An endless source of inspiration
Weird, wonderful, or even unpleasant: Have you ever noticed how food has an ability to write itself deep into our memories? That favourite dish from your childhood (as well as your most hated), that memorable meal from a special holiday, or that time you got the sauce just right in your kitchen?
Our experience of food is so indelibly linked to our experience of life that food memories build up like a library of taste memoirs from the very first day of our life to our last. Yet it's impossible to repeat a memorable meal, precisely because the particular taste experience is so intrinsically connected to our experience of the moment as a whole: our surroundings, our feelings, and those we shared the food with. While we could possibly try and recreate the dish itself, it's impossible to repeat the moment.
Still, we can use our food memories to inspire and guide our cooking every day. Recipes are somebody else's record of a food memory of their own. Just as you can deconstruct recipes down to their most basic building blocks and put them back together to match your own context (think lego), you can do the same with your own food memories.
Did you have a dish of baked fennel with tomato and olives while on holiday in Italy? Lovely. Now, how do you translate this memory into a useful cooking guide?
The basic take-away: fennel + tomato + olives = tasty combination
From here you can improvise in many directions:
Put them on a tray and roast them.
Put them in a pot and stew them (or soup them).
Stir fry them (fennel is quite dense so slice very thinly so it cooks quickly).
If you also have a separate memory of fennel going well with fish, you can use the fennel/tomato idea as a base for a fish stew. Or have it as a side to a grilled fish. Or you could finely chop the combination and use it on top of a fish fillet you intend to roast. (I could go on but I'll stop here.)
If you don't (yet) dare to improvise that freely: simply look up recipes with these ingredients (literally type them into a search box) and you'll get plenty of recipe ideas with proper instructions.
Or perhaps you had a mind-blowing exotic fish stew while travelling in Nigeria a long time ago (thank you Jeff for sharing the memory - it inspired this post!) If this was me, I would be compelled to look it up (the internet makes this now possible... see what happens if you look up 'Nigeria pepper fish stew'). I would check out a few different recipes and try to distil the 'essence' of the dish, down to those lego building blocks (my guess would be this: it is more about the stew than it is about the fish). Now you can adapt the basic idea to your context today: Use ingredients you have or can easily find (search for substitute suggestions for anything exotically local). And even drop the fish if you no longer eat that.
I'm sure it will be a fun experiment resulting in something tasty to eat. And you probably learn a thing or two that you can build into your future cooking (see above).
Will it be the same as in your memory? Of course not! You can never recreate that moment. But if you let those memories inspire you, you get a chance to savour that memory every time you allow it to feed and guide your cooking intuition in the here and now.
Now, I'd love to hear from you: What is your most cherished food memory? Have you ever tried to improvise on it?
PS. On the subject of bad food memories: Here too it's as much about the moment and the context as it is about the food itself. Try to put your finger on what exactly it was about the food that you hated. One of my earliest food memories involves me being sat at a table refusing to be persuaded to eat my pureed spinach. As my mum later found out, the problem was the puree, not the spinach. I was more than happy to eat it as long as it was simply wilted. (So I'm told, I don't remember this, I just remember the unpleasant part. Ha!) I still hate pureed slimy foods. And I still love leafy spinach.