At the YMCA, a tall, fit man was checking in at the front desk. He was professionally dressed in trousers and a crisp white shirt. As he and the desk attendant were exchanging friendly hellos, I heard an an accent from another country. I interjected a friendly hello myself and asked the man in the white shirt if he liked to cook.
I was in my state's capitol for the day, trying to get a better grip on how our government works. My representative in the Maine State Legislature, Sara Gideon, graciously introduced me to many people who work there. When she mentioned to the representative of a neighboring district that I write an online cookbook called Immigrant Kitchens, he encouraged me to connect with his wife. “She’s from Colombia,” he said, “and she loves to cook!”
When I told my new neighbor, Lily Ou, about my project, Immigrant Kitchens, she immediately said she would love teach me how to make her favorite dish from China. A couple weeks later she invited a Chinese friend and me over to cook, and I watched them make Kung Pao Chicken, a spicy stir-fry with dried chili peppers, green onions, and peanuts in a dark sauce. Theirs was by far the best Kung Pao I’ve ever tasted, and far different from what is served in Chinese-American restaurants.
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.
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.
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.”
Ling-wen Tsai was a young nurse in Taiwan, dreaming of doing what she really wanted to do: become an artist. She decided to pursue her dream and go to art school in the United States. In time, Ling-wen’s dream came true. She became a professional artist and art professor at Maine College of Art in Portland. But there was one small problem.
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.