Learning to Cook

I may have misled everyone earlier with my posts about fancy recipes like Oaxacan Mole, Steamed Mussels in Thai Red Curry Sauce, and an impromptu Thanksgiving feast I presumably performed with my right hand tied behind my back. Because the truth is, I don’t have much experience in the kitchen. Nearly everything I know about cooking, I learned here. The ladies who welcomed me four and a half years ago doubted I was up for the task; it wasn’t long before they began sighing and rolling their eyes whenever I asked them questions about recipes and specific quantities. “Eyeball it!” is an answer that only makes sense to someone who has a vague notion of what they’re doing already.

Ask my brother about the time I tried to make enchiladas from an Old El Paso kit when I was a teenager, and dropped the whole baking dish trying to get it into the oven. Twice. I never took home economics in high school; somehow my dad had convinced me to take wood shop instead. (A step forward for feminism; a step backwards in the enchilada prep at home.) By college I had somehow learned to make a decent batch of chili, but otherwise I recall eating a lot of cheap pizza or ramen noodles. Years later I had collected a few favorite dishes and on occasion would try to follow an ambitious recipe out of Bon Appétit, but for the most part, my repertoire consisted of throwing frozen chicken kiev and creamed spinach from Omaha Steaks into the oven. Otherwise, I went out to eat. I loved going out to eat. Any claim I can lay to being a “foodie” may come from extremely adventuresome eating, but always in someone else’s kitchen.

So it was kind of a shock to move to a place where there were no restaurants, no fast food joints, no Omaha Steaks, not even a real supermarket. And, suddenly, my #1 job in life—my only job, really—is to somehow feed myself and my new husband. Every day. Ideally something interesting, nutritious, and that won’t accidentally kill us.

When we first arrived, there were two choices of grocery store here. Both were about the size of a gas station, and both had a mish-mash of strange shelf items, a questionable freezer section, and a limited selection of past-their-prime fruits and vegetables. One was right here on base camp, a short walk away, run by an Indian entrepreneur. It was expensive and a little odd, some of the ladies even refused to go there, but I thought it was kind of interesting to search their dusty shelves for the odd can of oyster mushrooms or box of poppadums. It was like hunting for treasure. One time I found Japanese soba and udon noodles, neither of which I’d ever made before but now would never want to live without. The other shop, run by a South African company, had slightly cheaper and more “everyday” type of products (sugar, flour, baking powder) but required a 20-minute bus ride that we organized once or twice a week. They didn’t always have a lot to choose from—we witnessed their shelves go bare many times—but there were a couple sofas inside, and the folks who ran the place always invited us to sit and have tea after shopping. It was a nice touch.

Outside those two options, there was also the local market. The real one, the one in the village. This can be a shocking experience with all the flies, the mud, the smells, the shouting, and the constant pressure to buy. Some people have lived here for years without ever stepping a well-heeled foot in there. Some have gone and never want to go back. But I remember being instantly enamored, and it’s still where I prefer to get my fresh tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and random green leafy stuff like sorrel or amaranth or cassava leaves, which I’ve slowly been identifying and learning how to prepare. With Viviane’s help, I’ve even forayed into the strange and wonderful world of smoked fish. (There are still several things I have not and will not try, though, like smoked monkey, or most of the insects.)

Needless to say, cooking in those early days was a challenge. Especially for someone with, shall we say, a limited range of skills. Cookbooks and The Food Network became my best friends and I learned a lot, pretty quickly. Had to. One of the first things I learned was that the bottles of stuff labeled “pasta sauce” at the shop were no good, but it turns out you can make your own from actual tomatoes. (Who knew?) Another early lesson was how to substitute for sour cream since it simply cannot be found here, followed shortly by how to make cottage cheese from scratch. Next, I learned how to bake my own bread (thanks Mom and Anna!), and to make homemade yogurt using powdered milk, an envelope of yogurt culture, and a thermos. Before long I began trying homemade ravioli and pizza dough. Homemade mustard and ketchup—why not? We have the world’s best tomatoes here.

Outside of exciting but infrequent sightings of fennel root, celeriac (pictured above), or Belgian endive, and those only when we get to the big city of Lubumbashi, our vegetable choices don’t vary much. I’ve had to learn to enjoy eggplant and okra, though both of them took a few tries. I’ve tried zucchini 42 ways, beets 15, and cabbage 65. Now that I’ve grown accustomed to them, I feel stressed when I don’t have them in my refrigerator, and terrified when there’s no tomatoes, onions, or garlic on my countertop.

All of this has given me a new appreciation for food and a craving for the strangest things. When I come by a head of broccoli or cauliflower once every few months, you would think I’ve just won the lottery. Seriously, it’s weird. On vacation I’ve developed an unusual fixation with fresh-food markets, to Seb’s despair. The Eiffel Tower could be right in front of us but my nose is buried in the baskets of berries and mushrooms from all the lovely markets that spill onto the streets of Paris instead. (“Seb, are you sure we can’t take Brussels sprouts home in our luggage??”)

Once back in Arizona we stepped into a new grocery store where I felt like a recently-arrived refugee, lost and confused amidst an overabundance of choice. I even snuck a photo of the produce section, it seemed so unreal and over the top to me. How quickly one’s perspective changes. Now instead of wanting to go out to eat, whenever we find ourselves in a place with such abundance of choice, I wish for a grocery cart and a well-equipped kitchen instead. Most of our family and friends that we’ve visited in the last few years have graciously allowed me to cook for them. I can still be rather slow and clumsy in the kitchen, but nonetheless can churn out pretty decent food, and usually enjoy doing it. Cooking has become one of my favorite things, which is nice; otherwise life would be pretty miserable here.

Today, the Indian shop is long gone. The second shop further away has changed hands four times. It’s been really hard for anyone to run a business out there. The first three tries were all foreign companies, a big mistake. As we’ve had to learn the hard way, too, it’s not so easy for a foreign company to do business in Congo. The government is constantly surprising us with new, unpredictable, and exorbitant “taxes,” visas for foreign workers are not only expensive but also very time-consuming, and the transportation of goods can be ridiculously long. We’ve heard of trucks stopped at the border for weeks at a time. It’s no wonder that some of the fresh vegetables and frozen stuff have shown up looking rather… awful.

The latest reincarnation of our local grocery store has been, at long last, a very positive change. It’s a real grocery store, a chain that was already well established in Congo. Even they are not without their distribution-reliability-employment problems, but nonetheless they’ve been a huge improvement. They’ve done away with the sofas and the tea, but that’s ok—we’ll take the increased inventory instead. The only bad news is that with such improved local options, we no longer go grocery shopping by plane! In memory of such fun, it’s high time I wrote about those adventures. But that’s a story that deserves its own headline, so since this one is already getting long, I will leave it for the next time.

Bon appétit!

5 comments

  1. How amazing that you are able to make things work with what you have. I would love for you to share some of your recepies with me someday 🙂

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  2. Love the upgraded blog, Jen! Seb’s comment is so true…tomatoes, onions, and garlic are the basics to make almost anything. Add some green bell pepper and you’ve got the makings for a fantastic meal.

    I’m envious of the celery root in your photo. I had a recipe that called for celery root and had to search high and low for it, but didn’t know what a ‘good’ celery root looked like. I’ve had dishes in restaurants with it and liked the taste, so I really wanted to make this particular recipe. The only one I could find was black on the outside. Thinking it was OK, I bought it, cut off the black stuff, then cooked it. It tasted horrible. Now, thanks to your photo, I know what to look for the next time!

    And, you can come cook for us anytime! I remember your awesome green papaya salad; so good.

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  3. I enjoyed reading your observations. How very different to not find fresh produce and to improvise. It takes a lot of flexible thinking! You must have been in heaven in Provence! Remember that amazing market in the little town on the weekend between the two sessions? Lavender in everything…! 🙂

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  4. Jen you have always had termination to improve in all things. the meals we made together was so much fun. Can’t wit for you to teach me more. You are a great cook.

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