I’ve been thinking a lot about ordinariness recently. I was recently writing a spontaneous, off-the-cuff piece about being an ordinary person living an unremarkable life which descended into a strangely anguished cri de coeur that surprised me with its sincerity and its turbulent momentum. But it was also self-indulgent and first-world-problem-ish in a way that was embarrassing to read in the cold light of day, and I decided to keep it private. In a way the writing of it was sufficient for me to consider and reflect without needing it mirrored back at me through the lens of blogging or social media.
But I also think about ordinariness in the context of food, and food writing, too. I read a lot of beautifully written cookbooks, memoirs, blogs and articles where writers describe their lives – especially their childhoods – as marked by distinctive food experiences, memories, and culinary comings of age. Or I will read an evocative and heartfelt piece about a lesser-known cuisine, and get a powerful sense of a heritage being actively preserved.
Like everyone, I have a history when it comes to food and eating, but it’s often a very prosaic one. I was a painfully fussy eater as a child, the kind who causes great anguish (or at least additional work) for parents, and for many years basically ate steamed cauliflower in bechamel, spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and cheese and tomato sandwiches. I grew up in Singapore, a foodie hotbed, but for most of my childhood I was equally repulsed by hawker food, with its lingering smells of belacan (fermented fish paste; it smells stronger than fish sauce), and the local wet markets, with the watery floors and strong scent of raw meat mingling with durian. I came round to Indian food earliest, after many years of rejecting the fragrant heat of chillies, but an attempt at an authentic (albeit vegetarian Buddhist) Chinese meal made me tearful well into my teens. In my late teens I became interested in cooking and started a food blog (Musings on Dinner is, I think, my second or third); my palate broadened because I wanted to cook new things. Even today I find myself discovering new things to enjoy simply because I thought that I should really get round to trying this or that recipe.
This lamb stew is a good example of ordinary cooking. The recipe isn’t dredged from childhood or inspired by a favoured restaurant dish: like so many things I invent, it’s based on what I happen to have in the cupboards and fridge that I would like to see the back of. To this end: the remains of the diced lamb I bought in excessive quantities because I could only find a double-sized pack at the supermarket; the last of the celery; the tomatoes which had been lingering in the fruit bowl and were past their best for eating out of hand; the bag of new potatoes which were threatening to sprout angry and green; the parsley which, ignored at the back of the fridge, was wilting to show her displeasure. I added the spices because I like them, they go well with lamb and they are always in my house.