Anoushka Shankar: 'Dad said he could make a really good dal, but I never saw him cook'

The musician and daughter of Ravi Shankar talks about Bengali food, having George Harrison as an uncle and being Asian in California

I was born in 1981 and raised as an only child, so a lot of this will be about my mum. I’m remembering the lovely food she made. And I’m picturing this kitchen with a really odd, red linoleum floor, check red. I stood next to her a lot at the sink, while she was washing and I was drying – it’s a good time and place to chat. I never really cooked alongside her, but I don’t know why.

Mum’s home food was comfy, exquisite and she was also capable of the most wonderful gourmet food. She’d mix the rice and dal with stuff and roll these easy-to-pick-up extra-softened little balls of rice. I have a very vivid memory of them. I think she’s the best cook in the world. Lots of people say that about their own mothers, but many people say it about my mother.

Some of my mother’s Indian friends’ daughters would be learning to cook with their mother and they’d tease me about learning sitar with my dad, Ravi Shankar, instead. It was nothing nasty but I developed a complex about it.

I ate Bengali food after my parents married and Dad started living with us, in both Willesden and in Delhi for three years, and then we all moved to California. Dad said he could make a really good dal, but I never saw him cook during the whole time we lived together.

My memories of mealtimes are a real bleed of music and food. Music never really stopped in the music room, because everyone would move out to the table with their sitars. My dad would have an idea and we’d all be keeping time at the table, singing along, keeping patterns. And so many artists coming through, with amazing discussions around me.

George Harrison became my uncle – not by blood but through love. It’s sort of an Indian cultural thing. He was deeply into the ayurvedic system and often talked to me about that. George and I were close and he was very jovial. I mean, both he and my dad were real jokesters, so there was a lot of laughter at the table.

Moving to California made things better, somehow. In London, there’d been a real self-consciousness about being Asian. I felt that in California it didn’t mean anything to anyone – no one knew anything about India! – and that I could just make my own identity.

Food is quite tricky for younger people who move and travel. I see it in my own kids now. Milk’s different in different countries; bread’s totally different. So, I remember getting quite teary whenever we moved. But usually only for a couple of days.

One thing I’m really finicky about is having proper kettles around. So I always carry one in my suitcase. I feel protected when I’m holding a really hot mug of tea.

My favourite things

A good salad full of protein, vegetables, leaves.

Tea. Breakfast tea, homemade chai, camomile, matcha latte.

I love scrambled eggs at the Wolseley as a special, decadent brunch. The texture is just perfect – really creamy and sort of done but not done. I can’t get them right at home. I’m always one or two seconds out, one way or the other.

Love Letters is out now (Mercury KX)

  • This interview took place before the UK lockdown


John Hind

The GuardianTramp

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