Finally, the pandemic has come to my door. It has impacted upon my family’s life in ways which, just a few months ago, would have been unimaginable. I’m not quite sure how we’re going to cope, but cope we must. We are just going to have to deal with the cinnamon stick glut. And an overstocking of cumin seeds and coriander seeds, of curry leaves and cardamom pods and cornmeal and the rest. If I’m asked how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected me, I merely need open the spice cupboard, and shout, “Just look at the bloody mess in there.”
Here’s what’s happened. As a result of the full lockdown, and the shrunken world of curfews and reticence that followed, I have become intensely bored of myself. I have become bored of my own cooking in particular. I thought I had a fathomless repertoire of dishes for domestic consumption. There’s my roast chicken in a mustard sauce, my butternut squash with chilli and caramelised onions, the puy lentils I do to go with sausages or lamb racks, the wine-steamed clams, my roast chicken thighs in a mustard sauce. Or did I already mention those? It turns out I have less a full repertoire of dishes, than a couple of clumsily phrased verses.
In an attempt to prove I am not stuck in an endless rinse and repeat of the same family dinners, I turned to the cookery books that line one wall of my kitchen, generally unmolested. I decided to make a massaman curry from Ravinder Bhogal’s fabulous Jikoni cookbook. That led to me acquiring the drifts of cinnamon sticks and coriander seeds, cardamom pods, star anise and tamarind concentrate. I spent a happy afternoon roasting and grinding spices, blitzing pastes and reducing broths to make a truly fabulous stew full of uncommon depth. I bathed in my family’s adoration. I put all the ingredients away.
I then made a Korean dish of soy-braised beef short rib from Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo’s lovely book Our Korean Kitchen. That one resulted in a vast bottle of mirin entering the store. I bought a shoal of silvery sprats and, to coat them, the smallest bag of ground cornmeal I could find in the market. It was the size of my head. Any cupboard space that remained was filled when I foolishly decided to have a crack at a couple of Yotam Ottolenghi’s brilliant recipes.
There are, of course, other uses for all the things I have bought in an attempt to make my cooking and therefore myself seem more diverse. The reality is that if they are not ingredients you are used to using, you do not reach for them. If you are not someone who has, say, a tradition of roasting then grinding your own spices, it’s hardly going to be something you do every day. As a result, the product of each new shopping trip, each new thrilling, never-to-be-repeated cooking adventure, piles up.
Yes, I know. This damn virus has brought far too much death and far too much suffering to far too many people. To seek out the occasional sunbeams of ludicrous comedy within such a dark year is not to diminish any of that. What intrigues me are the smaller marks the dismal situation has left upon all our lives. That groaning spice cupboard is one of mine. Sometime in, say, 2023, I’m sure I will go through it all in an attempt to rectify the clutter. I’ll look at the use by dates. Suddenly I’ll be reminded of 2020, the year I was forced by a pandemic to see if I could be more interesting.