Spice it up!

Sonya shares her favorite international dish, and on the final page of this feature there’s a chance for you to win a fabulous prize

Open the door to the spice cupboard in Sonya Kaila-Tierney’s Edinburgh home and everything is just as it should be, with jars and packets lined up, labels facing front. ‘My husband says I have a disorder!’ laughs Sonya.

But there’s nothing regimented about her cooking style: Sonya loves experimenting with flavors, creating new recipes and dipping into her spice collection for inspiration. For her, there are few pleasures that come close to making a meal for her family.

Description: Spices and fresh ingredients create healthy, tasty dishes

Spices and fresh ingredients create healthy, tasty dishes

Sonya, 35, who lives with her husband Vince and nine-year-old daughter Rhea, grew up in a household where cooking was always part of the domestic scenery. ‘My dad is Indian and he cooked curries for us – which wasn’t that normal in the eighties – and my mother, who’s Scottish, learned to cook Indian food from Dad’s sister.’

Although Sonya helped her mother make dishes such as Indian flatbread puris, it wasn’t until she left home that she started to cook for herself.

‘When I was a student I wasn’t very confident in the kitchen but I wanted to be able to feed myself healthily,’ says Sonya, who now works as a food and health development worker with Edinburgh Community Food, a project to promote healthier eating. ‘I went to Italy as an au pair when I was 19 and experienced the Mediterranean way of eating, with lots of fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood. I learned about different cooking methods and brought them back and fused them with British cooking.’

Now, every evening, Sonya cools a family meal. ‘At work my role is to encourage to try healthier options by teaching nutrition and running cooking classes with parents,’ says Sonya, who qualified as a nutritionist two years ago. ‘And because I’m always telling people to cook everything from scratch, I like to prepare a home cooked meal every night myself. It takes at least an hour, but it helps me to unwind after being at work all day – it’s therapeutic and I forget about what else is going on in my life.’

Description: Sonya builds flabours as she cooks her favourite exotic dishes

Sonya builds flabours as she cooks her favourite exotic dishes

When Sonya is in her kitchen, which is bright, light and modern with a dining area at one end, she’s in her ‘zone’. ‘I suppose you just become more confident over the years,’ she says. ‘Vince and I both travelled quite a bit in the past, and he also worked in the Middle East for a while, so we both picked up ideas along the way. My cooking is more a fusion of flavours rather than specific dishes but I love using spices: turmeric, chilli, paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin and coriander. I don’t add salt to any of my cooking so spices are a good way to make tasty meals.’

Middle Eastern cooking, which is layered with spices but not overly hot is one of Sonya’s favourite cuisines. ‘I like to be able to build up flavors when I cook. And, yes, my store cupboards are very well organized – it just makes it easier to work with. But I’m not precious about cooking and don’t mind other people around me while I’m preparing a meal.

‘Rhea does her homework at the dining table while I get things ready, and sometimes at the weekend Vince helps out. He’s a good cook; in fact, his stir-fry is better than mine and he does a great Spanish omelette – and we chat while we’re cooking. Preparing food together is really sociable.’

Despite an impressive collection of recipe books in her kitchen, Sonya admits she rarely uses them for her everyday cooking. ‘Half the time I just make things up and see how they turn out,’ she says. ‘I do it by eye and by taste. When you’re baking a cake your ingredients have to be precise, but if you’re making a casserole, measurements don’t need to be exact.’

Although Sonya’s adventurous in what she makes, she’s careful about keeping her food nutritionally sound and affordable. ‘I work with parents who have children under five,’ she explains. ‘They learn about nutrition and then we have cooking sessions. We make tomato and basil soup, homemade burgers with cumin, and stir-fries with Chinese five spice and soy sauce – we keep ingredients to a minimum because we’re also working to a budget.

‘At home I try to plan menus as it’s cheaper and less stressful. When I go to the supermarket I know exactly what I’m going to buy. I like to mix things up, try new recipes and tend to go with the seasons.’

Above all Sonya’s philosophy is about enjoyment and keeping things simple. ‘I like to have friends round but I always do something I can make in advance and reheat,’ she says. ‘My favourite moment is planting up – when you can see the fruits of your labour. But I’m no Jamie Oliver, so there’s no sauce drizzled over to make it pretty!

‘Cooking brings people together. It provides that lovely feeling of anticipation – the excitement of the meal coming to the table…’

Sonya’s spice secrets

Introduce spices and herbs gradually to your cooking so you get used to how they work and then you’ll learn how not to overpower a dish.


Cumin is very distinctive, so use just a small amount

Cumin is very distinctive, so use just a small amount. Cinnamon can also be strong so try cinnamon sticks as they aren’t so pungent.

I chop rather than crush garlic, so it’s not quite so strong.

Pick up spices from markets on your travels and ask how local people use them in their cooking.

Keep spices out of direct sunlight, ideally in airtight containers. Use up ground spices within three months; whole spices last around a year.

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