Casting around for something to do yesterday, I decided to organise my spices and herbs alphabetically. I also wiped each container, inspecting the best before date (oops) and checking how much was still left inside before putting it in the correct place on the shelves in the kitchen,
It was sort of fun, more or less, and as I looked at all these delicious spices I realised that none of them featured in any of the kitchens of my childhood. My mum was a really good cook, but ‘seasoning’ in my family meant salt and pepper until about 1968, when paprika suddenly loomed on the horizon.
Paprika has always been a problem word for my students, as the German word ‘Paprika’ means bell pepper, and the English word ‘pepper’ makes them think of, well, pepper.
Every year we have a Christmas buffet: I provide the recipes and the participants bring the results, which they have made at home. One wonderful year one of my favourite students brought a tuna salad. The recipe required one cup of green pepper: this salad packed a zing as he had added a cup of green peppercorns. Our eyes were streaming that night, but I loved it, for me the spicier the better.
That clip brings back very happy memories of a road trip in the early 1990s: me, my old Honda Civic and a tent and my husband, who was not yet my husband. Out in the flat Hungarian countryside we got stuck in a long, long traffic jam. It was boiling hot in the car, and we got out to look at what was happening. A few vehicles in front of us was a battered open-top truck, piled high with tomatoes and red peppers and seeing us, the driver got out of his cab and brought us armfuls of wonderful juicy red tomatoes and peppers. He didn’t want any money, just to share the produce. We cooked it all up that night on our minute camping stove; it was delicious.
We used to have ‘Curry’ sometimes at boarding school: this was minced beef, boiled up with some curry powder and then scattered with raisins and dessicated coconut. It was horrible and bore no relation whatsoever to the aromatic food I enjoyed much later in Chennai and Kerala, and that my daughter and her husband on Borneo love to eat and cook.
My Mum and her sister hated garlic. A great uncle had married a Malaysian woman, a wonderful cook, who invited us for meals sometimes. Just as I was leaving for their house on one occasion, my Aunt called me over: “Don’t worry about smelling of garlic when you come back,” she said “Because you already do!”
One of the biggest shocks of my life was when my mother told me the food at her sister’s funeral had been marvellous, ‘Especially the Chicken Tikka’. If she wasn’t dead already, my Aunt would have died to think such a thing was served at her funeral reception.
Both of them, Mum Pam and Aunt Kath, were in a permanent panic about cooking smells lingering in the house. They both worried about how the smell would waft upstairs, thereby infiltrating wardrobes and bedding. Deep frying was also a cause for great concern, and when chips were on the menu they donned headscarves to stop the smell of frying getting into their hair.
My children have told me that they associate the smell of burnt fish fingers with their childhood, for which I am truly sorry, and yesterday I wished I could send them not only photos and voice messages, but also smells: our house smelled so gorgeously aromatic. Not a fish finger in sight.
I almost could feel as if I were in a restaurant where I have had many happy times, Naan, at Rasa Ria in Sabah:
I rarely follow recipes, but in Indian cooking I am not sure of myself, and so followed this to the letter and it was absolutely scrumptious.
Meera Sodha writes for The Guardian, you can find more recipes here:
I ate my first pistachio when I was 17; my friend at boarding school came from Iran, and when she got back from the holidays she brought kilos of pistachios with her.
The chicken pistachio curry is full of flavours I now love, and which Auntie Kath and my Mum never even got to try, like coriander and cardamom. Speaking of which:
Funnily enough, Hemel Hempstead (where we lived in my spice-free childhood) is close to Berkhamsted, which is where William Cowper was born. He was a poet, and in 1785 wrote:
‘Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.’