• Cooking teaches generosity and the table invites us to talk to each other – even if we end up arguing. (Luke Nguyen's Vietnam - Season 2)Source: Luke Nguyen's Vietnam - Season 2
From the tradition of kids swapping school lunches, to multicultural cooking shows, food is central to how we bond as a community and learn about other cultures, writes Catharine Lumby.
By
Catharine Lumby

13 May 2016 - 10:51 AM  UPDATED 13 May 2016 - 10:55 AM

In his book, Loose Living, the renowned Australian author Frank Moorhouse recalls his first forays into gastronomy. Sent to Sydney to try out for an international schoolboy rugby league team, he was billeted with a Lebanese family. He writes:

I realised that our family meals lacked something.

The Lebanese family had chives sprinkled on their salad and they had ‘salad dressing’, not mayonnaise…

I realised that there was more and maybe infinitely more to eating and that either my family did not know about eating or did not care.

At home, he remembers they ate a salad that consisted of a sliced tomato, a lettuce leaf and Kraft cheddar cheese. Sometimes ‘on special occasions’ the salad was ‘saved’ by factory made mayonnaise. ‘We also had salt and pepper. That was it’.

On his return to Nowra, Moorhouse took it upon himself to educate his family in the culinary arts. He announced that: ‘things were to be upgraded’. Having missed observing that the salad dressing of oil, vinegar and garlic were what made the Lebanese family’s salad special, he focused on the chives and planted some in his backyard. Eventually, when the chives ran out, he resorted to cutting grass and sprinkling that on his salad in defiance of his older brothers’ taunting.

The warmth and the sense of community that such recent immigrants brought to our table and our lives have remained with me. And food was the medium.

I grew up with the children of migrants in working class and beached blessed Newcastle. We swapped lunches. Mine were crumbly homemade bread sandwiches stuffed with sprouts and grated carrot – my mother being a nascent hippy. Theirs were cholesterol-inducingly fabulous: moussaka, lasagne, and pirozhki.

My parents’ liberal politics opened the door for me to learn about food and different cultures from the new immigrants. The Italian family who moved in next door were wonderful to me and my sisters when our parents were both out working after we got home from school. The Nonna, who spoke no English, came over with spaghetti and pinched our cheeks.

The warmth and the sense of community that such recent immigrants brought to our table and our lives have remained with me. And food was the medium.

Food television – programs about travel and cooking essentially – are often derided as a form of cultural dumbing down. As if watching people cook has replaced people’s desire to cook at home. Rubbish.

Based on a sample of one – me - watching cooking shows broadens our minds and, if it doesn't always lead to cooking, it leads to thinking about cooking. A bit like watching people take their clothes off on SBS can lead to…well that’s another column.

Watching cooking shows broadens our minds and, if it doesn't always lead to cooking, it leads to thinking about cooking. 

Thoughtful food television (like SBS series Poh & Co) inspires us to move out of our daily lives and relate to others. Even apparently banal reality shows about people competing to cook a soufflé are equally shows about the way food can be central to our sense of self and family. Cooking teaches generosity and the table invites us to talk to each other – even if we end up arguing.

In April, I travelled with my husband and teenage sons to Vietnam and we attended Luke Nyguen’s cooking school, Grain. I’d last spent significant time in Saigon when I went there as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1991. I went with a woman who came as a refugee as a young child. She came on a boat with her brother and without her parents. Her father was in a reeducation camp and her mother stayed to look after him. I wrote about her journey home – the first time they’d met again. Australia took her in.

I watch Luke Nyguen work his magic on food TV and I reflect on her story. Luke is a great chef – but more importantly he embodies a story of how Australians can come together over food. Let’s eat. 

Watch Poh Ling Yeow catch up with her larger-than-life crew of fun-loving family and friends as they navigate life in the Adelaide suburbs. 

 

Eat the world
Mafroukeh
This rich Lebanese dessert is traditionally made using clotted cream, while some cooks use whipped ricotta sweetened with sugar and flavoured with orange blossom water. Needless to say, versions abound, but the condensed milk cream in this recipe works super-well. This dessert isn’t particularly hard to make (don’t be put off by the long roasting time for the semolina) but it is important that the syrup and semolina be completely cool when combined, or the semolina layer will set rock hard.
Bun cha
"Bun cha is a marvellous dish to enjoy as a big group – something Angie Hong has done her whole life as part of a large Vietnamese family, in her three restaurants, and now as grandmother and matriarch to a vibrant young clan. This is a delicious balance of noodles, a lot of herbs, a beautiful dressing and marinated meats cooked over fire. ‘This really is what Vietnamese food is about,’ she says proudly. ‘You can find it on every street corner in Hanoi or in the central markets in Ho Chi Minh – as a lunchtime dish only.’"
Spinach and ricotta ravioli with passata
“By investing a little time each summer in processing box upon box of the season’s tomatoes, Rosa Bovezza and her family ensure they have enough passata to feed everyone all year round. This recipe does feed a lot, but you can always freeze half for another time.”