Meet the Chef Changing What "Indian Food" Means in the U.K.
When Romy Gill arrived in the UK in 1994, she’d never tasted many of the ingredients she serves at her restaurant (and that she grows in its backyard).
A self-taught British-Indian cook and food writer, Romy is one of a small clutch of female Indian chef-owners in the UK. Her restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen, in the market village of Thornbury, has been quietly celebrated since it opened in 2013. It occupies a small stone cottage, its interior decorated with heirlooms—an old radio from West Bengal; copper pans; a stack of her favorite cookbooks.
She hosts talks, cooking classes, and pop-ups all over the world, and has carved out a reputation for bright, seasonal dishes rooted in her Indian heritage. In 2016, she was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to the hospitality industry.
The dishes Romy serves are far removed from those on the menus of typical Indian restaurants in the UK, and often from the typical dishes of her home country, as well. While she strives to celebrate authentic Indian cooking, she also tries to harness the potential of hyper-local produce. She’ll cook wild boar, pigeon, quail, and gurnard (ingredients that she only tasted upon arriving in England) with Indian spices in a flaming tandoor. In the garden behind the restaurant, she and her husband grow most of the vegetables that end up on the plate: squash; radishes; beets; broad beans.
Romy isn’t strict with her representation of Indian food (on a recent trip to her house, she served us “Indian guacamole” made with mint, coriander, and chile that she declared to be in “no way authentic!”). Instead, she experiments with homegrown meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables, using the spice-spiked flavors of her native country as a continuous reference point.
Her cooking has been called “Anglo-Indian” countless times, but to Romy, that doesn’t quite fit. “I wouldn’t want to label it. I prefer to use the term ‘local.’ It’s just about what I can get in this area. For my restaurant, I don’t buy anything out of the Southwest. We are so lucky with the produce here, from goat to game like venison, and amazing milk, butter, and yogurt from local farms. I make sure I use what’s around me and learn to put my take on it. Some Indian chefs might not like it, but that’s what I want to do.”
Romy grew up in Burnpur, a small industrial township in West Bengal where her father worked on a steam plant. As a child she joined her mother in the kitchen, taking in the daily tasks of frying, kneading, and boiling, the instinctual adding of spices and the lack of scales or instructions. Yet Romy was a hesitant cook.
“When I was growing up, I hated cooking. For me, it was all about eating. I’d talk to my mum in the kitchen—it was just where I’d spend the most time with her. I’d watch her cooking, but my instinct was never to help.”
People traveled from across India to work on the same steam plant as Romy’s father, and this offered her a rare insight into the head-spinning diversity of the country’s cuisine. During social gatherings, families from the area would each bring a different dish, cooked in the style of their own state. “Many people in India only eat the food of their state. But living where we did, we were exposed to all the flavors of the country. I was very lucky in that way.”
During train journeys back to her parents’ native Punjab, which would take longer than 24 hours, Romy would indulge her curiosity for street food. Each station along the way would have its own offering: puffed naan; fried chickpeas; sliced guava sold from tiny counters beside the tracks.
“It was always so fascinating. I’m still like a child whenever I go back. The real food of India is out on the street. And this is my fight with chefs who cook Indian food but don’t show that stuff. I think street food is better than eating at a five-star restaurant.” In her restaurant, Romy serves dishes inspired by this “cheap, delicious, freshly cooked” food that has been a lifelong fascination, like her aloo tikki (crisp, spicy potatoes) and samosa chaat (scrambled samosas with chickpea, potato, tamarind chutney and yogurt).
When Romy married and moved to England in ’94, she landed in a country of unfamiliar smells, tastes, and sounds. The television shows were different, the weather was damp, the Indian restaurants served chicken korma and pappadams with mango chutney, washed down with pints of lager. “People forget that when you come to a different country, you leave behind your friends, your family, and the food you grew up with.”
She began pining for the food of her country and, after a childhood of distractedly observing her mother in the kitchen, began to cook. “I didn’t eat pizzas, or burgers… for me, that was totally alien. I was craving Indian food. And at that time, cooking it was the only option.”
She began to feel at home in this new, unfamiliar place by recreating the smells and flavors of the country she’d left behind. “I started using any ingredients I could find, but using them in an Indian way. I found that cooking was very natural and instinctual. Still today, I don’t weigh anything or follow recipes. I grew up with my mum or grandma saying, ‘a pinch of this or that.’ They don’t even taste their cooking—they just know.”
Soon, she was hosting cooking classes for locals keen to learn about authentic Indian flavors. After that, she launched her own line of sauces, chutneys, pickles, and spice mixes. “In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to open a restaurant.”
On our recent visit to her home, Romy ushered us into the kitchen, where the dining table groaned with five-spice tandoori mackerel with charred silvery skin, glossy Malabar prawn curry, spicy lamb curry, white rice with cumin, autumnal vegetables (beets with nigella seeds; crunchy fennel salad with dill and thinly sliced pears; turnips with cumin and chile). There was a dark, creamy dal makhani, and a bowl of sliced onions with lemon and salt—a ‘palate cleanser’ inspired by her father.
Romy’s fearless use of cuisine-spanning ingredients, often within the same dish, was apparent in every bite. A bowl of chopped paneer—one of the ballasts of Indian cooking—was mixed with chile, honey, and soy sauce, a nod to the Chinese diaspora in India. The lamb curry was inspired by an Iranian friend. A silver dish of her homemade tamarind chutney injected sweet, sour heat into the whole meal.
With her encouragement, we helped ourselves to more, and more after that. “Indian cooking is all about this—a gathering,” she told us.“It brings people together.” She packed us up a silver tiffin tin of leftovers, sending us away with the spices still dancing on our tongues. We lasted about 25 minutes of the journey before opening it back up.
“Growing up, many people in my village didn’t have fridges, so it was all about everyday cooking,” Romy said. “My ‘thing’ has become local and seasonal cooking. But that’s just what I grew up with. It’s the most natural thing in the world to me.”
Romy Gill’s Spicy Turnips
teaspoons butter or ghee
cloves garlic, thinly sliced
grams small white turnips, washed and sliced with a mandoline
green chiles, chopped
teaspoon nigella seeds
teaspoon dried pomegranate seeds (anardana)
teaspoon ground turmeric
Salt, to taste
teaspoons lemon juice
teaspoons freshly chopped chilantro
milliliters (2 teaspoons) water
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