And now the day is over

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People in tropics tend to be very responsive to the natural cycle of light and dark and this was especially so when I was a child. On weekdays we rose before 6 a.m. and set off for school before 7. My school was one of the first to introduce a “tropical timetable”, which meant that we girls were expected to be present in neat lines in our assembly hall by 7.40 a.m. Our reward was early dismissal on Tuesdays (1.15 p.m.) and regular dismissal at 2 p.m. on other days. We were then free to go home or participate in extra-curricular activities. We were supposed to change out of our uniforms if any of the extra-curricular activities were in public places and bore no relation to our school. If caught, terrible punishments would follow. The most terrible of all was the one involving a lecture given in an injured tone, declaring deep disappointment with such unexpected behaviour. Now and then, a calculated risk could be taken and as a senior, my favourite extra-curricular activity was to go to Bookers with a few friends and order one of their famous milkshakes. Perched on stools at the counter, schoolbags shoved out of sight, we slowly savoured our treats in air-conditioned comfort. The furtive looks we threw over our uniformed shoulders, trying to spot potential telltales, greatly added to the enjoyment.

 

Night falls quickly and suddenly. A few splashes of colour turn into a blaze and then the sun drops from the horizon, taking with it all trace of light. 6 p.m. sees a vast black sky dotted with a twinkle here or there. By 9 p.m. most eyes would find it hard to stay open, but in our house there was a daily ritual left to complete: Death Announcements.

 

Some mournful music came over the radio. Then the sonorous voice of the announcer started…. “The death is announced of Liloutie Ramgobin of Cove and John, East Coast Demerara. She was the daughter of the late Mohan Singh and Mrs. Rajwattie Singh of Rose Hall, Corentyne Berbice, wife of Sugrim Ramgobin, formerly employed at Enmore Estate, mother of ……..” And on and on it went, listing relatives, their relation to the deceased and where they lived. Relatives abroad were mentioned too. If the relationship warranted it, the body of the deceased would be kept ‘on ice’ until they could get a flight back Home. In order to jolt them into action and speed up the travel plans, the command “Travel immediately!” sometimes came after the names of those abroad. It was not unusual for people to feel slighted at not hearing their names, however remote the connection, so the person who submitted the announcement had to have considerable diplomatic skills. If the departed had a large family, the announcement could take some time, so you had to stay alert for quite a while before the announcer got to the bit that was important. “Wake will be held nightly at the house of the late Liloutie Ramgobin. Cremation will take place on Saturday 25th of March at Cove and John foreshore at 1 p.m. ”

 

I read my book quietly on my bed and heard the announcements coming from the radio in my parents’ room. It was a dull murmur in the background, except for the times when they happened to know the deceased or some family member and the volume would be turned up in order not to miss the funeral details. At the end of all the announcements the mournful music came back on and the radio was switched off shortly after that. Another day suitably closed. Ready to sleep and to be up with the birds the next morning – or in some cases, as we say in Guyana, “before bird wife wake”. She, of course, was expected to have a few worms (or roti or cereal) waiting for Bird when he opened his eyes.

Revelation

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The snack lady sat on the pavement, at the side of the road, or by the school gate, a large tray on her lap or on a box in front of her. Sometimes it was a more elaborate glass-sided box. This was meant to keep out the flies, but generally served to keep a few trapped and buzzing around in mad delight as they flitted from one delicacy to the next. The location, time of day and day of the week determined to a large extent what was offered. Piles of fruit sold well at the side of the road, but schoolchildren preferred tamarind balls, boiled channa, spicy and crisp fried channa, phulourie with mango sour, egg balls and pastries. Friday afternoon called for souse and black pudding, to attract the adults who were heading home with their pay packets. The ladies had their regulars and business was brisk if the quality was good.

 

I had a bit of a deprived childhood as far as wayside snacks went. The school canteen and tuck shop were approved sources for loose treats, but buying from a pavement vendor, however well recommended or established, was strictly forbidden. The only reason I was ever given was that it was not hygienic to buy food like that. I later interpreted this to be the result of my parents’ lasting trauma after my baby brother was taken away from us by gastroenteritis. There were other more practical reasons too. The wonderful black pudding that my friends talked about, for instance, was made from the blood of pigs or cows, forbidden substances in our Hindu household. It seemed that I was destined to live my life without ever tasting this delicacy. But life has funny twists and turns and salvation came suddenly, in large and cheerful human form.

 

She cooked for us for more than 6 years and could turn her hand to any type of food with equal success. On weekdays I  left for school long before she came in to work and by the time I got home at around 2.30 p.m. she had usually left, but there was a covered blue glass dish in the oven, with my lunch. She knew all my favourites and which parts of what I liked best. And she especially knew that I loved gravy, so the curry or the stewed chicken with pigeon peas were always accompanied by enough gravy to make my rice swim. Quite soon after she started to cook for us, we discovered that she was a dab hand at making black pudding. Much good that did, was my gloomy reflection. It was still pork and beef. But then came the stroke of genius: the next time a sheep was butchered for us, she used the blood to make black pudding. What a revelation that black pudding was! Enough rice to give it body and hot peppers and herbs for flavouring. Sliced thickly and slathered with freshly-made mango sour, it was like nothing I had eaten before. This thing was even better than my friends had described it. Every time she made it, I ate until I almost burst.

 

Over the years, I was given small glimpses into her life. She came to us on weekdays until mid-afternoon and went home early on Saturdays. Sundays were her day off. She walked the few kilometres to and from her village where she had a brood of children to care for. She didn’t have a husband, but there seemed to be a few ‘child fathers’ somewhere in the background. What their function was, apart from the obvious, I never knew. They did not appear to be financially provident or especially helpful in any case. She supplemented her pay with her food stall at the side of the road near where she lived, selling black pudding among other things. Unsurprisingly, she did good business, as she was an excellent cook. But it cannot have been easy to make ends meet and there can never have been enough hours in her day. You would never have guessed it, from looking at her bright and cheerful smile.

 

Introducing Kiskadee Days

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There are few sounds from Guyana that I remember so well as the call of the kiskadee. Its shrill song resonated in the background as it flitted from branch to post, from wire to fence, calling  out cheerfully and untiringly as its bright eyes gleaned a snippet of news from every yard. The story goes that the French interpreted the kiskadee’s cry as “Qu’est-ce qu’il dit?” – “What is he saying?” Do you want to know? My ladies and I will tell you on the new page and the stories will be continued under the tab here on this website.

Like the kiskadee, my “ladies” were always around. They too saw and heard most things. Collectively they exuded grace, kindness, warmth  and good humour as they blended into the colourful blur of the background. They were no strangers to hard work and sacrifice and with a sigh of “Wha’ yuh gun do?”, they got on with life as best they could.

I have written about food for several years. Not just recipes, but also from a social and cultural perspective. My books, essays and articles have been published around the world and I even managed to pick up a few awards along the way. I travelled extensively for research, made many new friends and taught people on several continents how to make things like paratha roti and dal puri as well as Sachertorte and speculaas.

After my fifth book, I decided that it was time to look for a new interest and turned to ceramics. I started out with bowls, plates and cake stands until a chance visit to an African museum inspired me to start making figurines. I posted photos of my creations along with little narratives on my private Facebook page, to entertain my friends and family. I turned it into a game, encouraging them to make up suitable names for the ladies. Happy memories flooded back and my friends soon started plying me with suggestions for new ladies.

My ladies mainly depict themes from village life as it used to be in the late colonial and post-colonial period of our childhood – a vanished era waveringly kept alive in our memories. The ladies are all lovingly created from high-quality materials and each one takes weeks to finish. The clay is hand-shaped, pre-fired, glazed and re-fired at a very high temperature to make women with soul and attitude. Unless otherwise stated, the portraits of the ladies are the work of my talented photographer friend Jonathan Knights, whose childhood they also reflect.

Like my food writing, my ladies also have a social and cultural context. It goes without saying that my cultural perspective may not be the same as yours. Share your thoughts and experiences. A simple comment can finish up as a satisfying bottomhouse gyaaf with many participants adding their two cents to the conversation. These ladies tend to talk Creolese and those from the Corentyne speak quite differently from the Demerara ones. Feel free to comment in proper English or Creolese, as the mood takes you. Write in Dutch, Spanish or French if you prefer. All I ask is that we keep it respectful and free of racism.

You will find the new page at: https://www.facebook.com/kiskadeedays

 

New avenues

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I’ve been busy kneading, shaping and baking – but not in the way that you might think. Want to know more? Hop over to my new page and have a look!

 

Zoete Lekkernijen en Het Nederlands Bakboek kopen?

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Beide titels zijn inmiddels uitverkocht via de reguliere kanalen. Soms vind je nog een exemplaar op internet, al dan niet tweedehands. Ik heb van beide titels een beperkt aantal exemplaren liggen (op = op).

Zoete Lekkernijen kost €25 + €9,50 verzendkosten. Het Nederlands Bakboek mag de deur uit voor €60 + €9,50 verzendkosten.

Wil je een boek bestellen? Stuur mij dan een mailtje via gaitri@gaitripagrachchandra.com

Zodra ik de betaling heb ontvangen, stuur ik het boek op. Wil je het gesigneerd hebben? Dat doe ik met plezier!

Sweet dreams are made of these

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Who doesn’t dream of food at one time or another? Or have cravings, longings, even obsessions? As we become older, the more the mind seems to focus on the foods of our childhood. Readers will be familiar with many of the flavours of my Guyanese past and the memories they bring back for me. In fact, I’m thrilled to see that many of you have also come to like them!

Most of my family and friends settled outside the country and I recently linked up with a delightful group of people who share my sugar plantation past. We now live on every continent the world boasts and have ended up in various professional fields. There are large age differences and some of us have never actually met, but our unique childhood has forged a very strong bond. As well as catching up with my old playmates and partners in crime, I have formed a heart-warming rapport with many others. We chat about ‘small days’ and our conversations are hilarious, partly because we all seem to have spontaneously reverted to half-forgotten colloquial Guyanese speech, and type a mixture of standard English peppered with local slang in our comments to each other. To be perfectly clear: it’s just us. No spouses and no children. When I joined the group, I felt like I had found a couple of busloads of cousins all at once. It’s just us cousins having a wonderful time together.

But let me tell you how I was invited into the gang. My old pal P. said in her usual airy way ‘You will enjoy it. We talk about dal puri all the time.’ And she promptly launched me as the answer to everyone’s dal puri-making problems. At first I thought she was joking. Now, I see that she was being completely truthful. Dal puri is a near-obsession, especially with the boys. I use the term loosely, as some of the boys have already retired from active work. Even threads about completely different topics net a few dal puri comments. Ideas for serious development of this favourite theme are coming in thick and fast: You-tube video, a separate appreciation society, Skype tutorials and more.

So what is this wonderful delicacy known as dal puri? I gave a recipe for it in Warm Bread and Honey Cake and this is how I described it: ‘Dal puri is another member of the paratha family and this is the roti that Caribbean Indians make when they want to lend a festive air to an occasion.’ I also warned: ‘It is one of the more challenging flatbreads to make.’ The ‘dal’ in the name refers to yellow split peas, which have to be cooked to just the right texture before being ground and seasoned and then used to stuff the dough. The entire thing is then carefully rolled out to a thin, neat circle (ideally without tearing the casing) and is then cooked on a tawa or griddle and eaten with curry.

dal puri post

Not many of them have Indo-Guyanese roots like I do, with the battalion of dal puri-making relatives that comes with it. They are largely from expat families (although generations long in some cases) and their dal puris were made by cooks, neighbours and friends. They probably remember, as I do, the Sunday cricket matches on sun-scorched green-brown pitches flanked by flame trees with white-painted trunks that echoed the sparkling whites of the players. The high point of the day was the huge and noisy lunch afterwards, with mutton curry and dal puri for everyone on the plantation. They certainly remember something that feeds their craving and they continue to dream of dal puri. It’s not just food for the stomach, but food for the heart and soul.

The craving has led to a series of reactions, again mainly among the chaps. The main one is dal puri-hoarding followed by strict rationing. They travel the world (and indeed the Seven Seas) chasing down West Indian roti-shops. They take generous sample tastings before deciding how many to hoard and how to dole it out. They adamantly refuse to share with those who have no dal puri past; that’s just plain wasteful. The finer points are discussed, such as the ecstatic enjoyment of the shower of split pea fragments that rains over the plate when the dal puri is torn for eating. (This happens to be my pet hate.) Some of the more adventurous (or desperate) ones have tried recreating them, with varying degrees of success. One of them, however deserves a medal. He has got the filling – the hard part – down to a scientific formula. It doesn’t matter that it costs him almost an entire day to go through all the stages; it’s worth it!

In a mellow mood, I provided them with my simpler recipe and encouraged them to start practicing. However, they feel they would benefit from a hands-on workshop ‘for fine tuning’. Who am I to disagree? I believe that plans are already being made for removing camper vans from Spanish garages and, for all I know, cars are being readied in France, Poland and the UK. I can already see myself making up lots of extra beds and buying large stocks of flour and split peas, but I’ll wait a while, as the venue seems to be getting more and more elastic and shifts from country to country, and even to different continents. The number of would-be participants is growing too. Everybody seems to be looking for dal puri.

If you’d like to recreate a warm and sunny atmosphere in your own kitchen, try my quick and simple recipe for seasoned roti wrappers. It’s not dal puri, but it is still very tasty. Eat with curry or with grilled meats, as you like. You’ll find dal puri and many more roti recipes in Warm Bread and Honey Cake and some additional ones in Wrapped.

Workshops

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Hallo!

Als je op mijn website of Facebook-pagina zit, ken je mij waarschijnlijk al. Mocht je dit bericht via-via hebben ontvangen, dan is het misschien wel nuttig als ik me kort voorstel. Ik ben Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra, auteur van 5 kookboeken, onder andere Het Nederlands Bakboek (Kookboek van het Jaar 2012) en Zelfgebakken/Warm Bread and Honey Cake (Guild of Food Writers Cookery Book of the Year 2010). Op mijn website kun je veel meer over mij en mijn boeken lezen. Omdat ik regelmatig de vraag krijg of ik workshops geef, heb ik besloten om mijn keuken in de Oude Pastorie in Tricht open te stellen voor jullie en workshops in twee thema’s aan te bieden. In kleine groepjes, zodat er veel persoonlijke aandacht is voor de deelnemers. Per workshop, per tijdvak, is er plaats voor 5 personen.

Workshop: Bakken met specerijen

Je leert spekkoek en kruidkoek maken én je mag je handen vies maken in het deeg voor Friese Dúmkes. De spekkoek proeven wij samen bij een kopje koffie of thee en, mocht er wat overblijven, dan mag je dit uiteraard mee naar huis nemen! Ook krijg je een kruidkoek mee en je zelfgemaakte dúmkes. Deze workshop zal ongeveer 3,5 uur duren en kost € 50,- per persoon. De workshop begint om 13.00 uur en vindt plaats op:

  • dinsdag 17 februari
  • vrijdag 27 februari (VOL)

Workshop: Indo-Caribische curry maaltijd

In deze workshop laat ik zien hoe je een Indo-Caribische curry  met kip bereidt. Op verzoek kan het natuurlijk ook vegetarisch. Vervolgens maken wij samen twee soorten roti: de dikke Sada-roti (lijkt een beetje op een naanbrood, qua textuur) en de prachtig gelaagde Paratha, wat meer techniek vereist. Daarbij bereiden we een Indiase zoete lekkernij en eten alles samen op met een bijpassende salade/groentegerecht en een glas wijn of sap. Ik ga uit van 3,5-4 uur, want rustig en gezellig eten hoort er ook bij! De kosten per persoon zijn € 60,-. De workshop begint steeds om 9.30. Workshops staan gepland op de volgende data, maar op verzoek zijn er ook andere mogelijkheden. Wij hebben inmiddels een workshop achter de rug en de deelneemsters zeiden het volgende:

“Heerlijk gegeten, geluisterd, gekookt en gelachen, leuk!”

“Gezelligheid, gastvrijheid. De tijd is omgevlogen!”

“Leerzaam, leuk en gezellig!”

“Het maken, bakken en ‘klappen’ van de roti waren leuk!”

“A well-organised workshop with interesting content, delicious recipes, nice people, outstanding demonstration, cozy atmosphere and a nice location.”

  • vrijdag 6 februari (VOL)
  • maandag 16 februari (VOL)
  • vrijdag 6 maart

Algemeen

Uiteraard gebruik ik mijn eigen recepten tijdens de workshops. Je krijgt ook alle gebruikte receptuur mee naar huis. Een workshop kan alleen doorgaan als er 5 mensen zich inschrijven. Het is daarom handig als je een eerste en tweede voorkeursdatum opgeeft. Alle details worden je t.z.t. toegestuurd. Voor de door mij geprikte data kun je je op individuele basis inschrijven, of met je eigen groepje. Mocht je een eigen groepje al hebben en een andere datum eventueel willen prikken, dan kunnen we dat in overleg doen. Mocht je je groepje kleiner willen hebben, dan kan dat natuurlijk ook. De groep dient dan wel voor 5 personen te betalen.

Bereikbaarheid

De Oude Pastorie bevindt zich op 10 minuten loopafstand van NS Station Geldermalsen. Ook met de auto is de locatie goed te bereiken (A2 of A15).

Hoe schrijf je je in?

Als je je wilt inschrijven, of als je meer informatie wilt hebben, kun je mij een email sturen via gaitri@gaitripagrachchandra.com of een privé bericht via mijn Facebook-pagina Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO BOOK A WORKSHOP TO BE GIVEN IN ENGLISH? Please contact me for more information.

Saving the walnut harvest

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We are blessed with a large and shady walnut tree in our garden and as summer progresses, I scan the branches anxiously and wonder what the harvest will be like. When the rest of the garden starts to fade and the few remaining flowers hang their heads dejectedly, I start to look forward to the harvest and welcome the strong autumnal gusts that scatter the nuts onto the grass under the tree. My enthusiasm remains undimmed by the bending, stooping and crouching involved in picking them up from the ground. In fact, I see this as a welcome side benefit: a wonderful workout without even noticing! I brush off the black lace or slime, depending on the weather conditions, then spread them out to dry on a garden bench. After a few hours, I gather the nuts again and take them indoors to dry properly on sheets of newspaper. They have to be turned regularly and after a week or two they can be stored in their shells in net bags until needed. If the weather is good, I give these an extra airing or two outdoors on the garden benches. My husband has remarked (only half-jokingly) that the only thing left for me to do is to load them into the children’s old pram and take them for a walk.  But my care is usually well rewarded and they rarely become mouldy. They last me until the next crop comes around and even though I use prolific quantities, I rarely have to resort to shop bought walnuts.

Walnut basket

Our district boasts several walnut-lined lanes, dykes and paths and locals make a sport of gathering the nuts as soon as they fall. The less scrupulous lend nature a helping hand and throw sticks and stray branches into the trees to bring on an instant harvest. On Sunday afternoons in particular, one sees entire families out on walnut gathering expeditions. They prod and poke at the long – usually wet – grass and pounce on any finds with great enthusiasm, depositing them in plastic carrier bags before moving on quickly to ward off potential poachers. Last Sunday, out for a walk, I saw a particularly well-prepared crew. They had brought a folding ladder with them! Father was high up in the tree, shaking it for all he was worth, while the rest darted back and forth to pick the nuts that rained down.

When not under the trees, these enthusiasts can generally be recognized by their hands. Walnuts are housed in  fleshy green pods and they generally fall in two ways. Usually, the ripe green pods simply crack, allowing the nuts to fall to the ground. These usually have shreds of cream-coloured lace clinging to them and once removed, you have a beautiful and clean nut. However , the lace is not as innocent as it looks and stains the hands and nails dark brown. If the pods remain hanging for longer, they turn brown and subsequently release nuts covered with black lace. The black lace stains equally effectively. The worst stains are those obtained from gathering nuts in wet weather, when the black lace turns to slime. I have seen people come very well geared: with surgical gloves. That is not for me. Stains or not, I prefer to use my bare hands and my initial embarrassment at the beginning of the season is short-lived as most people get it in one and the enquiry ‘Been at the walnuts again?’ is commonly heard.

One year we had an extended dry spell and literally bucket loads of olive-sized nuts fell prematurely to the ground. Fearing that hardly anything would be left, I decided to take action: I watered the tree every afternoon with the garden hose, to the extreme merriment of  my family and neighbours. When I responded with a variant of my Little Red Hen act, threatening to eat the whole harvest myself,  this elicited even more hilarity. I know the doubters among you will say that my precautions were unnecessary, even useless, as the roots are deep enough to find their own water supply. Don’t spoil my fun. The dear old tree did not disappoint me. My care was rewarded with a bumper crop and if the nuts were a little smaller than average, they were still as delicious as ever.

My harvest is now safely indoors, waiting to be turned into walnut bread, baklava, Gerbeaud Slices, Potica and much, much more. For those of you not similarly blessed, buy the more expensive French walnuts instead of the cheaper Indian or Chinese ones. The flavour is far superior.

Prunes with peanut butter, the easy way

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No, this is not a recipe from Wrapped. Here’s what happened….

Yesterday, I decided to post a photo of a jar of peanut butter, a container of cocktail sticks and an opened bag of prunes on my Facebook page. It was accompanied by the following text: ‘Let’s see how well you guys know your world of ingredients. Question in 3 parts: What do you do with these? Who/which people, from where in the world, use(s) them all together? And when? Let’s hear your answers 🙂 ‘

peanut butter

Because there are such lovely people frequenting my page, answers did come in. Some thought that the prunes were dates, perhaps eaten stuffed by vegans? Another admitted to having googled the combination as she couldn’t for the life of her imagine why anyone would want to combine these ingredients. One was utterly confounded by the tiny image on the screen of her phone and didn’t know what to make of it. Some decided to wait and see. One actually got it right! She had seen a Caribbean friend make them. And yet another reader, who knows all about this, commented brightly that they seem to be catching on in other countries. Significantly, countries with large Caribbean immigrant populations.

Earlier that morning, browsing through some Caribbean cookbooks, I smiled involuntarily to see a recipe for ‘Easy prunes with peanut butter’. Yes, an actual recipe. An easy one at that, because it can also be a tricky and rather complicated business. And in case you are about to take that seriously, don’t. Seeing the recipe unleashed a great deal of silliness in me, as it took me straight back to my childhood in Guyana. I felt compelled to share the fun.

I can almost hear you. ‘Fun?’ ‘Prunes with peanut butter?!’ ‘Gosh, that sounds weird!’ Perhaps even a heartfelt ‘Yuck!’ Don’t dismiss it out of hand, though. When I was growing up, prunes stuffed with peanut butter and then impaled on cocktail sticks were considered party fare. Even cocktail party fare. I can’t say that I’ve ever tried them with an alcoholic drink, having been too young at the time, but along with almost everybody else in the Caribbean, I used to love stuffed prunes at any opportunity. Both prunes and peanut butter, and even the cocktail sticks probably, were imported items at a time when shipments were just that: stuff packed in crates and put on a boat that set off for the other side of the world and eventually got there. Back then, imported foods like these were treats for many, not the everyday staples they have now become. And as much as I was amused by the fact that someone would actually put a recipe in a book for prunes stuffed with peanut butter – the easy way – I felt a sense of satisfaction welling up alongside the inevitable nostalgia. Here was a person who apparently thought that it was good enough to share, and was doing so. No snobbery. Not even a hint of self-consciousness. So refreshing in this day and age of gourmet eating, cooking and writing.

Here’s how you do it, my way: remove the seeds from some plump  prunes (or buy seedless ones), stuff the now empty prunes with peanut butter and try to give them legitimacy as a cocktail snack by pricking in a cocktail stick. If you want to get genuine, you can even call the cocktail stick a toothpick. The prune is usually so overstuffed and heavy that it falls off the stick or almost immediately, so you end up having to pick it up with your fingers after all, to convey it to your mouth. There! It is easy,  isn’t it? And as far as I know, this is the only way to do it. I may be wrong, of course, so if you do know a trickier and more complicated way, do tell. And please don’t use Agen prunes. They are far too upmarket and trendy for this simple snack.

Try some recipes from Wrapped

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Hello all! I’ve been writing quite a lot about my new book Wrapped on my Facebook page, and have been showing you photos, both my own and some from readers who already have the book. Please be my guest and try out a few recipes, so that you can get a feel for the book and the kind of recipes in it. I know ‘fusion’ is quite passé as a term, but there’s no other word that describes some of the combinations as aptly. I’ve just uploaded the recipes

Seasoned roti wrappers

Seasoned roti wrappers

for Chermoula Chicken Skewers, Seasoned Roti Wrappers and Mango Salsa. This is a combination that encompasses three continents, but I find that it comes together beautifully on the plate. See if you agree with me. Enjoy!