Under my byline

A mission in the kitchen

Posted in Books, Foodie, Profiles by Rrishi on 25 November 2007

The BBC’s Andrew Whitehead feeds the multitude

A Mission in Kashmir
Andrew Whitehead
Penguin India
pp 304

“I get invited here and I have to cook my own food?” says Andrew Whitehead in our kitchen — quite accurately. He is in Delhi for the launch of his book, A Mission in Kashmir, but has agreed to cook for us at short notice. My kitchen is handy, and my family is numerous, so here he is, making a Spanish tortilla for a decidedly dal-sabzi household.

This tortilla de patatas is nothing like the Mexican tortilla. It is, rather, a giant omelette which can be eaten hot or cold as part of a meal or as a snack or party tapas; some say it tastes best an hour after it comes off the stove. Ours, however, was consumed instantly.

Whitehead has been with the BBC for a quarter-century. He spent part of the 1990s in India as a TV news correspondent, and later as country director for the Worldwide Service Trust, the BBC’s charitable arm. Now he’s back in London with his wife (an Indian) and two children, running the World Service radio newsroom and reacquainting himself with steak, black pudding and fish-and-chips — but not at home. “My wife won’t allow me to have them in the house,” he says.

The tortilla is an odd dish. An ordinary omelette is ready in minutes, but this takes an hour. And it’s not about the eggs, as Whitehead points out: the potatoes and olive oil are the critical ingredients. Whitehead also put in some haldi, for a little Indian colour and taste.

Like this marriage of flavours, this steak-loving Englishman too is a bit of a hybrid. Straddling boundaries probably comes easily to a history student turned reporter, news editor, part-time historian and author, in whose work and life all the strands continue to turn. He has Indian roots now, and in some ways knows the country better than most Indians, having travelled widely to talk to ordinary people for his work.

Kashmir is a natural destination for a foreign correspondent, and Whitehead has seen it from both sides. Years of reporting have paid off in his new book. It looks at Kashmir at the moment of Partition through the prism of a single event — the well-known raid on a Christian mission in Baramulla.

Stopping at the mission (which still survives) as an afterthought on a reporting trip, Whitehead uncovered a story waiting to be told. Over time, he tracked down the survivors of the attack — including an Italian nun and even one of the raiders themselves. “I tried to gather firsthand accounts by people from both sides… Nobody ever said ‘Get out’,” although talking might have been risky. These voices and viewpoints would otherwise be lost forever.

While we’re chatting in the kitchen, members of the family drift in and out, buzzing with interest. Whitehead is unfazed by all the attention, doesn’t fumble once, and handles children and grandmothers with equal aplomb. He won’t take any help, though: “I’ve got to take full ownership of this!”

We sit down to share the tortilla. It looks good — brown, crisp and chunky. It tastes good, too — light, fluffy and subtly flavourful. We don’t let our cook leave until the only food left on the table is cold crumbs.



6 eggs
4 large potatoes
3-4 tbsp olive oil
10 pods of garlic (approx)
2 flat tsp haldi
1 tsp whole zeera
Salt and ground pepper

Scrub potatoes to clean skin, without removing it. Chop into mid-size chunks and boil, simmering for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse to cool. Heat olive oil to smoking in a large, deep non-stick frying pan and put in potato chunks. Toss in salt and pepper, a generous amount of haldi (or a pinch of saffron), and about 10 small pods of garlic, chopped into halves. Fry until potato starts to brown. Beat eggs in a large bowl, and then add the fried potatoes. Pour mixture into same frying pan (use a little more olive oil), sprinkle with zeera, and slowly cook on low flame. When done, ease tortilla away from sides of pan. Then put pan into a grill so the top is also crisped. Afterwards, place a flat dish over the frying pan and turn upside-down to free tortilla. Slice like a pie and eat hot or cold.


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