For Ashia Ismail-Singer, food evokes fond memories of her childhood. After long school days: roti spread with ghee and sugar devoured in seconds. On birthdays: chicken biryani bubbling on the stove. At Christmas: sticky carrot halva glistening in bowls. Hours spent watching mum in the kitchen culminated in a lifelong love affair with food and flavours, which came to a head last year with the publication of her cook book, My Indian Kitchen.
Ashia's recipes aren’t just lists of measurements and ingredients. They hold rich memories of her childhood that connect her back to family overseas. Her cooking style is a blend of East and West– think pavlova infused with rose water and saffron; roast chickens smeared in chilli bastes.
One of four girls, Ashia was raised in Malawi. Her grandparents moved to the African nation from Gujarat, India when India and Pakistan separated in 1947. “Food was a link to our heritage. We grew up with a big Indian community around us, so a lot of what we ate was quite traditional.” Ashia recalls walking home from school for a hot lunch as a child– often a pea and potato curry with fresh roti. The thick, chargrilled flatbread was a staple growing up.
There were no supermarkets down the road growing up in the seventies in Malawi, Ashia says. Everything was bought fresh and made from scratch. “You could get good basic ingredients, like vegetables that were freshly picked and all sold in a big basket on the back of a bicycle.” Baked food wasn’t readily available, so decadent cakes, eclairs and jam tarts were all whipped up by her mum.
Ashia’s love for cooking developed when the family moved to England in the late 1980s. “Mum and dad both worked, so my twin Anjum and I split the responsibilities of the house.” While Anjum took on cleaning, a teenage Ashia started to cook. Making roti as perfect and round as her mum’s did take a fair amount of practice.
Ashia trained to become a nurse, and despite long hours worked in the emergency department, she still enjoyed cooking at the day’s end. There was comfort found in chopping garlic and marinating lamb chops after days spent plastering broken bones and stitching wounds.
“I also loved to travel and it was on one of my trips that I ended up in New Zealand and met and married a Kiwi.” In between nursing and raising two children, she began sharing her recipes on a food blog to show cooking Indian dishes didn’t have to be difficult.
The creation of her book, My Indian Kitchen, was a journey six years in the making. “I’d been doing my blog, some food writing for magazines and cooking demonstrations, but I’d always wanted to share my family recipes in my own cook book.”
In 2017 Ashia got the go-ahead from New Zealand publisher Potton & Burton. “In a way the recipes were all there, as I’d been planning my book for a while. It was just a case of figuring out which ones to use and how to split them into different sections.”
A fat scrapbook sitting on Ashia’s kitchen shelf acted as a constant source of inspiration, filled with handwritten family recipes from her mum and sisters. Husband Graham and children Adam, 17 and Zara, 12, were avid taste-testers of Ashia’s recipes. Many chicken curries, mung dhals and rice puddings were devoured at the dinner table as she perfected her creations.
Hours were also spent scouring thrift stores for photoshoot props. “My vision was dark backgrounds with pops of colour, so I would hunt for dishes to suit the style.” This search was followed by the book’s shoot at her Auckland home in summer 2018, where aromas of fresh roti and coconut curry drifted daily to the neighbours for a week and a half. Her troops were well fed: “We’d stop for lunch and eat the food we shot in the morning, so nothing got wasted.” Leftovers were eagerly taken home in Tupperware by those on set.
Holding the first copy of her book and seeing it in stores in October was surreal, Ashia says. “My parents were really overwhelmed too when they got their copies. My mum didn’t know the book was dedicated to her.”
Ashia’s own children were a large part of her motivation to publish My Indian Kitchen. Having a physical book is like preserving a piece of family history, she says. “I want them to stay connected to their Indian heritage. I don’t want them to forget.”