One Saturday night, twenty people were gathered in a Portland kitchen for a hands-on cooking class. As head chef and host, I shared with the attendees my quest to learn how to cook an authentic dish from every country in the world from a native. Thanks a whole bunch of kind immigrants in the Portland area, I was about 70 countries into my journey around the world, and had about 130 or so more countries to go. When the attendees broke into groups to make components of the Bolivian meal I was teaching, a gentleman in his thirties came up to me and offered, “I’m from Trinidad. I can teach you a dish.” I was thrilled. Trinidad and Tobago (rhymes with Sebago) would be the next country in my culinary journey, thanks to South Portland resident, Steve Fortune, a software engineer at Tyler Technologies in Falmouth.
Last Thursday I was delighted to find gorgeous poblano peppers at Andrew’s Farm stand at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market. Shining with earthly energy, they reminded me something that a Mexican chef once taught me: September through November is the best time of year to cook chiles en nogada. It’s a Mexican classic: deep fried poblano chili peppers stuffed with pork, thyme, apple, and plantains, and topped with walnut cream sauce, fresh parsley, and pomegranate.
Three Chileans taught me how to make their favorite dish from Santiago, Chile, called pastel de choclo. Benjamin Sepulveda, a Chilean high school student on exchange at Casco Bay High School, admitted that this was the first time he was cooking the dish by himself. “I have watched my mother and grandmother do this a million times. It’s not something we cook alone, only with family.” Javiera Alvarez, a student on exchange at Freeport High School, agreed. “The whole family cooks it together.” Marcela Naveas, the students’ chaperone, chimed in, “Pastel de choclo is a traditional food in our country that’s served for lunch in summer when the corn is fresh.”
A sculpture on display at Filament Gallery in Portland, Maine, memorialized one of Jamaica’s great cooks. Her likeness is carved out of wood, sanded and polished with butcher’s wax. Her lips are closed in an understated smile of sublime satisfaction, as if saying to her numerous children and grandchildren, Mmm. Look what you’ve become. One of those grandchildren is the sculptor, Alva Lowe.
Parivash Rohani heard about Immigrant Kitchens from a friend and reached out to see if she could be involved. In her home in Portland, Maine, she taught me how to make her favorite Iranian dish, called fesenjoon. It's chicken breast cut into cubes and cooked in a nutty sweet and sour sauce that's kind of like Persian bar-b-q sauce, but without the tomato base. Ground walnuts give the sauce body, richness, and a touch of bitterness. Pomegranate molasses adds dark red color and pungency.
The last time I attempted to make Polish dumplings was a disaster. I was at our family’s Christmas Eve party. Thirty people were dipping pretzels into honey mustard, shrimp into cocktail sauce, and getting drinks from the bar. My mom was running the kitchen. The white fish was in baking dishes ready to be put in the oven. The ends of the beans were picked; the sauerkraut was bubbling.
I met twenty-seven-year-old Herson Peraza by the tomatoes at the supermarket. He was speaking in Spanish to an acquaintance of mine. I asked him where he was from. When he said, “El Salvador,” I just about invited myself over to his house for lunch. Well, actually I did invite myself over to his house for lunch. How embarrassingly forward. My only excuse is that I am on a cooking quest to learn how to make a favorite dish from a native of every country in the world. And I was on the cusp of completing Central America.
By Lindsay Sterling
Last weekend a friend in the neighborhood, Marco Caceres, taught me how to make his favorite dish from his childhood in Ecuador: sopa de pescado. It’s made of a simple set of ingredients: white fish, fresh tomato, red onions, garlic, cilantro, olive oil, and lemon. I was delighted to see how easy it can be to make a fantastic seafood meal, and I was touched by the story of how Marco came to make this soup here.
Marco grew up watching his mother cook for his family of twelve in Cuenca, a city of about 500,000 people in the Andes Mountains. Cuenca is known for having seventy-degree days year round, access to Incan ruins, and stunning Spanish colonial architecture. The way his daughter described Cuenca’s outdoor markets, they sounded like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The coconuts are the size of basketballs. The papayas are two feet long. And there are fresh mangos, pineapples, bananas, pomegranates, apples, peaches, and a variety of corn, the kernels of which are the size of dried plums.
When Marco was ten years old, he took his first trip out of the mountains to the city of Guyaquil near the coast. It was there that he tasted for the first time sopa de pescado, a tangy fish soup with pale pink broth, studded with green cilantro leaves. As if he had shared his love for this soup with the chefs in his hometown, soon after he returned home the soup caught on in Cuenca and he got to eat it often.
When he was a young man studying Andean pan flute, he fell in love with an American woman who was teaching English in Ecuador. He felt like they would be together “for the rest of life,” as he recalled. The time came, however, when she had to return to the United States. He got an opportunity to play music professionally in Germany and Norway, so he went. In Norway, his heart still broken, he secured a visa to visit his love in the United States.
In New York City the relationship fizzled in less than a month. He recalled telling his mother on the phone that he would be coming back to Ecuador. His mother suggested, “Stay for a couple more months, and then see.” He decided to take her advice. While he waited for something good to happen in New York, he set about figuring out how to make sopa de pescado. He experimented with different ingredients, methods, and proportions until he finally found the combination that tasted just like home.
One day in the subway he met another Ecuadorian musician who knew a handful of other players of traditional Andean music. They launched a prosperous career playing live music and selling CDs in the subway, museums, and fairs and festivals across the U.S. One woman from France who heard their music in Grand Central Station was so captivated that she went to see their next show at a museum, and then went dancing with the band afterward. Marco and her got together another day. He made her soup. They fell in love, got married, and moved to Maine to raise a family.
The young man at the front desk of my office building had an accent. He was from Rwanda. I asked him if he’d teach me how to cook a dish for Immigrant Kitchens. He shook his head, but he knew an African friend who liked to cook, and he’d ask her. In the meantime, he suggested I go that Friday to the African Gala, a festival of African food and entertainment. There would be a big buffet of African food and I might meet someone there who could teach me how to cook.
When my physical therapist, Amin Saab, in Brunswick heard about my quest to learn a dish from every country in the world, he connected me with his Armenian mother in Cape Cod. In August, she and I sat together on her back porch, overlooking a beach packed with orange parasols. Over the sounds of distant waves crashing and kids playing, Maggie Saab told me the story of the foods she was about to teach me how to cook.
Leonor Londono McGinn, the Colombian-American grandmother of my daughter’s schoolmate, taught me how to make her favorite food from her childhood. It’s a popular soup called sancocho, made with chicken broth, carrots, celery, whole sections of corn on the cob, whole pieces of bone-in chicken, and big chunks of potatoes, yuca root, and green plantains. My favorite part was the slices of avocado and fresh cilantro on top. After forty years of serving avocado room temperature or cold, it was liberating to eat avocado warm, melting into soup.
The man delivering my new bed had a foreign accent. I asked where he was from. “Cape Verde,” Alberto said, pleasantly surprised. Perhaps no delivery recipient had ever asked him that. Cape Verde is a group of ten volcanic islands 350 miles off the coast of West Africa. Alberto came here to the U.S. to find work. He is happy how things turned out. He said he would be glad to teach me a dish from Cape Verde for Immigrant Kitchens, but he thought I should really cook with his cousin, who was an amazing cook. He gave me both of their phone numbers and drove off in a truck with the logo on it: “Brilliant Move.”
Over green smoothies upstairs at the Public Market House in Portland, Maine, I asked Iman Lipumba, a 22-year-old photographer and writer from Tanzania, if she’d teach me how to cook her favorite dish from home. “I don’t really know how to cook,” she confessed. “In Tanzania, it’s common for most middle class, working families to have a cook. For someone to come every day and cook, clean, and do laundry, you would pay the equivalent of $30 a month.”
Last spring a French woman I met in my spin class at the YMCA taught me how to make authentic coq au vin. Ever since then, I’d been on the look out for the requisite coq (that means “rooster” in French) for the full experience. A promising lead: one of my neighbors acquired twelve baby chicks, and five turned out to be roosters.
I met Ann Shen, a twenty-year-old marketing student from Guilin, China, at work. I was writing catalogues of CIEE’s international exchange programs, and she was taking phone calls from fellow students who were working summer jobs in the United States. When she discovered that I write this Immigrant Kitchens column, she said that she would love to teach me how make one of her favorite, easy, Chinese side dishes.
Growing up in Argentina, Valy Steverlynck came from a family of not-so-great cooks. “At dinner,” she explains, “the meal would be set up with an announcement that the named family member actually produced something that was edible.” Aunt Nina was the exception. She was the only one who could really cook. Once, when Valy [pronounced like “volley”] was seven or eight years old, she smelled heaven coming from the kitchen.
Indian food is one of my favorite cuisines, but it can be the most complicated to cook. In my experience, it tends to require 15 spices you don’t have, a lot of work, and extremely long cooking times. The chicken biryani I wrote about last year takes four hours to cook. That’s not saying it isn’t worth it. It is worth it, especially for a party. But wouldn’t it be great to know a relatively easy Indian dish that you could cook in less than an hour?
Josephine Morris, from York, England, is whirring around her kitchen in New Gloucester, Maine faster than I can take notes. I ask her who taught her how to cook. “Me mum,” she answers. “And then me self.” I guess I can skip the DNA test to prove she’s from Yorkshire. Watching her move so assuredly in the kitchen makes me doubt the poor reputation of English food. When a cook moves like that, only good can come of it. She has gravy cooking in one pot, cabbage and green beans steaming in another, a beef roast and potatoes in the oven, a cheese sauce forming, a blender full of batter… Whatever she’s making is basically the opposite of a one-pot meal.
My friend's husband, Hieu Nguyen, grew up in Dalat, Vietnam, until he was five. He remembers Vietnam’s gorgeous rolling hills, beaches, rainforests, and lakes as a cross between Vermont and Costa Rica. He hasn’t been back since he left in 1975, the day before Saigon fell. He hopes one day to visit with his wife and kids. In the mean time, he lights incense and cooks a Vietnamese chicken noodle soup, called pho (pronounced fuh), combining his grandmother and mother’s methods with his own, discovered after years of cooking it every Sunday for his family.
I recently had the pleasure of cooking with a woman from Burundi in Eastern Africa. The minced cassava leaves in the bottom of her large pot looked like a wad of grass clippings removed from the inside of a lawn mower. As they heated up on the stove with water, they smelled like a health-nut’s green smoothie.