Read on for a new collection of frugal food stories from mothers and grandmothers closer to home. In collaboration with photographer, Maria Bell, we’re touring the UK to share the waste-free wisdom of several British women from diverse backgrounds. I’m excited to share more with you in the coming months. Sign up to my once-a-month newsletter to get them straight to your inbox.
“They’ll throw the fish heads in the bin if I don’t buy them. I stick them in the freezer to use in soups. They’re full of flavour”. A stainless steel pot sits on the stove in Nolda’s Croydon kitchen. In it, a frozen salmon head procured from Sainsbury’s fish counter bobs about, its large eye peaking out amid a colourful assortment of neatly chopped squash, potato, green banana (unpeeled because the skin is full of iron, says Nolda), spring onions and chayote – or ‘chocho’ – a Jamaican pear-like vegetable that takes well to soups and grows easily in English climes. Nolda points to the young plant quietly taking root on her windowsill.
Photography: Maria Bell (uncropped main image below)
Nolda’s kitchen is long and narrow, leading out on one side to a large garden where strawberries and spring onions, potatoes, beets and salad leaves grow. She sets aside the leftover spring onion roots to put into water and replant later. Something she also does with lettuce and celery, reviving the nubs into new plants or replanting old sprouted potatoes to multiply again.
The pan is simmering now. From the freezer, Nolda takes a ziplock bag of Scotch Bonnets. Her freezer is packed full with various chillies, chopped vegetables and grated cheese, salt cod, chicken carcasses and fish heads. She shops cleverly, seeking bargains at the market and using her freezer to keep it fresh. “At Surrey Street Market in Croydon, you can get a bowl of peppers for £1. There’s no way you’d get that in the supermarket.” She plops a Scotch Bonnet whole into the pot “for flavour, not heat”, covers the pan with a lid and leaves it alone to simmer.
Nolda grew up until the age of 11 on her grandparents’ farm in Jamaica before moving to South London in 1965 to join her parents and seven younger siblings. “I remember standing on the back step and picking grapefruits from the tree. There were mangoes and oranges too. My grandad was a farmer and Methodist preacher. He had a lot of influence on my life and I still remember that. He was strict but very loving and very kind and he helped a lot of people less fortunate than us.
It was strange to move to London but not that strange because Jamaica was British. The money was the same, the schooling and the language was the same, even the culture felt the same. Dad is 90 now and he still lives in the house we grew up in down the road. We had a garden and he’d grow his fruit and vegetables there. I became English, but I don’t forget where I come from”.
She checks on the soup, chopping and stirring in chunks of yam (it breaks down too much if added too soon). She dips in a spoon and pours the liquid into her palm to taste it. By now, the fish head has all but disintegrated, its meat and juices intensifying the soup and the aromas steaming off it. Fish heads can be bought cheaply or sometimes for free from fishmongers, who have to pay hefty prices to destroy the binloads of discards after filleting the day’s catch. Binloads of wasted food that could otherwise turn a frugal soup or stew into something full of flavour and nutrition. (I wrote more about how you can cut supply-chain food waste here). “Mum cooked from scratch every day but she’d make us cook on Saturdays. I started making soup when I was 12. ‘Taste it, taste it’, she’d always say. We learned to cook intuitively, not from recipes”.
Now for the dumplings. She tips plain flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl and pours in just enough cold water to bring it together with her hands into a rough dough. “Our dumplings are called spinners. They’re a bit more dense than the ones with suet. They’re not spongy like British ones, they have a bit more of a bite”. She tears off little balls of dough and rolls them between her hands into pudgy finger lengths, dropping them one by one into the thickening, darkening soup. When is it ready? “When it’s cooked”, Nolda replies.
If you’ve followed this blog over the years, you’ll know I’ve interviewed many older cooks, often women, all around the world. While their ingredients, techniques and dishes change, the way they cook is always the same. An inherent resourcefulness that knows how to turn whatever’s in the pantry into a good meal, how to use an ingredient – like Nolda’s fish here – in its entirety, or how to use up leftovers, preserve a surplus or rescue food on the turn.
What continues to surprise me is not how delicious their food is but how delicious it is because of the resourcefulness with which it is made. A creativity born out of imposed limitations of thrift and necessity that we don’t seem to have these days.
Bowls are laid out and we sit down to eat, slurping spoonfuls of rich soup, dense with fish, tender vegetables and little dumplings. Seconds are quickly served.
Nolda’s Jamaican Fish Soup with Dumplings
1 green banana, unpeeled
1 small onion, peeled
1 clove of garlic, peeled
1 medium potato
2 spring onions
around 800g vegetables, such as
squash, carrots, Jamaican chayote, yam or
whatever odds and ends of veg you have in the fridge
1 fish head and tail, such as salmon (ask at the fish counter
at your local fishmonger or supermarket)
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
optional: a few allspice berries
1 stock pot or cube
1 whole Scotch Bonnet chilli
100g plain flour
a pinch of salt
Half-fill a large saucepan with water (about 2 litres) and set on the hob over a medium-high heat. Now start preparing your vegetables: slice the green banana (don’t peel it), and roughly chop the onion, garlic and vegetables, keeping the yam separate, if using. Rinse the fish head under the tap. Normally it’s got the gill so just pull it out.
Add your prepped vegetables (except the yam – it breaks up too much when cooked too long) to the pan along with the fish head and tail, the thyme, allspice berries, stock pot or cube and whole Scotch Bonnet. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer for about an hour, or until thickened and tasting good, adding the yam about halfway through.
Meanwhile, make the dumplings. Our dumplings are called spinners. They’re not spongy like British ones, they are dense and have a bit more of a bite. Tip the flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl, then add just enough cold water to bring the ingredients together into a rough, stiff dough. Set aside to rest for 10 minutes.
Pull off tiny pieces of the dough and rub between your hands into little, pudgy finger lengths. Drop them into the soup around 15 minutes before the end.
Season to taste, discard any large fish bones, then ladle into bowls.