A culinary journey
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