So you’ve spent a full day touring your temporary home, seeing the sights, joining the tours and now it’s time to refuel by way of a good meal.
Do you choose a restaurant based on a referral, what your taste-buds are craving or do you go for something ‘ethnic’ and order up some “street food” from a local vendor to get that morsel of culture?
Or, do you do what I do and offer to pay a native (‘native’ -because ‘locals’ weren’t necessarily born and raised there) you may have met and found interesting that day to teach you to cook an ethnic dish and join you in the dining experience afterward?
To me this is the ultimate form of respect and appreciation I can show to the people of my host country. Yes I frequent cafe’s etc…but often times that money doesn’t benefit the ‘people’ enough for my liking.
A great meal is always heightened by atmosphere and the company you choose to share it with. An even better meal is one you helped prepare with a stranger and the conversation you have while doing it.
This, is how you learn about a culture. Participant observation at it’s finest.
Just like art and music are a universal language, so too is the practice of a culinary exchange. I may know I love Conkies I purchased from the man off the street, but I will have a new appreciation for both the food, the person who prepared it and the culture as a whole if I partake in the ritual.
I can’t think of one single thing that beats this experience. The host is so proud you have asked, will laugh in nervousness until they realize you are serious, and then go above and beyond to teach you everything they know about the ingredients. How to collect them, where they grow, how to prepare them and the history of the dish.
Depending on where you are they may go so far as to teach you the medicinal uses of each ingredient.
So fun and funny are my memories; tears of crazy joy erupt when you attempt to mimic what they have taught you and fail miserably! It’s comical and at this point you become friends.
Prior to the prep, I always ask where they would enjoy a picnic and after the meal is prepared and clean-up is completed we head out. (I always ask them to sit and relax while I clean up, which is very difficult for them but I know deep down they appreciate the respect).
They are a celebrity in that moment, their neighbors are hooting and hollering and the smiles run ear to ear, frozen in a perma-grin. Sometimes they choose to stay in and friends join in the fun, but most times they are excited to venture out; it’s a little holiday to them. A gift they will talk about for a very long time and unwrap in a different way each time they relive the day, with a new group of friends.
I have shared a meal of borscht, cabbage rolls, perogies and potatoes buns on a rock in the middle of the Kettle River with an aging Doukhobor lady who taught me the history of Peter Verigin, the Doukhobor’s in the Kootenays and how they came to settle there.
I’ve eaten Ital Food with Rastafarians in a gully in Barbados out of homemade calabash bowls in exchange for a little gold anchor pendant I had on my necklace. They were nervous at first and thought I was the CIA – but I soon assuaged their fears.
I have watched my chef climb a breadfruit tree and roast the fruit in a fire on the beach in the evening while we watch the sun go down, and snack on raw sea beef (Chiton) we’ve pried off the rocks. These things must be prehistoric – and are delicious raw.
Sea Beef – Chiton
I could write a book on this subject but the point I want to get across is that it is an holistic experience more flavorful that a mouthful of food in a restaurant
People love to share and shine if given the opportunity. They will excite you with very personal stories about themselves, how they view the world and cultural nuances not found in any guide book; you will become a part of their lives through the process of breaking bread.
You learn and they teach and your hearts grow bigger, along with your very full belly.
This 96 year old lady in Barbados used to be a school teacher and it is with a very heavy heart I have to say I lost all my video footage of her. She cooked me a beautiful lunch consisting of cassava and chicken feet.
We ate at her home because it was difficult for her to get around. She told me many stories, we laughed and we cried.
She sang me a Bajan (Barbadian) version of an alphabet song she had learned as a very young girl and I wanted to share it with you because it was so comical and unusual, but it is lost to a dead computer.
As with most elders of any country they want to teach us young folks a life lesson or two.
Her advise to me prior to leaving was, “Never have sex without your husband!” I guess that was dessert!
Is this something you would ever consider or have already done? (Cooking with the natives, not having sex without your husband!)