Despite an obvious passion for food, a culinary career wasn’t always part of the plan for Anjum Anand. “As an Indian you’re never really encouraged to become a [professional] cook,” she says, explaining that, after generations of women taking on that role, they now had a world of opportunity outside the kitchen. But while education and career choices were abundant, for the London-born cookbook author, it was the rich experiences of different cultures – she also spent time living and studying in Paris, Madrid and America – that steered her path. “When you’re young, the more places you live, the more influences you have,” says Anjum, who shares a home in London with her husband Adarsh, daughter Mahi, 10, and five-year-old son Adi.
More recently, she’s added Australia to the list; she's been several times, including a trip to film her new television series, Anjum’s Australian Spice Stories.
The cookbook author’s passion for Indian food began at an early age, when she recalls being the only one of three children in her household who would volunteer to help her mum in the kitchen. “Cooking when you’re young is quite crafty,” recalls Anjum, who spent much of her childhood in Geneva, Switzerland with her family before returning to the UK capital at 14. “I would roll somosas, round meatballs… It was a fun way of learning how to cook.”
“Samosas and a cup of masala tea are perfect tea-time fare but equally delicious as a light meal. Samosas were the first Indian food I remember helping my mother with. She would sit me down at the table with the filling and strips of dough and I would try my hardest to make perfect triangular samosas for the guests coming that evening. These would then be fried when the guests were there so they could enjoy hot samosas. These may look complicated with a long list of ingredients but they are actually quite straightforward to make and you can double the batch and freeze half for another day. While samosas are usually fried, I like to wrap mine in filo pastry and bake them.” Anjum Anand, Anjum's Australian Spice Stories
Fast forward seven cookbooks, a food range and a BBC series and Anjum has certainly learnt a thing or two about whipping up a delicious Indian dish – and she’s on a mission to change perceptions of the cuisine. “There are definitely preconceived ideas about Indian food,” says Anjum of the belief that it’s all hot and heavy. “What I want to bring to the table is that it’s so much more than a chicken tikka masala.” Her recipes, filled with fresh ingredients and flavourful spices, are designed to inspire home cooks with light and simple ways to create her native fare.
Cooking wasn’t her first career choice. After completing a European Business degree and a stint in the corporate world, Anjum realised she would be unsatisfied creatively if she stayed put and decided to pursue her passion. A year spent working in various restaurants – including Mondrian in Los Angeles, Café Spice in New York and the Park Royal Hotel’s Indian restaurant in New Delhi – confirmed that she’d made the right decision. “I wanted to explore that world and once I got in, I never got out. It has been a great journey.“
Constantly inspired by the vastness of flavours and aromas found in India, Anjum visits as often as she can and each time tastes something new. “My parents have a home in Delhi and my in-laws live in Calcutta, so we have two bases we can call home,” she says, adding that travellers expecting to find endless curries may be surprised at the diversity of the cuisine. “The street food is amazing,“ she says, recounting the “herby, tangy and minty” discoveries at the markets – from barbequed kebabs to grilled tandoori chicken served with fresh chutney. “India is a nation of great cooks, and when you eat local food where it belongs it just tastes better.”
This passion for provenance is reflected in Anjum’s choice of ingredients, where the focus is on fresh, seasonal produce inspired by the different regions of India and their varied cuisines. “Because there has never been a lot of refrigeration and transport in the country, you always eat what’s local,” says Anjum of India’s food landscape. ”If you’re in Punjab, the cuisine is based around what they grow there, we would only be eating local, seasonal food and that is it.”
Choosing food that nourishes the body comes naturally to Anjum, who is a strong believer in the ancient Indian science of Ayurveda. Translating to ‘knowledge of life’, it is a preventative rather than curative way of living, she explains, and her book Eat Right For Your Body Type is inspired by its principles. The Ayurvedic viewpoint first resonated with Anjum around 10 years ago when, struggling with indigestion and a lack of energy, several doctors couldn’t diagnose the problem. “I went to an Ayurvedic spa and the doctor figured me out in five minutes,” she says. “They put me on a course of herbal medicine and helped me to understand how the body works.”
Anjum adds that the traditions of Ayurveda had been part of her food journey long before her experience at the spa. “When you’re Indian, [Ayurveda] comes into your life very covertly,” she says. “If I had a cold when I was young, mum would give me some milk with turmeric, honey and a bit of ginger, that’s just what was passed down to her.” Turmeric and ginger aside, what are her other pantry essentials? “Spices, onions, garlic, tomatoes and yoghurt. When you have those you can make anything.” She'll often add to these a sauce or chutney from The Spice Tailor, a food range Anjum developed to recreate homemade-tasting meals. “Indian dishes are so full of wonderful spices that all do something different once in the body,” she says.
Recognising that healthy and mindful eating is important to many Australians, Anjum is looking forward to sharing her cooking with a new audience on her upcoming series, Anjum’s Australian Spice Stories. “Australians love cooking and they love flavour,” she says. “They are used to spices as they have a lot of Southeast Asian flavours already.” From exploring Melbourne’s night markets to putting an Indian twist on Australian classics, Anjum has tried as much as possible to choose local produce and merge them into the Indian spice world. “There are so many things to offer which I know will work really well with the Australian palate,” she says.
The chef hopes that through the series she can empower home cooks to have a go at creating simple and healthy Indian dishes. “I’m excited for people to think about Indian food in a different way,” she says. “I want them to see that Indian food is really interesting and that you can cook it at home without a lot of stress. I’d love for people to think, ‘that looks tasty, I can do that.’ ”
Anjum’s Australian Spice Stories airs every night from Monday April 4 at 7:30pm AEST on Food Network Australia.
“Dosa are spongy, yet thin and crisp pancakes made from a fermented lentil and rice batter. As they take a long time to prepare, I started making this quick version from a ground rice batter. While they don’t have the unique flavour of authentic dosa, they make light and crispy envelopes for this lovely, spiced potato filling. To add more protein to the dish, I add more lentils to the potatoes than normal and serve it with coconut chutney on the side. You can buy dosa batter from Indian shops if you prefer a more authentic experience. The coconut chutney is very easy to whiz up – especially if you have store-bought grated coconut in the freezer (which I highly recommend doing).” Anjum Anand, Anjum's Australian Spice Stories
“This is a truly delicious way to eat chicken whether it is sunny or not. There are no tricks except a long marinating time and the chicken becomes really juicy. If you like the red of tandoori chicken, you can add some food colouring to the marinade, but I prefer the flavours as they are and don’t miss the colour so I’ll leave it to you. I serve this with the green herb chutney.” Anjum Anand, Anjum's Australian Spice Stories