Monday, 25 August 2014

Food and roots (not vegetables!)

Mogok pork curry, MiMi Aye's recipe. 

By: Mrs Robot

This post comes about as the result of a drunken (on my part) conversation I had over Twitter with Kavey and MiMi Aye on Friday night on exploring other cuisines to connect with my roots. Twitter is not the best place to try to talk about anything meaningful, especially when you've had a few pints, and Kavey asked if I'd done a blog post on it. I hadn't, so here it is.

I am basically white English. By which I mean, an awful lot of my ancestry isn't English and some of it isn't even European. And to me, that is English; we're a nation mostly made up of mongrels, all with the restlessness and drive that comes from being descended from all sorts of people who decided get up off their backsides and make their lives better. But I have always had a curiosity about my granddad McDonald's family, partly because it was never really talked about. I knew he was born in Burma, and I remember him writing things in Burmese to show me, but that was pretty much that.

Most of my memories of Granddad Mac are of two things, war stories and food. I'll spare you the army pathologist tales, though I will say I was possibly the only eight-year old in East Anglia who knew how to remove a brain. On the food side, Granddad grew tomatoes, big fat beefsteak ones. He grew other vegetables when he was more agile, but in later life I can only remember him growing tomatoes. I, too, grow tomatoes every year. Outdoors on our patio they don't do well, but I do it anyway and they always make me think of him. Then he got ill, and talked more and more about Burma, and then he died.

After the funeral, there was a wake, with plenty of sweet sherry. I got talking to one of my great-aunts, and she reminisced about their childhood in Burma, in a little town called Maymyo - now Pyin Oo Lwin. (Mr Robot and I visited there last year, the first members of my family to do so in decades.) And things rolled round to food. My great-aunt spoke of how they'd have mangoes for pudding. The fruit would be in a bucket of cold water, and no-one could take one until they'd finished their main course. All the children would race to finish so they could have first pick of the mangoes, and they'd always pick the largest one and it would always be woody. Granddad, being a slow eater, would inevitably get a small but juicy one. My great-aunt also spoke with regret of not being able to get fresh tamarind in this country. I thought to myself, "What did granddad miss?" He spent half a century living a completely British life. Did he eat many mangoes in later life? What on earth did he think of British curries, made with curry powder and raisins?!
My great-grandmother in Maymyo

I've done digging around in the family tree, and I'm pretty sure we're part Burmese on my grandfather's father's side - often, with Eurasian family history, you are working with three things: information, no information, and a significantly-shaped absence of information. It's working out whether you know nothing or whether you know the nothing means something that's the tricky bit! My grandfather's mother was Anglo-Indian, from Calcutta. She must have grown up with that community's unique cuisine, which over decades blended European and Indian favourites to come up with something all of its own, but I know nothing of it.

And so I developed an interest in Asian food, partly as a way of connecting to these people and places in the absence of names and faces and stories. I can't reach out to them in person, and few physical things remain, so sharing food is my only way to make a connection.  I still know very little about Burmese or Indian food, and to be honest it's taught me nothing concrete about Granddad or the nameless Asian ladies in my family tree, any connection is purely an emotional one, and only in my mind. If I wanted to connect with family through food in a tangible way, I'd do better to eat some de Solminihac oysters, as they would at least be farmed by a distant relative. (The connection there is via India - my Anglo-Indian great-grandmother was a de Solminihac.) But I have enjoyed some very tasty meals, and visited some wonderful places, and met some kind and knowledgeable people, online and off, so I will continue to explore Burmese and Indian cuisine.

And I still wish I could ask Granddad what he thought of British curries!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. As I said on twitter, we should never let others dictate (or even make is feel uncomfortable about) which disparate elements of our ancestry we weave into our personal culture and heritage. The colour of one's skin is irrelevant to culture and heritage and you are as entitled to explore and feel a connection to the Burmese and Indian stories in your family tree as to the "white" ones. :-)