I’m a multi-cultural creature by birth but also by association. It actually doesn’t feel like there’s any difference between the two, to be honest.
Raised by British and Cypriot parents, and with grandparents of Irish and Scottish descent, and there’s also a Northern side from my Auntie Mabel, Staffordshire born and bred, a Jamaican influence from my foster sister’s Mum, Carmen, and her friends, plus my Dad’s employee Tony, from Southern Italy, who loaned us his apartment for 6 weeks of every year. I think I grew up thinking I was Italian, for a while. I wish I could speak it now like I did back then.
I spent a huge amount of time growing up with my Hindu and Sikh friends, watching their mums cook, and oh my gosh enjoying the food so much. You’ve not had proper Indian vegetarian food til you’ve had it made by a Gujarati mum.
My dad and step dad all had close Jewish friends, so I feel very comfortable around their traditions and foods too. I am death to salt beef and a beigel, and lokshen pudding…oh bring it on.
I tend to take on mannerisms/accents of whoever I’m with. It’s both a curse and a blessing. A curse because I desperately try not to do it, in case I offend someone. I only have to talk to someone with an accent, or particular inflection, for a couple of minutes, sometimes mere seconds, and my accent starts drifting. Going to Edinburgh sunk me, and I gave in on day 2 and just let the accent have its head. [sigh] Sometimes you just can’t fight it.
It is a blessing because I can fit in quite easily, and my appearance is readily adoptable by whatever country I’m in (mostly), or group of people I’m with. I was at a prep day for a Sikh wedding party once, and one of the Aunties told me off – in Punjabi – for not speaking my own language. Once my friend Balvinder had stopped laughing, she had to explain to them all that I was Greek, not Indian, and they spent all afternoon feeding me spinach pakoras to say sorry.
I’ve had people assume that I’m Jewish, Spanish, Italian, even mixed race (Caribbean or African), when my hair is at its rain soaked curliest.) I’ve had Cypriots tell me I don’t look Cypriot, and other Cypriots say “Oh! You are so like one of us!”
I’m a natural mimic, and I try and pronounce foreign words properly because, well, it’s respectful, but the drawback of that is that the person I am speaking with then thinks I know more than I do. Oops.
I feel an affinity with all of those influences I grew up with, and it’s quite strong, almost as if I’d been in every country they were all from. It’s an odd feeling, because I’m not really grounded anywhere in particular, but it does mean that I feel comfortable almost anywhere. There is a deep seated joy in the familiar.
I also feel comfortable pretty much anywhere that there is food. My Greek culture is one of talking about what we’re going to eat for lunch whilst we are having breakfast, then of shopping for lunch and talking about dinner at the same time, then at dinner we talk about what we’re going to cook tomorrow. “Have you eaten?” is a standard greeting, usually followed by “Would you like some? Let me make…” pretty soon afterwards. You do not leave a Greek house without having eaten something.
I don’t speak any language fluently except English, but I do speak food. I spent so much time reading Indian cookery books in my late teens, that I admit to forgetting the English words for herbs and spices, and only being able to recall the Indian ones.
My subconscious reaction to the frankly ridiculous panic about Syrian refugees coming here? “Ohh…more people that I can ask for recipes! There’ll be even more varied food shops!”
I have nothing against any culture. We’re all people, we all cook, we all EAT.
Breaking bread, sharing food, it’s a familiar, and familial thing. I will not have harsh words or views at my table, and I have banned a friend from my house before now for espousing racist views about Halal butcher shops. “Eww, you went in there?? But paki shops are dirty!” One strike, there.
I can tell people my biological origins, but that doesn’t explain who I *am*.
I am all of those people in my past;
Carmen and Mrs White from Kingston, who showed me rice and peas, and the best fried chicken, ackee and saltfish, Guinness with condensed milk to keep your strength up.
Anna, Enzo, Tony and Antonella from Pontecagnano, who taught me about the pleasure of simple brown lentils and home made bread. Saltfish came in there, too, in the form of fritters that surprised a 7 year old me with their tang, and the sheer joy of mortadella freshly sliced and piled into soft rolls with sheeps’ cheese
Balvinder, Lucky and Vidhya from India, from whom I get my addiction to a properly made chapatti, or a tindora curry, my desire to taste real srikand again and my addiction to Indian sweets.
Celal from the Turkish Syrian border, who explains to me so carefully how to cook his favourite foods in broken and gentle English, and how to cure olives properly.
Melvyn and Stephanie, Sarah and Bernie and Carol for beigels, lox, pickles and the best salt beef ever. You ain’t had cheesecake til you’ve had Jewish cheesecake and latkes? Oh bring them on.
David from Ghana, with his spicy corned beef over ground cassava and jollof rice.
Enitan and Abbey from Nigeria for fried plantain and the hottest lamb heart dish ever, and tea made with evaporated milk.
My Dad – Αναπαύσου εν ειρήνη Πατέρα – for teaching me the joy of a simple olive oil and lemon dressing on steamed vegetables.
My mum for absolutely everything, for she is the same as me.
My Nan for the lightest cakes, the most comforting of stews and the tangiest chutneys. She was not comfortable with people, but she was completely at home with ingredients.
My step dad – miss you so much Pete – for my quest for the perfect gammon, and dripping toast.
My ma in law for biltong, and squashes cooked with cinnamon, bobotie and lekker koeksisters.
There are so many people that I could cite here, it would go on forever and a day. Each one of them has left a recipe, or a taste, or a flavour combination with me, their experiences, and their stories, their heritage.
I’m proud to be made up of all of these different people, and so very lucky, and happy, to have all of that exposure to so much more than just Britain. We may be an island, but we are a rainbow nation, whether some folks like it or not, and I LOVE IT.
So if you come shopping with me, the excitement I feel about ingredients, the enthusiasm for cooking, isn’t just surface, it’s body and soul and spine and stomach deep, ingrained.
Reading cookery books isn’t just about recipes, it’s about visiting old friends, and long may I continue to do so.