Sarah Woods spent months on her in-depth research for ‘Desi Kitchen’
By: Pramod Thomas
A Punjabi chef’s new cookbook that creates a culinary roadmap of food from the Indian subcontinent in the UK was released in London on Thursday (16), as a chronicle of recipes that are an ode to the unique twists on South Asian cuisine in the form of dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala.
Sarah Woods spent months on her in-depth research for ‘Desi Kitchen’ to recreate the flavours from different parts of the subcontinent and how those dishes have evolved during the course of their journey to different parts of the UK.
The term “desi” describes a person of birth or descent from the Indian subcontinent that lives abroad and that was her starting point for her foodie story.
“Desi cuisine in the UK is hyper-regional and highly nuanced. So that got me thinking that I should start at the tip with Sri Lanka and then make my way up towards the Himalayas. It started simply but then like a good curry, the many layers of flavour seeped in,” said Woods, of her cookbook released by Penguin Michael Joseph.
“I restricted myself to 10 recipes for each of the communities, with a larger chapter for the Punjabi community because that’s my heritage. It was a hard process because I wanted to represent each community and also the evolution of that desi spin of the flavours and cultures they brought to parts of England, as well as all the global influences. So, there’s this tradition juxtaposed with the modern,” she explains.
A second-generation Indian migrant, Woods grew up immersed in the Punjabi culture with star cooks in her family and a grandfather who even built a tandoor in the backyard of their home in England to entertain guests.
“My grandfather came to the UK in the early 1960s and there’s a history that I’m also trying to convey in the book because I think it’s important. After the Second World War, the UK needed to rebuild its economy amid an acute shortage of labour and citizens of the Commonwealth were invited to help this shortage,” reflects Woods.
“My granddad kind of answered that call and then once he was settled, he called for the rest of the family. They brought their habits and traditions with them from Punjab and those have stayed with all of us. They grew their own vegetables, they only had seasonal foods, they cooked from scratch, there was no waste; and all of that is still ingrained in the South Asian psyche today,” she said.
As a step-by-step guide to food with roots in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, ‘Desi Kitchen’ is made up of a selection of varied dishes that reflect their British variations complete with the author’s own twists, such as Spaghetti alla Chicken Tikka Masala.
“I’ve embraced it because Chicken Tikka Masala is a representation of what being desi is. That’s how I structured the book, with a dual regionality: the regionality from South Asia, but then it also takes into account the regionality of the UK in the areas where these communities have settled,” she said.
A finalist of BBC’s Britain’s Best Home Cook television series, Woods honed her cooking skills at Ashburton Chefs Academy in Devon after giving up her corporate role at a leading pharmaceutical company to pursue a career in food.
Now that ‘Desi Kitchen’ has launched in the UK, the chef is open to the idea of taking her “desi” collection back to its origins in the Indian subcontinent – something she feels would also give her the perfect excuse to return to Punjab and brush up on her Punjabi.