We meet over coffee during the early hours of a winter morning, “Sometimes I have up to eight cups a day,” confides food writer Anja Dunk, as we perch atop bakery stools in a Welsh coastal market town.
Established by a candlelit presence on Instagram, Dunk pitched her online success into Strudels, Noodles and Dumplings, a recently published cookery book which secured No2 in the Observer Food Book List 2018 and received praise from the doyenne of modern food writing, Diana Henry.
Dunk’s launch into the world of food is a very modern story, “A couple of literary agents who followed my Instagram account got in touch and it sort of developed from there,” recounts Dunk. However, her work is grounded by tradition with not a selfie in sight.
The book is packed with evocative photographs, taken by Dunk at home with family and friends. “I’m not styling a plate of food to be beautiful. Often my photos are really messy,” she says.
Dunk cooks from the heart and memory to feed her young family. Hailing from a Welsh-German household, clearly it is the cooking of her Bavarian mother that Dunk carries closest, “My mother is my greatest inspiration,” says Dunk.
The German plate
Until now, German food in the UK has been generally overlooked, limited to a taste for mulled wine and stollen at Christmas. Dunk is setting the agenda for change through her celebration of Germanic cuisine and describes it as thus, “Home-cooked German food is gently spiced, smoky and buttery, yet sweet and sour. It is warm, hearty and vinegar-laced.”
Dunk’s work offers warmth and she refers to a German word, gemutlich, which roughly translates as ‘cosy.’ Her images are studded with candles and embody Scandinavian hygge, “We have candles lit throughout the winter on our table,” says Dunk, “It’s just normal for me as I grew up with that.”
To chat with Dunk is to cover parenthood, food, and identity, “Identity is a strange thing,” says Dunk, “Being half Welsh and half German, I sometimes think, who am I? I find my sense of identity through what I eat and what I cook.” In her recipe for German rarebit, Dunk brings her two cultures together, “German people love leeks just as much as Welsh people do,” she laughs,
“When I was younger, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life,” says Dunk who was born in west Wales, “I loved languages and that took me to Beijing. When I returned home, I felt a little lost.”
Working for Ultracomida, a delicatessen in her home town enabled Dunk to develop her passion for food. Of the experience, Dunk says “I learned how passionate and wholehearted you need to be to do something really, really well. You could say I learned as many lessons about life from the deli as I did about food.”
Further, Dunk recalls her time working for Howies, a Welsh clothing company run by wife and husband team, Clare and David Hieatt, “It is funny how the most inspiring people in your life can come from the smallest radius of where you’re from,” says Dunk, “You can go all over the world and they are, right there on your doorstep. Clare and David are that for me – my drive for following my dreams mainly began with them.”
Dunk advises, “Be yourself and celebrate your own authenticity. Be honest about who you are and that will shine through.”
At a time of British insularity and retreat, Dunk provides us with reassurance. Growing up with a dual sense of home, her work celebrates the harmony which may thrive between cultures and responds to our universal hankering for gemutlich. Anchored in the spirit of good food, Dunk provides comfort indeed during uncertain times.
Quick Fire Questions!
Who inspired you to become a chef?
Well, I don’t really see myself as a chef as I don’t work in a commercial kitchen and was never trained, but the two key people in my life who inspired me with cooking are my mum and (late) Omi.
What did you have for dinner last night?
Carrot, leek, parsnip and lentil soup with hot focaccia
Favourite sports team?
I’m not really one for team sports, probably mainly because I was useless at netball and hockey in school. The only sport I watch on the TV is Wimbledon. The boys are huge football fans though and Harry Kane is a name I hear often!
Best cook book you’ve ever read?
I have many favourites, all for different reasons. Some are just brilliant for recipes, others I enjoy for the writing. ‘Falling cloudberries’ by Tessa Kiros is one of my favourites for both.
Favourite chef ever?
I don’t actually know all that many chefs in person, so if we are going by TV celebs, I really love Delia Smith, but I’m not sure she is a chef. Jamie Oliver – always loved him right from the start and how he has evolved and keeps moving forward all the time.
Ever dated a chef? How did it end or are you still together?
Ha ha, no, never. Once a boyfriend made me a dinner of supernoodles with cheese and chive pringles crushed and sprinkled on top – needles to say that relationship didn’t last…
Favourite meal to cook for yourself?
I’m not sure toast is really cooking but I eat a lot of toast when I’m on my own. Sourdough with olive oil and sea salt (always halen mon), or with some braised lentils or charred vegetables and goat’s cheese on top. I also adore peanut butter.
How many hours sleep do you get?
Best meal ever?
Moules and frites in france
Favourite clothes to cook in?
Do you know I’ve never thought about this – I always just cook in what I’m in, which is normally jeans and a jumper or a tunic. An apron is essential though, so let’s go with apron – I actually have a beautiful apron made out of denim that also doubles as a dress.
Most treasured kitchen tool?
There are a couple of tools which I think are essential (like knives for example) but if we are going with treasured in terms of sentimentality then I would say a wooden spoon passed down to Omi from my great grandmother, passed down to mum from Omi, passed down to me from mum.
What would your superpower be?
To click my fingers and for the house to be tidy.