More books than cooks: writers on food
Henrietta McKervey, Rob Doyle, Danielle McLaughlin, Ian Duhig, Paula McGrath, Jo Spain and Martina Evans share favourite recipes and stories
Babette’s Feast: “I spend considerably more time reading about food than I do cooking it,” admits Paula McGrath
I’ve just realised: my characters don’t eat. They drink (lots). They smell food, they very occasionally mention it, but they never sit and eat a meal. Odd, that. This is probably because despite being vegetarian, I don’t think much about food. I’m not the sort of person who has lots of fantastic recipes (“oh this old thing, I just threw it together”). I do occasionally waste time designing a dinner menu made only from crisps (starter – prawn cocktail Skips; main course – roast chicken Walkers, with cheese’n’onion King on the side...). I’ve been flicking through The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Everything this week. Published in 1916, it was aimed at a generation of young British women suddenly fending for themselves – this was before the term “surplus women” came into play – and the recipe for New Potatoes (Boiled) appealed to me. The ingredients: New potatoes, salt. You can guess the rest.
Henrietta McKervey’s novels are What Becomes of Us and The Heart of Everything
You can’t beat a bowl of pho, the noodle soup that is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. I first tasted it while travelling in the country some years ago: little old ladies sell it from steaming pots on the streets of every city and village from Saigon to Halong Bay. It’s inexpensive, nourishing, comforting and delicious. I love the way the thin strips of beef are initially pink and raw, so that they cook within the broth while you eat it. Like the Vietnamese themselves, pho has spread around the world, so whenever I go to a new city, I source a decent place to get a bowl. In Dublin, there’s a fine little place on Parnell Street called Pho Viet – tell them Rob says hi.
Rob Doyle’s books are Here Are the Young Men and This is the Ritual
I recently read and loved Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. One of the things that lodged in my brain was Sofia’s bittersweet Amaretto cheesecake that is mentioned a few times in the novel. Amaretti biscuits, sweet amaretto liqueur, the bitter peel of Seville oranges: this is all I have to go on, ingredients-wise, but I think it’s enough to point me in the right general direction, so I plan to have a shot at baking it.
Danielle McLaughlin is the author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets
You know you’re getting old when tasting something new for the first time is a talking point for months afterwards. A few years ago, on a quiet, snowy night in New York, the husband and I were searching for a restaurant, any restaurant, after wandering off the beaten track. We stumbled upon a Peruvian place – Asian and Latin American fusion. I had Lomo Saltado for mains and have been making it ever since.
It’s a simple recipe – get your hands on a hanger cut of steak and marinate in garlic, red onion, pisco, red wine vinegar and soy sauce. Fry the meat and marinade quickly and add a tin of tomatoes, more vinegar, soy sauce and seasoning to taste (I fling in some chilli too). Serve with jasmine rice and home-made string fries and enjoy.
Jo Spain’s latest thriller is Beneath the Surface
Recently I was commissioned to write something for the Alice in Wonderland 150th anniversary celebrations and chose for my subject Pat, who answers when his boss the White Rabbit calls, “Sure then I’m here! Digging for apples, yer honour.” I felt a kinship with Pat, given the same name as my Emly uncle; the first time over at six, I wondered at the way in his Edenic garden he conjured golden potatoes from what in London I called “dirt”, and asked if he could dig me up an apple while he was at it. My request soon became locally proverbial not only for my metropolitan gormlessness, but more for how quickly a meaningful world can be lost by emigration.
What I never lost was my taste for Irish apples, as Victorians called them. At the table, Paddy’s seemed to burst open in their urgent desire to be slathered with butter and marvelled at. Later, I developed a variant of ratatouille with them I call Patatouille and still believe it superior to its Provençal relative; in Paris I ate chips a friend assured me would be the best I’ve tasted and she had a point, but I felt uncomfortable about them being fried in horse fat.
Anyway, in his book Frying Tonight, Gerald Priestland declares Leeds had “a fair chance of being the intellectual capital of fish and chips” and I’d agree with that as a poet, naturally. The best baked potatoes I ever ate were in a south Leeds factory with an industrial oven for fixing new brake-linings to their shoes: in a break, spuds took a couple of minutes for their skins to crisp and the lush flesh to feather; then you hollowed them a little to add an egg under a dollop of butter for the last few seconds, just long enough for the yolk to be “snotty” as local connoisseurs described the sought-after texture. The result looked like votive offerings to Eostre.
Michael Longley invokes the life-celebrating magic surrounding this supremely nourishing vegetable in a poem where he imagines feeding the Warsaw Ghetto with “My delivery of Irish Peace, Beauty of Hebron, Home / Guard, Arran Banners, Kerr’s Pinks”.
Of all preparation methods, mash most embodies such concentrated vitalism and for this there’s no beating stampy using brandy, flour and sugar, with an aphrodisiac reputation people remained sceptical about even when I could play them its anthem, Amhrán an Steampaí. Mash allows you to express yourself; a pan of it is like a blank page I somehow know will make a decent poem even I can’t screw up. Oysters, scallions, pancetta, hummus, pesto, boursin, turmeric – all work for some people while back in the ’60s, my sister would grind up her diet pills and mix them into her husband’s mash when she wanted him to paint the house: in no time at all he would be running around like the White Rabbit. Use your imagination!
Ian Duhig’s latest collection is The Blind Roadmaker
My sister Bernadette introduced me to “real” curries at The Maharajah restaurant in Cork in 1975. It was good value even then – £1.20 for a four-course meal and sophisticated After Eights at the end to round you off. I thought it was the last word. We entered at the end of a covered parade called Market Parade – Indian music, mysterious wooden screens, dark handsome waiters running to serve us – I’d never witnessed such beautiful manners and smiles in my life. We’d already called into the Indian shop four doors up and cheesecloth tops, caftans, scarves and wooden boxes full of patchouli, sandalwood and jasmine oil filled the rustling bags beside us.
There weren’t that many Indian restaurants in Ireland in the ’80s but I worked in a hospital so the Indian doctors were generous with their food and recipes, bringing in delicious treats made by themselves or their wives. I began making my own curry then, using whole spices and they were good but nothing like curry from an Indian home where the women turn out fresh bread at the speed of lightning along with all the other dishes. That’s what I love about Indian food – the luxurious spread of dishes and bread and rice and chutneys – the sense of ceremony.
One hot, thundery June evening when I was working at the Mater, I was invited to the Drumcondra home of a surgical registrar from Pakistan for a memorable Indian meal. Delicious torture in fact – gobbling guiltily as the women of the house laid dish after dish before us. We didn’t realise at first that they were abstaining themselves until sundown because of Ramadan but they were determined that we should dine at 7pm. When I admired their traditional clothes, I was given a gift of a gorgeous dull-purple silk salwar kameez. Protests were useless. I can still taste that tamarind chutney and those hot, flaky parathas. I’ve been trying to recreate that chutney for years and I’ve never managed those heights, although my own tamarind chutney is the secret to the sweet sourness of the Chana Masala recipe below.
Arriving in north London in the late ’80s, I was in curry-making heaven. Everything was available and usually at the corner shop: fresh ginger, fresh coconut, green bananas, fresh coriander. I continued my experiments. Most of the staff in at the Whittington Hospital were Indian or Pakistani so the food at the parties was very good. Many of the radiographers belonged to the Jain sect – strict vegetarians and very inventive with their recipes, which I wrote down on the back of Kodak identification slips as we hung over the hot processors, waiting for our X-rays to be developed. I don’t like desserts or sweets normally but I have a mouth-watering memory of the pink green and yellow “sweetmeats” which Zia brought in to celebrate the birth of his daughter around that time.
By the turn of the century, I’d moved on to Middle Eastern foods and I was eating lots and lots of salads. I almost forgot about curries until about five years ago when my student Fahima Sahabdeen introduced me to her seriously delicious Sri Lankan cooking – hoppers (pancakes made with red rice flour), cashew nut curry, devilled cashew nuts and my favourite side dish Pol Sambol, a fiery, salty, garlicky chutney made with fresh coconut.
I have never been able to master the hopper although I can make cashew curry and Sri Lankan dal, flavoured with toasty pandan leaves but Pol Sambol is my favourite single dish. Recently we’ve been eating it with Chana Masala (even though it is a North Indian dish), Sri Lankan dal, homemade coriander chutney, caramelised onion pulao and Sainsbury’s flatbread. So definitely not a purist spread but a spread nevertheless and sumptuous to us at least.
This recipe has been adapted from a cookery book called Vegan Eats the World by Terry Hope Romero, a present from Fahima. It’s a magic book for me, I’m always finding new things to make and Romero’s recipes work very well. She includes several recipes for homemade curry powders and garam masalas which are not that hard to make once you gather all your ingredients together. They are well worth the extra time as they make such a difference to the flavour of the curry. It is a good idea to make this curry ahead of time so that the flavours develop and it can last for up to three days.
When I was at the Whittington, the Indian radiographers put leftover chickpea curry instead of cheese in their sandwich maker toasties and they came out really nice – like a toasted bread samosa. So that’s something else you can do with it. I think some people added grated cheese and more chilli powder. A jar of chilli powder for sprinkling always sat beside the salt and pepper in the staff room.
3 tins chickpeas drained
2 tins chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 large red onions sliced thinly into half moons
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 inch of fresh ginger
1 inch of fresh turmeric
2 green chillies
1 teaspoon salt
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons of tamarind (chutney homemade if possible – this can be replaced with lime juice or pomegranate molasses)
1. Toast the fenugreek, coriander and cumin over a medium heat for approx. 90 seconds – the seeds should have darkened slightly and become fragrant. Grind to a fine powder in a coffee grinder.
2. Make a paste with the garlic, turmeric, chilli, ginger and salt. I do this with a hand blender in a plastic container.
3. Fry the onion until transparent and then add the ginger and garlic paste and fry for three more minutes.
4. Sprinkle in the ground spices and fry for one minute.
5. Then add the tomatoes, bay leaves, tamarind chutney and simmer for five minutes.
6. Add the drained chickpeas and simmer for another 30 minutes.
7. Sprinkle with chopped fresh coriander before serving
Fahima‘s Pol Sambol
I only make this for special occasions when I have time because it is slow, hard work creating the fresh grated coconut but it makes all the difference. And once you’ve grated the coconut, the rest is easy. It freezes really well too.
1 whole coconut cracked, peeled and grated
4 cloves of minced garlic
2 or more green chillies chopped finely
10 whole fresh curry leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh black pepper
Juice of one lime
2 tomatoes chopped finely
Mix everything together and try to stop eating it by the spoonful.
Martina Evans is a poet and writer. The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet
My children cured me of any foolish attempts to get fancy in the kitchen, and I spend considerably more time reading about food than I do cooking it. The Debt to Pleasure, The Dinner, Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate: I devoured them all, pun intended, gobbled them up, along with Bloom’s gorgonzola sandwich and glass of burgundy, and Proust’s madeleine for dessert.
But the food book which has had the biggest, and most lasting impact on me was Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. When Mary Robinson recently encouraged more people to give up meat to help fight climate change, she was continuing the conversation Lappé started; all the way back in 1971, she was the first to argue that vegetarianism was best for the Earth and our bodies. I bought my copy in the early nineties, in the Long Beach bookshop where I worked. I had spontaneously stopped eating meat, and Lappé’s book explained why it was a good idea, and contained simple rules and recipes for a healthy vegetarian diet. It changed the way I ate for good.
I couldn’t find my copy – we’re mid-renovations here – but I’m certain it contains a recipe for dahl, some variation of which I’ve been cooking ever since. It’s a funny go-to comfort food for an Irish woman, but once or twice a week, more in winter, I cook up a batch, or defrost a tub for lunch, and equanimity is instantly restored. It’s a bowlful of warm, nourishing soupiness, with something for all the senses, and it’s fast, and very, very cheap to make.
Here’s the recipe I use: Put a couple of sievefuls of washed lentils (red, green, brown or a mix) into a saucepan and cover with cold water. Add a pinch of asafoetida (anti-fart powder!), and a good teaspoon of turmeric for a nicer colour. Simmer, allowing the lentils to absorb the water. Keep topping up the water until the lentils are soft.
Meanwhile, chop up two courgettes and fry in a bit of oil. Add a fistful each of fenugreek and cumin seeds, and a heaped teaspoon of chili powder. Add the courgettes and spices to the lentils. Season. Serve with rice.
Paula McGrath is the author of Generation. Her second novel, A Difficult History, is forthcoming in 2017