Today has been a difficult day. I had some bad news after which I found myself traipsing the streets looking for work, attending a dismal employment fair and sitting through tedious meetings with recruitment agencies. It culminated in me sitting on a bench and temporarily crying my eyes out. I came home, took off my shoes and made gambas pil pil and now, to quote Maria, I don’t feel so bad.
1. Gambas pil pil. This is the most spectacularly delicious and soul-soothing Spanish dish that ever took 10 minutes to prepare. Take a handful of raw prawns per person, peeled and de-veined. Pat them dry. Heat a very generous glug of olive oil (not extra virgin; that is better eaten raw) in a pan and add plenty of chopped red chillis and some crushed garlic (for today’s lunch, I used 4 cloves of garlic and 1 medium-heat red chilli for two hungry adults). Season with sea salt and ground black pepper and don’t let the garlic and chilli brown or burn. Toss in your raw prawns and cook until curled and pink, just a couple of minutes will do it. Divide the prawns between two warm bowls and drizzle the delicious spicy garlicky oil over the fish. Serve sizzling hot with warm crusty bread. The fresher the prawns, the better this will taste.
2. When I was 21 I visited Capetown and the surrounding areas, on a trip focused on learning about the culture. I spent a few weeks exploring and tasting and adventuring led by a pair of South African hosts, who are friends of mine. The food was a revelation – schnook on the barbecue, boerewors sausage, roasted root vegetables, fresh ginger beer, ‘chocolate’ porridge, delicious stews made from the cheapest cuts of meat. I ate in homes, restaurants and shanty town cafes. In the poorer places what was lacking in choice was more than compensated for in flavour. One meal stands out in my mind. I’d been to visit a community centre in Khayelitsha – you might have heard of this place as it is one of South Africa’s largest and most notorious shanty towns. The community centre was a grass roots initiative to provide free childcare and nutrition to children in the area so that their parent or carer (often an orphaned sibling who was still a child themselves) could earn something to feed them. Myself and my friends had the privilege of a meal at the centre, prepared by the ‘Mamas’ – a team of older women who worked there. My plate had three items on it: a rich meat-on-the-bone stew, milli-pop (a cornmeal staple) and a pile of delicious cooked greens. I remember sitting there savouring this feast when one of the Mamas sat next to me. She asked me how I liked it. I said it was incredible. She leaned in and said to me, her eyes twinkling, “I want to tell you a secret. Those greens you are eating…the farmers don’t know they are good to eat. They leave them behind, and we go after them and pick them up.”
3. The crisp sandwich. Two slices of delicious fresh white Brennans bread, batch optional, buttered generously with yellow Irish butter, with a packet of King cheese and onion crisps as the filling. Best eaten with a big glass of ice cold milk, or on a very cold day, a cup of strong milky Barry’s tea.
4. Chicken biriyani. I don’t even like this dish. It is loads of bother and work and the end result just doesn’t do it for me. But for the Husband Unit, this is quite literally perfect food. I make it for him occasionally, saving it for special occasions or when he’s very sad. It never loses its power to cheer and comfort him.
5. You might think it corny or obligatory for a Christian to write this, and if so I apologise. But it is true that the one food that nourishes me above all others is Eucharist. I have experienced God’s presence in tangible ways when partaking in this sacrament, at unlikely times and in unlikely places. The experience is as though my mind is illuminated and it is by this light that I can see other things. As Augustine said, ordinary food is consumed and becomes part of which consumes it. But in the Eucharist, we consume God, and become part of that which we consume. It’s a mystery and I don’t pretend to understand it. But I consider it true. Soul food.