Tamara Samson, Intuitive, Holistic Cook

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Tamara lives and works in Ireland’s North West.  Cooking for her is a vocation which has involved many years of investigative travel during which she has discovered the authentic globe on which we precariously perch, through the cultural identity of food.  Her experiences are literally mouth-watering. Here, She talks Goat Stews and Cheeses, Chillies, Cherries, Coriander, Cumin and Crayfish.

South Africa, where I grew up is a very multicultural country. We have the second largest population of Indians outside of India, up on the east coast.  I’m from Cape Town where there is very large Malay population so our traditional food dishes really would be biryanis, boboties, samosas, curries, chutneys, pickles and things like that, then we have huge Italian, Greek, Portuguese communities in the Cape so I was exposed to different cuisines from a young age.  I had a lot of Italian and Greek friends so I was always eating different meals.  My mother would have made boboties and biryanis, it goes without saying it was just a part of the way we lived.  So from a young age I just loved food and the different cultures I was exposed to through it.

I grew up on the beach with the rocks on the coast just littered with mussels, we used to go mussel picking every weekend.  We all had a crayfish licence when I was little, we would go out in the boat at about four or five in the morning dropping the nets and we’d sit out at sea for an hour or so, my father would pull up the nets and he’d measure the tails so we never took anything too small and then we’d come home with fresh crayfish, fresh pearlemoen, (a type of abalone) and fresh mussels.  The Crayfish would be done on the braai, we’d make a salad with the legs and we’d make our own cocktail sauce with brandy, Worcestershire sauce, lemon, tomato sauce, mayonnaise and fresh herbs.  I remember my dad hammering the perlemoen with a mallet to tenderise it and that would be done with garlic on the pan for perlemoen Steaks.  So I’ve always loved food and had a pretty fun life, spent mostly down on the beach.

I left South Africa after school to go travelling for a year and never returned.  But any time I go home now I always mourn leaving, I’m always sad leaving, I love South Africa, it’s an incredible country. People there are very resilient, very passionate and passionate about their country so I do miss it.

I went first to the Canaries because I have an aunt that lives there, I speak Spanish it’s my second language. I spent six months there and then on to Israel for eight months where the food is just… well it blows your mind!  Just the freshness of the food, the Middle East and Asia are probably my favourite cuisines because of the freshness of the ingredients, the vibrancy, the colour, the variety, it’s just incredible I love it, light fresh food. The falafels and the salads are just to die for!

Then it just continued, in Japan I became obsessed with Sushi!, and then South America, wow! Another culinary experience.  Each place was so individual and so unique with what it had to offer. When I flew into Argentina I’d been a vegetarian for seven years and after about a month or so I just couldn’t …. I thought ‘when in Rome’! I thought to hell with it I’m just gonna start, so I had my first steak after seven years in Argentina and then again in Uruguay. Then onto Chile, Peru and Ecuador and the fish! the ceviche, the beautiful fish stews with coconut, so amazing!  In northern Argentina I ate a lot of goats stew, goats cheese and tiraz – these are little corn parcels where the corn is taken off the cob and made into a sort of stew, then wrapped back into the leaves and steamed.  I was in India for a few months and there, I literally abandoned the fork, abandoned the spoon and it was just straight in with my hands eating as they do, eating everything and anything, it was all delicious.

In Asia I lived on a beach – any time I went to Thailand I lived on a beach and again just fresh food, made to order on the streets of Bangkok, all the wonderful street food and you pay something like 20 – 50 baht which is like a dollar for this incredible meal and you’re so satisfied and the smells!

I was eight years in Galway on and off, I did a lot of my travelling from Galway where I’d work for six to eight months, go travelling for another six to eight months and come back.  I’ve been two and half years up in Leitrim. I could do with a bit more sunshine that’s for sure but I love it.  It’s the people, the people are what has kept me here I suppose.  I could live in any of those places that I’ve travelled to for the beauty of the country and the nature, but here it’s a combination of firstly being able to speak the language with the people and it’s important for me to have the same kind of cultural background, so for me the culture of Ireland is extremely important.  Across the world with globalisation they’re trying to homogenise culture, to water it down.  So that’s why I travel, I want to experience other cultures, other ways of life but at the end of the day, for me it’s important to be surrounded by people that are my own culture because that’s where the connections are made and the strongest connections I have ever made in my life are here in Ireland; the strongest!  So I’m staying! Maybe when my son is older and has left school I may seek out the sun again, but I’m here and I love it, I love it!

As I was telling you, when I started travelling I began to develop my palette and there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try. But then I became very aware of social issues and I became very aware of the planet so it’s been in recent years that my whole awareness has changed with regards food. Where the product comes from has become a burning issue for me, how it is sourced, how the product has been grown, and the conditions of the workers, of the actual product itself.  I’m very passionate about chemical free food.  I have foraged here in Leitrim, for wild garlic, damson, nettles, the edible flowers, berries. I believe in eating off the land, eating what’s available wherever you live. It makes things more interesting, the food is of the mountains, of the shores and oceans and forests.

Something that really stands out for me from foraging now through my memory is…

I was living in Turkey for a while, we popped over to Bulgaria and were walking around Sophia meandering the backstreets when we saw this entrance with stairs going up and a young girl standing outside, she must have been ten or twelve. We asked what the place was and she explained that it was a restaurant, a family place where her parents and grandmother prepared the food.  So she brought us a menu and we didn’t know what to order as it was all in Bulgarian so she said come in come in, all very authentic, very ornate inside; quite dark.  She took us down into almost a cellar like area and just sat down, all this food came out on these beautiful decorated platters. There were salads, meats and soups, oh the soups! Then we got to the equivalent of rakí, a Turkish drink not unlike anise, it was such a wonderful experience, we met the granny, she came out afterwards to say hello. None of them spoke English but it didn’t matter. We spent all afternoon there, it was the real deal, like eating in someone’s house.  It was eating in someone’s house!

I remember another time, I landed up in a place in Fiji, it was like little India, not a palm tree in sight, not a beach in sight and I ended up in the bus drivers home. He said I could stay there for the weekend, so I went there and left after the following weekend! I met the whole family and of course the granny and learnt lots about food from them.  I ate jackfruit and whatever they were offering me. I just love it whenever people invite me into their homes, you get the authentic experience. That’s why I switched from being a vegetarian, I don’t like to refuse food, to refuse someone’s hospitality and warmth especially if I am in someone’s home.

At the moment it’s definitely more of an ethical journey for me.  I want to try and focus on making food my business – literally.  I’ll be doing a business course over the summer and I’m starting doing a course about the science of food.  I’d love to give cooking demos, I’d love to go into people’s homes and cook them their dinner parties. It all started in Galway, a group of us were getting together in a friend’s house and I said I’ll bring all the food. So I went down with all this wonderful food and they all raved about it, and then they asked if I would be willing to do a cooking demo.  There were 11 people and we had it in a beautiful house out in Barna.  The family organised two girls to come to the house to look after the kids from all five families and I just took over her kitchen and put on this amazing spread.  Claire wrote a fabulous review for me, I was delighted. Check out the review that was written about it here! http://barnaclaire.blogspot.ie/2016/01/book-club-meets-cook-club.html?m=1  I would love to do more pop up supper clubs that type of things.  Spontaneity! Passion! I love how food brings people together, I get so much joy out of that, of sitting with my friends and eating together, there is nothing more I love to do other than eating with my friends and drinking wine.  The flavours! The tasting! The aromas!

I love pasta on a rainy day, as I said, we have a strong Italian community in south Africa and I remember my father saying to me when I was about eight I think ‘One day you will marry an Italian’, so I’m obviously living in the wrong country!

I remember in Spain spending a few days there, and one night just bar hopping, you can go from place to place to place and try the speciality pinchos two or three of them in each place, get a little drop of wine or a little drop of beer along the way and off you go to the next one and I remember we got the mushrooms, it was myself John and Jo, John ordered the mushrooms without checking the price and we got this little plate of mushrooms for 16 euro! They were meant to be so fabulous and they were fabulous but also fabulously expensive!  So when I travel, most of the journey is spent eating, that’s how you tap into the culture right into the essence of a nationality – the core.

In Ireland, I’m getting to know the local small producers that are providing local produce, amazing natural ingredients and I’m delighted to support the likes of Seán McMorrow Butchers. They rear their own beef and lamb and the quality is excellent. There is a new butcher in Boyle that is producing organic meat so I look forward to supporting them too.  I’m beginning to learn more about suppliers now in Ireland and supporting anyone that’s producing quality sustainable and fresh local produce.

Now, I would love to have a little food cart, I really would.  Another thing I would like to do is to cook for health retreats, yoga retreats because I want to provide healthy, wholesome, light, fresh food. I love the idea of preparing fresh, vibrant meals.

My favourite salad recipe is bursting with flavour and goodness. It’s generally got fennel, red cabbage, fresh carrot, asparagus, cucumber and red onion. I always grate in fresh garlic and ginger, chop in fresh chillies, it could have scallions in it, fresh coriander and just fresh lemon juice and olive oil, Himalaya salt crunched in and right at the end avocado; tonnes of avocado, It’s an explosion of flavours. I don’t bother anymore with salad dressings because I find I’ve got all the flavours right in there in the salad itself.  All you need is the lemon and the salt to bring it all out.  That’s generally my salad at home. I’ve become obsessed with fennel, fresh fennel, throw it into anything.  It’s amazing in a risotto, in a curry as well, a Thai curry or even an Indian tomato curry, Oh really nice.

I take my own staples with me wherever I go.  I take my own coffee, my own raw organic sugar, my own salt.  When I go to Galway and I go to Galway a lot, my clothes bag is smaller than my food bag! I want to feed my child too and I want to know he’s getting fed properly. I do all my veg shopping from Tír Na Nóg or from Gareth, an organic veg supplier, he used to be at the Manorhamilton Farmers Market.  On a Wednesday the organic veg order comes in to Tír Na Nóg so I go there then and I get everything. You know sometimes there are some things you have to get from the shop. Aubergine, I can’t always find organic aubergine, I’m obsessed with aubergine, it’s one of my favourite vegetables in the world! Middle Eastern food, Turkish food isn’t complete without aubergine and it’s probably, I would have to say, if I had to, if I was forced to take a particular cuisine with me to the grave, it would have to be Middle Eastern.  Something with aubergine!

I really feel I have had a blessed life, I had paradise on my doorstep. Cape Town’s a very large city but you don’t feel like you are living in a city. You’re surrounded by the mountains and the ocean wherever you are, if you’re a little bit inland you have the forests, and then the vineyards of Stellenbosch and the beautiful rolling hills, the fruit trees of the fruit growers, orange trees, lemon trees, peach trees and cherry trees it’s just all fresh and beautiful.

Food is life and life is fantastic! I love it, love it, love it!!!

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