I discovered bagna càuda many, many years ago when I was obsessing over Nigella Lawson, the British cooking sensation, who featured the recipe in one of her books. It’s an Italian dip, served warm and consumed similarly to fondue, made with garlic, anchovies, olive oil, butter.
I mean, garlic, butter, olive oil and anchovies? Come on, what’s not to love? Dried anchovies are ubiquitous in Malaysian cooking, appearing in soups, stir-fries, sambal, you name it. It’s not something we love or hate. Like salt or soy sauce, it’s just one of the ways we season our food. But it wasn’t until I arrived in the US that I was introduced to anchovies canned in olive oil. I found ways to use and love those too.
However, My Guy, who was born and raised here, doesn’t quite have the same kind of relationship with them as I do. Naturally, when we met and I learned of his disdain for them, I thought, challenge accepted!
I discovered a killer recipe from Jamie Oliver - back when I used to collect his recipe books - that I thought would change anyone’s mind. A simple dish of pasta, broccoli, garlic, chili flakes and anchovies instantly made it to my repertoire after the first time I made it, and I figured anyone who tasted this dish would fall in love with it too.
Boy, was I wrong.
Looking back, I don’t even know why I picked that dish as the first thing I made for him. I mean, was I trying to impress him or warn him about me? The anchovies disintegrate in the olive oil and butter -- perhaps I thought he wouldn’t notice the stealthy anchovies and would love the dish. At which point, I would get on a pedestal and announce A-ha! See? It’s all in your head! I was (am) convinced that as a nation of anchovy haters, they’re collectively raised to turn away from it before really giving it a chance. Really, I think I was just desperate for him to like something that was such a big part of my childhood.
When he tried it, however, he eyed it suspiciously – what’s the smell? what’s this flavor?
I soon made my confession, and he also admitted he didn’t care for it.
Gasp! Naturally, I thought, “not love my cooking? What??! How can this be? How will we ever be happy together?” before I reined in my crazies. Well, at least our relationship wouldn’t be built on lies. There is that small, teeny tiny consolation.
Despite my foiled efforts to impress him, despite sneaking anchovies in the dish, despite his - in my opinion - lack of sophistication in food appreciation, we’re still together.
But that day wasn’t the end of this dish either. It’s still on the menu rotation at home. He just had to learn to appreciate it over time. In fact, just the other day, he declared, “I’m surprised how much I like this dish.”
Huh. Imagine that.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be mindful of his wariness of anchovies. It doesn’t appear in my cooking as much as I like, but it doesn’t stop me from using it to flavor my soups and stir-fries altogether. I just don’t do it all the time. I’ve stopped trying to convince him that it’s The Best Thing Ever, and because he’s always open to trying new things (which I loooooooove about him), he would eat them and honestly admit that it’s just okay or it’s not his favorite.
I can live with that. From disdain to ambivalence. Progress!
I think this whole anchovy thing was the beginning of a long string of compromises between us. He’s a gamer; I’m a reader. He eats to live; I live to eat. He’s a thrill seeker; I’m a homebody. He’s an extrovert; I’m an introvert. I love running; he loves driving. Still, our relationship works.
After all, isn’t compromise a key ingredient to a healthy, happy union? We all do it, and because we love the one we’re with, we make tiny sacrifices to meet in the middle. Because this middle? It’s pretty damn nice.
I remember we used to have the same argument many couples newly living together have: why can’t you put the toilet seat down? why can’t you leave it up?
Eventually My Guy suggested an alternative solution as a peace offering - that we both close the lid after using the toilet so we both had a responsibility, not just him. Fair enough. And we have been doing that since. (Which turned out for the best in the end not only because it kept the peace at home, it also kept our toilet-water-drinking cats away.)
See? It’s nice. Even hygienic.
Today, My Guy still doesn’t love anchovies, and I don’t expect him too. When I spotted beautiful globe artichokes at Trader Joe’s the other day, I didn’t shy away from making bagna cauda either so I could savor each succulent leaf. Except this time, I decided to experiment on my girls. Will they love it as much as I do?
They were intrigued by the artichoke itself - what’s this funny looking thing? The act of tearing off and consuming one leaf at a time in a particular manner (“use your teeth to scrape the meat off, just like this”) thrilled them. But when we finished the artichoke, they wanted more to go with the bagna cauda. I brought them romaine leaves next, and we polished off the dip.
I guess it’s not surprising that they loved it so much. If they go for raw oysters, tongue taco and fish eyeballs the same way other kids clamor for pizza and chicken nuggets, what’s a dish pungent with garlic and anchovies?
But what surprised me was when My Guy dug in and kept going back for more. I didn’t try to be sneaky this time either; I warned him about the anchovies, but he enjoyed it anyway. He has come a long, long way indeed.