January 15, 2010

Variety is the spice of life.

As most of you are well aware, food is very important to me. I love to cook, and even more so, I love to eat. I actively follow several cooking blogs and I relish when new seasonal cooking magazines debut throughout the year. I even read cookbooks for fun, Andrei enjoys a great laugh at my expense every time I carry a cookbook with me to bed for some “light” (no pub intended) bedtime reading.

My philosophy and approach to cooking is driven by a “make use of whats available” mantra. Rare is the case when I make up my mind about what I will cook prior to surveying the contents of my fridge and cupboards to see what is lingering around and could inspire my next creation. Local produce markets provide the exciting opportunity to discover food items that complement what I happen to have on hand. Given limited options within reach any cooking process begs creativity. I managed to turn a day old pineapple into pineapple fried rice with cashew nuts. A spoonful of peanut butter became the foundation of a Chinese stir fry with a peanut sauce finish. My roommate’s introduction of fresh herbs into the house inspired a tabbouleh tossed with fresh peas and a lemon-dijon-olive oil dressing.

I am now an official member of the “lunch club” at CARE in Tanzania, where I pay a little over $25USD per month for a heaping portion of warm food served each day at lunchtime. On day number 1, I eagerly devoured my lunch. With excitement and anticipation, I asked the CARE Country Director, “is lunch always this good?” He replied with a sarcastic tinge, “yes, ALWAYS”. Day number 2 revealed the sarcastic undertone to his comment. As a member of the lunch club, I can expect to eat pretty much the same meal everyday with little to no variation in taste and flavor.

The unvaried nature of the typical Tanzanian diet starkly contrasts with my meager attempts to insert variety and creative expression into the dishes I prepare. Day in, day out people consume meals of a strikingly similar constitution. Starch is the central feature of any plate. The main starch staples served on a rotating basis include ugali (a stiff porridge made from cornmeal that is rolled into a ball and used for dipping into beans and hot sauce), wali (rice – sometimes transformed into pilau, a heavily spiced rice dish that takes on a deep brown color), and ndizi (cooked green bananas in a thick flavorful sauce). The starch is offset by a very modest portion of vegetables (mboga mboga) and a protein (typically fish, beef or goat). Despite the number of feature ingredients I describe above, most Tanzanian dishes I have sampled during my short time here bear the exact same taste regardless of the selected ingredient combination.


In case any of you out there are interested in adding some spice to your life and cooking repertoire, I share links to some of the cooking blogs and recipe sites I follow regularly.

A vegetarian cooking blog produced by Heidi Swansan with a strong focus on whole grains and healthy ingredients:

A well rounded collection of family recipes ranging in their level of inventiveness:

A site very amenable to searching by those ingredients lingering around your kitchen and choosing from a vast range of recipes suggested:

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