Read on for a collection of frugal food stories from mothers and grandmothers closer to home. In collaboration with photographer, Maria Bell, we’ve been touring the UK to share the waste-free wisdom of several British women from diverse backgrounds. I’m excited to share more with you in the coming months. Sign up to my once-a-month newsletter to get them to your inbox.
“I hate the word curry. What does it even mean?”. Harvindar is finely shredding a corner of white cabbage next to a pile of roughly cut onions and sliced garlic. Cumin and mustard seeds hop and pop in hot oil in a large, wide pan to which onions are dropped and left to brown. Lift off. This is the starting point to one of Harvindar’s sabjis – a catch-all Indian term for a vegetable dish to which she’ll add whatever fresh veg she has in her kitchen, nudging a nub of a courgette or a bag of potatoes into something entirely new. “My mum is a strict Sikh and has always been vegetarian. It’s common in Sikh households. She’s 85 and still gets up early to do her prayers. From 6am, she starts cooking”. Today, a coconut cabbage thoran (find the recipe below) is starting to form itself. Alongside it, potatoes, peas and tomatoes are already simmering, the smell of heavy spices dispersing from the pot.
Photography: Maria Bell (uncropped main image below)
There are no cookbooks in Harvindar’s North London kitchen, something she claims to never have used in her life. How did you learn to cook, I ask. “Sikh girl. It’s your mission in life!” she laughs. “It wasn’t a question of choice. From the time me and my sister were young, we’d be peeling garlic and ginger. When we came to London from Singapore, mum had to start working so then we really had to cook. At 10, we’d be making sabji. There would be mishaps obviously. Sometimes we’d add too much salt or the vegetables were raw but that’s how we learned. We learned by doing”.
Her kitchen is clean and orderly but as she opens cupboards, sachets, bags and jars of cinnamon bark and cloves, dried fenugreek leaves, samba powder and star anise, homemade masala mixes, allspice, tamarind, bottles of vinegars, soy and fish sauces, bouillon powder and dried chillies spill out. “If I had an onion, a clove of garlic and a tin of tomatoes, I could make a good dinner just by relying on my spices. That’s it, that’s a meal!” she says triumphantly. A mother of two grown boys and a full-time career at PwC, Harvindar uses her storecupboard instinctively, relying on it to turn a last-minute fridge raid into a deliciously satisfying meal. Nothing goes to waste.
She grew up in Singapore to Punjab parents, moving to Southall when she was 12. “In both Singapore and in Southall, we were exposed to so much Malay, Chinese and Indian food. My parents are also from a long line of Punjab farmers so when we moved to London, it was normal for dad to grow all his own in the back garden. We would be involved in pulling up the carrots, garlic, ginger, onions, spinach, tomatoes, runner beans, potatoes… I remember dad taking all the surplus apples from our tree to turn them into an Indian type pickle”.
“In Punjab, there really is a different way of looking at waste. You could fit a household’s entire week’s rubbish into one hand. Cow dung is dried out in the sun and used for fuel. When there’s a powercut and the milk goes off, it’s turned into paneer cheese”.
The onions are browning. A sign to stir in garlic, frozen curry leaves (bought fresh and stored in the freezer to preserve their flavour) and the shredded cabbage. Harvindar covers the pan with a lid and busies her hands, packing fresh mint, coriander, chopped onion and a handful of green chillies into a blender, blitzing the lot with lemon juice into a fresh zesty chutney.
Harvindar cooks in a way that is naturally frugal and which comes instinctively from decades of cooking, experimenting and adapting her meals, drawing from London’s ready access to a huge variety of ingredients, dishes and flavours. “I’ve learned how to make Turkish flatbreads stuffed with herbs or I’ll use kale or spinach and whatever nuts I’ve got to make pesto”. Last night’s dinner, she tells me, was West Indian rice and peas. A recent attempt at Yorkshire pudding “tasted fine but didn’t look like one”. She recalls a family roast chicken and having to “Indian it up a little otherwise it’s so boring” covering it with spices and stuffing it with rice and garlic before cooking it. “People get precious about recipes, but food is there to be enjoyed. It’s not a competition”.
She cleans out the blender, removing gold rings and setting them beside the sink before doing so. To the blender, she adds desiccated coconut, pours over cold water and leaves it to soak for a few minutes. Next, she blends in a bit of chilli and garlic. “You could use tinned coconut milk but this is just as quick and much more flavourful”. Into the pan it goes.
You can’t have a Sikh house without yoghurt in the fridge, she says, and soon a raita is made with cumin seeds, salt and chopped herbs. Chapatis are puffing on a hot flat pan, slicked with butter and piled into a round stainless steel pot. Within an hour or so, two steaming pans are put on the table, hot chapatis, a pot of fresh chutney and herby raita. We eat.
Harvindar’s Cabbage Coconut Thoran
We were born and brought up in Singapore where there are a lot of South Indians, Sikhs, Chinese and Malays. This is a good way to make use of leftover cabbage, although I’d also shred it into a coleslaw. Measurements are approximate but the good thing about Indian food is that nothing needs to be perfect.
2 heaped tablespoons cumin seeds
1 heaped tablespoon mustard seeds
rapeseed or vegetable oil
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 to 2 big garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
10 fresh curry leaves
¼ of a white cabbage, finely shredded
120g desiccated coconut or frozen grated coconut
a little fresh chilli
1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
In a pan, fry the cumin and mustard seeds in oil until starting to smell good, then add the onion. Cook until browned, then add most of the garlic and all of the curry leaves. Give it a stir for a minute, then add the cabbage and a pinch of salt and stir well. Cover and leave to cook over a low heat until the cabbage is tender, giving it a stir from time to time. I had the end of a red pepper that needed using so that went in too.
Meanwhile, place the coconut in a blender and just cover with cold water (about 500ml). Leave to soak for 10 minutes or so. Throw in a little chopped chilli and the remaining garlic, then blend.
Add the coconut mixture, turmeric and a good pinch of salt to the pan. Stir well and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Eat as as a side or on its own with raita, chapatis and this fresh chutney.
Harvindar’s Fresh Punjabi Chutney
a handful of fresh mint
a handful of fresh coriander
3 fresh green chillies
½ an onion
a bit of lemon juice
black pepper and sea salt
Blend everything together in a food processor or with a stick blender, adding a splash of water to loosen if needed.
Taste for salt, pepper and lemon juice.