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My life in food: Romesh Ranganathan on Ethiopian cuisine, bizarre food experiences and his mum’s top-secret spice blend

The comedian talks all things culinary, from falling in love with coconut sambal in Sri Lanka to why he’ll never take photographs of his dinner.

By Farida Zeynalova
Published 14 Oct 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 21 Jul 2021, 16:01 BST
Romesh’s new book, As Good As It Gets: Life Lessons from a Reluctant Adult, is out ...

Romesh’s new book, As Good As It Gets: Life Lessons from a Reluctant Adult, is out on 15 October. 

Photograph by Rich Hardcastle

My mum’s a great cook. I grew up eating bucketloads of South Indian and Sri Lankan food. My main memory is mutton curry with white rice, dhal and maybe some cabbage or spinach. I’m vegan now, but back then I ate a lot of meat and that dish was the thing we’d always get excited about. In Sri Lankan food, you also have ‘short eats’ (small snacks) — vade and stuff like that. Dosa, too. She used to make all that.

I recently learnt to cook Sri Lankan food. My mum gave me — for the first time ever — the full recipe for her vegetable curry. We went over for lunch and my mum and I made all the Sri Lankan stuff ourselves. She was over the moon. She’d been waiting years for me and my brother to learn how to do it. She has a secret mix of spices that she’s given to me in a jar, and I’m not allowed to tell anyone. It’s like Colonel Sanders. When she gives the recipe to other people, she deliberately withholds that bit so their curry isn’t exactly like hers. When they tell her it doesn’t taste quite the same, she says [impersonating his mum]: “Oh I don’t know why, I can’t figure it out either!”

The vegan selection in Ethiopia is incredible. They have a fasting period where there’s no meat, dairy or anything like that, so it’s essentially vegan. It means every restaurant has a fasting menu, and the food is amazing. The injera — oh my god. I love it, man. Wherever we went [filming for The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan], there was an incredible vegan meal available. I was really surprised.

In Mongolia, my guide Ider ate a sheep’s head. It didn’t make the show, but we went to a restaurant and he ate the whole head, including the eyeballs and everything. We think it’s strange, but if you’re going to kill an animal, it makes more sense to eat every part of it. I understand the ethical logic and traditions behind that. I just had salad that day.

When I was in the Arctic, I learnt that seal is a massive delicacy. My Inuit guide Johnny and I were sitting on the edge of the frozen ocean listening for whales when a seal popped its head out of the water. Within 10 seconds, Johnny had shot and killed it. It’s a proper delicacy, apparently [seals are legally and sustainably hunted by the Inuit people]. What I wasn’t expecting was for him to start cutting it up and eating bits of it raw. He took it back to the nearest town and shared it with everybody. Not for me.

In Sri Lanka, I properly fell in love with coconut sambal. I was already in love with it, but being there reminded me how much I like it. It’s a spicy, grated coconut that Sri Lankans have for breakfast. I think sambal is the one thing that I probably shouldn’t learn how to make. You know when you put too much food in a goldfish tank and they just eat until they die? I think that’s what would happen if I had infinite access to coconut sambal.

I’ve become more accepting of things that are unusual to my palate. Different nationalities enjoy different things, don’t they? Sometimes, because something doesn’t taste familiar, we react against it. Travelling around has made me more open-minded to different tastes and flavours — all within a very narrow vegan remit, though.

I find timing meals on tour really challenging. You can fall into bad habits quite easily. I can’t eat too close to stage time because I feel lethargic. If I go on stage at 8pm, I normally eat around 5pm. But the problem with eating that early is that when you come off stage, you’d eat a member of your family. I have to be wary of that.

I wouldn’t say it, but I’d be annoyed if someone took time out of a meal to take a photo. I think it’s symptomatic of not being in the moment. Just enjoy it; you don’t have to capture it. I didn’t take a photo of that injera, and I’ve probably romanticised it, but that’s good. I’d rather have my ever-changing memory of it than an exact documentation. I’ve got nothing against photos in general, but I think stopping during a meal to take a photo is against the spirit of the whole thing.

Romesh’s new book, As Good As It Gets: Life Lessons from a Reluctant Adult, is out now (Penguin, £20).

Published in Issue 10 (winter 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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