One of the pleasures of expat life is having international friends. Finding common ground with people physically, culturally and ethnically different from us. Which then are not just small things in common but tons. A bond is created and the friendship magic begins.
People are chosen for affinity and not by culture or race. Language makes the difference. If you come to speak the same language, whatever it is, then you can establish a contact, you can really get to know the person and become acquainted with a person’s depth, not just what we seem to be. Communication is all.
To learn something about other cultures there are various methods: go to the museum and it gets on your nerves.
Read a history book and pretend it’s interesting, but actually it gets on your nerves.
Ask a friend about his country’s political/economic situation, pretend to be interested but actually it gets on your nerves.
Or go through the food.
I learned that every culture is told through food. Every national or religious feast has its typical dish, each Country a memorable sweet, every family a recipe handed down by grandmother as in Italy – this happens all over the world. Each recipe has a scent that brings back a memory that ends in a story full of emotions.
So in Shanghai I taught my friends how to make my mother’s recipe risotto with porcini mushrooms and cooking cream. I tried to explain that the national-popular recipe says one thing but my heart another. The risotto should absolutely be attacked on the bottom of the pan. Because then you can scratch it off with the spoon and that burnt and sticky part has the scent of my mom and the taste of happiness.
I learned from Eka, an Indonesian friend, to cook Bakso soup or Indonesian meatball soup. So I found out that even the Indonesians don’t weigh the ingredients but they go by eye. They put fried garlic on top like we do with parmesan cheese. The meatballs should theoretically be all round and perfectly equal but if you laugh with friends meanwhile cooking sometimes comes out a different shape: tail-like tadpoles, small as marbles or big as ping pong balls. In the end, those with the tails were the most fun and consequently the best ones.
I learned from Yookyung (called Josh) how to cook Korean Bulgogi, a kind of beef stew with vegetables, sweet and full of refined white sugar that we replaced with tons of grated pear according to Josh’s family tradition recipe. And I swear that the meat with the grated pears is delicious.
I learned from Caroline, a Chinese girl who grew up in Canada, how to bake Japanese Cheesecake. Caroline wants to open a pastry of Japanese sweets (Marbu cakeshop, if she became famous, remember it!). With her love and precision I suddenly start to like the cheese cake and now I bake it all the time!
Here in Hong Kong I shared my grandma Pina’s gnocchi recipe. The particularity of my grandmother’s recipe is not in the gnocchi itself but in the sauce, made with a “drop” of concentrate tomato sauce and half a pat of butter. The sauce is orange and colors your lips for two months as well as raising the cholesterol level to the stars. I admit that seeing foreign girls covered by flour with orange lips engaged in stamping the fork onto the gnocchi just because “so did Grandma Pina” was wonderful.
From Akiko, a Japanese friend, I’ve learned to make sushi, obviously. Here the secret is to wave a fan over the rice to cool down the temperature, while turning it and cutting it with a special spoon/blade. And I’m not joking.
Yesterday, Mimi (friend from Texas but originally from Vietnam) Gwen (friend from New York but originally from Japan) and Myself (from North Italy and drops of Sardinian blood in the veins) went to Chungking Mansion to buy Indian food.
We were lost among the Indian spice shelves, Mimi looking for a particular brand I do not know what of which spice, Gwen with the nose drifting into the different curry jars, I with in hand two different types of yellow lentils; was staring at the two packs in the hope of understanding the difference between them. I must have concentrated so much that lightening came to me in the shape of a distinguished Indian gentleman about 60 years old.
“Good morning, if you allow me, and just if you are interested obviously, I’d like to explain the difference between the two lentils in your hand.”
“Good morning, I would be grateful” super grin. I was really grateful.
“I just allow myself because I have time,” looking at his watch, “but only if it does not disturb you and just if you are interested obviously.”
“Does not bother me at all. Please, I am really interested …” I really was.
“First of all, read the names and learn them, at least you know what we are talking about. Did you research the internet before coming here? “
“EMH … nope.”
“Ah!” he looks shocked.
“Those you are holding in the right hand are Toor Dahl, the lighter to digest. The others, holding in the left are Mung Dahl, they create a lot of gas in the intestine.”
Gwen whispers to me, “Take these, you don’t want be full of gas doing yoga, I tell you …”
“Yes, I do not want gas in my belly while doing yoga, I take the Toor.”
“Depend from the way you are going to cooking them, what recipe you want to prepare?”
“Emh, I do not know yet.” He shakes his head and sighs.
“You haven’t studied anything then!!! How can you buy ingredients if you don’t know what to cook!” It seems he’s losing his temper. Damn me, why didn’t I study last night? Wait a minute, I am not in high school anymore!
“Only if it does not disturb you and just if you are interested obviously, I would like to share with you my family recipe to prepare the Tadka Dahl.”
Mimi lights up: “yes, yes, yes, we are interested” pulling out the cellphone ready to take notes.
“First of all you must know that Tadka means Explosion. This is because when you throw the Dahl in boiling oil the kitchen explodes. But you do not have to blow it up for real…”
I smile to my friends , I love him. He grabs my arm and tells me:
“Are you here with me? No, because if you do not care and do not pay attention it is useless.”
“No, I’m sorry, I’m paying attention,” I start to become anxious.
“Then repeat the difference between Toor and Mung Dahl”
“But, do you question me?”
Gwen stifles a laugh. Mimi urges me to answer. I feel 15 years old and repeat the lesson, sweating my hands. My friends do not prompt me but he seems satisfied. Then he starts using English words that I do not know and tests our level of English, only Mimi understands. For God’s sake I am in high school for real. This is a nightmare…
Maura come on! Pull yourself together! You are in Hong Kong, you are forty-two and he’s an Indian gentleman who wants to share the recipe of Dahl, only if it does not disturb me and just if I am interested obviously.
“So, to start put the Toor Dahl in a pan with water, let it boil high for ten minutes and then lower the flame. On the water will form a foam, you must remove it from time to time until it is no longer foamed. Then let them cook for another 20 minutes. To check if it is cooked, take one of your fingers and pinch a lentil. It must become like a cream between your fingers. But beware! If it’s cooked too much then becomes an inedible paste. Did you understand?”
“Yes, yes. Hot water, foam, low water, press.”
I repeat well.
“If you cook them too much and gets a mess then do not blame me. But you are Italian and you know how to do it. “
Lucky me I am Italian.
The explanation of the recipe with his question and the resulting list of necessary ingredients continues for another 45 minutes. In the end it comes out that the cute gentleman is a university professor with two math and physics degrees and an MBA in economics.
Once out of the shop, the Professor tells us:
“Girls this is a dangerous place, you should not talk to strangers, it happens that they start talking to you about subjects that interest you, they make you curious and then tell you to follow them to buy something. Do not follow them! There are people who look good, kind, distinct, but they are really dangerous… Now follow me upstairs that I bring you to eat, just if you are interested obviously.”
We follow the Professor all hypnotized.
Gwen is about to take the stairs and the Professor stops her:
“Trust me, you do not want to take that stairs. The right stairs are on the other side.”
We trust him. Of course we trusted him.
Gwen: “Girls you don’t want to take the wrong stairs! Follow him!”
I don’t want take the wrong stairs as much I don’t want gas in my belly.
We go up the right stairs and listen to him talk about Chungking Mansion and his history for a long time. It seems that time expands when he speaks.
After the history of the place that hosts us comes the one about the restaurants and the variety of food on offer.
At the end he chooses where we must eat. It was all good and we did not die of dysentery, but when he left us we had to observe five minutes of silence to rest the brain.
Below is the Professor’s recipe with his suggestions and comments between brackets.
Just if you are interested obviously.
Boil the yellow lentils and foam them for the time indicated by the Professor (if you paid attention, if not, in fact, you know nothing!)
Drain them but keep the water.
Take a thick saucepan with thick bottom (you are Italian, you know), put oil (if you put too much it taste better but it is less healthy, choice is yours) along with mustard seeds (use black ones that are better).
When the seeds sizzle the oil temperature is right (if you are distracted you make the kitchen explode, hence the name of the recipe). Put cumin seeds, chopped onions (the red or the blond one is the same, one is not better than the other), garlic (little or nothing, I do not like it), fresh tomatoes cut into cubes (you who are Italian know that you should use the fresh tomatoes and not the sauce in the jar).
Let it boil for 5 minutes and add the lentils with a little of their water. Cook until the water evaporates and the lentils start exploding around the kitchen. (Let some broth, in the end it’s a soup, and then eat dry is not good. If you eat always dried food you don’t go to the bathroom and the lentils make gas … and you do not want the gas in the belly, remember?).
Salt at will (those who do not use salt will lose the taste of things in life).
Garnish with fresh parsley and chili (if you like, but if you eat something that produces gas, you do not even want to add chili, trust me)
Eat hot with Indian bread or white rice.
Enjoy your meal, बोन अप्पेतित
The professor is a Tutor of math, physics, quantum physics, business, economics and computers. For those who are interested, obviously, I have his business card. If you are careful and only if you are interested, obviously, you will have also some recipes included in the price.