Despite growing up in West Bengal and speaking five Indian languages fluently, Romy Gill admits there’s still plenty she doesn’t know about her home country.
This is down to the vastness of India, and Gill wants people to recognise “it’s very diverse, with very different people – we speak different languages, we look different, we have very different rituals”.
She’s particularly enthralled by the area of Kashmir, in the north of India near the Himalayas, because of her adventurous husband’s stories. “He used to travel there when he was in university in Punjab, he used to travel on scooter,” she says wistfully. “When we got married, he used to show me all these photographs – and I always wanted to go there.
“Even if you’re in India, you don’t necessarily know everything about India, Indian food and Indian people,” she adds.
Growing up in West Bengal to Punjabi parents, Gill – who is based in the UK and a regular face on TV shows such as Steph’s Packed Lunch and James Martin’s Saturday Morning – admits she “disliked cooking” as a child. But she “loved eating”, and says with a laugh: “I would go to my neighbours’ house and say, ‘My mum hasn’t fed me!’ – when they knew she fed me. I would eat their food and then go to my friend’s house” – and the cycle would continue.
Gill recognises her family was somewhat unusual, because her father cooked alongside her mother. “He found his sanity in cooking, he found sanity in helping my mum,” says Gill, remembering how they would make pickles together.
“They would have bickering fights together,” she adds – but she fondly remembers “the love and the passion they had to cook”, and her dad has been “such a huge influence” on her.
Now though, Gill is looking outside her family for her second cookbook, On The Himalayan Trail: Recipes and Stories from Kashmir to Ladakh.
As the northernmost state in India, Gill describes Kashmiri cuisine as having “so many influences” – from central Asia, Persia, Britain and beyond. It’s particularly known for the wazwan, a Kashmiri banquet that is steeped in tradition. Gill says she was “fascinated by the wazwan”, likening it to the “nose to tail” movement, because chefs “use each and every part of the animal, and make beautiful things with it”.
“They’ll bring out lots of different dishes, and you share it,” she adds of what would happen at a wazwan – making it the best way to get a full picture of food in the area.
You’ll find “lots of ginger powder, fennel powder, cinnamon – all these floral, warming spices, because Kashmir is very cold”. There’s also Kashmiri chillies, but they won’t blow your head off – instead they have a “beautiful colour, warmth – richness, but not heat”, she notes.
Gill has written a cookbook full of colourful recipes, but it reads almost like a travel book. When asked about it, she talks excitedly and rushes out her words, reminiscing about her travels around the region.
“It’s about people,” she says simply. “It’s not just about me – it’s other people’s stories.” Instead of calling it a cookbook, Gill lovingly refers to it as “my diary”.
That’s not to say her travels were easy – particularly as she wanted to do first-hand research, so had to make multiple trips between her home in England and Kashmir during a global pandemic. In one particularly hairy situation, Gill had “a very small window to visit in 2020 to meet the saffron producers” – with two weeks to see the saffron crocus bloom. Luckily, she navigated Covid tests and international flights and got to see the flowers in bloom, meeting farmers to understand how integral this crimson spice is to Kashmiri food.
Gill really comes alive when talking about the people she met on her travels – she’s a big fan of sitting down and cooking with the locals. “I followed that philosophy all through,” she says. “I didn’t think, ‘Oh, you’re a poor person’… I would go sit with them, cook with them, eat with them.
“I think that’s so important – that’s when they open their stories,” she adds.
She also wants the book to serve as encouragement for people to go to Kashmir – typically not an area with high volumes of tourism, owing to the troubled political history of the region. “I don’t want people to be scared, because the people are so nice,” she says, and they “want to share their heritage”.
Gill continues: “I think you have to take the leap of faith, you have to travel. It makes me feel happy when I meet people, because there’s just so much to learn.”
‘On The Himalayan Trail: Recipes and Stories from Kashmir and Ladakh’ by Romy Gill (published by Hardie Grant, £27; photography by Matt Russell), available now.