In Jikoni, Ravinder Bhogal 'cooks across borders'

'Our philosophy is about celebrating our similarities but also the intricacies of our differences,' says chef and author Ravinder Bhogal

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Our cookbook of the week is Jikoni: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from an Immigrant Kitchen by Ravinder Bhogal. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Cauliflower popcorn with black vinegar dipping sauce; kimchi Royals; and spicy eggplant salad with peanuts, herbs, eggs and jaggery fox nuts.

A documentary lit the spark for Ravinder Bhogal’s recipe for paneer gnudi; in a way, it’s a “love letter” to the North Indian migrant workers bolstering Italy’s dairy industry. In imagining what their cuisine would taste like, she combines homemade Indian cheese with parmesan, Punjabi saag with Italian cavolo nero.

“Inspiration comes from everywhere,” says Bhogal, “but stories are really what grip me.”

Combining her culinary heritage with those of other immigrant communities, the journalist, chef and restaurateur “cooks across borders.” At Bhogal’s London restaurant Jikoni, and in the book of the same name (Bloomsbury, 2020), she marries the cultures and traditions she grew up with in Nairobi, Kenya and London, England.

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“The recipes are from a very mixed heritage. It’s immigrant food,” she says. “Our philosophy is about celebrating our similarities, but also the intricacies of our differences.”

Bhogal and her family left Nairobi for London when she was seven years old. Feeling alienated and displaced amid the starkness of an English winter, cooking became a way for her to recreate a sense of home as well as find her place in a new one.

“I’d come from this lush, tropical, warm climate with this colossal sky, and beautiful trees and guavas,” says Bhogal. “And then suddenly it was mid-bleak winter in November. (I’d never) experienced that kind of cold and urban landscape, which was so different from what I’d grown up with.”

As she settled in, Bhogal began overlaying her heritage with the many diasporic communities living in London, incorporating influences from Korean to Polish into her cooking. “Essentially, you end up creating a completely new cuisine,” she says, “and I think that is exactly what immigrant food is.”

Jikoni by Ravinder Bhogal
In Jikoni, chef Ravinder Bhogal shares recipes from her London restaurant of the same name. Photo by Bloomsbury

Bhogal followed an “unorthodox” path to becoming a chef — “via domestic and maternal kitchens” — and her restaurant reflects her roots. Decorated with hand-embroidered textiles, cushions and tablecloths made by women’s co-operatives in Jaipur, India, she wanted Jikoni to feel like coming home. This esthetic is also reflected in the book, which exudes the warmth of a home kitchen.

Inspired by a lesson she learned from her grandfather, who had moved from his native Punjab to East Africa in the 1940s, Bhogal sees cooking as an act of service to the community. He told her that the easiest way to fulfil one of the tenets of Sikhism, to provide for others, is to cook for them.

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She may have arrived at it in a roundabout way, but “cooking really was my destiny,” says Bhogal. Applying her grandfather’s lesson in a public realm as a chef and restaurateur, she feels a responsibility to honour the women who came before her.

“They cooked for their husbands and their children, and here I am with this incredible opportunity to make a career of the wisdom they shared with me,” she adds. “I feel very strongly that every time I get to the pass, I bring my ancestors with me and I’m honouring those women.”

Her fondest memories revolve around the women who taught her to cook, Bhogal says, and it was important for her to include some of their stories in the book. While many of her essays evoke simpler times, she also acknowledges that food memories aren’t unfailingly positive.

The final essay in the book The Audacity of Rasgullas, for example, deals with a woman coming to terms with the death of her husband. Sad but triumphant, it explores the cultural expectations of how a mourning wife’s relationship to food is supposed to change.

As much as lasting recollections of food tend to be tied to happiness or celebration, they can also be rooted in grief or bereavement. “It’s important that we start talking about these other feelings attached to food, too, apart from joy,” says Bhogal.

More On This Topic

  1. Cauliflower popcorn with black vinegar dipping sauce from Jikoni.

    Cook this: Cauliflower popcorn with black vinegar dipping sauce from Jikoni

  2. Kimchi royals from Jikoni.

    Cook this: Kimchi Royals from Jikoni

  3. Spicy eggplant salad with peanuts, herbs, eggs and jaggery fox nuts from Jikoni.

    Cook this: Spicy eggplant salad with peanuts, herbs, eggs and jaggery fox nuts from Jikoni

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Much more than a means of sustenance, she’s always been interested in the humanity behind food. Ingredients and dishes don’t exist in a vacuum — they’re part of a larger story.

In Jikoni’s subtitle, Bhogal describes her recipes as being “proudly inauthentic.” When cooking, drawing on global inspiration, she’s forever felt a freedom: “It is me living in my most authentic self.”

Bhogal struggled when her family moved to England, growing up in an area where there weren’t many people who looked like her, and being bullied at school because she spoke English differently. Looking inward as well as outward, she made food a means of storytelling and self-expression.

Her personal journey resonates in Jikoni as she explores the many parts of her identity: her Indian grandparents, who had Persian lineage and moved to East Africa; and her Britishness, the product of the other immigrant communities she grew up around.

“When you’re an immigrant, you end up living in very immigrant communities. They’re the people who bring you up: who give you hospitality; who invite you home; who you become friends with. I think subconsciously when I opened Jikoni, I was looking to create a place where my experience wasn’t culturalized. Where I could be myself, all of me,” says Bhogal.

“The people who come and frequent, and are really evangelical about, Jikoni are those … who are children of everywhere, just like me.”

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