Food Nostalgia: From Borscht to Barbecued Pigeon
Words by Isabelle Oderberg
Photos courtesy of Isabelle Oderberg
Food is more than a nutritional necessity. The stuff we throw on our barbies and dish up to loved ones is full of nourishing memories and stories.
My entire life has been coloured by food, driven by a need to experience every taste and texture. Some of my most vivid and colourful memories are dotted around the world and accompanied by a fork, spoon and chopsticks.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience a hugely diverse range of food, from harira in Morocco – a traditional end-of-Ramadan soup – to Tuscan beef steak in Florence, washed down with endless Chianti. I’ve crunched down on roadside banana blossom and pomelo salad in Thailand, and picked Uyghur kebabs fresh off the coals in far-western China.
Research shows that, when a certain dish is associated with a happy memory, it can influence how good we think food tastes – and how much better those foods make us feel later in life. It’s the science behind comfort food. A 2015 study showed that people tend to associate comfort food with relationships; those who feel isolated tend to gravitate towards food that fills them with a similar warmth.
So it’s not really surprising that some of the dishes that evoke my strongest memories are closer to home.
Worries go down better with soup.
— Jewish proverb
My mother’s family is Polish and my maternal grandmother was food royalty in Melbourne, owning and running the iconic Monarch Cakes in St Kilda’s Acland Street and continental deli and cake shop Rosemarie in South Yarra. Known affectionately as Green Tiles for its tiled exterior, Rosemarie was famous for its long queues and the celebrity spotting you could do once you gained entrance.
In winter you would always find my grandmother’s house full of huge pots on the boil, filled with golden chicken soup, in which floated resplendent matzo balls, noodles and dumplings, sauerkraut soup with dried wild mushrooms, and barley soup made with whole shanks of veal. My mother has now picked up where my grandmother left off, making pot after pot of soup to stock all the family freezers for winter.
When I was pregnant with my now two-year-old son, my entire diet was limited to Deb mashed potato and instant gravy, thanks to shocking nausea. Keeping water down was a struggle. One rainy day I wandered into Babka, an Eastern European bakery in Melbourne’s north, to pick up some caraway rye for my mum. I realised it was lunchtime and time for the daily trial of trying to keep some food down. I laughed internally, wondering what life would be like after my child arrived, given the paradigm shift he’d already caused in my life by robbing me of my greatest love, food, before he’d even arrived.
I look at the menu bitterly, but when my eyes fell on the soup of the day, everything around me fell away and I thought my heart was going to explode. There it was: borscht. Borscht has so many variations that, over time, it has become a generic term for ‘sour-tasting soup’. The version of borscht most people outside Eastern Europe know is the bright purple, beetroot-based consommé. But sometimes borscht doesn’t contain beetroot at all. White borscht can be made with rye meal, cabbage or sauerkraut. In Poland, borscht is often served in a glass as a drink, warm or cold, with or without sour cream.
But on this day, in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, it was the classic purple version being ladled up. And it was the best borscht I’d ever eaten. It was rich but not too sweet and, strangely but deliciously, it contained small pieces of chopped vegetables; I could see and taste carrot, celery and potato. The rich purple colour leeched from the beetroot made comprehensive identification difficult. The borscht was topped with a generous dollop of sour cream, providing the perfect balance to the sweetness of the soup.
As soon as I finished my meal, I called my mum, shouting down the phone that I needed her to go into urgent borscht production, but explaining the soup had to contain small pieces of vegetable – they were utterly essential to the whole experience.
Mum later relayed my strange, craving-driven requests to our Polish friend Kasia who immediately explained, “Ah, she wants Ukrainian borscht!” The mystery was solved! It was the Ukrainian version I’d fallen in love with. I believe I was single-handedly responsible for driving up beetroot prices for the duration of 2016.
They say your pregnancy cravings always signify something your body is lacking. I couldn’t find a mineral in beetroot my body could be lacking, so I concluded that, in my case, the borscht was providing a link to the generations of Eastern European women before me – imbuing me with their feminine power so I could be ready for my son’s arrival.
The world’s your oyster.
— Chess, the musical
After my son was born, my relationship with food was mercifully restored, without the militant restrictions I placed on myself during pregnancy: no coffee, no sushi, no soft cheeses, not too much deep-sea fish, no mayonnaise, no cold meats and, lord help me, no oysters.
One of Melbourne’s best food experiences and one of the great joys of my life is going to South Melbourne Market for oysters, shucked on the spot, eaten raw. It’s the taste and essence of the ocean and, once you’re hooked, you’re powerless to resist. At Aptus Seafood, there is usually at least five varieties of oysters on offer, sometimes many more. Standing tables are set up and overflow with Tabasco chilli sauces, vinegars, fresh lemon wedges, a beautiful homemade mignonette and anything else that could possibly enhance your slurping experience.
When my son was six months old, during a rare moment when I was filled with motivation and energy, I considered walking from my house in St Kilda to the South Melbourne Market – a journey that would take me an hour. And in some sort of modern, food-driven miracle, I actually got up off my post-partum, overweight, exhausted posterior and started moving. As soon as we arrived we proudly trotted through the market to the oyster stall and I ordered myself a dozen. I popped the oysters on the standing table, dressed them and starting throwing them back. My son has always been good with food and, as passionate foodies, my husband and I have always tried to expose him to everything we eat. So, naturally, I bit one in half and handed over the smaller piece. He filled me with pride by wolfing it down and demanding “more”. People around us were laughing and pointing and I was so proud of my beautiful baby boy for being such a budding food champion.
Then, I froze. The oysters, it dawned on me, weren’t cooked.
I dropped everything and my whole body started to shake. I walked the pram out of the market, sat on a bench and started calling people to ask if I should be taking the baby to emergency to get his stomach pumped. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I got hold of the boy’s father on the phone.
In between my wracking sobs and hiccups, I tried to explain to my utterly perplexed husband that I’ve given our baby what probably added up to a whole natural oyster – I’d probably signed his death warrant – and asked him whether I should call an ambulance or just run to emergency to get his stomach pumped.
Our son at this point, it should be noted, was looking at me, giggling and gurgling and repeatedly saying “more?” in an adorable request for more oysters.
His dad started to laugh. A huge, deep laugh that emanated from the pit of his belly, overflowing and pouring down the phone line. A proud Aboriginal man from Birpai country on the coast of New South Wales, he said: “No son of mine will have issues with oysters, he’ll be fine.”
And he was. In fact, it some ways he was more than fine – to this day he eats oysters with us at South Melbourne Market and says “more” if we don’t supply them fast enough.
I concluded that, in my case, the borscht was providing a link to the generations of Eastern European women before me – imbuing me with their feminine power so I could be ready for my son’s arrival.
Watching our baby tuck into his first har gow dumpling was one of the highlights of my life.
Love and eggs are best when they are fresh.
— Russian proverb
My husband has a near-perfect memory. He swears it stretches back to when he was just two years old. I rely on that photographic memory and his beautiful way with words to tell me about his family, who live in another state and, unfortunately, we don’t have many opportunities to visit.
One morning, when our son was small, his father woke up and announced we were having Brennan Eggs. Brennan Eggs, explained my husband, were an invention of his grandmother Stella, the family matriarch on his dad’s side of the family, and most intensely enjoyed by his cousin Brennan, hence the name.
Stella was an elegant, beautiful woman, who aged well, with a halo of angelic white hair in the later photos I’ve had the privilege to see. My husband spent much treasured time in his grandmother’s house, providing him with warm memories and the stability he needed at the time. And now, as he prepared the Brennan Eggs, they were providing another window to a time in his life I knew little about.
To make Brennan Eggs, you first get white bread, cut off the crusts and butter it. Set the bread aside while you boil a runny egg. The perfect runny egg is made by bringing water to boil, adding a room-temperature egg and cooking for 30 seconds. Reduce the water to a simmer and leave for two minutes. Turn off the heat and let the egg sit for another minute before removing from the water.
Put your bread squares in a mug (not a bowl, never a bowl), take the top off the egg and, with a spoon, scoop its guts out over the bread. Mash it through with a pinch of salt and pepper. And there you have it, Brennan Eggs.
It’s a comfort food I’ve come to love, because it’s served imbued with the childhood memories of my best friend – the warmth, affection and love of his grandparents practically cooked into the dish.
Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.
— Tien Yiheng, Chinese poet
My own memories of growing up don’t involve white bread so much as e-fu noodles, barbecued pigeon and snake soup. Hong Kong: the food capital of the universe, where my parents lived for almost 34 years.
The weekly ritual of yum cha (meaning ‘drink tea’) started from before my memories were formed. My parents and a mixture of expatriate and local Chinese friends would meet every Saturday at whatever was the favoured yum cha venue. Imagine baskets and baskets of dumplings, bright red chicken’s feet with a traditional sweet and sour sauce, huge platters of white or yellow noodles – sometimes soft and sometimes crispy – as well as plates of steamed crab, trays of barbecued pigeon or quail, bowls of snake soup topped with crunchy croutons and chrysanthemum leaves…
There is no greater paradise for someone who adores flavour than a good yum cha meal. Every predilection is accommodated, every colour is represented, every subsection of the tongue is catered for.
But the barometer of all yum cha is in the har gow. This is probably the most simple-looking dish on the table – a simple, translucent-skinned dumpling filled with fresh shrimp and steamed to pink, plump, perfection. The skin of the dumpling must be soft, but not so soft (or over-steamed) that it breaks when lifted to the mouth, before it’s eaten in one perfect bite. The shrimp must be cooked through, but only just – so it’s still soft and juicy and not in any way rubbery or dry. To this day, I can’t have yum cha without har gow on the table.
The first time our boy had yum cha was at Gold Leaf in Preston, probably one of the best Cantonese restaurants in Melbourne if you’re looking for a traditional dim sum-wolfing experience. It gets extra points for having Hong Kong-style trolleys with hot food (dumplings, rice noodles, congee and others) so you can point at what takes your fancy and dig in without delay.
Watching our baby tuck into his first har gow dumpling was one the highlights of my life. Although he committed the sacrilegious act of not eating it in one go, we forgave him. He happily tucked into almost all the dishes on the table, but he seemed to inherit almost all his favourites from me, with a stern focus on the cheung fan (steamed, stuffed rice noodles) and congee (rice porridge with preserved egg and pork).
But just when we thought he was full, he paid Gold Leaf the greatest compliment. He looked at me, pointed at the har gow, and said, “more”.