The highs and lows of student cooking: gyp room gourmands

The highs and lows of student cooking: gyp room gourmands

  • Noodles with frankfurters and Heinz tomato ketchup
    Noodles with frankfurters and Heinz tomato ketchup
  • Chicken à la Kia Ora with boiled rice and sherry
    Chicken à la Kia Ora with boiled rice and sherry
  • Leerdammer cheese, peanut butter and strawberry jam toastie
    Leerdammer cheese, peanut butter and strawberry jam toastie
  • Peas and eggs in saucepan
    Single-pot creation - Recreating some favourite student recipes

Images by Tim Morris (portrait of Alex Rushmer by Jean-Luc Benazet)

Remember (almost) poisoning your whole staircase? The fights about fridges and the attempt to recreate your mother's chicken casserole with one pan and half a carrot? You are not alone, writes Sarah Woodward.

namita panjabi portrait

Namita Panjabi (Newnham 1967) is the co-owner (with her husband) of MW Eat, the London restaurant group that includes Chutney Mary, Veeraswamy, Amaya and Masala Zone.

At home, like most middle-class families in Bombay, we ate what we called ‘English’ food as well as Indian. Coming to Cambridge was the first time I had left India and I discovered English food wasn’t like ours. We had roast chicken with ginger, garlic and cardamom, shepherd’s pie made with masala minced lamb, and there were spices in our bread and butter pudding.

On the other hand, the first time I ate out at the Kohinoor I told my friends it wasn’t Indian food at all, and was not the way Indians ate at home! This ignited a fire in me and the only answer was to start cooking myself, which I had never done. I thought it would be easy and bought pounds of minced lamb and spices, planning to produce wonderful keema kebabs for all my friends. Of course the meat wouldn’t stay on the sticks, so I had to ring up my mother, making a trunk call through the operator. With her recipe I made chicken biryani and soon had all the girls along my corridor chopping garlic and chillies. We’d invite over our men friends, including some Indians who we were convinced would appreciate anything as they were starved of home cooking. Then a male Indian friend from Ahmedabad invited me to dinner in his rooms at St John’s. He had a wonderful dining table and served me a perfect cheese and chilli soufflé. I realised a pile of rice and spiced mince wasn’t going to impress him, so I was quickly back on the phone for a new recipe, the Sindhi seyal gosht, which you slow cookin a sealed pot – ideal for college cooking.

Some years later, I married Ranjit Mathrani (Sidney Sussex 1962) and we started Chutney Mary, with support from my sister Camellia Panjabi (Newnham 1961), a successful hotelier and restaurant creator with the Taj Group. Chutney Mary set out to showcase gourmet foods from six or seven regions of India at any one time. It also was the first Indian restaurant to take wine seriously. Between all our restaurants we now serve real Indian food to close to a million customers – and it all started for me in the pantry kitchen in Newnham.

I tended to make something really trashy (I remember cutting frankfurters into a packet of noodles).

Alex Rushmer (Trinity Hall 2002)
Alex Rushmer

Alex Rushmer (Trinity Hall 2002) was a Masterchef finalist in 2010. He is the joint owner and chef at The Hole in the Wall, Little Wilbraham, Cambridgeshire.

I’d first thought about being a chef when I was 15. I met Ben Maude (Trinity Hall 2002), now my business partner, during freshers’ week. We often talked of opening a restaurant, despite the fact that my gyp room had pretty primitive facilities and I ate a lot in Hall, for the social aspect if not the culinary experience. I never ate at formal hall, but I do remember the wines at the major feasts were always good. And of course I can’t forget the influence of port. Monday nights were known as ‘grill bar’, as after steak and chips we would have a glass of port or three in the college bar. When I did cook for myself I tended to make something really trashy (I remember cutting frankfurters into a packet of noodles). My most adventurous meal was a Michaelmas feast for the Asparagus Club, a dining society. We used eight different gyp rooms – the asparagus were boiling in one, in another we were cooking chicken breasts wrapped in Parma ham, roasting potatoes in a third, and we even baked soufflés. They did rise, there were no fires, and nobody was ill afterwards, so it must have been a success! After Cambridge I thought about getting into Westminster and was interviewed by then-MP Nick Davies. He said, “You don’t really want this job – so find something you enjoy doing and think up a way to make money out of it.” I tried out a cookware shop but was working in a marketing consultancy when, after a bottle of red wine, I entered Masterchef. After I got into the final, Ben suggested we take another look at our old dream – and now we are at The Hole in the Wall. The former Master of Trinity Hall, Professor Martin Daunton, lives two doors from us and eats here regularly, so he must approve.

Nick Lander portrait

Nick Lander (Jesus 1970) has been the restaurant critic for the Financial Times since 1989.

The facilities at Jesus were pretty restrictive – I remember having one ring. My cooking was mostly toast and brown rice (it was the 1970s), luckily not together. I came from a very loving Jewish home in Manchester where men were simply not expected in the kitchen. My mother sent me a fruitcake regularly which didn’t last long – it made me hugely popular. I ate mostly in Hall, though I made my own breakfast. Now I wish I had taken more advantage of the wine cellar and I know Jancis [wine writer Jancis Robinson, Lander’s wife] feels the same of her time at Oxford. But back then I simply wouldn’t have known what I was being served. It was only when I became a commodity trader in Hong Kong that I started to learn about wine, as knowing your way round a wine list impressed the client. I had one very good tutor of medieval history who had a wooden leg and a glass eye; we regularly got through a bottle and a half of sherry and then he went off to Hall much more sober than his students. When I ate out with friends i was always at the Corner House on King Street. It was close by, it was cheap, it was filling and it wasn’t Hall. I had been to Greece in the summer of 1970 so I already had an interest in the food of the region. We always ordered moussaka, with chips of course – I think the owner would practically have fallen over if we had eaten anything else. We didn’t have the choices students have now; I’d encourage them to eat out as a group and share so they can try lots of different dishes. And I would have been most surprised as a student to see what I am doing today.

Some of your worst student recipes

"White rice with ketchup. Well, it's a tomato sauce."
- Susan Grossey (New Hall Murray Edwards 1984)

"Mushroom pasta. Boil macaroni. Tip in mushroom cup-a-soup concentrate. Serve."
- Richard Baron (Selwyn 1977)

"Chicken à la Kia Ora. Duck à l'orange, juice style."
- Mark Pallis (Hughes Hall 2001)

"Tuna pasta. Largest bag of pasta. Smallest tin of tuna. Add Campbell's condensed tomato soup. Stir and serve."
- Anne Westland (Homerton 2009)


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This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 73. Find out how to receive CAM.