Growing up in Tipperary, Dee Laffan and her dad had soup for lunch every Saturday. The recipe wasn’t based on homemade chicken stock and vegetables from the garden, though. “We had a press beside our cooker with a shelf that swivelled outwards holding a Tupperware box containing a range of Knorr packet soups,” she writes in the introduction to new Irish cookbook Soup, which she has co-written with Blanca Valencia and Mei Chin, and features recipes from international contributors based in Ireland.
Our menu consisted of two types of flavours. First there were the ‘pure’ flavours, such as thick chicken, cream of chicken, cream of mushroom, farmhouse vegetable and oxtail, which could each be made and enjoyed solely as one soup. Or we had the ‘blended’ selection, which introduced varieties like potato and leek; mushroom, cauliflower and broccoli; chicken and vegetable; and thick country vegetable. My father mastered the art of making his own custom blends by mixing and matching the different packets — the special Laffan blends.”
As a student in Dublin, Laffan found herself relying on her dad’s blended packet soup method. “It was,” she says, “perfect for a student budget”. Only later — inspired by travel, new ingredients, and friends — did she embrace the wider world of soup. While Laffan’s nostalgia for those Knorr packet soups may resonate with many Irish people, her co-authors’ formative soup experiences could not have been more different.
For Valencia, a Cordon Bleu-trained cook who ran the kitchen at the esteemed Books for Cooks in London and recently completed an MA in gastronomy at TUD, her dad’s austere Castilian garlic soup was the antithesis to her glamorous Andalusian mother’s gazpacho, a sophisticated diet ‘drink’ featuring memorably in Almovodar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
My favourite thing in the world is a potluck with a lot of people from different countries
The two soups, she writes, reflect the fierce regional differences that define Spain “and, by extension, my upbringing”.
Meanwhile in Connecticut, an awkward young Chin — these days an award-winning food writer and podcaster who has taught at Yale — was coming home from school to an empty house and sustaining herself with cans of Campbell’s soup. “With a few twists of a can opener, I could, with Campbell’s plethora of flavours — minestrone, tomato, chicken noodle — become a different girl.”
Chin replicated the sophisticated French onion soup she ate in a restaurant in Quebec by pimping a can of Campbell’s finest with torn dinner rolls and supermarket Swiss cheese. Later, she tapped into the Guangxi roots of her birth father with zhou: Cantonese rice porridge with turkey and dried seafood.
Drawn together by a love of food, and a shared desire to get under the skin of multicultural, modern Irish food culture, the three women co-host the award-winning Spice Bags podcast. Laffan is married to Marcio from Brazil, while Valencia, who has lived in Argentina, China and London, and Chin both have Irish husbands.
When she came to Ireland 10 years ago, Chin says she found good Asian, Chinese and Indian food — but she’s watched immigrant food culture grow ever since.
“It’s now very good, but not the best,” she says. “But Ireland is young in terms of immigration compared to the US, so perhaps it’s not fair to compare. I do think Irish food culture is still shaped by outside forces, that if we look at the best restaurants, they are usually trying to imitate Copenhagen or NY or SF or London.”
“Since I was a little girl, I’ve lived overseas,” says Valencia. “I’m hardwired to tap into a new location and make friends through the food network. I feel really comfortable in an international environment. My favourite thing in the world is a potluck with a lot of people from different countries.”
In contrast, Laffan didn’t travel much as a child, and says moving to Dublin as a student blew her mind.
“I was up for trying anything new or different. I made a lot of international friends, started to travel in my twenties and literally got an appetite for all these flavours.”
Later, a stint as editor of Food & Wine gave Laffan the opportunity to commission Chin to write a ‘Global Beats’ column focusing on immigrant restaurants. “It was another opportunity for me to learn,” says Laffan. “Mei would bring me to the places and I’d take the photos because there was no photography budget! It was a great education.”
Meanwhile, Chin and Valencia met through the International Women’s Club, and discovered a mutual obsession with food. “We’d spend hours on the phone talking about where to get the best Turkish ingredients and whether anyone was making tamales.”
The pair started the Spice Bags podcast with writer and academic Julia Langbein, and when Langbein moved abroad, she invited Laffan to take her place.
“The aim is to give a voice to people who aren’t getting covered by traditional media,” says Laffan. “There’s lots of people doing amazing food here still waiting to be discovered. It’s not like the ‘hidden gems’ the influencers come up with — often places we’ve known about for 10 years but they’ve just found — but the places and people who would really appreciate the connections.
“It’s not that they want press per se, but they want to connect with people in Ireland. Fabiano Mayor of the Sugarloaf Bakery on Dorset Street, for instance, is an amazing French-trained Brazilian baker and pastry chef and he has queues of Brazilians and South Americans out the door — but no Irish. Yet I see Irish people going mad for different bakeries. It’s all a bit cliquey.”
The three-host format of the podcast makes for a lively listen. “We all grew up with different perspectives of food in different countries so when we pick a topic such as cake or soup, we have lots of banter and fun, and can relate it back to our own personal experience of food,” says Laffan. “Our tastes are so different. In Ireland, soup is warming, we have it in winter, so initially I was appalled by gazpacho — cold tomato soup? Ugh!”
During the course of a deep dive into soup for Spice Bags, the three realised its emotive power — “Every person and every country has a soup that’s dear to them,” says Laffan — and thought it would make a great subject for a book. They called on friends and contacts from a wide range of countries, including Nigeria, Poland, Mexico and the Philippines, to contribute recipes for soups such as efo riro, botwinka, sopa de tortilla and sinigang na hipon.
“We really wanted the soups in the book to be a gateway to a particular cuisine,” explains Laffan. “You mightn’t want a whole book on a particular cuisine, but this way you can try a recipe and, if you like it, explore further. The recipes don’t purport to be the definitive version – they are personal to the contributors and true to them.
“It’s funny, because Irish food now is all about fresh and seasonal ingredients, but a lot of international people use packets of things like vegetable seasoning, which some of us would turn our noses up at, and palm oil, which is fundamental to Nigerian and Brazilian food.”
The authors were determined to go straight to the source for the recipes.
“I think, in Ireland, there’s been a tendency, which hopefully is changing, to regard the trendy, Instagram-friendly Irish interpretation of international cuisine as somehow better than the original,” says Laffan.
“It’s such a dated way of thinking. When you move countries and try and set up a business — a lot of the people we have talked to are very entrepreneurial — you’re not going to be able to afford rent in a really nice place and maybe you have to open up your Chinese restaurant with plastic chairs, but that doesn’t mean the food is bad.”
Given how fully the authors are immersed in the multicultural food landscape of modern Ireland, it’s unsurprising that they have plenty to say about how the media in Ireland views cooks and chefs who are non-Irish. Lane-skipping is something the three refer to often, praising Irah Mari of the @foodstagram account — a young Filipino-Irish woman who covers Irish and European as well as Asian food — as someone who refuses to stay in her lane.
“White people can shift lanes when they cook, but if you’re Chinese or Mexican or Venezuelan, you are limited to your lane,” says Laffan. “On Irish television, Sham Hanifa and Kwanghi Chan are always asked to do Malaysian or Chinese food, whereas Erica Drum or Adrian Martin can cook anything. Chin is always asked to do Chinese food (“Which I actually don’t cook very well!” interjects Chin) rather than the American food which she grew up with, because of the way she looks, yet I can go on and talk about anything I want.”
“My friends all say, ‘They do know you are the least Chinese Chinese person there is?’” says Chin. “I feel way more Asian in Ireland than I do in the US.”
Valencia has been in Ireland for seven years now, and says that when it comes to food culture, the Irish hide their collective light under a bushel.
I wonder sometimes if Michelin is dazzled by stardust when it comes to foreign chefs
“My husband’s mother is a great cook, she makes breads and jams and preserves from their garden in Cabinteely. What is extraordinary for a Spanish person like me is that, if my mum made rhubarb jam or whatever, I’d have been showing off and telling all my friends — ‘Look at my pantry!’ — but Irish people find this ordinary. I said to my husband: ‘Your mum is basically Nigella Lawson,’ and he says, ‘Really?’ He doesn’t get it.
“I don’t understand why Irish people are not more in-your-face about their food. You go to EPIC (Museum of Emigration) and the space they devote to food is zero. It’s all Riverdance, like a Disneyland display for American tourists. There is a PR job to be done at a government level to make people more aware of what we have. Look at the French. They are so proud of their food, even when it isn’t that great, but there is none of that here.”
“Myrtle Allen said we don’t appreciate what’s on our doorstep, the producers around us,” agrees Laffan. “I never used to say I grew up with an amazing culinary background, but I’ve been cooking since I was eight, was taught to bake by my sisters and my granny, and through making this podcast, I’ve realised I have all these stories and memories of food, of my dad teaching me to cook, of growing our own vegetables. I have so much to relate to in different ways, we just don’t realise we have this.”
The three observe wryly that while Irish food culture is almost completely female-driven, the chefs who are celebrated are almost all men.
“Everyone’s favourite recipes are always their mother’s or their grandmother’s or their aunt’s, yet women don’t get the credit for driving food culture,” says Laffan.
“There are all these Michelin-starred chefs here and a lot of them are foreign. So Mick Viljanen is Finnish cooking French food in an Irish restaurant, Jordan Bailey is English but using only Irish ingredients, and there’s Takashi Miyazaki at ichigo ichie, Mike Tweedie at Adare, Damien Grey at Liath, Ahmet Dede in Baltimore — all these foreign chefs with Michelin stars. They all say it’s down to the produce. Are Irish ingredients a yellow brick road for Michelin stars? I wonder sometimes if Michelin is dazzled by stardust when it comes to foreign chefs. Obviously there are Irish chefs who have stars too, but if you look at how many stars are held by international chefs, the ratio is skewed.”
Valencia says Irish produce is undervalued. “I think the seafood and seaweed is amazing,” she says. “In any other country, at the airport, you’d be getting, ‘We do seaweed 5,000 ways!’ in your face, but here people are so reluctant. There are all these products people don’t appreciate. I love periwinkles, yet you never see them on menus here. Instead of serving olives in an Irish restaurant, why not a bowl of periwinkles?”
“It took the likes of Ballymakenny to get Irish people to reconnect with Irish potatoes,” says Laffan. “We may consume, but do we celebrate and savour? In the UK, you hear people talking about different varieties, but here you don’t; people just buy potatoes. We’ve lost that connection with our heritage and history that I hear from non-Irish people on the podcast. I think a lot of this lack of pride is to do with people’s ignorance of our food culture and history, which should be taught in school, alongside cooking.
“Even though, as a nation, our history is steeped in emigration abroad, our own journey in terms of immigration, of people coming here from abroad, is very young. At the moment, we are at that tipping point in terms of the populations of immigrant communities in Ireland.
“We have 40,000 Brazilians and 50,000 Nigerians — it’s never going to be changing as much again. But not only do we not appreciate our own food, we also don’t appreciate the modern landscape of Irish food and what that looks like.
“We’ve come a long way as Irish people but there is still a massive learning curve for the national palate in terms, for example, of Ethiopian and Nigerian food, but these restaurants are now here, and as well as cooking for their communities, they also welcome Irish people to come and enjoy their food. We need to open up our minds and our palates to everything that’s out there.”
‘Soup’, by Blanca Valencia, Dee Laffan and Mei Chin, is published by Blasta Books