Sunday, 13 June 2010

On authenticity

I have a surprising confession to make: I am a conservative. No, it's not that I brought the tories back in power, silly.

I have been frequently accused of being snobbish about food, or even a food Nazi (the burden that comes with a German passport).

People tell me that cooking shouldn't be taken that seriously and that there are millions in the world that are underfed, plus, not everybody has the time to learn 'the right way' to prepare certain dishes.

If somebody serves me mushy pasta or a risotto that is really a pilaf, or a pizza that's more of a pie – or miso soup that was made with a powder and has been boiled to death, to get away from the Italian, I will eat it, and appreciate the effort involved. If it's home cooking and somebody that I like has done it.

But still, it makes me cringe. Usually the wine that comes along with it makes me forget. The horrible thing is, this happens in restaurants as well, so frequently that I have given up on most London vegan places. I love you wonderful vegans and your aspirations to feed everybody vegan food, but 9 out of 10 times, I'd rather visit a decent 'ethnic' restaurant.

I am no fool, and I know what it's like not being able to choose from a variety of ingredients and having time and knowing techniques, but needing to figure out how to get the most bang for your buck (or quid, you know what I mean).

I was raised on very little money by a single mum in her 20s that had never been taught to cook. And yet, while much can be said about my mother's housewife qualities (or lack thereof), and ready mixes and microwave meals were a regular mainstay in our house, some things were uncompromisable:

Our soups and stews were made with homemade broth, and if French cooked with a proper bouquet garni and if Mediterranian, based on a good soffrito.

Vegetables were never overcooked, and sauces were made from scratch.

Pasta was always superb, just al dente and spaghetti never broken into pieces (the moment that I lost all faith in British people cooking!), and eaten with a fork. I remember having spaghetti and tomato sauce parties: from when I was about 3 years old, my mum would invite her girlfriends and their kids round and feed us all spaghetti. As you can imagine, not only the kids but the walls, sofas etc were covered in spaghetti sauce, but all of us now know how to eat and cook wicked pasta.

I believe that this has influenced my view of food and some good basic skills just make everything better. I don't like muddling my way through in the kitchen.

As a teen hanging out with squatters and a lot of other gypsy folk, I made friends from all sorts of places, and a lot of them were veggies and hence interested in cooking vegstarian food on the cheap and without fancy kitchens.

What do you think were the results?

Wonderful creamy risottos, lasagnes, pizzas from the Italians. No no-stir risottos (if you don't have the patience to work on a dish for 20 mins, give up the idea of cooking altogether. Risotto is one of the easiest things to do in a pinch) or jarred sauces (they weren't available in Germany back then, anyway).

Noodle soups chock full of flavour and ace stir fries, curries etc from Thai and Japanese people.There was no way you could take a short cut and just buy something half ready made, because even if you had the money, the shops didn't have it (where I grew up, they don't have any Asian ingredients in supermarkets to this day. Cities are a whole different thing, mind you). We even made sushi from fish that people had fished for themselves at the Dutch coast (not veggie, I know), just because there was no decent fishmonger around.

Curries with freshly ground and roasted spices and coriander that grew on the windowsill, if you were lucky. An abundance of Indian restaurants is pretty unique in English speaking countries (and most of them cook British Indian, anyway).

And Middle Eastern food! Oh how homemade hummus and baba ganoush and home baked flat breads excited me, also because nobody else around had ever heard of them and it was part of my teenage rebellion (and of course, because they are just wonderfully delicious foods sent from heaven).

None of these people were particularly foodie, or affluent. I believe that good ingredients and the right techniques go a long way, and that the traditional ways are the way they are because they have been working just fine for a long long time.

I like fusion cuisine when it combines the best of two worlds (check out Vapiano for that, they make awesome pasta dishes with Asian twists as monthly specials and have restaurants in most European cities and a few in the US, as well), not when it just ends up in a half-hearted medley of randomness (PizzaHut or your common TexMex, anyone?).

I don't mind variations, such as endless fruit variations for clafoutis or fillings for quiches, or using bok choy in a pasta dish. As a matter of fact, a lot of vegan versions call for substitutes that aren't traditional to begin with. As long as the base it done right, go ahead, that's all exciting.

But seriously, the next person who serves me a pizza with a 2 inch high shop bought crust with sugary Dolmio sauce and a 4 inch pile of toppings will die a slow and painful death.

How about you? Do traditional cooking techniques matter? Where do you draw the line between variation and bastardisation in cooking?


Catherine said...

I agree with you completely -- I try my best to take time and make "real" food. It does taste so much better, and obviously, is better for you, too.

I've never understood why more people don't cook -- it's NOT THAT HARD! Plus, you get to eat all of your hard work! :)

Lisa is Vegan on $10 a Day (or Less!) said...

I would describe myself as quite bastardly ... For my own personal palate, really good fresh ingredients are what matters more than the technique. But, you've inspired me to (eventually) be more "snobbish" and learned about it all :)

artemis said...

Reading your blog is just delicious! I have enjoyed it immensely. I don't know even half of what you do involving other international cuisines besides Mediterranean. At home, we had more or less the same rules like in yours (also had a mother that was hard-working). Today I am unfortunately a bastardizer (buying frozen vegetables instead of fresh) quite often.But I have not given in when it comes to fresh salad, and I NEVER buy a salad mix in a bag. The Greek cuisine appreciates fresh tomato, parsley, onions and garlic, spearmint and thyme, basil, rosemary and dill (me loves dill!) and sometimes, laurel, cinammon and nutmeg- also, a lot of olive oil (ONLY!)