Sunday, October 4, 2009

Four continents in two weekends = one happy stomach

Often I find myself in catch twenty-two situations contemplating what to put into to my stomach and what not to waste stomach space on. At the beginning of the night I am usually carefully eliminating options, and by the end of the night I am wishing I was a cow, after all they do have three stomachs, damn, what I wouldn’t give to have an extra stomach every now and again!

Food is central to tradition and culture, moreover for migrants and those living overseas for long periods of time. This usually abounds from a longing for home and the yearning for the foodways of one’s childhood, namely the spices, smells, memories and tastes of our childhoods. This I have encountered and observed firsthand on several occasions over the last 18 months spent living, studying and eating at various friends homes in and around Adelaide.

The past two weekends in particular have been especially multicultural in terms of the meals I have enjoyed with foodways being celebrated as the core pillar and foundation of inherent identity. Last weekend I attended a friend’s 21st birthday, enjoying an array of finger-foods including samosas, curry puffs, pakodas, vadas, iddiappams with potato curry, fried rice and sausages with ketchup – a spread that symbolised her Malay-Indian roots amalgamated with her Australian upbringing. What can be said was that it was undoubtedly an eclectic buffet that made evident their interpretation of a local community’s adaptation of its foodways that can perhaps be said to have evolved.
This was not my first 21st birthday celebration in Australia, nor my first run in with what I refer to as fusion-confusion. About four months ago I got a taste of what the Greek community in Adelaide today recognise as being their cuisine. Sadly it is very much a generic Aussie-Greek hybrid mish-mash of potato and pasta salads doused with an overload of mayonnaise, camouflaged with shredded carrot, chaffing trays loaded with dried out grilled chickens and piles of shaved souvlaki meat accompanied by platters of bastardised creamy, dairyfied hummus, tzakaki and roasted bell peppers.
Although I tend to be conservative when it comes to maintaining traditions and foodways, extremely pro-active about saving and resurrecting ‘the way in which we used to eat’ and protecting the future of our recipes and food-culture, I can understand how along the way foodways become watered down and thus take on different undertones and direction. This I can appreciate, since through it new cuisines, interpretations, styles of cooking and techniques are born.

However at times, this swings quite in the opposite way where the migrants foodways are changed or monopolise, imposed on such a dramatic scale by the local food culture that the initial foodways are high-jacked and overpowered into diluted nothingness. In this case we witness the sad demise of a migrant cultures foodways and the prospect of that culminating into something bright, beautiful or even strange, special.
Getting back to my recent multicultural food experiences, last Sunday contrasted both 21st birthday celebrations by way of ‘authenticity’. Now I know this can be a sticky word, and be using it here, by default I have invited criticism, however, Fan Hong my host for that evening is fresh from Beijing , China. In fact she has been in Australia for less than five months, so if this does not make her cooking authentic, I don’t know what does (her food is unparalleled to anything you can get your hands on Gouger or Moota Street). Cooking from the heart using simple, rustic methods and techniques she has honed over the years the result was a sensationally satisfying authentic Beijing meal. We started with crunchy green beans lightly stir fried and topped with minced pork with soy sauce followed by drums of heaven – chicken drumsticks that I have a sneaky feeling were rubbed with Chinese five spice powder prior to being fried golden-brown and crispy. Then we went on to relish (and I actually mean devour because it was so unbelievably amazing) a whole deep fried Barramundi enveloped in a wet, spicy yet subtly sweet sauce made of finely sliced spring onions, garlic and red chilli fragrant with stinky-sour tell-tale scent of fish sauce that caught me by surprise (I was under the impression that it was only the Thai and Vietnamese mainly that used it, and never the Chinese). However, it could have been a variation of oyster sauce that has a stronger, fishier pong than I am used to. Last but not least was a clear broth, its surface clotted with fat globules and at the bottom lardons of pork, thickly framed by jiggling rind glistened and gyrated. This particular dish conjured up images of a Chinese sage proffering a healing bowl of broth ensured to render good health and fortune. However, no matter how youthful or agile that soup could possibly make me I would not be able to stomach it – the fat was just far too much, congealing my upper palate.

This Friday night took me all the way to Mexico, with American couple Tim and Mariah from Colorado hosting a Mexican themed evening. While this does not reflect North American foodways per say, it speaks of the principal pretext of human nature – seeking out foods one misses and craves from home (in Australia Mexican food is pretty much alien territory). I got not only taste homemade, hand-rolled tortillas but also get a free demo! All the other usual suspects were in attendance – guacamole, sour cream, salsa, corn and pepper mix and enchiladas.

Saturday we travelled to the suburb of Camden Town to enjoy a South African Barbecue or as they like to call it in Cape Town – Braai, or so our hosts Eddie and Elba informed me. The SA version of a barbie typically involves freshly poached game meat thrown onto the grill, however given the nature of the Aussie bush we substituted with a side of silverside beef cut into thick, juicy steaks and corn on the cob thrown onto the grill.

All of which were generously seasoned with Marina Sea Salt Braai BBQ Seasoning (screaming with heady notes of cracked black pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, allspice and nutmeg) as well as Mrs. Ball’s Original Recipe Chutney – a piquant combo of vinegar, salt, apricot and peaches.

Although I have a long standing love-hate relationship with globalisation one thing can be said for sure - when it comes to gastronomy and the widespread availability of everything from paneer to dolmades at your neighbourhood grocerry store, to the diverse and endless array of ethnic restaurants most metropolitian cities offer, the sharing of different cultures through foodways makes life worth living. For me, my time in Australia has allowed me a rollercoaster ride of gastronomic food advetnures. Cheers to all the people that have hosted me so far and to all the meals in the future here in the land Down Under.