travel

Au Revoir!

One of my last days in the Rhône-Alpes countryside, I talked with Annick about how school lunches usually work, in the USA. Annick is a nanny for a few local children, taking them to her house for a healthy lunch during the school day, and keeping them for a few hours after school. She asked me if it was similar in the United States.

I said that in the US, leaving the school for lunch is rare. More commonly, students buy a hot lunch at school. Or, in my case, I took a “sack lunch”, or “paper bag lunch ” to school– a paper sack with a sandwich, fruit, snacks, etc. Sometimes, parents will also include little notes in the paper bag lunch, wishing their children a good day, or a reminder how much they love them.

Annick found this idea very cute, but at the time, I thought nothing of it. Three days later, the morning I left for Paris, I heard her announce: “I will prepare you a paper bag lunch!”

I gratefully took it, eating the contents throughout the day. She had made the perfect paper bag lunch. And, in the end, in the bottom of the sack, I found a note:

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I am lucky, to find family wherever I go.

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A tous mes amis francophone, qui peut être sont en train de se servir de Google translate-

J’écris un petit note en français pour vous remercier. Vous étiez tous profs patients et sympas, et j’avais de la chance de vous connaître. Si vous passez aux États Unis, vous êtes toujours bienvenue chez moi. A bientôt, j’espère!

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Beer Je T’aime

La France is, without a doubt, a wine country. But this big ol’ American likes beer, and I was curious if there were any good French beers to be found. During my weeks in the Rhone-Alpes region, almost all the beer I found was imported from Belgium, with very few French varieties.

I stopped in Paris for a few days at the end of my time in France, and I met up with a Parisian friend that I had made months ago, at the Warsaw Beer Festival (further proving my belief that beer brings people together). He showed me what I had been looking for: a French craft beer bar.

“La Fine Mousse” has made the news not only for focusing on French beer, but also for copying something normally reserved for French wines: beer-food pairings. With 150 beers avaliable, and friendly “bièreologues” to help you choose, there is no shortage of options.

I drank only the French beers on tap, trying to select a diverse range. The bar had a distinct vibe, with black and white and wood details, making me think of
hipster bars back home. Though some of the beers were underwhelming, others were quite good, and it was fun to see an unexpected scene like this in Paris.

There is a young craft beer scene in France, even if it is hidden by the sheer mass of wine culture. Paris, as they say, will always surprise you.

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Pierogis are Stuffed with Messages

When you travel to a different country as a foreigner, how do you learn about its people, its history, and its values? For most of my travel, I have worked on farms owned by locals. I was able to explore questions about countries by talking to local people, seeing the way that they lived, and learning from them. I was able to sit at their table and share a meal with them.

However, I am currently taking a hiatus from working on farms, and instead simply being a tourist in the cities that I’ve always wanted to visit. I am staying in hostels, meeting other travelers, going on walking tours and visiting museums. But, as I’ve tried to explore these countries as a tourist, I have found it more difficult to witness the everyday life of local people. Tourist districts may include walkable streets and English menus, but the opportunities for meeting people from the area are more limited. The question for me is, how do I learn about a country, if I’ve never sat down for a meal with a family from that country?

Well, obviously, I still start with food.

One of the largest markets in Wroclaw. Here, there were still a few small family style eateries for cheap, delicious Polish lunches.

I have always believed that some of the most important messages that we say are sent through food. Whether it’s the (albeit disputed) origin of the phrase “to give the cold shoulder”, or the warm welcome of a hot plate waiting for you at home after a journey, we use food as a form of communication. There is information, history, and meaning carried in food.

So when I arrive in a new city or country on this trip, I look to the food to learn. In Poland, especially, I used networks like couch surfing and food tours to learn about the local cuisine. Here are a few of the messages that I saw in Polish food.

Pierogis

The most iconic Polish food, fried or boiled dumplings with various fillings, can say a lot. Their preparation is very time intensive, from the effort to roll the dough to the careful stuffing each one. The most basic pierogis contain just potatoes and flavorings, and others can contain any mix of meats and cheeses. There are succulent pierogis stuffed with sweet cheese and fruits, and I have even seen pierogis stuffed with smaller pierogis (that was a tourist trap). There are types of pierogis appropriate for weddings, and different ones for funerals. And truly, no one makes them better than a grandmother. Whatever the occasion, a hearty pierogi sends a comforting message.

The best pierogis in Krakow! Made by, of course, a Polish grandmother.

Pierogis and goulas, the perfect lunch!

Vodka, pickles, and fish

There is a saying in Poland, “fish like to swim”. Though this phrase may sound obvious, it has a subtler meaning: herring, a popular bar snack, is best eaten with a shot of vodka. That fish likes to swim in vodka. And according to some Polish people, there are other foods that like to swim in vodka: pickles. That’s right, after a delicious vodka shot, many people like to bite into a juicy pickle.

While these combinations may sound strange to American university students used to other chasers to vodka, there is reason behind this tradition. Both herring and pickles are supposed to keep away hangovers, and allow you to drink more without becoming sick.

However, to all my other weak-blooded American friends, no matter how many pickles you may eat, I urge you to never try to keep up with an Eastern European when it comes to drinking liquor.

Vodka and pickles. While I may never search out this combination again, it was certainly interesting to try.

Raw beef tartar, with a raw egg on top. While this dish may not be native to Poland, they usually add a distinct ingredient: pickles!

Soup

My favorite Polish food, beyond any doubt, is barszcz, a beetroot soup. Its acid taste traditionally comes from leaving it to naturally sour, but today it is sometimes replicated with lemon juice or vinegar. The white barszcz (biaty), is soured with fermented wheat flour, and the amaying zurek contains sour rye flour. All of these soups, if made traditionally, contain healthy bacteria for your stomach. These sour elements come from the days when many things were pickled and fermented to save them.

The ultimate hearty soup, bigos, or hunter’s stew, comes from that tradition. This soup is made with many different meats, saurkraut, and fresh cabbage and mushrooms. The mixture can be stewed for hours, or days, without going bad, and it keeps for a long time. It is the symbol of the hearty countryside food.

Today, in Poland and elsewhere, there are many migrant workers. Young people leave the country and migrate to the city. However, just like in Bulgaria and Romania, these young people still visit home often. When they travel back to the city, they are identifiable because they usually lug large jars of bigos back with them. Bigos does not go bad easily and it is a healthy meal, so it is ideal to take back home from the coutnryside. Today, in Polish, these migrant workers are now being referred to as “jars”.

A tiny taster of bigos on a food tour, which I ate again later in the day (and in my excitement, failed to photograph).

Apples

A bowl of apples may not seem like a revolutionary act, but for Poland in 2014, consuming apples turned into a political statement. When Poland expressed support for the Ukranian people against Russia’s actions in 2014, following some of the EU’s sanctions, Russia responded with a ban on Polish fruit imports. This left Poland with a 700,000 tonne surplus of apples, which were historically shipped to Russia’s enormous market.

In response, some celebrities and activists in Poland tried to start a campaign: eat Polish apples to annoy Putin. Celebrities photographed themselves with apples, restaurants tried to buy what they could and give them away with meals, and cidear consumption tripled. While this may not have been enough to fully aid the struggling orchardists, it certainly brought attention to the issue. There has never been a more delicious political message.

While I don’t have any pictures of Polish apples, this hot Polish donut had apple filling. Was this donut political?

In Poland, I visited many museums and read many histories. These are important and valuable teachers. However, I also learned about the country from sharing everyday meals, or in asking about the history of a dish. Messages are sent in many different mediums. There is rich information stored in the things that we do everyday too, like eat food.

And, most importantly, this kind of learning is delicious.

One of the best meals I had in Poland was a sausage out of a blue van on the street, in Krakow. These two men show up every night at 8pm to roast sausages and serve them with bread. It is rumored that these sausages, along with a few fancy restaurants, are the only foods to have a Michelin star in Krakow.

The sausage king- a real teacher!

Cooked with Love

Many Slavic cultures share a common saying- you display hospitality by welcoming someone “with bread and salt”. The saying has a practical history; bread and salt have alway been the precious and daily necessities. These valuable items were presented in abundance to newlyweds, or special guests, to show welcome.

Though there were no literal bread and salt waiting for me in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, I felt as if I was being welcomed with all the warmth the city had to offer. The weather was perfect, the days were full yet relaxed, and even in my short stay I managed to meet the most wonderful people. Plovdiv is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, with grand public spaces and walking streets. The old ruins of a Roman amphitheater have been integrated into the city, functioning as a public park and concert space. The “old town” section of the city, with uneven and beautiful cobblestone streets, is still full of old-style houses. Plovdiv has also been designated the European Capital of Culture for 2019, which has provided investment for its cultural and architectural heritage.

While I am in Plovdiv, delightful fate intervenes, and a couchsurfing friend recognizes me in a bar. Her and her friends kindly welcome me to the city, and once again, I am struggling to leave. It seems that every place I go, I meet people who convince me to stay longer than I originally planned!

The old Roman amphitheater, which today functions as an outdoor concert hall. There were no events while I was in Plovdiv, but I hope to come back someday and party in an old amphitheater.

A high view of the main walking street in Plovdiv, taken from a friend’s fifth story apartment.

On one tour in Plovdiv, I speak to a Bulgarian woman who currently lives in Germany, back to visit her parents for Easter. When I ask her what she misses about Bulgaria, she is quick to reply. “I miss the food, the fruits, the yogurt. I feel like I can taste the sunshine in the food here, and I can’t find that anywhere else.”

I heard expat Bulgarians echo this sentiment all over Europe- there is something special in the food here. While there are plenty of cheap, basic eateries, local grocery stores still stock amazing local Bulgarian fruits, breads, and dairy products. It’s a chicken or the egg situation: Bulgarians are used to high quality ingredients, and so they demand high quality ingredients.

Young Bulgarians, who are growing more and more urban, are still tied to their families in the countryside. Young people may leave their village to study or work in the city, but they know that the best food is still back in the village. I travel to Sofia, the capital, after Plovdiv. My couchsurfing host, who has lived in Sofia for almost a decade, tells me that every time he travels home to visit his grandmother, he comes back home with jars of homemade yogurt. And if too much time passes between visits, his grandmother tells him to go to the bus station, because she has sent jars of yogurt on the bus.

These connections to the countryside are keeping people healthy, and reminding them what good food tastes like. I saw similar threads, connecting rural families and urban working professionals, in Romania. Even though young people may move from the village, they want to eat the same quality food. This changes their palates, their taste buds. They know what good food tastes like.

Sharing an amazingly diverse Bulgarian cheese plate with some friends. Wine would have been a better choice, but the hot afternoon had made everyone crave a cold beer.

Though I was in Sofia for only a few days before my departing flight, I manage to find time to take a “food tour”, Balkan Bites. We visit many local restaurants, sampling small dishes and soups. Though I love Bulgarian food, it can be difficult to categorize. In the Balkans, an area of constant conquests, trade, and influences among shifting borders, it is difficult to describe a clear history for any one dish. We try foods that can also be found in Turkey, or Italy, but with a Bulgarian twist. Again, I am reminded that food, ever-evolving, cannot be parceled into neat historical lineages or national borders.

But in Bulgarian cuisine, more important than the food’s origin, or the name, I find that I appreciate the love in the preparation. I could taste the sunshine, and the pride, in the best food that I ate in Bulgaria. As the food tour guide related, her grandmother always told her, “If the food isn’t cooked with love, it will become stuck in the throat. So you must cook with love.”

Banitsa (Баница), a filo dough pastry with layers of eggs and cheese. Absolutely delicious, when warm. After a long 12 hour train ride, this is the bread that welcomed me to Bulgaria!

Easter Eggs and Easter Churches

Spending a holiday in another country is an opportunity to gain incredible insight into a culture, but it can also leave you feeling a bit homesick. This month, as the Catholic Easter came and went, I couldn’t help but think of home, what I would be eating for Easter dinner, and whether they even sold Peeps in Europe. (A special thank you to Mrs. Courtney, who so thoughtfully continued her tradition of providing me with too many gifts on Easter).

Because of numerous delays and schedule errors, I spent the actual Catholic holiday of Easter on an unexpectedly long train trip from rural Romania to Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital city of Bulgaria. When I finally arrived, I was greeted by the old city streets, built into the steep walls of a valley, and magnificent views that suddenly appeared between the old stone houses. The city is stunningly beautiful.

Locals joke that when giving directions in Veliko Tarnovo, indications like “left” and “right” are replaced with “up” and “down”. The city is divided and re-divided by a meandering river, and the nearby mountains have miles of great hiking paths. I spent my first days hiking in these mountains, learning about history from some wonderful walking tours, and exploring the abandoned socialist legacy (The notorious Buzludzha monument is located nearby, which was a blizzarding, surreal experience).

Veliko Tarnovo is, historically, a religious city, and it is not possible to walk more than five minutes in any direction without running into a church. Many of these churches are hundreds of years old, having survived conquests or having been reconstructed. Most Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, following a church calendar that differs slightly from the Catholic one. It turns out that Orthodox Easter in Bulgaria is celebrated one week later than the Catholic Easter. This is one of the benefits of traveling, even if you are a bit homesick: sometimes you are able to celebrate a holiday twice.

I spent one afternoon hiking to a nearby monastary. The view from the forest ended up being more beautiful than the monastary itself, in my opinion, but I spent some time quietly sitting in the bell tower before heading back home

The Patriarchal Cathedral, slowly eroded over the centuries, was rebuilt in its original architecture, but repainted in a modernist style, in the 1980s. I have never seen such modernist religious art in a church.

A few Bulgarian couchsurfing friends invite me to share the Easter holiday with them, and so, the Saturday night before the Easter Sunday, we head to the midnight mass and special blessing. We are visiting the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, the most famous church in Veliko Tarnovo, located at the center of the medieval Tsaravets Fortress. This popular church is built at a high point in the city. Holding unlit candles, my friends and I join the streams of people climbing up the hill. Deep church music floats down from above, helping me feel warm in the cold night air.

We arrive at the crest of the hill, standing just below the church, to listen to the service. I don’t understand the Bulgarian, but the music evokes emotion anyway, and the energy in the air is palpable. I watch the crowd, in a trance, and the priests. My friend Plamena points out the head priest, the mayor, and all the other notables attending the service. Looking down the winding path, I can see hundreds of people lined up to listen.

A bit after midnight, the church bells begin to ring across the city. With a chorus of “Christ is Risen”, everyone readies the small candles that they have brought. The priest enters the crowd with his candle, and the crowd surges toward him. The flame is passed from person to person, until everyone is holding their own candle.

I light a candle of my own, protecting its flame as we start to make our way back home. Most Bulgarians will keep the candle lit to take home to their family altar. Though I have no altar back at my hostel, I protect my candle as I walk down the hillside. Looking over my shoulder, I realize how beautiful our procession is. A line of pilgrims stretches back behind me, slowly winding down the mountain, each person’s face lit by a candle’s flame.

The view back, looking toward the cathedral, with everyone holding their lit candle after the service.

Me, holding my lit candle after the service.

The next morning, I wake up early, despite having stayed up for the midnight service. It’s a holiday. There is food to be eaten!

Bulgarians have many, many traditions around food on Easter, but there are two absolutely necessary components: dyed eggs, and kozunak, a braided bread. Though I was staying in a hostel as a tourist, the kind Bulgarians would never keep the foreigners out of the biggest celebration of the year. The hostel staff dyed eggs for breakfast, and another Bulgarian guest shared her homemade kozunak with me. Together, the combination made a wonderful breakfast.

At a Bulgarian family table, before you crack open the shell of your hard boiled egg, you “fight” with your neighbor, seeing whose egg will crack the other’s. This continues on until there is a clear winner, the one with the strongest egg. I was told that the winning egg is kept until the next Easter, for good luck. Though my egg broke during the first round, I didn’t mind. It meant that I got to eat it.

Dyed Easter Eggs at the hostel. Delicious breakfast!

With my days in Bulgaria ticking down, I realized that it was best to leave Veliko Tarnovo on Easter. I took a short afternoon bus to Plovdiv, another major city in Bulgaria. When I arrived in Plovdiv, just as in Veliko Tarnovo, the streets were full with celebrating families and happy couples. The sun was shining, making a beautiful spring day, and everyone was outside.

After walking around the downtown, I spent the evening in a new hostel, chatting with the staff and their friends. As the evening went on, more and more people joined us, and practically no one arrived empty handed. Every Bulgarian brought a sweet, some kozunak or biscuits or cookies, until the table had a pile larger than we could eat.

I smiled to myself, because I am reminded how all over the world, we all seem to celebrate holidays the same way: with an excess of food, and good people to laugh with.

And how lucky I am to find these things where I go!

After the midnight service at the cathedral finished, there was a beautiful fireworks show. The lights lit up the castle and everyone cheered as we held our candles. These are holidays to remember!

Glorious Spring!

In Romania, some people say that when you try a new food, you should make a wish. Every time that I’ve tried a new food here, I’ve wished for the same thing: spring, spring, spring!

When I arrived in Romania a few months ago, coming from the oppressively hot Bangkok (and not even in the “hot season”!), I expected to need a few days to adjust. But instead, when I stepped out of the Bucharest airport, I felt an enormous sense of elation and recognition: cold! That spring cold, where the air is frigid but the sun is strong! That spring cold, where the ground has yet to thaw but already the plants are shooting up! That spring cold, where you need to keep moving to stay warm, and yet everyone is outside. I walked around the city for a few hours my first day, feeling like I had reentered my native habitat: the cold ecosystem, just before a spring.

It only snowed a few times while I was in Romania. This particular snowfall, at Iulia’s farm, the snow only stuck around for about two hours in the early morning. But the snow brought out even more vivid colors after it melted.

Flowers in the snow.

And flowers celebrating the absence of snow!

Is there anything more reassuring, or beautiful, than spring? I spent the most recent springs of my life in Wisconsin.  I love that first day that the temperature tops 32°F (0°C). The entire population changes into shorts and sandals, happy to expose skin to wind that doesn’t bite. I love how suddenly no one can sit inside, even when the snow hasn’t yet fully melted. I love that productivity declines inversely proportional to the rising temperatures.

But mostly, I love spending time outside in spring, when things start to grow again. I was happy to have work on farms in Romania as the spring season started, because it gave me an excuse to be outside. Spring is always a busy time on farms, and to me, it always seems to involve the heaviest manual labor: preparing the soil, moving debris that piled up over winter, transplanting, and cutting back early spring growth of unwanted plants. Though many days were bitter and cold, I saw promises of spring everywhere I looked: budding flowers, shoots of overwintered garlic, and happy people shedding winter layers. Springtime on a farm is a joyful time.

The first buds on the apple trees.

Before there are many vegetables and greens in the garden, Ana, a friend of Iulia’s, uses forest plants to spice up our meals. The rice dish on the left is cooked with dockweed and nettles, two native plants she collected from the forest.

Chico, the farm puppy, sniffs the springtime flowers with me in the orchard.

After celebrating spring on farms for a few months in Romania, I headed to Bulgaria for a few weeks to be a tourist. Luckily, Bulgarians love spring as much as I do, and they celebrate in a truly beautiful way. On the first day of March, every Bulgarian buys “martenitsa” (мартеница) bracelets or adornments, which are made of white and red thread. Friends and family give them to one another, and most people wear them on their wrists. Then, at the first sign of spring, usually the sighting of a stork or a budding tree, the wearer takes off the bracelets and leaves them nearby, usually hanging on a budding plant.

This tradition means that spring is consistently in your peripheral vision. The red and white colors of the bracelets add color to the landscape before the buds have fully flowered, and it is a constant reminder of the season.Though I arrive a little too late to fully participate in the tradition, I loved seeing these bracelets hung from every early-budding tree. This is a country that celebrates spring like I do: loudly, colorfully, and with a lot of joy.

A tree, adorned with various martenitsa bracelets, in Veliko Tarnovo.

Making Molehills out of Waste

I recently had a lot of time to meditate on the classic idiomatic phrase, “to make a mountain out of a molehill”, as I spent an afternoon raking molehills flat in a Romanian apple orchard. The work is important because if these molehills, mounds of soil brought up to the surface by moles digging underground tunnels, are left by themselves, within a few years the ground becomes uneven. Bumpy land makes the hay harvest with the scythe difficult and dangerous.

So, in the spring, here Iulia, my host, and I are, roaming around her apple orchard with rakes, flattening each molehill as we find them. And while, indeed, the molehills are not mountains, moles are certainly industrious creatures.

“My God, is there any soil even left underground?” Iulia sighs. After hour two of molehill-flattening, I agree with her. The moles have built an underground system more thorough and widespread than any metro I’ve ever seen.

But, Iulia doesn’t seem to mind too much. This orchard is home to her, and it is home to the moles too.

Old shoes used as planters for succulents- Iulia reuses everything in her orchard.

Since Iulia moved with her family to rural Transylvania two years ago, she has been even more industrious than the moles. Iulia bought an apple orchard that had been abandoned for decades. While the trees are well-established and productive, the land has taken a lot of work to be reclaimed for agriculture. Wild plants from the forest encroach on the borders of the orchard, and the apple trees have more sprouting branches than they know what to do with.

Iulia is dedicated, however, and her land shows her efforts for the past few years. Iulia practices permaculture, the newest agricultural buzzword, in this orchard. Every farmer has their own definition and beliefs about permaculture, but (at this writer’s risk of a thousand ideological challenges) the basic premise revolves around considering a farm as an ecosystem, rather than a factory. There is an emphasis on biodiversity and organic methods, and materials are continuously re-purposed and re-used.

Iulia’s farm is in rural Transylvania, a quiet and calm region. There are cars, electricity, and many other trappings of city life. But many villagers also still use horse and carriage to transport manure, hand-draw their water from the local wells, and collect chicken eggs daily from their flocks. People here are living “close to the land”. After decades in big cities, Iulia has slipped back into village life, but with a new focus: permaculture.

 

A view of part of Iulia’s vegetable garden, facing the orchard. She builds her vegetable beds using a process similar to hugelkultur, where underneath the bed, there are layers of organic materials. Wood, compost, sand, and other organic materials are layered to decompose slowly under the top layer of soil. Over time, the soil in the beds should improve even more as these organic materials decompose. On the left-hand side is a solar-heated shower- simply add water to the black box, add a curtain around the outside (unless you’re adventurous), and wait for the water to heat up in the sun for your outdoor shower!

The other volunteer, an American named Emily, and I spend one sleety day sewing down feathers into a blanket. I had never realized how warm real down feathers are!

One especially cold day, instead of working outside, Emily, another volunteer, and I help with a household project, sewing down feathers into an old, mass-manufactured blanket from Ikea. Iulia found old pillows and blankets in the house when she moved in, and they contained real, hand-collected and cleaned chicken and goose feathers in them. The amount of time that goes into collecting feathers like this, only from the soft bellies of chickens or young chicks, is incomprehensible, but they are worth their weight in gold.

Emily and I cut open the blanket, stuff it with feathers, and then carefully sew it back up. A cheap blanket from Ikea, previously filled with synthetic stuffing, suddenly became a warm, soft, comforting down quilt.

This is why I like Iulia’s outlook: nothing is wasted. Old ceramic shingles become stones for a path. Fallen logs are cut to border garden beds, sand from deepening the well is reused in creating fertile soil. She transforms things.

Iulia (right) and her friend Anna (center) spend one rainy afternoon teaching me how to make soap. They make all of their own soap and cosmetic products, using organic oils, fragrances, and sodium bicarbonate (chemical version of lye). The soap is still in liquid form at this point; I am mixing it in the bowl.

Today, we are manufacturing some things that are difficult to transform. In many rural communities, from Senegal to Romania, the disposal of plastics has become an enormous issue. In Iulia’s village, this rural community that could compost all of its trash for centuries is now faced with a reality that this new trash will not decompose in a few years. Trash disposal systems or the concept of littering have not yet become common, and plastics have begun to pile up in forests and along roadways. How do these communities adapt to these changes?

Plastics present a large challenge, but other materials are possible to quite easily reuse- water, organic materials, things we clear from our land, biological waste, and food waste. Many of the materials that we seek to dispose of are instead capable of being usefully transformed. However, in American cities, we often see these materials as waste, just like plastics. Food waste is thrown away; grass clippings are shipped away in paper landscaping bags.

Iulia sees waste as an opportunity for reuse. Iulia’s house is not on any water system; drinking water is drawn from a spring well by hand, and water for washing is rainwater collected off of the roof. While I am staying with the family, they put the final touches on the outdoor compost toilet. The house is heated from two efficient wood stoves, using wood collected from the orchard. The family grows most of the fruit and vegetables that they eat, and the meat and cheese comes from trading with their neighbors. There is very little waste coming out of this household, and it is because Iulia chooses to reuse materials.

This re-conception of waste is the foundation of permaculture, of seeing the ecosystem. When we see our farms or kitchens as factories, and we ship away our waste, we forget that we have a responsibility for what we create. Permaculture is growing in the world because it imitates the systems that have worked for lifetimes. Living ecosystems do not ship away waste; materials are instead continuously transformed. And when we imitate nature- as Iulia does on her farm, as my friends do in Wisconsin, as Pom and U do in Thailand- we are transforming.

Panoramic view from Iulia’s home, in the late evening. She has the best view in the village.

A Healthy Diet of Bread, Onions, and Liquor

On the plane from Bangkok to Bucharest, Romania, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, a new mantra: “I’m trading rice for bread”. Trading ginger, fish sauce, and coconut for new flavors. How will I sustain myself without the richest broths in the world? What will I eat, if not fresh mango? Would my digestive system even work properly without thrice daily portions of rice?

Every culture seems to have a “fast food”, cheap on-the-go snacks for people without a lot of time to eat. In America, chain restaurants or vending machines fill this role. In southeast Asia, street stalls serving hearty and healthy bowls of soup or takeaway packages of curries line the street (which in my opinion is superior in every respect).

When I arrived in Bucharest, I looked for their fast food: bread. Their bakeries have windows facing the street, and the cashier quickly grabs your order, slips it into a bag, and takes your payment. Most contain a sweet jam, or a combination of meat and cheese. People walk the streets with various pastries and sandwiches in hand, bundled up against the cold.

Bread is a utensil, used to transfer food from your plate to your mouth. Bread is a sponge, wiping each plate clean before the dishes are even started. And bread is the ubiquitous flavor, the base of the meal, the necessary component. I quickly learned that “please set the table”, in a Romanian home, implies a series of steps: shake out the breadcrumbs from the tablecloth, set the plates and utensils, and then cut the new bread.

To draw from recent months: as rice is to southeast Asia, bread is to eastern Europe. I am in for quite the change of cuisine.

Bread, bread! There was a basket full of bread on the table every meal. In one home in which I stayed, I was the designated bread cutter- a lofty title.

To celebrate Mucenici, a Christian holiday in Romania that also celebrates the beginning of the growing season, Liliana, one host, and I made pastries. The dough is rolled into thin strips, baked in a figure eight shape, and then covered in honey and walnuts. They say that when you feed someone on this day, you are also feeding your ancestors. If so, I was so well fed, Liliana’s ancestors must have been stuffed!

In Romanian cuisine, in addition to the base of bread, onion and garlic are always present. A balanced meal contains one or the other. Many Romanians believe that cooking garlic or onion is somewhat toxic for the body, and so these members of the allium family are usually eaten raw, on the side. I’ve seen few tables in Romanian homes that do not have a basket of bread and a bowl of raw garlic or onion.

Ceapeă, meaning “onion”, was one of the first Romanian words that I learned. (“Pass the ceapeă!”) Spring onions, garlic, and red or yellow onions are continually passed around during a meal. Romanians love the flavor, and many of the traditional dishes are meant to be eaten with it. Romanians even have a hidden treasure, off the tourist track- an onion monument, dedicated to the ceapeă, located in northwestern Transylvania.

One day, while working on an apple orchard in Transylvania, the family welcomes a friend for lunch. During the meal, he asks for a few extra onions, even though there is a bowl of cut onions on the table. I watch, barely keeping my mouth from hanging open, as he expertly peels them and chomps into them, apple-style. He devours two raw onions in a matter of minutes.

I say nothing at the time, listening to the rhythm of the larger conversation in Romanian between the rest of the family. But after the meal I ask quietly, “is that… typical?” My question is greeted by laughter, and we all joke together. While that man might have been exceptional, it is true: Romanians see onion and garlic as an entire food group.

Ciorbă, a sour soup popular in Romania, is one of my favorite Romanian dishes. The sour flavor comes from a fermented wheat sauce, or a special type of sour plant. With some cream and a side of bread, it is the perfect lunch.

Every visitor to a Romanian home will remember slanina (the meat on the left hand side) Slanina is pork fat that is salted for a month before it is smoked. The fat comes from a Romanian variety of pig, and there is allegedly no cholesterol- only good fats. The flavor of slanina is like nothing I’ve ever had, a sort of combination of bacon and cheese. It is typically eaten with bread and onion or garlic- a classic Romanian combination.

During my months in Romania, spending time with two open and welcoming families, I ate like a queen. Romanian cuisine features excellent soups, dried meats, and fresh dairy products. Even in the early spring, there are still root vegetables and canned foods leftover from the fall. Meals are long affairs, always full of conversation and laughter.

But although the bread and onion may feed a people, liquor truly sustains them. Eastern European liquors vary by the region, but northern Romanians prefer țuica, a type of clear fruit brandy. Tuica is drank in tiny glasses, sipping slowly on one shot at a time. It is strong and… effective. While it certainly does keep you warm, it may also lower your work productivity, as I found out after many a lunchtime glass.

Luckily, there was always bread and onion to sober me up.

Me with some of the family that hosted me in Transylvania. We spent many nights sitting around the dinner table drinking țuica and exchanging stories.

Bees fly with bees

“You know what they say about a husband who keeps his knives sharp?”

“What?”

“He’s not afraid of his wife.”

I giggle at Pom’s joke, and she smiles, continuing to pound lemongrass and galangal together. She’s making green curry paste, a long, intensive process that fills the house with the sound of her mortar and pestle. She’s just explained how the Thai used to say that a man could judge a potential wife’s character by standing outside her kitchen and listening to the rhythm of the pestle. A slow “thump…thump” indicates laziness. An irregular “thumpthump…thump…thump…” indicates an unfocused woman. A solid “thump thump thump” indicates a good work ethic.

I ask her what else indicates a woman’s character. “They say that women who sing in the kitchen will marry old men.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, I don’t know… something about not being a good wife,” she grins. “Maybe it’s because the old men know what is important in life.”

I laugh again. These are the lessons that are rarely written down, the jokes passed back and forth while preparing the daily meals. And these are the lessons that I search out. It is here, in this kitchen, that I am learning about Thai culture, because some of the best bits of culture are stored in the universal, daily necessity of eating. And the Thai, more than almost any other people I’ve been around, not only joke about, but truly celebrate, the joy of eating.

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Pom pounds nam phrik, a chili based dipping sauce, in the mortar and pestle.

 

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My favorite of the three kittens sleeps in the kitchen as Pom and I prepare dinner

 

Some Thai say that they have “two appetites”, one for meals and one for snacks and desserts. This is one of my favorite parts of the food culture- no relegated three meals a day, but a sort of grazing. In a city, food is accessible everywhere; one can find small snacks or entire feasts on the same block. With Pom and U, we eat throughout the day, structuring it around our work that is concentrated in the early morning and early evening.

On Valentine’s Day, an imported holiday in Thailand, I ask Pom if she expects flowers. She informs me that instead, U treats her to Swensen’s ice cream. We go to a nearby mall, choosing all our different flavors and toppings (though I haven’t been to a Swensen’s in America, I’m guessing that they don’t carry sweet sticky rice. But it was by far my favorite topping). While sharing our bowl, we joke that there is another appetite, solely dedicated to ice cream. I share this appetite with Pom.

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One night, Pom, U, and I drive into town to eat dinner. Afterwards we watch a traveling Chinese opera show, sponsored by someone in the community to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

One day, while Pom and U are out making deliveries and I am home watering the vegetable garden, some of their friends come to visit. They enter the house bearing snacks from the long car ride from Bangkok, so we quickly become friends. When those snacks are finished, we decide to drive to the town market for more food.

I love shopping for food with people who love to eat as much as I do. As we walked through the market, my new friends chatted with every vendor, simultaneously collecting fresh ingredients for dinner and securing free samples from just about everyone. Someone buys grilled, marinated pork, someone else hands me a sticky rice dessert. I follow them around the market, eating and asking questions.

I can’t help but notice how friendly they are with all the vendors. They joke, they laugh, and I see that the vendors are sending them every which way. When I ask for some translation, they tell me that every vendor is asking what they will cook tonight, with these ingredients. Before I know it, seemingly half the market is yelling back and forth, telling them where to buy what for dinner- we can’t eat this fish without this vegetable, we really must buy some of that sauce for the chicken, and aren’t we interested in some coconut ice cream?

After we finish shopping, we kill time outside the local 7-Eleven for twenty minutes, waiting to buy beer at 5 pm (there is an odd ban on the sale of alcohol between 2 and 5pm in stores in Thailand). I ask what we will cook for dinner, and they assure me that if I make the rice, they will take care of the rest.

Dinner takes a few hours to make, and we are slowed by the mosquito hoard that descends at sunset. Swatting mosquitoes, I watch the visitors pound chilis and steam fish, fry chicken and scrub vegetables, chatting all the while. When dinner is finally ready, we gather around the table, and for an instant, everyone is quiet.

And then, the chorus of “aroy” (delicious) commences, and everyone’s hands grab from the bounty of bowls. We’ve been eating all day, and yet I cannot seem to stop.

At least I’m not the only one.

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My friend Gaga carefully considers the vegetables that we will buy for tonight’s dinner

 

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The kitchen is full of bowls and bags as we prepare dinner. They are preparing a spicy chicken dish, but they cook a separate plate for this white girl first, using only 6 or 7 chilis, and then cook their own, using an entire bag of chilis.

 

I’ve always found connections through food quite naturally, because it is usually the first thing on my mind. Many evenings, Pom and I would sit around after dinner, talking about our lives and cultures, and the conversation would turn to food. It was a lens through which we could talk about our backgrounds and our influences. After Pom pointed out the natural direction of our conversions, we couldn’t help but laugh, because it was irrefutable. Pom, as much as she may deny it, loves food as much as I do, and it led to an immediate bond.

Pom told me that there is a Thai saying about how flies stay with flies, and bees stay with bees. True to that statement, I prefer the kind of people that find joy in sharing food, because that is what brings me joy. The Thai people that I know bring their enthusiasm and humor that I love to their food culture. These are people with whom I would share a meal any day, and that is a gift- I’m staying with these bees.

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Pom and U, the best dinner company.

 

Questions of Cuisine

I love the chaos of a meal with Thai people when everyone is hungry. Every person has their own bowl of rice, and the numerous main dishes are placed in the center of the group. There are no heaping portions piled on plates, like at an American table. Rather, everyone is helping themselves, choosing from a variety of small dishes. Spoonfuls of different foods are added to your bowl, bit by bit, creating perfect combinations of rice and fresh vegetables and sauces. When people are hungry, there are hands everywhere, grabbing spoons and dishes as talk flies back and forth.

According to Pom, a balanced Thai meal (on top of rice, of course) has three components- protein, nutrition, and flavor. For example, the perfect bite may be fried fish, some bitter but highly nutritious greens, and a spoonful of a sweet type of nam phrik (meaning a chili based sauce, pounded in mortar and pestle). These are three different dishes, and you need to arrange it all on top of the rice before taking a delicious, balanced bite. Some dishes have the protein and flavor together, like a chicken curry, and the nutrition will be raw vegetables like cucumber or eggplant (aubergine) eaten on the side.

In a way, Thai cuisine is very personalized. With a multitude of dishes and a serve-yourself mentality, each person is creating combinations on their plate that match their palate. You select what you eat and how much. As a newcomer to this dining system, I watch the others at the table, noting what dishes they pair together and trying my own favorites.

One evening, Pom, U, and I visit their nearby family’s house for a dinner party. Over a verifiable feast of curries, lettuce rolls, and different grilled fish, I chat with Pom’s aunt and uncle, who spent much of their lives in Britain and America. The aunt told me that one of the only things that continued to surprise her, when they lived in Florida, was how large the portion sizes were. Meals in American restaurants were one large dish, with perhaps one also large side dish, and it was impossible to finish.

I laughed as they explained it to the rest of the surprised family, because their impressions are accurate- American portions are large, and we make fewer different dishes for the average meal. Now that I’ve been introduced to the Thai style of eating, the idea of returning to a plate of diner meat and potatoes seems horribly boring, and unhealthy. I’ve found that I love these balanced Thai meals, and the diversity in their food.

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An example of a Thai meal, shared with a few friends. Notice the different curries in the large bowls, the protein dishes, the small bowls of dip for flavor, and the large bowls of raw green vegetables

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A jar full of green curry paste, a combination of pounded chili peppers, galangal, lemongrass, bergamot rind, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste. This is what gives flavor to green curry, and though it is a long process, the product is incredible.

As I cooked with Pom, we continually returned to questions of “national cuisine” and everyday, complex realities. Pom was quick to question my questions about “Thai food”. What can be said about Thai food, when regional differences abound?

Questions of national cuisine are never clear cut, as tempting as it is to generalize. For every ingredient that Pom uses, she cites a difference in some other part of the country. She’s using oyster sauce in this recipe, but where her husband is from in the northeast, they use a fermented fish sauce. Her mother makes curry this way but her father’s side defines curry and nam phrik differently. And let’s not even get started on the diversity of rice, because that’s where the strongest opinions come out.

Some now-renowned “Thai” dishes trace their roots elsewhere- a popular bright yellow dessert made from egg yolks and sugar syrup was actually introduced by Portuguese traders in the 15th century. Those soups that require chopsticks instead of the usual Thai fork and spoon are actually influences from the large Chinese expat community. But who cares, when these eaten on the street in Bangkok every day?

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U and I shred coconut to make fresh coconut milk. I am sitting on a stool that has a sharp blade on the edge of it, you scrape the coconut on the edge and the shavings fall below. Nothing is more delicious than fresh coconut cream!

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Another picture of a meal- this one includes Thai fried chicken (marinade is fish sauce and honey) and mussels. Notice the many small dips and, again, the bowl of raw vegetables.

As often as I ask questions about Thai food, I field questions about American food. And while it is tempting to simplify foreign cuisine into bite size categories, when you try to represent your own county’s cuisine, you realize how complex the question can be for every country.

When asked about American cuisine, what do I say? Do I talk about how I eat, my attitudes, in my position in society? What about how a typical small town Midwesterner eats, versus an urban west coast citizen? How can I express the amazing diversity in my country? And how does the average American eat?

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Pom stuffs a local bitter gourd with a pork paste. We boil the pieces, then eat them over rice. The bitter gourd is balanced with a sweet sauce on the side.

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One of my favorite dishes that Pom made- it is a sweet pork, tofu, and duck egg soup (this picture before the hard-boiled duck eggs are added). The flavors include cinnamon, anise, coconut sugar, and garlic.

 

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All of these vegetables were grown in Pom and U’s vegetable garden. We eat them with every meal.

 

Questions that aim to define and categorize cuisine often miss that cuisine is a living part of culture. Food is always evolving. Cuisine may evolve even faster than many other parts of culture, like music or art, because it is a daily reality, a necessary act. When people need to eat every day to survive, innovations and adjustments in cuisine can spread quickly. There is no way to trace clear lines across cuisines when there is so much exchange.

So how to talk about a cuisine, if it is always changing? It is an interesting exercise, to learn about the subtleties and the distinctions that can lead to the broad generalizations. I obviously love learning and writing about food. Yet, the more I learn, the more I see how complex the questions are. At a certain point, the labels of authentic or traditional start to lose meaning in the idiosyncrasies, and the joy is taken out of the real reason that we love to share our food. While I will continue to explore different cuisines, I am careful not to take anything too seriously, and to enjoy the exploration instead.

So what is Thai cuisine? I’ll tell you after I finish eating.

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While U is peeling a pomelo, a fruit similar to a grapefruit, Pom cuts it and puts it on him like a hat. I’m happy to stay with people who don’t take food too seriously.