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Penne and Ink: What’s tatt all about?

Penne and Ink: What’s tatt all about?
(Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash)

Chefs almost to a person carry tattoos, often of food. Instead of carrying a plate of salad, they carry a tattoo of it on an arm.

I see them everywhere, these inked silhouettes with the fashion sense of Albanian pimps, bold images, fading into squiggles and blobs, on faces, on inner thighs, on lips; signs of the grubby and heartless paint of the tattoo trade, many modern tattoos have a texture that is touchy/feely. Bleeding fangs, a brontosaurus bite, some look almost Edwardian.

Why are so many top chefs tattooed? In Greece I visited a restaurant where a chef was so heavily tattooed they added a texture to his arm, like cheesecake or lasagne, on his left arm he had an entire tattoo sleeve of raw food and veg, a couple of fish, a lemon, garlic, red bell peppers and even an artichoke. It was as if he was carrying an entire salad on his arm.

I bet there is not a pastry chef in New York without a tattoo.

Leon Borja, a Brazilian chef at Hawksmoor (named after Nicholas Hawksmoor, an undervalued 16th century architect), one of my favourite restaurants in London, has a raw piece of meat tattooed all over his chest with a knife and fork on either side.

Years ago I had dinner at The Test Kitchen in Cape Town when it had just opened and chef Ashley Heeger was in the open plan kitchen. There was something about her inked arms and fashionably hacked hair that was both feminine and mesmerising. Watching The Final Table on TV, I recognised her by the tattoos. She works lightly, not taking herself too seriously, but her food is spot on.

Googling tattoo parlours I find to my surprise that within the Metropolitan elite of Tamboerskloof there are at least a dozen tattoo parlours with names like Kak Lucky Tattoos.

A tattoo artist has come to live right opposite me. He keeps rabbits, has a girlfriend with perfect legs and a neurotic bulldog and is inked more than the weekend version of The New York Times.

Tattooists like to be thought of as artists; only some are.

There is often something furtive about them, like internet hackers or travellers. They channel each other, mostly with shaved heads, revealing sharply-edged skulls and all-body tats. They could be travellers from another planet, who together form a group that is homogenous. I can pick them out in a crowd, often paper thin, covered in ink; many belong to a subculture that love comics and stuff like leather knickers and heavy chains. Beneath this dark cultish armour, they are often pussy cats.

In February in Tamboerskloof the heat is hallucinatory. You see things you are not sure you saw. The lines in the road wriggle. February is a horrible time when it only takes a small diversion, like a tattooed guy on a Harley Davidson, to draw your attention. He is wearing wide shorts, as wide and long as a skirt, rimmed with scarlet; around his neck is a war chest of silver and gold chains and on his head is a rather skittish metal helmet, like a Tommy’s from World War II.

He lives in a falling down house that stands out from the grand leisurely scale of other houses in the vicinity. It could not be more different, broken down flight of steps, cracked walls, collapsing wall and a large oak at a dangerous angle. 

(Photo by Airam Dato-on on Unsplash)

There is something both crude and daring about him, a little different from the average been-around-the-block gangster types. When he is on his bike, the effect could not be more magnificent than had he been riding a white horse.

Everything about him is unexpected, even his cautious kindness. When I called out of my door, “Anyone got any matches?” he was at my door in a flash holding a lighter, an unheard-of neighbourliness in toffee-nosed Tamboerskloof. He is so tattooed that they appear to be part of his DNA and he has five gold teeth set with diamonds. On the street they call him Diamond D.

I guess tattoos are a sort of self-expression but so many of them look like half healed injuries. My first thought when seeing a friend newly tattooed was, my god, did you have an accident? The beautiful Olympic high jumper has a brace of tattoos on her soft inner thigh that looks like barbed wire and as she somersaults through the air, these dark images lie like a shadow on her Swedish white skin.

I am most drawn to the idea of a secret tattoo, something that only you or someone close would ever see. The tattoo as memorial also makes sense. I would like to mark a life-threatening illness, a wild date, a promotion, perhaps on the sole of my foot. Khartoum, 1984, meningitis; I would like it forever memorialised on my arm, so I never ever forget the barren horror of lying dying in the desert, the thirst, the burning sun, the sight of a fading camel with its robed occupant, riding away in the distance.

Tattoos can be well used to protest; Russian prisoners right now are inking their opposition to war and hatred of Putin.

The Royal Family apparently are keen on tattoos. King George V, remember him with a beard? had a tattoo of a dragon and a tiger on his arms. Many young aristos and royals are keen on tattoos.

People who work in kitchens are drawn to ink and I don’t believe there is a pastry chef in the whole world who does not have a tat. Traditionally, haute cuisine has bowed to ink in its more edible form. Today, it’s mainly used as a food additive in pasta, rice, and sauces in many Japanese and Mediterranean dishes due to its unique dark colour and rich, savoury flavour. Squid ink is a dark ink that squids produce as a defence mechanism and I was surprised to find it is easily available at a lot of places in Cape Town, online from Takealot and at Ocean Jewels in Cape Town. Full of savoury and umami flavours, it is great added to pastas, seafood sauces, risottos and mussel dishes.

Octopus cooked in ink is one of the great dishes of the world although movies like My Octopus Teacher and books like The Soul of an Octopus have put a lot of people off eating it which hardly makes sense when they eat pigs and cows. I too have been affected and will probably never eat octopus again. However, I recall a dish I had in a restaurant in a taverna on a Greek island with huge fondness, squid (cuttlefish) cooked in its own ink called melani. There is a great video on Facebook by Jack the Greek on how to cook squid in ink. Squid ink risotto is another easy dish to make, a scrumptious meal. I have eaten octopus with inked pasta in a small restaurant in Mexico; it had a bold chewy texture and there was also squid ink linguine on the menu, which even non cooks like me can make.

It is rumoured that Putin has a secret tattoo of Stalin on his back. I would prefer an octopus between my shoulder blades, small and perfectly drawn. Less likely to stab me in the back. DM/TGIFood

The writer supports The Hope Exchange, a group of people who provide food for the homeless in Cape Town. Please help them here.

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