Perhaps one of my earliest memories of food is of me settling down after school with a jar of Marmite, a small bottle of tonic water and a teaspoon. Not the most conventional of starts, I know, but I still remember it with a smile. For a child growing up away from the inundation of processed foods and sugars, this was a simple pleasure. And one that was later made even more special by my beloved Granny. For when I look back to young times spent in Wales, I remember lying in bed waiting to hear her click the kettle on, pour the tea, and then I could go join her to have Marmite and dates on toast for breakfast. It’s a combo I still defend to the hilt and remains, in my sentimentality, one of the fail-safe comfort foods. And I always think of her as I eat it.
It may come as a relief to some that my palette has evolved beyond such weird combinations. I love the cuisines of the countries which I’ve called home: the beef peanut stew from The Gambia, yorkshire puds from the UK and startlingly hot curries from Bangladesh. And I’m blessed that I still feel a huge affinity with Nonya and Malaysian cuisine (part of my ethnic make up). My birthday meal request was always char siu paus and spare ribs. As I’ve got older, I’ve delved deeper to discover a deep-seated affinity with the flavours, perhaps because they are as much about fusion as my own genetics are.
For a child who remembers ordering food via huge bank-ledger-like books from vacuous warehouse offices, I still stare in disbelief in supermarkets. If I’m not on my game, the plethora of food is overwhelming and I sometimes can’t help but remember all those who will never experience it. In The Gambia, we reared fowl for food. We ate brain, oysters, mince or lobster of a meal without ever considering the ingredients’ status, just its nutrition. We ate what was in season. My sister and I weren’t allowed to be picky, not about the skin or the fat on meat nor the choice of vegetable. We never had a snack shelf. We were never without but never considered food as part of our leisure time, emotional wellbeing or body view.
They say there is a lot to be learned about how people navigate their way around their geography. Some people do it by landmarks, others by shops, many Brits by pubs. But for me, it’s always been food places. Leave me to my own devices and I will head into a little local food shop any day of the week. When I bought my very first flat and went roaming in the local area, the first place I ended up in was the local Italian deli. To this day, I consider the owners close friends, and aim to mimic this pattern wherever I am.
For to me, food is more than subsistence, but never to be mistaken as a product. What I eat isn’t consumed to demarcate my social standing or my economic status. It’s about connection and soul. It’s about sharing passions and the past whilst plotting the future. It’s about living off the land, if you can, or at least within the community in which you reside. It’s about nourishment from within and a sharing without. It’s what keeps me alive and helps me to live.