Five minutes with Julia Busuttil Nishimura
Author and cook Julia Busuttil Nishimura is a big name on the Australian food scene. Born in Adelaide and now living in Melbourne, Julia has grown a large online following off the back of what started as her food blog, then became her first cookbook, Ostro.
In her new cookbook A Year of Simple Family Food, Julia brings together her Maltese heritage with influences from the food culture of her Japanese husband Nori, for delicious results. The book sold out of its first print run within the first week of being on sale in Australia, and we can see why! We caught up with the cook, to discover her food loves and hates, and how she found life in 2020…
What’s your very first memory of food?
One of my earliest food memories is sitting on the back step at our house. I wasn’t yet at school, so perhaps I was 3 or 4. Podding huge bag-fulls of broad beans with my grandmother. I would remember us drying them out and then they would be stored and used in various dishes throughout the year, especially the Maltese broad bean and garlic dip called bigilla. I also have such a vivid memory of going down to the beach, just a few minutes walk away, to collect sea water for ricotta. It wasn’t something you could find at the supermarket back then, so my parents always made it. Plastic baskets, steaming with fresh curds were a regular sight on the kitchen sink.
What’s the first recipe you properly learned to cook?
The first recipe I properly cooked was probably a simple tomato and basil bruschetta. My mum would let me make it for family when they came over to visit and I can still remember being so blown away by something so simple, tasting so incredible. The garlic-rubbed toasted bread, the combination of tomatoes and basil and how everything just went together perfectly. It felt like magic.
What’s the one recipe that you can’t live without?
Probably my summer tomato sauce. In a cold pan, I put a whole heap of summer’s best cherry tomatoes, a handful of basil, stalks and all, a few garlic cloves roughly chopped, a good swoosh of extra virgin olive oil and a generous pinch of sea salt. It is then slowly cooked over a medium heat until the tomatoes burst and create the most luscious sauce. It is of course a wonderful pasta sauce, but also a great accompaniment to fish or as part of a breakfast.
Which food do you absolutely hate?
I am really not overly fond of eggplant (aubergine), but I still cook it from time to time. It just has to be that beautiful silky texture to be right which it so often isn’t. In Italy, I often found it was cooked without the skin on, which was much more to my liking.
What’s the one ingredient that you’d take to a desert island with you?
Lemons! I suppose I would try and catch fish, and then I’d need lemons…
What’s the meal you’d miss the most whilst there?
A roast chicken with all the trimmings!
What’s the one condiment you couldn’t live without?
Is olive oil a condiment? If so, then definitely a really good extra virgin olive oil. My mum used to joke that olive oil runs through our veins. It’s just a non-negotiable in my kitchen too. I use it for cooking, frying, dressings and cakes.
Which cookbook would you take with you to the island?
A cookbook with as much story as recipes – Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray.
Melbourne had one of the longest lockdowns of 2020 over the Australian winter. Which meal did you cook the most during that period?
We did, and I also had a newborn, so I turned to comforting and nourishing foods. I craved foods my mum would have made for me. There is a wonderful Maltese soup called aljotta. It is a tomato base with fish and rice, lovely and rich. I made that quite a lot. But overall, a lot of pasta too!
And… what did you binge-watch on TV during lockdown?
I watched all of Schitts Creek. It isn’t usually something I would gravitate towards, but it was so amazing and funny and honestly, I am still rather sad it is over.
Melbourne is known for its thriving food scene. Did moving there have an influence on your interest in food?
Melbourne is such an incredible, diverse and rich food place. I love it here so much and it has definitely had an influence on me. I moved here for university when I was 18 and especially loved the different markets. Discovering new foods and then cooking them in my share house – it felt so wonderful. I first lived right near the Italian area. I would go and practice my Italian whilst loading up on all of the cheeses, meats and dried goods. My housemate and I would save up all of our money from our part time jobs and go out to really nice restaurants. I do think these early Melbourne experiences have influenced my interest in food.
Where’s the first place you ate once restaurants re-opened?
A wonderful local restaurant called Carlton Wine Room. Obviously, great wine, but the food is consistently brilliant! Very local, but also feels a bit special. Their snacks with a glass of wine was such a great re-entry into dining. Ricotta and anchovy toasts, pickled mushrooms with stracciatella and their house made potato focaccia and raw kingfish with crème fraîche and horseradish. It’s a place I go back to again and again.
And what’s the restaurant (anywhere in the world) you are most looking forward to eating at, when travelling more widely is an option again?
I would love to be back in Kyoto, sitting at the bar of one of our favourite restaurants, Monk. It is set along the Philosopher’s Walk in the foothills and is just the most serene little place. Yoshihiro collects ingredients daily from the Ohara valley just 30 minutes away, a trip I was lucky to join him on one day. The food is all cooked by him in a large wood-fired oven which takes up most of the kitchen. The food is simple, seasonal and always a little surprising.
It always feels like a big achievement when you finally crack a recipe or master a skill you’ve been working on!
You are well-known for your beautiful pasta recipes. For people in lockdown, what’s a quick and simple pasta that you’d recommend they try to make?
I would recommend my cavatelli (you can used dried of course) with sausage and cavolo Nero. It’s packed full of flavour thanks to the already seasoned sausages, super hearty, and best of all, very quick!
A Year of Simple Family Food is your second cookbook. Could you tell us some more about the book’s concept and how you go about writing recipes?
Cooking with the seasons is one of the greatest pleasures of the kitchen and I wanted to share that in a non-daunting way. It isn’t about strict rules, but cooking with your intuition – what looks good at the market, perhaps it’s the pumpkin? Or what has popped up that wasn’t there last week? Maybe apricots. It’s about tuning into the small comings and goings of food and celebrating it in your own kitchen through simple and delicious recipes. The book is divided into four chapters and is a happy mix of simple weeknight meals and ones that can bubble away on the stove on a weekend. What I bring home from the market completely drives my recipe writing. It’s usually a very messy process to begin with though. A note book with me in the kitchen, jotting down measurements and timings. Soon after, I will write the recipe in full on the computer while it is fresh in my mind.
Your two small children are joys of your follower’s Instagram feeds. What’s your advice for getting children interested in cooking and eating?
I think just modelling the joy of cooking and eating and involving them in it as much as possible. Allowing them to help choose the vegetables and the shop, and pick herbs in the kitchen empowers them to not just be passive receivers of food, but active participants in the kitchen and table. Overall, cooking is fun and pleasurable for kids so it shouldn’t take much convincing. I think as adults we just have to give them the opportunity.
What’s the most popular dish of yours with your followers?
Probably my lemon olive cake. It’s a moist, tall cake which requires just a bowl and a whisk. My favourite kind of cake. You rub the lemon zest into the sugar in the beginning, which perfumes the whole cake so nicely.
Your dishes change with the seasons. What has been your favourite recipe that you’ve ever prepared, and why?
Oh, I have so many favourites! But perhaps handmade orecchiette just served simply with ricotta and peas. It reminds me a lot of my childhood, but was also a challenge. Orecchiette is rather tricky to get right and it took me years of practising. It always feels like a big achievement when you finally crack a recipe or master a skill you’ve been working on!
Julia’s new cookbook A Year of Simple Family Food is out now, with Pan Macmillan Australia, £14.66 (Blackwell’s).