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Culinary Dead Ends
The food that your parents eat, but you do not
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 3: You and I Eat Differently.
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Secondly, not to turn this into a classified section or anything, but the team at Gastro Obscura (the food section at Atlas Obscura) are looking for writers and editors, and I know a lot of you follow Vittles. They are hiring an editorial fellow, which is a remote, one-year, full-time position, as well as 1-2 new contributing writers. If you don’t know Atlas Obscura they publish some excellent food writing, including one of my favourite pieces last year by Vittles contributor Sharanya Deepak on the impact of the Bengal Famine on Indian food.
Now to business. Today’s article is a compilation, and the theme is on culinary dead ends. We often think of food as the connector to previous generations; to our parents, and back past them in an unbroken cultural line. Imagine a family tree, if you will, where dishes are passed down from person to person, each generation adding something of itself to keep the dish alive. But what happens when that line is broken, when it comes to a dead end?
Food is a connector to our past, but frequently we are severed by it. What about the dishes our parents eat but we don’t? Today’s newsletter is a compilation by nine writers on those dishes which don’t translate, citing reasons from modernity, colonialism, immigration, parental politics, Sainsbury’s and straight up hatred. I hope it gets you thinking about your own dishes that never translated, and maybe the ones which will not translate for the generation to come. My own, if you want to know, is London pie and mash ─ a subject for another time.
Culinary Dead Ends
Nigerian Fish Stew, by Jason Okundaye
Growing up, Nigerian fish stew felt like a punishment. Although my late father loved it, many joked that your mother would only cook fish stew when she’d had a falling-out with your dad, and you’d end up with a shit dinner as collateral damage. Like any other hot, red Nigerian stew it’s composed of plum tomatoes, tomato purée, onions and scotch bonnets – but rather than being complemented with the rich jus of goat or beef, bokoto (cow foot), or shaki (tripe), it is assaulted with disintegrating pieces of snapper and red bream fish.
Now, this is not a rebuke of fried fish. Fried red bream and snapper, as stand-alone items, are delicious. In a betrayal to my motherland, I find that they are best paired with Jamaican fried dumplings, delicately dressed with slices of onion and bell peppers. That is to say, I enjoy the same breed of fish cooked up by a culture that is not my own. My love of fried fish survives through my love of Caribbean food (though Nigerian fried fish, before it is sacrificed to the red liquid, is delicious).
It’s difficult to determine what it is exactly that makes fish stew so unpalatable to me. It is not so much the sliminess (I’m one of those people who happily cracks open fish bones to suck on the marrow). It’s not even that it is covered in a sauce. Perhaps the issue is that Nigerian stews are cooked to be served over the course of a week, sometimes longer. Where goat and beef hold firm and retain their shape and texture, fish disintegrates. Over time, it begins to infect the rest of the dish with a scaly finish, similar to the after-texture of a flapjack.
Above all, it just seems like a waste. Fish flesh is not quite porous enough to absorb the flavour of the stew – instead, the seasoning on the skin’s soggy surface is drowned out and cleaned off. You miss the full sensation of crunchy skin lathered in delicious herbs and spices. Compared to meat or even fried fish, fish stew feels like a sad consolation prize.
I’m not alone in this feeling. Every now and then, a tweet will circulate on Black Twitter that says ‘Fish stew ends with this generation’, or something to that effect. I retweet it every time I see it.
Chremslach, by Aaron Vallance
‘Pancakes and jam!’
‘Aaron, we’re not having pancakes.’
‘But muuum . . .’
I throw myself to the floor, dramatically pounding my flailing limbs.
‘Pancakes and jam!’ I wail. ‘PANCAKES AND JAAAAAM!’
All the Dr Spock behavioural techniques deployed by my parents were doomed in the face of my vociferous appeals for chremslach. These unprepossessing Ashkenazi pancakes of my youth were squat, podgy affairs – a far cry from the daintiness of crêpes or the sweeping grandeur of dosais. But as my little cushions of comfort, they were perfect for slathering with sweet strawberry jam – just as my parents had done, my grandparents, my great-grandparents . . . all the way back to the Eastern European shtetl.
I’m sure I’d love them now too. But like many other Jewish dishes from my childhood, I haven’t had them in years.
In part, this reflects the life I've chosen to live. Whereas my parents’ world is closely entwined with the North Manchester Jewish community I grew up in, I've since taken a more diverse path – from my marriage and friendships, to the patch of South London I now call home.
I still love to cook the classic Ashkenazi dishes – chicken soup, latkes, tsimmes – that connect me to my Jewishness. But as my sense of identity has broadened, and my adherence to kashrut relaxed, there’s less psychological need to eat them. Occasionally I pine for the deli specialities of my childhood, particularly the niche pleasure of chopped herring mushed with apple and egg, but it’s a hard sell if you’re not used to it. And in our mixed-faith family, other culinary traditions need incorporating too, as does our keen interest in other food cultures.
Besides, if I'm finding myself too nostalgic, I only need remember vorscht – a highly processed pastrami which, when sliced and fried, resembles a leathery beer mat, and is certainly not something I'd wish to unleash on future generations. Tastes move on in good ways, too.
Part of me feels the weight of some traditions dying with me. But each generation must find their own way, continuing some customs, letting go of others, and embracing new ones.
But chremslach? Yes, I can make room for them again. Especially since their key ingredient – matzo meal – has now made it to my local Sainsbury’s. In fact, I'm going to make them right now. First time in years. And I know just who will help me.
‘Right, kids . . . PANCAKES AND JAM!’
Maghaz, by Iqra Chaudhry
Since I started cooking in my teens, the greatest compliment anyone could give me is mistaking my cooking for my Mama-ji’s. When my little sister took a first bite of steaming chicken pilau and narrowed her eyes at me, and then at my mum, reclining under a blanket on the sofa, asking ‘Wait, who made this? Mama-ji?’ I felt as though I had peaked as a home cook.
During lockdown, my mum finally began sharing her recipes, so I could recreate her dishes while she was bed-bound because of Covid. But lately, I’ve been thinking about the recipes my mum never bothered teaching me, the dishes which slowly disappeared from the menu as the years passed.
My mum is Pakistani, hailing from Punjab. Growing up, she didn’t get to eat meat very often. When she did eat meat, especially red meat, it often involved a qurbani, a ritual during Eid or other special occasions where an animal is slaughtered and part of the meat donated to charity. These are often animals that have been hand-reared, and once the animal is slaughtered, every part of it is used.
One of these dishes made us squirm as children. We’d come home to find our parents eating a curry that looked like scrambled eggs, but . . . squishier. It was maghaz, curried sheep’s brain, and my parents would laugh at their squeamish children turning their noses up at such rich food.
Another dish she rarely cooks is yakhni, a broth made from chicken that is cooked until the meat falls away in strings and the fat dissolves, floating on the surface in oily globs. It’s traditionally served to those who need to build their strength, like kids recovering from the flu or women leaving the hospital after childbirth.
Or pai, a stew of calves’ or lambs’ feet which bubbled on our stove until the cartilage became chewy and our kitchen filled with the rich scent of the sauce. My dad loved it, and we loved taking a look in the pot and screwing up our faces.
Now I’m older, I’m curious about these dishes – about their taste, about the part of my heritage being lost if I don’t learn to cook them. But my siblings like sticking to what they know. When I ask Mum about these dishes, she shrugs. ‘I could make those things,’ she says, softly. ‘But who would eat them?’
Ovocné knedlíky, by Anna Parker
When my Czech mum and English dad moved in together, they began a culinary partnership. They put their various pots, pans and plates together in the cupboards, and what had been two separate sets of cutlery became one shared collection, jumbled together in a drawer. Less tangible was the sharing of techniques, tricks and tips, casual comments made over the stove that permanently changed how the other cooked. She taught him how to soft-boil an egg; he taught her how to make a roux. As for all couples, the merging of my parents’ two culinary repertoires was a negotiation. But coming from two cultures makes this an even more complicated process.
The first victim in the clash of tastes was ovocné knedlíky. These yeast-dough dumplings are stuffed with the fruit of summer’s glut ─ cherries, peaches, apricots or plums – and served with quark, melted butter and sugar. Having sweet dishes as the centrepiece of the meal is a long-held custom in Central and Eastern Europe, especially beloved by older generations. In Czechia, ovocné knedlíkyare a main course.
My dad didn’t want to eat pudding for dinner. Ovocné knedlíkyare heavy and make you feel full, but this isn’t quite the same as leaving you satisfied. The pleasure that comes from eating something sweet can almost be too direct, like a chemical high. For Dad, satisfaction comes when a meal balances sweet with salt, sour and bitter flavours. Ovocné knedlíkywere struck off the menu.
Mum was easily reconciled to their loss because ovocné knedlíkyare laborious to make. You mix yeast with sugar and warm milk and leave it to activate. You work the yeast, flour and eggs into a dough and leave it to rise. You form the dough into dumplings, fill them, and, again, leave them to rise. The rhythm ties you to the kitchen, forcing you to return regularly in order to monitor and manipulate. Once steamed, the dumplings have to be eaten immediately, so everyone has to be gathered around the table ready and waiting. This was no easy feat with three extremely contrary children.
During lockdown, I decided to re-establish my connection to my family’s older generations by making ovocné knedlíky. I asked my great-aunt, the guard of the family’s secrets, for a recipe. She told me not to bother – without Czech flour, the dumplings just wouldn’t be the same. Perhaps when she first moved to England, my mum had had exactly the same conversation.
Head Cheese, by Edmée Lepercq
Tongue paté, soup with pigs’ trotters, soup with chicken feet, soup with snout. These are dishes I’ve never eaten or seen, but know of through my mom. I live in London, and whenever I go home to Paris I always feel like I’m playing catch-up on family stories and that informal cultural knowledge you learn in passing while chatting to people.
When I went back home this December, I learned about fromage de tête, or head cheese – which is a misleading name, since there’s no dairy involved. Instead, it’s made of the meat and cartilage that has been scraped off a pig’s head and set in aspic. A family friend was raving about a new butcher who sold it, as it’s apparently difficult to come across, although that wasn’t always the case. My mom remembered eating it regularly when she was growing up in a small town on the outskirts of Paris. Her father bought it on Saturdays from the market, and he prepared it for his nine kids as a salad with onions and parsley. My mom loved the crunchy bits (those would have been the ears), but she eventually grew tired of the cold meat since they ate it so often. It was my grandfather’s go-to, a cheap and easy way to feed his family.
The way my mother tells it, fromage de tête used to be available at every bistro and butcher in Paris. When I asked her why it’s now harder to come across, she told me about another dish I’d never heard about, one from Champagne made with pig’s trotters which are cooked for three days until the bones become soft and edible. These dishes are delicious, she said, but you have to admit they’re grisly. Now that bas-morceaux (cheap cuts) are no longer the least expensive meats, people prefer paying the same price for ‘noble cuts’ rather than head or whatnot, especially if they didn’t grow up eating those pieces.
If I did find fromage de tête in Paris (or brawn in London), I’m not sure I'd like it. Offal is an acquired taste that I’m still working on: I’m more interested in the dish as a curiosity. When I bite into those shards of ear cartilage, I’ll think of my mom eating them in my grandparents’ kitchen fifty years ago and try to enjoy the crunch.
Adai, by Apoorva Sripathi
Every Saturday night, my mother would soak lentils and rice to make adai for Sunday breakfast.
Saturday night was solely reserved for soaking for the week ahead – from chickpeas and kidney beans to butter beans and whole moong dal for sprouts. For dosais, which we ate every day, my mother soaked rice and urad dal, a scant teaspoon of fenugreek, and some flattened rice flakes. For adai, we’d strictly follow my paternal grandmother’s recipe: rice, chana dal, urad dal, toor dal, curry leaves, and dried red chillies went into the batter. My maternal grandmother would also add ginger and a compulsory heaping of moringa leaves to the batter, so everything would caramelise.
Recipes changed, rice varieties were mixed up, but the constant presence of adai lingered. I can picture many bleak Sunday breakfasts: hefty adais smelling strongly of roasted lentils, molagapodi and oil oozing into its thin edges, a thick mixture of jaggery and ghee, with me cross-legged on the floor and sulking at my plate, wishing they were dosais instead. Somehow I didn’t acquire my family’s taste for adai, just as I haven’t internalised their dislike for meat.
Adais are thin pancakes similar to dosais, but they have a higher proportion of lentils. Food writer Vikram Doctor tells me that ‘adai is easier to make than dosa, since it doesn't need fermentation’ and that its lack of strong presence outside of South India ‘reflects how dosais have spread through the restaurant trade, not so much through household contact’. Adais are homely and take more time to cook ─ too long for a restaurant that wants to churn out dishes as fast as it can.
Adai’s brown, crunchy edges may go wonderfully well with soft jaggery and fragrant ghee, but I cannot stomach its unflattering heaviness or its thick and gritty texture that sometimes feels like coarse sand in my mouth. It’s too lentil-heavy for me, a person who suffers from ulcers of the stomach and small intestines: it gives me constant heartburn, makes me gassy.
In my family, I’m alone in my dislike of adai. My father, like his mother before him, likes soft thick adais laced with a generous helping of sesame oil. Both of them eat it with overripe bananas mashed into a chunky paste, mixed with fresh yogurt and then tempered with mustard, dried red chillies, curry leaves, asafoetida, and split urad dal in sesame oil, just like my grandmother’s dad did before her. It’s an odd choice but I suppose certain things are inherited – though for me, adais are just not one of them.
Blood filloas and tasajo, by Marie Anne Benavente
It’s November 1963 in the rainy hills of Galicia, Spain. A little girl sneaks behind the barn door, trying to catch a glimpse of the action which all takes place in the blink of an eye. As the pig parts are brought into the kitchen, her grandma slowly empties a jug containing the pig’s blood, still warm, into a bowl containing flour, eggs and lard, heavily whisking it to make a thin batter. She then pours it onto a piping hot, well-oiled pan to make blood filloas – very thin pancakes similar to French crêpes – topped with honey and raisins.
‘It's very important to use fresh blood before it coagulates; that's why no one makes them anymore. It must have been over fifty years since I had one’, my mum says when I ask about her childhood memories.
Around the same time, in the dry, incandescent heat of the Venezuelan plains, a young boy is being inducted into the quarterly practice of beef slaughtering and tasajo; a kind of jerky made from long, thin sheets of beef, heavily rubbed with salt and cumin and hung out to dry like fresh linen for days or even weeks at a time.
One particular tasajo dish remains like no other in my dad's memory: paloapique. This was the main and sometimes only meal that field workers would have in a day. All the components of this dish ─ meat, rice and beans ─ are strongly bound together inside a big stewing pot and will simmer for hours until the tasajo tenderly shreds, the rice becomes fluffy yet creamy, and the bayo beans soften down to a buttery consistency. Usually accompanied with salted, fried plantain and a strong shot of black coffee, this is brunch like no other.
It’s also, sadly, in decline. ‘Only aunties in the village have the time and patience to make it nowadays’, my dad remarks. Freezers and supermarkets have given these dishes a death sentence. I can’t help but feel a loss; I can only imagine the flavour of these combinations that seem so alien to me yet so homely to my parents, like mourning an elderly relative I never got to meet. Now an immigrant myself, I wonder which of my own childhood dishes will inevitably struggle to translate, eventually becoming lost to the next generation, reaching their own dead ends.
Couscous, by Leila Gamaz
Beneath any occasion in North Africa, no matter how grand or mundane, there’s always a base of couscous. It’s so integral that it’s often simply called ta’am – food. In Algeria, couscous is eaten with fermented milk and fresh peas in summer, raisins and honey during Ramadan, or fresh thyme and butter to ease stomach aches. There are recipes where the grains are replaced by balls of dried herbs, and others where semolina is plastered to the edges of a hole in the ground.
During their occupation of Algeria, the French colonists made just one type, served with vegetables and chickpeas. Subtle differences that had been passed down through women for generations were ignored – just as they were when Escoffier took dishes from their provincial homes into thekitchens of grand hotels. Couscous was reduced and codified, establishing the archetype of ‘pot-au-feu arabe’ or simply ‘couscous’, and a postcolonial restaurant scene emerged. France recently voted couscous as their third-favourite national dish, yet it comes with terms – acceptance of the food, but not the religion or the people. These kitchens are still run on Escoffier’s military principles – efficiency, order and conformity – the same values used to exert control during the occupation, and fundamentally at odds with the dish’s origins.
In Algeria, couscous is prepared by and for the community. Women come together to hand-roll the grains and prepare the sauce, and a series of rituals and songs accompany the process. It’s sometimes still eaten using the right hand, though most people now use individual plates – a concept introduced by the French, and another example of control inside and outside of the home.
All recipes are reductions – for efficiency, availability, or simplicity – but foodways can also be intentionally dislocated. In Algeria, traditions survive in isolated pockets less exposed to French influence, or in liminal moments – my aunts eating with their hands from a shared bowl, at the back of the kitchen, when half the house is sleeping.
When my dad emigrated to England, he opened a ‘Mediterranean’ restaurant and put couscous on the menu – his own recipe gleaned from watching his mother teach his sisters, and from what he saw served in France. This was what he passed on to me. Eating it I’m reminded of Algeria, but I also think of all the other dishes he couldn’t pass on. We feel their absence at the table – ghosts of versions we may know but never taste.
A Culinary Regrowth, by Sofya Mitchell
What does food as home mean when you’re a cultural orphan, born to another cultural orphan?
I was born in Glasgow to a Scottish father and a Singaporean mother. Singapore itself is a nation of immigrants: most people have Chinese heritage while only 7% have Indian heritage, like my mother. Growing up, my mother ate Chinese, European, Nonya, and Malaysian food at home – Indian dishes made a rare appearance, and when they did, she always fussily refused to eat any of them (she’d have much rather had a karipap). Despite her South Indian blood, there isn’t an iota of ‘Indian-ness’ about her culturally, and therefore our Scottish-Singaporean upbringing was absent of all things Indian, too.
Instead, we were taught to use chopsticks as toddlers, ate mooncakes at Lunar New Year, were gifted ang pau by our elders. Dim sum was more familiar than dosa. And yet, when we went to our favourite Cantonese restaurant on Sunday afternoons for cheung fun and har gow, we were treated as much as outsiders as the middle-aged British couple eating sweet-and-sour chicken with forks at the next table. My siblings and I didn’t really care, but it stung Mum every time. A sharp remembrance of her status as Other growing up in Singapore, even though our family have been Singaporean for generations. Food, as we all know, can connect us – but it can also often accent the loneliness of being culturally adrift.
I am not British, nor Chinese, nor Indian, nor Singaporean. When you don’t have that anchor in a distinct culture, as most people do, you are forced to forge your own identity from sheer stubborn will alone. Defiant and restless with my identity, I visited Kerala alone for the first time three years ago, and instantly fell in love with uthappam, beef fry, red bananas and fish moilee – all foods that had reached a dead end with my mother. I had found my culinary home, despite my ancestors leaving those soils over a century ago, despite never having tasted Malayali food before landing in Cochin, despite not knowing how to cook any of it. But sometimes your body just knows – the taste of anything laced with curry leaves and coconut oil makes my very cells buzz. I’m still a stranger in India, but I’m alright with that. I will learn. I will make my own home.
Many thanks to Edmée Lepercq for the inspiration for this article.
Jason Okundaye is a South London based writer, focused on politics and culture. You can find more of his work at the Guardian, the London Review of Books, Tribune, GQ, i-D, and Dazed. You can him on Twitter at @jasebyjason. He also runs the digital archive @blackandgaybackintheday on Instagram.
Aaron Vallance is an NHS doctor and a food writer - his blog is 1 Dish 4 The Road https://www.1dish4theroad.com/
Iqra Choudhry is a writer from Manchester working towards her PhD. You can find her tweeting about food and all sorts of other things at @iqrathebookworm on Twitter.
Anna Parker is a PhD student at Cambridge researching Czech history
Edmée Lepercq is an arts writer based in London. You can find her on Twitter & Instagram handle as @edmeelepercq
Marie Anne Benavente is the head chef at L'atelier des Chefs cooking school. You can find her on Twitter as @marieannebl
Leila Gamaz is an Algerian-English writer exploring untold stories, ritual, and sisterhood. You can read some of her work at Azeema magazine, Shado magazine & Dardishi zine. She co-founded Houria, a pan-African catering company that employs refugee women and survivors of modern slavery.
Sofya Mitchell is a former chef, sometimes writer, now based in London.
All photos author’s own.