“It’s going to be a damned expensive cup of coffee,” my friend admitted.
Indeed. Thousands of dollars. She was telling me about her kitchen remodel and we were reflecting on the fact that in our travels, we’d both noticed that a lot of the best cooking comes out of the humblest of kitchens.
I’ve had home-made, gourmet meals prepared in one-room houses where the kitchen was nothing more than a fire pit. I wonder if it’s a law of paradox: the better equipped your kitchen, the less cooking you do. In the US we like large, elaborate kitchens, yet we love to eat out.
Which kitchen produces the most food?
Surprisingly enough, the most elaborate kitchens I’ve seen were not in the United States. They were in Israel, in religious homes, where keeping kosher was taken the point of essentially having two kitchens side by side. Two sinks, two ovens, two refrigerators. Wow.
One of the reasons I wanted to stay with a family when I was in China was to try to learn the secrets of their cooking. Mrs. Zhou’s kitchen had a cold water sink (hot water in the kitchen is also an uncommon luxury here in Mexico), a tiny (college dorm sized) refrigerator, a propane tank with a burner and a small table. No oven. No counters. No cupboards. And with this she worked wonders; noodles, hot pot, and my favorite- dumplings.
You can buy coffee table books with photos of colorful, tile-covered Mexican kitchens. I’ve seen kitchens like this, but more often than not they’re in the homes of wealthy Gringos who like Mexican décor. Most Mexican kitchens are fairly straight forward- stove, sink, fridge, a pressure cooker for making beans and dispenser that holds a garafón (a five-gallon bottle of drinking water). They don’t seem to be nearly as fond of their hand-painted tiles as we are. A blender and a molcajete (stone mortar and pestle) are ever present as well. One does need to make salsa.
One thing I don’t see in Mexico, or in many places in the world, is a lot of space dedicated to storing food. No walk-in pantry here. Instead neighborhoods are littered with tiny fruit and vegetable stores, bakeries and butcher shops, which accommodate buying the food you need on a daily basis. In the US, we’re encouraged to hoard food in our homes. Gotta be prepared for when that big earthquake hits. But I sometimes wonder if we have internalized the metaphor, and if our habit of storing extra food in our homes feeds into the habit of storing extra food on our bodies (fat!).
So what are the common elements to every kitchen? I think I’ve identified two things, some kind of heat for cooking the food and a knife for cutting it. That’s it. Water can be carried from somewhere else, and refrigeration isn’t necessary if the food is fresh. Ah, and there is one other, all-important ingredient, the thing that real makes a kitchen – the person, usually a woman in my observations, that transforms those raw ingredients into wonderful things to eat. Here’s to the cooks wherever they’re cooking!