Charting a family history can take many forms. Sometimes it’s a series of handwritten letters or boxes of strange objects in the attic, occasionally it’s drawn up in a family tree. And while my own family has lost most of its material possessions over the years, our stories have been kept intact through recipes and food. At the start and heart of every story is a place called Gujarat. Although I’ve never lived there, the spirit of this place exists in most aspects of my daily life: I think like a Gujarati, I speak Gujarati and day in, day out, I cook Gujarati food.
Little is commonly known about Gujarat in the UK, despite the fact there are hundreds of thousands of Gujaratis here. It’s one of the most interesting gastromonic regions in India. This may be because, as a group, we are quiet and industrious, more inclined to become accountants and corner-shop owners (Mr. Patel is Gujarati) than restaurateurs (a trade that’s dominated by Bengalis and Bangladeshis).
Nor is Gujarat a tourist magnet. It might have been the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi and Narendra Modi but it’s not as sexy as Rajasthan with its maharajahs and grand palaces, and it can’t boast perfect winter sun beaches like Goa. But there is one thing about Gujarat that marks it out from the rest of India: its incredible ingenuity with food, and with veg in particular.
Nearly all of Gujarat’s 62 million inhabitants are vegetarian because of the age-old Hindu and Jain principal of ahimsa, which means “non-violence” to all living things. This is the way it has been for centuries, so it is a way of life rather than a choice: restaurants there are not “vegetarian restaurants”, but simply “restaurants”.
Meera Sodha: ‘The spirit of Gujarat exists in most aspects of my daily life: I think like a Gujarati, I speak Gujarati and day in, day out, I cook Gujarati food.’ Photograph: Elena Heatherwick/Guardian