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At the time, acquiring Indian ingredients meant a trip to a specialty shop. Unable to drive and hesitant to take the bus lest she get lost, her options were limited. Spurred by necessity, Gill incorporated the products she came across at local corner stores and supermarkets.
On the advice of her mother, avocados — which she had never tasted before — became chutney bright with fresh mint and green apple (in place of less ubiquitous green mango). “I would call my mom and say, ‘This is a weird-looking vegetable or fruit. What should I do with it?’ There was no way of sending photographs then,” says Gill, laughing.
Such experiments set the stage for the food she served at her Michelin-recommended Thornbury restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen — which she opened in 2013 after exhausting her savings, selling her jewellery and ultimately securing a bank loan to fund it. They also infuse the recipes filling the pages of her debut cookbook, Zaika, which means “flavour” in Urdu.
Zaika, as with Gill’s career in general, is the result of her determination. “I think it was 15 publishers that refused me,” she says, adding the book is now in its third print run. “It was because of my sheer hard, hard work. I pushed and pushed and pushed.” She initially had other plans for her first cookbook, but following her mom’s death, she wanted to write an homage: “My first book had to have meaning.”
Gill dedicated the book to her mother’s memory, crediting her for instilling the importance of sharing culinary knowledge with others, and cooking with sincerity. “Mum said, ‘Treat the vegetables with love. Follow your heart and go with the flow. If you think cumin might not work with this vegetable, you might try fennel, or you might try something else,’” says Gill. “She was so good at giving me advice.”