Lizzy and I were in the produce section of the grocery store yesterday, sorting through a big pile of mangoes that were on sale, and I started chit chatting with two ladies who were doing the same thing. We were all buying several mangoes and discussing how we could use them (my plan was for salsa, baby food, and museli). One woman was from India, and she had a whole list of uses for them, including pickling them. I announced that I’d love to learn how to cook Indian food, and in a moment of bold presumption, asked this total stranger if she’d be willing to teach me to cook it. And without missing a beat, she said she would. I gave her my name and phone number, and I’m hoping she decides to call.
I normally don’t go around asking strangers to invite me over to their home. But what can I say, I love ethnic food, and I’m willing to make a fool of myself in order to learn how to cook it from a native.
I’ve taken Thai food cooking lessons from a former missionary to Thailand, Congolese cooking lessons from some refugee friends, a rustic Italian cookery lesson while in Tuscany, and I learned a ton about Swiss cooking while visiting my best friend over there. And I’m always on the lookout for more international techniques and flavors.
I think what I like most about the experience is that each culture has its own unique food preparation methods that say a lot about the people in that culture. When I learned Thai cooking, my teacher showed me how to measure water for the rice, with my index finger. Typically accustomed to getting out the measuring cups, this method blew me away. But when you think about it, can you really imagine a woman making rice in a straw hut using measuring cups? Our American kitchens are stocked full of gizmos that we think we can’t live without. But really, to make basic things, you have more than you realize, literally “on hand.”
My friends from the Congo taught me to make fufu, a staple in Africa that varies largely across the continent. Her version was made with rice, and some flour. She used an electric stovetop and a large stock pot to make it but was complaining how it didn’t turn out right without a flame and a thicker pot, like she used at home. Her strong arms beat the fluffy mixture into submission, a process that took awhile. As I watched, I realized that a lot of strength and effort went into this daily process, but it was one that was essential for their daily diet. I gained a greater appreciation for the strong African matriarch, whose food preparations reflected her tenacity, drive, and power.
In Tuscany, I watched my host go out her back porch to the herb garden and gather many ingredients for the meal we were about to make. She made a panzanella, a rustic bread salad, using all the ingredients that were in season at the time, and leftover bread. Even hard bread gets resurrected, nothing goes to waste. All her ingredients were growing a few steps away, including the olives trees that produced the olive oil. A recipe in a cookbook would tell me to gather certain ingredients, but it wouldn’t capture the immediacy and utility of such a recipe for that time and place.
I’m trying not to stand next to the phone, hoping my Indian neighbor decides to invite me over for a lesson. In the meantime, maybe I’ll go shop at the Asian food market nearby to see if I can invite myself over to some little, old Chinese, Japanese, or Korean woman’s kitchen.