--- Watch double episodes of Our Food, Our Family 6.30pm Saturday 17 and 24 July on SBS Food. Episodes will be available at SBS On Demand after they air ---
“It’s the love quantity,’ says Azman Ali. “What you love, that’s the amount you use. That’s what it comes down to.”
He’s talking about what goes into the Welsh-Pakistani family’s secret spice mix, a key ingredient in many favourite family dishes, and sold in the family store.
The Ali family have a fascinating history, which Welsh-Italian food lover Michela Chiappa discovers in Our Food, Our Family. The series, which really will tug at your heartstrings, explores the colourful stories behind the favourite dishes of four families. There’s Kemi Nevins, born in 1962 to Nigerian parents studying medicine in London, fostered by a British family and then at the age of six, once her parents had qualified, taken back to Lagos, Nigeria to live with them, but pining for the family she’d grown up with. In Cardiff, Chiappa cooks keema Bolognese with Yusef Ali, talks secret spices with Yusef’s uncle Azman, and meets 90-year-old head of the family Mohammed, who came from Bangladesh in 1958 and went on to open one of Wales’ very first Asian restaurants. Chiappa also meets the Algieri family, and hears the incredible story of farmer’s daughter Betty and prisoner of war Vincenzo who bonded over their love of food, despite both families’ objections; and meets a Welsh-Norwegian woodcraftsman, Scott Blytt-Jordans, who’s better with a saw than a whisk but wants to learn more about Norwegian food and his family history.
Did you find yourself getting teary at any point, we asked Chiappa, who SBS audiences might recognise from Michela’s Tuscan Kitchen, currently showing on Sundays at 5.30pm on SBS Food.
“Absolutely - Kemi's story particularly struck a chord; she talked about being taken away from her family that she had grown up with at five years old and I had a five-year-old at the time and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have her taken away from me. It was a very moving story,” Chiappa says.
All of the episodes in the series show how deeply food is intertwined with our family histories, and how it changes and adapts to new places and different ingredients. There’s Yusef Ali, whose favourite dish is keema Bolognese, a fusion of the Italian favourite with his Pakistani heritage – and made with the family’s secret spice mix. Chiappa tries to prize the recipe for the spice mix from Yusef’s uncle Azman, but as Azman says, for many things, there is no exact recipe, but rather blending and cooking with “the love quantity”. Chiappa also meets the head of the family, 90-year-old Mohammed, and his wife Sirajunessa, who still cooks up a storm every week for the dinner that usually sees 25 or so family members come together. This time, for the gathering, Yusef attempts a family favourite, his grandmother’s recipe for kodhu (a type of squash) and mutton curry with rice dumplings. Will it get the nod from Sirajunessa and the big family who’ve gathered to celebrate Mohammed and Sirajunessa’s 54th wedding anniversary?
There’s also “a tale of love, war and meatballs”: the story of Vincenzo Algieri and Betty Evans. The pair met while Vincenzo was a prisoner of war in Wales, and 75 years after they fell in love, Chiappa takes family members back to Calabria to meet the family there. Unpicking the story of how Vincenzo came to Wales (including an Australian link in Vincenzo’s military history), there’s a heart-warming hug in Italy, cooking some family favourites with Vincenzo and Betty’s son Fausto and grandson Huw (including some garlic controversy as Fausto makes his mother’s polpette), and a big family dinner in Wales, complete with stories of past family meals where there would be hundreds of meatballs on the table to feed the hungry horde.
Chiappa says she loved seeing how food played such an important role in each of these families, even as they made new lives away from what they’d known.
“I think that globally now we live and grow up with such a blend of cultures and backgrounds. This was certainly the case for me living in Wales - I was born there but within a strong Italian community so even though I am Welsh-born, culturally and in my heart I am Italian. This is the case for so many other cultures too and I loved unpicking this and seeing similar stories and backgrounds and how they have been influenced by their cultures or the places they have grown up in.”
Just like the keema Bolognese cooked up by Yusef Ali, Chiappa’s family, too, adapted to where they found themselves.
“I think there are many recipes we have adapted along the way... for example, Welsh Rarebit is typically cheese on toast, but we do something in our house called formaggio nel padelino which is melted Caciotta cheese in a frying pan which goes all crispy (from our region in Italy) and we dip bread crusts into it - I am pretty sure this was something my nonno adapted when he moved to Wales. My nonna also used to say, ‘buy the best you can afford’ - after the war when she couldn’t get hold of parmesan cheese easily, she would let cheddar cheese air dry until it went rock hard and then she would grate it finely as a substitute for parmesan in recipes,” Chiappa tells SBS Food.
For some in Our Food, Our Family, dishes and ingredients have been handed down through the generations. For others, it’s a chance to reconnect with their family’s heritage. The common thread is love, and if you find yourself tearing up here and there when Fausto Algieri embraces his cousin in Italy or Kemi Nevins’ sister talks of their father crying in the garden when Kemi went to Nigeria, you will just as often find yourself smiling at the stories and delicious dishes, all cooked with some of that “love quantity”.
Catch episodes of Our Food, Our Family and Michela's Tuscan Kitchen at SBS On Demand after they air. Start with Episode 1:
Or discover Michela's Tuscan Kitchen here: