As a child, food was a challenge. Rationing ended in the same year that I was born. My mother’s frugal habits lasted for most of the time I was at home. Luxuries like avocados, artichokes or wine were served in tiny quantities, and we used to fight over them. You learned to eat fast and to compete for resources.
We got our meat from the Kosher Butcher, Mr Goldstone. He was a big man with red eyes, a red face, wobbly jowls and slobbery diction. He was a friendly man, and he would always be delighted to see me. I liked him.
Back home, there were complex rituals for koshering meat, involving soaking, salting, and, for liver, holding it in a flame. This was spectacular because the salt made the flames glow yellow. Mum faithfully followed all the rules of Kashrut (within certain limits of convenience) even though she appeared not to have any religious beliefs. Her family were religious, and I think the main point was to be able to invite them over for meals.
For the Shabbat evening meal, which was Friday night, Mum would buy a hen. She would boil the hen to make chicken soup (which was delicious) and then roast it to make the main course (which was inedible). Later, when I first met Irit’s family, I was amazed to find that chicken is delicious.
On the upside, fish was cheap and Mum’s fish was always amazing. There was gefilte fish, chopped and fried fish, and she made the best breadcrumbed fish (although it was made with matzo meal). There was potato salad, green salad, lots of fruit. Mum made killer chips. Also her pies and strudels were special.
But for Mum, cooking wasn’t fun, it was a job she had to complete. I can’t remember being taught to cook, but we must have been, because at a school camp where we had to cook for ourselves, I was the only boy in our tent who had any idea. This despite the fact that I had hardly even seen bacon before, never mind cooked it. And it was delicious.
Mum was a feminist. But after she died, Dad blossomed as a cook. And the frugality disappeared. Mum’s generation would complain about not getting help from their husbands, but at the same time they regarded the kitchen as their territory, and wouldn’t allow anyone else in. So it was not easy for the men to get in there.
When I went to University, the institutional food was atrocious. I think I ate one evening meal in a “Buttery” in my whole time there. I determined to cook for myself. On my first day there I joined forces with the guy in the room next-door (Andy Higman) and for the year we cooked and shopped together. It was a strange relationship. We had little in common, but we got on well, because we enjoyed the cooking. Gradually, other people bought into our cooking commune, but Andy and I did all the work. We taught each other what little we knew. It was a lot of fun.
I can determine a few major influences on my cooking. My brother-in-law, my parents-in-law, and my own disregard for authority.
Rick Jones was Judith’s boyfriend. (Later they were married, had three children. They divorced some years later, but he is still around and part of the family). They lived together in a student house in Tottenham. When Grandma Gretel visited they had to rearrange the furniture. Gretel walked into every room, saying “And who sleeps here?”
For our second year of University, my friend Gijs and I took the upstairs of the house and Judith and Rick, and a guy called Chinese Mike lived downstairs.
Rick was dedicated to food and archaeology. He still is, and more recently to his children. For him, food is an adventure, a series of discoveries, an exploration. When I met him, he was already a skilled cook. So we sat at a table in a flat in Tottenham and ate some of the best food I had tasted. Rick introduced me to the writing of Elizabeth David, and the idea that cooking is about improvisation rather than specific recipes.
My parents-in-law, Julie and Josh, were brought up in Iraq, were exiled in 1951, lived in Israel for a while, and ended up in London around 1960.
Julie and Josh had a fixed repertoire of dishes. These improved over time, so they obviously experimented with things. They had a deep understanding of the ingredients that they used and the processes they used to cook them. A meal would involve two or three dishes plus rice. The Shabbat lunch meal was called T’bit or Hashwa. It was a whole hen, skinned and stuffed with rice and spices. This was cooked inside another kind of rice, in a big pan, for many hours. I have only a vague idea of the recipe (although Irit can make a good attempt at it). When I asked Julie what the spices were, she would only say that they were Arabic spices and she got them from her friend Keti.
This kind of dish, cooked slowly on the fire, is traditional because cooking is not allowed on Shabbat. So the dish is put on the fire on Friday evening and cooks slowly for maybe 20 hours. Another such dish (also a form of T’bit) was called Red Eggs. They were baked in the fire, and came out a browny red colour, and transformed in flavour. Served with fried aubergine slices and flat leaf parsley, it’s sublime. Of course, Julie didn’t have a fire, so she used a pressure cooker.
Along with this there would be chicken with carrots, or chicken and chick peas (of which more in a minute), and maybe Kubbeh, which was minced beef in a semolina shell. It might be cooked in a beetroot sauce (Red Kubbeh), or with courgettes or aubergines (White Kubbeh) which was made specially for me.
For special occasions there was Kubbeh Burghul, made with Bulgar wheat and deep fried. On one famous occasion Julie’s sister Gladys had made these for a party, and put them in the freezer. When Julie got them out, she didn’t know that Gladys hadn’t boiled them, which is a necessary part of the process, so she only fried them. They looked great on the table, but guests were breaking their teeth on them. “Julie, you are serving us concrete?”
These dishes involved a lot of work. Julie managed to make food for her parties (where there might easily be 100 guests) and she managed to heat it all up and serve it in their tiny kitchen. Weeks of work and several freezers were involved. And why did they buy a house with a tiny kitchen, when food was so central?
Josh, or Shoo-WA as Julie called him, didn’t talk a lot. He’d wake at 5 am, and sit in front of an electric fire, smoking and playing with worry beads, drinking tea, for hours. At weekends, he’d start cooking while everyone else was still in bed. You’d be woken by aromas drifting up from the kitchen, and know that you’d have to wait until mid-afternoon to eat the dishes that he was making. It was a mixture of ecstasy and agony.
One strand of cooking was called (by us, in English) Chicken-And. There was chicken and chickpeas, chicken and carrots, chicken and pumpkin. And others. All the dishes were variations on the same basic technique, where he would fry some onion with ground black pepper and then add the chicken to be sweated for a while before adding tomato puree and water. The sweating causes gentle burning of some of the fats and skin, which adds a rich background flavour to the dish. Throughout the cooking process, he would keep the pan tightly covered, so the intense flavours couldn’t escape. If you asked how it was done, he would simply say, “You cook e-slowly.” Julie would answer questions, but her explanations were incomprehensible. “You take onion, it’s cook itself.”
All their food had one special thing: intensity. The flavours were bold, rich. Josh had a way of making salad that transcended the normal. It was to do with the way he sliced onions and tomatoes, so fine, so accurately. And with a knife that was so old that most of the blade had worn away.
[Julie was intense in every way. If you said something to annoy her, she would scream “I kill you with knife!”, or “Cuss umuk”, meaning “Cunt of your mother”, which was particularly weird when she said it to one of her daughters. There were hundreds of these phrases, and she didn’t think about their meaning. “May you choke”, “there’s dirt on your face”, “your eye in her bottom.”]
The third influence on my cooking was my own dislike of arbitrary rules and authority. I’m not against all rules. I agree that people should not kill each other, or steal from each other (except in extreme circumstances). It’s where the rule has no point that I rebel. At Beaver Road School, where I developed my hate for institutional food, there was a rule that you couldn’t get a glass of water until you had finished your main course. I challenged this, and got into trouble. But it was obvious to me that this was arbitrary, and wrong. It was a great lesson for life.
In my early 20s I was sitting in a restaurant, and decided that I was going to eat everything. That all the prohibitions of the Jewish religion were not for me. Since then I have eaten most conventional foods. Except dog, and frogs legs. I think I have eaten insects but I am not keen on repeating the experience.
Maybe I haven’t tried to cook everything. There’s also a need for focus. So I try to combine exploration with a search for depth and intensity. New things are bound to go wrong. So I developed a repertoire of stuff that I know well, and I use this for when it matters. And when I experiment, and things go wrong, that’s all part of the learning process. It’s still edible, it’s not going to poison anyone. It may not be perfect but it’s OK.
So I try it again. For me, cooking is an intuitive skill. Most of the critical decisions are difficult to express. This is why cooking from recipes often fails. The required knowledge is gained by practice rather than study.
I will cook the same dish 100 times. Ask my family. They don’t seem to mind, mostly. It improves over time. And the family are really useful for feedback. Other people are too polite to tell me when something isn’t right.
In his post Ordinary Cooking Takes Courage Jonathan talks about learning to cook in our family.
By the way, for me, the idea of repertoire plus taking risks in development applies to most activities (writing, photography, playing music, dance, mathematics, programming, even sex). It may also apply to things that involve life and death (piloting a ‘plane, surgery) but here you have to remove the risk element. Which is why you don’t catch me flying a plane or performing surgery. And is also why pilots have flight simulators, and surgeons practise on cadavers.