World on a plate
SITTING in a lovely kitchen in a Highland town that straddles the River Lossie, listening to the story of two North Indian sisters and their journey of flavour and authentic home-cooking, was a surreal way to spend a weekend.
Manjinder Deshi-Dhami (Manju) and Sharanjit Deshi (Sharan) both moved separately to Scotland a couple of decades ago. They carried with them endearing memories of their father’s cookery and a wealth of North Indian culinary techniques.
Sharan moved to Elgin from a tiny village in the state of Shahpur, Uttar Pradesh, with her then husband. And, some years later, Manju did the same, leaving behind their parents.
I was lucky enough to meet their mother, who told me how wonderfully peaceful their little village is: “Everyone lives together in harmony and celebrate each others’ festivals together.”
The Deshi sisters grew up in a home where, unusually, their father cooked all the meals and, as Manju recalls: “My mother was really spoilt, as Dad did all the cooking.”
The sisters grew up watching and helping their beloved father in the kitchen, learning the fundamentals of cooking North Indian cuisine. “We were told how you heat the oil, add the spices, wait until it is time to add onions then wait until they are cooked before adding other ingredients.”
A farmer by birth, their father much preferred driving trucks and cooking for his family and others. They remember fondly that many ladies from the village would bring over their ingredients for their father to make them mango achar or semolina ladoo (round sweets). Their home was always filled with people, food took centre-stage in their lives, and all this revolved around their father.
The Dhesi sisters were happy in Scotland until their father passed away early in 2009. Suddenly their whole lives felt empty and they felt lost in this country now this strong pillar in their lives was no more. They struggled for a while and then realised the way to carry his memory was through the flavour he had taught them.
Then, about 2011, determined to be strong for their mother and find inner peace, the Deshi sisters began to cook the recipes they grew up with and had learned from their father, not only for themselves but for other people, by going to homes and catering for dinner parties.
Their aim was to cook together, share their passion for North Indian food, family recipes and memories of their childhood and their father with others. This helped them feel close to their father, even though he was no longer with then.
“When we cook,” say the sisters, “we don’t talk to each other, we both do different jobs, but feel like our father is talking to us through our cooking, telling us how to make the recipe the way we watched him cook, carrying his flavours through us and keeping us on the right path.”
The Deshi sisters also host cookery classes in Murray College and Oakwood Cookery School and their catering operation is called Authentic Indian Kitchen, which they feel clearly defines their food: authentic.
Sharing their knowledge of flavour and memory is a deep passion and doing so doesn’t feel like work, they tell me sisters say.
We spent the morning sharing stories of the flavours of North India that I recognise, as my father’s family was also from Uttar Pradesh.
The cooking styles I learnt from my Dadi (paternal grandmother) were so similar to the ones the Deshi sisters teach. We laughed and shared the ideas of cooking by “andaza” (estimation and sensory cooking), the resulting difficulties in recipe writing and the fact no two people can ever replicate the same recipe exactly.
This has to do with the “weight of the hand that is measuring spices”, the sisters say; different hands will change the way the recipe tastes, even if it is merely a little. Growing up, I was told by my grandmothers that each person has their own “haath may mazza” (flavour in one’s hand), which results in this subtle change of flavour in recipes.
The two sisters say they plan to one day open a restaurant but, for now, they are content sharing their flavour with others in this way. They admit they can not cook without each other. Sharing their father’s love of cooking, creating dishes close to their hearts with others and remembering him fondly through this process is what keeps them happy, positive, but most of all, helps preserve his legacy of flavour. Special thanks for Ghillie Basan and Manju Deshi-Dhami and Sharan Deshi Authentic Indian Kitchen, Elgin: http://authenticindiankitchen.com Sumayya Usmani co-presents BBC Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Cafe. Her books, Summers Under The Tamarind Tree and Mountain Berries And Desert Spice are out now, published by Frances Lincoln Visit sumayyausmani.com