The journalist, called something like Leonora, was puzzled and clearly disappointed that this traditional Muslim woman did not provide her with a convenient peg for the balti recipes she was anxious to get into her report. Oblivious, Jena, my mother, persisted, telling her that she was born in East Africa and had only been to Pakistan once in her life: "We eat everything: English food, African food and Indian food. Because that was our life in Uganda before Idi Amin threw us out. Why eat only one kind of food?"
When I was growing up, Uganda was a colony. My school cookery teachers were mainly Anglo-Indian women. They were all thin, haughty and excessively proud that they were at least part English, unlike the rest of us. The first dish I ever learnt to cook was sausage rolls. Didn't go down a treat in my household. But my mother would have died rather than go against the wisdom of a teacher, so she duly bought the sausages and pastry and even let me bring the rolls home before quietly throwing them away. Absurdly, in a country as lush and fertile as Uganda, children were pushed into cooking with imported products such as Kraft tinned cheese and Bird's Eye custard.
The first thing I did when I returned there after 20 years was to go to the market in Kampala, the capital. This is where you could eat tart, unripe mangoes dipped in salt, sugar and chilli, or papaya so mushy the juice ran down your arm. Heaven. Our little flat overlooked this bounteous place and all my early childish paintings were of piles of mangoes and beans and tethered goats. Sometimes, the pictures were splashed with red and black - usually, after I had seen or heard a petty thief being beaten to death.
As in other East African countries, society was neatly colour-coded. Whites lived at the top of the many lovely hills Kampala is built on. They had dark hedges, huge fences, askaris (security men) and dogs that barked whenever a black or Asian passed the gate. Rich Asians lived halfway down the hill, with slightly smaller houses. Their dogs only barked when blacks walked past. Blacks kept no dogs and lived in the valleys below. We Asians envied and feared the whites, but, most of all, we had an intense admiration for our rulers and the distant air with which they carried themselves.
Jena was their biggest fan. But, like many other women in our community, she had mixed feelings about English food. She believed it had to be extraordinarily nourishing for the people of such a small nation to have conquered so much of the world. It made sense not to ignore such culinary power, but we found the food somewhat lacking in taste. So, like other enterprising women, she "repaired" the recipes to make them nicer to eat while retaining (she hoped) their potency.
My mother and those like her also convinced themselves their babies would only thrive if they were fed "pure" English fare. Those who could afford it started buying Heinz baby food. Those who couldn't, felt guilty. To this day, my mother is convinced children should be given Cadbury's milk chocolate because each bar contains one-and-a-half glasses of wholesome milk.
In no time at all, these women were baking cakes, biscuits and pies. They would enter these dishes in cookery competitions and proudly display pictures of themselves with rosettes next to their children's O and A level gold-framed certificates. We all agreed that these cakes and biscuits were more delectable than those being made by the domestic science teachers, because they would taste of saffron and cardamom or have wonderful toppings of carrot halva. Shepherd's pie was tarted up with spring onions, green chillies, garlic and garam masala.
And so it is in Britain. East African Asian cooking, hardly known even by connoisseurs of South Asian food, continues to evolve and excite. We are, after all, migrants many times over and our survival depends on being able to adapt. Hanging on to pure forms of culture and cooking makes no sense. And it is that which makes many of my people among the greatest cooks in the world.
Jena's Fish and Chips, all recipes serve 4
2lb haddock or cod fillet
For the marinade:
1 bunch fresh coriander
12 tsp garlic
1-2 green chillies
14 tsp salt
14 cup water
For the batter:
4oz plain flour
14 pt half milk and half water
14 tsp salt and 12 tsp paprika
For the chips:
2lb potatoes, peeled and sliced into finger-sized chips
2 tbsp tomato puree
2 tsp garam masala
oil for frying
Liquidise together the first six ingredients and marinate the fish in the mixture for at least five hours. Leave it covered and refrigerated. The fish will take on a lovely green colour and the lime will soften the flesh, turning it opaque.
To make the batter, add the salt and paprika to the flour. Beat in the egg, then slowly add the liquid while still beating. Leave covered until the fish is ready to fry.
Shake out excess marinade and dip the fish in the batter and deep-fry for about five minutes on each side until the batter is light brown and crispy.
Start frying the chips. Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan, and pour in the marinade which should be allowed to boil rapidly. Add tomato puree to thicken and a little garam masala. Pour over chips when serving.
Kuku means chicken in Swahili. This is a coastal recipe which was brought inland by traders.
4-5lb chicken, skinned and cut into reasonable sized pieces
1 tbsp freshly crushed ginger
2 tbsp freshly crushed garlic
1 tbsp fresh coriander crushed with 1 hot green chilli
2-3 chopped fresh tomatoes
(or 12 tin chopped tomatoes)
112 tins coconut milk
12 tsp turmeric
12 cup crushed unsalted cashews
1 onion, chopped
2 tbsp oil
half a lime
Grease an ovenproof dish and lay out the chicken in a single layer. Mix together the ginger, garlic and coriander/chilli mixture and rub over the chicken. Drizzle a little of the oil over this and bake at a highish temperature (around 200C/400F/Gas mark 6) for 20-30 minutes until the liquid has evaporated and the chicken is slightly brown on top.
Meanwhile, fry onions until golden. Add tomatoes, turmeric and cashews. Fry a little until the oil bubbles up and add the coconut milk. Cook gently until thickish. If it is too runny, add a tablespoon of cream. Pour over the chicken and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes.
Serve with lime slices and good white bread to soak up the sauce. And, yes, we did make and eat bread.
Not for the faint-hearted, but wonderful. I made it for Madhur Jaffrey recently and she swooned with pleasure. Eat it once before you die.
1lb carrots, grated
1lb wild Hunza apricots (available from Asian and health food stores) or ordinary dried apricots
34 tin condensed milk
12 pt full cream fresh milk
1 tin evaporated milk
pinch crushed cardamom
14 pt whipped double cream
1 tbsp toasted almonds
1 tbsp grated chocolate
Soak the apricots in boiling water for about two hours. Boil the carrots and apricots with all the milks over low heat for an hour. Stir from time to time until you get a sticky orange mush with no liquid left. Add the crushed cardamom.
Spread in a shallow bowl and refrigerate for three hours. Before serving, spread with whipped cream and sprinkle with toasted almonds and grated chocolate. If you have used the wild apricots, you can use the lovely nuts in the kernels which are hell to crack. Eat in very small bowls with very small spoons or you may end up as fat as my unclesReuse content