Cultural Awareness in the Kitchen and at the Dinner Party

It was 7 in the morning on a Saturday. A perfectly appropriate time to have flour all over the table and potatoes boiling on the stove. The bolani had to be made.

Bolani was my newfound love, the “Afghan pizza” as someone had called it in Kabul, and I was committed to making it at home. Because it’s always good to complicate things a bit, I was making an attempt at doing a gluten free version. In the comfort of your own kitchen you can cook as you please. That and I had a gluten-free houseguest.

The dough was made the day before, but then dinner plans went askew and so there I was at an early weekend hour when most sane people would still be sleeping – blame it on a combination of neuroses and jet lag – rolling out balls of dough and filling them with a potato, leek, cilantro filling. Put some dill in a yogurt sauce, and breakfast was ten times more interesting than the usual kale and egg combination. Success.

A freakish commitment to perfecting a recipe picked up while abroad might seem off, but don’t we all have food obsessions when we return from voyages? We come back from our travels, whether near or far with stories of “have you ever heard of [insert odd local dish here]?” and “they had the most amazing [insert normal dish] but with [insert oddball ingredient that is representative of the place traveled to here]. I wish we had that here!”

Ask someone which bus line they rode most often during a trip and you’ll get a blank stare, but ask about the best local meal and you’ll be sure to be listening to an animated story for a minimum of seventeen minutes. Food is often one of the biggest takeaways when we travel, be it just a half hour from home or on the other side of the world. That roadside diner with the house special sauce can be just as exotic as sambusas on a street corner in Kabul. Through food we experience a culture a people and a place. We are forced to stop and take things in, listen to our senses. It’s no surprise that the result is memorable.

Some of us don’t stop at storytelling though.

After Budapest I only served fröccs for the rest of the summer, and in a post-Amsterdam phase I couldn’t stop thinking about stroopwafels, to the extent that I debated on buying a pizelle iron (you can’t get the actual Dutch version in the States so you have to compromise with an Italian one – thank you Google) so that I could make them at home. That option still hasn’t been ruled out, although it has been put on the back-burner as stroopwafels are now readily available here at home, at least with a credit card.

There is in fact a solution to the “I miss [insert exotic food here].” Make it yourself. Sometimes the best way to treat culture shock (and even jet lag) is to bring that culture home.

Wine and baguettes for dealing with post-Parisian semester abroad angst, pad thai to remember better times when you were relaxed, tan and owned nothing more than a backpack and a pair of fishermen pants, and some Swedish aquavit to pretend you’re in a cold Scandinavian country during the holidays.

But just like meals while traveling are best shared, so are the ones at home, making the appropriate solution to all this food and travel obsessing a dinner party. Pairing culture, food and the dinner table makes sense; not only does it bring people together, but it uses food as a medium for world awareness and even positive change.

I was recently tipped off to United Noshes, a multi-year project based in Brooklyn, New York on a mission to serve up community dinners, one United Nations member at a time. Beyond getting people to learn about the food culture of a country, the dinner organizers also encourage participants to donate to the World Food Program USA. Breaking down cultural barriers and working to solve global hunger all at one time.

While many of us may cower at the thought of working our way through the UN list, there’s no reason you can’t start with one simple get together. Think of it as changing cultural assumptions ones dinner party at a time. Which is why the 7am recipe escapade will pay off and tomorrow, somewhere on a table in Southeast Portland, there will be bolani, borani,  fresh pomegranate and hopefully new ideas of a far away place.

Comments 1

  1. Allison (Spontaneous Tomato)

    I loved this article– it really rang true for me. So many of the dishes that I take on at home were inspired by my travels… either in a nostalgic attempt to recreate the flavors that I so enjoyed discovering while overseas (especially in Japan and Korea), or simply to travel vicariously– in my very own kitchen, and even to places I’ve yet to truly visit– through the food on my plate.

    (Also, you’re so right on about the baguettes– forget semester abroad, my girlfriend and I passed through Paris last summer for only three days, and it not only inspired her to start baking baguettes from scratch upon our return but also to apply to a culinary program!)

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