Ravinder Bhogal: ‘Recipes are like stories that don’t have endings – always open to adaptation’
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Chef and restaurateur Ravinder Bhogal puts an immense amount of thought and care into how she feeds people.
And during lockdown – while many of us were battening down the hatches, and spending more time than ever with our own fridges – she was turning her attention to cooking meals for Kings College Hospital staff in London, and charity NishkamSWAT (which supports disadvantaged communities).
Then, despite the turmoil the hospitality industry was facing, she went and launched a new, vegetarian home delivery brand, Comfort and Joy, with a focus on sustainability, green energy, compostable containers – and for every meal bought, one is donated to charity. “We’ve really thought about what would make someone feel balanced and feel good,” explains Bhogal, “and what is it that makes a takeaway feel sordid, because we don’t want to put that in.”
Oh, and she’s got a new cookbook out, called Jikoni. It’s been a decade since her last, Cook In Boots, came out, and while Jikoni takes its name from Bhogal’s London restaurant – it includes some of Jikoni’s most beloved menu items, including the cult prawn toast scotch egg, and banana cake with miso butterscotch – it’s not necessarily a restaurant cookbook.
“What it looks at is the idea of authenticity,” says Bhogal, a subject that can be a source of “irritation” for her. “Authenticity is such a subjective thing, particularly when you’ve come from the background I came from,” she says. Bhogal was born in Kenya to Indian parents and moved to England aged seven. When your food culture is “twice removed almost” she says it is “always changing and new”.
Bhogal recalls: “When you come to any country as an immigrant, things can feel very barren, and certainly for me when I came to England, from a very tropical clime, in a very dark November, everything felt very, very alien, very barren, very hopeless. It’s only when you actually start settling into a new nation and you start making it your home, [that] you’re completely wonderstruck at how much is actually available. What was once barren starts looking quite fertile.
“And what happens is that you begin to become very precious about your old culinary customs and traditions, and you hold on to those. But you start to weave into those the customs of your new nation, of your new land, and that is what immigrant food is; it’s about that lovely reconciliation, if you like, between the old and the new.
“Recipes are like stories that don’t have endings,” she adds. “Always open to adaptation, according to your landscape and what’s available.”
Jikoni’s recipes are eclectic, vibrant and all-embracing. Think plump, pan-fried scallops with avocado-yuzu puree and crispy ‘seaweed’ (kale); an Asian mushroom ragout with sweet potato gnocchi; decadent mango doughnuts dusted with lime leaf sherbet; and a breakfast of tamarind and maple bacon atop fenugreek waffles, with a fennel and apple slaw. Just describing them makes your tongue sparkle.
The recipes are also wreathed in stories from Bhogal’s life, from the pickle maker and female vegetable sellers of her childhood (“What amazing emancipated characters they were,” she remembers. “They were the first female entrepreneurs I’d ever come across”), to personal essays about her late father and the people “who really informed the way I eat and the way I like to cook”.
She writes that despite growing up in a traditional household where cooking fell to the women, having a kitchen became a “matter of personal freedom” for her.
“Having time alone in the kitchen for me was a win, because it was a time for me to be very meditative, to think, to be alone – the luxury of being alone!” she says, noting how clamorous it was growing up amongst a large extended family. “To have this freedom, and also to make the choices of what you’re going to cook and how you’re going to create, that was very liberating.”
The pages of Jikoni feature an array of animals (an inquiring green parrot, a grumpy looking chameleon) that help reflect the “chaotic life I lived when I was a child”, notes Bhogal with a wry laugh. “There was never a moment of quiet. And even when there were no people, there were always animals – we had chickens in the backyard, there were goats across the road that would totter into our garden, there were dogs, cats, a parrot that just never stopped squawking.”
Alongside that domestic hubbub, Bhogal grew up watching the women of her community cook together, producing the “most incredible food. But in and amongst that was this communal therapy session where the women – who often didn’t have anyone to talk to – would air their problems, their worries, and there’d be this communal cajoling, love and care that would come out,” she says. “That is such a beautiful thing.”
Her own food, she says, is anchored by a desire to nurture and nourish people. “I truly believe that good hospitality is about selflessness, giving something of yourself,” she muses. “I love the random sampling of humanity that a restaurant service brings together. You don’t know who you’re going to be meeting or serving or cooking for, and what their backstory is, but I feel that if what I’m cooking helps them unfurl, helps them feel better, then I’ve had a really good day at the office.”
She says there’s something quite maternal about her food – “and it’s because of the way I’ve been taught to cook. I do see people sometimes coming into Jikoni, who are maybe a little uptight or a little stressed, and it’s a real pleasure to watch this transformation as they begin to unfurl,” she continues. “Food is transformative, and to work in a field where you can have that transformative effect on people, is really rewarding.”
More than anything, she hopes people read the cookbook, discover the recipes and recognise the value in cooking without borders. “In a time where there is so much fear, food is such a connector, it’s such a great way of understanding people,” says Bhogal. “When someone feels like a stranger and you eat their cuisine, you eat their food, you use their ingredients, it’s a great tool for understanding people and their cultures and bringing people together.
“It’s about celebrating the richness of our differences, and our similarities. We have to celebrate the intricacies and the nuances of both, and food does that.”