The pleasure of food
I have always been passionate about food. In fact, enjoyment of food has been a cornerstone of my life. I recognised the signs early on when I didn’t come off the bottle (alas, breastfeeding was out of vogue at the time) until I was about four years old — and I made quite a commotion about it even then. That warm, white milk was obviously a sensual and nourishing experience. Later, I remember a wonderful meal my mother used to make for me: warm, runny soft-boiled eggs mashed with torn, crustless fresh white bread, the merest splash of milk and salt and pepper.
Ah, food … a heady mix of psychological spells wound up in tasty matter. Foods that comfort us, foods that excite us and foods that calm us down. Our palate and our attachment to certain foods are, I think, born of a time when we inhabited a yeasty, humid world of milk sops and wet nappies. Texture is of the utmost importance when discovering dishes that provide sensual happiness: viscous soups and sauces, gooey eggs and soft, steaming scoops of mashed potato, or balls of sweetened sticky rice and slippery steamed dim sum.
Eating is pleasure. Is it a universal primary motivation? Or is it simply the avoidance of pain? Is satisfaction of hunger the end of the matter? Or do we seek that satiation by choosing what we like to put in our mouth? Are the pursuit of pleasure and sensual gratification inextricably linked with our need for nourishment? Babies must have comfort and must be touched to survive and thrive to adulthood. Food, in my opinion, is not just fuel and not simply the sum of its parts. It’s more than a list of kilojoules, fats, carbs and proteins. Like love, it must be made pleasurable to do its work well.
Greek philosopher Epicurus (BC 341-270) said: "The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together. The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless, the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life." Perhaps Oscar Wilde put it more succinctly when he said, "Pleasure is the only thing to live for."
Has my passionate relationship with food ever got out of hand? Oh yes. I was a fat child for a couple of years, and I paid the price with my slim, bordering on acetic, father ridiculing me whenever he could about my weight. Lolly addiction was a real problem for me at that time, as my mother, who didn’t enjoy making cut lunches, would give me 40 cents tuckshop money and I’d spend it at the corner shop on a large white paper bag stuffed with mixed lollies. I would share these with my best friend and he would give me half of his lunch, which consisted of sliced white bread sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. So you see, my romance with eating flourished a long time ago. Trips to the dentist, despite all that fluoride in the water, were all too common.
Can you remember the power of the lolly? Or do you have children who have reignited your obsession with these sugary jewels and their startling variety of colours, shapes and flavours? Surely these are the building blocks of eating pleasure: milk bottles, musk sticks, bananas, sherbets, cobbers, raspberries, snakes, jelly babies … just to name a few.
I remember going to visit my grandfather who was a doctor and lived in another state. He had a huge jar of jelly babies on top of the fridge. I thought this was great as we didn’t have anything like this at home — and he was a doctor, after all. Such was the alluring power of the lolly that it permeated even the higher levels of society.
Later, working in a liquor store, I discovered a similar phenomenon, this time for adults. Shiny bottles of spirits and wines were their lolly equivalents. I could feel the suppressed excitement as they fingered the bottles and read the colourful labels with tiny gold and silver medals stuck to them. Alcoholics, drug addicts and sugar fiends — we’re all dependent on the balance between indulging our appetites and controlling them. The Buddha said, "All life is suffering and suffering is caused by desire."
What about the neurological pleasure systems in the brain? Michael A. Bozarth of University of New York’s Department of Psychology says, "Neurological research has identified a biological mechanism mediating behavior motivated by events commonly associated with pleasure in humans. These events are termed ‘rewards’ and are viewed as primary factors governing normal behavior. The subjective impact of rewards (eg pleasure) can be considered essential (eg Young, 1959) or irrelevant (eg Skinner, 1953) to their effect on behavior, but the motivational effect of rewards on behavior is universally acknowledged by experimental psychologists.
"Motivation can be considered under two general rubrics — appetitive and aversive motivation. Appetitive motivation concerns behavior directed toward goals that are usually associated with positive hedonic processes; food, sex and wine are three such goal objects. Aversive motivation involves escaping from some hedonically unpleasant condition; the pain from a headache, the chill from a cold winter’s night are among the list of conditions that give rise to aversive motivation."
Hedonism, then, appears to be something we should all understand. The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary defines hedonism as "belief in pleasure as the highest good and mankind’s proper aim". Personally, I have long been a big fan of hedonism. However, I was brought up in a Christian/Presbyterian household, where hedonism was given a pretty bad name, so it was necessary to throw off the shackles of wowserism and embark singlemindedly on the pursuit of pleasure. In this kind of giving to yourself, you grasp the true meaning of "charity begins at home" — and in my case, the kitchen.
I find that one of the most fulfilling aspects of cooking is making up new dishes. If I cook every day for hundreds of people, as I have done, and make batches of the same dishes, it’s in my nature to want to break out and try something different. When I had my own little restaurant/takeaway shop, I found pleasure in novelty and variety. I had one particular customer who by tacit arrangement would take whatever I could challenge myself to come up with — a dish or plate created right then and there with no prior thought. As luck would have it, he would often arrive at the busiest possible time. I would be swearing, sweating and smiling, making haste with the pans. Usually the result would be rather good and, although I was often frazzled by the experience, it was ultimately rewarding. Creativity can be a hard task master, especially when you operate out of chaos.
So you see, food has always been important to me, although I didn’t realise it when I first began cooking professionally, as I thought it would be something I’d do until I found my true vocation. Cooking was not the glamorous job it’s perceived to be these days. Then it was just another trade, but I found it to be a very satisfying one. Once you mastered technique, you could be creative. Each day, I would challenge myself to come up with new and diverse dishes. In my regular trips to the produce markets I came across vegetables I’d never seen or even heard of. What do you do with kasava, for instance?
Well, here’s one from Africa to get you started…
3 cups (2lb) grated kasava or manioc root
1 cup shredded frozen fresh young coconut
1 12oz jar of macapuno balls
1/3 cup evaporated milk
1 14oz can unsweetened coconut milk
1/3 cup whole milk
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
1 tbsp melted butter
Mix together all ingredients and bake in a buttered 9x13in pan for 2 hours at 180 degrees celcius.
Sudha’s Baked Spinach Pie
2 bunches field spinach, washed, bottom stalks removed
2 medium brown onions, diced
1/2 cup strong white wine
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups fresh ricotta
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
2 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/2 cup fresh oregano, chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped
12 sheets filo pastry
1/2 cup melted butter
squeeze of lemon juice or quarter of preserved lemon
Saute onion, garlic and spices in olive oil until translucent, cook wine in before setting aside. Steam or blanch spinach until just done, immerse in cold water to stop the cooking process and then gently wring out excess water and chop into smaller segments, adding a squeeze of lemon juice or a teaspoon of finely sliced preserved lemon rind. In a large bowl mix together spinach, cheeses, egg, herbs, walnuts and onion saute, and add salt and pepper to taste. I often add a little splash of good-quality soy sauce. In a suitable baking dish, spoon out the filling before laying on sheets of filo pastry, brushing every second one with melted butter. Bake until golden brown in a moderate to hot oven. Serves 6-8.
Pumpkin & Pistachio Nut Soup
1 ripe butternut pumpkin, peeled & chopped
2 large brown onions
1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 cinnamon quill
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 cup pistachio nuts, peeled and sliced
2 cups chicken stock or strong vegie stock
2-3 cups purified water
1 cup watercress
1 cup pouring cream (optional)
In a large heavy-based saucepan saute onions, garlic, ginger and spices in olive oil until translucent, adding wine a few minutes before the mix is done. Add pumpkin and stock and cover with water and continue to simmer for at least 40 minutes. In a blender, process remaining ingredients with the cooked pumpkin and onion mixture, leaving the cream to be whisked in by hand at the end. Serve with a sprig of watercress, a sprinkle of the sliced pistachios, a dob of sour cream and fresh black pepper.
These will fill your house with an irresistible aroma. Hedonistic terrorists could use it in their battle against the forces of parsimony. This operation will take a considerable time and consumes quite a bit of electricity or gas, so you get maximum slowfood brownie points. I recommend you do a big batch at one time to conserve energy and because they are so delicious you’ll kick yourself if you only do a few.
Lots of cherry tomatoes or small romas
Nob of garlic, finely sliced
Bunch of fresh rosemary
Bunch of fresh oregano
Bunch of fresh marjoram
Salt & pepper
Set oven really low (round 80 degrees Celsius). Slice tomatoes in half or quarters depending on size (smaller is quicker), place on baking trays and sprinkle with finely sliced garlic, chopped herbs and salt and pepper, and bake, or dry, for around eight hours. Serve on fresh crusty Italian bread with the finest extra virgin olive oil and your favourite cheese.
Savoury Mediterranean Vegetable Muffins
I made these muffins recently to take to a night of chanting for Guru Purnima Day, an Indian religious festival celebrated by those who follow the Hindu faith. I took with me a journalist friend, who enjoyed the muffins so much he has been haranguing me ever since to include the recipe in one of my columns.
1 cup plain flour
2 cups SR flour
1 tsp baking powder
200g unsalted butter
Salt & pepper to taste
5 whole 60g eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup onion, chopped and sauted
1 cup roasted red capsicum, chopped
1 cup grilled eggplant, chopped
2 cups black olives, pitted and chopped
1 cup pecorino cheese, grated
1 cup fetta, crumbled
1 cup fresh basil, chopped
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius. Grease muffin trays — at least 12 muffin spaces. Sift flours, spices and baking powder into large mixing bowl and rub in butter to form a breadcrumb-like consistency — you can do this in an electic mixer if you like. In a separate bowl beat eggs and milk and add cheeses. Gently pour mixture into bowl of dry ingredients and fold remaining ingredients in to form cakemix-like base with visible chunks of vegetable. You may like to stir in a further splash of extra virgin olive oil for consistency. Spoon into muffin trays and bake until golden brown and cooked through, about 40 minutes. Check with skewer.