A few weeks ago I asked readers and friends to pose those questions they most wanted me to answer in an self-introductory blog entry. I was overwhelmed by the number and variety of questions and it’s taken me quite a while to pen my (sometimes long and rambling) answers. This first set of questions takes me down memory lane to my childhood. In coming weeks I’ll also post answers to questions about food and travelling, current likes and dislikes and more.
Scribbler: What is your earliest food memory?
My earliest memory is from when I was about 1 and a half years old. It’s not about food exactly but since it features a mortar and pestle, I reckon it’s close enough! When I was a small baby, we moved to India for about a year – apparently hindi was my first spoken language, though I can’t speak it now. We spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents.
I remember sitting on the ground outside; my grandfather was seated behind me, cross-legged. The visuals of the memory show me only his arms reaching around me to the items infront of me; I can’t see his face or body but I know in my mind that they are his arms. He is making a pair of mortar and pestles from clay, one large one and one smaller one.
People tell me that I can’t possibly have a memory from such a young age. Firstly, it’s more what I’d describe as a memory fragment – a little scene with a small area of focus. I remember only what I describe above – a visual sccene lasting a few moments and the certainty of who I’m with. There is no sound in the memory nor any knowledge or image of where we are, what else is around us, who else might be there. Often, people insist that it must be a false memory, based on a scene described to me by someone else. But I remember very clearly the first time I related this memory to my mother. She was shocked, as it was not a story she knew (or had told me). She asked her siblings and mother, they didn’t recall any of this either. But they did confirm that my grandfather made his own mortar and pestles and that he usually had a large one and small one in the kitchen. He died when I was just two years old, so I feel very privileged to have this direct memory of him.
Oddly enough, my first proper food memory is from India too – after we returned to the UK we returned to visit family for a couple of weeks every couple of years. Again, I can’t remember whose house we were visiting nor much about the house or garden as a whole. What I remember is being perched up in the branches of a guava tree, with my cousins, feasting on guava fruits picked fresh from the tree.
And for an unlikely – some would even say unbelievable – anecdote, this one passed down from my mum: apparently, the first time I was fed chocolate, I spat it out in disgust! Can you imagine?!
Dunlurkin: I imagine that you grew up eating mostly Indian food, but I know that you now eat a very wide range of foods. When and how did you make the transition?
Dena: Having just read on the food board about school dinners I was wondering how you felt when you first went to school. Coming from a house where spicy, flavourful food cooked by Mamta was the norm, it must have been a tremendous culture shock to be faced with the bland meals provided at most schools. How did you cope?
Actually, unlike many children of Indian first-generation immigrants, I didn’t grow up eating mostly Indian food at all. Instead, let me tell you about my childhood as it relates to food.
Any explanation of the role food played in my childhood must start with a brief story about my parents. My mum and dad came to London from India back in the 1960s. Both were medical doctors working within the ranks of the NHS. They grew up in vegetarian households and although my dad had already eaten meat before he moved to the UK, mum hadn’t. However, being a vegetarian wasn’t very easy in the UK back then, especially when most meals were taken in staff canteens. So mum started eating meat aged 26.
My sister and I were born in London in the early 1970s shortly before we moved to Luton, where we grew up. By the time I was born my parents had already come to enjoy British food.
Even though, in India, most middle-class families have staff (I hate the term servants as this does not accurately reflect the situation in my family in India), my mum’s parents were ahead of their time when they insisted that not only their daughters but their sons too learn how to cook for themselves. So mum already knew how to cook Indian vegetarian food. Throughout my childhood she taught herself not only how to cook Indian meat dishes (and a much wider range of vegetarian ones too) but also how to cook cuisine from all around the world.
We ate Indian food about twice a week. The rest of the time we’d have roast dinners, casseroles, fish fingers, jacket potatoes and a range of normal British fayre. And we’d have moussaka, chilli con carne, stir fries, lasagne, burgers, pizzas and all kinds of other food from around the world.
We also went out to local restaurants from quite a young age including a wonderful local Chinese (that I continued to visit even after I left Luton, until the owners retired and it closed a few years ago) and a local Beefeater pub. My sister and I often ordered steak – the bloodier the better! I don’t know where we both got that from as mum has never really enjoyed (or ordered) red meat and my dad always insisted on burnt rather than well done (though in his old age he’s finally recognised the merits of having it medium instead).
Another thread in our childhoods was international travel. I don’t know where my parents’ love of travel came from but we certainly benefited from it. They’d always make the most of holidays to explore the world. In my younger years we more commonly travelled within the UK; I have fond memories of beach combing in Norfolk and Cornwall not to mention enjoying cream teas in sweet little West coast villages. I even remember toe-shuffling for clams and harvesting mussels from the wooden breakers on the beach and my dad cleaning them thoroughly before cooking.
Once they could afford it, we started going abroad more, initially in Europe (although we always did trips back to visit family in India every 2-3 years) and then farther afield. As a teen I was lucky enough to visit Peru, Kenya, Bolivia, Canada, Brazil and many, many states in the US including Alaska. We went to Florida regularly too as a couple of my dad’s siblings had emigrated there.
Why are the travels relevant? Because one of the aspects of travelling all of us loved (and still do) was trying dishes from the local cuisines. And mum often took it a step further, incorporating ideas into her repertoire when we returned home.
My parents are very social creatures so we were also part of a lively social life in Luton with family friends hailing from Scotland to Malaysia to Persia to India and many other places too. That gave us another avenue for trying different food – I still get jealous now when my parents are invited to our Luton Chinese friends’ home for steam boat and other delicacies! My parents would hold huge parties with guests milling around the entire downstairs of the house and out into the garden. My sister and I, plus our similarly aged friends from next door, would take on roles directing the traffic and helping serve food and drinks. (The neighbours were always invited so never any complaints about the parking!)
Mum encouraged my sister and I to cook at home, whether helping her with the family meals or making things on our own. I remember teaching myself how to make home-made bread from scratch (went through quite a long bread phase – I still remember plaiting one beautiful loaf). And I grew up in the days when schools still provided proper cookery lessons (none of this learning how to make sandwiches or assembly-job pizzas using shop-bought bases and toppings). At school I learned to make cobblers, pizzas from scratch, fruit crumbles, cauliflower cheese with a proper white sauce base and all kinds of other goodies.
My sister and I share the same birthday and, when we were younger, we’d have joint parties with fantastic cakes (mum would make the cake, cut and assemble them and ice them and decorate them to look like fairy castles, lady birds and all sorts) and home-made knickerbockerglories that we’d make ourselves and all kinds of other goodies. Even when it wasn’t for a party we liked making sweet things together and mum would mostly leave us to our devices when we made peppermint creams, coconut ice and beautifully shaped and coloured marzipan fruits!
Probably the biggest surprise to those who know me is the fact that I was a very picky eater when I was very young, to the extent that my parents worried about me not eating enough and being malnourished!
Even though I’d already been exposed to a wide range of foods my parents recount how, when I first started school, they were called in to be told I was refusing to eat lunch as I said the smell made me feel sick. The staff suggested they take me home for lunch but my parents refused – they felt (rightly) that mixing with others at lunchtime was an important part of school routine. They knew I ate a good breakfast, a nourishing snack when I got home and a good cooked dinner. And they were right! Within a fortnight I started eating everything and eventually even told my mum that she didn’t cook cabbage like they did at school. I’d developed a taste for overboiled vegetables doused in gravy!
That picky eating phase didn’t last long and I grew to love all kinds of food from a young age.
Helen Yuet Ling Pang: What’s your favourite dish that your mum made for you while you were growing up? And have you learnt how to make it yourself!
Even though we only ate Indian a couple of times a week I’d say my favourites are all Indian dishes such as mum’s lamb curry (with marrow in the bones that we would fight over and suck out with loud, satisfied slurps), home-made rotis and pooris, sheek kebabs with green chutney and home-made natural yoghurt (which had an incredible, extra-thick layer on top which we also fought over).
Luckily, my sister’s and my desire to learn how to cook these recipes is what, ultimately, lead to the creation of Mamta’s Kitchen, a website that’s now become a resource not just for my sister and I, or even our extended family, but for many people around the world. So, the answer is, yes I can now make most of mum’s wonderful dishes myself, though I’ve still not mastered rotis or pooris!
MidnightCowboy: What was your favourite school dinner
I generally liked a lot of what I ate at school but my favourite savoury dish would probably be a ridiculously cheesey cheese flan the dinner ladies at my senior school used to make. They made it in huge baking trays, each one must have been cut it into at least 16 generous slices – I always asked for one away for the edge to maximise the cheesey hit! Now I make my own quiches/ flans I have been able to recreate something similar.
Dessert wise, the same dinner ladies also made a killer chocolate tart. The chocolate topping was thick, sloppy rather than set and absolutely fantastic. Never come across anything like it since.
I also used to like rice pudding with a square of chocolate or dollop of jam in it!