Step aside, celebrity chefs. Grandma cooks are becoming the new stars of the food world.
If there’s one thing pop culture has taught us it’s that what goes around
comes around.And with an evergrowing call for more real and less manufactured food, it’s no surprise the soul-filling traditions of nonnas and yiayias are at the top of the pops.
These custodians of their cultures are being celebrated like never before. A Melbourne Greek woman who passes home-cooked dishes over the fence to two neighbouring brothers has stolen hearts as Instagram star the ‘yiayia next door’. Gradi at Crown, meanwhile, is launching a Piatti dei Nonni menu from this Wednesday, inspired by chef-owner Johnny Di Francesco’s relationship with his own nonna.And Melbourne caterer Peter Rowland is marking its launch of home-delivery meals in Sydney and Melbourne with a series of videos featuring legendary local grandmother cooks by filmmaker Nick Tsindos, released today.
One of these legends is Elizabeth Chong, whose wonderfully accessible Chinese cooking probably entered your home and heart in the ’80s and ’90s by way of shows like Good Morning Australia.The daughter of William Chen Wing Young, who popularised dim sim in Melbourne in the 1940s, Chong started as a cooking teacher in the early ’60s before going on to appear on Australian TV.
“A few years ago, a student I taught back in 1962 wrote to me to tell me that they still cook my recipes to this day,” she says. “That’s what I’ve always strived to do – to share recipes that are real and within reach of anybody.To hear things like this are my reward.”
The yiayia in the series is Mary Calombaris, mother of George. She sees food as a way of connecting family through time and distance. “You can never have your children for the whole of your life,” she says. “You only borrow them. But the memories stay forever.”
And she’s all for the renewed interest in what her generation has to offer. “It’s great to remind people us grandmothers
“IT’S GREAT TO REMIND PEOPLE US GRANDMOTHERS CAN SHOW OUR CUISINE TO THE YOUNG ONES.”
are around and still going and can show our traditional cuisine to the young ones and tell the stories of how we lived.”
As the keenest cook of four daughters, she continues to relish the responsibility of being the collector and custodian of her family’s recipes. “Mum used to say ‘Did you write it down?’ and my sisters would say ‘Don’t worry, Mary knows it.’ To this day, I feel like Mum is still with us every time we cook her recipes.”
She says her grain salad is so popular, she sometimes makes it in 50-kilo batches for a local fundraiser.
Chef Kemal Barut of Melbourne’s Tulum credits his mother’s influence in shaping his professional life. His mum Fatma’s Turkish roots form the grounding from which his food has flourished. “In my time as a child and young adult our houses were always filled with family and grandparents,” she says. “We learned everything we know from our ancestors.
“Traditional culture was always celebrated with the whole family so
the next generation could follow the traditions,” she adds, noting the risk we have of losing parts of our culture through growing individualism.
In Sardinia, meanwhile, just a handful of women still know how to make the world’s rarest pasta, one of whom learnt the art half a century ago, and diners at Sydney’s celebrated Pilu at Freshwater are lucky enough to be able to try it. “There are about five women left, led by an incredible woman, Paola Abraini, who can make su filindeu, a superfine pasta, which translates as ‘threads of God’,” says chef
Giovanni Pilu. “It’s made – as many things are – to celebrate a saint and people walk a 33-kilometre pilgrimage in the night to a church at the centre of the island.” There the pasta is served to the weary in lamb broth, topped with stretchy fresh pecorino.
At his restaurant Pilu serves a precious amount of this su filindeu made by Paola – he gets it flown in and it costs around 45 euros a kilo – as a way of sharing her story and to encourage people to value the old ways. “If we were to lose this way of making pasta, it would be devastating. We would lose a piece of Sardinia that is so unique and rare.We can’t let it disappear,” he says.
Of course, it would be remiss not to ask the Melbourne treasures for some pearls of kitchen wisdom.
“Learn to be an instinct cook,” says Mary Calombaris. “Look at what you have and learn how to make a meal out of it.And we should try to get people to cook at home and not go out to eat all the time. It’s healthier.”
“Use the serving of food as a means to gather family and friends, to create wonderful memories,” say Fatma Barut. “Take an open interest in eating, no matter where you come from.When you go to the supermarket,you can see the diversity in who we are through the array of food we have to choose from. Good eating and good food is such an enormous part of life and good health.”
Sage words from wise women.
IT’S ALL GREEK Mary Calombaris is the custodian of her family’s recipe legacy.