Shashi Aggarwal arrived in Birmingham from India on a freezing day in January 1972 wearing just a sari to keep her warm. Knowing no one, Shashi found comfort in using the spices that reminded her of home. Since then, she has gone on to establish Spice Kitchen together with her son. Starting over the kitchen table on Christmas Day 2012, the business is centred around Shashi's vast spice knowledge. Mother and son team run Spice Kitchen and carefully handpick only the highest quality spices, manufacturing blends in-house to ensure freshness and flavour. Their signature products are an array of beautifully dressed sari wrapped spice tins, in honour of the sari Shashi wore when she first arrived. The sari wrapped spice tins are colourful and stand out on shelves for luxury gifting.
In an exclusive interview with Asian Voice, she spoke about Indian food culture.
Q - If you were to describe traditional Indian food culture, what dishes and adjectives would you use?
This is a really interesting question and one I've been debating with my son Sanjay recently. Because when we look at culture and dishes from our heritage, it's so deeply rooted in family and what we inherited from our direct ancestors. So in a sense, we all experience food culture differently, which is what makes Indian food culture so exciting.
I've been a lifelong vegetarian, and when I asked the extended family to share what they feel are the dishes of our culture, they all had something to say! But the standouts were Kheer Pureh – which is a sweet Rice Pudding with flatbreads that are served as a main meal to celebrate the start of the rainy season. The rainy season is something we always celebrated when I was growing up back home. Similarly, Sambar, which is a lentil vegetable stew. This is a South Indian staple recipe, served with various dishes, such as rice, dosa and steamed dumplings. It's both humble and versatile and would have been a go-to recipe for many households due to the availability and affordability of the ingredients.
At the moment, there are lots of people trying to recreate 'authentic' dishes and the conversations I've been having recently have led me to question whether that authenticity really exists, or whether authenticity really means trusting in the dishes you create at home, with your family, that bring you nourishment and hopefully, joy. Because that's all our ancestors would have been doing.
Q - What according to you sets traditional Indian food apart from the most exotic worldly dishes?
The most obvious answer is, of course, spices! The colour, smell, flexibility, variation and vibrancy they can bring. But Indian food, for me, is all about sharing, connections and community. When we make a meal at home or go out to a restaurant, we focus on sharing and experiencing lots of flavours and textures. No one has a dish and keeps it for themselves. I think this is beautifully symbolic when you think about what its beyond the kitchen table and into talking about a way of life.
Q - What are the foundation and a key method to getting Indian cooking right?
Great question! There's so much I could say, and I'm thinking now about some of my cooking techniques and can immediately hear my mother, sisters, aunties and even my son disagreeing with me. More than anything, I would say that the key to getting Indian cooking right is honouring the ingredients – particularly the spices – and learning how to get the best flavour out of them. You don't need to overload your dishes with masses of spice if you know how to layer flavour.
Q - Do you think Asian restaurants in the UK have been able to propagate the right food culture when it comes to Indian dishes?
There are restaurants doing a great job, and then there are those that perhaps aren't necessarily following traditional methods. But that's Ok; I feel like there is a place for all approaches. The most obvious example of a restaurant that has managed to capture both the spirit and culture of India is, of course, Dishoom!
Q - What does the food culture of a community say about its beliefs and traditions?
I think I touched on it before when I mentioned Indian food being an all-around community and sharing. It's certainly true for our family: food plays a significant part in bringing us together. Often, at big family gatherings, everyone brings something to the table, and this is such a great metaphor for the wider culture and way of life, in terms of honouring each person and what they bring to the table. Traditionally, everyone in the family had an important part to play in the running of the household, there was so much to do, and each person was crucial to that effort. So when we gather together, and everyone brings a dish, we honour that history simultaneously.