Tofu fried in garlic, soy and chilli sauce. Fragrant saag aloo with a freshly baked naan. Velvety cavolo nero melted into a nutty spelt risotto. Award-winning cook, food writer and Guardian columnist Meera Sodha is brimming with mouth-watering recipes that prove meat-free doesn’t have to mean missing out.
Photo credit: David Loftus
Born in Lincolnshire to Ugandan Indian parents, food is integral to Sodha’s identity, as documented in her three critically-acclaimed books: Made in India, Fresh India, and East, a collection of 120 vegan and vegetarian recipes from Bangalore to Beijing. Fuelled by a desire to keep her ancestors’ traditions alive, Sodha’s food is vibrant, delicious and surprisingly easy to make.
She took time out from working on her new book to chat to us about the perfect mid-walk picnic, why the aroma of waffles will always remind her of Watergate Bay, and her favourite vegan recipes to cook for her young family (think maximum flavour, minimum effort).
What does vegan food mean to you?
A celebration of vegetables. Veganism shines a light on the great spectrum of them and the myriad ways they can be transformed into the most delicious of things.
Some people worry that eating vegan food won’t fill them up, or view vegetables as a side dish as opposed to the main event. How would you persuade them otherwise?
There are billions of people across the world who eat a vegetable-led diet every day without going hungry. I'd take a cynic along to my favourite South Indian restaurant in London, Rasa, and order a variety of curries from aubergine to tomato and beetroot, with some dosas or lemon rice alongside – then watch them waddle out.
What vegan dish do you turn to if you need energy before exercise or a pick-me-up on a long walk?
I don't like to eat much before a long walk as I find it slows me down. I do, however, absolutely love stopping for a picnic along the way. During lockdown, I made this leek tabbouleh multiple times for walks around Epping Forest and Hampstead and a cheeky little slice of banana bread or malt loaf for afters.
Veganism shines a light on the great spectrum of vegetables and the myriad ways they can be transformed into the most delicious of things.
Can you share some examples of delicious, healthy vegan alternatives to classic carb fests?
I love tofu, fried hard and covered in a garlic, soy and chilli sauce, like in my chilli tofu (although it is extra delicious with a charred roti on the side) and this tofu, coconut and green bean curry is a perfect and lively mid-week recipe.
Does cooking vegan food force you to be more creative? If so, in what ways?
In writing my Guardian vegan column (in which I write a new recipe every week) I have to constantly find new and interesting ways to transform vegetables into a meal for four. I’m always experimenting with new ingredients – and new ways of cooking them. Often, I don't know exactly what will happen and I have to be prepared to fail regularly in order to learn something and get somewhere better.
Do you think vegan food can still feel indulgent?
Of course! Indulgence is subjective. My idea of indulgence is eating asparagus on 23rd April, after not having eaten it for a year. It's eating tomato spaghetti (my favourite) made with the best tin of San Marzano tomatoes I can buy – or – my favourite home-cooked Pakistani-style saag aloo, in which the potatoes are perfectly fudgy, with a freshly baked naan from the tandoor.
It's pretty clear now that eating a vegan diet doesn't mean you have to forgo sweet treats. I adore the bitter chocolate sorbet from Gelupo and the banana cake recipe above.
My idea of indulgence is eating my favourite home-cooked Pakistani-style saag aloo, in which the potatoes are perfectly fudgy, with a freshly baked naan from the tandoor.
What are some of your favourite ways to work up an appetite – or burn off a big meal – at Watergate Bay?
The pool at Watergate Bay is one of my happy places. I would happily spend an hour there swimming some lengths. The beach is magnificent too. My husband really likes to go surfing and one of these days, I'll work up the courage to go with him.
I always go with the intention of being active but as soon as I get to Watergate Bay, the simple life gets the better of me. I love climbing the rocks with my five-year-old and plunging my fists into the sand. And my husband Hugh and I had the most idyllic meal looking out over a magical sunset at Emily Scott's restaurant.
Photo credit: @thelifeofajr
Is there an ingredient that instantly makes you think of Cornwall, or taste that transports you back to Watergate Bay?
Waffles! The last time we stayed, we were in the new beach lofts where there is a waffle-making station en route to our room. That smell is inimitable and, for me, it really is Watergate Bay's signature smell.
When we stayed in the new beach lofts there was a waffle-making station en route to our room. So, for me, that is Watergate Bay's signature smell!
Of all the vegan recipes in your books and Guardian column, which ones do you return to again and again?
The recipes I come back to time and time again are the most flavourful but lowest effort recipes – as my children are still very young. In the spring, I'll make my spring pilau with asparagus and fennel. In the summer, I love cooking my tomato curry for when tomatoes are ripe to bursting. In the autumn, this cavolo nero and spelt dish is gorgeous, and in the winter I love cooking my Thai green curry for friends and family. You whizz up the paste and cook it out. It couldn't be simpler.
Do you still eat meat?
90% of what I eat comes from plants – it’s how I've always eaten growing up in a Gujarati Indian house. However, I leave a little room in my diet for meat, fish and dairy out of pleasure or tradition. I have been vegetarian on and off for years and vegan for months at a time but I always come back to this way of eating as it works for me.
East was such a brilliant, inspirational yet accessible cookbook. What are you working on next?
Thank you, that’s so kind. I’m working on another book, but slowly. Asia is gradually opening up after the pandemic and I am planning an escape – in the name of food research.