Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Telangana in Melbournes West

Several times over the year I met with Laxmi and Praveen in their home to eat together and learn about there heritage and food habits. They often get asked by friends why they cook the hard [traditional] way when good Indian food is available everywhere in Melbourne.

Cooking is important to both of them for maintaining links to home, with dishes that reinforce connections to family, culture and religion. Both are from Telangana state in the southern middle part of India, where the cuisine is influenced by diverse cultures and climatic conditions.

                                          Laxmi making corn roti
                                          Laxmi making millet roti

Laxmi’s grandmother taught her how to cook traditional Roti bread using Finger Millet flour or Yellow Maize flour, while Praveens mother taught him to make spice mixes Karivepaku podi (curry leaf), kandhi podi (Tumeric flavour), kaaram podi (chilli).
Their desire is to pass on knowledge of how care and attention to cooking as a family pursuit can be satisfying, save money and above all lead to good health and spiritual well-being. This care toward food and how it contributes to their lifestyle is something they hope to pass on to others.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Life is bitter, death is sweet

The old Greek proverb Life is bitter, death is sweet can be summed up in two traditional dishes; Horta and Melemakarona.

In an earlier post I mention the influence of Michelle when developing this project, through a story of her aunts picking edible weeds around Melbourne, referring to their book on edible and medicinal plants brought from Greece.
For me, this was a reminder of the ancient symbiotic relationship between edible plants, people and migration repeated so often over many millennia to form agricultural systems and plant hybridisation practices. Edible weeds are everywhere, among first respondents to human impact on land by usually growing where soil is freshly disturbed, mostly in urban or agricultural environments.

Hence the definition of a weed; a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.

It's well understood and documented that waves of human migration have given Melbourne incredibly diverse food habits and access to global foodways, with the largest population coming from Greece. Throughout the year Michelle and I have cooked Greek dishes evocative of her childhood in Melbourne and her family stories of life on a Greek Island.

A meal of Horta and Youvoulkia (Greek Lamb Meatballs)

Michelle says her father's family were poor, eating Horta from leaves grown and foraged for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with meals of stolen lamb eaten secretly in dead of night. Horta is said to be prized by the elderly who drink the Horta water, which makes sense because that's where most of the nutrition would be after boiling the bitterness out of the foraged greens. For one cooking session we made Horta and Youvoulkia (above), but the dish we decided to focus on for this project however was Melemakarona -  Honey Biscuits because of their association to ritual and similarity the Ancient Greek Ritual Honey Cake.

First attempt at Melemakarona made traditional style.

In context with food anthropology the symbolism for Melemakarona can be seen in the main ingredients of honey and wheat. They carrying life and death connotations, in the context of funeral and/or memorial wheat (Koliva) and honey as a symbol of fertility and well being.

They're Michelle's childhood favorite and we decided to improvise with a modern Greek version, playing further with ingredients and shape. As pointed out by Michelle, our modifications meant they're not Melemakarona because of the altered shape and use of gluten free flours for extra flavour and a shorter (softer) crumb the experience of texture when eating them was significantly different. This was an interesting point because ritual use of food is based on sensory information in context with an associated event/activity that together stimulate strong and evocative memory. If a recipe changes, so does the pathway to the information and memory recall is not the same.

Connections happen when cooking and eating with people because it's a type of language that gets translated through consumption as a meal, that can lead to deeper engagement with community and/or individuals, or miss the mark completely.

After learning to cook Horta with Michelle I showed it to Martin in addition to his existing use of forage plants, as a tasty dish he might be able to share with his family now and then rather than always eat different food to them. Since his strict diet discounts sugars and carbohydrates he is unable to eat honey his bees produce, in turn used to cook Honey Biscuits with Michelle.

Thanks for reading, more soon.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Wild greens and honey

Throughout the year Martin Friedle and I have met to forage for wild greens in his vegetable garden, the local park and various other locations around Brunswick. This is a significant practice for him because for two years Martin has been on a Restricted Calorie Ketogenic Diet. A strict diet developed by Bio-Chemist Otto Warburg who received a Noble Prize for cell specialist research leading to the discovery that cancer cells need sugar. 

                                        Martin at home in the vegetable garden

One result of this diet is a type of ritualised isolation. Because the diet excludes sugars and carbohydrates designed to keep key tones up and sugars down, the resulting metabolic changes he has undergone require several meals per day. Cooking dishes outside of the family taste zone as well as meal times. One of the goals for our meetings has been to create dishes that could cater to the family palate.

                 Experimental cooking with Dandelion roots and leaves

Dandelion is a highly nutritious plant with diverse varieties eaten the world over for thousands of years. All parts of the plant are edible, with the fresh leaves less bitter and considered more nutritious in spring.

                                                  Preparing Dandelion root for cooking.

Martin is also a hobby Beekeeper with a hive in the back garden. With a background in science he is also an accomplished composer, recently presenting new work titled Dance of the Bee, created as a musical exploration into our 5000 year relationship with the honeybee.

                                           Martin and bees (photo by Mim Whiting)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Edible weeds: ubiquitous and vital

Foraging plays a vital role in the project.

In 2012 a friend with Greek Orthodox heritage shared a story about her aunts roaming parks and bush areas of Melbourne with an old illustrated book of edible and medicinal weeds. Prior to hearing this story I had meet two elderly Chinese women foraging in Yarra Bend Parklands in Spring 2011. They were picking Shepherds Purse (they called it something else) and said it was good for salads but was also medicinal.  

Since then I have learned to forage for wild edible greens. Green spaces and parklands around Melbourne are teeming with indigenous and introduced edible plants. Nearly all of which are considered weeds to be eradicated, rather than alternative food sources that could contribute to good health and a greater understanding of our role in the ecology.

From a food anthropology perspective edible weeds are highly visible living relics of human migration, our engagement with and manipulation of the environment. Edible weeds are part of our urban existence as well as being ancestors to modern agricultural crops. Any time soil is turned or trees are cleared weeds flourish. Most edible weeds are herbaceous annuals, with some like Wild Brassicas being the ancestor to the modern cabbage, kale and broccoli to name a few. Edible weeds have rapid life cycles, thought due to their evolution with seasonal glacier movement during Ice Ages that exposed fresh turned soil, these extreme and short seasonal conditions required them to extract minerals and pump nutrients for maximum seed output in the shortest possible time. This is a theory that supports why wild edible weeds are much more nutritious than their modern progeny; the vegetables you see in supermarkets grown for looks and above all maximum yield.


Ryan (above) I did the Edible Weeds Walk organised by Adam Grubb & Annie Raser - Rowland, authors of The Weed Foragers Handbook who do a great intro to forage plants around Melbourne.

Ryan is picking Wild Brassicas flowers (common name Wild Cabbage) which taste like Broccoli. Wild Brassicas is a highly nutritious plant growing most of the year all over Melbourne.

 Caution: Be wary of picking anything that grows where herbicides may be used, it's always best to check with your local council before foraging in parks.

  Picking Mallow leaves.

Edible Weed Walk participants tasting Amaranth seeds. 

The forage walk took place at Joe's Garden - the Harding St Market Garden, which is a heritage market garden on the Merri Creek in Coburg. Significantly, it was the first Chinese market garden in Melbourne mid 19th Century, which may have also contributed to the diversity of wild edible plants along Merri Creek area.

With our harvest of Wild Brassica, Wild Onion, Stinging Nettle, Mallow and Pigweed I made Greek style Spanakopita.

Below is an early experiment with Pigweed (indigenous name Muyaroo) collected from Yarra Bend Parklands.
       Pigweed / Munyaroo

 Pulverised Pigweed rolled and dried in the sun on a hot January day. 

Pigweed grows everywhere and is rich in omega 3 and omega 6. The leaves and seeds used in the traditional diet of indigenous Australians are increasingly recognised for there nutritional value. Other varieties grown around the world commonly called Purslane are widely used instead of Spinach in many cultures, adding a pleasant mucilaginous texture to dishes.

As an indigenous drought resistant edible weed Pigweed/Munyaroo holds much potential as a local and sustainable food crop, sensitive to the Australian landscape.

Thanks for reading

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Rituals of Melbourne

This is a project for which I am seeking people from diverse backgrounds around Melbourne to engage with, to explore our relationship to food and ritual. Of interest are habits we take for granted or rarely see, like foraging for edible weeds, growing vegetables, cooking and sharing meals and participating in community events to see food as a marker of what binds us together while showing us as different.

If you, or someone in your community do something considered unique or unusual that involves food I'd like to hear about it. For example:
  • My nostalgia food is fritters, they remind me of home and loved ones gone. By cooking them I have vivid childhood memory recall of eating my favorite meal cooked by my grandmother.
  • A young guy I know can't start work without his breakfast ritual at MacDonald drive-through, eating fast food is his choice but for others a socioeconomic consideration rather than convenience.
  • The smell of soil in the dead of Winter is distinct and it reminds me to sow certain crops for spring and summer in my vegetable garden. It's intrinsic to a yearning for fresh greens when following a diet that tunes your body to the seasons.

I'd really like to hear your story. Nothing is too obscure or uninteresting, so please get in touch.

Everyone partakes of rituals, some of them we don't even know we are doing, some are lots of work or conducted on a subconscious level. Family, community and religious events usually involve sharing a meal because taste, touch and smell are intense triggers of memory recall for embedding knowledge and information when associated with sound and sight. In essence, significant ritual events in any culture or social group are full sensory experiences. As a consequence, food rituals are profound forms of remembering the past as much as preparing for the future, with some foods designed to remind us of adversity, and what to avoid as much as what to celebrate.

Converging Boundaries, Soul Food Proximity is the second of three socially engaged projects to explore shifting roles for food in context with urbanisation and global cuisine influences. The first project was Converging Boundaries, Everyone and Nobody undertaken with a 2014 Asialink Residency in Malaysia. With the third Converging Boundaries, Altered States being the outcome of a one-year community engagement project in Albury and will be presented at MAMA 2016. 

This blog is a document of the process and progression of the project for outcomes presented at West Space Gallery  December 2015. During a one-week interactive cooking/performance, the audience will be invited to participate in a ritualised process and share a meal that reflects on diverse roles eating has as an expression or representation of ones identity.

Fat Hen (Meld) is an abundant nutritious edible weed synonymous with Melbourne. Meld was cultivated on the estate of Lord Melbourne's family in England for hundreds of years and is responsible for the first half of the family name. As a temperate climate weed it now grows wild around Melbourne.

Leave a comment below, or email to arrange a time and place at your convenience. 


Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for future posts.