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Jamie Oliver thinks this Cook in a Curry is just pukka

Newcastle’s Maunika Gowardhan talks to Jane Hall about her debut cookbook and starring role on Jamie Oliver’s new online food channel

Maunika Gowardhan and Jamie Oliver on the set of his new online cookery channel
Maunika Gowardhan and Jamie Oliver on the set of his new online cookery channel

Fifty odd years ago Maunika Gowardhan’s grandmother put her name to a series of cookbooks.

Sai Raut loved cooking and entertaining and her curry parties featuring recipes passed down through generations of the family, were legendary. “She was the culinary toast of Mumbai society,” her granddaughter Maunika Gowardhan says with a smile. “No-one wanted to turn down an invitation to one of my grandmother’s get-togethers.”

Over the course of two decades, more than 200 titles were published under Sai’s name in her native India.

Now Maunika is following in the footsteps of the beloved grandmother whose birthday she shares, with the publication early next year of her debut cookbook, Indian Kitchen.

Like Sai’s books, Indian Kitchen is a celebration of the age-old recipes that have inspired Mumbai born Maunika and are now being enjoyed by her own family – husband Bharat, 40, and son Johann, five – in her new home in Newcastle.

But that is where the similarities between grandmother and granddaughter end.

Maunika Gowardhan filming for Jamie Oliver's new online cookery channel
Maunika Gowardhan filming for Jamie Oliver's new online cookery channel

For in an age when a woman’s place was still very much in the home in India, Sai was forced to self-publish her books and sold only a handful of copies, mainly to family and friends.

Maunika’s effort is already promised a brighter future even before it has hit the bookshelves. It’s in the hands of British publishing giant Hodder & Stoughton and is set to make the private chef and food writer (she has a regular column in Vogue India) a household name not just in the UK but potentially globally too.

Sai sadly hasn’t lived to see her granddaughter’s culinary success and her amazing family recipes being brought to a wider and appreciative audience.

But Maunika knows she would have been immensely proud that her food is being talked about and enjoyed beyond her Mumbai social set and that her granddaughter has so convincingly thrown off the domestic shackles that limited her own gastronomic ambitions.

“My grandmother was a housewife, but she loved to cook and entertain people. Her food was amazing and my grandmother wanted the family to continue to use these recipes that had been passed down through the generations and to be proud of them.

“A lot of family recipes in India tend to be closely guarded secrets, but I think she was ahead of her time in the sense that she realised if she wasn’t to share it those traditions, unique recipes and cooking styles would be long lost.

“So, during the 1950s and 1960s she self-published her recipes. But she did it for completely different reasons to me. I do what I do because I have an immense urge to cook good food like my grandmother, but at the end of the day what I also really want is to make the women in my family proud.

“In India there has always been this thing that boys are better. They get a better education than girls, they get the best jobs and it’s a son who will make you proud. Daughters get married and have children.

Maunika Gowardhan
Maunika Gowardhan

“I was lucky that I was never brought up to believe just because I’m young and because I’m a girl I was anything less than my brother. What my parents gave to my brother they gave to me.

“So being young and intelligent I wanted to be able to show the world I could succeed and do what I wanted to do. I wanted to set an example.

“My parents are very proud of me and what I am doing. My mother is especially proud and she says she knows my grandmother would be delighted too.

“She yearned to share her love of cooking and creating special food and she brought much love and joy not just to the family dinner table but to her dinner parties.

“I would like to think a little of that dinner party hostess fairy dust has fallen on to me.”

Maunika, 36, who moved to Newcastle 12 years ago and started cooking professionally because she missed her own mother’s family recipes, has turned down many publishing deals over the years because the offer never seemed right.

But she was eventually persuaded to sign to Hodder & Stoughton because she says “they understood what I was about.”

And that is a book that will bring to life around 140 of her favourite tried and tested family recipes while at the same time shout about India’s many diverse and varied cuisines, give readers a better understanding of spices and importantly also cater to our busy lifestyles.

As a working mother herself who could on any given day find herself filming alongside celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in London (more on that later), running a cookery class the next or catering at a private dinner party in Dubai, Maunika is well aware that family time is too precious to be burnt up spending hours slaving over a hot stove.

One of Maunika Gowardhan's dishes
One of Maunika Gowardhan's dishes

Indian food only has to be as complicated as you want to make it – and with hundreds of regional variations to choose from, many of which even those born and bred on the sub-continent neither know about or fully appreciate, there are no shortage of tasty and unusual dishes to explore.

Maunika, who travels to India three or four times a year on research trips and to visit her family, says: “It’s a massive sub-continent. There are 29 states alone.

“Every 20km you travel across India the food changes; the weather changes, the culture changes and the crops that are grown change. More rice is eaten in the south and more wheat in the north.

“As you travel you very quickly realise that not every meal is the same. The way you prepare, cook and present food will be different even to how someone does it two villages away.

“I still go back to India and even I am gobsmacked by how different things are. I was there a few months back staying with my cousin and he was making a vegetable curry. I had never seen anyone cook it the way he was.

“I was stood there taking notes and considering I have been cooking for as long as I have, I was still astonished.

“There are a massive amount of spices and dishes to explore and I never stop learning. I believe it is really important to have an inquisitive mind.

“In my lifetime I can’t imagine that I will ever know everything there is to know about Indian food, such is its diversity. My philosophy has always been to soak up everything I can and to get that information out there.

Maunika Gowardhan
Maunika Gowardhan

“Everybody knows what a curry is in the west and a bit about spices. But the vastness of India and what makes a curry unique to a certain area isn’t understood, such as the differences between cooking in Bengali and Gujarati, for example.”

It is this passion and knowledge for her native cuisine that has undoubtedly brought her to the attention of leading food brands such as Tilda rice developing recipes and also fellow foodophiles like Jamie Oliver.

She first worked with the ebullient chef hosting cookery classes at his Recipease food emporium in London. She has also hosted an Indian supper club for Jamie’s Food Revolution.

Then the call came to be part of Jamie’s Food Tube – a free to view YouTube network dedicated to cooking videos, expert tutorials and cheffing talent - which since launching in 2013 has grown from strength-to-strength and now boasts more than 800,000 subscribers.

The channel is home to a variety of cooking genres including baking, barbecuing and Italian food.

 

Last month Maunika was invited to teach Jamie to cook a selection of her favourite Indian dishes.

The fruits of her labours will air on the channel in mid-July and she shares not only easy and simple mid-week recipes but classic Indian regional dishes.

There are family recipes and tips on what spices to stock alongside store cupboard essentials.

Maunika admits to being “chuffed” at being asked to be part of the project and fill what she sees as a gap in the market.

“It was surreal having Jamie standing there wanting to know how to put a recipe together. He loves Indian food and he loves being told what to do.

“What you see on TV is what you get with Jamie. He’s lovely to work with and great fun.”

It’s not Maunika’s first time in front of the camera. Earlier this year she spent a day talking all things curry with Heston Blumenthal for his Channel 4 series Great British Food, which aired in May.

It’s not bad for a woman who originally came to England to study for an MBE in business administration at Cardiff University and went on to work for British Gas before moving to Newcastle to be with Bharat, a surgeon.

It was the move North that changed her life – the self-taught cook spotted a gap in the market for a bespoke Indian catering firm.

The rest as they say is history – although Maunika has had to put in the leg work to make a success of her venture. It’s paid off: her online blog (recommended by the New York Times) where she shares her love of Indian cooking alongside family recipes is now attracting a staggering 50,000 hits a month and has brought her a worldwide audience.

In keeping with her simple culinary philosophy, there is, she says, just one word to describe her life at the moment: “Elated!”

Find out more about Maunika Gowardhan, her recipes and regular cookery classes at www.maunikagowardhan.co.uk

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