Filmmaker, producer, and director of Blink Brow Bar, Nisha Parti, talks to Ravinder Bhogal about celebrating her heritage through food. And why you’ll always find a bottle of chilli sauce on her Christmas table
Journalist. Cook. Author.
Our December traditions define us and tell a story of where we hail from. We celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, or just get into the general festive spirit because it’s the holidays. Families braise briskets, brine turkeys and stock up on goose fat, praying for the miracle of a perfectly crisp roast potato. We seek happiness, and two days’ worth of calories in one epic, technicolour meal eaten in togetherness before the year’s out.
Film producer and director Nisha Parti grew up in Acton, the youngest of three sisters in a traditional Indian family. Her mother, a housewife, brought up her family on freshly cooked Indian meals – a practice she still maintains. Parti and her sisters have long since flown the nest, but regularly gather at the family home to enjoy their mother’s homemade Indian delicacies. At Christmas however, it’s Nisha who takes charge of lunch, and she insists on preparing a traditional British roast with all the frills. The sides are as important to her as the main event, which is always an impressively-large turkey.
“My parents left India in the 1950s, and like most immigrants they tried their best to preserve our customs and traditions. The obvious way to do that was through food.” Parti grew up at a time when frozen and convenience foods were booming, but as her mother insisted on Indian food at home, Findus Crispy Pancakes and Lean Cuisine microwave meals remained a mystery to her. She does recall her mother’s questionable forays into cooking “English” food – trying and failing to integrate the flavours of her new land into her repertoire. “These mainly consisted of very non-British pizzas and spaghetti bolognese doused in spices and chilli.” We both laugh and I recount the similar hybridised specials that came out of my own mother’s kitchen.
Her interest in roast dinners was first stoked at university when she found herself living in a student flat with a bunch of English girls. She spent Sundays clustered around a table laden with a roast and all its trimmings. “This was the first time the tradition of a Sunday roast had been impressed on me. Having grown up on a diet of dhals and curries – albeit excellent ones – roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and a glistening joint of roasted meat seemed truly exotic to me.”
Born in Britain to Indian parents, Nisha feels as British as she is Indian, and slides between her two cultures with ease. Her mixed heritage also informs her work – she was most recently responsible for the hugely successful BBC dramatisation of journalist Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir, The Boy with the Topknot, which also explores the duality of the British Asian experience.
“For me food is just one way to participate in my Britishness,” she says. “Like millions of other families, I do it at Christmas by cooking a traditional lunch.” I ask her whether there are any bridges between her British and Indian roots on her festive table. “A bottle of chilli sauce,” she replies and smiles.
Serves four as a starter
4 parsnips, peeled and cut into wedges
1 bunch baby rainbow carrots, scrubbed
90ml olive oil
A few sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
Unpeeled cloves from half a head of garlic
Sea salt and pepper
6 rashers of bacon, rinds removed
4 slices of good sourdough bread, torn into large pieces
Handful of chopped hazelnuts
Handful of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Drizzle of clear honey
A few drops of truffle oil
Preheat the oven to 200ºC (gas mark 6). Toss the carrots and parsnips together, and season with salt and pepper. Scatter over the picked thyme and garlic cloves, drizzle with 60ml of the oil and roast for 25–30 minutes, or until golden and tender.
In the meantime, heat the remaining oil in a pan and fry the bacon until it is golden and crisp. Remove from the pan, drain on kitchen paper, then break into pieces. Add the sourdough bread to the pan and fry until golden brown and crisp. Add the hazelnuts and fry for a further 30 seconds.
Combine the carrots, garlic cloves, parsnips, bread, bacon, hazelnuts and parsley. Transfer onto a platter, drizzle with a little honey and truffle oil, toss again and serve.