In our searchfor authenticity in food, we tend to overlook the fact that good dishes come about in all kinds of roundabout ways. There isn’t anything linear, or straightforward, or thought through in their inception. There often isn’t an origin or one true source. All dishes are fusion dishes, in the best sense of the word. They come from the kind of fluidity that makes us human. They are the stories of individuals or families, their journeys and their messy circumstances.
This is why the best place to go looking for an “authentic” dish is often not in a region or a particular time. You are much more likely to stumble on authenticity — meaningful authenticity — if you follow a personal story, a series of incidents and blissful accidents that ended up with something incredibly delicious.
Such is the story of the Spicy Coconut Greens. I could say that it is a take on laing, a much-loved Philippine dish made with taro leaves that are cooked down with coconut milk. I could talk about how I deviated from the origin by substituting chard for taro leaves and adding shrimp and datterini tomatoes to turn it into a stand-alone rather than a side dish. I could talk about other small adjustments that were made, but when I go online for references, there are, predictably, many takes on laing, which I read as the tales of the people who make them and not of a monolithic dish and its variations.
This is why, as always, I prefer to tell the story of my dish through the person who inspired its creation, Elaine Goad, and her intersection with my world.
Elaine grew up in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Britain. Born to a Philippine mother and a Canadian father, she was charmed by the kitchen from a very early age, and although her mother didn’t love having her around the kitchen at this stage, Elaine counts her mum, as well as her maternal grandfather, as the cooks who inspired her to become a chef.
It took a long journey, though, before Elaine could settle into this world.
When she first considered studying hospitality, her father encouraged her to do a business degree instead. Like so many concerned parents (mine included) of young adults about to choose a career, he was worried about her job prospects in kitchens. He also couldn’t quite believe that the little fussy girl he knew when she was growing up, the girl who couldn’t really stand vegetables, was actually serious about making food for a living.
Perhaps Elaine didn’t believe in it enough herself, so she did go to study business for two years in Vancouver. But as she says, “I couldn’t shake that bug.” So she went back to the Philippines to finally do her culinary studies, which she loved.
And yet her father might have been just a little bit right in his concerns. The first job she got after her studies, working in a hotel in Manila, didn’t earn her enough money, so she spent the next two years working as a travel agent.
And yet again, Elaine just had to go back to the kitchen. And again, her father had something to do with it, only this time in a supportive way. Her wish to go to work at Ottolenghi in London seems to have swayed it, and for that I am utterly grateful. The Ottolenghi books, you see, were a staple in the Goad household. Elaine’s mother and father were fans, as was her Canadian grandmother, so my food was often served at family meals.
Going to work for Ottolenghi was, I suppose, a more purposeful ambition, and so, seven years ago, Elaine ended up in one of our kitchens, followed by a meteoric rise from kitchen porter to commis chef to salad chef to head chef. I think it’s fair to assume that all the years of waiting have given her an incredible drive that, combined with great talent, makes her an extraordinary chef.
She now has four head-chef positions in our company under her belt, including starting our most recent kitchen in Chelsea, West London. It is there that she first put on the menu a dish based on laing. Elaine says that her “comfort zone” is cooking food from Eastern Asia: the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Korea. She cooks these cuisines instinctively, without thinking. When she does Elaine-meets-Ottolenghi, she often goes to cookbooks. So to pair the laing of her childhood with cod, which is what she needed for her menu, she flicked through “Falastin,” the Palestinian cookbook written by my colleagues Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley, and there she found a spice mix for fish. The mild sweetness of the mix, which has cardamom, cumin, paprika and turmeric, worked perfectly with the fish, as well as with the coconut greens. It was a hit.
The last chapter in the dish’s journey was when it arrived in the Ottolenghi test kitchen; we decided to swap the cod with shrimp to make it more approachable for home cooks. The spicing needed to be toned down so as not to mask the sweetness of the shrimp, but the essence of the dish remained, or at least that’s what I hoped. When Elaine came over to give her thumbs-up (or down) to the latest version, I wasn’t so worried about the substitution of taro with chard and how much like laing it tasted; the most important question was whether it still resonated with Elaine’s story, if it was authentic to her. And thankfully, it was!
Recipe: Spicy Coconut Greens With Tomato and Shrimp