The Ten: Sejal Sukhadwala
Name and job title:
Sejal Sukhadwala, food writer.
Where were you born, and where do you live now?
I was born in India and my parents moved to London when I was a kid – my dad
used to work in a bank and was asked to head up their UK branch. I still live in
How do you describe what you do?
I write features on food and restaurants. I’m also writing an Indian food dictionary, an
ongoing project spanning several years; and I recently finished my first book, The
Philosophy of Curry (British Library Publishing; out in Spring 2022).
How much did you spend on your last cup of coffee?
What is one ingredient that is crucial to your work and/or life?
What does a food and/or drinks system mean to you?
I understand ‘food system’ as the entire process of food production beyond simply
‘farm to table.’ It starts with the decision on which crops to grow – are they cash
crops, for instance? – then planting and cultivating, agricultural and horticultural
knowledge and technology, farming methods, harvesting, processing raw materials
into ingredients and dishes, factory systems, labour issues, packaging, marketing,
selling, consuming, the food culture that springs up around it, and the global,
environmental and cultural context all this takes place in.
For instance, the young English couple enjoying their weekend brunch of avocado
toast – do they know the fruit is from a debt-ridden farming family in Mexico? The
child asking for bubble tea – does she know about tapioca and how it grows? The
aleppo chillies that Turkish women painstakingly dry on their rooftops – after being
used in Ottolenghi recipes a few times, are the containers gathering dust just going
to be thrown away?
How does your immediate locale / environment affect your work?
I get distracted easily, so to focus I need absolute silence. My environment has to be peaceful, beautiful and well-organised; and I go for a walk every day, brisk or leisurely depending on time.
From a wider perspective, my food history work wouldn’t make sense without its very British-Indian context. And London, with its wide range of richly diverse communities, plays a supporting role in my restaurant writing.
I’m lucky to be living in a part of the city where every visit to my local Persian, Turkish, Lebanese, Polish and Sri Lankan grocer and greengrocer inspires a new idea, or a connection or fresh angle to an existing one.
Where do you draw inspiration from, in your work?
There are stories all around us, aren’t there? A mundane newspaper report, a
conversation with a friend, something I might have read in a fiction or non-fiction
book, a social media post, these can all trigger ideas. Increasingly though, I find
inspiration in food history. All the best stories are hidden in footnotes or whispered as
under-investigated rumours in food history books. It’s amazing how much the past
resembles the present. Food history is like detective work, where you dig up little
surprises here and there and then piece them together into stories that are relevant
to the modern world.
What impact do you want to have?
I want to write more about Indian food history, British food history and the intersection between the two; plus, London restaurant history. Hopefully not in a dry, academic way, but in an accessible style with some bad jokes thrown in, without dumbing anything down.
One of my aims is to help enhance people’s knowledge and understanding – and therefore enjoyment – of Indian food, and to engage with it more. I hope I can do that with my articles, dictionary (for which I have some ambitious plans) and my Curry history book.
However, I find it almost impossible to write about, or even tweet about, Indian cuisine without upsetting someone or the other – well-meaning white liberals, Indian food gatekeepers, the ‘authenticity’ police, right-wing Hindutva nationalists – but as long as I’m pissing off all the right people, I don’t mind.
A lot of writing about Indian food is very safe. For instance, when’s the last time you read criticism of an Indian chef? Never, because all we have are glowing PR-friendly puff pieces. Have you read a constructive, informed critique of an Indian restaurant beyond ‘it’s too expensive and not as good as my local’? No. Is there an article that looks at what’s wrong with things that are going on within the cuisine itself, instead of blaming what outsiders are doing (‘look, they turned our haldi doodh’ into turmeric latte’)? No. So I would love to stir things up a bit – but preferably without the hate mail! It’s difficult to do this without coming across as an arse though, so I would have to be careful.
Additionally, Indian cuisine is so massively varied – and many Indians’ knowledge is often limited to experience within their own families – that factual errors invariably arise. For instance, I’ve heard Indians say ‘dill is never used in Indian cooking’ (it’s actually used in Gujarati cooking), or ‘nobody cooks naan at home’ (lots of people do, in their domestic tandoors). So, although I’m not interested in any editing work, I’d love to have paid gigs that involve fact-checking articles and books to ensure these types of errors and inaccuracies haven’t crept in.
Another aim is to help improve the quantity and QUALITY of writing on global vegetarian cuisines. I’m frustrated by how little there is, and how bad it is – barely anything beyond ‘top 10 vegetarian restaurants’ to coincide with the annual national vegetarian week, copied and pasted from Google searches by interns (allegedly). And the framing is so Eurocentric: vegetarian food is either linked to health, environment, politics or animal rights. Where’s the pleasure factor? The celebratory angle? Where are the quirky stories? The esoteric topics? The oblique takes? Where are the exciting vegetarian dishes?
I have toyed with a couple of different ideas in recent years – of launching my own vegetarian print magazine; of starting an Indian food history-related newsletter – but currently my dictionary, which will take a few more years to complete, is taking up much of my time.
What change do you want to see in the food and/or drinks system?
Other than workers and labourers getting a fair and decent wage… Eat. More.
Beans! Honestly, I don’t know how to say this to people without sounding like their
mother, but the highly processed and often disgusting faux-meats are no substitute
to fresh produce. The global north, which has already influenced the global south in
this matter, to the extent there may be no turning back, should have been looking at
alternatives to the ‘meat and two veg’ way of eating. Instead, it’s been lining the
pockets of billionaire tech bros. It’s a heart-breaking and complicated situation.
You can see more of Sejal Sukhadwala's work on Sourced with the video essay 'Onion Pakora Weather'. Her forthcoming book 'The Philosophy of Curry' is a cultural history of curry published by British Library Publishingsa part of their 'Philosophies' series of short, single-subject books. You can order your copy here.