When I was nine my Dad was selected to spend a year in Toronto on an international joint Armed Forces officers training course. It changed the lives of my family forever, especially mine and my brother’s. During that year we learnt the rules of baseball, how to ice skate and how to speak with a Canadian accent. We met people from all over the world and, as a 2.4 family from rural England, it significantly changed how we ate.
We now loved ‘exotic’ Hawaiian pizzas and buffalo chicken wings, donuts, muffins and cookies, heavenly hash ice cream, cinnamon everything and would forever more favour pancakes and waffles for breakfast over a bowl of Shreddies and slice of toast. When the families from the course held parties (and I remember there were lots of them) we tasted new foods and recipes from around the world which my Mum began to incorporate into our own weekly menus. Suddenly spag bol, chilli and chicken casseroles were being replaced by strange sounding and delicious new things like ‘fajitas’. It was a brave new culinary world.
When we left, the families put together a cookbook with all the favourite recipes people had contributed from their own repertoire and shared with the group over the year. There is a legendary apple cake from an Australian family which is still my top Sunday lunch pudding request when I go to visit my parents. There was my Mum’s recipe for pork chops in orange sauce which became my own go-to recipe for ‘posh’ student dinner parties. There is a hot artichoke dip which is now a part of our own Christmas family tradition. The fajita marinade (shared below) is still the one I use today and I can’t find another to beat it.
When we returned to Shropshire I remember feeling very aware of how different we now were. When we left our accents had already been deemed ‘posh’ by our classmates because of their Hampshire origins, now they sounded completely foreign. It was around this time that our talent for speaking in one accent at home and another at school began. We dressed differently, we ate differently and we had new hobbies and interests that weren’t easily catered for in the local leisure centre. After only twelve months away it was hard to fit back in.
My brother, who was seven when we returned, struggled the most and hated coming back. He always vowed to return when he was old enough and it is no surprise to me that as soon as he finished university that is what he did. He now lives in New York, has rediscovered his weird mid-atlantic accent and is married to a beautiful lady from Texas.
We too have had our tastes changed by our travels and adventures. My son’s favourite foods can be hard to come by in rural Stirlingshire. Fresh sushi, Lebanese grills and mezze and vietnemese summer rolls are not on most take-out menus here. When we lived in Abu Dhabi, however, we would often crave the foods from home. For example, if we were felling poorly or particularly homesick, we would turn up the A/C and make a pot of lentil soup to remind us of weekends in our kitchen in Scotland.
Now what I cook every week is a mixture of these eclectic tastes. I find myself incorporating different flavours and cooking styles into my after-school repertoire. More herbs, spices and chillis. More fish, grilled meats, salads and pulses. I now prefer dhal to tikka masala. I use lemon and oil to dress my salads and my store cupboards are a hotchpotch of influences. Rice paper wrappers and nori, sit alongside pasta, pesto, grains, beans, preserved lemons and sumac. It is a ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ nightmare!
Whenever I travel, I embrace the food that is on offer there. I’ll try to learn how to make something new so that I can incorporate it into my own cooking. It keeps my memories of those places alive and connects me to the places I have visited and the people I have met along the way. I hate it when ‘western’ needs are catered for over local tradition and flavour. When I visit a new country I want to learn about and taste whatever is grown, farmed, harvested and cooked there.
On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, the chef at our beautiful guesthouse took us to the market and showed us all the amazing produce on sale to choose from. We had no idea what half of the things were, but he made one of the most delicious meals from a few weird shaped vegetables that I have ever tasted in my life. It made me so sad to see the devastation wrought on the country just a couple of weeks later in the recent bombings. If you get a chance to visit, please do so. The country, food and the beautiful people that live there who grow, cook and eat it and are so happy to share their culture with others and they need our support now more than ever.
I hope that our time spent abroad has opened my son’s eyes to all the different tastes and flavours that are out there for him to enjoy. I remember how hard it can be to feel different when you are ten, but ultimately, I hope his experiences will enrich his life in the many ways it has my own. Not just in the food that he chooses to eat, but in the way that he sees the world and all the wonderful people that live within it who are willing to share a meal or a recipe with you whatever their language, race or religion.
Interrupted family food for thought:
- What foods and recipes do you eat that come from your own travel experiences?
- How do they make you feel when you eat them? What memories do they conjure up?
- What ‘family’ recipe would you pass on to others as your ‘signature dish’? Where does it originate?
- Make a meal each week that connects your family either to where they come from or the places they have lived or visited to keep those memories and connections alive.
Toronto Fajitas (serves 4)
This marinade is great on chicken, fish or beef, although chicken is the original family favourite!
Juice of 1 Lemon
1 garlic clove crushed
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
1 Red, Yellow and Green Pepper (cut into thin strips)
1 Red onion (cut into wedges)
3-4 chicken breasts or 2 sirloin steaks cut into strips
- Whisk the lemon juice, garlic, oil and vinegar together in a small bowl. Season to taste.
- Prepare the meat and vegetables then place in a large dish. Pour over the marinade ingredients, cover and leave in the fridge for a minimum of 30 minutes.
- Set the grill to high and line a baking tray with kitchen foil. Tip in the marinated chicken and vegetables and spread evenly on the tray.
- Put under the grill, and cook, turning frequently, for 15-20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and starting to brown and the veggies are slightly charred at the edges.
- Serve with flour tortillas, grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, guacamole and salsa.