World on a plate

Sunday Herald Life - - FOOD & DRINK - By Su­mayya Us­mani Fol­low Su­mayya Us­mani on Twit­ter @Su­mayyaUs­mani

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://au­then­ticin­di­ 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 su­mayyaus­

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