Serving up Nigella Lawson
“A Goblet of Things that made Britain Great in the 90’s”
Nigella was part of the ‘holy’ triumvirate of kitchen superstars in the 90’s who elevated modern British cookery, along with Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. If she was the Madonna, Jamie was the Son, and without a doubt, Gordon was the Holy Sh#t! All things British permeated the cultural zeitgeist, and the state of British cookery previously dismissed as bland and boring, suddenly became exciting. The gastropub, a name that is almost an exercise in irony, became all the rage. There is no doubt that the three did much to promote classic British dishes.
Jamie was the young, approachable boy next door. Gordon the ‘enfant terrible’ of the kitchen from hell, who F-worded his way through his cooking. Nigella was the beguiling, beautiful, slightly aloof gourmand, for whom the term ‘comfort eating and cooking’ seemed to have been invented. She stood out from the other two as she wasn’t a professional chef, merely a food writer (as muttered by critics. Whilst this presented some with an issue, her recipes were less fiddly and designed to work for the home cook and was an instant hit with the public at large.
A quick google will reveal everything from how she cooks and eats, to a British nation in uproar because she dared to butter her toast twice (Zoe Ball, a British radio presenter had a whole segment dedicated to the debate—clearly the Brits can overanalyse anything), and of course the trials of errant domestic staff and domestic issues with her ex has plagued the Domestic Goddess.
But if you sprinkle in a dash of attributes like her looks, her voice, her figure, then you have a complex recipe of public fascination and frustration, adoration and admonition. I think if she were less enchanting to look at or listen to, she would probably get less flak.
After all, Delia Smith and Mary Berry who preceded her, never had the British press in their thrall. From speaking to her, it’s not as if she wanted it. But from her zaftig curves and molasses-drenched dulcet tones, it is what she will get. She is simply far too attractive to be just ‘left alone’. And it is all very distracting from what she actually does, and which she is very good at.
“A slice of gratitude with a dash of introspection”
Interviews are always awkward for any journalist. It’s like speed dating, on speed. Then you attempt to have someone famous reveal things they wouldn’t normally share with anyone else. It’s an interrogation you must balance without the zeal of a Gestapo agent and with the instincts and understanding of a psychologist. Twenty five years of doing this, I am not usually so apprehensive, but others had told me to be extra gentle on Nigella, for apparently she is surprisingly shy, sometimes reticent and protective. Not least there is an inherent challenge that presents itself when the subject is someone you admire. So I began the interview without my usual ‘thick skin’.
We spoke as her new BBC series and book, “Cook, Eat, Repeat” were launched in Asia. To ease in, I began with thanks for her books that have been an oracle of sorts for my family. More recently, her recipes became my companions through the dreary days of lockdown, Covid and chemotherapy (the last being another story), where I attempted to bake every single meringue in her repertoire just to feel a little less useless being shut down at home. Many cracked eggs and failures later, my elder sister reprimanded me with a reminder that I should go back to Nigella, and stop faffing with recipes from professional chefs, as her recipes were foolproof, with emphasis on the fool for me. And of course, her recipes worked out.
And so began my own personal Meringue Odyssey which strangely led to this interview opportunity with Nigella. After I thanked her for all the wonderful recipes and guidance she has given my family from gloriously roasted juicy turkeys to magnificent meringues, she very graciously replied with, “I think food and cooking, when the world outside is frightening and there are things that give you great anxiety, obviously in your case, sometimes one needs, I think I’ve talked about this in the show but not in huge depth, you need to let your intelligence start residing in your hands, arms and your sense of smell because, you know, you’ve got to get out of your head sometimes. And I think that’s what cooking can do. That’s why it’s more than just about just providing fuel for life, it’s emotional fuel as well.”
With the breaking of ice over, and appetites whetted, nerves calmed by Nigella’s gracious response, we went into the main course of the interview. Now this is a woman who can talk food. Each question prompted an inspired diatribe on her influences and thoughts, so here we present Nigella’s Bites on food and life.
Some meaty thoughts on life accompanied by tender bits of what is sweet, spicy, tangy, and salty
From how the pandemic has changed her life to pertinent questions such as “does Nigella ever buy ready-made meals?”, Nigella chews on the key influences in her life.
On how the pandemic has changed her view on cooking
“What was really strange, I wrote a piece for The Sunday Times before the pandemic, is how I’ve learned to love solitude; well, wasn’t that lucky? To find it an enriching experience. In some sense, I found that I was slightly getting into that gear anyway. It’s hard to say, I don’t know how it would have been for me, if I hadn’t had to write a book. Which really meant I wasn’t thinking, I just had such a focus and that obviously really helped me.”
“I think it reconfirmed what I think about food and cooking. Rather than changing anything, it deepened my faith in what I felt about food and how it can just shape one’s life and keep one not just fed but nourished more deeply. And the ability to share with others felt such a gift when otherwise it is more contained.”
On how the pandemic has changed her view on her life
“I think that in a way, life unfolds, and you have to go with it. You don’t really know how it’s going to be. So, you can have a certain idea of this is what matters to me. I think for so many people obviously, what this pandemic time tells us, is what things matter to us. I don’t need big social events. I just need close friends around the table, my children, of course, and family. It made me realize, yes, it’s wonderful to have these unexpected occasions which you can’t do when life is so different. I’m a lucky person. I don’t have to risk my health to do my work. I had work, I had food on the table, a roof over my head. That’s very lucky…
“I feel it was so important as well to put a structure to my day and I was alone for the whole time, a big 4-month lockdown, and therefore I cooked in a different way because I wouldn’t normally go for that long without cooking for other people. So, in a way I could focus on just what I wanted to eat, and also, retesting recipes for the show and for the books. So, it was a mixture. But I really felt that the structure and the sense of having this rather hallow time where I sit at the table and eat something I made, just really to delight myself, it sounds very selfish, but it gave me a lot.”
On keeping cooking simple
“People often dwell on the impact of a recipe, in terms of wowing someone, or this endless quest for novelty, and of course there has to be a balance; you don’t want to get into a rut and have the same things. But sometimes it’s enormously comforting and reassuring to return to familiar dishes, and that’s what this series is very much about. We all create those different dishes, but we return to a way of cooking where we are not challenged too much. I don’t like the notion where you have to cook something where you have to take a deep breath and feel flustered because there are so many things happening, and so many different ingredients. I think sometimes, simplifying everything, that’s my starting point. Maybe it’s just about making a virtue out of a necessity, but I’m not a chef, and that’s not a modest thing to say, I am just not, I am a home cook. You can see it on the programs, I cut rather slowly, chop things and I’m a bit clumsy… but home food is not about clever technique—it’s about flavour and about the emotional resonance of the dish as well, and it was good to be able to talk about that in the series.”
On sharing her food with her audience via social media
“I am very aware that if my children had been younger and with me, and if I had been cooking, coming up with three meals a day, I might have found it less soothing at times. I can only talk about recipes that fit in where I am right now, like a little miniature autobiographies. But that’s where social media came in… In a way, although it wasn’t there in a literal sense, I did get that feeling of sharing my food and it felt like, I don’t know, a kind of privilege. It made me feel quite emotional and I suppose, all our emotions are a bit more at the surface with these strange times. So I felt more connected than ever.”
On which of these recipes are a doddle to do
“Well, I think, really, that no recipe is autopilot, which is why I suppose I’m talking about the idea of repeating. If I can just say from the reactions I got from the series here, my ‘Chicken in a Pot’ recipe, which is really just browning the chicken and chili flakes, or not if there are young children, the herbs you want, tarragon, mint, whatever it might be, with lemon, leeks and carrots…That’s a very low stress recipe. You have leftovers from another day, and I think that’s the key to not really feeling wiped out from cooking every single day.”
“The Crab Mac ‘n Cheese’. That’s one that people have really done because sometimes it’s nice to have a treat at home—especially when people aren’t going to restaurants much… My fear-free fish stew… it barely takes five minutes or so for the fish to go in and get cooked. If you want to, you can cook everything beforehand. Sometimes, you want the sort of cooking that isn’t so super precise.”
On pre-packaged food
“I don’t buy ready meals. I’m very happy with bread and cheese for a meal, but I’m not a snob about prepared food. I’m sure a lot of it is very good. And a couple of times, I might get a delivery. Not very often, but that’s also because I just enjoy pottering about. I’ve always got small bowls of something left over. I don’t feel anything against packaged food, but it doesn’t take very long to get some spaghetti on, and throw a few greens in it, and eat it with anchovies and a bit of garlic…I can make my own ready meals.”
On taking a break from cooking
“I don’t take a break from cooking in that way. I don’t regard it as work. There may be times when I’m exhausted, but for me the focus is on the eating too…I love cooking. What takes time, often, is the shopping, which is now easier. When I was younger, that took time and can be quite difficult. The washing up…I didn’t go to restaurants for a long time, but then I went to maybe one where I can eat outside and it’s a huge treat. But I don’t feel the need now to go to restaurants all the time and never cook. I value the time I have cooking. I certainly don’t feel like a bad person if I don’t cook.”
On being conscious on sustainability
“My mother had been a child in the war where waste was not allowed. I’m always like that as a cook because that was how I was brought up. It’s more of an ‘old fashioned washing up the tin foil’ kind of thing…I had been retesting one of the banana breads during lockdown, and I was putting the banana skins in the bin and I thought, I know I’ve heard somewhere that they are edible, and I thought I want to make something with them. I find deep satisfaction making something out of something that might go in the bin. The same with the bread recipe in which I use soured milk. Not soured on purpose but out of bad milk management. If you really love cooking, you are always looking for ways to use every bit of the food to not waste it. I am forever putting chicken carcasses in the freezer, and I keep vegetable peelings.”
“It wouldn’t occur to me to cook shellfish without making a broth or stock out of it afterwards. That’s not virtue. That is, why wouldn’t you make the most of something delicious, out of something that is already there that would have otherwise been thrown away? Sometimes I have only one leek left, and I’m thinking this has to be used now or it’s going to walk out of the fridge on its own accord. So, I make what I’m cooking around that. And then I found later that it became a recipe only because I didn’t want to waste anything.”
Just to wrap things up — Nigella the Kitchen Femme Fatale
There is a scene in the sitcom Modern Family, where Phil tries to cook a turkey with Nigella-voiced instructions. He spends most of the time being flustered and seduced by her voice, which allows for several comedic moments. Obviously from social media, posts, and memes, she has influenced so many kitchens. Women want to cook like her, and men want her in their kitchens. I asked whether she felt any pressure in being, for some, The Ultimate Kitchen Sex Symbol. I asked if she had seen the episode where she is clearly positioned as an object of desire, and her feelings of being a kitchen sex symbol.
Her instinctive response was to laugh out loud and exclaimed, “Nooooooo!” (although I do feel she is being far too modest.) Instead, she says, “The thing is, I can’t do what a lot of people do now. Endless videos on Instagram. I love sharing things, but I don’t want a camera on me all the time. I’d rather do it with a message on social media… I’m sort of happier looking out onto the world, than having a camera on me. When I do the TV shows, I’m ready for that, I’m in that mode. In my day-to-day life, I’m into baggy things, and I feel that I’m not of the selfie generation. Also, I’d have to tidy my house a lot more too. Although I love sharing and talking to people, I find it more relaxing without having the camera on me, because I started off in print and radio, so that means those are my most comfortable means of communication through words in a way. A shy cook, I suppose.”
Coffee, Cheese, and Other Bits
I rushed through the end of our interview like you would after a long dinner and realised that the time was getting very late. But there was no publicist telling me to wrap it up, neither did Nigella seem particularly rushed for time. I cut the timing short because saying goodbye to a hero can be awkward. They say never meet your heroes, lest they disappoint.
This was not the case here. But I do have an awkward habit of leaving quickly when I like someone. A little bit of misdirected playing hard to get. Although I did manage to ask her what her favourite Asian dish was, to which she replied, “There’s just too many to choose from. I adore laksa. The home economist who works on my program is Malaysian. She often teaches me things. For example, the egg curry and various sauces. I would love to travel to your neck of the woods. Not being able to see a different sky and trying different foods. I’m longing for that. I’m really longing for that.”
Despite a very flustered me at the end, Nigella ended our chat with gratitude for that which I expressed when we started, she said before saying goodbye, “Thank you for all your lovely words. My heart feels very warm. Thank you.” To which I probably spluttered even more.
In writing this article, I immersed myself in food porn—and watched hours of the Food Network and various other cooking shows on BBC Lifestyle – just to put Nigella in context with the rest and try to figure out why she stands out. What she does gives you is that sense of comfort, warmth, and coming home that somehow eludes the rest. There is no doubting the Nigella Effect, with the success of 15 television series and 11 bestsellers and counting. But don’t take my word for it. Here, two notable chefs and one foodie share their thoughts.
Keith Hooker, Executive Chef, The St. Regis Hotel, Kuala Lumpur
“Nigella to me is about the pleasure of food rather than cooking. She has a very intimate way of speaking that makes you think she is only talking to you. She is clever, articulate, and intelligent, and with that voice, what’s there not to love? If I wasn’t married, she would be the ideal wife!”
Although Keith said he hasn’t tried any recipes, as he tends to follow professional chefs, Chef Anis Nabilah, Malaysia’s very own celebrity chef, has a contrasting opinion on learning from a non-professional cook.
Chef Anis Nabilah, Malaysia’s very own Celebrity Chef
“Nigella’s recipe is probably the first celebrity chef’s recipe that I’ve tried. I remember my first time watching her, I was still at culinary school then. I just remember thinking, oh my god, this lady, this beautiful lady on TV, she’s cooking, and she’s doing amazing stuff. The way she speaks, and the way she explains things—I was in awe. I have tried a lot of her recipes, and some of her techniques. You don’t really learn that from culinary school, not from where I went to, at least.”
Papi Zak, the Halal Foodie
“Of course, I like Nigella. Any woman who loves to cook and eat as much as I do is sexy to me. The accent helps, too. And as complicated as her recipe is, you can see her love and passion for food, because she goes that extra mile to really bring out the best flavour you can taste in all her recipes.
Testing Two Recipes from Nigella Lawson’s “Cook, Eat, Repeat”
Fish Finger Bhorta
I cooked this recipe four times as I was writing my article on the interview with Nigella. Need I say more? If there was anything more moreish, or which would compel you to cook, eat and repeat, it would be this one.
Tangy, spicy, the cod fish fingers send you straight back to your childhood, and whilst naughty, they are baked as per recipe and not so bad on the calories, and well, I posited that the spinach balanced out any naughty in this dish. I paired this with Nigella’s panchphoran aloo from “How to Eat”, just to create an Indian-inspired version of fish and chips.
WARNING: For Malaysian cooks, I do not know if it’s post-pandemic supply issues, but finding good fish fingers with the kind of crust that would give you the capital C in crunch and comfort eating, can be challenging. I recommend Waitrose’s Cod Fish Fingers at any BIG supermarket, or Pacific West Cod Fish Fingers from Jaya Supermarkets. Supply from both lately has been inconsistent, so I have bought in bulk, just in case.
Blood Orange and Passionfruit Pavlova
This recipe can be found in Nigella’s book “Cook, Eat, Repeat”. This is a doddle to make—even more effortless if you have a KitchenAid. And the results, even if you have clumsy fingers like mine, still turn out beautifully, almost, dare I say it, professional. It’s very hard to spot a blood orange in Malaysia—so use Nigella’s suggestion of a grapefruit. I used the South African Pink Grapefruit and it worked out very well…
The South African Cara Cara orange, which my fruit grocer said was a good replacement for the blood range, was less convincing. Passionfruit abounds in Kuala Lumpur (most supermarkets take the seeds out for you and sell them separately) so no challenge there in finding this ingredient.
Try not to make meringues on a rainy day, as our moisture-soaked humid atmosphere is also not helpful. Beat eggs in an air conditioned room if at all possible.
“Cook, Eat, Repeat” will be available on the BBC Player.