When I was a child, I didn’t really have much association with the kitchen. This space in our house, often graced by a beaten up copy of Nicholas Tselementes’ Greek Cookery that I still have to remember my mother by, was almost entirely her domain. I may have wandered in and out, and grabbed a morsel or two as she prepared food, but I didn’t cook. Nor did I watch her cook.
As I got older, things changed a little. I wasn’t driven to cook, not by any means, but my curiosity started to swell as I began to appreciate the flavours that played on my taste buds. I fondly recall watching mum take foil packets out of the oven and open them up to uncover those delicious slow roasted lamb shanks that those of us of Greek origin call kleftiko.
I wasn’t only captured by the ritual of reveal or by intense depth of flavour and appearance but also by the name of the dish itself. Kleftiko comes from the Greek word κλέπτης (thief) and the origins of this dish go back to the bandits known as Klephts who resisted Ottoman rule in Greece between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. These bandits would rustle sheep and then cook these on coals underground to avoid detection. Food is more than than nourishment, it is culture and it is history. It is expression of opportunity of where she found herself and what she made of this.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in my mother’s attempts to branch beyond the traditional, to try and embrace some of the foreign bounty that the markets provided. I still laugh when I recall some of the atypical (for her) meals that she prepared. My father, if he was still alive, I’m sure would laugh along with me, for almost everything she cooked held tinges of her own upbringing. Tomatoes, olive oil, feta cheese, and olives would all find their way somewhere onto the table, in one form or another, regardless of whether she was (over)grilling steak, or conjuring up her own version of stir fry. Whether this was an attempt at assimilation (something that does cause me some trouble) or the fringe of fusion, I don’t know. What I do know is that, looking back on this now, it tells me something of who she was and where she found herself.
It really wasn’t until I was eighteen or so and could drive freely, that I started to explore some of the food that existed beyond our home and the local fish and chippery. My first authentic outing was to a restaurant in Chinatown, with food so tantalisingly different in presentation and character from my mother’s attempts at Chinese food. Never better, but different. And then came the gamut of sensory explosion that Melbourne had to offer at the time. My eyes opened and a little part of the world changed. Who were these people who conjured up such food, I asked myself, and how did they do it? With this I became determined to learn.
I began, as many do, with scouting out recipes of simple foods: toasted cheese sandwiches (edam is really good), pasta dishes, and oven baked potatoes, to name but three. No internet back then, however, the measured selection of books on the library shelves was more than enough to teach me the basics, and somewhat beyond. And I wasn’t always successful, and herein lay a hard earned lesson: never, ever, make something for guests that you have never made before, unless you have a clear backup plan. Perhaps wine is this fallback.
As time progressed, and as I became more proficient and confident, I started to experiment with flavours and combinations, I learned to taste, to amend and add. It is a pity I couldn’t subtract, but that was a lesson too. I started to play with food, and with this came the growing awareness that boundaries that existed were largely in the mind. It took a long, long time to get over these; it wasn’t until rather recently that I decided to go into a market and buy things that I had no idea of, and then try and prepare these in some way.
It has been a wonderful journey but there is one regret. And that is that I have not been able to share such play anywhere near enough. For the brief time that I have done so, it has been a delight. I have been fortunate enough to sit with friends and leaf through through their annotated recipes and to be introduced to family treats that tell of time and place.
The words what shall we eat? resound in my mind as I think back to those times of rummaging through the fridge and pantry and creating and sharing something delicious of our own. It was with this thought in mind, this week, that I spoke with Katerina, our thirteen-year old daughter about what to make for dinner.
We cook pasta often, however it tends to be by the book – a clutch of tried and tested recipes. She is relatively adept at following these so it was time to go a little beyond, to see what we might create with a little bit of daring. The first idea that came to mind was to pressure cook the pasta in an Instapot. I had no idea of whether this could be done, but a quick search online gave some suggestions, and we had a base from which to explore. Then came the fun.
“What flavours do you like Kat?”
A quick sauté of diced onion and garlic and a sprinkle of chilli flakes for the base, and some added vegetable stock and ground pepper made up the cooking liquid for the linguine. Eight minutes later we were ready to taste.
“What would you like to add Kat?”
“What should I add?”
“Well, get some spices, open them up, smell them, taste what is here in the pot and decide.”
“What if I’m wrong?”
“Then we have cheese toasties for dinner. Now, off you go.”
She decided to add cream, oregano, parmesan, and a little basil, and to top everything off with a garnish of fresh parsley. Nothing earth shattering for me, and perhaps not what I would have chosen, but that didn’t matter. What did matter is that she chose, without a recipe. And my, was she pleased with herself. She had every right to be. She had just taken the first step beyond the words on a page, and she knew it.