“Language, religion, music and storytelling all form part of the migrant’s cultural toolbox, but perhaps nothing provides more of a sense of identity than food.” This is a line from the introduction of Yasmin Khan’s travelogue-cookbook Ripe Figs, which charts her travels through Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, and is underpinned by the experience of her family’s migration from Kashmir to Punjab, Gilan in Iran to London. Also open on my desk here in the corner of the kitchen is Paola Bacchia’s Istria, which uses recipes to tell the story of her parents’ emigration from Istria and Italy to Melbourne in the 1950s, alongside stories of her own return visits.
These were two of my favourite cookbooks last year, both to read and to cook from. They are different, approaching distinct circumstances in different ways. Khan is bold in her retelling of journeys undertaken for protection and safety, to flee political, economic and social turmoil, and also challenges how certain journeys are seen as problematic. Bacchia, meanwhile, keeps her focus closely on her own family and the daily act of cooking, although within that are powerful hints as to the complex history and politics of the Croatian-Slovenian-Italian-Istrian peninsula, and the dramatic exodus and loss.
What the two books share is love; and how food accompanies people on journeys, how it provides comfort and a way of maintaining a sense of identity, especially as that evolves in a new place. For both authors, food answers the question: where do we come from and what do we believe? For Bacchia, the answers come in the form of Venetian fish stews with polenta, desserts you might find in a Viennese coffee shop, Hungarian-style goulash, sauerkraut and pasta dishes with both Italian and Croatian names. Today’s recipe, now on regular rotation here, is hers: gulash di funghi e peperoni.
Mushrooms and peppers are a compatible couple in terms of flavour and also nature. Despite their different textures, they behave similarly in the pan, first giving off liquid, then reabsorbing the collective liquid and becoming almost velvety in the process. They both benefit from some hot paprika, too, which fires up the sweet pepper and mushroom’s earthy flavour.
While the version without cream is lovely, its addition not only brings everything together, it takes the dish into a luxurious dimension. While it is full of flavour and fairly rich, it doesn’t weigh heavy. Bacchia suggests serving it with polenta or mashed potatoes; I imagine boiled potatoes would be good, too, or spätzle or another egg pasta. As you can see from the photograph, and in keeping with the idea, recipes may change as they arrive in new kitchens. We had it with rice.
Mushroom and pepper goulash (adapted from a recipe in Paola Bacchia’s Istria)
15g dried porcini
1kg field mushrooms
2 red peppers, or 1 large jar roast peppers
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
4 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
150ml dry white wine
150g tomato passata, or 1 heaped tbsp tomato concentrate dissolved in 140ml warm water
A few sprigs of thyme
2 tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp hot, smoked paprika
1-2 tbsp red-wine vinegar
200ml single cream, to serve (optional)
Soak the porcini in 150ml warm water for 15 minutes. Lift out, chop and set aside, along with the soaking liquid. Wipe clean the field mushrooms and cut into 7mm-thick slices, which for an average mushroom means into three. Cut the peppers into four, remove the seeds and pith, then cut each quarter into 3mm-wide strips. (If using jarred peppers, cut them into thick strips.)
Set a large, heavy-based pan for which you have a lid over a medium-low heat, add the olive oil and butter, then stir in the onions and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes, until soft and translucent. Stir in the garlic and cook for a minute more.
Add the reconstituted and the fresh mushrooms, raise the heat and cook, stirring, for a few minutes, until the mushrooms start shrinking. Add the peppers and cook, stirring for a few minutes more. (If you are using jarred ones, wait.)
Add the wine, passata, thyme and the porcini liquid with all the paprika stirred into it first. Bring to a boil, then cover, turn the heat down low and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and, if you are using jarred peppers, add them now. Continue cooking uncovered for at least 15 minutes, while tasting and watching. If you are adding cream, you want most of the liquid evaporated; if not, you need something more brothy. Either way, once cooked, taste, adjust with salt, more paprika and a tablespoon or two of red-wine vinegar. If you are adding it, stir in 200ml single cream just before serving.