Monday, 27 July 2009

The Settler's Cookbook by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

We rely on food to give us a sense of place, of home. Nowhere is this more true than in the cooking of Britain’s immigrant population, where the rituals of familiar, native dishes re-affirm life’s rhythms and structures, when all else is lost.

In her memoir, The Settler’s Cookbook, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown traces the history of her ancestors, settlers from India brought to East Africa to build the railways, or lured by the promise of a flourishing wealthy society under British colonial rule in independent Uganda. The early chapters describe a ‘land of milk and honey’ – a riot of colour and sensory riches where the Asians found a life of some status, yet never quite letting go of their roots, culinary and otherwise. The tension, however, simmers under the surface, like a slow-cooking dhal, exploding every now and then as the three populations – British, Asian and African – struggle to define their own roles in a convoluted, pressurised system, clashing as they do so.

Idi Amin’s expulsion of many thousands of East African Asians from Uganda in the 1970s forced them to flee to an imperial ‘homeland’ many of them had never been to. Yasmin describes how once again the Asians became settlers, struggling to adjust to yet another culture struggle, another way of life where they were again de-valued, place-less in society and how – once more – food became the anchor as they found their feet.

Her recipes, passed down, thread their way through the book, binding the narrative, lending evocative colour, flavour and aroma. The recipes themselves are gorgeous and demand to be cooked, but a word of warning: the ingredients are not written in user order and it pays to read the whole recipe through first as little things might catch you out, like turning on the oven, or suddenly needing something finely chopped and quickly...
I love the idea of the wonderful combination of Zanzibari Prawns and Spinach Dhal, in fact I've copied so many recipes into my books, I don't know quite where to start, but I will be blogging as I go. There'll be no stopping me once I know my moong from my channa dhal...
Anyway, go buy. It's brilliant and has induced an almost insatiable need to get cooking.

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