When Croatian-Australian Cree Monaghan opened Ino Kuvacic's Dalmatia cookbook to his recipe for jaja i pome, everything fell into place.
"It was just bizarre," Monaghan tells SBS, recalling the emotion of the moment in the kitchen of her Margaret River regenerative farm. "It was only when I opened that book - that recipe was the first page I opened to - that I realised it was Croatian. You know when you read something and you think, how can someone write a book about something that's you?"
Monaghan had never known the dish her mother made by its Croatian name. For her, it has always been 'mock chicken' - a dish made of tomatoes, eggs and dried Italian herbs. But then Croatia was largely unspoken in Monaghan's recent family history.
"How can someone write a book about something that's you?"
She explains her family's homeland had been a spectre; present in the way they grew and prepared their food, but never directly talked about. Like many new immigrants, when Monaghan's grandfather Anthony arrived in Australia, his European identity was rapidly minimised.
"I think they wanted to be normal and fit in," observes Monaghan. Anthony's surname, Gabelic, became Gabelish. He became 'Australian'.
Food was the unspoken remnant of his Croatian past, handed down to his Croatian-Australian daughter, Sandra, Monaghan's mother. But before both passed away, they handed it down to Monaghan, whose Croatian heritage can be traced back to the town of Vroboska on the island of Hvar.
"I remember so many things about the way mum would eat," Monaghan says wistfully of her mum who passed 14 years ago.
"There were always grilled vegetables and antipasto, but also lentils and eggplant, red wine, those pickled flavours and asparagus. Things that were really unusual in the early '70s," she says.
"It was really after I opened the book and saw recipe after recipe that we had eaten - stuffed squid, stuffed capsicum - that I realised that she did it without knowing it. It was in her. I recognise those same flavour tastes and choices that I make, along with my second daughter Lillian, the one who looks most like me."
Monaghan's recovery of that link has enabled her to piece together components of her mum and herself. As she prepares jaja i pome, Monaghan talks about how her mum taught her to cross and scour tomatoes, and boil them to remove the skin.
She talks about how as a girl she would play in the family's Perth backyard on her own, picking wild parsley from her paperbark tree house and pretending to cook on the backyard incinerator; and how so much of her life harks back to her Croatian heritage - the way she lives paddock to plate, cooks from her vegetable patch and favours seasonality, strong flavour and simplicity.
However, Monaghan continues her mum's legacy by using dried Italian mixed herbs instead of fresh in her "mock chicken", despite the 103-acre farm she cultivates and the cooking school she runs with her husband and three children.
"It's for the memory [the] flavour [provides]," Monaghan smiles.
In such a simple dish, the authenticity of each flavour is paramount. For Monaghan, that means dried herbs, a good quality olive oil, ripe tomatoes, just a little bit of slow-cooked onion, salt, and an egg or two - not so much egg that it diminishes the tomato or curdles the dish.
"I would make it after school and then on the weekends," Monaghan says, putting her finishing touches on the dish and toasting some of her husband's sourdough that he sells weekly as part of the couple's baking for their community.
Monaghan's hands are busy, her fingers fine and long. Just as she inherited her mother's Croatian tastebuds, so too did she mother's hands.
"I think there's something about the herbs that make this the dish that it is," Monaghan finishes. "It's like all food. There is room where you can play all you like [with a recipe], but at some core part of that, if you are trying to recreate a flavour, a past, then you have to make it the way it was made."
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Jaja i pome (tomatoes and eggs)
- 2 large ripe tomatoes
- 1 - 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large free range or 2 small eggs
- 1 generous tsp dried Italian herbs (thyme, marjoram, basil, oregano and rosemary
- Half a small brown onion
- Sourdough bread
- Salt flakes to taste
1. Boil a small pot of water large enough to hold two tomatoes.
2. Cross the bottom of each tomato, remove its core and place into boiling water for 30 seconds, or until its skin begins to lift off. Remove from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl to cool.
3. When cool enough to handle, finely chop the tomato.
4. Roughly chop onion.
5. Heat oil to medium in a small pan and add diced onion. Cook for about five minutes until just softened but not caramelised.
6. Add chopped tomatoes and cook on low heat until tomatoes have softened and cooked through and the sauce has thickened - about 10 to 15 minutes.
7. While the tomatoes are cooking, whisk the eggs.
8. Once tomatoes are cooked, add the whisked eggs and stir through on low heat. Keep cooking a few minutes until eggs are cooked.
9. Add a generous 1/2 tsp of salt to taste, followed by dried herbs.
10. Cook a few minutes and add more salt and herbs to taste if required.
11. Pull off the heat and sprinkle with more herbs. Serve with crusty sourdough toast.
If working with fresh herbs, chop finely and fry in a hot pan before beginning the recipe.
Cree Monaghan runs cooking classes and sustainable farm tours on her One Table Farm in Margaret River. For bookings and upcoming events see here.