“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?

jonl1973's photo of a Berber kitchen

Berber kitchen – photo by jonl1973

Karen's photo of an antique French kitchen

Old time French kitchn. Photo by Karen.

Ralf Kayser's photo of a Nepal kitchen

Ralf Kayser’s photo of a Nepal kitchen

SWIMPHOTO's remodeled kitchen.

SWIMPHOTO’s remodeled kitchen.

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.

waywuwei's photo of the kitchen at a Mexican cooking school.

Susana’s Trilling’s Kitchen at Seasons of My Heart Cooking School Photo by waywuwei.

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!

Thank you, James Michener! I’ve learned a lot from your books over the years and the thousand pages of Iberia I just finished was no exception, an enlightening tour of Spanish history and culture.  However, I can say without a doubt, that the most important part of the book (and for me, probably the most important in any Michener book) is the paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 340.  On that glorious page, the author generously included instructions for making gazpacho.  Really good gazpacho.

Gazpacho! by avlxyz

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got several cook books with gazpacho recipes.  It’s just that this one is both easier and yummier – the taste of Spain!

Occasionally, I reflect back on my travels and think of things I should have done differently.  I should have stayed longer in such and such a place. I should have eaten more pastries, got more massages, packed lighter, been more generous, bought less crap, gone to see Petra.  But if I had my travels to do over again, the biggest change I would make is that I would take more cooking classes.

Think about it.  Long after you’ve come home, put you’re backpack away, forgotten about your photos, settled into whatever’s next, you will still be eating.  Unless something goes drastically wrong, you’re going to be eating your whole life.  So what better souvenir from your travels than knowledge of how to make some of those delicious, exotic dishes?

Cooking Classes

There are two ways to go about learning to make local cuisine.  The first is through formalized cooking classes. I enjoyed my first overseas cooking class when I was attending language school in Mexico.  At first, I didn’t want to take the class because it required an “intermediate” level of Spanish and I didn’t think I was up to it.  However, suspecting that cooking would be more fun than grammar, I decided to take the plunge.  Yum!  It’s amazing what you can throw into mole!

A few tips for getting the most out of your overseas cooking class:

  • Cooking classes often begin with a trip to the market. Take the opportunity to ask questions about all those strange looking fruits and vegetables you’ve seen.  Your curiosity may be rewarded with samples!
  • You can usually choose which dishes you want to learn to prepare.  Wait until you’ve been in the country a little while before taking a cooking class so you know what your favorite dishes are.
  • Select dishes that are made from ingredients you’ll be able to find when you get home, or make notes about possible substitutions.
  • Ask ahead of time if they will be giving you a copy of the recipes.  If not, take notes.
  • Travel and sightseeing can be exhausting.  The act of cooking makes you feel “at home” in the best possible sense.  Time your cooking classes for when you need a break from sightseeing.
This is a recipe from a cooking class I took in China. (The bad English was too good to change…)

From my Chinese cooking class

Braised Eggplant with Garlic

A)   250g eggplant cut in 2 inches long strips, put in the salty water around 10 minutes then take out.

B)   One red pepper and one green pepper, shred as long as the eggplant strings.

C)    Four cloves garlic chop to small pieces, 2 pieces green spring onion cut in 1 inch long.

D)   1 teaspoons Chili bean paste.

Cooking Method

A)   Heat the wok with 4 tablespoons oil, medium heat to stir fry the eggplants, til the color getting a little brown and soft. Then move out to the plate.

B)   Low heat fry the garlic and chili bean sauce.

C)    Return the eggplant, then add the water, half cover the dish.

D)   Season the dish with 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp oyster sauce and 1 tsp soy sauce.

E)    When the eggplant soft and the dish’s water almost dry, then put some cornstarch water, mixed again, put the spring onion, white pepper, sesame oil, serve on plate.

Family Stays

Another great way to learn about preparing local food is living with a family.  This gives you an opportunity to observe cooking as a daily activity and to make a point of being present for the preparation of your favorite foods. You may want to hold onto a label or piece of packaging so you can search out ingredients when you get home.  This is what I’ve learned from the kitchen goddesses I’ve been lucky enough to stay with:

  • Simple can be good.  Some of the best dishes I’ve had were made with only a handful of ingredients.  Likewise they can be whipped together in very modest kitchens.  My hostess in China had one gas burner, a sink with no hot water, a couple of knives, spoons and chopsticks.  And with this, she did wonders.
  • When you recreate it at home, it will be good, though not quite as good as what you had overseas.  I can’t roll out perfect dumpling wrappers like Zou Jun and my couscous is not nearly as light and fluffy as that of the Moroccan woman I learned it from. But…
  • It is still delicious and your friends will be impressed.

So there you have it. Buen provecho! Bon appetit! Now you’re cooking! Let’s eat!