With Urvashi Roe (Biting Biting)
Urvashi Roe was brought up in a family who loved to snack. Any news of impending visitors would prompt a flurry of activity in the kitchen. Within 30 minutes her mother and aunties would have the ‘biting biting’ prepared – a spread of vegetarian and vegan snacks made with store cupboard ingredients and leftovers.
Her family are originally from Gujarat in India, but Urvashi grew up in Tanzania in East Africa, where she lived until she was a teenager. Their family tradition of ‘biting biting’ takes its roots from classic Gujarati farsan – salty snacks served with tea or as street food – famous throughout the In- dian subcontinent. The recipes evolved to use East African ingredients like cassava, then again as the family moved to the UK.
Biting Biting the cookbook is a celebration of this delicious family custom, and of the food of the Gujarati diaspora in Africa and in the UK. Extremely tasty, quick and easy to prepare these snacks will set your tastebuds buzzing.
We recently caught up with the lovely Urvashi while she was holidaying in Greece and asked her a few questions to give us some insight into her background and her love of food and cooking. Her answers are as delightful as her book and her cooking.
Q: Was there a cookbook that really inspired you?
A: Nigella Bites is the first cookbook I ever owned. My husband bought it for me for Christmas in our first home. We used to watch Nigella on TV cuddled up in a fluffy red throw with red wine and popcorn. We had very little furniture at the time and we’d watch with the odd exclamation now and then. “Ooooh let’s get spoons like that” or “I love the way she has those twinkly lights on the bookcase”. We totally did get those spoons and twinkly lights when payday came round.
We started writing the dates of when we made the recipes in the top corner of the page. If I had carried this tradition on til today then there are most certainly pages that would have run out of space.
A few highlights would be:
Breakfast Muffins – I remember one morning when we woke up to find our neighbour’s cash register in the back garden. We called the police and as they did their investigations I put on a batch of these and we had them with hot tea. My girls were little then and they enjoyed toddling out offering Mr Policeman a muffin.
Chocolate Fudge Cake – still the go to cake recipe for our birthdays. Over the years the decorations have changed from My Little Pony to Polly Pocket to Disney Princesses to Harry Potter most recently when my daughter turned 16 but the base is always this same delicious recipe. The memories that page in the book evokes are so special. It’s almost like the book holds them safely for us.
Stovetop Rice Pudding – when I had my flower shops the hardest season was always Christmas. Your hands are shredded with snips from the thorns of thousands of Grand Prix roses or spiky ivy wreaths. The phone is constantly ringing. There is never enough time to get warm. The first Christmas was especially hard as I had no experience of the madness. I’d been on my feet for nearly 15 hours, just shut the shop door and flipped the open sign to closed when one of my regular customers came in not looking his usual cheery self. His mum had passed. We sat in silence with hot tea. I held his shaking hand for about an hour before he was ready to make her funeral arrangements and then I drove him home. Tone had been taking care of the girls all day and I got back just as they were setting out their mince pies for Santa. He saw the tears in my face as I came in for a big hug. He bolted the door, led me to the spot in front of the fire and deposited Amber and Amy Sienna on my lap for cuddles. Over the next 20 minutes I lost myself in their happy chatter and then the intoxicating smell of vanilla and milky rice as he brought me a bowl of this pudding. It’s become a Christmas Eve ritual ever since.
It’s a very special book and I love the storytelling within. It’s her relaxed and open style that inspired me to do the same – capture moments in time within the pages.
Q: What is your favourite item in your kitchen that you simply couldn’t do without?
A: My Velun. A Velun is a rolling pin. We use it for rotli and other flatbreads. It’s got a slightly thick bit in the middle and this is the part we use to flatten the ball of dough. The outer sides are thin and we apply a little pressure on the right then left and so on. This makes the disc of dough spin to get bigger. It’s very clever.
I’ve had mine since I was in primary school and it travels with me to demos and when I teach at Demuth’s. I have used a wine bottle at friends’ houses but it’s not the same. It’s also handy for smacking naughty husbands who try and steal hot off the pan rotli smothered in ghee before it’s dinner time.
Q: Do you have a favourite song, type of music or podcast you like to cook to?
A: I like a really quiet, calm kitchen to cook in. No music. I like just getting lost in the recipe I’m following or my own thoughts.
Sometimes if I’m making rotli I listen to a podcast. It’s a monotonous, step by step task that requires very little concentration. Roll the dough ball, flatten it, roll into a disc, flour it, roll out into a circle, toss it on the hot griddle, make another dough ball, flatten it, roll it into a disc, flip the rotli on the griddle, back to the disc of dough, flour it, roll it to a circle, flip the one on the griddle one more time and then off, plop the one you just made onto the griddle, put ghee on the hot one and then back to making another dough ball and so on.
I like listening to How to Fail by Elizabeth Day.
A particular favourite is the one with Andi Oliver. That one made me cry and I got flour all over my face wiping the tears away. The one with Delia Smith is also great.
I wasn’t allowed to fail as a child. My father set high standards for my schoolwork and it wasn’t a happy conversation when I got less than As. It took me a LONG time to accept failing and understand that failure is what helps us grow. Elizabeth is exceptionally good at highlighting the learnings that come from her guests’ failures and is a constant reminder to me that in the grand scheme of things I am not a failure just because I slipped a few As at school.
Q: If you could cook anywhere in the world in any location then where would you choose and what would you cook?
A: Just after I finished filming for Series 2 of Bake Off we went on a holiday to India. Tone and I had been before but this was our first trip with the girls. We were driving from Jaipur to Udaipur when the first episode was aired and I was on Twitter and Facebook all the way to get an inkling of how it was. It was so stressful!
We arrived in Udaipur tired, hot and hungry. After freshening up we went down to the restaurant of the Shiv Nivas Palace Hotel. The one that was in Octopussy where the bad guy stays.
Unfortunately the restaurant was full with an event and their other restaurant was being renovated. Room service was also too busy to take more orders so the waiter sat us down in the courtyard with some drinks while he tried to find a solution. After what seemed like hours he came back and ushered us into the hotel again. We thought they’d sorted out room service but we went a different way. Down a long corridor, through a few sets of locked double doors. Elaborate, wooden doors with intricate carvings and brass handles. The girls were proper grumpy and we had to carry them.
Finally we arrived into a large banquet hall. The Maharaja was not happy that as guests of the hotel we were not able to eat and so had offered us his private kitchen and banqueting suite. Every table was masterfully laid with silver platters, brass goblets, crystal glasses and cutlery. The napkins were made of silk. There was a full kitchen staff to welcome us. They promptly lifted the girls out of our arms and into the kitchen. Ordinarily the girls would have objected but they were so tired they complied. Warm Nankathai biscuits and fresh sugarcane juice perked the girls up and abated my hunger. We were given a tour of the immaculate kitchen before sitting down wherever we wished in the banquet room. We chose middle middle. Dinner was Dhal Makhani, buttered Naan, a myriad of vegetable curries and the poshest pasta with tomato sauce we had ever seen. The waiters served us flamboyantly with flourishes and bows and trays under huge silver domes. It was magical.
I would go back to that kitchen and cook that Dhal. I’d make Naan in that tandoor and learn how to cook the giant prawns on skewers you see on TV. I’d bake those nankathai, simmer some chai to go with them and marvel at the magnificence of the room again.
Q: If you had to give one single piece of advice about cooking to someone then what would that be?
A: If you are making a recipe for the first time always follow it precisely. Then it is much easier to adapt it and get creative. I’m sometimes in such a greedy rush to eat that I skip a step or miss a spice. I never get a good result with this impatient attitude!
Thank you so much Urvashi for sharing these wonderful stories with us.
You can order Biting Biting direct from KP here or in all good book stores.