Tangible Memories

I’m listening to a lot of BBC Food Programme podcasts at the moment as I prepare to hunker down and write my book for Bloomsbury Academic this summer. And as I listen to stories of Syrian food and make copious notes, I remember how much I learned from the Syrians on my own doorstep. And I didn’t even post the links here. So as I read, listen and cram, I’m revisiting my blog here with purpose. So let’s start with the sometimes great, often clunky, always heartwarming series I did earlier this year for Radio Reverb.

Food Trucking USA

Ricco Hadden, owner of Taco Buggy pours salsa onto a taco

Food truck cuisine is just about the biggest thing in American food culture this summer, with foodies lining up for fresh grilled chicken sandwiches, tacos made to order or barbecued chicken and ribs in city parks.  Kennesaw State University Journalism professor, Josh Azriel braved the Atlanta heatwave to get into the kitchens at the city’s Food Truck Park. He spoke with three food truck owners taking full advantage of this new culinary craze in the states.  

Dr Josh Azriel talks food truck culture USA

Talking Atlanta… with Courtney Rushing

Pizza Toppings

Another guest blog from my colleague at Kennesaw State University, Dr Josh Azriel who is rising to my challenge of examining the relationship between food and the high streets of the world for my book ‘Taste and the TV Chef’.. 

It can be daunting breaking into food media, especially television.  Yet, 23 year old Courtney Rushing, of Atlanta, Georgia in the United States has embarked on a new career.  As a recent college graduate of Kennesaw State University, Courtney entered a Facebook contest and won an opportunity in June to appear on an American national television show, Live with Kelly and Michael.  She led a cooking demonstration outside the studio on a sidewalk in New York City.  She is waiting to see if she finished in the top 2  for cooking guest appearances with social media “likes” for a chance at a second appearance on the show.  In the meantime she hosts a food blog, “Rushing to the Kitchen” at rushingtothekitchen.com.

Courtney sat down with Kennesaw State University Journalism Director Josh Azriel to talk food, her career and where she likes to eat in Atlanta.

Click here to listen.

Talking Atlanta.. with Kevin Gillespie

Spencer Gomez chopping padron peppers

One of the joys of being a media academic is the opportunity to work with people all over the world who love to ask the deeper questions of life. Media academia is like journalism with a bigger dictionary, but the best academics (and journalists) are the ones who prod in a way that leaves the interviewee and the listener with something to chew on. Dr Josh Azriel, once a journalist, now Journalism and Citizen Media Director at  Kennesaw State University in Atlanta rose to my challenge of helping me research how food has formed city identity for my book Taste and the TV Chef by grabbing an interview with TV chef, Kevin Gillespie. Here’s his interview and a little background. Take it away, Josh….

In the last decade, Atlanta, Georgia emerged as a culinary destination rivaling other southern American cities such as New Orleans and Charleston.  Atlanta is home to several celebrity chefs who appear on American television programs focused on cooking contests.  One of the those chefs, Kevin Gillespie, finished in the top three on Season 6 of Top Chef which is broadcast on the BRAVO cable network.  He holds the record for winning the most quick fire challenges on the program.  Kevin will appear on CNN’s Culinary Journeys this summer.  Kevin owns two restaurants in Atlanta, Gunshow and Revival (opens 23 July,2015) and is the author of two cookbooks, Fire in My Belly and Pure Pork Awesomeness.

Click here to listen


48 hours in Toronto


48 hours in Toronto. It was just too rock’n’roll to miss. I was to present a paper on the ‘Making of Nigella’ a postmodern reading of the creation of gastroporn by the goddess herself  at the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies’ academic conference at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto before flying home the very next day. Jetlag? Shmeltlag; I’d got my Melatonin tablets and was ready to face my public. Conference season is a chance to press the flesh within our communities of practice, to engage with researchers in our fields. These were my people in the world of media literacy and cultural studies and I was ready to get excited again about deconstructing the modern world.

But it was also a chance to glimpse a city that I’d never seen, to taste the culture through its fab fooderies and piece together a jigsaw even if I didn’t have time to see the big picture. With the help of my conference colleagues, twenty-something PhD students Stephanie Patrick and Averie MacDonald, I set out to find the heartbeat of the city through its food and found it in Kensington Market and in a chat over a delicious Pad Thai.  I asked them how food reflects the culture of a city and even a nation… Have a listen.

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When we come home again to Wales

gower 026

There’s something about a birthday these days that has me rummaging through memories for something I can’t quite put my finger on. Whispers of questions, dreamy, hazy smells of something important that I can’t quite remember have been making me itchy for a while, and I’ve had a yearning to go back to Wales, land of my mothers and my fathers, for months now.

I’m Welsh. 100%. I’ve never had a Welsh accent, and apart from a Diolch and a few Gwlads, I’ve never spoken the language. We travelled the world, as Army families do, and a boarding school in Bath was more home than Abergavenny ever was over those interminable, friendless summers of my teens. I couldn’t wait to get out of Wales and continue to travel, and so I did and do, determined never to spend another summer in Wales.

Travelling has made me adventurous about how we live too. I could as easily live in rural Sussex as an ashram in India, a Victorian semi in Brighton or a top floor flat in Sydney overlooking Circular Quay. Home now is where my husband lays any one of his Fedoras and where the kids and dogs come back to after they’ve been wandering. I am a rootless romantic, always up for the next adventure, and I like it that way.

So why was I cruising with my girls through the Gower this week – or Gwyr, as I deliberately chose to spell it on Facebook? Why was I sitting on the beaches of my childhood in Port Eynon and looking down over the cliffs of Rhossilli at a sweeping sandy bay whose limp waves whisper some of those questions I can’t quite hear?

I knew it would be food that I was looking for; it always is. The last time I went chasing a whisp of a memory was after my father died two years ago. We spent his last days rearranging the family photo album of our Malay days in the ’60s, and I promised him I’d spend my 50th there with the family, sniffing our way back to the hawkers’ stalls of my early youth and finding the secret of our Malay curry. As I rediscovered the particular mix of spices that makes Malaysian food Malay, I remembered how important detail had been to my parents who had spent the rest of their lives making and remaking that curry until it was perfect, not for the Malays, but for them. It was, quite rightly, my father’s last supper.

And so as Auntie Eirwen and cousin Claire, four months younger and my playmate in my mother’s hometown of Llanelli sit down to talk food, we are propelled back to the ‘70s and Nana’s Sunday lunch of roast pork, apple sauce and mushy peas and the best gravy I’ve ever tasted. ‘Batchelors’, says Eirwen. Batchelor’s dried peas’. ‘She used to soak them’, chimes Claire. ‘Overnight in the net. And she always added sugar. ‘And butter’ adds Eirwen. ‘Just before serving them, she’d cut the net and add butter. Right at the end’. I am astonished at how much detail they remember.

gower 106Uncle John, Auntie Eirwen, Simon and Claire lived five minutes or so up the road from my Nana and Grandad who lived in the house where my mother was born. They still do. Separated by a wall from the Felinfoel brewery, the smells of my childhood were a mix of ale and roast pork, scrambled now as weekday teas blur into Sunday lunches. I remember almost nothing about those days other than those smells. Almost every memory is second hand.

‘Milk-fed pork’, says Eirwen. ‘She bought it in the butcher’s at Felinfoel.’ Hang on a minute; my dumpy, pinny-clad nana who fed the family while never leaving the kitchen, Margretta Williams who answered to ‘Get’ and called me ‘bach’, was buying milk fed pork like someone out of a Hugh Fernley Whittingstall series? I think I may have missed something. ‘She was a very slow cook but and you had to wait,’ explains Eirwen. ‘But what you had was excellent. She wasn’t one of these who would cook for you in ten minutes.’ Claire reminds me of her chips, crinkle cut, washed, dried, deep fried and then dried and deep fried again. ‘They were superb’.

Eirwen and Claire chat about Nana’s pikelets, gower 092served straight from the bakestone and crunchy with sugar and butter, one after the other for what seemed hours as we sat around the table playing cards. We never helped her. It was what Nana did, not us.

Audio: Eirwen makes pikelets, just like Nana did, for me and the girls. it’s the first time they’ve ever tasted them, and for me, it’s the taste I was looking for, that took me home to Wales.

I wonder about this woman who took such pride in detail I never noticed. I remember stories my mother had told me about her mother and her mother. And her mother. All from Llanelli, born and bred. Nana was brought up by her grandmother while her own very young mother, widowed when Nana was only four, went out to work. Nana would have been taught to cook by her grandmother, to buy well and to work with very little to go a long way. My mother had told me of the fish she would buy during the war from the fishwives who came door to door. She would stuff it with a single tomato and flavour it with herbs from the garden. ‘It was superb’, my mother would tell me.

Eirwen tells me more about the Penclawdd cockle sellersCockle-Women who came to the door with their wicker baskets draped with white cloths. ‘That was our Saturday dinner;’ she says in that lovely Lanelli lilt. ‘Bacon, egg and cockles’. Now almost 80, Eirwen is the keeper of the stories and tells me about Lanelli in the 1950s and the Italian ice creams and coffee of the Italian coal miners who brought the smells from home. ‘I’d have a knickerbocker glory’ she remembers. But only once a year because it was half a crown. It was so dear’.

As she makes me her own pikelets the next day, crunchy with sugar and butter, and shows me the family history Uncle John had been working on just before he died two years ago,  I realise that no-one from this side of the family has ever moved. We look back through census record dating back to 1830, each family Llanelli born and bred.

The grass which has always been greener somewhere else for my family has always been home for my mother’s family and has drawn me back to find roots I never thought I’d need. Those hazy whispers of memories, a scrambled mix of Nana’s roast, Felinfoel ales and pikelets are like something out of the Bisto ad, luring me back to my family’s home of almost 300 years.

As the girls and I head back to Sussex where the Fedoras hang, we listen to Cerys Matthews sing songs from my past.

Sosban Fach, yn berwi ar y tân,
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr,
A’r gath wedi scrapo Joni bach

I sing along, hazy words fading in and out of memory, like the smells of pikelets and Felinfoel ale understanding nothing. And every word.

Audio: A whimsical adventure in sound as I came home again to Wales


 Audio:Tania Swistun from one of the oldest cockles and laverbread stalls in the country tells how she has been at the family stall in Swansea Market since she was baby – in a box under the counter.

Tania Swistun



Dining Blind

dans le noirI’ve been meaning to take my husband to Dans le Noir, the London restaurant where everyone is on a blind date.. The idea of relying on taste, smell and feel alone as I find my way through a new menu, thrills me. But perhaps more importantly, it would give me an opportunity to prod at the unconscious mind of my man.

For Jed, dining in the dark could possibly be the biggest challenge of our 19-year marriage. Our relationship is based on a vive la difference kind of philosophy; he’s an urban dandy, I’m a country girl who’s lived in the city too long. He’s trawling the back waters of the web for new music; I’m happy with Radio 1. He wears the Star of David in his earring and I drag the kids to a carol service once a year. You get the picture.

And then there’s food. I grew up in a peripatetic family where food and storytelling were the only consistent things on the table. We picked up recipes from around the world and the smells of Malaysia filled my childhood homes from Germany to South Wales. The feel of baking and making is part of my muscle memory. Jed, on the other hand, may just as well have spent his entire youth never eating a thing. His interest in food is more about the markets than the meal, the old blokes selling the bamboo rizzlas next to the durian stall rather than the custardy-onion taste of the world’s smelliest fruit. He likes stories rather than smells. And he likes his food simple.

battle of bloggers 013 So when an invitation to a Battle of the Bloggers’ blind supper party at Brighton’s Dirty Blonde popped into my inbox, I pinged back my RSVP for the two of us. In the interest of journalistic enquiry, I would drag him into the dark until his senses had nowhere to run.

Among the bloggers, he would have to be a grown up rather than the ‘primitive child’ who psychologists say would only trust the food he has seen his parent eat. Afterwards, we would ponder on the 50 year legacy of his mother’s refusal to eat with the kids, and the food terrors would flood back, finally able to find a rational, mature mind to make it ok.

So I was a bit cross when he said he was busy that night.

I would take a real child then. Ok, so Loulou at 15 is already a foodie. She works in a gastro pub on Sundays and cooks three course meals for the family without biting a lip. But she’s still a child. Surely she couldn’t be blindfolded and fed who-knew-what? without at least a squirm. If she batted an eye, I couldn’t see it.

battle of bloggers 009 To be honest, Dirty Blonde isn’t really Dans le Noir. It’s more floaty gold muslin, glitzy chic beige and Made in Chelsea bling; being seen is probably more important here than taste. That’s ok; this is Brighton after all. And inviting the city’s bloggers to be blindfolded and served a taster of their eclectic menu was a genius way of getting us to write about the food.

Course by tincey-wincey course, we were spoon-fed morsels of meat, fish, even shots of cocktails and asked to guess the secret ingredients. By the third mouthful, we had mistaken rye for ciabatta, Southern Comfort for vodka and were heading for six courses of meatballs, scallops and an Asian fusion salmon that were designed to trip up the blind.

Loulou and I couldn’t even chat with our blindfolds on, let alone guess at the bacon jam and tomato concasse sweetening the scallops. We had been disabled, deliberately confused and dumbed on every level.battle of bloggers 021

But it was fun. We tried to remember the name of that smoky, gooey vegetable… ‘AUBERGINE! ‘ .. and fell about as we waded through grassy herbs before landing on fennel. Actually, it was sage.

But isn’t that that what eating out is all about? Playing with the senses? Having a laugh? If it’s about spotting the truffle oil in your macaroni cheese, kill me now.

So we couldn’t tell our mirin from our Furi Kaki. So what?

Will we go back? Probably not. Come on; Terre a Terre and Indian Summer are next door. But will I tell people about dining in the dark at Dirty Blonde? Yup. Will I go to Dans le Noir? Yup. Will I take my husband? No way. I’ve got a new dining companion who, after a childhood of making and baking, is happy to play with her food. What have you got for us next then?

The law of the jungle


I thought I knew what Eco tourism meant. I thought it was about low impact on the environment, refilling water bottles and feeding the community, both with western money and English language. Choosing companies or individual hoteliers with the same values is a no-brainer these days; why not help a country develop its tourist economy with the kind of philosophy that ticks everyone’s boxes? Long haul travel once a year is way better for the environment than loads of short haul city breaks, and if my money’s going towards teaching village kids English so that they can grow their country’s economy by taking their place on the world stage, I’m happy to sip another beer for the cause.

But enough of Sri Lanka; this year, we’re in Malaysia and I’m rethinking the whole thing. Malaysia is busy selling itself to the world as the Eco destination of choice in 2014, and number one on its list of eco adventures is white-water rafting, Asia’s answer to getting trolleyed on the Sunset Strips of Majorca and Corfu; leave your inhibitions in the day job and get high as a kite as you tumble down ancient waterfalls before gliding through jungle-lined rivers. As a family, you’re not going to find the Novick-Smiths on either the Sunset Strips of Europe or the white waters of Asia, and between you and me, I can’t see this doing much for the economy. Sure the gappies, those modern day hippy-trailers carving a new path through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, will be there like a shot, but they’re not going to make much of a bulge in the government coffers. No, it’s the new Eco chic resorts like Banjaran Hot Springs in the caves above Ipoh and The Dusun hidden in the hills above Seramban that are the kind of places where people with money will fall in love with Malaysia. Even the old resorts like Club Med which has been geeing its guests into a hand clapping, side stepping euphoria on Cherating Beach in Kuantan since the early 80s is scooping up the Eco creds, with five Green Globe awards in the last five years. >20130412-191310.jpg

Tours to the local kampongs and markets are extra, as are the moonlit boat trips to see the fireflies which could teach the tourists more about Malaysia than the rest of the two weeks of sailing and circus skills put together. No-one stops the Chinese tourist trying to catch a curious firefly to take home to Bejing, but the rest of us are silenced by the beauty of the liquid mercury waters and the strange little creatures lighting up as we glide through the dark night of the jungle. I can’t decide whether it’s an episode of Star Trek that I’m reminded of, so alien are these tiny chemical reactions, or whether the gentle humming of the boat’s engine providing a threatening bass line to the chorus of the crickets is more Apocalypse Now.

Leaving the East coast, we head back towards KL, stopping in the hills above Seramban to spend just a little more time sitting before city life and then home. There’s plenty to watch from the verandah of one of the Dusun’s simple villas, perched almost on the tops of the durian and mangosteen trees in its 12 acre orchard but very little to be done. We toss up whether to swim in the salinated or ionised infinity pool and trek through the jungle with one of the country’s last orang asli guides, picking off leeches, spotting ancient medicinal plants and calming panicking teenage daughter before swimming again, this time in the cool, only slightly white watered river.

But the effect of it all is deeply relaxing; even the mosquitoes can’t be bothered to bite. Jed pops into Pantai, the little village from where their staff and produce comes, to pick up lunch with Cee, one of our hosts. They bring back several delicious curries of chicken, fish and squid with perfectly steamed rice, banana fritters and kuih koci, an unspeakably gorgeous toasted coconut and palm sugar pancake wrapped in banana leaf. The bill? 15 ringgit. That’s about £3. For Jed who wins most bread in our household, bills like this strip more layers of stress than even a Malay massage could do. If it means we contribute directly to the locals with no tour operator to be seen, he’s happy to tick that Eco box.

Psychologists might suggest to the Malaysian government that classical conditioning is the key to its success in Eco tourism. Instead of bringing a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts along with the sun cream and tiger balm, tourists experiencing for themselves the deep calm of the jungle will not only respect the environment but associate its motherland with the luxury of profoundly letting go. It’s the new wave of Eco tourism; it doesn’t replace the ‘refill’ philosophy but goes further, inviting the early hippy trailers and those they inspired to travel east to remember what they first loved about Asia – the undiscovered, profoundly exotic and utter beauty of the jungle.


Cutting the ties that bind


Crossing the new 13km bridge across the straits from Pulau Penang to the Malaysian mainland, we headed south to Ipoh. Unlike Kuala Lumpur and Batu Ferringhi and many other towns in Malaysia, Ipoh has quietly slipped under the radar of high rise development, becoming a millionaire’s paradise while keeping its own character. We forget that with the rise and rise of the Asian economy, tin mining brought riches to Malaya long before the Brits or any other colonials wafted through.

These days Ipoh cares not a jot for the Westerner. Our one day in the city before heading to our jungle retreat was spent sheltering from the rain and observing a typical Saturday in mid Malaysia. The culture we found was Starbucks and cinema in the kind of mall where most of the world lives on a Saturday afternoon these days. As we sat among the latte drinking iPadders before watching ‘The Host’ and monsoon season settled in outside, no one shouted ‘where you from?’ in that sing-song question that’s more about finding a way of making a few dollars from the white man than any real interest in the difference between Brighton or Berlin. Even as we wandered through the little lanes in search of my old home (and found a new office development on the site of 156 Gopeng Rd), the middle class neighbours showed no interest. We may have blagged our way into the Ipoh swimming club, once the domain of Australian and British Army wives and kids, but the mothers here today were far more interested in little Li Mei’s 25 yards front crawl than the giant white family sipping their Tiger beers and Lilts on the terrace.

I heard the whispers of my parents suggesting a pink gin at to The Ipoh Club, scene of many a glamorous expat party. Donning our least crumpled clothes, we headed into town. The receptionist and waiter looked as though they may have been there since 1965, and our drinks took almost as long to arrive but again the welcome was underwhelming. An Indian wedding took central stage while we gazed out across the Padang, sipping bad vodka and tonics, and imagined a time gone by. It was time to look for the Malaysia that wasn’t about the colonial past but about a new Asia, one that had cut its apron strings from the Empire and grown up with a more confident philosophy carved from ancient traditions and futuristic vision.

We left my parents wandering through the corridors of The Ipoh Club and the next morning headed to new Malaysia. They wouldn’t have been interested in The Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat, one of the new Eco-chic resorts selling the country’s ancient treasures to a moneyed, younger generation from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bejing. There’s no nod to colonialism here, just minerals from its underground springs and old fashioned Asian smiles that are more calming than any temporary rejuvenation session in the spa. This resort has been carved out of caves which had only been used by Japanese soldiers in WWII until three years ago when Malaysia’s own Richard Branson, Jeffrey Cheah developed it into an eco-retreat. Their etchings are still in the caves, now used for meditation, steam and a fabulous bar and cellar for Jeff’s wine habit. Sumptuous villas with their own pools and jacuzzis dot the cleared jungle landscape and mists rise from lakes of hot springs. The dipping pots of 40 degree mineral-rich springs vie with the garra rufa fish to heal the hard skinned, stressed-out guests. The fish win as a steady stream come to offer their feet for a free nibble.

Jed begins to fret at the offer of nothing but time for the next two days and looks for a way out, while the kids can’t believe that they have their own pool in their own villa. I interview the rather gorgeous French chef and ideas are buzzing for articles for Gourmet Traveller and a book on spa cuisine. Back in the villa, an email arrives from Monash university in KL inviting me to deliver a seminar next week on my academic research on TV chefs and the construction of taste. This is my world; food, chefs, journalism and academia – preferably global – and suddenly that little girl looking for her parents has gone. I can feel my apron strings coming loose and my hand finding a new one to hold as I turn 50 at Banjaran.

It’s been a big couple of years with the loss of both my parents. It’s been a big trip home to Malaysia, and as we leave Ipoh on the ‘ Ekspress bas’ to the east coast, and the terminal turns out to be opposite the site of our old home on Gopeng Rd, I hear those giggles again. I’ll leave my lovely old mum and dad to look around their old haunts and take my own family on an eight hour trip, traveller style, across the Genting Highlands to the crystal waters of Kuantan. Yes, it was where we went on holiday in the ’60s but as my own kids’ gap years come into focus and Jed and I talk about how to combine work with more travel, I’m going east with an eye on the future and less in the past. A bit like Malaysia, perhaps.