Queen of healthy Indian food and feasts, Mira Manek released her first book: Saffron Soul earlier this year.
In this interview we ask Mira a few questions about the ideas behind the book and her food memories. Can Indian food shake the image of a greasy, indulgent take-away?
What gave you the idea for the book?
I grew up eating healthy, nutritious and incredibly tasty Indian food and then stepped away from it as a teenager, thinking oil is the one thing I simply cannot eat (for fear of getting FAT), opting instead for granola bars, skinny lattes and coffees. I realised many years later that I had it all wrong (almost ludicrously wrong) and went about changing this perception and creating a whole new array of Indian-inspired recipes, full of flavour, lightly spiced and happily wholesome.
How did you see a gap in the market when it came to Indian food?
The Indian food that we eat in restaurants is cooked in such a way as to make it spicy and flavourful but also rich in oil and cream and therefore heavy. Making a curry at home is daunting, because the flavours we are used to eating in restaurants are so complex – how do we recreate them? And therefore it’s easier to get a takeaway.
What I’m trying to do is take the spice box out of the context of curries and daals and making it more accessible for daily use.
Making Indian-inspired roasts and soups and salads, making a light curry as an addition to a Buddha bowl. That’s why my cookbook Saffron Soul is so easy to use for anyone and everyone, as long as you’re equipped with the key spice box or masala dabba!
A lot of people still struggle with the idea of Indian food as unhealthy takeouts and greasy indulgence – what do you think of these misconceptions?
It’s absolutely true – when you think of Indian food, the first thing that come to mind is spicy, heavy, greasy – rather than nutritious, healthy yet flavourful. It really should be the latter! Indian spices, the lentils and grains we use are all so healthy and create a balanced diet. It’s all about the way it’s cooked and in restaurants, many of the dishes contain extra oil, ghee and cream. Add to that a delicious but stodgy naan bread and you’ve got yourself a rather heavy meal.
The great thing is, we are seeing many more South Indian and Indian street food restaurants popping up – South Indian food is especially lighter and healthy – but people are also becoming more acquainted with the spices at home, using cumin seeds in a stir fry and of course turmeric in drinks.
We need to see more of this – once people start understanding the basic concepts of how to use the spices, they’ll realise how easy it is and how much flavour they add with a dash of spice!
Have you got any fond memories of cooking and preparing delicious foods from your childhood?
As a child, I ate all the delicious curries and fresh hot rotis prepared by my mother, grandmother and aunts (we grew up in a very large family!) so when it came to making anything, I was usually baking. I loved baking flapjacks and cakes and biscuits, but also making the best ever crunchy chakris, snacks that we make only at Diwali.
It’s a complex recipe and these circular treats are deep fried so it’s not a recipe I’ve jotted down properly yet but I loved getting involved in the process – so fun and festive.
What about spices, what’s your favourite spice mix for curries?
The necessary start of most curries is mustard seeds and cumin seeds (both or one or the other), once the mustard seeds pop, you add the rest. If there’s one go-to spice mix, I would say it’s garam masala, which is now available in most supermarkets. It’s such a warming earthy blend of spices, so it works well in anything!
What’s your favourite spice to add to sweet dishes?
Saffron! The colour and subtle flavour, and of course it’s the name of my book Saffron Soul!
It’s delicate and subtle yet oozes out colour and has a very distinct flavour – a little really goes a long way. Add a few saffron strands to your yoghurt (must be thick!), stir in a pinch of cardamom and some honey, then sprinkle with pistachios – that there is Shrikhand and it’s just divine! I’ve got a shrikhand cheesecake recipe in my book, one of my favourites!
Indian food is less known for its delicious sweet treats, what is one that you are particularly fond of?
Indian sweets can be super sweet – jalebi, gulab jamun, rabdi, peda – and incredibly indulgent! My favourite has to be carrot halwa with nuts, served with ice cream. I have the carrot halwa recipe in my book, cooked with almond milk, to which I now add a dollop of peanut butter. It’s best served hot, and I’ve served it at my supperclubs with a scoop of vegan coconut ice cream. So good!