Let’s start with the title. It’s a neat device uniting a collection of recipes from different parts of the world into a cohesive whole. Gray was born and raised in the Cape Malay community in South Africa. From there she moved to South Korea where she taught English for six years and where she met her husband, who took her to his home in the American South, where she now lives. The stories and recipes in South of Somewhere are drawn from Gray’s experience of these three places and demonstrate how different cultures are united by the common threads of humanity and joy in the sharing of a meal.
The book is divided into nine chapters defined by dish type or ingredient (Snacks & Drinks, Fish & Shellfish, Poultry, etc) plus a chapter on pantry ingredients and tips, and an essay that describes the braai – a tradition of social gatherings in South Africa based around cooking over live fire, akin to the American backyard barbecue.
Gray’s love of cooking was fostered in her close-knit family who had lived in South Africa for generations. The origins of the mixed-race Cape Malay community, she explains, stretch back to the earliest days of European colonisation, when the Portuguese and then the Dutch imported workers – enslaved and otherwise — from Africa and Southeast Asia.
Gray’s was a blue collar family – her Dad worked in a canning factory and her Mom was a grocery store clerk – so frugality was important. That sensibility translates into some very useful tips for avoiding waste in the kitchen, repurposing leftovers and rescuing under- or over-cooked dishes.
Ingredients in Gray’s pantry run the gamut from Worcestershire Sauce and English Mustard to Miso and Gochujang, with much in between. What’s common is a quest for the intense flavours — the kick of chile heat or curry spice, bright citrus, vinegar tang, sweetness from preserved fruits – that Gray enjoyed in each of her Souths.
Tying the recipes together are stories from Gray’s life. She writes with an engaging emotional honesty, sharing the experiences — growing up among vineyards, orchards and olive groves in Africa, discovering new aromas and street foods in Korea, learning the codes of Southern hospitality in the US and struggling to cope with loneliness at times – that have shaped her life and her cooking.
I usually try six or seven recipes for a cookbook review but I whipped through a dozen from South of Somewhere – testament to the tastiness contained in these 270-odd pages.
Peppadew & Gouda Pimento Cheese, a peppy spin on the Southern classic, does double duty as a spread for crackers and in the filling of the seriously delicious Pimento Cheese Tomato Pie Galette. Cooked on a sheet pan, the pie bakes up with a beautifully crisp bottom crust, without the faff of blind baking. Garnishing the galette with fresh cherry tomatoes and basil adds a lovely contrast to the rich and creamy filling.
Mustard & Marcona Almond-Dressed Eggs are a riff on devilled eggs but simpler to make, as the eggs are topped with a tangy dressing instead of being hollowed out and restuffed. A hack for soaking regular almonds to mimic the texture of the more expensive (and harder to find) Marcona Almonds is brilliant.
Nuoc Cham Chicken Wings with Papaya & Peanuts, inspired by the Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans, are lip-smackingly tasty. I imagine they’d be even more so with the garnish of fresh papaya that adds a gorgeous splash of colour to the presentation but was sadly unobtainable in my neck of the woods.
If you’ve ever tasted Mississippi Comeback Sauce, you’ll know it is aptly named. Gray serves this zippy mayo-based sauce, similar to a remoulade, as a dip for chilled shrimp or vegetable crudité. It’s also great slathered on a burger.
Smoked Kipper Dip is a clever use for tinned fish, which is blitzed into a smooth paste with cream cheese, crème fraiche and lemon juice. I served it with crackers but liked Gray’s idea of a Tinned Fish Smorgasbord with the dip plus tins of other seafood (smoked mussels, sardines etc) simply opened and accompanied with crackers, pickles and grapes.
Miso Pulled Pork Nachos appear in the Snacks chapter but made a fine meal for two. The keys to the success of this dish are a quickly cooked cheese sauce that replaces the usual greasy layer of cheese, and tender shreds of pulled pork leftover from another dish I loved — Miso Braised Pork Shoulder.
Chicken with Chorizo & Olives, Gray says is a favourite among her online readers. It is similar in concept to the Silver Palate classic, Chicken Marbella – bone-in chicken pieces braised in a sauce loaded with umami-boosting ingredients. Gray’s version, with chorizo, olives, roasted red peppers, San Marzano tomatoes and rosemary, is a cinch to pull together but like the Silver Palate dish, impressive enough for entertaining.
Haricots Verts with Burst Tomatoes & Cannellini Beans is delicious served as a side dish or a warm salad, and a creative way to use a bountiful summer crop of green beans.
Sun-Dried Tomato & Olive Buttermilk Quick Bread is an updated version of a loaf Gray’s mother used to make using a packet soup mix. Gray uses parmesan and dry mustard to achieve the same depth of flavour, with olives and sundried tomatoes delivering additional bursts of umami. The bread keeps well for a few days and after that makes a fine piece of toast.
After such a string of successes Grandma’s Rose-Scented Chocolate Cake was an unexpected disappointment. There is nothing wrong with the recipe per se but it bakes up as a single layer with a fudgy texture, which is cut into two even thinner layers and sandwiched with strawberry jam. Grandma’s original, Gray says, was a towering affair that served 12, which would be more appropriate for a celebration than the modest cake her scaled-down recipe produces. The flavour was fine – deeply chocolatey — and the ganache frosting is great but if you are looking for a party showpiece, that it is not.
But this is a minor quibble overall. Gray’s debut cookbook is gorgeous to look at, fascinating to read, and packed with exciting, approachable recipes that are clearly written, technically perfect and deliver flavour in spades. I’ve copied some keepers into the notebook that travels with me, so I can recreate them when I too am south of somewhere.