I discovered John Gregory-Smith during lockdown. We were watching Sunday Brunch one day and he was on the show demonstrating his frying pan pizza from his home (another DIY coronavirus TV segment! It’s all I see on TV now). I wasn’t keen on making pizza during lockdown (I was not tempted by all the Instagram posts of homemade pizza!), but he made it look easy and doable so I thought I would try it as I had all the ingredients. To my surprise, it turned out fabulous! I was amazed at how tasty and how easy it was.
As you probably know, I am a big fan of easy recipes. Every time I google a recipe I type “easy” before it. “Easy lasagne”, “easy biryani”, “easy shawarma”, “easy roast chicken” etc etc. I don’t always find what I’m looking for, but when I do I look for more recipes from that source. I will be sharing my ultimate go-to cookbook that has revolutionised my cooking routine, but that will be for another day.
I liked John’s recipe and so I started browsing his website a bit more to see if he had similarly easy recipes. I discovered a lot of his recipes are Middle Eastern/Arabic. They looked lovely, but I always feel a bit uneasy when white chefs use ethnic food and ingredients in their recipes.
There is a tendency for Western chefs to whitewash and remove any cultural or historical context when cooking ethnic food. I think Ottolenghi is often guilty of this, for example. I do like his recipes and own one of his cookbooks, but I can’t help feeling a little sting when he talks about Middle Eastern with so much authority. He is Israeli and grew up in Israel, but it’s not quite the same thing.
I was amazed to see pomegranate molasses and dried barberries selling on the Ottolenghi website. They are pretty much double the price than the ones you can find in Middle Eastern shops or Middle Eastern countries. It was just a weird feeling, these are ingredients we use all the time (sometimes daily) that have been used for a very long time. Our people are so often vilified for our culture and ridiculed for being “barbaric” or “backwards” and here we have countless Western chefs having our food take centre stage in their recipe books. Our ingredients and dishes are elevated when our people are constantly oppressed and demonised.
I know a lot of people have an issue with this and think we are being sensitive, but it is cultural appropriation and it feels bad. It’s unconscionable to oppress and prejudice a whole people and culture while using their recipes and ingredients without explaining or referring to or even acknowledging the origins of the cuisine. Many times also acting as an authority on cuisine they never grew up with or even knew about until a few years ago. For this reason, I try my best to stick to sources and recipes from people of the relevant ethnicity (i.e. Lebanese recipe from a Lebanese person, Indian recipes from an Indian chef/food blogger, etc )
It is a real problem because of racism. One study (as described in this BBC article) found that some dishes from certain cuisines were seen as more prestigious and could be charged more for.
When Chef Jonathan Wu opened up a high-end Chinese restaurant in New York (Fung Tu) he experienced this first hand. The restaurant received glowing reviews in the press, but Chef Wu said many people complained his food was too expensive for what it was. The article goes on to say:
Fun Tu closed down in 2017, and was reopened as Nom Was Tu, a dim sum restaurant with lower prices.
Mr Wu says there is still an “expectation that Chinese food is cheap.”
He compares how hand-made Chinese dumplings are sometimes sold for “five for a dollar”, whereas a high-end plate of ravioli can sell for “$45 a plate.”
“If you tried that for a plate of dumplings, people would freak out.”
I was disappointed and kind of surprised to read this. I shouldn’t be surprised because anything ethnic is usually considered second-rate, but I would never think of Chinese food as cheap. I didn’t grow up in the West, so my experience of Asian food was completely different. The first Chinese restaurant I ever went to was high-end with white table cloths, beautiful carpeting and ornate paintings and pictures on the wall. The dining table had a rotating disc (or a “lazy Susan” as I have learned they are sometimes called) so you could pass the food around more easily which I had never seen before (very impressive for a kid!).
In my eyes, Chinese food seems much more complex than Italian or French food. I think the flavours and techniques are a lot more complicated. But that’s just me, I am not an expert on food and I just like things that taste good.
Back to John Gregory-Smith. I was a little disappointed because I liked him, so I dug a bit more and looked through his Instagram. I liked his approach. From what I could see, he doesn’t make himself out to be an expert. I could feel the respect and love he has for the flavours, the food and the people. He made a trip to Gaza with the World Food Programme. I think the way he approaches the cuisine is responsible. Yes, he does have a recipe for “Lebanese quesadillas” *eye roll* which is cringe – but I think he’s a lot better than most.
I do like him and I like his recipes. I tried another one of his, which brings me to my Foodie Friday recipe! It’s easy, it’s quick, it can be made in advance and it is super cheeeesy. What more could you want?!
The original recipe uses anchovies, but I don’t like anchovies (or canned fish in general) so I’ve removed it from this recipe but check out the original recipe if you want to add some anchovies.
PREP TIME: 25 minutes
COOK TIME: 25 minutes
4 tbsp olive oil (divided)
4 chicken breasts
4 cloves of garlic (sliced)
2 tbsp drained capers
80g pitted olives
2 tsp chilli flakes or 1 large red chili chopped (optional, to taste)
1 tin chopped tomatoes
240g pack of mozzarella (drained)
A handful of roughly chopped parsley leaves
- Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan oven). Heat 2 tbsp the oil in a large non-stick pan over a medium heat and brown the chicken. It took me about 5 minutes on each side (it will depend on the size of your chicken. Once browned, put the chicken into a fitted baking tin.
NOTE: Being Middle Eastern, I can’t stand unseasoned chicken so I usually season when browning chicken and add a little turmeric (if there’s anything I learned from my mom about cooking about it’s that “turmeric takes away the chicken smell and taste”). I don’t use much so you can’t taste it in the end product, but I think it helps with that unseasoned chicken taste. This may be a major culinary faux pas, but that is not what Foodie Friday is about!
- Heat the other 2 tbsp of oil in the pan and add the garlic. Fry the garlic for about a minute or so until the garlic has lost its “raw” smell. Add the capers, olives, chilli flakes (or chili pepper), tomatoes and a pinch of salt. I also like to add some Italian seasoning and pepper at this stage.
- Pour the sauce over the chicken and rip the mozzarella up over the top. Roast for 20-25 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and tender. If using parsley (I didn’t have any when I made this), scatter just before serving.
And there you have it! My take on John Gregory-Smith’s recipe, simple quick and tasty. Serve with some garlic bread, pasta or potatoes. A great midweek meal.
If you try this recipe, please let me know what you thought in the comments!