But the food was horrible. At the Rada canteen you got a rather grey slice of roast beef with watery cabbage and burnt potatoes. I would dream of Indian food, of cauliflower and potatoes cooked with cumin and asafoetida, but there was nowhere to get it.
The Indian restaurants at the time served a generalised version of Indian food that I didn’t recognise and didn’t like. The one saving grace was fish and chips. I just thought it was the best thing, and much better then than it is now.
I had no idea how to cook – I had failed my domestic science lessons at school. My mother started sending me simple three-line recipes in the post, and I quickly discovered I had quite a good palate. I would cook for friends and my host family in London, and though I made plenty of mistakes, I slowly improved.
After I moved to the United States I had to supplement my acting career in order to bring up my three children, so I began to write. After an editor suggested an article on the food I ate growing up, and I became known as the actress who could cook, and I was commissioned to write a book. Although I knew nothing about cookbooks I agreed, and that’s how my second career took off.
I never planned on teaching the West how to cook Indian food, but I’ve always been a perfectionist, so I wanted to do it right. I think I became a good teacher because I was aware of how little other people knew, and wanted to be sure they understood every detail.
I would’ve liked to have done more on Italian food – I’ve been to Italy as many times as I’ve been to India! – but, like a lot of Asian writers, I’ve always been pigeonholed. Luckily that’s beginning to change now.
I’ve always thought of myself as an actor first, and feel I’m playing the part of a teacher of Indian cookery. Thankfully it’s a part I play well. I think people in Britain have a much wider knowledge of Indian food now, and I’m glad to have played a role in that.
All my children and grandchildren cook. I’ve got a granddaughter who writes and works in a restaurant, so perhaps it runs in the family. They cook everything, from Mexican and Korean food to Indian and Japanese, which is great.
My childhood self would be absolutely shocked if she discovered I worked in food. I always loved good food, but there was no part of me that was excited by cooking. I would definitely be surprised if someone said, “You’re the lady who’s taught everyone how to cook Indian food.”
But I think she would tell me to carry on doing what I’m doing, to keep going. If I could answer back I’d say that’s exactly what I’m doing.