Saturday, 12 February 2011

International Cuisine Saturdays (Διεθνή κουζίνα)

I have the travel itch, but I won't be travelling quite as soon as I would like. If travelling is in your plans, you might be in need of a new suitcase. CSN's luggage stores have offered me a $45 gift voucher* to give away to one of my readers, valid at any of their online stores. Leave a comment on this post and you will be in for the draw. The winner will be announced in 10 days' time. Good luck and have a safe journey!

As I'm writing, I'm dreaming of going on a mini-break to an urban centre where I could browse through the shelves of bookshops with multiple floors, feel the veins of history by visiting well-known monuments, admire architectural feats while sitting by the window of a train, and eat my choice of any kind of international cuisine that takes my fancy. This time last year, I was in the midst of planning an exciting trip to Paris and London. Holidays abroad aren't possible every year, even without an economic crisis, so this year, I'll content myself by browsing through our holiday shots.

filo wontons samosa
What started off as a creative way to use leftovers has now become an institution in our home. I began presenting regular Greek tastes in unknown forms, as with the wontonson the left. It's riskier to present regular Greek forms with unknown tastes, as in the samosas on the right; the appearance fooled my family into thinking they were Cretan pasties, kalitsounia.

Travelling for pleasure was not quite as common for Greeks as it is now, even though Greece has generally been (and looks set to continue to be) a land of emigrants. Popular holiday destinations for Greek people were Dubai and Thailand before the economic crisis; till recently, Greek students formed one of the largest foreign student groups in the UK. But even before Greece joined the EU, Northern Greeks (in particular) regularly travelled in and out of neighbouring countries, both for business and pleasure: they set up firms in many Balkan countries, they get cheaper medical care in FYR Macedonia, they take daytrips to Turkey to acquire cheap goods, and they go on skiing holidays in Bulgaria, now an EU member with euro currency, where a sizeable number of Northern Greeks are also retiring, due to the more affordable lifestyle (Bulgaria's cost of living is lower than Greece's, which stretches the Greek pension well beyond the limits of its Greek value).

fusion? spring rolls
Spring rolls are now becoming more popular in global food outlets in Hania, like pizzerias. The spring rolls I ordered at such an outlet were made with Mediterranean tastes. When I made them at home, I used bottled Asian sauces to add a bit of foreignness to my otherwise Med-flavoured filling.

Apart from seeing some of the greatest monuments of the world from close up, travelling outside the limited environments of our island home also means the possibility for my family to try new tastes and for me to indulge in some old favorites, the kind of international cuisine I was used to eating out when I lived in Wellington. Trying new food doesn't just mean eating something you haven't tasted before, and it's not only about seeing the differences in the cuisines of the world. Eating 'other people's food' familiarises you with a new kind of eating style; and as you eat your way around the world, whether it's in an unfamiliar environment or the comfort of your own home, you realise that there is a great deal of similarity involved the food we all eat. For example, which culture doesn't have some kind of small 'hand-held pie', made with some kind of pastry containing some kind of filling? Is there any country in the world that doesn't eat any kind of 'bread', no matter what grain it's made of? Does a society exist that doesn't eat a 'sandwich' in some form, even if it doesn't actually call it a sandwich?

falafels falafel
Pita with falafel resembles the Greek souvlaki filled with bifteki instead of meat slivers, but the taste is very different.

Global food outlets in Hania exist in both Greek and multi-national forms: there's Starbucks cafe, Domino's pizza, Goody's burgers, Roxani's pancakes, Grigori's sandwiches, to name but a few, but they all sell roughly the same kind of food: some kind of bread, filled or spread with similar fillings, which always include a milk-based product. There are very few international cuisine outlets in the town, apart from a couple of Chinese restaurants, which don't actually seem to be gaining ground (which may also have to do with the price). This frightens me somewhat: eating foreign cuisine is an educational experience, it helps break the racial divide. It also helps to know the sometimes subtle, sometimes major differences involved in other people's food to alleviate the initial 'shock' factor usually involved when experiencing the unknown. For example, I got a big shock when I tried wasabi paste for the first time, nothing like the exhilaration of a hot curry...

making lasagne wilted cabbage with capers and spices
Some international cuisine looks, smells and tastes almost exactly the same as the Greek equivalent, eg lasagne and pastitsio; on the other hand, a Greek lahanosalata (cabbage salad) has little to do with sauerkraut, which I made by wilting the cabbage and adding various spices to give it a sour taste (it was not one of my more popular dishes). My cottage pie was very successful - the mince was flavoured with well-known Greek spices, while the potato layer provided similar carbohydrates as pasta does in a Greek makaronada. Cottage pie could be described as the English version of pastitsio or lasagne. 
cottage pie

At some point in their lives, my children will probably leave their island home and go abroad, whether for study or work. I won't be around to provide Cretan cuisine for them. I doubt that I'll be one of those mothers that will cook meals for them and fly them by courier to their student address abroad (like some people do, packing them together with ION chocolates and cigarettes, as if they don't have access to similar products where they are, and/or they are vital to their survival). We learn about the history and geography of the world, foreign languages, the importance of global technology in our lives, the necessity to acculturate to global norms and trends, but we rarely learn about the food of the world, only about our 'own', as if the food we eat is the only kind that everyone will recognise.

stir fry beef stir fry rice
If I could cook whatever I want whenever I want, I would cook stir-fries. They can be as vegan or carnivorous as your preferences deisre, and they take little time to cook (they need more preparation time for chopping ingredients into small pieces). My stir-fry beef and fried rice was a winner. 

What started off as a way to use up leftovers during one of my freer moments over the Christmas holidays has now become an institution in my home. Since the beginning of the year, I've launched International Cuisine Saturdays. Every Saturday, when I have more time available to cook a meal creatively (as opposed to during the week when I cook on automatic pilot), I prepare a meal that veers away from Greek cuisine (what I typically cook at home), either in taste, texture or appearance, in the hope that one day, when my children become ambassadors for their countries in their circle of foreign friends, they'll be knowledgeable global citizens, accustomed to eating other people's food.

blueberry muffins ala elise
To date, I can only make blueberry muffins (and pancakes) when friends from abroad present them to me as a gift; apart from strawberries, berry fruits are not easy to grow in Crete due to the dry climate.

International Cuisine Saturdays doesn't involve buying novel ingredients or new cooking equipment (although I will admit to going through my supply of soya sauce rather quickly these days and have now resorted to buying it in 1-litre bottles). I usually don't know what I'm going to cook until the actual day, when I look into my fridge to see what's available, and make a decision according to my energy levels. Today's 'foreign food', for example, will form part of our dessert, blueberry pancakes, using a present I received in the post yesterday from a Canadian friend yesterday. We generally eat the same food all over the world; it's the preferred processes, combinations and flavours that differ. It's an educational experience on the most part for my family, and it also gives me a chance to cook food that I have always enjoyed (and greatly miss) eating. These are the times I feel gratified that I am able to cook well.

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