A culi­nary jour­ney

Sunday Herald Life - - FOOD & DRINK - By Su­mayya Us­mani Fol­low Su­mayya Us­mani on Twit­ter @Su­mayyaUs­mani

IFIRST met Peggy Brunache while record­ing my BBC Ra­dio Scot­land show. Peggy is a his­tory and Amer­i­can stud­ies tu­tor at the Uni­ver­sity of Dundee, and also so much more. Haitian by de­scent, but hav­ing grown up in Mi­ami, Peggy iden­ti­fies strongly with the African Amer­i­can flavours of the Caribbean, but still cooks her own her­itage Haitian ones. “Caribbean folk, like most peo­ple of colour I’ve per­son­ally met, are pas­sion­ate about food,” she tells me. “We can spend all day rem­i­nisc­ing, de­bat­ing and ar­gu­ing about food.”

That feel­ing res­onates with me. I can’t re­mem­ber one fam­ily gath­er­ing or meal with friends back in Pak­istan, that does not mir­ror this.

So what brought this HaitianMi­ami bred girl to Scot­land? Hers is the most ro­man­tic of sto­ries: it was love, after meet­ing her now hus­band Andy Shearer on­line while she was fin­ish­ing her doc­toral stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas.

Peggy moved to Scot­land in May 2006 and trained as a his­tor­i­cal ar­chae­ol­o­gist. To­day, as well as a uni­ver­sity teacher, she is a culi­nary con­sul­tant and has worked with Perth’s South­ern Fried Mu­sic Fes­ti­val since its in­cep­tion 10 years ago. This yearly fes­ti­val cel­e­brates vi­brant South­ern Amer­i­can food, cul­ture and mu­sic.

Peggy de­scribes the flavours she grew up with as “loud flavours” which are best char­ac­terised as sour, salty, spicy, hot and sweet – the five sen­sa­tions that bal­ance flavour in your mouth. She iden­ti­fies that “loud­ness” with mu­sic: like the reg­gae and Cuban sal­sas that played while food was cooked dur­ing the fes­ti­val, the food flavours were “mu­si­cal” on the tongue.

For ex­am­ple the smell and sound of gar­lic cook­ing in hot oil was like mu­sic in flavour and sound. In fact, she says, it wasn’t un­usual to see peo­ple jump up and dance as they took a bite of the food.

As far as her Haitian child­hood mem­o­ries are con­cerned, the stand-out flavours are citrus: vine­gar for meat, sour or­anges and scotch bon­net pep­pers. Peggy loves chilli and says: “If there’s no heat, then what’s the point? Some­times it’s a stac­cato prick­ling heat on the tongue. But most times, it’s a lan­guid but fruity hot­ness that blan­kets your mouth. And our meat mari­nade has to be made us­ing sour or­anges. Lemons and limes are poor sub­sti­tutes. Com­bine sour or­anges with gar­lic, white vine­gar, salt, herbs, scotch bon­nets ... only then can you be­gin to ‘clean’ meat for the even­tual fry­ing, bak­ing or roast­ing.”

The con­cept of “clean­ing” isn’t alien to me. In most South Asian cook­ery, we mar­i­nate and take out any pun­gent and acrid flavours in meat us­ing strong citrus, and it is in­ter­est­ing to see other warm­cli­mate coun­tries do the same. Spices play a huge part in Peggy’s cook­ery; cloves, cin­na­mon, thyme and oregano were sta­ples in her home.

“Haitians per­fume rice and beans with cloves while the dish cooks,” says Peggy, “and Haitians are the only ones who make ‘diri ak djon djon’ [black rice]. Djon djon is a unique mush­room that grows only in the moun­tains of Haiti. Once col­lected, the black mush­rooms de­velop the most pun­gent odour. How­ever, once the rice cooks in djon djon-in­fused [black] wa­ter, the dish loses the pun­gent scent and takes on a strong but more sub­tle bou­quet with a woody and ex­quis­ite taste.”

The gen­eros­ity of the peo­ple she grew up with has in­flu­enced her cook­ing too. “Ev­ery­one I knew had large gar­dens with sev­eral fruit trees. Most of my neigh­bours were Haitian or from other is­lands like Cuba and Jamaica. Most of us had at least one mango tree.”

I was very ex­cited when Peggy shared a story which re­minded me of pick­ing raw man­goes as a child. “My Ja­maican neigh­bours taught me to eat raw green man­goes with salt,” she says.

Peggy grew up in a hot­bed of cross­cul­tural cui­sine. Here in Scot­land, far re­moved from her colour­ful child­hood, she re­tains her pas­sion for home cook­ing, but most of all, the ex­otic flavours of na­tions that dance, sing and share abun­dant food with neigh­bours, friends and fam­ily. Su­mayya Us­mani co-presents BBC Ra­dio Scot­land’s Kitchen Cafe. Her books, Sum­mers Un­der The Tamarind Tree and Moun­tain Berries And Desert Spice, are out now, pub­lished by Frances Lin­coln Visit su­mayyaus­mani.com

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