Review of Mamma, and two of my Mama's recipes
Tuesday, 7 Mar 2017

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I’ve been reading a few personal-nostalgia type cookbooks recently, one of the betters ones is Mamma by Mina Holland, who writes for the Guardian (obligatory disclaimer: I received this free from the publisher and courtesy of Netgalley, for review consideration; this in no way affects the content of the review below). Mamma is a book about food, cooking and recipes but isn’t, strictly, a cookbook. As its title suggests it’s a book about ‘Mamma’ food, ie. homecooking (mother‘s cooking - despite our collective desire to move away from traditional gender roles, it’s still women who do most of the cooking, and the book acknowledges this). The book takes the form of interviews with some famous food-related people: Ottolenghi, Anna del Conte, Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver, Deborah Madison, Claudia Roden (and also Stanley Tucci whom I never knew cooks well, or lives in London, even), interspersed with a narrative about how the writer eats, her food experiences growing up, and recipes and suggestions.

I like books about how people eat and food histories, and I feel she does a good job of writing about Mamma-food nostalgia without descending into sentimentality or lifestyle-porn. The attraction is a little voyeuristic: food is intensely personal and is bound up with family, place/origin, your personal philosophy on life (reading about Alice Waters & nature is particularly insightful, and I was a little thrilled to see a Susie Orbach section, and also an entire section concerning women and cooking).

Part of the appeal for me might also be that while I grew up with a somewhat different food history - less potatoes, more spices - I identify with how she eats. I too live in London; to a certain extent agonise about the ethics (and ‘healthiness’) of my food and cooking; have a fondness for chickpeas; shop in chain supermarkets, independent grocers and farmer’s markets; eat ‘ethnic food’; and I recognise most of the people she interviewed as the doyen(ne)s of modern food, people whose food I already cook and eat and people whose philosophies I admire. And I want to know where her Riverdance-type music spin class is - I feel I must go, if only for the novelty.

Cookbook-wise, I find this a reading rather than a recipe book. Many of the recipes will probably be familiar to most people (particularly those interested in reading a sort of account of modern-day cosmopolitan personal food histories) in some form or other, eg. a rather simpler method of roasting cauliflower compared to Zahav (though, really, how different does roasting cauliflower get); pasta with Marmite, also in Nigella Lawson’s Kitchen, and also stems from Anna del Conte (the mother of Marmite pasta). Rather it’s a book of food ideas, including some rather good ones: different uses for lemons; the inclusion of dried chickpeas in a care package; a defense of anchovies; things to do with yoghurt.

In the spirit of sharing personal food histories, here are two of my ‘Mamma’ recipes. ‘Mamma’ not just because they’re food cooked by my own Mama that I ate growing up, but also because they’re both weeknight friendly recipes busy mamas.

The first is her pineapple sweet and sour sauce. I love this and when I was little didn’t believe my mother when she said it’s really easy, until she gave the recipe to me when I moved away. The ingredients are mostly kitchen cupboard materials like tinned pineapples, dried chillies, ketchup and bottled chilli sauce preferably Maggi, but it must be tomato or at least sugar based like Linghams, and not a vinegary hot sauce like Tabasco, if you really must Sriracha will do. My dried chilli of choice is bird’s eye and I use a lot, use more or less or a different variety to suit your chilli requirements. If you wish to include a vegetable here for a complete meal, cherry tomatoes and peas are the correct options. Serve with rice and some form od battered, breaded or tempura’d protein and/or vegetables of choice. My mother used a tempura mix, I get ready-battered fish or bread something with panko.

The second is jenganan, which is a Javanese peanut sambal (sambal pecel) eaten with tempeh, tofu and vegetables. This isn’t one of my mother’s recipes but it’s something my mother made pretty often. My father’s parents came from Java and this is a staple Javanese food that he ate growing up and he was fond of it. You can have it as part of a platter (nasi jenganan), but at home we normally ate it with rice, fried tempeh and/or tofu, some crunchy vegetables and wilted greens. Crunch-wise cabbage, long beans and bean sprouts are pretty traditional, but my mother has used a variety of things including jicama and apples. Wilted greens-wise, water convolvulus (I. aquatica) and tapioca shoots are traditional but hard to find outside Southeast Asia - spinach is a good substitute, and I like using it raw.

It’s another easy recipe that’s pretty healthy and if your kitchen is stocked with things like dried chillies, miso and tamarind, then it’s a storecupboard recipe too, particularly as tofu doesn’t have to be kept in the fridge and tempeh can be frozen. My bastardised version uses peanut butter which is easier than frying/roasting and grinding peanuts though that option is open to you, and I’ve replaced the traditional shrimp paste with miso, which fulfills the umami role while also being vegetarian-friendly and multi-use: now you can use the leftover tofu in a miso soup the next day.

Sweet and sour pineapple sauce

Ingredients

Serves 2

  • 400g tin pineapples ('regular' size)
  • 5 tbsp chilli sauce (tomato based
  • preferably Maggi)
  • 5 tbsp ketchup
  • 15 dried chillies
  • 5 peeled cloves garlic
  • 1 cup of water
  • sugar
Method

Soak dried chillies in just enough water for at least 10 minutes, ideally 30.

Blitz chillies with soaking water and garlic cloves in a food processor to form a paste.

Heat oil in a pan, add the paste and saute until golden and/or dry.

Add the rest of the water, chilli sauce, ketchup, tinned pineapple and salt, salt and sugar to taste. I used about a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar.

Simmer until it reaches the right consistency for a sauce.


Jenganan (Indonesian peanut sauce)

Ingredients
  • 200g peanut butter (slightly less than 1 scant cup)
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp tamarind concentrate
  • 1 heaped tbsp miso paste