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The surprising lessons you learn when living abroad: Becoming a decent cook

Yeah, that wasn't me.

I was never the kid who stood next to her mom and watched intensely as she threw together ingredients in preparation for dinner.  I would occasionally help my mom and dad with minor meal prep, but it was always a chore rather than something of interest.  As a child, I wasn’t really interested in how food got to the table as long as it did.  My mother wasn’t one of those moms who lived in the kitchen, but she cooked dinner pretty consistently and would also bake special treats regularly.  Food seemed to just appear on the table magically, and I had at least one childhood friend who always insisted we play at MY house because she knew there would be cookies or twinkies there.  I had some sense that my mother as well as others were behind this endless food parade, but I never imagined myself as someone who would ever enjoy cooking.

When I went to college the endless food parade become even more convenient..  If I wanted, I could simply walk across campus at nearly any time of day or night and have a large selection of food to choose from.  (Shout out to the Gizmo!)  I didn’t even really have to pay for it, because it was all somehow being paid for by student loans (I guess I’m actually paying for those meals NOW).  It was all so fantastically easy: walk in to the cafeteria, scan a meal card, eat, drop dirty dishes on a conveyer belt.  The most difficult part about the whole thing was whether to have pudding or cookies for dessert.  Sure, there were kitchens in all four buildings where I lived, but even if I had wanted to pursue dreams of culinary mediocrity, the kitchens weren’t well equipped (or were littered with empty dixie cups with leftover vodka-infused jello clinging to the insides), and I didn’t have a car which would have been necessary in Galesburg to get groceries.

Then I graduated and moved to Chicago, and the endless food parade became less convenient.  I would come home at night and open the fridge and stare into the arctic tundra that was my refridgerator, save for a carton of yogurt and days-old slices of pizza. It was relatively easy, especially in a city like Chicago, to activate the food parade by calling for pizza, Thai or Chinese delivery.  But I would have a small pang in my stomach every time I’d make that call, which was a combination of my body telling me to stop ingesting this calorie-laden grease pool as well as the regret of having to pull out a wad of dollar bills to actually PAY for this health hazard.  One of my most vivid memories in the first year of living in Chicago was coming home one night and finding a HUGE vat of spaghetti in the fridge.  It was my roommates–he had family living in the suburbs of Chicago so his mom was constantly bringing him leftovers.  Thinking there was no way this amount of noodles swimming in the red sea would ever be consumed before it turned into a science experiment, I asked my roommate if I could have a small plate.  He was reluctant, explaining that it was supposed to be lunch for work the next day, and it became immediately clear that I wasn’t the only one unable to cope well with the end of the food parade.

When I moved from that first flat, I moved into a place with a dishwasher, which made trying to cook a little more tempting.  There was a grocery store next door to my building.  I began experimenting with some very basic recipes.  And I discovered that although cooking isn’t my passion, it wasn’t as much of a chore as I had thought in my childhood.  What I liked most about it was taking responsibility for what I eat and how I eat it, rather than putting such important decisions in the hands of others.  There was a sense of independence and power associated with this.  If I wanted, I didn’t need to rely on the fast food chain down the street to get me through the day.

I feel as though this led me to the decision to become a vegetarian, to be more in control of what I put in my body, where it comes from, and the effects of those decisions.  (Perhaps I’ll discuss more on my decision to be vegetarian in a later post).  This ultimately meant cooking for myself on a more regular basis.

Tomato and Penne Salad was my first favorite veggie-friendly recipe

But it remained a chore, and I found myself casually inviting myself to friends houses for dinner in order to avoid my own kitchen.

Then I moved to Germany.  The move was in no way inspired by German cuisine, since I’m still rather underwhelmed by Currywurst and grüne Soße.


Grüne Soße

There was no reason why living in Germany was going to increase my culinary skills.  I didn’t live on campus, so I couldn’t go to the cafeteria for every meal.  I had a relatively well-equipped kitchen, but no dishwasher and no microwave (yes, I regularly cook and reheat food without a microwave), and the nearest grocery store was a long walk away (no car in Germany!).  Furthermore, the grocery stores in Bremen weren’t anything like the massive warehouse of a supermarket I was used to in Chicago.  I no longer had any income, I was living off of my savings, and I was forced to find cheaper ways to feed myself.  I had to make do with just a few pots and pans, find substitutes for familiar American ingredients that weren’t available in Germany, and constantly convert my recipes from American measurements to metric measurements (is that an American cup? An Imperial pint? Why is this liquid measured in milliliters and that liquid in grams?  How hot is 325F in Celsius again? Is gas mark 6 about right?).  I found myself craving a hamburger and needing to find a way to make a veggie burger with the ingredients at my local market (no ready-made veggie patties here, I was forced to make my own).  To be sure, there were days when a frozen pizza was thrown into the oven,

An "American" style pizza in Europe...

but I also found myself wanting to host the international students who couldn’t go home for Christmas and cook them a dinner worthy of the holiday.  (I made vegetarian eggplant gratin).  Seeing even omnivores enjoy my meals, improvised as they were, gave me a sense of satisfaction I hadn’t really felt before.

Had I stayed in Chicago, I’m not sure I would have ever really gotten out of the rut of ordering delivery more often than cooking myself.  Working 40, 60, 80 hours a week doesn’t really allow for that freedom.  But living in Germany has given me the flexible schedule I needed to discover that I actually really enjoy cooking.  But not only has living in Germany given me flexibility, it has forced me to really consider how flavors work together because more often than not I’m not able to find the exact ingredients I need to follow a recipe, or I simply don’t want to spend €4 on a bottle of white rice wine that I may never use again.  And because I’ve never lived in an apartment with a kitchen containing proper measuring devices, not only have I had to convert American measurements into metric measurements, I’ve had to estimate those amounts, a skill that I’m constantly honing.  This has certainly produced some recipes that fell short of culinary greatness, but all this experimenting, improvising, and substituting has really taught me that cooking isn’t just about following  a recipe, it is more a journey you take with the resources you have on hand.  Cooking is about providing for yourself and the people around you, and truly taking responsibility for how your food choices effects the world around you.  It is about combining fun, experimentation, health and satisfaction (not to mention cost effectiveness) all in one shot.

I’m now beginning to experiment more and more with baking, particularly vegan recipes.

Vegan Carrot Zucchini Cake. Made with no measuring cups.

I’ve quickly discovered that baking is a whole different ball game than cooking- the measurements and the temperatures are much more important and need to be treated with exactitude.  With no measurement cups, I’ve needed to rely on good old-fashioned eye-balling, and thinking through a recipe to try to determine how the ingredients are supposed to balance and work together.  Having a gas oven definitely makes finding the right temperature problematic, and therefore I’ve resorted to using my instincts and babysitting my cupcakes as they rise (no muffin tin!).  For some reason, Europeans don’t seem to use baking power or soda in their recipes, because it is very difficult to find these ingredients, and when you do, you have buy small, individually wrapped teaspoon-sized packages.  Taking out the milk, eggs and cheese from most recipes further complicates the process.  But this has resulted in some very rewarding treats, the likes of which I’m certain, even with all the eggs, measuring cups, precise recipes and electric ovens, I would not have even attempted were I still in Chicago.  I’m certainly not on the path towards Top Chef, but my food tastes good to me, tastes good to others, is healthy, ethical, and satisfying not only for the stomach but also the mind.  Life abroad is full of surprises.

Vegan Thai Curry Soup. Ready in 30 minutes or less.


5 responses »

  1. It is so funny that our culinary journeys have been so similar, even with me not living in Europe. I miss the Knox caf and Gizmo food at times, but looking back I can’t believe the trash I ate!

    • Hey Lauren cool that someone us actually reading my blog! I have a new apartment and guess what?! It has a blender! Vegan smoothies for breakfast! Do you buy vegan products like egg replacers or vegan butter when you’re baking? No such thing exists in Germany, so I’m constantly trying to figure out how to replace eggs and butter.

      • I buy vegan margarine (earth balance here) but I think it is possible to use a combination of applesauce and oil? I don’t buy egg replacers, but instead I use ground flax seeds or mashed banana. Two blogs I loooove are and Both vegan and amazing! 🙂

  2. Leslie van der Heide

    Dear berlinfeminist,
    I loved reading about your culinary arts and the lessons you learned.
    Your journey sounds just like mine with the measuring, conversions and heat.
    I like to buy cook books in the local language, mine is Dutch and that helps me with the vocabulary. Then I can ask where to find that ingredient. I am a good cook because I stick to the recipe that I know works. Going to outdoor markets are great for finding ingredients that are not in the food stores.
    I like to watch the health food store also.
    I don’t know about replacing eggs and butter but I have switched from cow to goat products and my general complaints have dissapeard. I am expiermenting with coconut oil and flour. That has not been to good. It tastes good but doesn’t stick together. I will keep trying though.
    I just love this culinary journey in Europe and trying to eat heathy at the same time! yours truly, Dalen Dame

  3. Pingback: On cooking and eating abroad | More Like a Moat

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