If you’ve ever been in the situation of volunteering to cook a meal while traveling or abroad, then this little piece may resonate with you.
This past week while visiting my wife’s family in Brazil, I was asked to make one of my favorite “American” dishes. Being a big proponent of home cooking and a fairly stalwortly trail chef, I accepted the proposal and immediately went to work leafing through my travel notes and internet bookmarks for an accurately representational American dish.
The following morning I rose early and jumped to it. In a large bowl I measured out to my best approximation a cup and a half of farinha, added a few approximated teaspoons of fermento, the same of sal and açúcar, and then blended in an ovo, a roughed out count of 3 melted tablespoons of manteiga, and another estimated cup of leite… gave the whole thing several good turns with a fork and then spooned out semi-equal puddles of it onto a sizzling fry-pan. Sound familiar?
My wife’s family are like most people I stay with on my travels, they want to experience a little bit of what those of us in the States consider every-day cuisine. One of my first suggestions to them and one that is often jumped upon is the old American classic – a pancake breakfast.
Pancakes in the US are an overly simplified meal. And even though they are often only cooked on weekends or those extra lax days off, they in many ways embody the efficiency quota of today’s American standards. If you go to the supermarket it is easy to find the area of pancake and waffle mixes, the ready to pour toppings, the easy spread butter, the pre-cooked bacon… the list goes on. But even if you forgo the now conventional methods of making pancakes, and decide to bake them from scratch, you’ll find that the recipe is in itself extremely simplistic, the baking of them needing little more then the beginners touch. And even if the first two or three come out a little too soft or a bit on the crispy side you have the entire rest of the batter to practice with. In all, they are a fairly difficult meal to completely botch. And this is precisely why it tops my list as one of the first suggestions I offer to my hosts when abroad.
If your an avid traveler or living abroad, you may have shared the challenging experience of cooking a simple recipe in a not so familiar environment. Unites of measure differ, measuring containers differ, the availability of cooking utensils and ingredients vary, cooking temperatures and apparatus do not equate, effects of foreign weather and climate come into play, not to even mention the consequences of translating from a different language.
In my own experience, I have found that there are so many unexpected complications to cooking a simple meal in a foreign country, that it is only through a frustrating process of testing and re-testing the recipe throughout, that it ends up resembling anything even similar to its intended result. But the experience itself is always rewarding. The hosts or receivers of the prepared meal always delight at the chance to try something so iconic from afar. In turn I am reminded of all that is taken for granted in our pre-packaged society, as well as the epiphany and triumph of working through such and out-of-the-box problem.
Here are a few helpful hints of ways I have found to short cut some of the issues while cooking abroad:
- If you know you may be cooking while out of country go to your local outdoor supply store first, many of them have camping style cups with measurement marks up the side – it’s a great feeling to know that your actually putting a real cup’s worth in
- Take a look at any water bottles you have at home, many of them have liquid measurement marks on them, even disposable ones usually note the total volume of liquid they can contain
- Use your cell phone/computer – in addition to comparing recipes that you are familiar with to those online, it will allow you access to conversion tables or in the very least a calculator
- Be cautious of little differences, the difference of the heating temperature on an electric stove top compared to a gas one may not seem that big, until you try to toast something on it
- Don’t give up on a recipe if at first it doesn’t work, re-test it, try substituting in one ingredient for another, talk to your hosts to see if they have any recommendations, and try adding something new if you can’t find what you normally use – such as mango with you pancakes