Gurdeep Loyal: “There’s A Joy In Bringing Your Travels To The Kitchen”
The food writer, whose debut cookbook Mother Tongue is out now, talks Indian supermarkets, culinary identities, and boldly flavoured fried chicken sandwiches
21 March, 2023
Gurdeep Loyal answers the phone after enjoying two lunches. The first, a Calabrian chilli pulled pork, was a test recipe for a food magazine that had him dipping into the pan as he cooked. The second was a simple soft-boiled egg sandwich - a Loyal take on old-school egg and soldiers.
Twisting up traditional dishes is something of a signature kitchen move for the food writer, who has just published his first cookbook. Mother Tongue: Flavours of a Second Generation is a creative collection of recipes intertwining Loyal's British and Indian heritage with the flavours and ingredients he's encountered through work, travel and the kitchen tables of his friends. Mixing up Punjabi spices with British roasts and Japanese sandwiches, the recipes are as vivid as the book's neon-pink, paisley-patterned cover. Even the intellectual introduction - which smartly opines that preserving food culture should be a fluid, ever-changing process - is anything but pious. The writing is as warming as the cooking itself, which includes iterations of curried roast chicken, black pepper-roasted strawberries and saffron-infused custard tarts.
Tantalise your tastebuds...
- Dishing up a flavour of the Himalayan Trail
- Scoffing street food in Amritsar, India
- Paris' old school bouillons are back
Here, Loyal chats about his signature cooking style, how travel can shape our palate, and why visiting a local Indian supermarket will open up a world of new flavours.
Gurdeep Loyal on identity, Indian supermarkets and inspiring travel
What does food mean to you?
I was born in Leicester into a very big Punjabi family. I'm a second-generation British Indian, and for any Punjabi, food is the rhythm of our lives.
Where did the idea for Mother Tongue come from?
I've always been interested in the idea that as a second-generation British Indian immigrant, I'm an amalgamation of my mum and my dad, but also myself, by being British by birth.
When I'm at home, or I'm cooking for friends, I mix up all the flavours of everything I'm encountering in the world and pair it with my own British Indian identity. My friends used to say, "why don't you write about this?", so I did.
Gurdeep Loyal, left, and bitter gourds for sale in a British Indian food store. | Photo credit: Matt Russell
In the book, you say that preserving food culture shouldn't be a static process...
It's incredible to look back at people's heritage through food, but I'm more interested in what is happening now. What's the next step? What's the next part of the story? When cuisine travels, what happens to it? For my family, this cuisine travelled from India and Punjab to Britain, and then I've taken it elsewhere and added to it. This hybrid cuisine is an expression of my identity through food. I've eaten my way around the world and discovered that there are as many culinary narratives in the world as there are people, and what's exciting is to allow people to frame their own culinary narrative via their own perspective.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I'm against the idea of there being culinary boundaries. People will look at my cooking and say, "well, that's not British food", or, "that's not Indian food", and I'll say, "no, it's British Indian". I call it third-culture cuisine. I am British and I am Indian, and I am an amalgamation of both. I don't feel people should be locked into any ideas of authenticity because everyone's story - and their food - is authentic to them.
"Multicultural" as a word is often used as a checkbox exercise in the food world. For me, the idea of a concept being intercultural is more interesting - it has more depth, and it's about cultural exchange. In my book - and with my cooking - I want to encourage people to get out to the diaspora-run food stores in their community, whether it's an Indian supermarket or a Greek deli. I've got loads of friends who say, "there's a Vietnamese store at the end of my road and I don't want to go in because I'm a bit scared", and I always say, "go in and see what's there. I guarantee you will come out with two or three things that will amplify your pantry into 1,000 different directions".
Guimarães, left, and a Cretan honey stall. | Photo credit: Toms Auzins / Shutterstock.com
Are there any recipes in the book that best represent your ethos?
I often make the miso-masala fried chicken sandwich. Who doesn't love a fried chicken sandwich? The meat is marinated in a flavour punch of a marinade that combines miso and loads of Indian spices. A signature of my cooking approach is that you can put big flavours with big flavours, and something quite extraordinary happens when you do. It's a global sandwich in its outlook, but it's not complicated or hard to understand - it's a fried chicken sandwich, but just a very, very loud one.
How has travel shaped your cooking?
Between jobs at Innocent Drinks and food marketing at Harrods, I took a year off to go travelling on a sort of culinary pilgrimage. I spent time in America, in Europe and Southeast Asia. It was a year-long adventure where I ate my way around the world. When I travel, I do it with the intention of seeking something, and discovering food producers that create a taste of the place. Wherever you're travelling, do a little bit of research into what the area is known for and how you can access it. Chances are, you'll find an adventurous, worldly and exciting community of food creators wanting to share their story.
One of my favourite places to travel is Greece, because when you drive through the islands - Crete in particular - there are streets lined with people selling whatever they've been growing or making in their gardens, whether it's local honeys or olive oils. For me, an incredible way of seeing a place and getting to know a place is through its taste.
Any other upcoming food destinations on your radar?
There are some incredible food producers in Portugal - the town of Guimarães is full of them. It's a historic place where many of the roots of Portuguese cuisine stem from. There's a store there that sells street snacks from a mountain cave.
And then India is full of so many different cuisines; you should get off the beaten track to find them. So, visit Mumbai and Delhi, but also go to places like Hyderabad, Pondicherry and Lucknow. These destinations are even more exciting for me, because they're not as visited but they have completely unique culinary heritages.
How can travel shape our cooking?
Everyone has their own completely unique culinary story, and it's something that can be, and should be, added to. Look back at your own family history and put that into your kitchen, and combine it with what you experience. There is a wonderful joy in bringing your travels into your kitchen and engaging with diasporic communities wherever you live. Get out there and taste everything.
Mother Tongue: Flavours of a Second Generation (Fourth Estate) is available from bookshop.org for £26.
Main photo credit: Matt Russell