Food For Thought
Jonathan Phang finds self-discovery and identity through an unlikely source – food – on a jaunt through the ancient cobbled streets of the Portuguese capital
When I was growing up, no one would tell me where I was from. My parents met my question with a wagging finger, a clip around the ear and the command: “If anybody asks, tell them that you are British!” When I then asked why I didn’t look English, I was told, “Because you are not English! You are BRITISH!”
I felt even more confused by my parent’s reaction. I looked blank whilst being teased at school for looking different and could offer no explanation or defence for my unusual features. I became numb and mute when asked about my background. I discouraged my friends from visiting our house.
To this day, I am unaware of what being British really means and I doubt I will ever be certain of my heritage. I do know that I have approximately eight different nationalities in my blood. I am sure, however, that being British meant something completely different to my parents and to their parents.
My parents’ first passports referred to them as being, “mixed natives of the British Guiana”. My mother looked exotic, maybe a little Latin, with almond shaped, dark, deep-set eyes. My father looked fully Chinese, but sounded West Indian.
My maternal grandfather had black skin, and straight hair. My maternal grandmother, Maude, had rosy skin, hair the colour of raw sienna and the very bluest of eyes. My grandmother, Maude, had rosy skin, hair the colour of raw sienna and emerald coloured eyes. Maude was a “red leg” beauty, who was born in Barbados to Portuguese and Scottish parents, apparently from Madeira and Pith Lochery respectively. Although Maude died when I was six, I still have vivid memories of sitting on her ample knee, enveloped within the confort and warmth of her cuddles and the sweet aroma of her powdery perfume. She fed me curry, with a knob of butter on the spoon to help cool the spices, and made me scream the house down when she force-fed me her pungent salt fish cakes. I don’t think of granny very often and it wasn’t until recently that I questioned how a white lady, of mixed origins, could be considered Caribbean or named a ‘red leg’.
My mother, father and grandmother all died during the month of October. It is therefore a month of mixed emotions and reflective introspection for me, and as result I hate spending it in London. I will do almost anything, go almost anywhere else, and accept almost any invitation to avoid the waves of doom that sweep over me during Autumn.
I am doing rather well at avoiding my annual month of maudlin this year. So far, I have spent two days making cocktails for 50 international television sales executives in the beautiful city of Lisbon, had two wonderful nights on board the stunning Belmond Royal Scotsman touring the highlands and accompanied Jerry Hall to the Steiger Awards in Germany.
I was first introduced to Lisbon’s charms in 1988, by a Portuguese friend of mine named Antonio, who was born in Sintra, exiled to Mozambique after the 1974 revolution and moved to London after Mozambique negotiated independence from Portugal in 1975. We stayed at the Ritz Hotel and Antonio proudly and lovingly, guided me through the capital city of his beloved country. I then returned to Lisbon, with my mother, several years later and fell in love with it all over again.
I was itching to get back, after such a long absence, and, was thrilled to be staying at the Four Seasons Hotel (formerly The Ritz). I was worried that its new owners would sully my fond memories of staying at this stately Lisboan establishment. Thankfully, Four Seasons have kept her original dignity in tact and have managed to enhance and update the hotel’s faculties graciously without compromising her integrity. The staff are less formal than they used to be, far friendlier and very well informed. Their enthusiasm was infectious and a memorable part of my trip.
After, making my cocktails on the roof terrace, (with the best possible view of Lisbon as my backdrop) my guest and I took a motorised tuk tuk ride around the city and it’s lively neighbourhoods. This is the perfect way to navigate the city’s ancient and narrow maze of cobbled streets.
We visited all the usual beauty spots, whilst having a running commentary from a passionate, highly educated, young surfer who had answer for every question. We gasped, in awe, at the beauty of Moorish tiles that encased ancient buildings, each design seemingly more beautiful than the last. We sought glimpses of tiny family run restaurants as they prepared for the evening dinner service. Intoxicated by aromas wafting through the early evening air we trundled happily through the narrow, medieval cobbled streets of the Bairro Alto.
We heard faint strain of Fado through discreet doorways on the slopes of the Alfama. I stole moments of site seeing to taste as much street food as I possibly could. I sank my teeth into salt fish rissoles that tasted the same as my grandmother’s. I chewed on garlicky snails and compared cured meats. I tried, but failed, to resist yet another pastel de nata….
Our guide proudly showed off the monument commemorating Portugal’s most famous pioneer, Vasco de Gama, before depositing us at for a sensational dinner at by the port at Bica Do Sapato. Throughout my time in Lisbon I thought of my grandmother more than I ever had before and realised that her legacy of recipes were largely Portuguese.
The food that I ate in Lisbon was so reminiscent of the dishes that I grew up with. At breakfast, the Ritz served Sonhos (Portuguese for dreams) little fried choux balls served with sugar syrup. They were delicious. My mother served the sweet eggy, puffed balls, annually on Shrove Tuesday and inexplicably named them Portuguese pancakes. I had never been able to understand why, but resisted asking. It is not surprising to me now; that the first dish I ever cooked was traditional pancakes. The Garlic Pork that my family, and, other Guyanese eat for breakfast on Christmas morning, is a derivative of Carne de vinha d’alhos, (a pork recipe from Madeira).
Food can speak louder than words and, in my case, it has held the key to unlocking the secrets of my family tree and the meaning of being British. For my forerunners, the category “mixed native” was loaded with pre-judgements and connotations that nobody wished to be reminded of. Perhaps, they felt that they had to ignore their pasts, in order to have a future. No when people ask me where I am from, I now proudly reply, that I am a British rainbow child, of the Commonwealth, from the land six races and many waters.