Friday, November 5

The Great Fish Eye Incident

I've been photographing dishes for a charity recipe book over the last few months. It's been so much fun - I've met all kinds of people from all over the world, been invited to people's homes to photograph and chat to them while they're cooking, then - best of all - got to eat with them at the end.

My friend L and I have eaten the most amazing freshly-fried felafel; an enormous, delicious Palestinian feast; a crazy Egyptian carb-fest involving pasta and rice together; a sticky cake from Georgia... actually maybe this explains why I've put on a few pounds of late.

Anyway, the whole thing has just been fab - apart from the incident with the Congolese food.

L and I are both veggie, so we've chosen to photograph the recipes that are veggie-friendly. Or if there's meat involved, we've brought someone else to eat with us, so we don't offend the host.

The day of the Congolese cookery session, we realised that the recipe involved fish. It was just the two of us, no-one was around during the day to come with us, so I made an executive decision that we should just crack on and eat some of it after it had been cooked. I have dabbled with fish-munching in the past, so didn't have a problem with a one-off fleshfest. L was not so convinced, but said she'd just close her eyes and pretend it was alfalfa sprouts or something.

So off we pootled to the cooking session. Betty, the cook, had all the ingredients out on the kitchen counter - aubergines, spring onions, peppers, garlic, something called cassava leaves that looked a bit liked spinach...

The recipe involved a kind of veggie curry, the fish served separately, then some rice. Perfect. We could just have tons of rice and curry then a little bit of fish.

Betty started chopping and I started snapping. It all looked so fresh and inviting and lovely. Until she got a bag out of the fridge with two whole fish in it. Two whole fish with eyes and gaping mouths. Two whole fish that she proceeded to slice open and pull the insides out off - placing them in the kitchen sink.

L looked a bit pale. I was holding my breath and trying not to gag.

I moved over to the pan of frying veggies, which smelled all garlicky and lovely. Betty came over to give it a stir and add some more ingredients. She had a huge carton of something red. It has African writing on it, so I couldn't see what it was, but it looked like some sort of tomato puree. Betty picked up the carton and poured tons of it it into the veg - about half of the 2-litre bottle.

Betty didn't speak much English, so I asked her friend what it was. "Oh, it's palm oil'" he said. Oh. A whole litre of oil. In one dish. Oh.

Betty obviously didn't think it was oily enough, because she then grabbed some groundnut oil and added another half a litre of that. Eek.

So the lovely fresh veggie dish was now more like an oily vegetable soup. But there was one missing ingredient. Betty got two tins of Asda SmartPrice sardines out of the cupboard, smushed them up with a fork, then stirred them into the oil slick. Blee.

I started to lose my appetite.

A bit more cooking and a bit more photographing later and the feast was ready. Betty laid the table, we sat down, and she brought out three big serving dishes. One with rice, one with a greasy green sardiney sludge, and one with two whole fish, still with the eyes and the gaping mouths (albeit disguised by a bit of green pepper and onion).

Betty served us all. A huge mountain of rice, tons of the green stuff, and on the top - a fish head with eyes for me, a fish head with eyes for L.

I ate very slowly and gulped down an awful lot of water. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see L twirling the fish round and round with her fork.

Let's just say that we didn't have second helpings.

That night, I dreamt of fish eyes. I still had an oily residue in my mouth the next morning.

A few days later, Betty sent an email to us. "Thank you so much - it was such a privilege to cook for you. You are such enthusiastic people."

I'm thinking of applying to RADA.

The book's out in a few weeks - it'll be a great stocking filler (about £5), so watch this space for details of how to get one (you could even recreate this dish for yourself - yum!).


  1. Other than all that oil--it sounds delicious! Being meat eaters, we've made sure the kids are well aware of what they are eating--so when we have fish, like trout, we serve the whole thing to them. The eyes never bothered me--but my mom, who loves fish more than any other food, won't eat it if the head is attached! We're all so different! But good on the two of you for being ever so polite about it all!!

  2. Ach y fi and that comes from a fish lover, eyes and all!