Growing up we were a solid "Meat and three vegetable" family. Being from Irish stock, it might well be encoded into our family DNA. There are some things from the old family menu that I still crave and indulge in - Shepherd's Pie, with lamb of course, a Roasted Chicken, or a leg of Lamb or Pork for dinner on Sunday evening are all special treats. But growing up in an Australia awash in multi-cultural influences on food and wine opened my eyes, ears, nose and mouth to how much more there was to experience with food and wine.
After I moved out of home to share a place with a friend in Balmain, I had the raw curiosity for new aromas, textures and flavours but little experience or confidence to prompt my own experimentation. That we are not taught the basics of how to cook as a simple survival skill is a scandal that I'll leave simmering on the burner for some other time.
Balmain itself and inner west of Sydney around it had, and still has, a strong and competitive restaurant and cafe culture. I ate Indian and Thai, Japanese and Chinese, Malaysian and Polynesian, Moroccan and Italian, Greek and Lebanese. I also ate at many fusion restaurants where classifying the food was beyond my small but growing vocabulary.
When I moved from Sydney to Seattle I adjusted to the short winter days and the misty rainfall without too much trouble. But the food was a little more challenging. My first visit to a supermarket in this country involved a 45 minute investigation to get a breakfast cereal that was fairly healthy and might taste good. Restaurant food in Seattle seemed strangely homogenized compared to my experiences in Sydney. Asian and Indian food especially so.
Looking for a delicious hot laksa was an exercise in futility.
Trying to explain to friends here what I felt was missing led to a new problem.
Me: "Food here seems dumbed down, overwrought somehow..."
Them: "What do you mean?"
Me: "I'm not sure, it's just different from home."
Them: "Well, what is Australian food like?"
I suddenly realized that I didn't have any idea how to explain or describe the Australian cuisine. This preyed on my mind for several months until one day I was browsing the gargantuan book tables at a local Costco warehouse. I found a book that purported to be an Australian cookbook. Discovering these supposedly Australian products usually begins an hilarious episode of mocking and chortling that earns us surprised stares from other shoppers. To whit, the popular and entirely fictional "Australian Toaster Biscuit" which is wrong in so many ways.
This time was different. As I leafed through the book, I realized that the recipes had been collected from famous restaurants around the country and as they went through the regions and talked about the influences of immigration, the freshness, zest and fun of Australian food and cooking crystallized in my mind. Despite it being one of the prettiest and glossiest cookbooks I'd ever seen, I bought it. The first thing I made from it was a Sticky Toffee Date Pudding that reminded me of a Ginger Pudding with Caramel sauce that I used to get from Caffe Troppo in the dead of Sydney's winter. And lo, it was very good.
Now I'm all over the map. I am a big fan of complexity and spicyness of any Asian and Indian cooking and of the richness and simplicity of French cooking. A holiday in Oregon is likely to involve as much time in the cookbook section at Powells as we might spend at any winery in the Willamette Valley.
I even prefer to make key staples in the kitchen myself. Curry and stir fry pastes, dry spice mixes, stocks and oils. My touchstones here are Christine Manfield's tome Spice and it's younger, slimmer and more accessible sibling, Stir. While there is some overlap in the recipes between the two, but both are essential in our kitchen. Stir is easier to work through and more focused on illustrating the many different dishes that can be made from a single preparation. Ironically, I had already gone through Spice with a pencil noting all the dishes that could be made from each preparation at the bottom of each recipe.
Christine is a taskmaster who seems well suited to my own perfectionist drives. Some of her recipes require several other preparations to complete, but I find the results so fresh and flavourful that I'm always willing to make the effort. She has a justifiable insistence on fresh whole spices as a starting point. The beauty of these pastes, oils and spice mixes is that for a small amount of effort in advance you can use them any time to make an excellent meal. Usually in less than 30 minutes.
Wet preparations in permanent rotation in our kitchen are Chili Jam, Paramount Curry paste, Thai Green Curry paste, Massaman Curry paste, Nonya Spice paste, Laksa paste, and Black Pepper and Lemongrass stir fry paste. Dry preparations include Kashmiri korma, Paramount Garam masala, Madras Curry powder, Chinese Five spice, and Chinese spice salt. This gives us the building blocks for a variety of great meals and the freedom to decide what we'll make based on what is fresh and in season at the market.
As I look back, I have traveled a long way from my roots. The food I thought was pre-ordained in my DNA has been fused with the heady aromas and flavours of India and Asia.
Now I'm just left wondering what the next evolution will be.