Emeli Sandé: ‘I loved spaghetti so much as a child that I’d eat it from the garden drain’

The singer on her dad’s Zambian dishes, eating noodles with Alicia Keys and writing songs about Angel Delight

My mother told me I loved spaghetti so much as a kid that she’d find me pulling spaghetti from the drain in the back garden to eat. She said: “You were two or three years old, and I caught and mostly stopped you.”

My dad was studying engineering at Sunderland University and my mum was studying religions. He came from Zambia, she came from Cumbria. They were soon to complete their studies when I happened. I guess it was love. I’d like to think I was a love child. Mum made very typically British food. Rhubarb crumble, shepherd’s pie, jacket potatoes. Dad would cook traditional Zambian marinated meat dishes with nshima [cornmeal porridge], especially on Sundays, and they had salt, flavour, soul and everything I loved at the time. Except his mushrooms. I hated mushrooms.

I remember Dad saying: “If it kills you, I’ll know never to give it to you again.” I would be more nervous making food for my dad because he doesn’t hide his emotions. If he doesn’t like it, he just won’t finish. It’s not rudeness, it’s his honesty. And he’s such a good cook.

In primary school I had a best friend called Alison and we had this game of who could stay the longest in the dining hall. We’d wait to the very end of the third bell. I liked the chips and custard and the sponge pudding. We didn’t have much money at first, but I was lucky and grateful I had free meals.

Before my “professional” albums, I made an EP at university. It’s called Super-Duper Lover. I loved butterscotch-flavoured Angel Delight and there’s a whole verse about how my partner at the time knew my favourite Angel Delight despite him hating it. It was my song to him. I married him but got divorced. He wasn’t really a good cook. He liked to eat for energy. If he could take food in a pill, he’d have it in a pill.

After three years of studying medicine at Glasgow University I had the choice of doing an intercalated degree and picked neuroscience. It was mind-blowing. Consciousness is always on my mind. Eating for comfort or out of emotion is something I think I’m beginning to understand; how you can seek to control things by eating too much or too little. There’s so much psychology related to the things that pass through the mouth, like smoking, drinking, eating and talking too much.

My younger sister wasn’t a big eater. She didn’t like meat. At the end of a meal I’d fall on her leftovers. She lives with me now and she’s a brilliant cook, with Dad’s talent for flavours, trusting the instinct, the gut, but she’s vegan. It’s my house, but she definitely “owns” the kitchen.

When we were writing my second album, the sound for the track Hurts started because we’d just finished eating and were drumming our spoons on the table. For the new album, the studio was right next to the kitchen in my house, so we’d go back and forth, and it was good for bonding and a respite. My sister would make us vegan food or they’d all go off to the shops and take turns at the cooker.

Emeli Sandé: Hurts

Usually song ideas I’ve devised for other people are just sent from London to LA, but Alicia Keys is a singer I’ve spent real time with and she mentored me. Alicia introduced me to this great pizza place across from her studio. The first time I met her she was immediately very welcoming and encouraging – I have a very strong memory of us eating noodles on a balcony in New York.

When I changed my mind about the way I thought and ate about food a few years ago, it was pretty revolutionary and I became vegetarian. I had a fish tank and I’d called one fish Adele – my real name – but then it died. One minute there was a living creature; the next it was gone. Then I started having dreams about animals talking to me. I had one very profound dream in which a deer told me: “We’re just the same thing. I am you and you are me.”

My favourite things

Marinated tofu in anything or everything. My sister – who’s all about raw – tells me not to eat soya. “It’s still processed.” But for me it’s a very good alternative protein.

I really like my champagne. The taste, how light it is. The first time I drank it must have been when I was becoming a pop star in London. It was only white wine before the Ivor Novellos.

Mildred’s in Soho, London – its fake chicken and cocktails are really good, and the salads are awesome. Often you go to veggie places and the taste isn’t there, but Mildred’s has really nailed it.

Emeli Sandé’s new album, Real Life, is out now on Virgin EMI. She is on tour in the UK from 15 November


John Hind

The GuardianTramp

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