Flavour Memories

24 May

I don’t know if I recall biting into tiny hot chilli’s with curiosity or just remember my parents telling me about it years later, but it left an impression (or burn) on my taste buds from an early age that would become a life long addiction.

My dad moved to Australia from Madras in his early twenties and his family continues to this day to cook recipes that have been passed down through generations. My love of food started at an early age and I was fortunate to grow up in a multicultural community that exposed me to cuisines from all over the world.

Our neighbours used to pass home cooked food over the fence and I still remember the excitement I felt as I broke down the flavours in my head trying to work out how I could replicate the recipe without instructions. I remember the delicate balance of spices in the skewered, barbecued mince kebabs from our Turkish neighbours and this was always accompanied by a sticky rice and browned vermicelli dish and tangy garden salad.

I still remember seeing the young Turkish boy  eating a bowl of okra in a tomato sauce and it made me wonder what the difference was to the Indian okra curry our family ate. Were our cuisines so different or did we have more in common that I thought?

The homemade biscuits, kindly shared by our Lebanese neighbours on the other side of our house, were filled with dates, soaked in syrup and decorated by nuts; to me they looked like a sprinkling of precious jewels. Our Lebanese neighbours also passed over fresh figs, apricots and persimmons; I now realise what a luxury it was to have access to such fresh produce. Can fruit taste any fresher than when picked straight from the tree?

I remember going to an Italian friends house and having meatballs with a fresh garden salad but this was different to the curried meatballs I had grown up eating. The contrast was so exciting, how many flavours was I yet to experience?

A Lebanese friends mum always seemed to be preparing food when I went to visit and one dish I will never forget was pasta tossed with a garlic, yoghurt sauce. Dad used to bring doner kebabs home on his way from night shift. They would be loaded with shaved meat and plenty of garlic sauce and would be so tasty reheated especially when the sauce had soaked into the bread. Another favourite was the mini Lebanese sausages dad would buy from the butcher in Bankstown. They were packed with so much flavour. Dad used to bring warm cheese and bacon rolls and coconut croissants home from the Asian bakery; the first batch of the day would be ready on his way home from night shift. Yum!

At primary school, I could have shared a multi cultural banquet with my friends. Our lunch boxes resembled a spread fit for an international food festival. My lunch box was often filled with curry and rice, and one of my Chinese friends had a sandwich filled with what almost look like a variety of savoury fairy floss. She said it was a dried and shredded pork.

When I got my first job I used to walk up to the local fruit market and and spend my money on a variety of different fruits and vegetables including varieties I had never tasted. My first experience eating an avocado was quite funny. I cut it in half and started eating it with a spoon and was overwhelmed by the rich, creamy texture. I remember trying to wash it down with creaming soda.

My enthusiasm for food was heavily influenced by my dad. On Saturday mornings when he was home from work he would make us breakfast. This always consisted of sausages, bacon, toast, baked beans and a scrambled egg that I have never tasted anywhere else. This special recipe contained fresh chillies, five spice, fresh coriander, tomatoes, salt, pepper and sometimes even some sausage. This was the ultimate merge of influence from his Indian heritage and Australian traditions. Left over curry with fried eggs and toast was another dad special. If you haven’t tried it, you don’t know what you’re missing!

Our family gatherings were always a celebration of food. Everyone brought their signature dishes and we ate until we couldn’t eat anymore and then we would eat some more! I was also exposed to foods that I didn’t acquire a taste for. Was it psychological or the simple fact that I didn’t like the taste? Of course all of these foods were curried; chickens hearts, lambs brains and livers. One thing that I didn’t mind was the cow tongue because it was quite similar to meat but a lot more tender.

On special occasions, when we ordered Chinese takeaway, I would take over as though I was running my own restaurant. I would close the doors that linked the kitchen and living area and set the table, light candles, create place cards and play music in the background.My last memory of Chinese takeaway as a child was one I would rather forget. The food was so bad that even when I laid in bed I felt as though the room was spinning. It took many years for me to eat Chinese food again and in recent years I have found some restaurants that celebrate the true cuisine  and not the gluggy slop I remember.

The flavours that influenced my childhood and teenage years were strong but it wasn’t until I began visiting restaurants that I realised there was another world of sensations for my taste buds to experience. I had never eaten a piece of grilled meat without flavouring. Why would someone cook a steak without a marinade or spice rub?!!!! Why was it still raw inside? I had so much to learn. For a long time I couldn’t appreciate the flavours of seafood because it was always enhanced (some would say masked) by strong spices. I now appreciate the simplicity of fresh seafood and I can tell immediately if it is less than good quality by its characteristic “fishy” taste.

I used to love helping mum in the kitchen. She learnt to cook Indian dishes from dad’s family and I was in my element when I was allowed to help prepare, stir, taste. Even our Sunday lamb roast was enveloped in exotic spices.

At meal times I use to pretend with sisters that we were on a cooking show. I remember mixing my curried mince rissoles with my mashed potatoes and creating “my own recipe”. I would also pretend to be a teacher taking a class of school students on an excursion to a local restaurant. When I played “house wife” with my sisters I would fill a saucepan with hot water and place 2 minute noodles in there which would eventually absorb the water and be cooked enough to eat without the use of the stove or microwave.

Our family holidays were a few trips to the Gold Coast and we always stayed in self contained accommodation. We would go to the supermarket and load up the fridge with more food that we could eat!

Food has always been a big part of my life and it brings me so much pleasure to cook for friends and family. It’s a way of sharing and showing people you love them. There is nothing like seeing people enjoying the food that you have taken time and effort to prepare. It’s an expression of who you are and the factors that have influenced your life so far.

My dream is to travel to different parts of the world and spend time with people who are passionate about food; professional culinary legends, people for whom cooking is a way of life and without it they would die and people who don’t use a recipe but cook with their senses. I will start my journey in Spain this year and will continue to follow my heart.

I spend so many hours watching the lifestyle FOOD channel that I have memorised episodes and could tell you what Jamie, Nigella or Rick are about to say next. I entered the most recent Master Chef Australia competition and during each episode I imagine how I would fare in the challenge. Boys Weekend and Spain on the Road Again are saved on my planner for lazy weekend replays.

Presenting a food program for tv or video would be the ultimate way for me to share my enthusiasm for food and hopefully inspire other people to experiment with new flavours and ingredients. We are blessed to have so much produce available to us in Australia from specialty local and international artisans and producers.

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