Larders and food cupboards have always been places of wonder to me. It wasn’t just greed that propelled me to explore them, but the desire to make something. The Henry grandparents had a floor-to-ceiling cupboard, the Wagon Wheels on the cool floor (so the chocolate wouldn’t melt), the baking things – flour and bottles of food colouring – halfway up. Icing sugar, cochineal and coconut meant I could make coconut ice. Investigations of less familiar items – fingers stuck in the Bovril jar or vanilla drunk straight from the bottle – scarred me but never for long.
My maternal grandparents had enough tins in their cupboards to get us through a world war and a huge array of cereals and crackers. I used to drag all this out and set up a grocery store on makeshift shelves. Playing shop and asking my pretend customers what they were going to cook with their purchases – stew, macaroons, trifle? – was pure joy.
The cupboard I have now – with its preserved lemons, pomegranate molasses, tamarind and miso – would have astonished me. In 2007, the New Zealand chef Peter Gordon wrote a book called A World in My Kitchen. That, I thought, is the point of cooking, not just to feed yourself but also to taste other places. I’ve always tried to fit the world into my kitchen cupboards.
Access to global ingredients allowed ‘fusion’ cuisine, a trend that’s now so common it’s no longer called a trend, to develop. I’ve never been comfortable with its more extreme applications – the fusing of flavours that were never going to hang together just for the hell of it – but some can produce combinations that make you frown quizzically then, on tasting them, smile.
This access doesn’t come without its problems, though. Food shouldn’t be a marker of hipness or status, but it’s always been used to show off. Nutmeg was trendy in the 1500s (though mostly because it was thought to be a hallucinogen) and it was easy to convince wealthy Venetians to pay extortionate prices for coffee two centuries later.
In a New York food market a few years back, I wasn’t surprised to see a sign reading ‘Unicorn flesh $100 a pound’. Ha. But it’s not about coolness for me. I want to know how miso developed and why soy sauce is used in Hawaiian cooking.
Cumin, my favourite spice – it smells of sweat, soil, emptied drawers – originated in the eastern Mediterranean but is a key spice in the Middle East, India, Morocco and Latin America. Ingredients cross borders. Sometimes the journey is short. In LA, cooks team kimchi with tacos because Korean and Mexican neighbourhoods butt up against each other. Different culinary heritages are joined, deliciousness is made.
It’s important to ask questions about how any ingredient that is ‘new’ to us is produced. Quinoa became so cool that big businesses were able to push out small farmers (this isn’t unique to quinoa, though – it’s a problem for small farmers everywhere). To think about your larder is to ask questions about geography and history and politics. Nowadays you can get almost any ingredient at the click of a mouse and its background with a google search.
People invented the first pigments 40,000 years ago, creating a palette of five colours. Since then many more have been made. Monet felt that violet was the ‘true colour of the atmosphere’; Van Gogh fell for yellow and used it to paint his starry night. ‘He loved yellow, did good Vincent, the painter from Holland, gleams of sunlight warming his soul,’ Gaugin wrote of his friend.
Ingredients, for cooks, are colours, atmospheres, places. We love them for the ‘gleams of sunlight’ they bring.