Flavours over fads and diets

Food writer Ruby Tandoh champions the delights of preparing dishes without restrictions.
Food writer Ruby Tandoh champions the delights of preparing dishes without restrictions.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SHEFFIELD (England) • Come January, everyone is an expert on what you should and should not be eating, and in what quantities you should and should not be eating it.

Not Ruby Tandoh, who is standing in her kitchen in South Yorkshire, sizzling plantains in an inch of oil until they are a deep brown all over and tender inside.

Tandoh, a 24-year-old food writer with a cult following in Britain, does not endorse a set of rules by which you should shop, cook and eat.

Instead, she champions the miscellaneous delights, the quiet quotidian pleasures, of cooking without rules.

"I can hear the voices of aunties in my head," she said, sliding across the linoleum to flip the sputtering plantains. "They're telling me not to overcrowd the pan."

She lives in Sheffield, a city once known for its steel industry, where locals never seem to tire of saying there are more trees than people. She came into the public eye a few years ago as a college student, when she competed on the popular television series The Great British Bake Off in 2013.

Since then, she has written two cookbooks; essays in The Guardian, Elle UK and other publications that tell complex stories about relationships with food; and fast-food reviews for Vice UK. In her writing, she seems almost allergic to food snobbery.

Her second cookbook, Flavour: Eat What You Love, was published last summer in Britain and will arrive in the United States next month. It celebrates the repertoire of a skilled and enthusiastic home cook, as interested in the feminist concept of "shine theory", which values female friendship over competition, and how it might apply to cake, as what Harry Styles of the band One Direction orders for dessert.

Tandoh's paternal grandfather, who migrated to Britain from Ghana, died two years ago, and since then, her interest in Ghanaian flavours has grown.

She rolls up the sleeves of her oversize orange sweater to pull whole tilapia from a garlicky marinade, which she will pan-fry and serve with the browned plantains, a salad of raw onions, tomatoes and herbs and a homemade hot sauce. She warms groundnut soup on the electric stove until the windows fog up and the whole room is swaddled with the scent of peanut butter and chillies.

It is an unshowy blowout of a lunch, alive with heat and depth, utterly delicious.

"The language of some of our most beloved food writers has gone from flavour and feasting to cleanness and lightness," Tandoh lamented in an essay written for Vice UK last year.

Taking a closer look at the trends towards gluten-free and sugar-free foods, towards clean eating and wellness, she sometimes found a moralising and restrictive message hiding between the lines, making unscientific promises about the benefits of certain foods and the damage caused by others.

"I saw diet culture creeping into general food writing and into the lives of friends who weren't seeking it," she said, scooping a fresh mango and lime sorbet at the wobbly table against the wall. In particular, it was the sweet potato brownies. Wheat-free, sugar-free versions were blooming on food blogs and in Paleo forums, embraced by eaters without allergies.

"I made them," said Tandoh, who was initially curious. "They were rank."

Marian Burros wrote about the "clean food diet" in The New York Times in 1996, when it was just starting to gain steam.

The diet was then packaged as a new though vague standard for health food that went beyond the organic label. Followers were focused on maximising nutritional value in foods they generally defined as "pure".

The term clean eating has since ballooned into a buzzword that describes tea cleanses, liquid detoxes, raw foods, superfoods and a variety of other wellness-related diets.

Tandoh is not interested in presenting her own counterdiet. She will not play the part of a guru or prescribe any single dogma.

"Some of the most delicious cakes I've had have coconut oil in them," she said, "but I just don't believe in the evangelism of ingredients."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2017, with the headline 'Flavours over fads and diets'. Print Edition | Subscribe