n a blustery Saturday night we make our way to Roshni Shah’s N19 flat where she hosts a monthly vegetarian dinner. Amiably she leads us into her colourful dining room, the other guests already in situ. It’s a mixed bunch: a pair of cousins, a divorcée and a couple (one vegan, the other gluten-free).
Over a Chai Russian – a gently spiced cocktail she prepares using Baileys Almande, vodka and almond milk – we tentatively get to know each other, in that slightly awkward way, as we await our first course.
Which, as it happens, is a belter, uniting the group in praise: velvety sweetcorn purée with charred corn, chilli popcorn, slivers of dehydrated tomato and chunks of matoke (a variety of banana). A smattering of peanuts completes the textural, super tasty and oh-so-pretty dish.
“It’s my favourite from tonight’s offering,” says Roshni. “I don’t want to sound cheesy but it has a history. My parents are from Kenya, you buy maize off the street there. It’s something my family can relate to. Familiar ingredients are presented in an unusual way.”
The rest of the meal doesn’t disappoint. Celeriac and horseradish dumplings sit in a full-of-flavour broth that’s dotted with watercress oil and matchsticks of carrot and turnip; roast pumpkin drizzled with nutty tahini dressing is complemented by shiitake and pickled shimeji mushrooms; and light-as-can-be aubergine fritters take centre stage in a bowl of steamed basmati surrounded by tangy tomato, coconut and tamarind sauce. The secret to that crisp batter? “Rice flour, corn starch and soda water,” says Roshni.
Dessert of blackberry poached fig encased in rich chocolate ganache with dinky cubes of passionfruit jelly and homemade blackberry liqueur is a fitting finale. We leave armed with a box of homemade truffles, a thoughtful – and well-executed – extra.
I meet Roshni in the Lord Palmerston a few days later for a glass of wine to find out more about her BYOB monthly gatherings which have been going for two years: “I call it my passion project,” she says. Each time, she cooks for up to eight guests – hence the moniker. “I went to a wedding where I had loads of friends together; it was the perfect time to brainstorm to find a name. Most people think it originates from the number of courses.”And where did the idea first spring from? “It all began as a little girl,” says Roshni. “I learnt to cook with my mum: I’m an only child so I spent a lot of time with her. Four years ago I started volunteering at the charity FoodCycle. We take surplus that’s going to be thrown away, make it into three courses and serve it to locals. The enterprise combats waste and social isolation, but also promotes community-building. Through that I got used to cooking for large groups of people every week; I loved it so much, I had to start doing it on my own.”
Spurred on, Roshni put a menu together, and things progressed from there. “I really like Middle Eastern cuisine, and Indian cooking is my background,” she says. “I take a lot of my favourite flavours from growing up and use them in new ways to elevate dishes and also research unusual combinations in order to make something a bit quirky that people don’t try every day. I want my plates to have both style and substance; seasonality is very important too.”
Who inspires her? “Like many people one of my culinary heroes is Ottolenghi,” she says. “He melds a lot of ingredients together and creates something intricate and layered. It was his recipes that got me making big feasts for my friends and sparked something within me.”
Interestingly, Roshni doesn’t explicitly make a big deal about the fact that the meal is veggie. “It puts some people off,” she says. It’s great to be able to prove to people that you don’t need meat.” As her business has grown so has veganism; she’s getting more guests with animal-free diets. “Nowadays, when I’m developing dishes they’ll either be plant-based or I’ll know how to ‘veganise’ them,” says Roshni.
An incredible amount of work goes into the events. “I start early and do as much in advance as possible,” says Roshni. “I don’t like to complain because I could make simpler food. I enjoy the artistry.”
It’s been a busy period for the accomplished cook: last April Roshni decided to quit her job in fashion, and she’s currently part of On Purpose, a programme designed to facilitate mid-career professionals wanting to transition into the charity sector. “We get two six month placements within social businesses plus training on top of that,” says Roshni. “I’ve built up a really good knowledge base and network.”
For the next year Roshni will be absorbed in her course, at which point it will be time to reassess again. “But 8 Plates will always be there,” she says.