How a touch of the exotic reached South London in 1970

I grew up in a household that enjoyed cooking and eating Fejoada, a Brazilian dish of pigs’ trotters, tails, chuck steak and black beans. Everyone would look forward to this delicacy served with rice, sausages, pork chops and slices of orange. Dinners were often concoctions of garlic, rice, tomatoes and herbs and a complete contrast to what school friends were eating in south east London during the 1960s.

Our house used garlic, I used to eat oranges with salt sprinkled to enhance their sweetness; we ate Polish vegetables in oil, or cooked bananas with a smattering of sugar. Stuffed olives were common and I found eating at friends’ houses a trial as it was alien to what I knew. My father would always complain bitterly every  time his beloved Sunday roast of ‘Top Side’ was being fried in garlic before it ever hit the oven. As a consequence I find it very difficult to eat meat without garlic to this day, but I do skip on toast and dripping which my dad also loved.

Our dinners were different and I never tasted an Oxo cube, or had steak and kidney pie at home or anything typically English at that time, except perhaps tinned cling peaches and Bird’s custard! Although my father would sneak in such delicacies as whitebait, sprats, cockles, winkles, pickled walnuts and Stilton cheese which provided an interesting contrast to lamb tongue in tomato sauce for example.

This was long before Elizabeth David and the Mediterranean evangelists had percolated their ideas right down into the psyche of the working classes. Yet I considered myself to be pretty broad minded when it came to food until I first came across, the food of the Indian sub-continent and my perceptions were challenged.

We had a family friend called Bhati who hailed from Bangladesh and was a doctor at the local hospital. She lived in one of the modern, slightly trendy 1960s dolls houses close to us and my mother used to go periodically and help clean as Bhati was always working. Occasionally I accompanied her, just to be kept out of mischief.

Externally the  house’s exterior looked like all the others on our estate but immediately you stepped inside, it was another world. There were strange pieces of dark, highly carved furniture and exotic batiks and hardly anything in the rooms, just highly coloured rugs scattered across the floor. More significantly, the house was permeated by the aroma of spices, smells I had never come across before and Bhati used to patiently explain the jars of pickles and chutneys to me, unscrewing lids and asking me to try.

The idea of pickling limes in a pungent, oily preserve was so alien, I remember being fascinated and repelled in equal measure. I was offered green and gold tins of ghee to sniff, asafoetida, which knocked me backwards, cumin, ground coriander. I cannot forget the taste of tamarind, which even now returns to haunt me with its classic fusion of sweet and astringent  makes me salivate just typing this.

The job I used to enjoy most was decanting Basmati rice from large sacks through a cone of paper into an old sweet tin, formerly used for Hacks cough sweets. . ‘Bas’ in Hindi language apparently  means “aroma” and ‘Mati’ means “full of” hence the word Basmati. In fact the smell of the rice as it travelled along the paper cone, throwing up trails of fragrant dust has remained with me ever since. The scent, even now, as I wash rice under water before I cook, has the ability to transport me to those years where the perfume represented otherness, exotica, travel and unknown worlds and cultures. This was happening just across the street from me and in 1970 I had never encountered such a thing before.Who would have guessed I would end up living in a rice growing country myself one day, running a writing retreat. I didn’t even know Portugal was a rice producer back then. Still, I digress.

Bhati would tell stories of Moghul emperors who revered the rice and how you could tell whether it was a true basmati rice and not an imposter. I would listen entranced as she explained that differentiating the real thing was as complex as recognizing a true diamond. Like a diamond, the cut of the grain will always give away whether it is basmati or just an imposter. ‘For sure’, she would say in her lilting English accent,’ look, a basmati grain is shaped like a sword.’ She would put a few grains into my palm.

‘It is a very generous grain as it becomes at least twice its original size after cooking, like a wonderful gift.’ ‘The other way to tell true Basmati is by its smell.’ She would cup her hands and the many bangles decorating both wrists would jingle as she scooped up more grains. ‘Sniff’ she would say and I still associate the nutty perfume with my gracious teacher.

Nowadays we pick up a bag of rice from the supermarket without thought, demand in the UK is soaring and Basmati sales make up over half of all rice sold today. How different from this peek into another culture all those years ago. Nowadays, I put ghee in a pan, add cooked Basmati, a few smashed cardamoms, cassia bark, sultanas and desiccated coconut to make an interesting accompaniment to the many Indian inspired meals I cook without thought. ‘The perfumed one’ is an integral part of my diet, complete with every kind of pickle, chutney and pappadam.

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