Kashmiri Muslims, it is totally different to anything you can get in an Indian restaurant in the UK! Pandits don’t use onions or garlic in their cooking, their main flavourings are fennel seeds, turmeric, yoghurt and the bright red dried cockscomb flower.
Scotland was where I learned to cook shepherd’s pie, hotpot and bubble and squeak
Travelling to places as a chef, I always want to know the recipes for what people eat at home and the food served in the restaurants, and what the history of that food is. We visited the floating markets of Dal Lake in Srinagar – on boats called shikaras made of willow tree wood. You have to get there at about five o’clock in the morning and they sell flatbreads called lavasa, which they eat with kahwa tea, made with cardamom, saffron, ground almonds and other spices. The Bakarwal shepherds made me a sabji dish from nettles, slightly similar to a spinach saag, but I never knew Indians ate nettles. Everything seemed to open my eyes.
When I was young, we only ever travelled in India. My first trip abroad was when I came to England at 22. It was such a culture shock. You leave your family, your friends, your culture and the food you grew up eating. I couldn’t get a lot of ingredients in the supermarkets – only in the Asian shops – and I didn’t drive so I had to pick whatever was in the local shops and adapt the recipes. I went first to Southall in London, then my husband and I moved to Scotland. I remember crying because I couldn’t understand the Scottish accent, but Scotland was where I learned to cook shepherd’s pie, hotpot and bubble and squeak from a neighbour in Livingston. Eventually we moved to Thornbury, near Bristol, where I opened my restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen.
I travel a lot for my job. I was invited to New York by The James Beard Foundation to cook a vegan dinner for 100, which was an honour. I love exploring the different boroughs in New York and their different cuisines. I always feel like I learn something when I go there: how to cook a proper steak or prepare Korean barbecue food. My favourite restaurant in New York, apart from a tiny pizza place in SoHo, is Chinese Tuxedo, which is Cantonese food done in a very modern way. The first time I went there was with Yotam Ottolenghi (who I’d met when he was in Bristol for the BBC Food and Farming Awards some years ago) and the food blogger Clerkenwell Boy. We had a wonderful dinner and discussed our heritage, culture and favourite foods. I would go every day to eat there if I could.
Wherever I go in the world it’s all about where I’m going to eat and I’m never scared to ask the chef how they cooked the dish. I went to Greece last year and ate in a family-run restaurant that I loved so much that the next day I rang and asked if I could come and cook with them. I said, “If you teach me something Greek, I’ll teach you something Indian.” As a migrant or an immigrant you take a culture – the food, the language, the knowledge – with you to that place. As Anthony Bourdain said, “The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”
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