Monday, November 9, 2009

Now we're cooking

A rerun of one of my fav posts, as I´m watching the movie Julie and Julia, a culinary delight.
"Chocolate cream pie! You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day when nothing is sure and when I say nothing, I mean nothing. You can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. That's such a comfort."
Tomorrow I will cook.

I brought back from Panaji a beautiful hand carved wooden box decorated with flowers and smelling of spices. Inside the box lay perfect bay leaves, cardamom seeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks and a couple more Indian spices of which I cannot recall the name. Examining the ingredients I decide: perfect for chicken Curry and saffron rice.

As I dissolve saffron in boiling water (hot tap water won't do, attention to detail makes all the difference when you cook) I remember my friend in Alicante who gave me this jar so I could cook Fideuà, a Valencian specialty which imitated Paella only to beat it. I also remember how we got the recipe from a notebook decorated with the most beautiful retro cut outs and filled with recipes in swirly handwriting. "Recetas de la mama mía" was my friend's wedding gift from her mom. That day we didn't cook Fideuà, we cooked vegetarian pasta with herbs, to celebrate my favorite couple's moving to the country side and growing cilantro in their own garden.

As I savor the curry marinade after adding a bit of garam masala (literally hot spice) I can't help but feel sorry for those with low tolerance for spicy food. It is amazing how different cultures mix similar spices to create completely different feelings, I find myself remembering Mexican spices, for no good reason at all. I just wish I could stock up on Salsa Valentina, the local brand of hot sauce and then add it to pizza like we used to do at my Mexican friends' kitchens.

Once you've tasted a nation's food you immediately feel a sort of kinship (that's if you get to like it), and when you go there you're less of a khawaga or guiri* (it also helps get a bit of a conversation going round the dinner table). Having cooked Patacones in Madrid with a dear friend from Colombia, mashing the plantains and then frying and refrying them, I find myself feeling a sort of familiarity with Bogotá while still on the plane (mind you, none of Patacones I ate in Bogotá would compare to the ones we used to cook. Tasting Okra a l'Indienne and asking a dinner companion for the recipe I find myself familiar with the spices she lists, having seen them in action in the kitchen I shared with a friend from Trinidad and Tobago of Indian origins (only the best ingredients shipped from the homeland for us, none of the supermarket stuff). I also know that I don't need to set foot in a restaurant when I go to Mexico, as I have helped cook tamales and dined in a zillion Mexican restaurants with my favorite pal in Madrid (the one in Chueca has a green volkswagen zooming in from the ceiling replicating a taxi in the streets of Mexico city). I also recall two colleagues bonding over lobsters in India, oh Goan seafood prepared Portuguese style is just undescribable1

As recipes are passed from generation to generation, people preserve a sense of belonging to a distant land of origin where they have never set foot. Till this day, my grandmas cook Harira and Sharkaseya, reminiscent of Moroccan and Turkish roots and my friend's grandmother has Matzah always ready for Passover.

It is a fact that food unites. Friends would tell tales of meeting fellow expats mainly to share festivities, I can relate. The first Ramadan I spent away from home, I had just landed in town and had no kitchen of my own, luckily I was adopted by a bunch of Egyptian friends and fed Mulukhiya (if only airport authorities knew the amount of the serious smuggling that takes place everywhere around the globe). Smuggling indeed makes you take a bit of home with you, that's what my Tunisian friend did when he brought a good stock of harisa for the weeks we spent studying in Toledo.

I tend to think of cooking as a hobby**, creative cooking is not something I can do often, and cooking for hungry individuals on a daily basis even less. Cooking is supposed to be fun that's what I always say.

Cooking with friends entails laughing over fiascoes and sharing the sweet content of a well prepared meal, then dodging the task of preparing coffee or tea (depending on where you are) after the meal.

One of my clearest memories is going to the premiere of Ratatouille with my roomies and bringing back a poster of the Little Chef -which is still on the kitchen door till this day (the kitchen that is no longer mine in a house I still call my own). The next weekend we invited friends over for an elaborate dinner. There was some dude to impress and he was impressed - I hope I don't get killed over disclosing this one my friend!

I guess I'll never forget the endless international cooking days with my dearest friends in Madrid; ill equipped kitchens would not stop us, it just took challenging one of the guys to whisk the batter to give an electric mixer effect with only a manual whip (throwing in a couple of lines on not exercising enough helped too).

I also smile when I remember Wednesday evenings in Cairo at my friend's place and her baby daughter; while we chopped veggies she played drums with a wooden spoon and a cooking pot.

I add to my cooking memories, all the times my friend and I sang Luis Miguel in a kitchen; first in our dorm's kitchen in Toledo, then at her place when I went to visit in Morocco, the Cairo edition is due this summer inshaa'Allah (Luis Miguel would better be proud of us).

When I travel I always take a look beyond the buildings, the contemporary culture and the socio-economics of the country are usually more interesting for me. The way dishes are served and the table is cleared tells you a lot about the culture.

Mediterraneans tend to share mezzah or tappas and would also share salads, while others don't share dishes at all. At one end of the continuum, some cultures serve individual plates in the kitchen and send them out to the dinning room (sort of too bland for my taste) , and others eat from the same serving dish or fuente (memories of Morocco and the delicious Tagines come to mind), in the middle would be serving the main dish on the dinning table and having seconds and asking people to try this and that and that.

You can also find an indicator if you observe who clears the table and does the dishes. In some culture it's the host or just the women, in others it's the ones who didn't cook, in some plastic plates and cutlery are just thrown away (we love mother earth), and in many the dishwasher deprives those who would have washed the dishes from the greatest post-meal gossip.

Needless to say, in most societies suffering of large income gaps, affordable catering and delivery services (I'll never forget the expression at my friend's face when she saw the Mc Donald's motorcycles in Cairo, I totally related when I saw all the "a domicilio" signs in Latin America) and and other people relieve you of it all: cooking, setting the table and clearing the table.

Keep cooking and smile while you do, for it makes all the difference.

*Egyptian and Spanish slang for "foreigner"
** Apologies to those who think cooking is a chore

Changed this time to Carrot Cake by my friend Sweets Ninja

For recipes and more cooking flicks and and lit check the original post.