What we cook & why
"The food from your childhood, the food you grew up with, becomes a part of who you are" - Enrique Olvera
I was lucky enough to grow up with an enormous variety of food. Being half Malaysian, we have 4 cuisines in our country already. Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Nyonya (Straits Chinese). Malaysians are obsessed by food - a friend once commented that he never knew a Malaysian who travelled without food, which is so true - and dinner table conversations can consist entirely about food-related topics for the whole meal - the merits of the particular dishes we are eating and then where the best restaurant can be found to eat something else.
Strangely, I learnt to cook first from my English granny, who taught me to make Yorkshire puddings, beating the batter to within an inch of its life, with the eternal challenge, delightful to a 10 year old, of making it rise high enough to touch the top of the oven. However it was my Malaysian grandma who was the legendary cook and could cook almost anything that I loved as a child - chinese dim sum, curries, steamed fish and all kinds of local specialities. My Grandma really lived to cook and ran the kitchen that fed our extended Chinese household of sometimes as many as 25 people, not including guests who dropped in at will, maybe 50 people at Chinese New Year. So I grew up in a really food-related culture where nothing was too much effort when it came to cooking. We actually sorted individual rice grains to separate the glutinous rice out that made my sister's favourite snack. These delicious sticky blue cakes were dyed with the dried petals of the blue flowers that grew on the wire fence, next to the old marble-topped table that we (the women and children) would sit at, sorting the sack of rice with our index fingers, grain by grain, gossiping. Sometimes I would be there sorting rice and other times sitting in the branches of the spreading nearby guava tree, my orange wood and plastic clogs by the trunk the only thing betraying my presence, picking off the flaking bark and watching the blue flowers and chillies dry in flat woven baskets in the sun on the top of that same table. As well as this Malaysian upbringing and regular visits to my Grandma's house, my family moved all over the world so I have lived in 8 different countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and worked and travelled in many more.
Many of my memories of these exotic places revolve around food - my visits to the Souk in the middle east with my mother, the sight and smells of all those mysterious and colourful piles of spices, and the aromatic arabic coffee I was never allowed to have but was always offered at my father's barbers; the sweet river prawns my mother used to bring home in Jakarta which we would steam and devour, just the two of us; the wonderful sorbets our Sri Lankan cook Ariyadasa showed me how to make with the magic of salt and ice. The frequent Chinese banquets we were invited to where course after course arrived, till I begged to be allowed to leave the table to go and look at the fish and lobsters in the tanks. The way my uncle would drive across town for the best durians, and how my father would never kiss me goodnight after I'd eaten them. The taste of the first fish I ever caught and watching my mother's friend making noodles. Aunty Kim Aik making satay and cutting the sweet juicy rambutans from her tree with scissors attached to a very long pole. My sister's 21st birthday when I took her to Italy and we gorged on real Tuscan "cucina povera" with the market traders every lunchtime till we nearly burst. When I close my eyes, all these sights, sounds, smells and tastes are still right there; they are a part of me. I've gathered recipes from people's kitchens all over the world and we recreate these delicious dishes here in multi-cultural Hackney, somewhere I feel totally at home.
This is why we cook so many cuisines at Parkholme Supper Club. Those that we don't know how to cook, we get expert guest chefs. People come because they can feel and taste the love the food is cooked with, often tried and tested recipes handed down through generations. And they have a wonderful time.
Below is a video made by my friend Manu Roig, for "Britain in a Day" a Ridley Scott project that has been commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad. It is of my mother and I, and my friend Louise, cooking for Nyonya night. My father is also enjoying the food. My only complaint about this video is that my mother had cooked half the food well in advance so the kitchen looks distinctly less manic than it usually does for a supper club!