BBC Good Food Magazine
Emma invites the actor, writer, producer, and star of Unforgotten into her kitchen and cooks his twist on a Mumbai classic street-food dish
Our columnist meets actor Sanjeev Bhaskar, who cooks his take on a Mumbai dish
When I was growing up, the difference between the Asian and British cultures in my life was the thickness of our front door
I’ve admired Sanjeev Bhaskar since he changed the nature of mainstream broadcasting 25 years ago with Goodness Gracious Me. I’ve known him since he acted in Notting Hill (a movie I script-edited) and I appreciate him for the amount of time he’s devoted to Comic Relief over the years (the charity I work for). But, until he came to my home with a special recipe he created for BBC Good Food and we ate (and talked, and talked, and talked), I hadn’t realised he is also the greatest of humans.
Emma: The recipe that you’ve created for us – why did you choose this?
Sanjeev: It’s my version of pau bhaji, which is a classic dish in Mumbai. It’s a staple street food because, effectively, you can make it from leftovers. I like it having so many consistencies – there’s a crunch to it from the vegetables, sweetness from the aubergine pickle, softness from the pau buns, tang from the lemon juice and depth from the pau masala. If this dish was a personality, it would be a sparkling character you really liked who loves telling great stories. What more could you want from your lunch?
E: Your parents are Punjabi. Tell me about them. S: My mum and dad both lived their childhoods under the British Raj. The Partition took place in 1947 when Dad was 16, and all Hindus and Sikhs had to move from the new Pakistan to the new India. Dad ended up in a refugee camp in Delhi. After the war, Britain was rebuilding, starting up the NHS etc, and the UK just didn’t have enough manpower. So, 10 years later when Enoch Powell sent out a letter for children of the former Empire to come to Britain to work, my dad moved to the UK.
E: You grew up in Hounslow – how did you find it? S: Growing up was mostly embarrassing and awkward. I just wanted to fit in. For the whole of my schooldays, there were only about three kids who ever came around to the house. When I was 10, I was playing with a bunch of white kids I didn’t know. One of them said, ‘What’s your name?’ and I said, ‘Steve.’ Then, over the next half hour, they kept shouting ‘Steve!’ but I didn’t respond. When I realised, I just thought, ‘This is ridiculous, I can’t do this.’
E: What food did you have when you were growing up? S: It was all over the place. At home, it was mainly Indian food, though my mum would occasionally make a shepherd’s pie or pizza and ‘Indianise’ it. And then at school, we got all the regular traditional British stodge, mostly with powdered mash.
E: So your home life had a Punjabi culture and your school life was very British – were the two worlds quite separate from each other?
S: The difference between the cultures was about two-and-a-half inches; it was the thickness of our front door. On the inside, there were different rules, morals, tastes and smells, a different language. Outside that front door, it was completely different.
E: In effect, you lived in two countries? S: Yes, and one of the things that connected those two countries was television. Sitting down with my family to watch The Saint or Star Trek or Top of the Pops, that was the bridge between the two, my portal to possibilities. And I started to think it’d be amazing to be part of that, the world of making that stuff up.
E: Were you popular at school?
S: The end of the 70s was a socially troubled time – racism was quite overt and the National Front were marching; in fact, they tried recruiting outside my school. At 15, the white kids that I’d known for years were suddenly not being particularly nice to me, and the Asian kids weren’t being nice to me because I wasn’t condemning the white kids as I just couldn’t understand the whole ‘taking sides’ thing. So my immediate world seemed utterly unstable.
E: How did that affect you?
S: I think as a teenager I had to reassess the phrase ‘my people’. I realised my community was not about the colour of my skin or my religion or where my parents are from, because none of those things were reassuring to me at that moment in time.
E: Did you always want to act?
S: When I was five, I told my dad that I wanted to be an actor and he said, ‘It’s pronounced “doctor.”’ I never acted at school, my parents never went to the theatre – for them, cultural activities could only be hobbies. ‘We can watch it, but we don’t do it.’ So, that idea of acting being a real possibility for me just didn’t exist. But, my passion for those stories was there from the beginning.
E: In that case, how did you end up with a career as a writer, performer, comedian, actor, producer?
S: I did a degree in business and worked in marketing. But, when I was 30 I had to sue the company where I worked for breach of contract, which took two years to sort. During that time, I couldn’t get a job. So, I rang Nitin Sawhney, a friend I’d written some sketches with
at university, and said, ‘Let’s perform that material.’ We created a show in a little fringe venue – it was my first time on stage – and it got a great review in Time Out, which meant some BBC producers came to see it. That show ended up becoming Goodness Gracious Me, all because of the litigation. It’s such a weird outcome.
E: It was the first ever British-asian sketch show and it changed the history of broadcasting in the UK. In what ways did it change your life?
S: Everything changed. But, most crucially, I finally ended up meeting creative people. I thought ‘Oh, we speak the same language – the language of debate and creativity, empathy and discussion.’ So, at last, in my 30s, I realised, ‘These are my people, this is my community.’
E: It’s a huge change of direction to have in your 30s – did you adapt to your new life easily?
S: I really struggled with the bit of fame that I got early – I just didn’t know how to deal with it. I’d felt like a failure since I was a kid and carried that sense of failure around with me. So, even when things started to go well, I thought, ‘That’s an aberration because I’m the guy who doesn’t do well.’ It was only when I bought my flat with money I’d earned as a performer that I first thought, ‘Oh, wait – there’s now literally concrete evidence around me that I didn’t fail.’
E: Youhaven’t stopped for 20 years and had so many extraordinary roles. What’s your relationship with your work like?
S: Meera (Syal, Sanjeev’s partner) says I’m jammy – that I don’t worry about work, I just seem to get it. The thing is, I never expected it. I don’t think I’m owed it, so I basically live in a place of gratitude. It’s the feeling of gratitude that actually keeps you stable, because the contrary is the phrase ‘It’s not fair.’ Once you go down that path, it’s something you can’t correct.
E: Do you think the gratitude you feel is partly because your career started so late and that it hadn’t actually been your plan?
S: I often think about my bedroom wall when I was 14. Our flat was cold and horrible, above a launderette in Hounslow, but on the wall I had pictures of The Beatles, Elvis, Monty Python, Roger Moore, Clint Eastwood and Elvis Costello. When I think about how many of those people I’ve met and how many have become friends, I think, ‘The universe owes me nothing; I’ve been given more than I ever deserved.’
• Sanjeev will film series five of Unforgotten next year.
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red
Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.
Sanjeev’s pau bhaji
SERVES 6 PREP 35 mins COOK 20 mins EASY V
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp butter or ghee, plus 2 tbsp
1 large onion, finely chopped
½ tsp asafoetida powder
½ tsp grated ginger
1½ tsp grated garlic
1½ tsp chilli flakes
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp pau bhaji masala (available from specialist
Indian shops or online)
225g mixed-colour cherry tomatoes, chopped
2 tbsp tomato purée
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped
2 medium potatoes, boiled, cooled and coarsely mashed 170g cauliflower florets, boiled until al dente
and broken into bite-size pieces
1 large handful of frozen peas, defrosted
1 large handful of frozen sweetcorn, defrosted
½ tsp garam masala
1 heaped tsp aubergine pickle handful of grated cheddar, plus extra to serve
2 tsp lemon juice handful of coriander, roughly chopped, plus a few leaves
to serve brioche burger buns, split, to serve
1 Heat the oil in a large, flat pan with 1 tsp butter or ghee and fry the onion and asafoetida for 8 mins until the onions have softened and browned. Add the ginger and garlic, mix for a minute, then add the chilli flakes, turmeric and ground coriander. Mix for another minute. 2 Mix in the pau bhaji masala, tomatoes, tomato purée and 20ml hot water, then stir in the red pepper. Add the mashed potatoes, the cauliflower and another 350ml hot water. Simmer the mixture for about 5 mins.
3 Tip in the peas, sweetcorn, garam masala, aubergine pickle and 2 tbsp butter or ghee, mix well and cover for 2-3 mins. Season with salt, then mix in the cheese.
4 Stir in the lemon juice and the chopped coriander, then cover and cook for 2 mins. The ‘bhaji’ should be the consistency of a thick soup Add a little more water to loosen if needed, but not too much. Toast the buns in a hot pan, cut-side down. Fill the buns with the bhaji, more cheese and the coriander leaves.