One year on in the pandemic, last four months of lockdown, and we are mainly in our homes. Without a doubt, one of the essential aspects of existence is food and this has been a source of comfort in these times. In addition as I walk in my local area, food market, shops, suppliers and take-aways are the only shops open for the last four months. Most restaurants are only offering take-aways and because we have all the time to cook – enjoying food has been one of the most pleasurable aspects of life in the last year. For this sustenance and pleasure in a pandemic, I have decided to write about this ever-relevant topic now as an Elixir of Life.
As I walk along the usually busy market and high roads in my neighbourhood – they are still being use for supplying food to residents. If we recall, we ran out of pasta last March, but it seems supplies have stabilised with local shops able to supplement some of the stock we couldn’t get from the larger national supermarkets. In the meantime, there are other issues with supplies due to Brexit, and I have certainly noticed some items missing on supermarket shelves. As part of my daily walking routine, I intentionally take routes that would take me past local shops that I may want to pick up some items from a variety of local shops.
I have discovered some real great speciality shops – including Kurdish, Turkish, Asian and Caribbean. I usually go into them to get pigeon peas, salt fish, curry powder from Trinidad, brown lentils (£1.29), and other items that is imported from far, far, away. I have been able to make dishes from my homeland such as saltfish ‘Bujol’ salad, pilau (rice) with the pigeon peas, curries and stews. Usually I buy puy lentils from the larger supermarkets but they are more expensive at £3.50.
In the last few months, I have also discovered the joy of buying fresh fish from the local fish shop. Coming from Trinidad and Tobago, it was very normal to grow up on fresh fish dishes and I remember seeing cleaning of fishes with gills and scales etc. Therefore it is no big deal for me to buy fish like this but the shop is able to clean and slice these up if you want them to do so. The local fish shop does have an amazing selection of fishes that I haven’t seen in ages – Trevally, Red Snapper, Sprats, large fresh prawns, shark, lobster including crabs.
Shark served in a home-made fried bread bun, known as ‘shark & bake’ is actually a real delicacy in Trinidad and Tobago. It is famously served from the beach huts on Maracas Beach in Trinidad – we usually take a picnic for lunch but try to get a ‘shake & bake’ before making our way home. We bought some shark in January which I hope to replicate here in London. However, this was the moment I realised that I definitely had Covid-19 when I could not smell or taste the ‘shake and bake’ I made at home. I have been telling my friends that I was feeling unwell that morning and was in no mood to cook but as it was shark and unfamiliar to my husband – I had to cook it with other items plus could not smell or taste it as it I had Covid-19! The next day I had a test and it confirmed that I was Covid-19 Positive.
A few weeks after when I regained my tastebuds and sense of smell, I was able to buy some red snapper and fresh prawns to savour their freshness and flavours. I made a Trinidadian Fish stew the long way with my own stock and come cornmeal cou-cou. Again one of the most enjoyable aspects in the pandemic is catching up on social media with family and friends and watching interesting cooking programmes. The social media algorithm has definitely worked to push videos of local Caribbean cooking to me, and if I have the time, I have been looking at them. The most popular and relevant to my cultural background is Foodie Nation. There are also some other local celebrities with less glamour and more gritty presentation styles – such as using their own kitchen or event an earthen/mud-based stove with wood burning fire, which I remember from growing up in the Caribbean. I am getting inspired to cook all these amazing dishes but I must also watch my waistline!
In a city as diverse and multicultural as London, it is wonderful having access to a wide variety of foods and supplies in local markets. I sometimes still see vegetables or products that I still haven’t seen before. It really makes me curious as to what they are, and how I can use them. I recently spent time looking at the BBC’s Rick Stein in South Asia, and other parts of the world. I was so inspired by some of the ingredients I saw for the recipes, such as fresh coconut, turmeric, tamarind, lemon grass, shrimp paste et cetera. I made some of these dishes from using these raw ingredients as they are same ingredients that we use in the Caribbean. Facebook shows fabulous videos by authentic cooks, who use social media to share their home cooking with these tropical flavours. It is great that I can find some of these ingredients in the heart of winter in a European country.
I live in Walthamstow which has gone through gentrification…and literally upmarket in the last few years. There are numerous hipster and trendy shops that are also mixed with the local East End London shops. For example, my colleague Neil also mentioned that there is a downward trend in Curry Houses (Asian restaurants) as younger people adopt healthy lifestyles. Therefore, Asian restaurants are having to adapt their menus to more healthy options to complete with these lifestyle changes. In addition prior to the pandemic, there was also a downwards trend for Pubs in the UK – just imagine how this will also be impacted during and after the pandemic. For the last few months there has been an upward trend to go for coffee, tea or hot drinks takeaways as the pubs and restaurants have been closed due to the pandemic restrictions.
Talking about takeaways in lockdown, we have also ordered food on Uber Eats three times for family meals from local restaurants – from local Turkish, Nigerian, and West Indian restaurants. We had a home-cooking gift from Lina Stores from Soho to make a couple of Italian dishes.
Despite the great access to so much food at a reasonable price that is available in our local market in Walthamstow, there are a lot of people who are experiencing hardship to make ends met before, and especially now in the pandemic. There have been food banks already available in our local areas as displayed by the Trussell Trust, and they are being use more so in the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic a year ago, our local charities and support systems got into motion to provide food to those shielding and vulnerable. Now there are other challenges with redundancies and other inequalities due to the negative impact of the pandemic. It is great to see that our local charities and food banks are being supported. One local creative gentleman created little food banks with crowdfunding for the community to leave items for donation and collection. I have made a note to put some items in it, and will try to do so.
As we go into the Spring, I am getting ready to prepare some Easter Italian baking and also to try some more new recipes I have found digitally. Usually when I share my own cooking on social media I get messages for the recipes. My family are foodies and do eat a lot of Italian food too! There is very little that we can do socially in these challenging times, but sustaining ourselves with good, tasty and interesting food has been one of the key pleasures we have been able to continue in the comfort of our own homes.
Foodie Nation – https://www.foodienationtt.com/
Cooking with Ria – https://cookingwithria.com/2011/07/trinidad-pelau.html
The Spruce Eats – https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-is-bake-and-shark-2137995