Food, it’s so personal isn’t it? I mean we all have likes and dislikes; some of us are allergic to things – peanut butter, shellfish, yak’s milk. Some dishes comfort us, some make us feel adventurous, some make us gag, some take us straight back our to childhoods or the place that defines home for us. So yes, really personal.
I like food: the smell, the taste, the memories different dishes trigger – both places and people. I like the preparation of it, the eating of it and the socialising that goes on around it: not so keen on the clean up duties but I can’t really complain as for many years I had the privilege of having someone to swoop along behind my mess, as well as teach me the art of Malay and Thai cuisine.
Food memories go back a long way; the first probably to a sea voyage my mother and I took from Southampton in England to Port Swettenham in Malaysia via the Suez Canal, which shows how long ago it was. That journey instantly invokes camels, olives and whisky. Camels galumphing along the sandy desert on each side of the canal almost within reach but not quite; olives and whisky because each evening my mother would ‘dress’ for dinner and join the grown-up world as I dozed off in the top bunk of our little cabin. I would be brought back to a sleepy consciousness by the gentle waft of whisky as she tiptoed back in a few hours later. If I woke fully I knew there would be a little bowl of olives, those big fat green ones with the pimento in the middle, sitting on the shelf by my bunk.
Thoughts of Kuala Lumpur take me to the seven years Ah Moi ruled our kitchen; no one has ever been able to replicate her fluffy yellow omelettes, almost floating on the plate and yet stuffed full of cheese and bacon.
Satay reminds me of happy Sundays with my parents in Singapore at Newton Circus or the zoo, where small charcoal braziers were fanned by wizened Malays hunkered back on their heels, sarongs firmly hitched up between their knees and songkoks askew on jet black hair, as they brushed oil and spices onto the chicken or beef or lamb threaded on bamboo sticks sizzling on the open flame. We would wait impatiently for them to be slid onto a tin plate already garnished with chunks of cooling cucumber to counteract the tangy peanut sauce and for those with truly hardy taste buds, shredded chilli in a vinegar sauce.
My culinary skills are varied; taking in a little of everywhere I have lived but I think it fair to say the foods from my formative years make me feel most at home – they are certainly all things I now prepare, though my omelettes have been reached the delectable heights of those to come out of Ah Moi’s kitchen.
I was curious to know my daughter’s recipe of home. As has been the case since she was born 28 years ago, she surprised me. “Roti and chicken curry,” she said in a heartbeat. If I were a betting woman I would have lost with my sure and easy answer of quesadillas and fajitas, she having spent her teenage years in Texas just north of the border down Mexico way. “It’s the first thing I have whenever we go back,” she explained. She has a right to her choice; it was what she was weaned on when we lived in Trinidad oh so many years ago and she goes back regularly.
And that’s another thing about food. Food that makes you feel at home is not the same as food that makes you think of home. Dishes that remind us of unhappy events, times or places are not going to be comfort foods; or maybe some foods from home make you shudder – semolina and cabbage do that to me and were fortunately not often on the menu. At NEGS, my old boarding school, there was a Saturday lunch time tradition of “spew and sinker” – forgive the vulgarity but we were teenagers. In reality it was stew and steamed pudding; one served with congealed gravy, the other with a thick rubber coating on the custard worthy of it’s given name of fly’s aerodrome, and neither of which have been a favourite since that first Saturday offering.
Are you thinking about a dish that makes you feel at home, maybe defines home for you; whether it is your current home or one that was home for a short, or long period, on an international posting? Is the image taking you back, is the aroma tickling the back of your throat? In the words of Oliver! and his workhouse friends, Food, glorious food! We’re anxious to try it. So why not send that special recipe in to the Families in Global Transition Cookbook to be launched March 2012 at the FIGT Conference in Washington DC? Go to http://www.figt.org for more information and submission guidelines.
And now I must get supper ready. No not hot sausage and mustard, or even pease pudding and saveloys, but instead I’m in the mood for cottage pie, another recipe from my childhood, and also my husbands. We’ll be feeling at home here in Houston.