I looked up to see if the term ‘oriental’ is politically correct when describing retro food and it turns out that if used as an adjective, it’s fine. Well, perhaps not ‘fine’, but more acceptable. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone’s identity or tastebuds.
This dish is from Mum’s mid-week repertoire when she juggled childminding, office cleaning, and working at Taywood Sports and Social Club (RIP) in the late 80s, early 90s. It’s not authentically Eastern as it depends mostly on things like consommé (which sounds French and sophisticated but in reality comes from a can widely available in supermarkets’ own brands), vinegar (widely used in Anglo-Indian cuisine), and Sherry (widely available in a dusty bottle in the cupboard under the stairs). If this was a truly ‘Oriental’ meal, I would expect to see rice wine vinegar specified and mirin instead of Sherry, and perhaps some stock made from marrow bones and a handful of Chinese spices. But Mum’s recipe, or rather one that seems to have come from the back of a Knorr packet despite the lack of stock cube action, is perfect when all you want is something comfortingly nostalgic, winter-stew like, and piquant without being spicy in the least.
Perhaps an Eastern inspired dish is more fitting than I first realised: China was, after all, the epicentre of the Coronavirus. It is January 2021 and we’re in national lockdown – again.
I keep thinking that if my parents had lived through the first wave of Covid between November 2019 and Spring 2020, they would almost certainly have approached the second wave with less war-time spirit and more irritation. Christmas having come and gone, the freezer stocks would be pretty bare and the stacks of Fray Bentos pies and jars of apple sauce diminished. Winter was always a time when they didn’t fancy going out as much but would be planning the summer holidays, making hospital requests for holiday dialysis, and counting the days until the weather turned more barbecuey. If Mum hadn’t spent the first wave nailing Italian via Duolingo, she would definitely be mooching around virtual markets online and dreaming about the Italian dinners she’d soon be enjoying come June. That is, if she felt up to it. The saddest thing about Mum’s deteriorating health in the last few years leading to her death in January 2017, was her dwindling appetite. She lived for food and holidays. She cooked not just with a view to filling hungry tummies, but for the pure joy of combining flavours, experimenting with cuisines, and infusing everything with her typically Anglo tanginess and spice.
This ‘Oriental’ beef ticks all those boxes. The sauce is thickened to a rich, meaty gravy that is both sweet and sour, but not in the traditional Chinese way. It’s garlicky and savoury enriched with the sherried sweetness of the booze and the peppers. The vinegar gives it a tangy moreishness that balances the earthiness of the mushrooms. I also add some sugar-snap peas near the end to add some bite (although they tend to get thrown in too soon and taste more like soused green peppers). As the recipe doesn’t call for chili, I don’t bother with it as the joy of this meal is in its after-school stewiness, which is cosier and more comforting sometimes than that late night spice for which one hankers at times, and with which you require (and deserve) a cold beer or glass of fizz.
No, this is a simple sounding recipe for a late lunch as it turns out. It’s simple yet easily complicated by trying to thicken the sauce containing alcohol with cornflour that refuses to blend. Also, the recipe calls for top rump of beef, which would make the dish ready in the flashiest of flashes, but Mum’s approach was the thriftier, well-diced morsels of braising steak for a flavour that was stronger, but tougher if not cooked for long enough. As she would often cook during the day so we could heat ours when we got back from school, the microwave would finish the tenderising process. Isn’t that what all the best French chefs do? I’m currently braising my ‘Oriental’ beef for two hours and counting. But then, I don’t have to rush off to clean offices after my day job.
Back in the good old days, if we wanted a more authentic Chinese meal, our local parade of shops on Lady Margaret Road boasted the finest takeaway in Ealing. It was and is called China Gourmet but it doesn’t deliver to this end of Southall unfortunately. Sometimes if I’m close by (or have deliberately navigated near), I’ll go and collect an order of Roast Pork Fried Rice, Shredded Chili Beef and/or King Prawns with Green Peppers in Black Bean Sauce. Dad used to love their ribs; Mum loved Chicken with Cashew Nuts in a Yellow Bean Sauce. For occasions, we’d go to Eat Well in Eastcote – an ‘all-you-can-eat’ establishment. (No longer operating as such.) It was not like the fetid AYCE buffets of Central London with gloopy Sweet ‘n’ Sour Chicken and dry wings steaming in the windows, but quite a classy place that cooked to order and allowed you to choose everything on their menu. They would bring dish after dish to your already groaning rotating table.
I’ve just celebrated my 41st birthday, which is always a poignant time since Mum died. My Uncle’s birthday, Mum’s brother’s, is on the 20th, the day before she died. We joked at the time that she held on another day so she wouldn’t spoil it for him. Instead of going out for my birthday as in days of yore, I ordered a restaurant prepared gourmet meal of Beef Wellington, Dauphinoise Potatoes, Savoy Cabbage and Poached Pears with Mascarpone for afters (Gourmet Food Delivery UK | More More More (more-more-more.co.uk) It was fantastic.
It’s only a week away from the 4th year anniversary of Mum’s death. Christmas would have been a time to toast Mum and Dad but, due to the restrictions, we had no family visiting and no-one else to help eat the 13lb turkey I didn’t have the heart to cancel.
So here’s to you Mumsette. An Eastern inspired comfort meal, straight from your authentically Anglo Indian kitchen of Western London.