‘Now you better behave and don’t cry!” was the warning from my mother, shot with a stern look to show she was deadly serious. We disembarked from the aircraft at Heathrow. It was a dark and dank day. Cold rain spat at us as we walked across the tarmac into the immigration hall. In the terminal, the world seemed full of strangers and I swallowed back my tears.
The sunless flat above a shop that my father had found for us was full of draughts and damp. At the makeshift kitchen table, I stared at the exposed electrical wires knotted together on the wall and pined for the warmth of the neat, beloved grandmother we had left behind in our haste to leave Kenya. England welcomed immigrants, but its housing did not. Back home, when you opened the door, every room was fragrant with the scent of ripening guavas. Here, there was just a solitary freckled apple in the fruit bowl that, like us, had seen better days.
That September I started primary school. An advanced Kenyan curriculum meant that while my classmates were grappling with their 2 x table, I had already mastered multiplications up to 12 by heart. When I brought this up with my mother she looked at me with cold fear in her eyes. “Keep a low profile, and don’t try and be too clever,” she warned, and with that the parameters of the world around me, and its possibilities, shrank. I shrank, too. Lonely children are empathetic to the needs of adults and I learned to make myself invisible.
I escaped into books and the public library became my refuge – a wonderland where a child with few resources could take books home for free. In Nairobi I had excelled at English. I read voraciously and wrote stories full of colourful Kenyan characters that ran through a multitude of exercise books. I prided myself on the neat spidery joined-up handwriting and immaculate spelling my Kenyan teacher, Mrs Mathenge, had taught me. At school we were reading AA Milne. Here, my class teacher, a pale thin woman who dressed in a rotating carousel of pastel coloured knits, asked for volunteers to read aloud.
“Ravi…” shortening my name so it was easier to say, she gestured for me to stand and begin. I began to read, but she interrupted abruptly. “Stop, stop, stop! You have such a lazy way of speaking – you need to speak English properly.”
She said words slowly – exaggerating the vowels and asking me to repeat after her as though it was a benevolent, civilising act to exorcise my accent. The words continued to fall from my mouth like discordant notes from a piano, accompanied by peals of laughter from my classmates.
In the playground I sat alone and watched the girls play hopscotch and French elastic and learned their pretty names – Victoria, Laura, Charlotte – so unlike my own and so easy to say. The one time I tried to play with them I found myself shoved until I was flat on my back on wet gravel. “Why don’t you Pakis just go back home?” the one who looked like the wide-eyed dolls I coveted at Woolworths yelled at me.
I had not known before I moved to England how merciless and cruel children can be. When they found out I was from Kenya they nicknamed me Mowgli and teased me viciously by following me around making monkey noises. I didn’t then have the language to describe how rich, fertile and cosmopolitan my city Nairobi was, so I stayed quiet and got used to this – the un-belonging.
I existed in a stressful suspended animation, straddling two separate worlds, a creature of divided loyalties and a double tongue. When my parents visited school – my mother in a floral hand-stitched salwar kameez and my father in a knotted tie and starched turban, markers of otherness – I flinched and skulked several metres behind them, achieving a new personal best in self-loathing.
I was in exile. The strain of erasing the past, losing my identity and embracing another was overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience that weaves itself into your psyche. I had been accustomed to the blare of marigolds popping spectacularly against a colossal ever-blue sky, the chaos of wild things growing in a spectrum of vibrant greens – my new landscape was sullen and weary, like Technicolor waning. I felt isolated, and the ache for home was agonising.
It was that longing that first led me into the kitchen. For a family that is displaced, the stability of a day punctuated by meals is a steadying force. At first I cooked with my mother, but as I grew older, I learned to prepare meals unaided by her. I relished every opportunity to cook, and it was through cooking I found a way to reconcile my old and new world. I preserved the traditions of my homeland and ancestors, but overlaid them with the potent influence of our new home and whatever its various food markets, delis, canteens and multicultural supermarkets had to offer on any given day. I was unwittingly creating a new cuisine, one that spanned geography, ethnicity and history, crossing several boundaries all at once. In the kitchen and between the pages of a cookbook I felt a sense of comfort and belonging.
In many ways I think opening my restaurant, Jikoni, was a subconscious decision to claim a place to which I could really belong. By virtue of being from another place, I had felt like “the other” – muted and powerless, whether it was at school or later in the workplace. Being an immigrant comes with the burden of being told to hold on to your roots and honour them, along with the expectation of fitting in. I wanted to be able to accurately reflect my experience and who I was in the food I cooked. I had struggled for so long with the constraints of being put in a box – being commissioned to cook or write exclusively Indian recipes that apparently reflected my personal experience. No one would dream of asking a chef of French heritage to cook only cassoulet or a British chef to stick to making classics like toad in the hole, so to ask someone with such tangled roots to cook just one cuisine is reductive. Having the restaurant finally gave me a chance to express myself, to find a language of my own and develop a voice with which I could finally answer back.
The recipes I create are not merely a nostalgic ballad to the old country my ancestors or I left behind, they reflect the depth and breadth of my immigrant landscape where monocultures do not exist. I am proudly British, Kenyan and Indian, and I am also the product of the immigrant communities I grew up around and who welcomed me into their homes and showed me kindness and hospitality. Our cuisine is vast because of the many borders we cross. We preserve our culinary heritage and overlay it with the traditions of our new diverse nation – and in that we create a beautiful mongrel cuisine.
When you come to eat with us you might find Cornish skate, kissed by a hot pan and served with beurre noisette cut through with briny and sharp lime achaar rather than the familiar garnish of capers. Perhaps you’ll find a pool of alabaster South India curd rice, but instead of just a crown of fragrant curry leaves you’ll find shavings of earthy summer truffle, too. We also have voluptuous little pierogi stuffed with paneer swimming in a hot yogurt sauce – an homage to my Polish and Turkish neighbours as well as my Indian forebears. These dishes re-envision and blend our borders – they are not fusion – they are simply an extension of me.
The food I cook is a love letter to those who have both the ache for what they left behind and the wonder of their new landscape; it celebrates the richness of our similarities and the intricacies of our differences. I cook in honour of those who, like me, struggled with their assimilation into a version of “Englishness” that excluded them, by carving a new space in which our language and experiences are not cauterized. For those who call me an Indian chef and tell me to stay in my lane: I will continue to cook, to dissolve borders and speak in this culinary patois, the multitude of languages spoken in my city, to blunt the psychological force of marginalisation.
Jikoni: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from an Immigrant Kitchen by Ravinder Bhogal (Bloomsbury, £26). Buy it for £22.62 at guardianbookshop.com