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Finding Solace In Cooking My Childhood Comforts: How I RediscoveredFoods That Bought Me Joy As A Child

·5-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

My childhood was one of dusty feet, tangled hair, and a big appetite. I grew up running barefoot between the aloe and the scrub in the Mars-like wilderness of South Africa, in a little village tucked away behind the fynbos-covered mountains north of Cape Town. I would spend all day running along the dirt-tracks behind my dad’s bike, dodging boomslang and porcupine quills and splashing in our muddy dam until I was coated from head to toe in sulphur-smelling sludge. All this made me a very hungry child, and upon hearing my mum ringing the huge brass bell hanging from our stoop at the end of the day, I'd sprint to the dinner table to feast on whatever homely meal was sat steaming, waiting for me.

Warming, cosy bobotie would be served up with rice in the winter months, dotted with raisins and sweet Mrs Ball’s chutney, while in the summer we would be treated to a huge braai piled high with boerewors and marinated chicken, with creamy melktert or saccharine koeksisters for afters. My snacking habits were and still are completely out of control; I would stuff my mouth with biltong like there was no tomorrow, and would beg my mum to bring me back jelly tots from the shop to satisfy my sweet tooth.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Now, I live in London, and my day-to-day isn't quite as exciting as it was when I was that dirt-covered little girl.

It’s been a nuclear wasteland of a year. Life as we knew it was turned completely upside down, and nearly everyone has found themselves floundering in their newfound apartment-shaped cages, wondering how they were going to stay sane. The simple joys of the before times were out of reach: no more discovering hidden gem cafes that do the best brunch you’ve ever had, no more visiting a local restaurant that does sweet potato fries just the way you like them, flaky and scattered with crystals of salt. With the lack of access to any of the things I hold dear, including my family and their support, I clung tightly with both hands to the only thing I had left: cooking.

So, in lieu of my mum’s absence, I decided to start learning how to make all the food that comforted me back when she would make it for me. I wanted so desperately to remember those scents and flavours, in a mere attempt to inject some of the excitement I once thrived on back into my monotonous life.

To fit the cold winter winds and dark skies outside, I started with bobotie. A Cape Malay speciality, bobotie isn’t like any other food I’ve ever had. It’s a concoction of curried mince mixed with dried fruit, vinegar, chutney (Mrs Ball’s only, of course), eggs and bread. My housemate Ellie, who was initially keen as I caramelised the onion to perfect sweetness and cooked the mince with aromatic curry powder and turmeric, began to look on in horror as I soaked a piece of white bread in milk and stirred it into the mix. I then cracked an egg in, and she nearly threatened to not eat it. After cooking in the oven in a casserole pot for an hour and a half, I then mixed some milk and egg together and poured the custard over the top of the beautiful-smelling mixture, poked in some lime leaves, before putting it back into the oven for another hour. The resulting dish was every bit as comforting as I remembered, gently spiced and with a perfect golden-brown custard top. We served it with rice and more chutney, and there were surprised smiles all round as my British born and bred friends tucked in.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

When craving something fried and sticky, I dug out my mum’s old South African recipe book and rifled through until I found them: koeksisters. Indulgent and laced with cinnamon and lemon, these donut-like braids are deep-fried and dunked into a sugary syrup. My first attempt wasn’t the most successful; the braids fell apart into little inch-long chunks, and I didn’t cook them for long enough, so they were quite claggy in texture. But despite these misfires, they were still divine, and took me straight back to climbing trees on colder days with some sweet treats in my pockets for warmth.

In summer, as people started to tentatively venture out of their hibernation caves into the brisk British air, the barbecue that had slept, rusting, in the corner of my small London garden beckoned. So I took it upon myself one day to upgrade a basic British BBQ to a full-blown South African braai. Braai is not just a straight translation of a BBQ: it is a way of life. It is seared boerewors (a South African speciality sausage curled into a spiral) atop a proper fire, it’s spiced lamb and chicken, marinated overnight, it’s corn on the cob cooked with peals of butter and copious amounts of salt in their little tinfoil sleeping bags, it’s potato salad and coleslaw and rice and pickled beetroot. It’s a cornucopia of food, and can feed an army of hungover friends like nothing else. We feasted all day and all night, and went to bed with fat bellies and big grins.

Over lockdown, I’ve tried every other dish I could remember, with varying degrees of success. Rediscovering the foods that brought me so much joy as a child and introducing them to my found family really helped me to break the monotony of the work-from-sofa lifestyle I had been living for longer than I ever anticipated. My friends and I were well fed, and they became more versed in a food culture that they didn’t know much about previously.

I started this culinary journey searching for the childlike joy these foods once brought me, but instead I found my mother. I felt like I had switched roles: now I was the mum, cooking a delicious filling meal for my housemate children who had been gone all day, adventuring at their jobs in the outside world. I had come full circle: now I was the one ringing the dinner bell, and I loved it.

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