by Dorty Nowak
I collect cookbooks the way others collect travel books. More than souvenirs of places I have been, they help me recreate memories and whet my appetite for further trips. Over the years, I’ve accumulated an impressive library, with Europe, Asia and the Americas grouped together on my bookshelf. When I open Provence, the Beautiful Cookbook, and look at a picture of glossy tomatoes clustered with deep green zucchinis, papery garlic, and branches of rosemary I can taste the wonderful ratatouille I had in Nice, and I’m there once again.
I developed a taste for culinary travel early. My mother, who hated to cook, had a limited repertoire, which reflected her German-Irish roots. Meat, potatoes and vegetables cooked to a uniform grey were standard fare and I could usually predict what we would have for dinner by the day of the week. The Joy of Cooking was the mainstay of her library. It was, and is, a no-nonsense compendium of recipes, with no pictures to grace its pages. When I was fortunate to travel to Europe in college, the pleasure of sampling new foods, and the beautifully illustrated cookbooks I collected were almost as exciting as touring the sights.
As with any voyage, culinary travel in my kitchen requires some pre-planning and effort. Country chosen and recipe selected, I go in search of ingredients. Fortunately, food has benefited from globalization, and with a little effort it is possible to track down most ingredients thanks to specialty stores, ethnic groceries and the Internet. The gift of a vial of Indian saffron, or Czech poppy seed mix from a traveling friend is a pleasure. That gift of poppy seed also brought home to me the pitfalls of my kitchen culinary explorations. I had promised my friend I would make her poppy seed rolls with the mix. Not being able to read the instructions, which were in Czech, I missed that the poppy seed needed to be ground and boiled with milk. Instead of the silky, earthy filling I anticipated, my filling tasted like stale coffee grounds.
Another lesson I have learned is that it is often better not to serve my friends foods from their own country. I live in Paris, and after a number of years struggling to reproduce the blanquettes de veau and soufflés that came so effortlessly from my friends’ kitchens, I discovered that I could serve them American dishes like meatloaf, and yes, even my mother’s tuna casserole, and they would enjoy the novelty.
Several years ago, while visiting Istanbul, I took my culinary tourism to a new level and enrolled in a one-day cooking class. An American expatriate who had lived for many years in Turkey taught the class, which was held in the kitchen of a local restaurant. She gave her eight students recipes for the dishes we would make, including dolmas and red lentil soup. At the end of the class we would have the pleasure of eating the results of our efforts. Uniformed in an apron, I stood at my station, recipe by my side and ready to chop. That is when the lights went out.
Our teacher was unfazed. “Happens all the time here,” she said. “They will come back on soon. They did not, and we carried on with the lesson by the light of the gas burners in the stove. Fearful of chopping off a finger, I felt the contours of each vegetable I was about to dice, and worked slowly, guided by my fingers and my memory of having read the recipe once before everything went dark. I wrapped dolma fillings gently in their grape leaf covers and nestled them in their pot. Without being able to see well, I discovered a new relationship to food, a zen-like experience driven by touch and smell.
Just as we finished preparing our menu, the lights came back on. When we filed into the dining room, we had another surprise. We had prepared lunch not only for ourselves, but for the restaurant’s patrons as well. Fortunately, it was delicious.
In thinking about that meal in Istanbul I realize that the key to savoring new foods lies not only in following a recipe on the printed page, but in being open to experimentation, and to the unexpected. And for me, that’s true of travel as well.
So, it’s time to hit the road. I still have room in my bookcase, and many more countries and cuisines to visit.
Dorty Nowak is a writer and artist living in Paris and Berkeley who writes frequently about the challenges and delights of multi-cultural living.