Category Archives: culture

Musings on a burnt pork chop

Five-minute read

I had misgivings at the first whiff of Worcestershire Sauce. My order of Cypriot Mushrooms, as it was called, comprised overcooked fungus drowned in half a pint of the sour liquor.

During my English childhood, every pantry had a bottle of Worcestershire Sauce. The old-fashioned label suggested colonial gents in the era of the Raj, sprinkling a few drops of the brown elixir on their breakfast chops. But this brute of a dish was knocked up in a restaurant in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, where Mount Olympus watches over ancient Byzantine monasteries. And there was the main course still to come.

This and many other meals have helped frame my view that attitudes to national cuisines are as much to do with politics as with alimentation. Let me go back a few decades.

In the early seventies, a shop in London called Habitat started selling little kits of curry spices. You could buy the same spices in Indian and Pakistani grocers if you cared to enter such a store, but people like me – white people – didn’t. Habitat was the precursor of the cool homewares stores that are nowadays ubiquitous. It was one of the first shops to sell a lifestyle of lightness, quirkiness, ultra-modernity, pop art colours, brushed aluminium. The curry spices were emblematic of the Habitat lifestyle: Adventurous but safe, the Orient without the runs.

If I’d been a clairvoyant I’d have known that in 1978, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said would publish his Orientalism, in which he theorised that Europeans had invented the notion of the Orient as a means of asserting the cultural dominance of the colonisers over the colonised. I’d have considered with foresight – in 1973 – that in cooking up a Habitat Chicken Korma, I – along with people like me – was one of a new breed of colonialist. We were remodelling a cuisine using a limited range of ingredients, cooking methods and named dishes; we were turning the gastronomy of a vast and varied land into three curries: Korma, Madras and Vindaloo, with a spoonful of Sharwood’s to garnish. The depressing thing was that Habitat curry was tasteless. You’d get a much more satisfying feed at the local Paki with its maroon flocked wallpaper, Bombay Duck, and cold lager.

But the taste of culinary conquest was on my lips, and those of many of my friends: Over the decades we colonised new cuisines: South Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Egyptian. Our spice racks were full, our veggie plots sprouted galangal and coriander. Our kids learned to use chopsticks before they enrolled in school. When we travelled we learned new variants, discovered pockets of cuisines we hadn’t conquered, rooted out new stinky delicacies to surprise our dinner guests back home.

My finest moment was, I think, in about 2002, when I cooked Indonesian food for twenty guests at my house in the Blue Mountains. Perhaps it was the big Australian reds being sloshed back that night, but I didn’t see the irony of a table of affluent Australians eating Javanese street food among the gum trees and possums.

It was also when I lived in the Blue Mountains that a critical light was shone on my immature postcolonial sensibilities. If you look at census figures for the Blue Mountains, you will discover that the area has a minuscule Asia-born population. From a culinary point of view, this was brought home to me when I found that the waiters in a local Chinese restaurant were Europeans. My first reaction was that I had been cheated; shouldn’t Chinese restaurants be staffed by Chinese people? How could the food be authentic?

And this from the white guy who had mastered – or perhaps remastered – half a dozen national cuisines ranging from the Atlas Mountains to the Yangtze River. This was the white guy who was just beginning to understand that eating is political. I hadn’t learned those Oriental cuisines; I’d invaded them, pillaged them, and brought them home as trophies.

I’ll go a little further with my postcolonial analysis, and claim that white guys like me tended to conquer the cuisines of those bits of the world that our forebears had colonised, not those of the colonisers. The acquisition of French culinary expertise is seen as difficult, and part of the learning of high culture; indeed we talk about haut cuisine. Anyone can make a curry, but French – that takes real art, n’est-ce pas?

And so I found myself in Cyprus, yet to taste Cypriot Mushrooms, travelling with a companion who had lived there as a child and still cherished sweet memories of the food. We started our journey in the southern, Greek, part of the island where, my companion told me, we’d wander the beachside food stalls in the evenings seduced by the fragrance of lamb kebabs grilling on charcoal braziers. The tender pink meat, singed at the edges, would snuggle up against yoghourt and mint in warm pocket bread.

Perhaps that was the case in her childhood. Now there was pork, lots of the stuff, white and fibrous and dry, tasting of almost nothing. And there were cappuccinos topped with aerosol cream and powdered cinnamon. It was time to go north.

We crossed the border by car and meandered through the northern part of Cyprus, enjoying delicate pastel-tinted Turkish food as well as robust tourist grub. The fourth day found us crossing back into the Greek south; we would cruise down the Troodos Range and end up at Paphos, where we were to stay with family. It was the end of the tourist season and the fragrant pine clad hillsides were still pleasantly warm. We stopped to look at exquisite little churches – squat and rough-walled, interiors painted with glorious two-dimensional depictions of saints. The roads were empty.

Our accommodation – a tiny hotel carved into rock walls – had been booked long in advance. We were the only guests, we were told in the troglodytic reception niche. And the restaurant was closed for the year. Try down the hill. They’re still open.

Taking the winding cobbled lane past shuttered windows, spilling geraniums and sleeping cats, we met a sweating couple passing us on the climb up – English, middle-aged, underdressed and red. A single scooter clattered by and was gone.

The restaurant was one of those sadly anachronistic places, a faded faux Swiss chalet, out of place, out of time.

“I bet there’s a huge menu,” I said.

There was. It was half a yard across, cracked and stained, the plastic coating having given up the fight against greasy fingers. There was a large ‘local specialities’ section, a small burger-and-chips list, and unexpectedly, a standard Indian selection of Korma, Vindaloo and Madras. We were the only diners.

“Does it get busy later?” my companion asked the waitress.

“Not really. It is not so full this time of year,” she replied. What was her accent? Not Greek, I thought.

“I’m famished. I’m having an entrée first,” I said to my companion.

“You might regret it. I’ll just have the fish.”

My culinary antennae were bristling: A Greek restaurant, notwithstanding the curry and burgers. Might I get something resembling honest Greek grub of the kind my companion remembered from her girlhood?

When the waitress brought me a pint of lager (“You’ll be full up before the food comes,” my companion said) I asked the young woman if she was from the village.

“I’m from Romania.”

“How interesting,” I lied. “Is the chef from round here?”

“India, maybe.” Aha, that could explain the curries.

A little more questioning revealed that the regular Greek chef had finished for the season. The guy in the kitchen was filling in till tomorrow.

“What happens tomorrow?”

“The restaurant closes for the season.”

“What does he normally do?”

“He cleans the place. He drives the van.”

And so I found myself with two pints of lager on board, and before me a bowl of mushrooms braised in Worcestershire Sauce. It was as vile as it looked and smelt.

“You’d better eat it. You’ve got to pay for it,” my companion sniggered.

I consumed the solids.

My companion’s fish arrived – light and reasonably edible, she reported. But there was no so sign of my ‘Cypriot Meat Platter’. I had another pint of lager.

When at last the dish arrived – enough for four diners – I guessed that the ‘chef’ had cleared out all the remaining meat in the freezer, laid it out on a zinc slab – lamb chops, pork cutlets, cowboy steaks, sausages – and run a blowtorch up and down the row.

I miserably picked at the charred edges of something.

“Serves you right. Why don’t you send it back and ask for something else?” Did I detect the mildest hint of schadenfreude?

Later I said, “Next time we’ll find a Greek restaurant with a Greek chef.”

“You know that’s nonsense. Half the Italian restaurants in Sydney are run by Anglos, not Italians.”

She was right of course.

“Why don’t we just find a restaurant with a chef?” I said.

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This is an edited version of a story I first published in 2016 under the title Diners of the World Unite! 

Drop in here to find out about my novels.

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If you’re going to talk like a pirate, do it properly!

Do you suffer from bruxism brought on by poor pirate accents? I do: I grind my teeth whenever I watch the BBC TV show Doc Martin. If you’ve ever watched this program you’ll know that in the English seaside village where the doctor practices, all the locals speak Piratese, or as I sometimes like to call it Yokelese.  But more of Pirate language in a moment.

My real gripe as a finicky linguist is that TV and film so often handle language use so amateurishly. I often get into foetal position and weep when an actor playing an immigrant with poor English is given an inconsistent mishmash of lines where in one utterance they speak in ‘me no understand’ fashion, and in the next produce perfectly formed complex sentences dressed down with a silly foreign accent.

And don’t get me started on those war movies vere ze Chermans spik like zis! Make ‘em speak German and add subtitles, I say. The worst such example of this genre is the (for me) unwatchable Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, in which Nicolas Cage should have got an Oscar for sustained performance of high front vowels and trilled r’s.  Maybe he’d had tuition from an actor I once met at an audition whose résumé included the ability to speak English in twenty-five accents, including both Eastern and Western Armenian.

Arrr! That’s Piratese by the way, for ‘back to the topic’. In Britain and Australia, it is customary for actors playing southern English rural characters to employ a couple of pronunciation tricks such as modifying the ‘o’ sounds in words like ‘coat’ and changing the vowel in ‘eye’ to the vowel in ‘boy’. The principal trick, however is to rhotacise, i.e. (in simple terms) to pronounce most of the r’s indicated by spelling. So, where a Londoner or Sydneysider would not pronounce the ‘r’ in ‘hard’, a speaker of Piratese would pronounce it. Give it a try. If you have young children or grandchildren, you can copy Captain Feathersword of The Wiggles, who speaks quite good Piratese.

So why are my teeth a millimetre shorter than they should be? It’s because of the basic mistakes that Piratese speakers make. Why do I keep hearing actors saying things like “Hello GrandmaR” and “Where’s LouisaR?” where no ‘r’ exists in the spelling? Well, the reason is that they overdo a little rule that allows us non-rhotic speakers to pop in an ‘r’ when the next word starts with a vowel. So, while we don’t say the ‘r’ in ‘Here’s my car’, we can say it in ‘My caR is in the next street’.

OK, all clear so far. However, the brains and mouths of native Londoners and Sydneysiders wickedly conspire to play the ‘India office’ trick on us. Try saying this phrase quickly and not making an ‘r’ at the end of ‘India’.  No ‘r’ in the spelling – we just overextend the ‘caR Is’ rule to ease the transition between the last vowel in ‘India’ and the first vowel in ‘office’. Try it: IndiaRoffice.

Arr! What bad Piratese speakers do is push the rule too hard by sticking the ‘r’ on the end of words that end in a vowel but are not followed by a vowel: While it’s fine to say ‘GrandmaR isn’t here’, it’s a plank-walking offence to say ‘Here’s GrandmaR’.

If I can be shamelessly unscientific for a moment, we non-rhotics are like carriers of damaged linguistic DNA; a few centuries ago all English speakers pronounced all their r’s, until the effete London court gave them up and the fashion spread through the hot chocolate drinking classes. But not all our telomeres were degraded, and the vestigial ‘r’ still pops up here and there in the attenuated fin de siècle speech of Camden Town and Bondi.

I’m astonished that few people I’ve spoken to seem to notice these errant r’s, or, when the mistake is pointed out, care. But I do, which is, I suppose one of the burdens that we sad scholars of linguistics carry. For years I’ve struggled to answer the question ‘what’s the use of linguistics’ at cocktail parties, and I’m beginning to think that it’s to keep dentists in business.

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Now, if I’ve sparked your interest in linguistics, have a look at my latest novel Cairo Mon Amour, which has no pirates in it whatsoever and actually has nothing to do with linguistics

Sydney thumbs its nose at 8.2 million visitors

Where has the covered walkway gone? Photo: Stuart Campbell

Wrangling three small, sweaty grandchildren off the Manly ferry yesterday in 30+ degree sunshine, I realised something was missing: The covered walkway that used to curve from Circular Quay to the colonnade that runs down to the Opera House.

It’s not a long stretch – perhaps fifty metres – but when it was first built, you could at last walk under cover from the station to the Opera House, with just two small  gaps.

In a tux.

In a ball gown.

Or just in shorts and backpack, like the millions of visitors who come to our city to see the best view in the world.

Not now. The walkway has gone, apparently as part of a building site for a block of flats.  Actually, I thought I might might have dreamt about it, but I checked and  you can see the erstwhile walkway cover in the bottom right of the Pullman Hotel’s website here.

And actually, I thought for a moment that East Circular Quay might be public land, but quickly corrected myself for my foolishness.

So my grandchildren scorched on the way to the Gruffalo show at the Opera House, and got wet on the way back after a southerly buster hit.

Now that’s really not of much consequence. We live here and we can go to the Opera House whenever we like.

But what a great message for the 8.2 million visitors who visit the Opera House each year: It’s not worth our trouble to get you there in comfort.

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Stuart Campbell has lived in Sydney since 1978. He writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

 

Andalus Arabic Choir – Sydney’s best-kept music secret?

arab musicIs the Andalus Arabic Choir Sydney’s best-kept secret? I’ve been listening to Arabic music for decades, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from their annual concert at Sydney Opera House last week.

It was a blast of joy, and a reminder that the heart of multicultural Sydney still throbs. A dozen and a half choristers swayed and sashayed through two sets of songs alongside a world-music flavoured band of piano, oud, qanun, wind, bass and percussion. The names of the singers and the musicians tell a Sydney story – Arab, Italian, Greek, Slav, Dutch, Turkish.

Artistic director Ghada Daher-Elmowy held the performance together, performing several emotion-drenched solos in between exchanging cheerful banter in Arabic and English with the audience.

My favourite song? It had to be Misirlou, sung in Greek and Arabic (as Amal). You may know it from Dick Dale and the Deltones, but there’s an exquisite old Arabic version by Maestro Clovis here which absolutely breaks my heart.

Alf shukr to Andalus for a great night – can’t wait for next year’s concert!

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You can find out about my novel Cairo Mon Amour here. And it contains lots of references to Arab music!

Russell Darnley’s ‘Seen and Unseen’: Testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

I bought Russell Darnley’s Seen and Unseen some months ago and tucked it into a corner of my Kindle, dipping into some of the ‘stories’ in the gaps between my backlog of novels-to-read.

With some holiday time on my hands, I decided to start at the beginning – and I couldn’t stop reading. I now saw that the ‘stories’ formed a coherent narrative woven from threads of spirituality, self-discovery, and an expression of one man’s understanding of Australia in the world.

The motif of the seen and the unseen, drawn from the Balinese notion of sekala and niskala, signifying the ubiquity of the spiritual world, is the strongest of these threads: How else to interpret the first and last sections of the book, when Darnley converses with his dead grandfather on the cliffs at Coogee?

But Seen and Unseen isn’t an extended navel gaze. There’s wonderfully powerful and evocative material about intellectual life in seventies Sydney, about student parties in inner city flats, about the study of Bahasa Indonesia in the brief period when the Australian Government was prepared to fund it generously.

In reading Darnley’s book, I realised that he and I had moved in intersecting circles in the seventies and eighties but had (perhaps) never met. As a university languages school head, I rode the crest of the Indonesian studies movement for a few years, but Darnley’s book brought back uncomfortable memories of my having to close an Indonesian program as funding tightened and the popularity of the language waned in the face of Japanese and Chinese. I was also reminded of the hopes for deep engagement with Indonesia during Gareth Evans’ tenure as Foreign Minister, and the dashing of those aspirations under his successor.

For a newish Australian (I arrived in 1977), Darnley’s account of a childhood in Coogee was fascinating; I’ve lived mostly on the north side of the Harbour Bridge, and Coogee is foreign territory for me. Indeed, the biographical thread running through Seen and Unseen is subtly and tenderly handled. While the ‘stories’ follow chronologically, there are gaps, but the reader is given to understand that each story tackles a new stage in the author’s progress through his professional, personal and spiritual life. The middle section of the book is set mostly in south-east Asia, from which I drew two main impressions: One was Darnley’s wonderful work in establishing and running an overseas study centre for Australian students; the other was his extensive knowledge of Indonesia, and especially Bali, based on his years of residence in the region.

But the core of the book – in my view at least – is the section dealing with the author’s voluntary work in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings (for which he was awarded the OAM). The description of those days is the most harrowing and powerful writing I have encountered in a long time. I had the strong impression that Russell Darnley’s life up to that moment in 2002 was a preparation for the awful work that he volunteered to do, including searching body bags for identification evidence. Russell Darnley surely was the right man in the right place.

Seen and Unseen: The testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

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Stuart Campbell is a Sydney author. News of his latest novel Cairo Mon Amour can be found here.

Gay love, snappy fantasy, and missing the point

img_0863Somehow I missed André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name in 2007, but a friend kindly lent me a paperback copy (there doesn’t seem to be an ebook edition, and so I spent a few days with the unfamiliar feel of paper between my fingers). I’ve bundled Aciman in this post with two quite different works: A short story by indie author Jack Binding, and the dance piece Spectra, which just opened at the Sydney Festival.

Let me start with Spectra, a collaboration between artists from Tokyo and Townsville, that “explores the interconnectedness of the universe – illuminating the potency of intentional actions and their inherent power to bear fruit in the future”. I had difficulty in finding points of connection between the dance and the theme, and in turn between the music and the light sculpture. At the same time, the athleticism of the dancers was stunning, and there were some highly original components, such as the line of arms that took on a snake-like life of its own. While I left the theatre feeling slightly dissatisfied, the performance stuck in my mind the next day, especially the exhaustion and elation of the young dancers in the curtain call, for whom the emotional force of the piece was obviously authentic and drenched with meaning. I spent the rest of the next day reflecting on why I hadn’t engaged with the piece, concluding that I’d failed to remember that every generation rediscovers the art forms of the previous one, and that perhaps I’d left my empathy at home. The review of Spectra by Deborah Jones filled in the gaps for me.

Jack Binding, an English writer living in Sydney, followed my blog recently, so I returned the favour by downloading his short story Dot Matrix. I’m envious of anyone, Jack Binding included, who can write a short story. All of mine have been overwrought flops. Dot Matrix is a smart, short and snappy fantasy of workplace revenge with a technological quirk that floats somewhere between the paranormal and the paranoid. Check out Jack’s well-groomed website here.

Call Me By Your Name passed me by in 2007. My reading experience of gay literary fiction (is that a genre?) is pretty well limited to Alan Hollingsworth’s The Line of Beauty* and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, so I dived into Aciman’s novel without much of a frame of reference. It’s a love story on the familiar theme of self-doubt and unrequited desire, but with two male protagonists – a brilliant student summering at his parents’ Italian villa, and a slightly older house guest who is spending the season working on the translation of a scholarly manuscript. Call Me By Your Name is a skilled depiction of emotional and erotic tension, with the pair warily circling the possibility of a relationship, until the inevitable happens. The striking thing about the book is the psychological particularity of this (or any?) same-sex relationship, which is enshrined in the title. There’s inevitably an element of prurience in reading this kind of work; let me say that the sex is handled tactically, as it should be: In good writing, sex scenes have a job to do, other than to provide entertainment. I wasn’t sure of the need for the final chapters. Did it really matter how our men felt two decades later? Did I really need a cup of cocoa after the degustation?

A movie based on the book is to be released in 2017.

*I found the BBC mini-series of The Line of Beauty thin and wan, on a par with the superficial and rushed mini-series of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Why do they bother? Just read the bloody books!

I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. Find out more about my books here.