Finding flavour in your hands is the first self discovery as a cook that changes the way you taste, cook and understand your food and your own distinct flavour.

Everyone has their own twist, or way of cooking that defines how a recipe turns out – the same recipe cooked by you, is never replicated in flavour cooked by another. Heritage cooking from grandmothers worldwide, always involved cooking with instinct, and that very sixth sense of cooking (estimation, cooking by instinct), is born from trusting your hand, that no one else’s hand can create the distinct taste that which it carries alone.

To me, it is the very reason why sharing recipes is a way of passing down heirlooms that stand the test of time, as they evolve with the generations but never lose the essence of what they mean. I was taught how to cook meat well, how to transform a mere piece of meat into something hauntingly layered with flavour, depth and most importantly, that certain indescribable fifth taste element, umami – the je n'ais se quoi of cookery.

With meat it was easy, char-grilling, slow cooking with heady spices, browned onion pastes in marinades, there were so many ways. But when it comes to vegetables, I find that this is my weakness, or is it merely because I cooked meat so effortlessly that I never even thought twice about what added umami to a vegetarian menu?

The question I have to ask myself now is how do I translate that element to vegetables, as over-cooked charred vegetables can quite quickly turn to a soggy mess. To understand this process, I have had to dissect the methods that come naturally to me when cooking meat as well as delve into other cuisines for this answer. To find cuisines where adding that certain magical element of flavour was effortless in dishes, without the need to incinerate them.

I quickly realised that I was already creating such a depth of flavour in my curries, by browning onions, garlic, tomatoes, before adding the main ingredient, and realised that if I dry-fried the vegetables to add a little charred flavour to them, and then added them to the base, this heightened the depth of flavour. Borrowing techniques from Japanese, Korean and other South East Asian cuisines, you learn that fermented foods like kimchi or rice vinegar add that much needed umami to vegetables.

The very act of allowing fermentation, extracts a depth of flavour as do sauces like soy, dried mushrooms, seaweed, toasted nuts, seeds and richly caramelised onions (as in the meat cooking techniques I use), all added that certain magic. The most obvious to me of course was the use of spices. But it is strong savoury spices that work well in adding umami to a vegetarian diet. I am no expert with vegetarian cookery, but what I do know is dry roasted cumin, paprika and dark spices such as star anise add a level of depth many other spices fail to deliver. This shift in eating more of a vegetarian diet has definitely made me, an already zealous cook, even more adventurous and creative.

Cumin roasted whole courgette with peppers and tomatoes

Serves 3-4 people as an accompaniment or 2-3 people as a main

Prep time – 20 minutes

Cooking time – 45-60 minutes


5 tbsp olive oil

2 tsp dry roasted cumin

salt to taste

1 tsp paprika

Ground pepper

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

½ tsp red chilli flakes

2 garlic cloves, crushed

Juice of one lemon

3-4 tomatoes, roughly chopped

1 red pepper, romano if possible, roughly chopped

3-4 medium to small courgettes

1 bay leaf

Dill to garnish


Preheat oven to 180c. In a small bowl, add the first 9 ingredients and whisk up like a dressing.

Place all chopped vegetables and bay in a roasting tin, pierce the courgettes with a fork all over. Pour the dressing over and rub the vegetables to ensure all are covered.

Place foil over the tin, place in oven for at least 45-60 minutes, and keep turning courgettes while cooking, cook until soft.

Serve hot, garnish with dill.

Lovely served with a saffron risotto or paella