Mormors, nonnas, abuelas and nanas: nothing beats grandma’s cooking. Discover the fascinating tales and most trusted recipes of older women in Grand Dishes, a new cookbook chronicling the stories of grandmothers from around the world.
From golden-brown pies and macaroni cheese to fruit crumbles and lasagne, we’ve written a lot about comfort food over the past year. For good reason: in these uncertain times, familiar homecooked dishes seem to feed the soul as well as our hungry bellies. So even as we’ve weathered three national lockdowns, those dishes – the edible equivalent of a warm hug – have always provided a little peace of mind.
It goes without saying, of course, that many of the dishes we’ve turned to during the pandemic have been lovingly passed down through the generations. Thanks to signature family recipes, most of us have a favourite dish that we believe no other version can compete with. But one thing everyone can usually agree on is that nothing comes close to the cooking of grandmothers.
Often hailed as the best comfort food in culinary folklore, nana-approved recipes are always a speciality. They carry with them cultures, traditions and priceless pearls of wisdom that you can taste in every bite, even when the grandmas who created the recipes belong to someone else – as Iska Lupton and Anastasia Miari discovered.
In their new cookbook Grand Dishes, the duo compile an anthology of regional recipes and impressive cooking hacks from grandmothers around the world. The culmination of four years of interviews, the book chronicles each grandmother’s fascinating story, alongside valuable experiences and sage advice that could only be reaped from a life well lived.
Get a taste of the grandmothers and their foodie wisdom via the @granddishes Instagram feed. Then read on to meet three extraordinary women, Rajni, Anne and Tinh, and discover their treasured recipes that have stood the test of time.
Iska and Anastasia say: “Having launched this project with our own two grandmothers, Rajni was our first ‘unknown’ and thus most nerve-wracking. We didn’t yet have our ‘routine’ nailed, and we’d driven all the way to an unknown street in Leicester, trusting her granddaughter Ria’s insistence that Rajni was a culinary legend. Ria was not biased; the nerves evaporated and it was one of our favourite days. We went straight into the kitchen, already full of flavour, and watched her casually make three curries, lassis and dessert in a sort of narrated performance, wearing a beautiful turmeric-coloured sari.
“These photos by Ella [Louise Sullivan] are still some of our absolute favourites. At one point we had [Rajni] down on her knees with the incredible spread laid out on the floor, all elegant hands and heavy gold bangle, pretending to serve her curries. She was incredibly game and patient. Finally we all sat down: the three of us, her sister, daughter and granddaughter (husband banished to the study for the duration). We sat around the table for about two hours, sharing food and stories.
“To this day, in any yoghurt-based scenario we still quote Rajni, who was absolutely insistent that yoghurt is the secret to eternal youth.”
Born: Tanzania, 1939
Mother tongue: Kutchi
Grandchildren: Ria Sonia, Dhruti, Jay
They call her: Dadi
Rajni says: “If I don’t like someone’s food, I won’t eat it. The day before yesterday, my friend told me, ‘My curry is the best.’ I said, ‘NO! My curry is best, I don’t want to eat your curry.’ We all make the same curry differently. We each have our own way.
“I keep my mothers alive in my food. My Gujarati mother made savouries like no one else and my mother-in-law taught me how to make sweet dishes. We show love for our children by cooking. Before the grandchildren visit, I ask them, ‘What can I make for you? What do you want to take home with you? You call me in time and I make it for you to take back.’ I always have savoury snacks ready in the cupboard for them.
“I’d die without my tomato purée. My skin isn’t so wrinkly and I swear to everybody it’s the yoghurt. Yoghurt, yoghurt, yoghurt! I’ve never eaten meat or eggs. Growing up, we always ate Indian food – mainly vegetables – even when I lived in Tanzania. I struggled in the 1970s when I moved to England. It wasn’t easy to get hold of the ingredients here, but I had to adjust.
“You have to compromise with your life. I met my husband six months after we were married. I agreed with my father that I would marry him and we had separate ceremonies, me in India, him in Tanzania. I remember, I was so skinny – only 75lbs – because I had nearly died of typhoid before the wedding. I saw him for the first time after it was all decided that we would be together for life. To me, it wasn’t a choice or option to think it wouldn’t work. In our time, we wouldn’t even consider that we weren’t happy or it didn’t work. It just did work.
“I’m always happy. Telling people your problems only creates more problems for you. I never complain. Well, sometimes I ask my husband, ‘Why don’t you buy me sari?’ He says, ‘Buy it yourself.’ We argue and sometimes he gives up, other times I give up, but for a happy marriage for 56 years, we compromised. If life goes quiet, I tell him, ‘We haven’t argued for a long time. I don’t like it! It’s so quiet and silent.’
“I can’t stand silence. When I came to England I cried because of it – especially on Sundays, because everything was closed. I like to be around people. I was so used to that in Tanzania. I missed my family and I couldn’t get anything I wanted for my cooking. I lost weight. I couldn’t eat. The weather was so cold but I wanted to go out in just my sari. I had to wear shoes and trousers and tops and a heavy coat. This was all new to me. My family were rich and we had servants where we lived in Tanzania. Here, I learned to work hard for everything we have.
“The most important thing I have learned in life is economise. I learned this from my husband. He’s still working and he’s 82. I make my own saris and sell them, then I give the money I make to charity. That is what you must do to stay young – just keep going, keep doing.”
Dadi Rajni’s Gujarati dry vegetable curry
Feeds 8 as part of a thali (or 4 as a main)
- 8 tbsp sunflower oil
- 500g new potatoes
- 2 aubergines, cut into large chunks
- 2 green peppers, roughly cut into 3cm squares
- 450–500g small red onions, peeled, with a cross shape cut to the centre
For the cooking spices:
- 2 green bird’s-eye chillies, whole with a small slit made in the side
- 2 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
- ½ tsp asafoetida
- 5 dried curry leaves
For the masala:
- 80g chickpea flour
- 2 tbsp fresh coriander, stalks removed and leaves finely chopped
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp chilli powder
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp caster sugar
Parboil the new potatoes.
Prepare the masala by combining all the ingredients in a mixing bowl.
In a frying pan heat ½ tbsp sunflower oil. Add the masala and toast the mix to bring out the flavours, stirring constantly for 5 minutes until it is more yellow in colour, then take off the heat.
Put 4 tbsp sunflower oil into a large pan on a medium–low heat. Add the drained potatoes and put the lid on and cook for 8–10 minutes, or until they have started to soften and turn golden in places. Shake the pan so the potatoes get heat on all sides.
Put the cut-up aubergines and peppers into a bowl. Stuff some of the masala into each of the onions, pulling apart the cut to stuff as much as you can (about half the mix). Do this over the bowl of vegetables so no masala is wasted.
Next, turn the heat down on the potato pan while you add all the cooking spices. Heat for 2 minutes until they crackle and release their scent.
Now add the stuffed onions, aubergines and peppers. Sprinkle over 2 tbsp marsala mix and 2 more tbsp oil. Stir gently to coat and put the lid on again. Cook on low heat until the veg is nearly soft (around 25 minutes). Keep an eye on it in case it starts sticking (it always does a bit, says Rajni). If it’s sticking, turn the heat lower, add a little more oil and a splash of water if necessary.
When the veg is soft, add the remaining 2 tbsp oil and sprinkle in the rest of the masala and stir to coat. Cook for 5 minutes more for the mixture to really stick to the veg and warm through.
Test the seasoning and serve with lots of yoghurt, fresh coriander and chapati as a main, or to create a proper Indian thali like Rajni you could also add a serving of raita, a simple red lentil dahl, rice and a lassi.
Iska and Anastasia say: “New Orleans has this air of confidence about it. It knows it’s fun, it’s liberal, that it has history and traditions and defining flavours. In New Orleans, if you survived the hurricane and came back to the city, if you know how to dance with abandon at a street party and if you know the key ingredients that go into gumbo and jambalaya, you’re all united.
“Anne is an incarnation of her city. She was cool, calm and permanently on the verge of saying something cheeky. While her friend Harriet would recount a story, Anne was on hand to confirm facts and add the odd anecdote; hilarious asides added with the driest of deliveries. That Anne was head and shoulders taller than Harriet only added to their catching hilarity, particularly when performing their flambé Bananas Foster routine.
“Anne, who is also a tour guide for the city, was determined that by the time we left we would say ‘New Orleans’ properly. So, in case you don’t know, it’s not pronounced ‘New Or-leans’, it’s ‘New Orrrrrrrr-luns’.”
Born: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 1942
Mother tongue: American English
Grandchildren: Shelby, Barrett, Reese, Jack, Abby
They call her: Grandma
Anne says: “Bananas Foster started in New Orleans because we’re a port city. We were the banana port for the Caribbean – just 110 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Quite big ships would come down the river and they’d get stuck for one reason or another and couldn’t get to port. Which would be bad news for their bananas. Nobody wanted to buy overripe bananas – it was a serious issue.
“Thankfully, there was a man named Richard Foster who was good friends with a man called Owen Brennan who owned quite a famous New Orleans restaurant called Brennan’s. He must have gotten a shipment of overripe bananas, so he told his friend Brennan to challenge the chef to come up with a recipe that meant they wouldn’t go to waste.
“Bananas Foster is now the dessert of the city. There’s nothing to it. Any idiot can make it. One thing you must remember is you absolutely cannot use green bananas. Also – don’t forget the voodoo powder (the cinnamon). We have a history of voodoo here. When you walk down the street, if someone does this little hand shake at you, they’re putting the juju on you. It’s not a good sign.
“New Orleans is just a different city. We’re harmonious here and we have a joie de vivre. After Hurricane Katrina we were devastated but we celebrated Mardi Gras with parades and did everything as we would have, had the hurricane not hit. We lost 80% of neighbourhoods, but we still did it. We had to do it. It’s our tradition. If we hadn’t celebrated Mardi Gras, it would have been doom and gloom, but we all came together for this.
“In fact, it’s just as much a part of our history as it is our food – this notion of ‘coming together’. Creole is a way of distinguishing those born here in the New Territory from the 1700s onwards. You were Creole whether you were English, French, Spanish or West African or mixed. I’m Cajun, German and Irish. I’m a gumbo of cultures and this is typical of Louisiana.
“The original Cajuns were French peasants that left Normandy and Brittany in France in the early 1600s. They moved to what is today Nova Scotia, Canada. They meant to settle up there, and lived there totally undisturbed for around 100 years, until the English gained that territory.
“They moved south to the French Colonies in Louisiana because we were French-speaking. They settled in prairies and swamps. They remained isolated and nobody bothered with them, so much so that the majority didn’t even speak English. My grandmother didn’t speak English at all. In fact, people still speak French in Cajun country.
“I’m just like my daddy – the Irish and Cajun come out. My mum died two years before Daddy. At the time, someone came up to my daddy. She said, ‘How’s Irene?’ He responded, ‘Dead.’ We just tell it how it is. We celebrate life here in New Orleans – and death is just as much a part of it.
“The death of my grandchild was the hardest thing I’ve lived through, though. She had lymphoma. She died at the age of 15 of a brain haemorrhage. It was traumatic. I was so worried about my daughter-in-law, who went through such a depression that she was almost hospitalised. My family is almost the exact opposite. We just blurt what we feel out and don’t keep any of it in. What can we do about it but go on? She’s dead. In my family, if you’re dead, you’re dead.
“I think younger generations now think and analyse things too much. I just went through life. That’s just how I did it. You keep going.”
Grandma Anne’s caramelised banana flambé
- 100g butter
- 200g brown sugar
- 2 ripe bananas, sliced into 1cm rounds
- ½ tsp vanilla essence
- pinch sea salt
- 120ml banana liqueur
- 200ml rum
- pinch cinnamon
Melt the butter in a large frying pan on medium heat and add the sugar to form a paste. Let the mixture thicken a little and caramelise for about 3 minutes.
Working quickly, turn up the heat and fold in the banana slices, vanilla essence and a pinch of sea salt – don’t cook those bananas too long.
Gather your audience and be ready with a match or lighter. Turn the heat off if you have a gas hob and pour the liqueur and rum into the middle of the pan. Turn the heat back on high. Ignite to flambé! It should take easily.
Simply shake to keep the flame burning and to evenly distribute the liquid round the pan. Watch the sparkle that happens as you (carefully) throw a generous pinch of cinnamon into the flame.
Once the flame has gone out it means the alcohol has burned off and you are ready to serve. Divide between dishes with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, followed by a drizzle of the sauce.
Tip: You can also make this with thin slices of apple instead of banana.
Iska and Anastasia say: “Teeny-tiny Tinh. Probably the smallest and most smiley of all the grandmothers we have cooked with and certainly the only granny covered in tattoos and wearing black Nike slides.
“We found Tinh through her lovely daughter who runs Hanoi Cafe in London. When we met at her home, Tinh had her special Vietnamese knife in hand at all times. Watching her nip little pieces of carrot for the dipping sauce was highly satisfying. She prepared the rice paper and rolled the spring rolls with matching precision. After a few demonstrations we set up either side of her, wetting the rice paper until sticky and malleable enough to wrap the filling.
“Soon a large pile had formed and Tinh began the cooking process; straight into the hot oil to puff and crisp. We ate from little bowls with noodles, salad and sauce, cutting the spring rolls in half with scissors for ease of eating. About seven spring rolls (each) and several hugs later, we left, Tinh blowing kisses in the doorway.”
Born: Hanoi, Vietnam, 1948
Mother tongue: Vietnamese
Grandchildren: Joseph, James, Calypso, Alfred, Edward
They call her: Ba Tinh
Tinh says: “This dish is eaten in Hanoi, where I’m from, as street food. My mother taught me how to make it, and it has become ever-present on the family menu. I even did it for my children’s packed lunches at school. The key is to use all the coriander, including the stalks, because they hold the most flavour.
“In the 1980s, thanks to political unrest in Vietnam, I was forced to flee from my home in Hanoi. My husband was Chinese and there was conflict between Vietnam and China at the time. We may well have been subject to ethnic cleansing if we had stayed. So we became part of the boat people migration that happened across the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“I sold all of my possessions in the hope I’d land in a better country, and boarded a boat I did not know the destination of. I had my two girls with me – just babies at the time – and my mother. I was only in my thirties and had to leave my husband behind, as he’d been imprisoned for being a part of a political group that angered the Vietnamese authorities.
“The boats were tiny and there were so many people crammed into each one. They were basic fishing boats, so quite unsafe for the number of people trying to escape. I had to pack supplies for us all and had no idea how long we’d be on that boat for. My youngest daughter had dysentery and there was really nothing I could do; I felt so helpless. We were better off than others, though. Many didn’t make the journey. I was witness to corpses being pushed off the boat. Then there was the fear of being robbed or raped by pirates, which we knew was a risk. We were on that boat for a month, floating along to nowhere.
“By the time we were found, it was such a relief. We were discovered in the South China Sea by the Hong Kong authorities and were in a refugee camp in Hong Kong for a year. We were granted refugee status and stayed for around two years before we relocated to the UK. We had to share a bunk bed as a family of four. Still, it was better than that little boat in the middle of the sea.
“I was so frightened for our safety in Vietnam that this was the only option for me and my family. The future was so uncertain that I could only see one way of securing it and that was to get out. That’s really the only reason people have to put themselves through it. No other wordly options.
“Fourteen years passed before my husband was released and finally joined the rest of the family in the UK. So much time had gone by that things weren’t the same any more. I had become the matriarch of this all-female household and there was no room for a man any longer. My daughters couldn’t even call him ‘Dad’. So eventually we separated.
“He was conservative and so different from who I had become. Part of me honouring my new self without him were these tattoos. I got my first one when I was 60. My first tattoo was an enormous one on my back. Since then I’ve had sleeves down both arms and legs. It was an affirmation that, ‘You know what? This is who I am.’ Every tattoo I have symbolises how I was feeling at the time. It’s an expression of my entire life. These tattoos make me really very happy. I’m more myself now, in my old age, definitely.”
Ba Tinh’s Vietnamese pork and crab spring rolls and pickle salad
For the salad:
- 1 kohlrabi, peeled and julienned
- 2 large carrots (or 4 small), peeled and julienned
- stalks from 1 bunch fresh coriander, chopped into 2–3cm pieces
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 3 tbsp rice vinegar
For the spring rolls:
- 250g lean pork mince
- 100g crabmeat (one small tin)
- 2 small onions, finely diced
- ½ kohlrabi, peeled and finely diced
- 1 large carrot (or 2 small), peeled and finely diced
- 1 tsp granulated sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 egg, beaten
- 3 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 x 12-pack rice spring roll wrappers (22cm diameter)
- vegetable oil, for frying
For the dipping water (nuoc cham):
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 small carrot, cut into very fine pieces (Ting takes slivers from the top, moving around to create pretty, tiny pieces)
- 2 garlic cloves, very finely sliced
- 3 tbsp rice vinegar
- red bird’s-eye chillies, very finely sliced (to taste)
For the salad: prepare the kohlrabi and carrots and put them into a bowl.
Take the coriander stalks and add to the vegetables, saving the leaves for another dish. (Tinh says most of the flavour is in the stalks!)
Add the sugar, salt and vinegar and mix well. Place into the fridge until needed.
For the spring rolls: in a bowl, mix the pork and crab. Add the diced onions, kohlrabi and carrot, followed by the sugar, salt, fish sauce and egg. Stir until well combined.
Next, get the wrappers ready by preparing a small bowl of just-boiled water with the rice vinegar. Have the wrappers to hand and prepare one at a time on a board or plate.
Dip your hand into the water and stroke the water all over both sides of the rice wrapper, until it’s transparent and becoming loose and sticky.
On the side of the wrapper closest to you, put a heaped tablespoon of pork filling. Roll the closest edge over, tuck tightly and roll to the middle. Bring the sides in and roll until up until secure. Place on a clean, dampened tea towel or greased tray so they aren’t touching, otherwise they might stick together.
Repeat until all the rolls are done. Then heat 1cm vegetable oil in a flat-bottomed pan – you’re shallow frying, not deep-frying. Make sure the oil is nice and hot before putting your rolls in. Work in batches, so they don’t stick together and fry for 8 minutes, or until lightly browned and crisp. Keep the finished rolls in a warm place until ready to serve.
For the dipping water: in a heatproof jug or bowl, dissolve the sugar in a touch of boiling water. Tip the carrot and garlic slivers in and add the rice vinegar. Add the chilli last, taste and adjust the sweet–sour ratio to your taste by adding more vinegar or sugar, as you like. Don’t be tempted to skip this sauce – it really makes the dish.
Serve the crispy spring rolls with the dipping sauce, salad and vermicelli noodles.
Tip: If you want to make a veggie version of the spring rolls, substitute the pork and crab for mushrooms or crumbled firm tofu.
Grand Dishes: Recipes And Stories From Grandmothers Of The World (£25, Unbound) is out now
Photography: Ella Louise Sullivan; Iska Lupton
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.