Today is my Dad’s birthday. If he was still alive he’d be 76.
My father always felt a prisoner of our colonial heritage. He had a few soft spots for the things in his childhood that evoked happy moments. Digging for cockles and pipis at low tide then cooking them immediately over an open fire.
Mushrooms still cold from a frosty Nelson field, fried with bacon and tomatoes for breakfast. Kawhai caught on an early morning tide, gutted beside the sea, delicately coated in flour, browned in butter and eaten hot from the pan. All fresh, foraged and flavour filled.
University found him embedded in the International Club, a group of students from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Italy and Spain. He found their cultures and cuisines fascinating and liberating. His taste buds revelled in their new found freedom. He lapped up the opportunity to learn how to use ingredients like ginger, garlic, fish sauce and chilli.
It was the beginning of a fascinating journey into the pleasures of the palate that existed, literally until his dying day.
It’s hard to reconcile New Zealand in the 1970’s with the vibrant multicultural country it is today. You couldn’t buy pasta, unless you count heavy Polish kluski noodles. There were few foreign restaurants, and if you wanted wine with your meal, you ate in a hotel.
But in our kitchen there was an adventure happening. Beef Dopiazah, Kashmiri Rogan Josh, Beef Rendang, Hungarian Pork Goulash, Beef Stroganoff (had to find a use for those Kluskis!); all cooked in vast quantities and frozen for convenient, easy to prepare meals on weeknights.
My earliest sensory memory coincides with our journey to India. Not literally but via a seminal kiwi text: Trouper Coopers Curry book, penned by the itinerant yet glamourous globetrotter, Terence Cooper. Where most Kiwis thought the story began and ended with curry powder, Terrence took us on a journey across India. No herb, no spice, no story left untold.
We had a dedicated pantry for my father’s meticulously stored and labelled collection of herbs and spices, all raw and ready for the conflagration into his garam masalas, Sambhar masalas and madras pastes. My mother complained that the asafoeitda gave her a headache, but to me it was an olfactory wonderland.
So potent were these spices, many had to be stored in boxes lined with foil lest their pungency and oil eat away at the Tupperware! To my father and me it was our sweet shop.
Everything he made was subject to analysis and review. Every meal had to earn its right of return and no recipe could not be improved upon. What he taught me was to seek flavour, to isolate the richness, the sourness, the sharpness.
To ask has this enough depth? How can it be made more complex, richer, more fragrant? In short he helped me develop a palate. He helped me see food as a matrix of sensory synergies. He taught me how to eat.
Because if you cannot eat, you cannot cook.
If we become lodged in nostalgia we close ourselves to opportunity and the future. For the future is where the next adventure lies; and the next wonderful meal and the next glass of superlative wine. Sadly for me however the debate over whether more cumin would have helped and how much salt is too much, is silent.
Thank you for everything Daddy. For every wonderful meal. For setting me on a lifetime’s journey to eat and create and wring the pleasure out of every mouthful. Every day.