Times Flies, Goes Home and Becomes Memory

“The world is so full of a number of things, we should all be as happy as kings … .” — Robert Louis Stevenson

Some of those “number of things” are foods from other countries. Their tastes, textures and presentations are exotic new experiences guaranteed to excite taste buds unaccustomed to foreign cuisine and foreign ingredients. Some of those “number of things” are the friendships made as a result of being part of a foreign student exchange program through the American Field Service (AFS).

Wahizah Abdul Wahid of Malaysia has sent the Jack Stevenson family of Chula Vista to oriental markets for lemon grass and rambuten (a delicious, delicate fruit).

Karla Mota of Brazil has sent the Max Lampson family of Pacific Beach in search of manioc meal and dende oil, both staples of northeast Brazilian cooking.

Helena Nordman of Finland has promised the Walter Gill family of Clairemont that they will “love” the raw fish and smorgasbord of her native country.

These girls and their host families are representative of the variety of foreign students and American families exchanging culinary delights during the 1983-84 school year. Under the auspices of AFS International/Intercultural Programs, families in San Diego and its surrounding communities are hosting 32 high school students from 25 countries.

AFS is a private, non-profit, non-sectarian organization founded on the concept that individuals must learn to live together in order to achieve world peace. Its purpose is to promote better understanding among people and it strives toward that end through exchange programs which give foreign students and Americans a chance to really get to know each other.

And what better way to get to know someone than through food?

As the students and their host families share knowledge, skills and talents with each other, “host family” gives way to “my family,” “my mom,” “my dad.” The students, who come as ambassadors of international goodwill, become true daughters and sons as each family explores the culture of its newest member. Exchanges of customs, lifestyles and traditions are made as the students learn their way around American habits and lifestyles.

Food is always a vital topic with teen-agers, so it is not surprising that many of these exchanges take place in the kitchen. The opportunity to share new taste treats and show off culinary skills is irresistible. The results provide some interesting taste and nutritional experiences. Although the idea is not so much to change each other’s habits as it is to satisfy curiosity and increase knowledge of another culture, myriad American recipes have traveled to new homes in Europe, South America, Asia, Africa and Japan via the returning students. Countless American families have expanded their gastronomic horizons in adapting their students’ recipes to the vagaries of the American market. After students have returned home, it is not unusual for host families to get requests for “care packages” of goodies and ingredients unavailable to them in their own countries. These items range from chocolate chips to breakfast cereal. What we buy packaged here must often be made from scratch elsewhere.

Wahizah Wahid, a raven-haired beauty from Merlimau, Malacca, West Malaysia, has been living with Jack and Mary Stevenson, and their daughter, Ann, in Chula Vista. She accepts praise shyly but her black eyes sparkle with pleasure as she deftly works her way around the conversion of the gram and milliliter measures of Malaysia to our ounces and teaspoons.

Malaysia is a multiracial society of Malay, Chinese and Indian, which explains the incredible variety of flavors common throughout Malaysian kitchens. Authentic national styles have been retained and blended within religious dictates. Because the Wahid famiy adheres to a Muslim diet, they do not eat pork. But that does not mean that recipes calling for pork are ignored — they are instead adapted to beef or lamb. Spices abound. Cardamon and ginger are common. Curry powder is a do-it-yourself mix of tumeric, coriander and cumin.

Wahizah starts a new recipe measuring amounts carefully, but she relies on the tried-and-true taste test in the end, adjusting seasonings accordingly. Wahizah is a practical cook, much given to time and energy conservation. When a recipe calls for fresh ginger or garlic, tradition gives way to convenience as she reaches for jars of powdered spices. The ever-present tumeric, cumin and coriander of West Malaysia are readily available in the United States. A visit to an Oriental store is necessary, however, for coconut milk, lemon grass or rambuten.

Wahizah calls rambuten “the national fruit of Malaysia.” It is found canned here and is good when added to a fresh fruit compote, but it is eaten fresh off the tree in Malaysia.

Seafood, mussels, prawns, soft-shelled crabs and rice are staples of the Malay diet. At home, Wahizah eats beef perhaps once a week, seldom eats lamb (“one time a year”) and rice is dressed up by American standards. Breakfast in Malaysia includes fried rice.

As in many foreign countries, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. It consists of rice, fish or curry and fried “veggies.” (Wahizah is quick with the American slang.) Here, as in Malaysia, she comes home for lunch, but Mary Stevenson says she doesn’t eat much. Dinner is much the same as breakfast and is eaten late — about 8 p.m. Tea time — the time for sweets — is observed about 4:30 p.m.

Wahizah, who has become partial to spaghetti and Mexican food, says she will return to her native food habits when she returns to Malaysia in June. She said she will not miss the tomatoes and cheese she encounters in food here.

Karla Oliveira Mota, our AFS daughter, is from the state of Bahia in northeast Brazil. Bahia is a sun-drenched paradise which has its own special culinary arts. I am learning a good deal about the regional differences in Brazilian cooking since Karla came to live with our family.

She is not a structured cook. Recipes are rearranged with abandon and ingredients interchanged. Although some traditions are observed, every Bahian cook does things with her own special style and Karla is no exception. The freshest possible ingredients are mandatory, as my husband discovered when sent in search of fresh cilantro in December.

Becoming familiar with Bahian cuisine means understanding that there is no substitute for the proper ingredients. Dende oil is palm oil from Brazilian or West African oil palms. It gives a bright yellow-orange color to dishes and imparts a subtle but distinctive flavor. Manioc meal is another “no substitute” staple of the Bahian diet. A grainy, flour-like, fine meal, it is ground from the dried pulp of the root of a manioc plant. This becomes the basis for a family of side dishes called farofas, and when toasted and mixed with dende oil, it becomes a garnish for any number of dishes.

Being different in climate, people, history and language (Portugese, not Spanish) from the rest of South America, it is not surprising that the food of Brazil is also different. Brazilian cooking mixes Portugese, Indian and African influences.

Brazil is also the only place in South America where blacks have kept much of their original culture as the country has developed. In Karla’s home city of Salvador, this influence is dominant. Here, the Brazilian national dish — Feijoada Completa — is made with brown beans rather than the black beans used in the rest of Brazil. The African influence diminishes the further south you travel and by the time you reach Rio de Janeiro — 750 miles south — other traditions come to the fore.

In Bahia, cook-vendors set up their pots, braziers and tray tables along the streets and offer tempting treats such as Acaraje to passers-by. Acaraje is a mixture of shrimp and cowpeas fried crisp and brown by the spoonful. Custom dictates that Acaraje is always bought from the street vendor; one never makes it at home.

Living in an American home where running out of peanut butter and jelly spells disaster, Karla has had to make some adjustments in her eating habits. Sandwiches, for example, are not standard fare for lunch, the biggest meal of the day in Brazil.

Helena Nordman is from Helsinki, Finland, and is living with the S. Walter Gill family in Clairemont.

Her native land is a country of raw fish eaters and Helena’s gold eyes gleam as she talks about these uncooked delicacies eaten with vinegar and mustard. The meats and vegetables available in Finland are not so different from those Americans are used to. Barbara Gill said Helena “didn’t have much to get used to” with meats and vegetables, and that the young woman likes the fruits available in the United States. A short growing season in Finland necessitates the importation of fruit and when it’s available, it’s expensive. A day in Finland begins with a big breakfast of yogurt, open-face sandwiches and boiled eggs. And coffee, always, everywhere, in Finland there is coffee. “And, of course, clabbered milk,” Helena reminds. This yogurt-like substance is made with a starter (viili culture) stirred into milk and allowed to stand overnight. It coagulates overnight and is then ready for chilling. It is served sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon or seasoned with salt and eaten with dark bread. With a wistful smile, Helena concedes that she does miss Finnish black bread. Finnish bread is robust, substantial fare, the appearance of which Helena calls “ugly” compared to the bread in the United States. A better description might be crusty and hearty.

Because artificial ingredients (coloring agents and preservatives) are banned by law, Finnish food is natural and wholesome.

Although such familiar spices as dill and cinnamon are used, there doesn’t seem to be much preoccuption with them. Again, lunch is the big meal of the day. Helena says there is no such thing as a “sack lunch” in Finland. Whether at home, school or work, people take time to eat a substantial meal at noon. Meat, fish — especially salmon — and vegetables are standard midday food.

What has captured Helena’s fancy here is Mexican food — tacos and enchiladas. “And Chinese food,” she added. “We don’t have Chinese food like you do here.”

Terms must be clarified when talking to a Finn about pastries. They are not the sweet desserts Americans think of, but rather meat- and rice-filled pockets of dough. Sandwiches are not the filled concoctions of America, but open-face affairs with meat and cheese.

A Finnish feast in the Scandinavian smorgasbord tradition, the “bread and butter” table holds much more than that. It is a spread for company, and is not done just for the family, according to Helena. Fish, cold meat, cheese, boiled eggs, pickles and beautifully cut vegetables are included and, of course, many varieties of bread.

Food: steppingstone to world friendship
The Tribune – San Diego, Calif.

Author: Pamela C. Lampson
Date: May 16, 1984
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