Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.
This month: Joanna despairs over the modern inability to enjoy the simple foods in expat life.
UPDATE: Due to popular request after this post first went live, Joanna has included her recipe for the Beef and Guinness Pie she made for her St. Patrick’s Day party. Read on!
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“It’s a bit samey,” said The Husband as he cast his eye over this latest piece. “Just you telling everyone how we ex-pats are up our own arses over food.”
Fair point — but I can’t help grinding the same old axe. I think that there is a lot of up-arseness the world over when it comes to food. Am I alone in being so irritated by people who call themselves “foodies” as though there is some sort of originality in their love of eating?
The truth is everyone loves good food, but not everyone is lucky enough to get it that often. Have you ever met someone who smugly tells you that they have expensive tastes, as though no one else has ever wanted an Aston Martin or a Chanel suit? The very reason these things are desirable is because they are expensive and out of the reach of most. “Foodyism” isn’t much different. “Foodies” are just a bunch of people trying hard to be special, but they’re no different from anyone else.
The sad result is that we have lost the confidence to love regular everyday food that speaks, truly speaks, of the place where we find ourselves.
Drizzle with pomegranate coulis. Post photo to Facebook. Serve immediately.
It’s the same the world over. No one cooks simple food for one another anymore. If we cook, it has to be restaurant worthy, or at least it has to look it. Those who can’t cook that way get hopelessly behind and become the kind of people who never invite back for a reciprocal dinner at their place.
The more cookery programmes there are on our screens, the less we cook. These shows present cooking in a way that sets us up for failure. Recipes and presentation are so dauntingly complicated that often we don’t bother at all. When we do successfully follow a complicated recipe, we are so proud of ourselves that we post photos of it on Facebook (along with other irritating posts charting our kids’ successful routes to medical school.) We know it annoys others but we just can’t help it. “Look at me! look at me!”
The expat is particularly prone to Food Narcissism. It’s just too easy and too tempting to show off unusual items we have seen in far-flung places. Or the exotic meals eaten in little places we have found in some unfashionable part of town. No one back home is going to know that the food stall we just happened upon has been featured in KL Expat Today, or Foreign Workers in Caracas, or some such publication.
Gosh, I even irritate myself and it takes an intolerable level of smugness to be able to annoy yourself.
Comfort food shouldn’t be a source of discomfort
A few weeks ago I decided to get in touch with my Irish side and host a St Patrick’s day party. I agonized for a long time over what to serve. Many of my guests surprised me by not knowing what St Patrick’s Day celebrations entail. There was even a soupçon of concern over where to find green cocktail frocks, which only served to intensify my preoccupation with the menu. Although I reassured my guests that they were to wear anything green that they could find at home and were absolutely not to go out and buy a fancy frock, I realized I too was complicating what should be a fun and easy supper. It was horrible to realize that I was afraid to serve Irish food in case it was too simple and that my cooking might be seen as a bit dull, basic even. There I was, actually trying to tart up the Irish recipes to a degree where they would be indistinguishable from French ones. Little piles of salmon on delicate rounds of soda and individual servings of boxty (a sort of Irish rosti) piled up and garnished with drizzles of sauce.
It was in dealing with the matter of the emerald-green silk dress hunt that I realized where my own lack of confidence in real food was landing me. How ridiculous. Instead of serving simple and comfortable food, I was trying to turn it into something fancy.
The question hung in my mind in Green, Orange and White letters: “Why?”
Giving myself a metaphorical slap around the chops, I got a grip, squared my shoulders, and returned to basics. I would serve the food I grew up with. Irish Stew, Soda bread with salmon, and Beef and Guinness pie.
Oh all right, not the pie. My mother wasn’t keen on making pastry at all, citing hot hands as her excuse, but actually we all knew she would rather settle down to a glass of Guinness and watch a simple stew take shape than hand-make pastry. But the rest, you get my meaning. The memories flooded back. The stew in a big, cream enamel pan on the hob, the warm soft “stocklike” aroma of cooking lamb on its bone with plain old carrots and potato punched up with plenty of pepper, white pepper, and of course the resulting condensation on the kitchen windows.
Culinary childhood in a bowl.
When in Rio, shop and cook as the Cariocas do
We expats often live behind a two-way glass where we do not socialize with the people around us. Barriers — language, cultural, time, work — impede us. Yet the rare glimpses into the everyday life of the places where we live create the most special and evocative moments. Food produces some of the strongest memories. Memories of great restaurants are one thing, but home cooking is another thing altogether, being a part of the fabric of everyday life.
I was lucky enough to have a maid when I lived in Brazil. At the time I thought I was lucky to have someone to help with the housework and kids, but in retrospect, I realize that she represented so much more than that. She made a Maria-shaped hole in the glass I lived behind, bringing some of the everyday world of a Carioca (someone born in Rio) into my kitchen. Every Monday, Maria would arrive ready to cook up a few days’ supply of black beans. These shiny black nuggets were blasted soft in a pressure cooker, then cooked with onions, a large pile of garlic and a few bay leaves then cooked long and slowly into rich and satisfying stew.
The secret to getting a great flavor into these beans is the addition of salted pork extremities to the mix. Ears, trotters, tails, you name it, are all used. As they break down in the cooking they have a thickening effect too. I had seen great piles of waxy, white and vaguely familiar items in the meat sections of supermarkets, but had given them a wide berth. Under Maria’s tutelage, I got over my silliness and grew to appreciate their value as they became an intrinsic part of my shopping list.
The best times were when couve was available. Couve, or collard greens, deep green palm-like leaves, which she would roll up and finely slice and stir fry with garlic and seasoning and nothing else. A pharmacist once told me that folic acid isn’t really needed for expectant mums in Brazil. The combination of the beans with the couve produces a cocktail of minerals easily absorbable by the body and priceless in reducing the risk of spin bifida. Is there anything not to love in Brazil’s national dish?
The black bean memory doesn’t include a fancy restaurant to boast of. No little food stall tucked away in the back of a very “local” area of town. Here was just a woman producing basic home food with the intention of filling an empty belly until the next day. These memories are more evocative of life in Rio to me know than my endless photos of Christ the Redeemer or Sugar Loaf Mountain. Maria made my experience of the place.
Cooking is for life, not just for Instagram
So, despite all my talk, I haven’t been able to circumvent the curse of expat “showing offness”. For what I seem to be saying is that anyone can book a couple of weeks in Rio and see the sights on a safe and comfortable air-conditioned bus tour, but to have really experienced the place you need memories akin to the memories of childhood. Maybe; or perhaps the truth is a little kinder? Simple home cooking is an everyday experience. There is no need to photograph it or put it on Facebook because it happens all the time. It’s as common as teeth-cleaning or walking the kids to school. Because of that, we experience it directly and fully, since we are not watching from behind the tiny lens of a camera, video, or smartphone. Instead, it is the comfortable and expansive background of life which seeps into us, unnoticed, to become a collection of memories; memories that can be triggered by a kitchen aroma, or by the way a woman holds a knife to crush a bulb of garlic.
After all, if a plate of madeleines inspired seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, perhaps I can be forgiven for the sameness of my own little bits of writing.
“So,” I expect you are asking, “how did the Irish food go down?”
Well — since you ask — rather well, actually. All eaten and, I hope, enjoyed, particularly the beef and Guinness pie. It a good thing that hot-hands skipped a generation. So I raise my glass of black velvet (Guinness and Champagne – a disaster for both drinks, but much fun) to simple home cooking. Slap a pan of stew on your tables, and put out a couple of bumper size pies and let everyone dig in.
I, for one, will be repeating the experience.
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Beef and Guinness Pie My Way
(“My Way” includes metric measures — if you prefer to measure in cups or ounces, this conversion website will be useful.)
First make a beef and Guinness stew. This needs to be done a day in advance.
- 1kg grams stewing beef
- 30 grams flour
- 2 tbsp oil
- 2 large chopped onion
- 2 large chopped carrot
- 500 ml of Guinness
- 300 ml of stock – a good homemade beef stock will pay you dividends
- but water will do if needs must.
- Handful of stoned prunes, chopped finely (finely) these will add depth of flavor but, ideally, not change the texture of the stew.
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper
- Cut meat into 2.5cm cubes and roll in seasoned flour.
- Heat oil and quickly sear the meat in batches putting the sealed meat on a plate to one side.
- Heat a little more oil and add onion to pan. Cook slowly and gently until the onions almost caramelize
- Return the meat to the pan and add any left over flour with the carrots, Guinness, stock and bay leaves.
- Bring the whole to a boil then cover and simmer for two hours. Traditionally this would have been cooked on the hob, but I think it is easier to pop the stew into a casserole with the lid firmly in place and cook at 140°C or 275°F for at two hours. At this point add the prunes, stir well, recover and cook for a further half hour or until the stew is thick.
- When the stew is ready, remove from the oven and wait until it is cool enough to place in the refrigerator overnight.
I used to make a puff pastry for this pie, but I recently tried a Nigella Lawson recipe for pastry, which she gives for her chicken pot pie. It is a firm textured, but buttery pastry, which is ideal for a robust beef pie.
- 375 grams of plain flour (all-purpose)
- 226 grams of cold butter
- 3 eggs (one will be used for gluing and glazing purposes only)
(This mixture will make two medium size pies or one large one. I like to make a double quantity and freeze for another time.)
- Put the flour and cubed butter into a metal tray and shake to evenly distribute it over the metal surface. Place in the freezer to chill for 10 minutes (Nigella exhorts us not to skip this stage since this is the step that makes the pastry so easy to handle and so delicate. She’s so right!
- While the pastry is chilling, beat two of the eggs with two tablespoons of cold water and place in the fridge.
- Next, place the flour and butter into a processor and pulse until you have a fine mixture. Do this quickly, don’t be tempted to overwork the mixture as the texture will suffer. Add the eggs while the processor works until the mixture starts forming a ball, then stop.
- Now you can divide the dough into two, press flat, cover with cling film and chill.
This mixture will make two medium size pies or one large one. I like to make a double quantity and freeze for another time.
Putting it Together
This is the part I like most, putting my homespun stew between two sheets of the Divine Ms Lawson’s pastry. I have yet to become bored by the idea.
- So, roll out the pastry to line whichever tins you wish to use. Please do use metal dishes, as you will neatly side-step the problem of a soggy bottom.
- Fill with the cold stew.
- Use the remaining egg to seal together the bottom and top of the pie and to brush the top.
- Place on a metal tray in an oven pre-heated to 200°C (400°F) for 20 minutes. You can protect your pie from burning, until the last minute, with foil, or you can pop it in naked and white-knuckle it.
I really hope you enjoy it!
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Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”
Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission