From the Konkan Coast of India to the working class neighborhood of Noailles in Marseille, Chef Zuri Camille de Souza generously shares with us some personal experiences and reflections on how food embodies “cultural symbols, markers of heritage, and intimate personal memory.”
Leaving the south of India to the U.S. for college, and then shifting to Marseille, I find myself seeing my culinary history, and perhaps myself, from the outside, discovering a fertile, granulous sediment of my past that has slowly settled with distance and time, a flavorful blend of thoughts, instances and feelings. I see my memories served to me in ways that I do not expect, through smells that I didn’t realize meant so much to me — like the salty, fatty fragrance of a grilled sausage that reminds me of sunday mornings at the family table, or the pungent aroma of fenugreek that I associate with metal lunchboxes and tamarind chutney. I found myself touched with joy by the scalding, oil-soaked vadda on the metal plate that I shared with a friend in Gare du Nord last winter, its spongy white crumb and crunchy, golden crust just fermented enough to remind of Eat Out in Malleshwaram, the udupi restaurant my family often went to for breakfast on the weekend.
I often think of my late paternal grandmother Dora Alicia de Souza, whose potato chops will never again grace my table and whose three tall clear plastic jars of besan chips, neureos and crunchy, spicy namkeen will not accompany the sweet milky tea that we drink after our afternoon naps in the hot sun as three sunburned cousins and our grandmother around a big wooden table, listening to the calls of hornbills and other jungle birds, bleary-eyed. I yearn for the soft white rice that my maternal grandmother Prabhavati Samarth serves for lunch, in a steel bowl that shrinks as my grandparents’ appetites grow smaller each year.
It is through travelling that I truly feel the immense pleasure food can bring forth; the soft and gentle beauty of meals shared with others, discovering new flavors, ingredients and ways of hosting and being hosted. However, distance also carries with it nostalgia — the souvenirs of a summer holiday 10 years ago come back as I am eating a plate of chicken curry and rice in a small indian restaurant, aptly named Mumbai to Marseille, on a fresh winter day. As I revel in the delightful coming together of spices that are roasted, ground and blended with grated coconut, their aromatic notes blooming in the mouth with every bite, the hints of cardamom and star anise warming the thick curry already heavy with green chilly, garlic and ginger, I am taken me back the Konkan coast. I think of the heavy stone mortar and pestle on the kitchen steps of my grandmother’s house in Goa, where she would grind fire-red masalas in the cool, early morning as my brother and I collected manila tamarind pods scattered around the courtyard. I remember a day at work when my colleague Vrushali shared her lunchbox with me and I realized that she came from the region as me because the way she cooked the tiny black kabuli chickpeas was just like my grandmother in Pune.
Two years later, I am driving down a snaking road through Sawantwadi with Jimmy. It is December, warm and fresh as only the Konkan — the lush hilly region of the western ghats between Maharashtra and Goa — can be. The emerald green elongated leaves of mango trees glisten in the late morning sun, their glossy surfaces exuding the pungent, astringent smell of raw sap, the very same sap that one can sometimes taste when eating wild mangoes the size of a child’s fist. As we pass by orchards replete with fruit trees and skinny, white trunked areca nut palms, I realize that I have spent far too many summers away from India and that I have missed the joy of what many people fondly refer to as “mango season” — a time when mango ice creams and milkshakes are sold on street corner juice shops and vendors set up stalls with rows and rows of neatly arranged yellow pyramids by the highways, each advertising the cheapest and sweetest harvest of the season. As the years have passed and our effects on the earth’s climate intensified in violent ways, mango season has changed, arriving later or earlier, affecting the prices and celebration associated with the special fruit. My mother tells me that we now get Alphonso mangoes from Malawi. Aapus, the one everyone loves, golden-yellow and as sweet as sugar with a tiny seed. Although inedible, the seed is important and decides which mango one might prefer. Those that come from the North, elongated and slightly viscous, I usually save for the very end, when nothing else is available as the season approaches its rainy end. My favourite mango, Payri, has a fibrous seed that always leaves little strands trapped between my teeth, but the tangy fruitiness makes up for it and I prefer the acidity to the sugary flatness of a ripe Aapus. Does a mango tree from Malawi also bloom after the summer rains, the special mango showers that decide the size, success and price of each dozen fruit, neatly packed in wooden crates on beds of pink crepe paper and straw? The soft, salty breeze and rich mineral-heavy soils of the Konkan draw out the complex, luscious notes of each tree during the hot summer months, pushing the flavors out to develop a layered bouquet that hovers between exuberant and ripened to sappy and almost-fermented much like the tannic, heavy wines in the dry hot south of France. As I look up at the mango trees drawing patterns in the sky above us, I wonder: will an Alphonso mango from Malawi speak the same tastes to my tongue or will it communicate in an entirely new language?
We are sitting in a circle, warm in our jackets with empty plates in hand, ready to eat, around a white formica table lit by the sharp winter sun that illuminates rue d’Aubagne at 11:30 in the morning with a blinding glow for 20 minutes. I was cooking at the time in a restaurant in Noailles, a working class (populaire) market embedded deep into the heart of Marseille.
The restaurant is problematic and people often have mixed reactions when I tell them where I work — Noailles as a neighborhood, similarly to Marseille as a city, is becoming increasingly renowned for its diverse, lively, perhaps even slightly edgy atmosphere, but this is a perspective from the outside, from those that can choose to enjoy its chaos or distance themselves conveniently. The market is at the center of a working-class neighborhood, with West African, Comorian, and Maghrebian communities as well as small groups of Armenians, Turks, and South East Asians. Entering “Noailles Marseille” into my search-bar out of curiosity, I am suggested “Noailles Marseille dangerous” and “Noailles Marseilles crime.” It mirrors the comments people made when I said I was shifting here two years ago — “it can be very dangerous, be careful, is there any culture there?” This was before Les Goudes was featured in Le Monde magazine thanks to a new bar with beautiful interiors that just opened along its rocky coastline — although Massilia Sound System already professed their love for the tiny beach in 2010.
The growing selection of refined restaurants and exclusive boutiques making their way into this quarter comes at a time when two under-maintained buildings collapsed on the 5 of November, 2018, killing eight people, a reminder of the hundreds of individuals living in financially precarious situations in what is considered one of Europe’s poorest cities, as well as the neglectful attitude of the local municipality. The following loss of housing, livelihoods and lives lead to protests against the then-mayor Gaudin, who chose to invest more into tourism and capital-generation infrastructure than into the futures of those that make up the majority of this city.
I walk past the dent creuse — the strange, fenced-off, white-washed gap where the two buildings once stood every day on my way to work. There are green beer bottles thrown in sometimes and it reeks of urine on the weekend. The restaurant is down the street from the demolitions.
I shouldn’t say it reminds me of Bombay but it does: the noise of Uber Eats scooters driving through its winding roads; the colorful patina of crushed vegetables and take-away wrappers coating the tarmac alongside the white and red checked papers from the butcher-shops, the remains of someone’s purple braids thrown onto a pile of old shoes; the smells of spices, grilling meat, pizza, and the loud calls and smiles of Maghrebi-Marseillais young men in tracksuits and badly-straightened hair selling marlborough marlborough marlborough. All the cliches that unassumingly exoticize are the same that bring me back home
Someone starts filling our plates, bestowing them with a spoonful of rice and the soft, subtly perfumed olan that I cooked; a malayali coconut and vegetable curry that my mother often made with appams. Tendrils of steam draw long, reaching spirals off the eggshell white curry, and the perfumed warmth of the pepper is inviting as I start to mix the soft rice — basmati — into it. Everyone is hungry. We always eat together before the service begins — dishwasher, three cooks and three waiters. Passers-by call out bon appetit! and walk by, someone asks us for cigarettes, and others just look at the food with an unconcealed desire in their eyes.
As we eat, the chef says “c’est trop bon mais je sais pas comment travailler le riz, ça fait trop ‘staff meal’ pour moi” (“it’s super good but I don’t know how to work rice; it’s too ‘staff meal’ for me”). I continue eating my “staff meal,” uncomfortable. Coming from the South, where rice is served in towering heaps on large steel plates and eaten until the stomach swells with joy, I am not sure about how to respond to this casual degrading of rice and find myself once again torn between the expectations people have of my culinary heritage and the ideas and flavors that I am proud to share: the curry I have just made; the seasoning and cooking of the rice; even the way they are eaten together.
When I left Pune for Bar Harbor, Maine, a tiny island on the northeastern coast of the U.S., I could not find a rice that cooked the way I wanted it to. It was either too soft on top and raw on the bottom, or heavy and starchy. I couldn’t find the ambe-more, the delicate tiny grains that smell like mango-blossoms or the tight, firm jeera samba rice whose taste reminds me of the starched tablecloths and air-conditioning of the hotels where we would eat it alongside creamy navratna kormas. I definitely could not find the red goan rice that I grew up eating, the color of bricks, boiled in burnt terracotta pots and often served as a kanji. My Kurdish friend in Istanbul cooks his rice in a big boiling pot of water, leaving it open and bubbling like pasta; in French called cuisson créole. An Algerian neighbor uses a heavy casserole, spreading the rice grains thin with a little water, letting it cook in the steam; in French called cuisson pilaf. At home, we always used a pressure-cooker, except if my father was making a biryani or pulao, layering caramelized onions and spices with meat, vegetables and rice.
Our staff meal is almost over, and everyone is breaking little pieces of bread from a loaf on the table — a round, semolina-covered matlou that we buy from the bakery down the street — to wipe clean the small stains of curry left on the amber-yellow, scalloped-edge duralex plates. We don’t call it matlou when we serve it to the clients, instead we offer them a pain de campagne. I am not sure if it is easier to pronounce or avoids further explaining or sounds more romantic but I sometimes feel like often the recipes are welcome but the people are not.
The more I cook and work with different cuisines — from Egyptian to French mediterreanean to south Indian — I find a growing need to deepen our sensitivity to the ingredients we use; to realize not just which farm or ocean our produce comes from, but also the cultures and histories that are woven deeply and tightly into them; the complex knots of colonization and trade, ecology, class and caste. The color, vibrance and chaos associated with the Global South is acceptable — even welcomed — on the tongue in calculated doses, the ingredients extracted from their local environments and transposed into a setting where, once again, the majority of them are exoticized and valued not for their terroir or quality of taste, but for the simple fact that they came from away and that this then lends a monetary value to the menu being served. There is a fine line between paying homage, being inspired and blind appropriation.
Can we speak of vegetarian ayurvedic food in India without bringing up the complex and violent instrumentalization of beef in casteist, islamophobic hindu fascist movements? Is this why I explain carefully that I grew up eating everything; that my parents, coming from two different religious backgrounds, also bring with them two different cuisines — one fish curry cooked in a red tomato sauce, one in ground yellow coconut paste; one that eats oily, rich mackerels everyday, one that prefers the delicate, flakey pomfret; one that eats beef with great delight at tea time and the other that, in theory, should worship the sacred cow. Perhaps, as I mix za’atar into the labneh that we hung for 24 hours for the creamy dip that is on the next week’s menu, we might find a moment to reflect on the myriad varieties that exist across the Levantine region. As we taste the aromatic herbs mix into the soft yoghurt, might we learn how the best blends are made by rolling the harvested wild oregano leaves in olive oil between dry palms with sumac in place of mleh leymoon and that maybe, if we are lucky enough to be using Palestinian za’atar, to realize that the person harvesting it might have taken several winding paths to forage in the early hours of the morning to avoid the Israeli soldiers patroling the desert foothills, making further inaccessible a land already occupied.
There is a story behind each herb and grain and recipe that we use in our kitchens; our spices are soaked in histories of occupation and vegetables heavy with narratives of labor, toil and ecological precarity. As chefs and cooks, bakers and wine-makers, as individuals whose purpose is to nourish and provide pleasure in the form of flavors, textures and unexpected pairings, our responsibilities are also to inform, question and learn about what comes into our kitchens and on our cutting-boards.
Intentionally placing political context next to terroir, flavor next to social structure and recipe next to narrative might allow us to better understand the symbolism and contexts of the material we work with. By bringing the landscape and its nuances out through taste and texture, giving them the relevance they deserve on our plates and through acknowledging the specificities of ingredients and their contexts as cultural symbols, markers of heritage, and intimate personal memory, we bring together ethnobotany and intersectionality in the kitchen and on the table. ■
ZURI’S RECIPE /// Aji’s prawn curry
Marinate three good handfuls of prawns (the small ones, more like shrimps) in a tablespoon each of turmeric, coriander and cumin powder, a tablespoon of garlic and garlic (ground into a paste), a teaspoon of pepper.
Don’t add salt!
Rub the marinade into the prawns with your fingers, making sure they’re all well covered and seasoned.
Leave aside for 15 minutes.
Whilst this is marinating, in a casserole, roast (on a low fire) one onion minced fine with one dried red chilly (whole), 5 cloves, five cardamom and five curry leaves.
Add in five finely chopped tomatoes that have been blanched to have their skin removed.
Add in salt, sugar and tamarind paste according to your taste, I like it to be very sour-sweet and a good amount of salt.
Cook until thick, and if you want the curry even thicker, add in some more tomatoes that have been blended.
Once simmering, add in the prawns and cook just until they turn opaque and curl.
Garnish with fresh coriander.