Anita Rani: ‘You’re opening your heart to people when you share food’

Food is life, in all its forms. Everything in my world, in my Indian culture, revolves around food. So when the family gets together, it’s like an army assault: women plan the food like an attack. They’re going to go in with a starter to ease you in and then just loads and loads and loads and loads of food. And if you haven’t been completely annihilated by the end of the main course, the dessert will definitely finish you off.

The rule of thumb for TV is shit food, sadly. If I’m on the road with Countryfile, you eat what’s available. Thank God for Waitrose and Marks & Spencer at service stations. A lot of people working in telly will be nodding along to that.

If you came round tomorrow, my mum would sit you down and cook you a meal. My mum and dad’s next-door neighbours had builders in and my mum cooked them pakora – so not even for their builders. She said: “You’re working hard, you need some sustenance.” Food is not something that is scrimped or saved or kept to yourself. You’re opening your heart to people when you share your food. That’s a fundamental of the culture.

Baking isn’t really part of my upbringing. The oven was an extra storage unit for my mum, and many Indian mums, because ovens aren’t really used. So baking wasn’t really something I did.

I don’t believe in dieting. I believe in making your own food, eating a balanced meal, and regular exercise – that’s it. Maybe I’m lucky, maybe one day I’ll wake up with a circumference and think: “Shit! Better lay off the salt and vinegar Chipsticks!”

Growing up in Bradford in the 1980s, my Indian life and my out-of-home life were two very different worlds. Often, when they collided, there was never a good result for me. Once, at an ice-cream van, kids on my streetI played with every day saw me in Indian clothes for the first time. One of them said: “We didn’t think you were one of those.” It was a complicated time. We were taught to assimilate, so nobody knew about other cultures. No one was told that you had to respect or understand other cultures. But there was a big turnaround moment for me on the platinum jubilee, where I wore a sari to present for the first time. So that story has a nice little ending.

When you’d go to birthday parties of your English friends as a kid, your mum would feed you before you’d go because you’d know you wouldn’t get fed that much. A sandwich ain’t gonna cut it! A slice of quiche ain’t it! This is something a lot of non-white kids growing up in Britain knew.

Rani’s Recipes was a moment. It was the first day we went into lockdown and I went to the cash and carry and bought a box of tinned chickpeas. And I remember saying to my husband: “Better tell the world what to do with a tin of chickpeas!” So I just cooked basic chickpea curry, and it went down a storm [on Instagram]. I can’t sit still, literally, so yeah, Rani’s Recipes, dancing around in my kitchen. People are still asking me when I’m going to resurrect it.

My parents, I guess, would be working class. We have this running joke where my mum’s like: “Oh, Anita’s coming around. Get some brown bread in.” My dad looks at a loaf of sourdough and thinks we’ve all gone mad spending that much money on it.

I spent lockdown writing my memoir and I wrote this line: “Food is conjuring up the past.” I can’t physically know and be where my ancestors were and live their life. But I absolutely know the smell of the food that they would have been eating. I’m still cooking the same recipes that have been passed down from my great grandmother, my great-great grandmother. And that’s just absolutely magic.

My favourite things

It’s got to be curry. Just give me a really good traditional Punjabi kidney bean curry called rajma, with rice, pickle, salad, yoghurt – happy days. I do bloody love noodles though. Got to get that in somewhere.

Tequila is my jam at the minute. You can have it on ice with a bit of jalapeno and some lime juice. Hell yeah! Or I was drinking palomas all weekend with grapefruit juice. It just makes you happy.

Place to eat
Absolutely love Luca in London. It does parmesan fries, its pasta is amazing. I like places where you really can relax and sink into and get quite raucous. And that’s there.

Dish to make
After all the tequila, give me a packet of Super Noodles. Oh heaven! But listen, not Super Noodles. I have those cheap ones, the ones I get from the Asian supermarket: Koka Noodles. With Encona chilli sauce.

Anita Rani’s memoir The Right Sort of Girl is out now in paperback (Blink, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply


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