Food and memory are closely linked, especially for those people who live far away from the people they love.
Many of my happiest childhood memories are connected to food. I’m not much of a cook, but man do I like to eat! My dad is a chef, and he comes from Algeria, a country where food and family go hand in hand. When my parents got married, my Dutch mother embraced the culture and became a part of my dad’s Algerian family by learning to cook traditional meals. In fact, most of the Algerian food I ate growing up was cooked by her.
For our family, as for most Muslim families, the most important time of year was Ramadan, a holy month dedicated to fasting, charity and prayer followed by the celebration of the Eid festival. During these holidays, my parents would cook vastly elaborate meals, and we would gather with friends and family around the table to enjoy them together, often eating well into the night. There was always chorba (a tomato-based soup), borek (filo pastry parcels stuffed with minced meat, parsley and potato), chleta (a dip made from roasted peppers and drenched in olive oil), couscous and so much more.
But my favourite was lham hlou. Literally translated as ‘sweet meat’, it’s a dish of meat and sweet dried fruit cooked in a spiced syrup. Its sweetness takes me back to my childhood, and to the time my sister and I had the chicken pox during the Eid celebrations.
It was a fairly big occasion. My dad had invited relatives and an assortment of friends whose families all lived back in the motherland. My sister and I were tucked up in the small camp bed, which had been moved into the dining room so that we could participate in the festivities. I remember lying there, eating lham hlou and listening to the adults chatter away in French and Algerian. The thick sweet syrup felt good running down my sore throat. I was itchy and feverish, but I was happy.
And even though I haven’t fasted in years, when I eat couscous with peas I have instant flashbacks to the time when I was 10 years old and taking part in my first ever Ramadan with my dad:
I didn’t actually fast every day – my mother didn’t agree with me going to school on an empty stomach – but I did it during the weekends. In the early hours of the morning, my father would wake me up so that we could eat together before the sun rose. Couscous with peas was usually on the menu, served with a glass of cold milk. I can’t explain why the milk or the couscous tasted so much better when consumed together, they just did.
Even now, I can’t eat this simple couscous dish without milk – it just doesn’t taste the same! All it takes to make it is a handful of everyday ingredients: literally just peas, couscous and a knob of butter. So how is it that, once combined, they can magically transport me back in time?
“No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes taking place.”
In this famous passage in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, French writer Marcel Proust describes how biting into a madeleine unlocks a powerful, happy memory: being fed one of the small, sweet cakes by his aunt in Combray as a child. The “extraordinary changes” he describes are perhaps the most significant literary example of what many of us have experienced: the inexplicable ability that certain foods have of eliciting memories and nostalgic feelings about our past.
As a science geek, this got me thinking: What does science say about this? What is it exactly about food that makes it such a powerful trigger of memories —its smell? Its taste? Something else? Turns out, science doesn’t have all the answers, either. What we do know is that it seems that the foods that we associate with happy memories often taste better to us because of their link to these positive feelings.
Scent and memory are also closely linked together: research shows that smells are powerfully connected to autobiographical memory in particular. That’s because our brains’ memory centres are connected to the olfactory centre, which is where our sense of smell lives. This actually means that smelling certain foods makes you biologically predisposed to remembering certain events you have associated with them.
This ability of food to evoke memories through our senses is why different cultures throughout the centuries have used food to create a sense of belonging. Creating and reliving memories through food is a way for people to connect with the people they love and are close to, even if they are not physically nearby.
Just like the madeleine for Proust, lham hlou and couscous with peas are much more than just a meal to me – they are a sensory trip back in time.
Tasting them stirs “extraordinary changes” inside me. And they’re all the more significant to me because of their connection to my Algerian roots. Being born and raised in London and having a Dutch mother has given me a slightly more Western outlook on life. But my love for Algerian food, and the memories that come with it, keep my ties to Algerian culture strong.
Nowadays, since most of the food I grew up with takes ages to prepare, I only really make these traditional dishes for my friends on special occasions. I enjoy sharing these aspects of my culture with my friends, teaching them about traditions that I have observed all my life but that are new and undiscovered to them. But if I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, all I need is 10 minutes and a few basic ingredients, and before I know it I’m transported to a time when I was surrounded by family, eating the meal that I loved then, and which I adore even more now…
Couscous with peas
2 cups couscous
1 cup frozen peas
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
Salt and pepper
Milk or laban (a type of fermented milk)
1. Bring 2 ½ cups of water to the boil and add the peas. Cook for about 10 minutes or until peas are soft.
2. Place the couscous in a bowl and add 3 cups of boiling water. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave to stand for about 5 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed.
3. Fluff the couscous with a fork and add the butter/olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Add the peas and mix well. Add chopped mint.
5. Eat with a glass of milk or laban.