Food Memories by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

By star guest on 20 Jan 2011

Our first star guest blog comes from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown ahead of her event at the Museum of London Docklands on 28 January. For more information about the event click here.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, photographer Jillian Edelstein

Way back in 1954, Alice.B. Toklas, the lesbian lover of avant garde writer Gertrude Stein penned a cookbook, fabulously recreating the flavours of their long life together in France. Stein was the clever, demanding ‘husband’; wife Alice, a bountiful gastronome. The recipes are replete with pleasure and sex that couldn’t speak its name so had to be covered in pastry and rich sauces. Her lover is always ‘Gertrude Stein’ and Toklas shares no revealing internal monologues. They picnicked and ‘gathered early wild flowers- violets at Versailles, daffodils at Fontainblue, hyacinths in the forests of St. Germain.’ Sandwiches were filled with rare roast beef;  chopped truffles cooked in sherry were wrapped in lettuce. Elizabeth David wrote tempting books on Mediterranean food from 1949. She too lived expansively and happily in the world of food, perhaps to compensate for a frenetic but unsatisfying love life.  The lack of personal detail, as in the case of Toklas was suggestive. We can’t help but imagine desires behind the aprons.    

Claudia Roden, Jocelyn Dimbleby and Madhur Jaffrey are popular cook-storytellers. The first two recount the journeys of life where curiosity about food opens doors and brings familiarity with strangers or fleshes out the bare bones of history. For Jaffrey, an Indian forever abroad, food keeps fresh her ties with the old homeland, which remains eternally unchanged in her imagination. 

Then there are the autobiographical tales where recollection of specific events brings up remembrance of particular foods, rather than the other way around as in the case of Proust. Ruth Reichl is a sassy New Yorker and formidable restaurant critic. Her book Tender at the Bone, is a fine example of this interplay. As a young girl she decides to take control of her chaotic life with a dreamy dad and mum who serves rotting food to guests and poisons some. Ruth rebels by acquiring a sophisticated European palate  and disarming graciousness. At college her roommate is Seraphina, a Guyanese, shockingly unacceptable to her mother ‘ I just can’t help it. I guess  I’m a prejudiced person. It never occurred to me that your roommate would be a negro.’ Slices of Guyanese coconut cake calm things down though the nasty taste of racism remains. 

Apricots on the Nile by Colette Rossant is both enchanting and psychologically dark.  In 1937,  only five, she arrived in Cairo with her Egyptian-Jewish dad and vain French mother who wafts off when widowed, leaving the child with her indulgent grandparents. Recreated here is Jewish life in Egypt now gone forever. One day her mother returns: ‘suntanned, young and radiant. My hand with the piece of pita slathered with humus, froze. I stared rudely…She lunged at me, put her large hands around my face and exclaimed: “…You’re lovely but you’ve put on so much weight! And you’re so dark!?”

Dying in a hospice, Colette’s mother craves Chinese shrimps with vegetables. The dutiful daughter cooks and brings the dish to the bedside and is rebuffed: ‘They’re good but they’re not Chinese’. Food makes or breaks a family can embody  rejection, love, revenge, forgiveness, murderous fury.    

Migrants understand the potency of food in good times and bad. They offer it to the people in their adopted lands and hope that will ease the pain of adjustment on both sides. We Asians laid our offerings on the laps of Brittania. The nervy natives were placated and later got addicted. The BNP, for sure, has many members who love a damn good curry. If you dissect Brittania, her stomach lining is sure to be turmeric yellow.  Through the peddling of food migrants too find a niche, a place, a way to belong.  Balti food is the metaphor for this slow process from nostalgia to settlement and mutual accommodation.       

Rohan Candappa’s witty, perceptive Picklehead plays with the confusions of post-imperial identities: ‘By the time most people start coasting away from their thirties, they pretty much know who they are.’ He thinks he does and then, an epiphany as he reaches out to buy a supermarket curry sauce, this Brit son of Ceylonese parents, a father himself. Mortification. A promise to do better. And he does. :’ ..the food you eat at home is a link to the world your parents came from. It has echoes of past people and events. It is a conduit of both history and family history’. He finds himself by reclaiming that heritage. His recipes summon up Ceylonese- British life- the times of want when tinned pilchards were curried to Christmases past when stuffed turkey had to share space with pork vindaloo and plum pudding with kul kuls, sugared fried pastries that oddly we used to have in Uganda only called cocothende.

The Settler's Cookbook c. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

My food memoir, the Settler’s Cookbook, tells the tale of East African Asians. Hardly any books describe the lives of my intrepid forebears. Some were indentured labourers taken by the British from India to build the East African Railway; others were encouraged to migrate by Imperialists to create a commercial economy and the rest were incautious adventurers who had heard East Africa was lush and fecund. They became the obliging middle class, colour coded and placed between the superior whites and lowly blacks. All too soon they were eating ‘repaired’ English food like Shepherd’s Pie ( to get closer to power possibly, hoping it would rub off on them.) and spicing up African staples- cassava and plantains to assert their own colonisation of Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda. On Sunday evenings in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, my birthplace, Indian street food smells wafted through the streets, Indian music blared. We commandeered the very air. It couldn’t last and didn’t. A violent dictator took over my country and we were expelled from paradise. 

The memoir contains Idi Amin’s favourite stew recipe- Exeter Stew- given to me by Sussanah, one of his mistresses and a fellow student who was killed when he tired of her. And descriptions of fried balls of spicy mashed potato which hid diamonds, cooked up by fleeing Ugandan Asians and the Victoria sponges, light as kites we were taught in school, soft colonial diplomacy or taste washing?   

We landed here and started up 24 hour cornershops which made many very rich. Food became our passport, survival, route to wealth and influence.

The book is also a lament for my mother, whose death four years has left me with a cavernous hollow.  I turn to food to make her live again, the tender and feisty, sometimes impossible woman.  When I cook her coconut dhal the smell of her in her cooking cardigan, enters the kitchen, sniffs to check it is as it should be.

For Proust too food becomes the mystical medium, reuniting us with those on the other side:’ when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste remain for a long time, like souls remembering, waiting, hoping upon the ruins of all the rest’.  Prayers at gravesides or assiduous history books  cannot warm up the past and make it stir again. Food memoirs can, more vividly than dreams and fictional time machines.   

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The Settler’s Cookbook

Leading author, journalist and commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown talks about her much-admired Settler’s Cookbook: A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food. Through the story of Yasmin’s family, The Settler’s Cookbook traces the long journey of the East African Indians through famine, persecution and upheaval. Arriving in London, Alibhai-Brown’s heritage is reflected in the food she makes – from a Shepherd’s Pie sprinkled with chilli to a Victoria sponge enlivened by saffron and lime juice. Following the lecture there will be a book signing accompanied by a food tasting.

Fee £5 (concs £3): advanced booking required.Click here
Dates and times
Friday, 28 January, 18.30 – 20.00

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