“Indian soup again?! Urgh!” I said as my mum prepared a weeknight meal of Indian-style tomato soup to be eaten with buttered rolls. As a hungry eight year old I wondered why we couldn’t just be like a “normal” family and eat cream of tomato straight from the can, with not a speck of masala in sight. I didn’t realise it at the time but deep down, what I was really asking for was the soup my “normal” non-immigrant white friends had for tea. I thought we weren’t normal and most worryingly of all, I thought normal was good.
I grew up in a small village in West Yorkshire. We were one of three Asian families living there and until I reached my first decade I never felt too different to anyone else. My brother and I were the only Hindus of Indian and African descent at our school and sometimes our customs would get poked fun at by the other kids, but never in a way that made us feel embarrassed. The rakhis I tied on my brother’s wrist every August on Rakshabandhan were cajoled for being girly bracelets when in fact, they were a symbol of my love, to bond us as siblings, and offer him protection for the year ahead. At that age nobody ever said anything to my face. I was blissfully unaware. But that all changed when I hit my teens.
It was the mid 90s, the Spice Girls were at the top of the charts and you weren’t cool unless you wore mini skirts and jelly shoes. Multiculturalism wasn’t as prevalent as it is now and knowledge of Indian culture beyond that red dot we sometimes have on our foreheads was about as advanced as it got. Truth be told, we lived in a small village surrounded by wonderful people, but it also happened to be a place where samosas were thought to be a type of exotic food us Hindus ate at “Ramadam”.
My family and I would go to Pakistani shops to seek out aubergines for Burnt Aubergine and Spinach Curry and unearthing a bunch of coriander in the local supermarket was unheard of. Going to Asian shops and bumping in to a friend from school in the area scared the living hell out of me. A million thoughts would blitz through my head like a tornado. “Would they think we were weird going to ‘ethnic’ shops?”, “Would they bring it up at school on Monday in front of everyone?”, “Would I be shunned for being different?” When really my questions should have been, “Why are they so afraid of something different? Wait, why am I so afraid?” and “Why do I care so much?” It was a childish, irrational fear that felt absolutely rational at the time. But then I was a child.
Looking back, I’m ashamed to admit that those sorts of thoughts troubled me. I should have been out learning to ride a bike, or choreographing my own Kathak routines, but I never learned to do either of those things. The same thoughts ran through my mind when we went to the “Asian part of town”, or dressed up in (beautiful) lenghas to go to a family wedding, and sadly, when we spoke Gujarati in front of people that weren’t part of our family.
The funny thing is that when we got home I relished the fresh vegetables, paneer, spice blends and bunches of herbs like coriander and dill my parents picked up from the aforementioned shops I’d previously tarnished with my ugly mindfarts. I was in my element browsing those aisles learning about picking the best coconuts and papayas, yet on edge throughout thinking I’d get caught indulging my alien heritage by a popular kid from school. It’s sad to think that I believed that just being me, a British Indian-African Hindu would somehow undo the “Britishness” I’d feigned in trying to fit in with my white friends. At the time, embracing my roots didn’t feel like an option and looking back on it as an adult, that breaks my heart.
My husband’s story is the polar opposite of mine. He grew up in Leicester, a city famed for its Golden Mile, curry houses and massive immigrant population. There were Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Kashmiri families on every street. Some streets comprised of only immigrants and his entire school year was made up of 95% Asians, half of which were Gujarati like him. Going to the Indian shop was a mundane chore. He’d probably bump in to 5 or 6 kids from school there and he’d most likely wave, ask how they were and swap some football stickers. Thinking about that makes my soul burn a little bit; with embarrassment, with envy, of feelings of being cheated, I don’t quite know.
Part of me wishes I had it a bit easier growing up but I also appreciate that perhaps I wouldn’t have eventually embraced Indian customs, traditions and cuisine quite as much as I had, if it wasn’t for knowing I was different – the kids at school certainly knew it. I was a running joke during the weekly P.E lesson; the 10 year old Indian girl with dark hairs on her legs. She developed early and has to use the teacher’s bathroom. Whispers as we got changed in to our yellow and black polo shirts and short-shorts, girls and boys together in the same room except I was the only one who wore a bra and had downy baby hair on my lower back. It was brutal and would be for any young woman. The advice I’d give to my younger self and every young lady out there is this: Love yourself because YOU MATTER. You’re unique and beautiful and one day the kids pointing and muttering will feel like idiots for making you feel isolated and sad. The boys will remain ignorant for some time. The girls will realise how stupid they were when they experience puberty for themselves. I wish I’d have known this back then. Be fearless, realise your potential and the impact you have on your own life as well as the lives of others. Be kind because people don’t remember what you say, they remember how you make them feel.
My parents always made my brother and I feel special, never let us feel like we missed out on things. We were allowed to hang out with our friends, go to school discos and dress however we liked. Mum even bought me two pairs of jelly shoes in both purple and pink. They always wanted us to be fully integrated and immersed within our peer groups, and never outcasted or made to feel strange because of the colour of our skin or for listening to Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on our iPod Minis. There was always a handful of kids (and parents) who saw us differently but that’s inevitable. Looking back on it now I realise how easy we probably had it in comparison to other families who have experienced horrendous racism throughout their lives. I also appreciate everything my parents did to help us feel like part of the crowd, yet never let our cultural values slip away.
It took me until I was about 18 years old to realise I didn’t care what others thought and that my real friends would stick around for the whole me. They would come over for Indian dinners and not think pomegranates in yoghurt were weird, or that fresh, homemade cheese in creamy spinach curry was gag inducing. We’d feast on Biryani, Raita, Mutter Paneer, Homemade Naan and Channa Masala until we were ready to burst. Hell, we’d even watch Zee TV and dance around the living room together. By the time I reached university I was back to being that girl who wasn’t afraid of admitting she was at her happiest singing Bollywood songs in the car with dad, Jalebi in one hand, Fafda in the other, middle finger ready to be flipped to anyone waiting to judge. It’s sad that it took that long for reality to kick in but I don’t regret anything. I’m stronger for it.
I’ll take that soul-warming bowl of Masala-spiced tomato soup now. It really is delicious.
This is one of the most soul-warming dinners. The curry leaves are crackled in hot ghee along with cumin seeds for the most fragrant finish. Perfect for dunking the buttery naan knots.
Curry Leaf Cream of Tomato Soup and Twisted Naan Knots
For the soup:
4 tbsp melted ghee
2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp asafoetida
2-inch piece ginger, grated
1 large onion, diced finely
1 large red chilli, finely chopped
60ml double cream
10-12 curry leaves
3 tsp salt
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 stock vegetable cube dissolved in 600ml hot water
For the naan knots:
310g strong, white bread flour
1 teaspoon dried fast action yeast
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon nigella seeds
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
140ml warm water
2 teaspoons sour yoghurt
For the garlic and coriander butter:
100g salted butter
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon fresh coriander, chopped
1. To make the dough for the twisted naan knots: In a large bowl, combine the flour, yeast, salt, honey and nigella seeds. Make a well in the centre and add the oil, yoghurt and water. Using your hands, bring the dough together. If the dough feels sticky, oil your hands and knead for 15 minutes.
2. Grease the bowl and cover with a damp tea towel. Leave the dough to prove in a warm place for one hour.
3. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small pan and add the finely sliced garlic. Allow to fry until aromatic. Add the chopped coriander and set aside until needed.
4. Pre-heat the oven to 160C.
4. To make the twisted naan knots, take a ping pong-sized ball of dough and roll using the photos below as a guide.
5. If you’re short on time, grease a baking dish and make little dough balls to nestle into the dish. Bake at 160C for 20-25 minutes until golden. Cover with foil to keep warm and brush with the garlic butter before serving.
6. To make the soup, heat 2 tbsp ghee in a large pan and add the onions and brown sugar. Sauté until deep golden brown and caramelised. At the last minute, add the chopped chilli and ginger and stir briefly. Place into a blender along with the passata. Blend for a minute until smooth and creamy.
7. Heat another 2 tbsp ghee in the pan and add the cumin seeds. When the cumin starts to sizzle, add the curry leaves and asafoetida. Add the tomato mixture and vegetable stock. Add the salt and stir. Bring to a gentle simmer and cover. Cook for 10 minutes. Uncover, switch the heat off and allow to cool slightly. Stir the cream through. Serve with the twisted naan knots.