Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cross-Cultural Culinary "Catastrophes": True Confessions of Chez Chiara Readers

A comment on the post, Halal French Cuisine: Gastronomic Integration by French Muslims, by regular commentator Oby, inspired this post. Her story of negotiating dinner with her French boyfriend made me laugh and reminded me of other culinary disconnects, some of which are "catastrophic".

The one that first came to mind was a story in the book From This Day Forward, by American journalists Cokie (very Irish Roman Catholic) and Steven (definitely Eastern European Jewish) Roberts, discussing their own mixed ethnic and interfaith marriage, interpolated with chapters of research on the history and contemporary state of the institution of marriage in the US. During their first year of marriage, Cokie wanted to prepare a Passover Seder for her Jewish husband and his family, now her family. She copied a whole menu as laid out in a magazine, and painstakingly prepared the numerous dishes, then served them as indicated. Indeed, the dinner turned out well, except--she had prepared a Sephardic meal for her Ashkenazi inlaws. Think Hispanic-Mediterranean-Middle Eastern cuisine instead of German-Polish-Ukrainian. In fact, some rituals around the food were disrupted too by the change in menu. No matter, "from that day forward" this Sephardic menu became the Passover Seder tradition in the Roberts household.

She also tells of the challenge of being the supportive spouse, rather than career journalist, to her journalist husband at certain points in their marriage (right up to the point where she was getting clinically depressed and her husband found her an appropriate job). Part of her conjugal duties included holding a Thanksgiving Dinner overseas for a number of important professional contacts. This involved a slippery turkey that landed on the ground, and was summarily washed off and served, with no one the wiser. Many of us have fought with a reluctant to be stuffed though thoroughly dead turkey, and so can empathize.

Of course, I also have my own cross-cultural culinary "catastrophes", either as cook, diner, or witness to the challenges of others. I'm sure readers here have theirs, too. I'll go first, but then don't be shy!

Cuisine maison

Home cooking disasters are always "best" when you are a student with precious little money to waste. My biggest home cooking disasters happened as a student. Aside from the disastrous black olive bread recipe from The Joy of Cooking--a wonderful book my sister bought to inspire me with its positive messaging in the title--my most memorable student culinary disasters involved chili con carne, sort of.

#1 Chili without carne

Chili con carne is a student staple, and my Tex-Mex contribution to the palate of many a non-North American student. I used to make it in my dorm room in France, on a single burner hot plate that could only be regulated for temperature by unplugging it for a while and then plugging it in again to keep the heat at low or medium rather than a constant high. I made it in my one pot, a blue teflon one that a Moroccan friend lent me--for 2 years. However, before getting to the pot or hotplate stage, making chili con carne involved going down the hill to the market for ground beef, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and chick peas (we are way too Mediterranean to use red kidney beans :) ). Depending on timing, the meat might need to be stored in the "refrigerator", better known as the window ledge.

One morning, when I took the meat off the ledge, before the sun got too high and cooked it, I accidentally knocked it off--into the vegetation 6 floors below. The cats! Remembering the feral cats, I sprinted the 6 flights, and went around to the garden area where it most likely landed (though in such circumstances objects seem to defy the laws of physics, rather like wayward contact lenses do). Not a trace, not even the wrapper. There were no cats to be seen either. Off cooking already, were they? Or just feasting? I checked the lush greenery thoroughly before heading off down the hill to fetch a new package of ground beef which was cooked pronto! No refrigeration step!

#2 Carne without chili

While I had my own "imported" little tin of chili powder spicing, in my "French kitchen", my temporary Irish kitchen, while staying in a friend's brother's flat in Cork, was bereft of spices, or even condiments it seemed. So, that trip to the supermarket involved purchasing not only the usual ingredients for a chili con carne, but the chili powder spice. Alas, there was none, which meant improvising, ie buying the spices separately and mixing my own. Not in the budget! Especially when negotiating other grocery staples, which shall remain nameless, but involved cans of stuff I don't drink. So, I decided to improvise with cayenne only, that is, a wee smidge of cayenne for colour and flavour, and as one of the chili spice ingredients.

The Irish kitchen, as well as being devoid of spices or condiments, was something of a relic. It had an archaic coin metred gas system for the cookstove (and for the euphemistically named "heater"). This meant running to the metre off in a hall to add coins every time the gas cut out on the stove. One might say it was a less predictable, less well-controlled unplug system than my electric hotplate one. Still, I managed to keep a pot of water boiling for rice, and get the other ingredients cooked until the time came to add a wee smidge of cayenne, which I did--coloured up nicely, it did, too.

Unfortunately the taste was less nice. In fact it was burning hot! So I added hot water from a tea kettle to dilute it and then let it cook down--two or three times. No luck. Totally inedible. Out it went, filed under G. We had rice with milk, butter, and shredded gruyère, a sort of risotto à la irlandaise, or rice alfredo, or just "student scramble".

Socio-linguistic culinary challenges

There are sometimes words that are used in a specific cultural context, and can inadvertently cause offense because the denotation (literal meaning) may be the same or similar, but the connotations (the associations) are distinct. This is no less true in the kitchen.

#1 Tomatoes and Civilization

Back in my "French kitchen" in my dorm in France, I was cooking a weekend dinner with 2 Moroccan friends--this time with the extravagance of 2 single non-regulating hot plates, and my trusty frying pan as well as my pot. In the division of culinary labour they had the task of  "chopping tomatoes" while I began cooking onions, and then chicken pieces. When it seemed about time for the tomato chopping to be complete, and I had plugged and unplugged my way to a medium heat, I turned around for the tomatoes. Except they were no where near finished! Both of them were concentrating hard and still on their 2nd or 3rd tomato.

I realized that when I said "chopping tomatoes", I meant Canadian style (at least in my home): start with a freshly washed tomato, and whack whack into about 8 roughly same-sized pieces. They heard Moroccan style (in every home I've been in): peel, seed, and dice to about a 1cm cube. Being Y-chromosome people, neither was very fast, but the newbie to Europe slower than the veteran. I found this miscommunication (and their seriousness) hilarious, so I started to laugh and said lightly (can't use the word gaily anymore), "Oh, that is so civilized!", thinking how infinitely more refined their technique was than mine.

Explosion from the veteran! All about civilization, and its meanings. Or at least about a 3 out of 10 for his normal explosion on such an occasion, in deference to my beliefs, and the fact that I could do a Marxist Leninist colonization-decolonization diatribe as well as he could, but with less passion probably. I had realized almost immediately that I had accidently used one of the key words of French colonization: "civilized". Who is and who isn't. Who has a "civilization", and who doesn't. Whose civilization should prevail, or as children in French colonial schools around the world were made to recite: "Nos ancêtres les gaulois..." [Our ancestors the Gauls].

I let him wind down, while the other one studied his tomatoes, and then explained what I thought was funny and why. That dinner turned out well, and we had others, though they were less linguistically challenged.

#2 Wild Rice and Savages

One of my best friends in medical school was West African. Unfortunately, her obgyn didn't seem to have taken that much into account, and she developed a complication more common in Africans, and lost the 32-week-old, and almost her life in the process (eclampsia-full blown).  That meant contacting her husband in their home country. True to cliché, for once he actually was in the ancestral village in the bush instead of in his university office, because he was part of the ruling family and there was a major tribal celebration. After he was finally contacted, he arranged to spend a few weeks here, so that eventually she was out of hospital and I had them both for dinner.

We were standing in the kitchen while I gave a quick stir to my pots, when I asked in French "Vous aimez le riz sauvage?" [Do you like wild rice?]. Since there was no reply, I turned to face them, and saw them both with perplexed looks, trying to remain positive while struggling with a negative. Then I thought about the word "sauvage" and French (and English) colonization, and quickly grabbed the packet of wild rice and showed them the label--conveniently written in English and  French as is normal in Canada (and required by law). I hastened to explain about the Amerindian in the picture, that the rice is really a wheat type grain, and that it is called "sauvage" or wild, because it traditionally grew wild in wetlands. The First Nations Canadians would pick it from their canoes. Currently it is grown commercially, but has retained this now double misnomer.

They relaxed visibly. We enjoyed our dinner. She later made a full recovery, and had another child in Canada, and then one when she returned to live and work fulltime in their home country.

Restaurant conundrums

#1 Steak Tartare 

Once, out with friends--Egyptian with Chinese wife, Greek with Anglo-Canadian wife, Moroccan with myself--we all decided on a post-theatre dinner at a French restaurant. We consulted the menu, chatting away, and when the waiter came to take our order, the Greek ordered steak tartare. The waiter--standing behind and to the side of him, out of his line of vision but directly in front of mine--had an odd look on his face, then smiled, and started an elaborate and pointed story about a customer who ordered steak tartare, didn't realize it was raw, and what a mix up...I too thought the order was a little odd, but then I also didn't know all the culinary experience of the Greek friend, except that as an MD he had washed dishes in Greek restaurants in Canada for 2 years while he got re-licensed.

When our orders arrived, he was served a plate of raw ground meat, with a garnish. He was shocked! "What's this?",  he said. The waiter patiently explained that this was his order. He protested that he had ordered steak (maybe he was thinking steak with tartar sauce?). The waiter explained again that this was steak tartare, and it is served raw. The Greek finally said to his wife, "How could you let me order such a thing? You know what an idiot I can be!" She said nothing, at which point I thought it best to intervene, and suggested he either have it cooked (the waiter looked unhappy with that suggestion) or order something else, and take it home for cooking. He decided on the latter, and I had my dinner sent back to be re-served at the same time as his.

He enjoyed his second choice, a "biftek", a grilled steak this time, and his marriage was spared further culinary discussion, at least at that dinner.

#2 Black Forest Cake

A certain Moroccan, who shall remain nameless, has an inordinate fondness for chocolate, and chocolate desserts. Varying from chocolate, or choosing among non-chocolate desserts usually results in him taking a bite, looking dismayed, looking at me pathetically with his chocolate eyes, and me either exchanging desserts with him, or finding him something he will like (not many people like pumpkin on the first go around, and lemony anything is a non-starter for him).

Our first restaurant dinner after we were married and he had arrived in Canada was with a group of nurses with whom I was working and their friends. They picked the restaurant as we were new to the city. It was one of those trendy natural restaurants with whole vegetables as combination table decoration and appetizer. Let's just call the menu a challenge. The main courses are lost to memory, but dessert isn't. He ordered apple pie à la mode--odd choice for him. On the other hand, we had been living in different countries, and he had American friends, and a pass to the local American Naval Base restaurant (that was an interesting cross-cultural culinary experience the 2 times I went there too, but I digress), so...what did I know.

Our desserts had just been presented before us, when he looked across the room with a pained expression. Following his longing gaze, I saw a waiter carrying a tray of desserts to another table. "How did they get chocolate cake?", he said. I looked more closely, and said "It's on the menu." "No, it's not." "Yes it is, that is Black Forest Cake, and it's on the menu." Forlorn look, and dismayed gaze at dessert plate, and next thing I knew I was sending back the apple pie in exchange for a Black Forest Cake, because at such times he seems to develop linguistic incompetence in both English and French, but still must have chocolate!

And now, what are your cross-cultural culinary "catastrophes"?
Any cooking adventures that misfired, linguistically or gastronomically?
Ever serve Quiche Lorraine to a Rastafarian? (who knew they don't eat pork?! :) )
Ever ordered something and found it was a dietary no no, or not what you expected?
Ever go to a formal Italian banquet and realize late that pasta is an appetizer not a main dish?
Ever go to an Arab wedding and discover multiple meat courses?
How about a Chinese banquet, with approximately 10 courses and soup somewhere in the middle?
Ever had a Tunisian pull the "it's just tomato paste, when it's really harissa" trick on you?
Ever been confronted by a bewildering array of utensils, or flatware (eg a venison fork/knife not to be confused with a beef fork/knife)?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

Related posts:
Halal French Cuisine: Gastronomic Integration by French Muslims
Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings: Part II Watch What You Eat!

Coming soon...Part II...only if you share first! :)


coolred38 said...

After watching my MIL make "machbous rabbyan" (shrimp and rice)several times I decided to give it a shot. My husband bought a kilo of prawns and I went to work. Turned out pretty good. I made it several times after that and each time it got better.

One day MIL was watching me prepare and stopped me when I started to toss the shrimps into the pot for cooking. She inquired as to whether I had cleaned them or not. Cleaned them? yes I had washed them. No she have to take a knife and slit the skin and remove the intestines/digestive track aka the "poop thread".

She showed me what she meant...and I was disgusted beyond description at what she began pulling out of those shrimp...and to think we had been eating THAT over and over again.

I wanted to vomit on the spot.

I didnt make that particular dish for quite some time after that.

ellen557 said...

Lol this post cracked me up! This is just the story of my life, really. I'm so bad now that when I go to even a Thai restaurant, I'll only order Pad Thai because I just have no idea about anything really lol! That story about the steak tartare is hilarious though, I would make that sort of mistake but I won't now! :D

Susanne said...

What a fun post! I loved all the stories!! Here are a few things that stood out to me.

"Think Hispanic-Mediterranean-Middle Eastern cuisine instead of German-Polish-Ukrainian. In fact, some rituals around the food were disrupted too by the change in menu. No matter, "from that day forward" this Sephardic menu became the Passover Seder tradition in the Roberts household."

I don't blame them for preferring the Sephardic cuisine. Probably tasted better. :)

" I used to make it in my dorm room in France, on a single burner hot plate that could only be regulated for temperature by unplugging it for a while and then plugging it in again to keep the heat at low or medium rather than a constant high."

:-D Haaaaaa! I totally visualized this whole post and this part was hilarious to me. *I'm giggling*

I also laughed when you knocked the meat off the ledge...hehehehe.

" This meant running to the metre off in a hall to add coins every time the gas cut out on the stove."

:-O Wow!

As for my own experience with shocking menus, you should see this post from my trip to Syria. It explains it better than I could here, plus it has pictures. :-)

I didn't get a picture, but it was a bit amusing to see lamb testicles just hanging there in these roadside butcher shops waiting to be purchased ...or not.

"Ever ordered something and found it was a dietary no no, or not what you expected?"

Well, I decided to try the famous Bakdash icecream in Syria, but it was covered in pistachios which made me have an allergic reaction complete with a hive on my eyelid. I avoided Syrian sweets the rest of my trip.

LOVED this post! You are so sweet to trade desserts with that nameless Moroccan who loves chocolate!

And I think you should share about the American Naval Base restaurant experiences that you alluded to. :-)

Enjoyed this!

Umm Ameena Kimberly said...

Very nice post. A few years ago, I used to frequent a Tex-Mex restaurant that had what I thought (at the time) was the best bean burrito - ever. I had it at least once a week. One evening while eating it, I noticed a faint meat smell. I got worried. I inquired and was told it had very tiny pieces of pork in it! I suddenly felt nauseas, and the feeling lasted for about a week. Now I always think twice before eating vegetarian at restaurants that aren't halal or kosher.

NidalM said...

Well I'm not sure if this is considered multicultural, but I once messed up frying burgers. Yes, yes, go ahead and laugh ;P

I had just moved into my apartment at college and excitedly went shopping for my 'home' for the first time. Brought back the regular college kid stuff. Burgers, pasta, fish sticks.. ;P

At the time, I wasn't aware that oil tends to evaporate if you keep on the stove too long. I just assumed its stays there inert until it has something to crackle at. By the time I got to putting the meat patties on the pan, it was already viciously smoking. And a minute later, the kitchen was foggy and the fire alarm went off. Sticking the frying pan into the sink just added steam to the chaos.

And a very red faced me had to explain to the neighbors and campus security that I had just messed up frying burgers.

I stuck to the microwave for a month after that ;P

Shafiq said...

lol....I love this post (especially the Steak tartare story)...and I'm really glad you got it out of the way before Ramadhan.

I had a cooking disaster pretty much every week at school, during our food tech lessons. It seems that making mac cheese is simply beyond me (even though I attempted making it for six consecutive weeks).

I'm good at baking though - I can bake a mean chocolate cake and can make bread and pastries too.

As for multicultural cuisine, not really much of an expert, though my mum has managed to adapt popular British/European/North American dishes to suit Indian tastes. And the Indian dishes so famous in Britain, are actually dishes invented in Britain by combining Indian cuisine with ingredients commonly used in Europe.

Because of the above stories, my family and I have developed a habit of asking waiters what a dish is made up of before ordering it.

For the first three days of my Tunisian holiday, I thought the 'tomato paste' in the salad area was ketchup. It was only after asking around for chilli sauce did someone point out that it was staring me in the face all this time!

Saudi Jawa said...

Fun post!

Shortly after I got married one of the very first things my wife cooked was an old favorite of hers; Molokhia. She bought some dried molokhia leaves and decided to make it with shrimps instead of the more traditional lamb or chicken, mimicking an excellent dish we had during our honey moon. Anyway, I came back from work and the house smelled heavenly of caramelized garlic. I've never been a big fan of molokhia, but the smell was positively mouth watering and framed with the visage of my smiling wife and, well, how can a hot blooded man resist? So I sat down and started eating. It tasted HORRIBLE! I looked up and saw my wife watching me, eager to see if she has pleased her lord and master. What else could I do? I smiled, proclaimed it the best thing I have ever tasted and piled my plate high. A few minutes later she tried it herself, and spat it out. "How could you eat that!" she said. To this day we have no idea what happened, but we suspect that the dried molokhia leaves was something else.

oby said...

For some reason most of my culinary mishaps have happened in other coutries. Two leap to mind:
Once i was engaged to a Frenchman and while meeting his parents in his hometown I decided to serve them a spaghetti dinner like my mother used to make. I went shopping and got all the ingredients and started to "create". All was fine until i got to the spaghetti. I was nervous because it needed to be just right texturally...not too hard and not too mushy and they were giving me odd looks. Twice they asked me when I held the box are you sure you want to cook the whole box? " will be fine. At home we make one box and it is plenty for the five of us." I got the water to a boil and loaded in the spaghetti thinking that I should have used a bigger pot and a bit annoyed with my lack of foresight. Everything was bubbling nicely on the stove, I covered the items and we all sat down to chat. When the spaghetti was done I opened the pot and thought "wow! It really seems to expand here in France." they all made fun of me and joked and it was only then that I realized that the box of spaghetti I had used was one KILO not one pound as in the States! I had forgotten about the conversion in my nervousness.I had cooked twice the normal amount. We ate spaghetti for a couple of days!

Same day we sat down to lunch around the family table. In France as Chiara knows, meals are daily events and can go on forever. This particular day we were having "biftek" (steak) according to my future sister in law. We sat down and all dived in to the wonderful spread. It was fantastic. Laurence (the SIL to be) asked me what I thought about the steak. I raved on and on about how delicious it was.So lean and very tender! She started laughing and I, the unsuspecting sap, had no idea what was going on. Finally she told me in french, between giggles " vous avez mangé cheval". I didn't quite understand what she had said so she whinnied like a horse for me to drive the point home. (lovely girl she was!) I had just eaten horse for the first time and apparently she found tricking me hysterically funny. I must say however, it was very tasty and had I known what I was eating I might not have tried it..but despite myself it was very good.

I'l have to think of more...maybe some Indian ones.

i love the fact that your windowsill was the fridge. I've done that too!


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