I am originally from York. I went to the local village school in Upper Poppleton and then studied at Queen Anne Grammar School. After ‘A’ levels I went on to Leeds College of Commerce where I did a Private Secretaries Certificate. At 19 I joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in 1970 was posted to the British Embassy, Warsaw. From there I was posted to the British Embassy, Kabul. While working in Kabul I met my husband, an Afghan engineer. We were married in 1972 in England and returned to Kabul where we lived until 1980. During this time I continued to work at the British Embassy as secretary to the Commercial/Aid Secretary.
We had to leave Afghanistan in 1980 because of the Russian invasion and we came to live in England with our then 3½ year old son Alexander. We settled in Putney, London. In 1983 I decided to write an Afghan cookery book. I wanted to try to record Afghan cuisine with its rich and varied cultural traditions before it became lost due to the war and the massive exodus of refugees to countries all over the world. Noshe Djan – Afghan Food and Cookery was first published in 1986 by Prospect Books and was beautifully illustrated by Abdullah Breshna.
In the 1990s and until 2003 I worked for Alan Davidson, mainly on The Oxford Companion to Food. This magnum opus was finally published by The Oxford University Press in 1999 to great acclaim. It was such a fantastic opportunity for me to have worked on this book with Alan and I feel very proud and honoured to have been, in his words, his co-pilot in completing the book.
After the Companion was completed Alan and I wrote a little book, a sort of frothy light dessert to the main course of the Companion, called Trifle. We had great fun writing this book together, testing recipes and Alan especially enjoying the tastings.
After Trifle I went on to help Alan revise his three regional seafood books: Mediterranean Seafood; North Atlantic Seafood; and Seafood of South-East Asia and these were republished by Prospect Books. Also during this time I assisted Alan in editing the anthology The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy published by Ten Speed Press.
In 2003 Alan was awarded the prestigious Erasmus Prize in the Netherlands. In a way it was a kind of glorious farewell for, shortly after enjoying a week in Amsterdam and receiving the Prize presented by Prince Bernhard and Queen Beatrix, Alan died peacefully at home in Chelsea on 2 December.
Shortly after Alan’s death I was asked to be Research Director for the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Food to be edited by Tom Jaine. This was published in 2006. At about the same time I helped edit Gillian Riley’s The Oxford Companion to Italian Food which was published in 2007.
Also during this time David Burnett, publisher and owner of Excellent Press, asked me to help him finish a book he was writing on the history of the British curry. This, like Trifle, was a fun book to do and I enjoyed working with David on the research and testing many of the recipes. The Road to Vindaloo: Curry Books and Curry Cooks was published by Prospect Books in 2008 in its English Kitchen series.
In 2010 Tea: A Global History for the Edible series of Reaktion Books and an anthology Cooks Delights for Max Press, Little Books were published. My latest book, co-authored with Colleen Sen, is an e-book Turmeric: The Wonder Spice published by Agate in the USA. I am currently working on a book about teatimes: past and present for Reaktion Books.
I have, since 1991, annually attended the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and have contributed a number of papers on topics relating to Afghanistan: ‘Public Eating in Afghanistan’; ‘Rosewater, the Flavouring of Venus, Goddess of Love and Asafoetida, Devil’s Dung’; ‘Silk Kebab and Pink Tea’; ‘Travel and Food in Afghanistan’ and ‘Fish in Afghanistan’. I was a Trustee from 2009 to 2012 and was the editor of the Oxford Symposium Proceedings for the volume on Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods (2011).
I continue to take an interest in Afghan affairs. My husband returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban to help with reconstruction and I visited several times but since 2006 have not returned due to the security situation. I am in touch with several charities doing fantastic work in Afghanistan. Here are their websites anyone who is interested in learning more about their work and how they might help. Afghan Appeal Fund, Sandy Gall’s Afghanistan Appeal, Friends of Aschiana, AfghanAid, Khorasan, Little Books for Afghanistan and there are of course many others.