Messing with cultural cuisine

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" Proverb

This is a lucky dip - the book being Gary Mehigan from the Lantern Cookery Classics series, and the recipe is Gary's lamb and tomato curry, shown here and of which he says:


"a starting point for making lots of different great curries" Gary Mehigan


In his introduction to the recipe he says that this was the first curry he ever cooked working with real spices, rather than a bought curry paste and that the family recipe had been given to him by a friend. Nevertheless I see that it has been given the title Gary's lamb and tomato curry. So maybe he messed with it a little.


As I pondered on how I could turn this into a blog post, I first thought about how cooks fiddle with recipes and change them into something new - the professionals into something sometimes astounding and truly, newly, delicious, the home cooks into a fun experiment that sometimes succeeds and sometimes doesn't. However, it is difficult is it not, to fiddle with dishes from cuisines that are not at all like your own - mostly I guess the Indian and Asian ones? When we are dealing with European food we know all the ingredients, and we know what goes with what, the fundamental techniques we use, and so we can mix and match according to what we feel like or what we have in our pantries and fridges. I mean I can make a quiche with virtually anything. Does that make it authentic? Probably not - but it's a homage to an authentic dish. When it comes to the Middle-East, the experimentation is rather more tentative perhaps, but because of the increasing familiarity of the cuisine we can perhaps play around with that a little. Indian and Asian perhaps not quite as much.


Well - changing the vegetables, or the meats, fish or other protein is perhaps a possibility - but the spices? Whereas you might know that you can happily mix parsley with thyme and rosemary, or even coriander with lime or mint, do you really know which Indian spice goes with what and in what quantities? I don't think so. I know the only deviation I make from recipes from my Indian gurus - Charmaine Solomon and Madhur Jaffrey, is to use a prepared curry paste or powder - and this is very definitely not 'authentically' Indian. Or is it? I'm willing to bet that a lot of Indian housewives use commercial curry pastes and powders, whether from large commercial companies or individual market stalls. But no I definitely do not know how to improvise on curry - or any other Asian dish come to that. Even Gary Mehigan elaborates on his 'starting point' to suggest changing the meat or the vegetables. Not the spices. And they are really what make the dish what it is.


So in my initial search for ideas and quotable quotes, as usual I didn't quite ask the right question of Google and came up with a whole lot of righteous articles about cultural appropriation - mostly American Chinese food I have to say - which was very depressing. To me anyway. the general drift was that 'white' people had no business cooking Chinese (or any other ethnic food) whilst presenting it as authentic.


"Cultural cuisines are meant to be shared, but profiting from and taking credit for the cooking techniques of marginalized cultures is inappropriate. There is no such thing as copyright for recipes, so there is only a subjective moral line between respectfully adapting a recipe and stealing it." Trisha Nair - Spoon University


This lady was not alone in expressing these sentiments, although in the fine print as it were, tucked away so that you would hardly notice, there was some recognition that you could indeed 'meddle' with the authentic. The implication was always though that only the Chinese could really meddle with Chinese food, which is only marginally less righteous (and possibly stupid) than saying that only the Chinese can cook 'authentic' Chinese food. As an example I believe the chef/owner at our favourite French eatery Paris Go, is Greek, but the food could not be more French. Well as French as it can be using Australian ingredients. Besides there is always the unanswerable question of what is authentic anyway? I've discussed a number of those arguments in my time of writing this blog.


My granddaughter was making Chicken butter cream for her family for dinner last night. She is 11. I am sure the recipe she is using is from someone like the Recipe Tin Eats lady who is Japanese/Australian. Besides Chicken butter cream itself is not an 'authentic' Indian recipe. It's Anglo/Indian. It may not really tell my granddaughter what 'real' Indian food tastes like, although she has sampled Indian food in Australian/Indian restaurants since she was very small. Also probably not truly authentic. How dare anyone criticise her for doing this. Surely it is something to be applauded - not just because she is cooking dinner but also because she is cooking something which fundamentally belongs to another culture altogether, and in the process she is absorbing something, however vague about Indian culture. Like the food - like the people.


It is certainly true that 'fusion food' is all the rage and why not anyway? I still remember the superb French/Chinese fusion food in a Melbourne restaurant called Indochine - back in the 70s and 80s. It was truly wonderful. But the politically correct cultural appropriation people would disagree.


"A significant issue with the redesigned cuisine is that it creates many misconceptions about Chinese food." Trisha Nair - Spoon University


Which may be true, but then I don't think most of the people who create such food are saying that it is genuinely Chinese. In fact they are usually pandering to their own egos by claiming these dishes as their own. Besides, what do the Chinese people eat these days? MacDonald's probably.


Back to Gary Mehigan though - it was his book after all that inspired this post. Well not exactly his book. It was one of four I bought from a series that Penguin published featuring various Australian chefs. They consisted of a selection of their recipes - each one with a beautiful photograph, with a very brief biographical note at the beginning of the book. If the cook had written introductions to the recipes then they were there. I bought them in Aldi of all places.


All I knew of Gary Mehigan was that he was a vaguely familiar name, and then I realised that, of course, he was one of the three MasterChef judges - perhaps his greatest claim to fame, although he had worked in prestigious restaurants in England where he was born, and also here in Melbourne, eventually having his own very successful restaurant Fenix. I vaguely remember that name but never went there. It's actually a very multicultural book - everything from roast beef and yorkshire pudding to lamb tagine with preserved lemon and dates, and a classic crème brulée. Nothing very outrageous but enough of interest to tempt. And enough to introduce you to a range of different cuisines.


Since the somewhat ignominious end of the MasterChef trio he has had a number of different projects, many of them involving travel - particularly to India it seems, with whose cuisine he has fallen in love.


"I’ve said this many times before, but I’m constantly thrilled with the food I eat every time I visit India. The discovery of regional Indian flavours and cuisines has been a mind-boggling experience over my many visits. I’m constantly discovering something new, which is what cooking and travelling is all about, and discovering an unusual ingredient, a recipe, a new flavour, or technique is what makes Indian cuisines addictive." Gary Mehigan


An open mind it seems. And isn't that a most wonderful thing? The list of spices in that Lamb curry is long and therefore possibly daunting. However, when you look at it more closely you realise that they are all ingredients that most of us have these days in our pantries. So give it a try. I know I will next time I make curry.


The first recipe in Gary Mehigan's book - a complete contrast - is Pumpkin soup and maybe one day in the distant future it will feature as a First Recipe. I place it here, because it shows the range of the man.


"If you are talking about food, it should have a sense of place and meaning, maybe a story but ultimately make you happy. Respect for ingredients, techniques, recipes, provenance, and regionality are all part of this story. But rules are meant to be broken, and I see change as part of a natural evolution of our food. Even the most traditional recipes were once groundbreaking and new." Gary Mehigan


POSTSCRIPT

When I was researching Gary Mehigan I found this quote about how COVID has impacted his life - a sort of postscript to my post on that COVID question about what has changed you? Silver linings.


"After a few weeks, I began to slow down and notice the little things in life. I enjoyed long walks with the family and our dogs, gardening, reading, baking, and taking time to stay in touch with friends via phone or Zoom. Many of these things have become part of the ‘new order’ in my life, along with being less materialistic and constantly needing to be busy, all of which has made me much happier." Gary Mehigan

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