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‘Food is more than something we eat’



THE magic of cooking cast a spell on Dina Begum at a very early age. The eldest of five children, she went from baking simple fairy cakes to helping prepare family meals under the supervision of her mother.

The passion for cooking was further fuelled by the east Londoner living in close proximity to the famous culinary delights of Brick Lane, which led her to become an acclaimed food writer.

With her first cookbook, she returns to her roots to celebrate Brick Lane with diverse recipes inspired by the world famous multi-cultural melting pot. Eastern Eye caught up with Dina to talk about the Brick Lane Cookbook, food, recipes, tips and more…

You have made a name for yourself with a popu­lar blog, collaborating with leading brands and writing about food for leading publications. But what inspired you to write a cookbook?

From a young age I’ve written recipes into notebooks and scraps of paper, and always wanted to write a cookbook. I was introduced to my publisher Kitchen Press by a friend who loved my blog.

This resulted in meetings and brainstorming until we decided to incorporate my Bangladeshi food background into the diverse nature of the Brick Lane culinary scene, which I’ve grown up around. My publisher specialises in market cookbooks so it was a perfect fit!

Tell us about the book…

Brick Lane Cookbook is a culinary map of the East End’s tastiest street and a snapshot of London at its multifaceted, chaotic, crazy best. Brick Lane is hard to sum up in words so this book aims to do so through the food culture that is at the heart of the area; from the home-style curries I grew up eating, indulgent bakes inspired by the area’s many cafes, and Chinese-style burgers to classic Buffalo wings, smoothie bowls and raw coffee brownies.

The book includes recipes from my own Bangla­deshi heritage as well as the Jewish community, which made its home there from the 19th century onwards, to contemporary street food traders with a global reach.

What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

In Bangladeshi cooking, we don’t really use mea­surements. Recipes are learned through watching our mothers, aunts and grandmothers, and ingredi­ents are added through the art of estimation or an­daza, a phrase highlighted by Pakistani food writer Sumayya Usmani. In Bengali, we call this antaaz and mastering this is the biggest factor in cooking the best dishes.

So when I began writing recipes for the Brick Lane Cookbook, this proved challenging as I had to constantly stop myself from just throwing ingredi­ents in and measure things exactly.

What are your favourite dishes in the book? 

There are too many favourites. However I do love the recipes from Chez Elles restau­rant, which include French classics such as duck rillettes and a stun­ning pistachio crème brûlée.

I also love my favourite bake, the chai-malai cake, which fuses to­gether the flavours of masala chai and the classic South Asian dessert rasmalai. For a savoury snack, you can’t go wrong with my chili cheese samosas or dhaler bora, crispy lentil fritters.

Did you learn anything new from writing this book?

Absolutely! I learnt new cooking techniques used by different communities and made Bangladeshi kalojaam from Brick Lane’s Alauddin Sweets, which is a traditional fried, syrup-soaked sweet that

is hugely popular. The chef at Damascu Bite also taught me that taking your time over preparing

individual elements, such as frying aubergines properly, gives you the best moussaka.

Who is the book aimed at?

Anyone who loves to eat! The book is a vibrant snapshot of Brick Lane and is the first of its kind. I wanted to write a book that celebrates the diverse food history of Brick Lane, past and present, as ex­perienced through memories and stories instead of a list of recipes. I’m hoping it’ll become a local guide on where to find some of the tastiest eats.

Why is home cooking so important?

Home cooking is the essence of how we learn to eat and appreciate the food of our collective heritage. It ties us to memories and helps to create new ones. I grew up in a traditional Bangladeshi household where my mother cooked every­thing from scratch on a daily basis and taught me lifelong skills.

This has shaped how I cook and the flavours that form the core of my tastes. Cooking at home means that you are able to handpick in­gredients and minimise processed products and nasty chemicals used to preserve food for far too long, while increasing your intake of good, nutritious food.

What advice would you give those who want to learn cooking but think it’s too complicated?

Simply start. Begin with a recipe with a few ingredi­ents; once you’ve cooked that a couple of times your confidence will grow and then you can be more adventurous.

Ask a family member to show you how to make a favourite dish (trust me, they’ll be flattered). Take a cooking class if you are able to and most definitely watch cooking programmes. Cooking is only as complicated as you make it.

What’s the secret to finding the right ingredients?

Be flexible and shop around. Don’t just stick to the supermarket. Buy a core selection of spices, grains and pulses and build your kitchen cupboard around that.

Be open-minded and try new things so you can expand and adjust your palate and choose ingredi­ents which can be used in different ways.

What common mistakes do people make when they are cooking?

Feeling that they must follow every recipe down to the letter. If you’re cooking for loved ones, they’ll appreciate the effort you put in. For baking, it is es­sential to be exact, however you can play around a bit and go with your instinct for dishes such as a stew or curry.

How much is cooking connected to good health?

Food is more than just something we eat. It is cru­cial to good health as much as exercise is. A meal should be delicious, nutritious and include a good balance of proteins, carbs, fruit and vegetables. Re­gardless of whether you eat meat or are vegetarian, balance is key.

Saying that, everyone needs the odd treat so I would say mindful eating while keeping an eye on processed food, high sugars and fats is key.

Who do you love cooking for the most?

My family and friends. I’ve been brought up in a culture where a table is set with sharing plates and lots of family feasts, so I don’t like cooking for one.

Who is the best cook you know?

My mother.

You have a wealth of knowledge, but is there something cooking-related you want to learn?

I have an incredibly sweet tooth so I would love to take a professional pastry course one day.

You are a food expert, but have you had any bad moments in the kitchen?

Plenty! I think all cooks, professional or self-taught, have moments when things go awry. I’ve burnt rice to a crisp, had cakes stuck to the tin, and made dough which hasn’t risen.

Where do you draw your cooking inspirations from?

My family, my Bangladeshi heritage, travel and try­ing new things with friends. I enjoy applying new techniques to classic Bangladeshi fare or adding Eastern twists to classic British recipes. The results can be pleasantly surprising.

What can we expect next from you?

More food-writing, with a particular focus on Ban­gladeshi cuisine, which is my area of expertise.

Why do you love cooking?

Cooking can evoke nostalgia and help recreate memories through flavours. Our senses are very powerful tools, so the process of making a Bangla­deshi pastry, for instance, reminds me of cooking with my grandmother.

Kneading, stretching and filling dough, and help­ing to fry it surrounded by my loved ones ensures that the taste and smell of it is comforting.

Why should we pick up your Brick Lane Cookbook?

There’s something in it for everyone. I’ve been mindful of including recipes that not only celebrate the rich culinary history of the area but also the way of eating that is central to the book, from grab and go bites from the market, to a nice restaurant meal to home-cooked Bangladeshi dishes.

The recipes are chosen to cater to cooks with a range of skills, from beginners to those who are more experienced and experimental.

  •  Brick Lane Cookbook by Dina Begum is published in hardback by Kitchen Press and is available from Waterstones, Amazon and independent bookshops from March 22. Visit Twitter and Instagram: @dinasfoodstory and for more information