Today’s food story is by Sally of Sal’s Kitchen. Sally is from the UK and used to be a fussy eater but that all changed with a year in France …
Food is one of my favourite things in life – I’m constantly hungry to discover new cuisines, have a go at making different things, and share meals with the people I love. But it’s taken me a pretty long time to get to this point, and until just a few years ago I was one of the fussiest people I knew.
I’ve always enjoyed my grub but I used to find eating out exhausting, because I was always worried about whether I would find something I liked on the menu. Even if I did spot something I wanted to eat, I would scrutinise the description and weary the waiting staff with a list of things I wanted left out. And when the food arrived, I would spend five minutes picking things off before starting to eat. Even at nineteen, I had the eating habits of a child.
This didn’t change at all until I went to Paris for a year as part of my university degree. Plunged abruptly into a city bursting with fascinating cuisines and knowledgeable foodies, it was inevitable that something would change. For a start, the French have no patience with fussy eaters. There is rarely such a thing as a children’s menu, because even very little kids are expected to eat ‘grown-up’ food without protesting, and woe betide the diner who dares to request a change to the menu, because the chef might just come and chuck you out himself. You are expected to trust in the knowledge and skill of food experts and accept what they have decided you will like.
To start with, of course, I didn’t like this at all. At my place of work there was a fantastic subsidised restaurant for staff, where my colleagues regularly tucked into three course lunches, often washed down with wine. The hungry diner keen to revel in his good fortune could select a meal from four or five hot counters with various dishes of the day, including several fresh fish options, a steak counter (with different cuts cooked to order), a pizzeria and a sandwich bar, as well as individual stations entirely devoted to salad, crudités, cheese, patisseries and fresh fruit. For the first couple of weeks, I confined myself to things I recognised from the salad bar, but gradually I started to find the mouth-watering aromas wafting from the more interesting stations irresistible. The problem was that often, the descriptions were mystifying to me – the French so love their food that they have a whole other subset of their language devoted to it. I had no opportunity to study the menu and certainly no chance of asking that the dishes be modified on my account.
But then I had a bit of a breakthrough moment, because it dawned on me that if the gorgeous scents wafting from the kitchens were making my mouth water, I’d probably like the taste too. So I started following my nose, picking dishes based on what smelled best and trusting the chef’s choice as to what went with what. I found that even if I didn’t like the taste of an ingredient by itself, a really good chef can be trusted to serve up almost anything (I will admit that I tried, and failed to be convinced by, liver and tongue) in a manner that makes it taste fantastic.
The flavours and ingredients that I discovered were just a little bit mind-blowing, for someone previously happy to subsist on a very limited diet – there was a fantastic mix of cuisines, and I started to taste dishes from Africa, Greece, Thailand, Morocco and Spain, as well as the rich and varied regional cuisines of France itself. Outside of work, I had the opportunity to explore the amazing restaurants that Paris has to offer, and I began to get excited about trying new things and placing my trust in fantastic chefs. I don’t think it would be too much of an exaggeration to describe this as life-changing, since food went on to take up a very important role in my life.
Unfortunately I didn’t have access to my own kitchen out in Paris, but once I got back, I was desperate to start cooking some of these dishes myself. I bought a pile of recipe books and tucked in. My mum is a great cook, able to recreate a favourite dish from a restaurant or make up something new and exciting, and she inspired me to take a relaxed approach to cooking – I still like to follow recipes, especially if I have something specific in mind which I want to create, but I’m not afraid to swap ingredients or change the process a bit, and I do like to come up with my own stuff too. Finding out that cooking can be flexible and creative made me realise that it’s a lot less intimidating than expensive restaurants would have you believe.
I started my blog, www.salskitchen.blogspot.co.uk, in February 2012, as a way of sharing my new discoveries. Although I don’t particularly go in for ‘easy’ recipes (and I have a particular dislike for the sort of recipes that are made easy by cutting out anything different or interesting in them) I do try and make my recipes as accessible as possible, by giving step-by-step instructions and background information on new ingredients. I suppose in a way I’m writing recipes for my fussy nineteen year-old-self, trying to convince her that food and cooking doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating, and that food can be great fun if you approach it with a sense of adventure and abandon. I also try and write for those young people usually targeted by awful ‘cheap and cheerful’ student cookbooks, which tell you to buy the cheapest cuts of meat and use nothing on them except salt and pepper, because with a bit of thought, cooking doesn’t have to be expensive either. Combining writing and cooking, which are two of my favourite things, has been a great adventure for me. One of the things I’d love to do in the future is write a cookery book, not just to tell people how to get a meal on the table, but to pass on my discoveries about food and perhaps inspire a love of cooking like the one that has brought me so much pleasure. Watch this space!