Warming dhals to zingy salads: an interview with Romy Gill

Chef and food writer Romy Gill sought inspiration from the food of her childhood in West Bengal for her debut cookbook, Zaika. It celebrates regional, vegan Indian dishes, from warming dhals to zingy salads.

Published 19 Dec 2019, 09:30 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:13 GMT
West Bengal's Hakka community has influenced recipes like momos (steamed dumplings) and sweet-and-sour tofu.
West Bengal's Hakka community has influenced recipes like momos (steamed dumplings) and sweet-and-sour tofu.
Photograph by Zaika

How did you come to work in food? 

I grew up in West Bengal and came to the UK when I was 23. The food in England was completely different from the regional Indian dishes I’d been used to — we have amazing Indian restaurants here now, but it was different 26 or 27 years ago. I missed my family, friends, and especially food, so I was excited when my husband suggested we go out for an Indian. But when it arrived, the curries were bright — almost fluorescent — in colour and they all tasted the same. I pledged to open a restaurant one day. I’d always loved cooking, and after I had my daughters and moved to the South West, it felt like the right time. I sold my jewellery and used all our savings, but eventually we opened the doors to Romy’s Kitchen [in Bristol] in August 2013. It was listed by The Good Food Guide and Michelin, and I was awarded an MBE in 2016 for services to the hospitality industry. The lease on the restaurant was up this year, so we closed it, but I will be opening another. And I’m also going to be one of the chefs on Ready Steady Cook, which will be back on TV next year.  

Did your relationship with food change when you moved to the UK? 

Indian food is not generic — it’s very regional — but the basic techniques, particularly how you use spices, form part of your identity as a cook. I grew up in a small town, and when I came to the UK I’d never seen supermarkets; everything was seasonal. Now, I combine my knowledge of spices with seasonal British ingredients. 

Romy Gill combines her knowledge of Indian spices with seasonal British ingredients.
Photograph by Zaika

Why did you decide to write a vegan cookbook? 

When everyone says they’re doing Veganuary, I laugh, because in India, veganism is not a fad. Our food is all about pulses, lentils, pickling, chutneys and vegetables. Growing up, my dad worked in a steel plant to send us to private school, and education was the priority. So our food was good and wholesome, but meat didn’t take centre stage, and it certainly wasn’t a necessity. I wanted to show that in India, plant-based cuisine is something people don’t do just for the sake of it — it’s a way of life.  

How are the recipes in Zaika shaped by your childhood in West Bengal? 

Our childhood pleasures were basic. My mum (to whom the book is dedicated) didn’t have a fridge, because she preferred to cook fresh food every day — she dedicated her life to cooking. She was doing the whole sustainable, local, seasonal thing long before it was trendy; if the mango season lasted three months, that’s when we’d enjoy them. I’ve tried to carry all that forward into my recipes, some of which really remind me of childhood. There’s a simple dish in the book called sabut matar (spicy freshly podded peas) that reminds me of sitting on the verandah with my mum, shelling peas. She’d always buy extra, so we could eat some along the way.  

Chef and food writer Romy Gill sought inspiration from the food of her childhood in West Bengal.
Photograph by Kirstie Young

Why do you think Indian flavours lend themselves so well to vegan cooking? 

The spices are so versatile; they elevate all sorts of dishes, from dhal — something that’s cooked all over India — to simple ingredients like cabbage, grown here in the UK. Its flavour is really lifted by spice.  

Do the recipes in Zaika draw on influences from your travels? 

Wherever I go, I hunt down recipes and inspiration — food is a language all of its own. In West Bengal, there was a large Hakka community, and their influence is at play in recipes like momos (steamed dumplings) and sweet-and-sour tofu. I like to use seasonal British ingredients, too, in recipes like elderflower pakoras.   

What tips can you offer someone cooking these dishes for the first time? 

Get all your ingredients out first. Spices are important — cumin seeds and garam masala especially. I have a recipe for a homemade garam masala in the book, and I suggest people invite their friends round for a prosecco and a big-batch spice-blending session; that way you can buy whole spices and you won’t waste anything. If you try one recipe first, make it the watermelon with black salt — it’s so quick and delicious. 

Zaika by Romy Gill is published by Orion. RRP £20.

Published in Issue 7 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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