“PUT POTATO IN FRIDAY BEAUTY”
“JUST ONE WORD”
My friend Emma and I spent two days rapturously screaming at each other on WhatsApp about potatoes. It started as an offhand comment about being CARBS AND WAILING days away from your period.
“I’m planning on making the gunpowder potatoes from my Dishoom book for dinner. Just that. A mountain.”
Given I was CARBS AND WAILING days away from my period too (being in separate cities is no barrier to the witch coven synchronisation of cycles), this filled me with ravenous hunger and a wash of memory.
I looked up the recipe, opened my fridge and started to cook.
At the risk of sounding like the (former) London dwelling working in media hipster I resist being, Dishoom is a chain of Indian restaurants that started in London. From Bombay with love, writes their website. They’re a tribute to the old Irani cafes in Bombay that were run by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran.
The one in Shoreditch was one of my favourite places to eat in the city.
I always ordered the gunpowder potatoes.
1. Boil a large pan of salted water. Add the potatoes and cook until just tender — 12–15 minutes.
Last summer, my friend David was over from the States for a few weeks and I got to show him my London, the places I loved. I took him to Dishoom for lunch and he grinned at the décor as much as the food, the carved dark fret wood panels, the courtyard area with plants, the tiled bathroom with brass taps. His visit was the start of these Friday Beauties after two weeks of me sharing parts of my world with him, he nudged me — wouldn’t it be cool if you did this?
I met my friend Damien there for brunch, and we sat and talked for hours, parked at our table outside, re-ordering for lunch, and the waitress smiled at us. Naan bacon rolls, flakey crisp vegetable samosas, black daal, creamy rich and sinfully good, bowls of greens — grilled broccoli, snow peas, kale, crunchy, citrus sharp and spring fresh. I ate with people I loved there and I laughed a lot.
2. Meanwhile, toast all the seeds in a hot dry frying pan for 2 minutes until fragrant.
My tiny Irish mother hails from a small town in Galway. She learned to cook Indian food for my Pakistani dad from Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks, yellow paged and pencil marked in the kitchen cupboards.
She’d buy whole spices from the Indian corner shops, and toast them in a pan, the smell scenting the house. We’d have tandoori chicken marinated in yoghurt with garlic, ginger, lemon and spice overnight for Christmas and birthdays, dashed with red splodges of food colouring because you ain’t gonna get tandoori ovens in the suburbs outside Loughborough to give you the authentic look.
I learned from her. She set me to chopping, stirring and peeling. When we’d been fighting, what was sharp between us got soothed by the silence of cooking together, hands busy, anger melting away. She grew up on a farm, where she’d pulled carrots and potatoes from the dark earth, kept chickens for eggs, and spent spring lambing out in the fields. She smuggles back legs of lamb from Ireland in her suitcase when she visits, kept in pride of place in the freezer.
She held her suspicion of processed food like a family grudge. No McDonalds for us as kids. Cooking should be done from scratch with real food. On Sundays, we’d bake mini sponge cakes for school packed lunches. 8 ounces of self-raising flour, 8 ounces of caster sugar, 8 ounces butter, 4 eggs, a dash of vanilla essence, spooned into patterned cake cases. They’d sit in my lunch box, next to a tangerine, which she’d already started to peel.
Whatever was happening, the kitchen was a place we’d actually talk to each other and listen.
When I think of it now, I realise how many quiet acts of love were in it. She learned to make food for my father, from another place, another culture she had not been to, that she did not know. A taste from home. The daily ordinary devotion and sometimes domestic drudgery keeping her family fed. Food cooked, on the table, meal after meal, day after day, the dishes done, the kitchen cleaned and out to the shops to do it again.
Inheritance is many things. Food and cooking are something she gave me.
3. Crush them in a pestle and mortar, then set aside.
My cupboards are filled with spices. There’s already fennel there, cumin, coriander, turmeric, garam masala, chilli powder, mustard seed, bags of whole spices from the corner shop.
Everything is biography, says Lucien Freud.
In between house-shares in London, I stayed with my friends Bronya and Chris, crashing in their spare room as I went through the weeks long ordeal of housemate interviews and house viewings. When I opened their kitchen cupboards, there were spices, but more herbs, and zaatar and sumac. Bronya’s Jewish, and that, the Middle East and Israel comes through their food. They keep a kosher kitchen, plates for meat and milk and host Friday night dinners, rich with friends, light candles for Shabbat and celebrate the week and the rest.
We cooked together, danced in the kitchen and sat around the table that looked out onto their downstairs neighbours’ garden, with visiting fox, and ate. Bronya’s a hugger and sometimes she’d reach out and wrap her arms around me. Chris, who is Welsh, made us shakshuka for brunch, eggs baked in a spiced tomato sauce, something he’s learned from Bronya, from her friends, her community.
She told me how when they first started dating, he made her porridge for breakfast. She took a bite and grimaced. It was inedible. Bronya was gently forthright. I’m sorry, but I can’t eat this.
A week or two later, the dates were going well enough she was staying over again, he made her porridge again. It was the best she’d tasted. He’d bought an Anna Jones cookbook and learned. One of the many reasons he was a keeper.
Before lockdown, I sat in their kitchen with a cup of tea, watching them in the ballet of chores and tasks, juggling a toddler and a newborn, cooking together, the routine of family life, meal after meal.
For breakfast, Chris handed me a bowl of porridge, infused with ginger and pushed over a jar of fresh berry compote. It’s some of the best I’ve ever had.
4. Drain the potatoes and steam dry in the colander for a minute.
Emma’s making gunpowder potatoes, in her flat, in her kitchen and we text in shared glee.
Someone should do a delivery service that is just potatoes.
Triple fried chips, roast potatoes in goose fat, garlic mash with sea salt and black pepper.
Rosemary baked new potatoes. Hasslebacks.
WHY IS NO ONE DOING THIS?!
When I lived in London, when life got hard for either of us, I’d invite her over for dinner. I’d ask for use of the living room with my flatmates and I’d cook, and sometimes send her home with Tupperware boxes of leftovers.
Sweet potato gratin with lime, chilli, peanut butter and coconut milk. Daal. Sage butternut squash soup. Carrot and roasted chickpea salad with pistachio nuts, parsley and a tahini, olive oil and lemon dressing.
The food I’ve learnt to make for my no dairy, no gluten, no meat, friends tends oddly towards orange, but hey, it’s a choice for that to be a feature ,not a bug. The last time I cooked for her was in her flat, a mushroom risotto I’d overdone on the booze, with toasted pine nuts and parmesan.
If I love you, I’ve fed you. If I’ve fed you, I love you. Food and the sharing of it is a love language of its own. Here’s my home, here’s my hearth, my heart. Come over, I’ll cook. Weekend brunches, story dinners, pot lucks. Food is all kinds of nourishment.
It’s one of the many small aching ironies of lockdown that for the first time in years I have my own flat, my own kitchen, a dining table that stretches out I bought with guests in mind and I can’t have people over for dinner, for lunch, for breakfast, to sit together, to drink tea and talk.
These days, too often food is something I do in front of a laptop screen. But sometimes it’s cooking together in different cities, sometimes it’s the phone on speaker, talking as you cook and photos of the shared food you make.
5. Heat the grill to high. Put the potatoes on a baking tray. Brush with oil and grill until crispy and browned — 5–7 minutes. Turn the potatoes over and repeat to crisp and colour the other side.
I’m munching on dried mango as I cook. It’s been tropics hot and heat heavy, an Indian summer heatwave in a country fundamentally not built for heat, and when it gets like this, it’s a Pavlonian craving. Eat mango.
When I slump on a chair and close my eyes, it could be a decade ago. I could be in my flat in Gizenga Street in Zanzibar, above the book shop, opposite the big mosque.
Except that flat had fans, air that moved, and a wooden balcony that opened onto the streets, with cool tiles under your feet, where the street vendors would push barrows, with fresh mango, with a twist of salt and chilli. The salt crunched on your tongue, the chilli tingled and burned against the ripe bursting sweetness of the mango.
Zanzibar had Zoroastrians too. They claim Freddie Mercury as a favoured son, for tourist merch at least, for the few years his Iranian family lived here when he was a kid. Tucked away in the winding streets is a Zoroastrian temple where the fires once used to burn.
The islands are a melting pot, nestled off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. You see it in the architecture, the old Arab fort on the seafront, the mosques. Stone Town’s streets with the arched grand carved dark wooden Zanzibar doors that are a blend of Indian and Arabic influences, ornate with floral patterns in startling geometric symmetry. The brass spikes studding them meant to deter elephants, an Indian heritage.
Zanzibar was known for spices. Under Omani Arab rule, the islands sold coconuts, slaves and spices. There are spice farms there, where I learned nutmeg grows inside a fruit like a peach. Slice it open and the nutmeg is the glossy brown stone buried inside the white flesh, wrapped in the red lace of mace. Wander through the streets and you can buy curls of cinnamon bark, sticky dark vanilla pods, and cloves. If you get the boat over to Pemba, the scent of cloves rolls off the island and the bees make smoky sweet amber dark clove honey.
I learned how to bake cinnamon rolls from the Pioneer Woman in Texas, grinding fragrant curls of bark harvested from trees on the island. I scraped fresh vanilla into pancakes, made pilau rice with chilli, cardamom and cloves.
Sometimes I’d wander the five minutes down to the street food market in the evenings to eat. Zanzibar pizza, more a savoury omelette meets crepes, filled with minced meat, chilli and coriander, mishkaki meat skewers cooked over an open flame, samosas — called sambusas here, sugarcane, lime and ginger juice, tooth rottingly sweet and cool.
I worked for a small publishing company and edited a cookbook out there. Walking to work, I’d often buy breakfast, mandazi, fried dough balls not unlike a doughnut, flavoured with cardamom, sambusa, cassava crisps again with chilli and salt. For all the fresh fish and seafood on the island, lobster, prawns, swordfish, red snapper and more, my sea creature food aversion felt like a waste.
Life there was much about food. I met my fairy godmother there and we’d have four-hour long teas in the Archipelago café which looked out over the ocean, where we’d drink passion fruit juice, chai, share cakes and talk. When it was full moon, my friend Peter and I’d go for sunset moonrise drinks on the spired rooftop tower of one of the quieter hotels, watch the sun slip into the ocean in orange red glory and the moon, a pale golden coin, rise from the other side of the island.
There was a family restaurant hidden away that served a hibiscus and tamarind juice I had once that was sweet, tart, cool and so so good I’ve never forgotten it. My friend Leigh Ann and I spent a day in my kitchen making pineapple hooch called Tapu Tapu from a recipe one of her co-workers gave her. I found the dated photos on my phone memory, cheersing with champagne glasses.
Food can be travel, memory and home all at the same time.
6. Put the crushed spices in a large bowl with the melted butter, spring onions, coriander and chillies. Remove the potatoes from the grill and divide each one in half, using a metal spoon so you create rough edges. Put the potatoes straight into the spice bowl and toss until well combined.
Life has gotten very simple in lockdown. I’ve been thinking about food from the start. Small gratitudes. I have cupboards full of food, I can pay my bills for the electricity to cook. On my harder days, sometimes food is comfort — a tray of roast potatoes, a bowl of spaghetti carbonara.
Sometimes it’s a chore, especially when past me has failed on bulk cooking and frozen portions. Then I eat oatcakes with peanut butter for dinner, whack on smoothies for the vitamins, and binge on bad snacks — bags of Chilli Heatwave flavoured Doritos, bacon fries crisps, and a Vienetta from the Co-op because that was the only damn ice cream they had. I’ve ordered pizza three times and I miss London’s take out game often, but mostly I cook.
I go to the market in the morning each week, and pick up my vegetables, buy fresh local eggs, get bread from the local bakery, sometimes with a croissant, a pain au chocolate, and in one memorable moment of curiosity driven sickly regret, a cronut. Sometimes the stall folk are only other actual humans I speak to in a week.
When I was community volunteering, I worried about food. I still do. I worry about food poverty. I talk to Damien who started a food bank this year feeding families in North London and has got land to start community gardens. I donate to the food bank and projects here.
I worry about harvests, biblical swarms of locust devastating East Africa, the Arabian Gulf, and with India and Pakistan on alert. Our food is global — the coffee you drink with sugar, the rice, our chocolate comes from cocoa beans grown mostly from West Africa and other equatorial regions, our fruit and vegetables are largely flown in from Europe, our farms depend on Eastern Europeans to pick and pack our food.
We only produce 52% of our own food in the UK. We’ve got a dark harvest growing this winter that will reap bitterness, when Covid meets Brexit agriculture import price rises, falling food standards as EU regulations evaporate and the US hammers us to take chlorinated chicken in a trade deal.
Rising food prices, recession driven falling incomes and a government that does not seem to care enough and certainly not about all. Millions of households in the UK are already going hungry. It’s hard for us to look clear eyed at the immensity what’s coming. We get frozen not knowing what to do and turn away.
When I feel like that, I’ve learned to ask myself, what can I do around me? What’s something small that would help?
Stroud is big on local food and organic produce. There’s a farmer’s market, community farms and local food co-operatives. On my alpaca and llama questing walks, the public footpath takes me through fields and local farms where there’s chard and kale reaching up through the earth, sheltered under polytunnels. One of my co-volunteers offers me a squash plant from his allotment, there are seed sharing groups, a woman selling tomato seedlings to buy. Swing by and drop some money in the honesty box.
I live in a flat with no garden, no space for window boxes and I think about hydroponic food growing. About turning my back wall into a living garden space. I read about the Sikh community kitchens feeding thousands. I see the local free food fridges cropping up in Stroud. Take what you need. People ask to see if they can drop off the vegetables from their gardens — we’ve got extra to spare and want to share. There are soup kitchens that have been feeding the local community for free, neighbours dropping off meals for people on their street they didn’t know six months ago.
I grow herbs on my windowsill. I make shakshuka topped with the coriander that grows in gold tin can and eat the rest of my gunpowder potatoes. I prep carrot and chickpea salad for a picnic with a friend who’s driving up to see me with blackcurrants and strawberries from his garden.
I think about what hospitality used to mean. When a stranger knocks on your door, you open your home and you feed them. What happens when you sit down with people, break bread together and eat.
How in feeding others, you feed yourself.
7. Add the sea salt, lime juice and kebab masala, adjusting them to taste, then serve.
Dishoom’s gunpowder potatoes recipe in full is here. They are godly.
Damien’s food bank is here and if you can spare a little, donations would help people hugely.
The Trussell Trust can direct you to your local food bank in the UK if you want to donate, volunteer or need support.
Friday Beauty is a series of emails I send about one beautiful thing I’ve encountered that week. You can subscribe here.