Romy Gill’s ‘Zaika: Vegan Recipes From India’ is all about creating big flavors with simple ingredients

A hand holding the book “Zaika” by Romy Gill, which has illustrations of various vegetables and fruits on a dark green cover
A hand holding the book “Zaika” by Romy Gill, which has illustrations of various vegetables and fruits on a dark green cover
Photo: Alicia Kennedy. `Zaika: Vegan Recipes from India` by Romy Gill © 2019 Orion Publishing Co.

“For me, to write this book was very, very important,” chef and writer Romy Gill tells me over the phone from her home in the United Kingdom. The book is Zaika: Vegan Recipes from India, and it is a homage to her mother and the way she grew up eating. She tells me that the idea that everyone in India cooks with ghee, butter, and other dairy products is a Western misconception. In her family, it was oil, and that’s why it was so important to her to make this a vegan book rather than vegetarian.

What she says is common throughout the many regions of India are the spices, though not necessarily how they are used. Something that is used whole in Bengali cuisine might be ground in Punjabi cuisine, and a spice used in cooking in one place will only be used in chutneys and pickles in another. In the recipe headnotes, she calls out the origins of the various dishes, and all of the recipes are easy, approachable and adaptable to what you have available. There’s equal attention to specificity and the ways in which these recipes can be applied to what’s in your kitchen, whether it’s noodles, rice, or the right flour to make roti. …

Vintage Veg

1981’s ‘World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking’ taught Western home cooks how to use spices other than salt and pepper

Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cookbook book cover is pictured, with an Asian-inspired font and illustration
Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cookbook book cover is pictured, with an Asian-inspired font and illustration
Photo: Alicia Kennedy

Madhur Jaffrey is the queen of Indian home cooking, a title she’s held for quite some time thanks to the numerous influential cookbooks she’s published. I have so many of her books that I’ve not actually used all of them, including World of the East Vegetarian Cooking. This is one that I just like to look at, especially for its kitschy illustrations that try to tackle the entire Western imaginary’s conception of the “East,” including the Middle East, South Asia, and onto Japan.

The book is a gigantic tome of 500 pages, first printed in 1981. By the time my copy, from 1998, was out, it was in its 18th printing. The illustrations are reminiscent of Anna Thomas’s The Vegetarian Epicure, bringing to mind a utopian hippie picnic in which every flag of the world’s nations is represented. …

Why does it often feel so fraught and judgy?

Two .5 kg dumbbells, measuring tape, and a salad on a rustic wooden table.
Two .5 kg dumbbells, measuring tape, and a salad on a rustic wooden table.
Photo: boonchai wedmakawand/Moment/Getty Images

This was first posted as the October 5 “From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy” newsletter. You can sign up here.

The first time I saw the word “fat” used as a descriptor without a whiff of judgment was when the show Two Fat Ladies was playing on Food Network. It was a BBC show from the late ’90s, and the cartoon of them driving around in a motorcycle with a sidecar is burned in my brain. These were two broads who knew how to live, the introduction implied, and Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright did indeed do some living.

Their knowing, confident banter around travel and ingredients suggested extensive experience in the world; they would never use yogurt where cream would do. …

About

Alicia Kennedy

I’m a food writer from Long Island based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter on food issues: aliciakennedy.substack.com

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