Ravinder Bhogal, the owner of Jikoni, on her relationship with food
Interview: Clare Finney
A phrase we use a lot at Jikoni is ‘cooking across borders’. You look at my heritage, which is Indian, east African, Persian and British, then look at the trade routes which ran from India to Africa, India to Britain, China to Britain, the Middle East to Africa, and for me it just makes sense. Very often, when you look at a dish you’ll find it has multiple different origins. In India you have a samosa; in South Africa you have something very similar, also called a samosa; and in the Middle East you will find a sambusak. All that has come about through travel and trade.
There is no better way to be acquainted with someone’s culture than by eating their food. We do harbour a fear of strangers—but as soon as you have a bowl of hummus or a pot of kimchi in front of you, you are beginning to understand something about them and how they live. Historically, Britain has been so good at adopting other people’s cultures, championing them and making them its own: the balti curry really originated in Birmingham. This sort of inclusion is what makes Britain great. We think that’s something worth celebrating.
When you put cultures together in a dish, you can create something greater than the sum of its parts. I think that is exemplified perfectly by our prawn toast scotch egg. It is the love child of Chinese prawn toast and a British scotch egg—you bring these lovely, perennial favourites together to create something wonderful.
I cook this way because I am an immigrant. I have always had to adapt with every move I’ve made, with every changing landscape: settling into immigrant areas, you are exposed to other immigrant cultures. You are influenced by what they eat, and you adapt to that to help you settle in and find a home.
Growing up I had British classics every Friday night—mum called it her ‘night off’. She thought British food was easy in comparison to Indian. She would make the most incredible fish and chips, lacing ginger and carom seeds through the batter—she always adapted British things with unexpected nods to our culture. That has definitely inspired dishes at Jikoni, such as our scrag end pie: essentially a shepherd’s pie with black cardamom, cinnamon, chili, ginger and garlic.
Cooking is a way of storytelling. One of the dishes that proved popular here is the paneer gnudi with saag—and that came about when I saw a film about the Italian cheese industry in the early 2000s. It was on its knees because Italians didn’t want to work in the dairy industry—the hours were too long and the pay was too low—so they started an immigration programme to get Punjabi farmers over, as Punjabis are experts with livestock. At one point, 70 per cent of Italian cheese was being produced by Indian farmers. The paneer gnudi is my love letter to that sort of integration: fresh paneer, mixed with parmesan, made into gnudi and served with saag, cavolo nero, pine nuts and lemon.
When Jikoni started, it was very much about my culinary heritage, but now we have grown out of toddlerhood, it is about the Jikoni family: each person who works here brings their own fragile magic, their own culinary background, their own heritage. I am a bit of a magpie, and I like to steal from anywhere and anything that tastes good and gives a peek into someone else’s lives.
Coming here from Kenya aged seven and starting school with a mother who had never made packed lunches before, I would feel so ashamed opening my lunch box of chapattis and keema reeking of garlic and cumin. I remember that hot, hot shame, and just praying that god would throw down a ham sandwich and a packet of Hula Hoops. Now those things that seemed so shameful back then are part of everyone’s larder. It’s so wonderful that they aren’t weird or alien any more.