Five Questions: Ashia Ismail-Singer

My Indian Cookbook by Ashia Ismail Singer. Published by Potton & Burton, 2018

Ashia Ismail-Singer is a Malawi-born home cook now based in New Zealand. She is passionate about Indian cuisine and sharing it with Kiwis.

After developing recipes for various magazines she reaslied her dream of writing her own cookbook, My Indian Kitchen – which has been hugely successful.

Check out her website, blog and cookbook here

What are your earliest memories of cooking?

My earliest memories of cooking are in our kitchen in Malawi, Africa, where I was born and brought up. One of the things I loved doing with my mum and my sisters was making puri. Puri are like roti/ chapati but smaller and fried in oil, as opposed to being griddled in a dry pan. It’s great to cook these with children as they love using flour and water to make the dough to create these small round (sometimes not so round) discs. There’s nothing better than eating them fresh out of the hot oil. I have gone on to do this with my children, in fact one of the photos on the very last few pages of my cookbook, is of myself and my two teenagers doing just that.

You’ve lived in other places, aside from Malawi, haven’t you?

Yes. Having spent my childhood in Africa, my parents decided to emigrate to the UK when I was 16. Political instability and limited options for further education prompted them to move there for a better future for us four girls. Adjusting to a new country was hard. I went to Art College and studied Fashion & Design for two years. I then had a minor setback and struggled through depression. When I was well again, I decided that I didn’t want to continue in the Arts and decided to qualify as a nurse, so that I could travel and also help people.

How did you end up in New Zealand?

I wanted to travel and see the world, and my career in nursing gave me the opportunity to do that. I came to New Zealand in February 1997, on a working holiday on my own, and travelled around the country, working at different hospitals. It was in Wellington that I met my, now husband, Graham. This was in July, by October I had moved in with him, the following March we got engaged and by August 1998 we were married! Talk about a whirlwind!

How did the cookbook come about?

My family was in the UK so my heart was always pulled in different directions. My mum got sick in 2002 so we decided to go back there and spend time with family and help her (we had a son by then).  I loved reading NZ House & Garden magazine which I subscribed to from the UK and enjoyed cooking and looking through the food pages. I had started thinking about putting together a cookbook, while cooking with mum. We had our daughter, and by the time she was five, we felt it was time to come back to NZ.

With packing and organising a young family and working as a nurse, I put the book on the back burner. We came back in 2011 and once the children were settled in school, I started writing my first blog called ‘Tamarillos for Chutney’ to get a platform to start from. I loved experimenting with kiwi flavours, and mixing east and west together. I wrote to Taste magazine and got my first feature in 2012. After that I emailed Sally Butters at NZ House & Garden, and explained how I had loved reading the magazine and told her about my blog. She loved it and asked if I wanted to contribute to the food pages. Absolutely!! And so it began; I managed to get a five page spread once a year for the next four years.

I also started contacting publishers. I had a lot of knock backs and although they loved my ideas, the answer was always, you haven’t been on TV, you don’t have a profile etc etc. I didn’t give up and carried on working on the book, writing to publishers, working on the blog and contributing to NZ House & Garden, as well as being a mum and nurse.  It was on these shoots that I met Manja and loved her work. I had decided that I would like her to shoot my cookbook when it came out.

In 2017 I wrote to Potton & Burton again, and this time, they saw my vision of a book with dark photography and pops of bright Indian colour – a fusion of East and West. And the journey to making My Indian Kitchen started. I loved every minute of the recipe writing, prop hunting and putting my book together. I dedicated it to my mum Zarina, she is the one who sparked my love for cooking.

How has your journey across multiple countries affected your style of cooking and outlook on food?

Having lived in three different countries, one of the things that brings it all together is fresh, seasonal and nutritious ingredients. My food is not fancy, I’m a home cook, not a chef. I was taught by my mum and then learnt myself. What I love about cooking is that there are no borders, we can enjoy the tastes of the world, right here in our kitchens and mix a bit of what we’ve experienced everywhere into our own unique style.
[image credits: Manja Wachsmuth]

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