About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Friday, May 16, 2008
Food Traditions
I was talking to my eldest daughter P, from a previous marriage, just after Easter and enquired as to whether she had enjoyed her Easter Sunday lunch. She replied not really and complained they always have the same things whenever her extended family get together. You know, things like tabbouli, kibbe - both raw and cooked, vine leaves, baba ganoush and many other dishes that are bringing a tear to my eye just thinking about them. Things that I would kill for to the extent that I've ashamedly even asked my kids to steal some from the table for me.

But I know what she means too. At my wife and her sister's Polish table, the same traditional dishes appear year after year. White barszcz, pierogi of all persuasions, potato or Polish vegetable salad, beetroot with horseradish and so on.

These traditional dishes are like insects that have been trapped and preserved unchanging in amber.

I tackled my wife about it after our Easter lunch, suggesting that perhaps we could try some new recipes to keep things fresh and alive, but she said that these are the dishes we have to have, they are a part of her - though she is pragmatic enough to discard the buying of the Christmas Eve carp and keeping it alive in the bath for the week before and as much as I like spit-roasted pig, I'm silently pleased that I don't have to cook one at Easter.

But I do get where my wife and every person who has left their country of birth is coming from. It is their connection to a culture left behind and brooks no changes because that is simply how they remember the past. It is like every immigrant carries a time capsule of the food of their country in their hearts and minds and to cook that food is a celebration of their homelands.

But food doesn't stand still anywhere. Just after Easter my wife was talking to her mum, who told her that they had tried some new dishes for lunch. The amber was broken. It hit me then, that a visitor from Poland invited to one of these lunches might take the view that the food, as good as it is, was old-fashioned, which seems to sum up how my daughter feels about the food at these occasions.

It is something you see time and again with ethnic restaurants, you go to one Greek restaurant for instance and you have pretty much been to them all, you know there is a formula; at the start, they catered to the homesick and other interested people just came along for the ride. But when was the last time you tried a new dumpling at yum-cha or Greg Malouf aside, saw new dishes at Middle Eastern restaurants?

Perhaps immigrants are caught between a rock and a new place. Which is understandable but a shame - I'm not the only one ready for the new.
  posted at 8:00 am

At 3:37 pm, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Ahh, that's a tough one Neil. We do like to have the same dishes on certain occasions but then we enjoy the new too. I like that caught between a rock and a new place. Good luck.

At 6:25 pm, Blogger t h e - g o b b l e r said...

Great post Neil-Food like language is always evolving, never static.
on eof the reason that I feel that some foods are so identifiable the world over is that they are a snapshot from the expatriates point of view, be it Naples 1955 or Saigon 1971.
This is the stregnth & weakness of national cuisines.
It is also the reason that we can refer to recipse with authority, saying what makes 'Alla Carbonara' for instance so.
In Oz, we are not bogged down by these boundaries & we 'Cherry pick' what takes our fancy.
This conversely is our great strength & our weakness.
It has also been on of the reasons why we dont have an instantly identifiable national food ID Photo.

At 11:30 pm, Blogger thanh7580 said...

Once again, you bring up another great point Neil. A lot of ethnic cuisine is sort of caught in a time warp. Like gobbler said, it's both a good thing and a bad thing.

Being Chinese, I know how frustrating it is to go to a Chinese restaurant and just always see the same dishes at every restaurant. I keep yelling out, "where is the originality". You can only eat beef black bean so many times. It's like the restaurants are caught in their own stereotype. Because other restaurants do those traditional dishes, it's like they think customers expect them to do the same.

I say you can keep some of the old, but please bring some new things as well.

At 11:46 am, Blogger Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Sometimes food is the tenuous thread that connects us to our past -- not just culture, but family, too. There are certain tastes you associate with certain people, certain places, certain times. What's best is to have both, the old and the new. And slowly, those "new" dishes will acquire some history and become part of your tradition, too.

At 2:26 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi tanna, there are some dishes I like too and am happy to have them again and again, but I like to try new ones too.

Hi gobbler, I know what you mean about our national cuisine, but I have some dishes to come that might help.

Hi thanh, balance is everything, give me a bit of both.

Hi lydia, I think those connections are important too. What I'm railing against is having the same dinner or lunch over and over again. One or two new dishes would make all the difference to me - and my daughter too. Funnily enough, when I asked one of my sons about it, he said he didn't care so long as the food was good.

At 1:21 am, Blogger Jeanne said...

This is a tough one. I have to agree with one of the previosu commenters that there are some foods I eat not because they are traditional South African, but because they hold personal memories for me, reminding me of people or a time in my life. It's unlikely I will ever give up on these. I also know that we had the same Christmas lunch (varying only the starter) from I was a kid until I was in my 30s. The first year we didn't have it (when my mom was already very ill) I was really unsettled and upset.

It's funny what you say about the time capsule effect - when we were still in SA, my mom-in-law berated Nick for the way he put down his cutlery between bites. She told him that this sort of thing would never be accepted in England. And then of course you get here and our very Victorian time capsule picture of English life (which is when England colonised SOuth Africa) is completely turned on its head. More people eating KFC on trains and swigging lager than giving a toss about how you pat down your cutlery! It was very amusing.

At 8:54 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi jeanne, I completely understand the link between food and personal memories and I'm not trying to untie it - just add some new links. It's interesting that you say you were unsettled by a change in your Christmas lunch and I suspect that's how my wife and her relations might feel too. For me, I'm happy to eat the traditional dishes, but have to admit to getting bored doing the same lunch or dinner over and over, but my pesrpective is different. The time capsule thing came from a conversation we had about the differences between the Poles in Poland and those living elsewhere and the conclusion was that Poles living overseas were perhaps more Polish than those at home.

At 12:09 pm, Blogger Deborah Dowd said...

Immigrant or no, food is so rooted in tradition. I know in our family for holidays and occasions, there are certain foods that simply must be on the table.And it is not us old fogeys, either- my kids are disappointed if I replace one of their favorites with something new.

At 12:12 am, Anonymous Elliot said...

Hi Neil
When it comes to celebrations like X'mas, Easter, Passover and so on I'm all for tradition. There are other occassions for adventure, variety, experiment and innovation. In the ethnic food situation I think it's a bit unfair to say one Grek or whatever, restaurant is more or less interchangeable with the next.
The variety is enormous, specially in Chinese and Japanese. The Press Club is a different Greek food experience and there are other examples.

At 10:40 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi deborah, don't get me wrong, I'm not against old favourites at all, but I always like to see a new dish make an appearance and a dining table can only hold so much.

Hi elliot, I think the reason that Greg Malouf and George Calombaris are so well known is that they hyave broken the mould in their interpretations of ethnic dishes and more power to them. There might be some variation in some of the courses between Greek or Lebanese restaurants for instance, but my experience is that alot of the same dishes crop up time and again. I went into Taco Bill the other day and not one thing has changed in twenty years.

At 3:47 pm, Blogger Ran said...

My family is exactly the same with xmas and easter and now that i have moved away from my home state, i really treasure going back and having the traditional arabic food at these occasions. I have always lived in Australia, but the arabic food I always ate in my childhood is now a source of comfort to me. Of course, when i still lived at home, I became very sick of arabic cuisine for dinner every night, and started cooking in a way to try to expand my mums repetiore and get some different meals. Now I am on my own, I eat different styles and cuisines every day and so really treasure going back to my 'traditions'. Maybe in 10 years time your daughter will begin to re-appreciate (is this a word?!) the cuisine like I have...

At 1:32 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi ran, the trouble for my daughter is her extensive list of cousins who all have birthdays and all the other life celebrations, it's not once or twice a year for her. But you're right about missing some foods, I definitely pine for vine leaves. That my kids no Middle Eastern food well was demonsrated to me last year when one of my sons scolded me for adding to much burghul to the tabouli! Damn, he was right too.


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