Food Memories, Nostalgia and Delicious Distractions
At times, I find myself feeling a little nostalgic. Usually, it’s when I’m in my kitchen, surrounded by all my familiar pots and pans, my favourite knives, the lovely fragrance of fresh herbs on my bench and the deep, comforting aroma of my spice cupboard whenever I open its door.
They say a kitchen is the heart of a home and I couldn’t agree more. It is a live, beating heart whose rhythm changes with the seasons, family events and how happy or sad we are on the day. A family kitchen is permeated with the DNA of each person who has spent time there. Today, I’m going to share with you some of my favourite food memories; not just from my kitchen but from the many kitchens where I’ve thrown on an apron and gleefully gotten my hands dirty.
I remember the first cookbook I ever received. It was one of the countless editions published by The Australian Women’s Weekly and I’m sure many of you would feel nostalgic about these too. Yours is probably just as dog-eared as mine, with as many stains, spatters and drips on its pages. When I first received it, I eagerly flipped through every single page, excited by all the possibilities at my fingertips. Over the years, that book was my regular companion in the kitchen and its recipes inspired my cooking repertoire for a long while.
The first recipe I ever wrote down and cooked was Chicken Masala. I still make today; everyone I cook it for, loves its full-flavoured, warming appeal. Today, you can whip up a fabulous version of your own with my Tandoori/Sauce Marinade and change it any number of ways to suit your taste or the ingredients you have on hand. You can even make a vego version if you want!
Recipes from the heart
You know how sometimes; you ask someone for a recipe and they say, “Oh I just throw it all together”? Great cooks cook from the heart. They have an eye for colour and consistency; a taste for the perfect level of seasoning and a ‘feel’ for what should be added and when. All that is wonderful but when you are trying to make sure your favourite foods don’t vanish into history when generations pass; you press those generations for a proper recipe!
I sat with my late Mum and mother-in-law on so many occasions; especially during birthdays, when my daughter was born, at Christmas and also Easter, asking them to dictate their recipes to me. Sometimes we would just be drinking tea and talking, and I would be writing. Other times, we would be in the kitchen together, me watching and scribbling like a studious apprentice and whichever of them narrating while we’re prepping for a cooking experience. Both of them carried an air of subdued technical expertise. Their general know-how, overall flair and understanding of spices and fresh ingredients combined with traditional methods created many mouth-watering results. Although they weren’t classified or thought of as professional cooks, there’s something very honest and honourable in watching a home cook assembling a meal they’ve made hundreds of times before. Today, their recipes are sacred to me and I enjoy sharing these with you all and my daughter.
The first person I ever cooked for
I’d love to say there’s some romantic story behind the first person I ever cooked for; but the truth is, that person is ME! But how cool is that? Perfect a recipe for yourself first and you’ll know it intimately. I actually learned from my Mum how to cook my first ever recipe. It was Sweet Potato Doughnuts (‘Kuih Keria’ in my home of Malaysia). They’re scrumptious, plump little treats that are fried then left soaking in a thick sugar caramel sauce. So delightful I duly scoffed and thoroughly enjoyed what I made each time! It’s basically a dough made from mashed, steamed sweet potato seasoned with a bit of salt, plus some flour and tapioca. You make little dough balls, flatten them slightly then poke your finger through to create the doughnut hole. After deep frying, they’re pan fried in a sugar glaze which forms an irresistible, sugary crust.
And then … somebody special cooked for me
Fast forward some years; and my wonderful late husband Anand cooked Satay Chicken as the very first meal he made for me. He was obviously out to impress, and he certainly achieved his goal! It was absolutely delicious, and he made it many times during our happy life together. The meal he loved most that I cooked for him was Rendang. The beef is always so tender, and the gravy is rich and lush, flavoured with coconut, lemongrass, garlic, chillies, ginger and galangal.
Food for when you’re feeling “poorly”
Whatever ails you – a head cold, fever, sprained ankle or just feeling down – food is a good medicine, especially when it’s made with love. My Mum used to make a range of dishes when we were ill. There was always Indian Chicken Soup … I think every culture must have its own version of this clever little potion. She also used to make Ishtew, a Kerala-style coconut, ginger and green chilli stew equally good made with chicken or lamb with potatoes, carrots, peas or as a vegetarian version with cauliflower, green beans, carrots, peas and potatoes. It’s hearty, nourishing and the veggies are nice and soft; so it always goes down easily when one doesn’t have a strong appetite.
Mum used to also make Rasam, a tomato-based soup flavoured with an abundance of garlic, chilli, black pepper and turmeric, all thought to be mightily therapeutic. She would add an array of herbs and spices and the aroma was so amazing, I swear it would clear the sinuses and awaken even the feeblest of appetites!
Today, when my daughter is not well, I too make those same dishes for her. For celebrations such as birthdays; she loves it when I make my Biriyani, and she loves a good Butter Chicken, Satay and Vindaloo.
What food memories make you head for the kitchen?
All this talk of Sweet Potato Doughnuts, Rendang and Ishtew has made me want to head for the kitchen to get cooking and creating! Being hands-on, chopping, slicing, stirring, peeling and tasting is a really good way of dealing with emotions. It can clear your head, or it can stir up lovely memories. In this way, cooking helps to bridge the gap between the past, the present and the future, and removes us from screens or bookwork or over-thinking patterns that can trap us in undesirable mindsets.
I wish for you today that you find a little pocket of time to be in your kitchen and that whatever you cook brings you happiness, harmony and good eating!