Ignorance. A trait we all share, at least to a certain extent. Food ignorance is a term I found most fitting to describe what I experienced these past months while being exposed to foreign cuisines and ingredients. What do I mean by that? This summer, I set out to travel to various destinations and learn about food. I applied to a selection of vegetarian/vegan yoga retreats in Portugal, France and Spain where I would help to prepare meals for the yoga retreat guests. What I expected was this: I would, for the first time in my (still young) life, cook massive portions for massive groups. I thought that what I’d learn was how to cook for big eaters and chop more and even more veggies than ever before. I thought that I’d cry many tears thanks to the mountains of onions I’d have to get through with a too small knife. I assumed that I would get a glimpse of what it’s like to run a kitchen. I did learn all of the above but one of my biggest takeaways is this: I am ignorant in assuming that I know a lot about foods, their preparation, their nutritional values, their history. There is oh, so much to learn!
The past years of living abroad in hip cities such as Melbourne, San Francisco, Amsterdam and Cape Town made a little too comfortable in my food bubble consisting of vegan banana bread, artisan sandwiches, kale smoothies, acai bowls and glutenfree sunflower seed cookies (they are perfect though – check out the recipe of these little Miss Sunshines here). I thought that to a great extent, the chefs in these Southern European yoga retreats would also use pumpkin seeds and cocoa nibs to top their granola bowl with; I assumed that I’d know the ingredients they’d use; I thought that we’d have the same take on food. Girls and boys, women and men, dogs and cats, was I wrong! Instead of being reassured of my flax seeds, they taught me about adzuki beans, about buckwheat groats, about agaragar, about fenouil grec, about fungi, about fermentation, about carob molasses, about the bitterness of aubergines, about the toxicity of cashew nuts, about food supplements that aren’t that healthy at all, about the traditional making of Italian pizza (that isn’t simply round and thin), about homemade sesame bread (the whole process took all day), about seaweed pasta, about the making of seitan, about gluten-myths and silken tofu chocolate mousse (yes, that’s a thing, see the photo below to get all excited!).
Brasilian chef Rosa showed me how to make the best falafel and raw vegan strawberry cheesecake, Italien chef Enzo taught me how to knead the dough just like his mother did, Portuguese chef Miguel gave me a lesson on how to create traditional Portuguese desserts (so yum), Meliesha from New Zealand fed me heaven-sent buckwheat pancakes and Brasilian Fernanda surprised me with her homemade yoghurt, vegan cashew cheese, millet paella and wonderful dried tomato stuffed aubergine. All of these different recipes inspired me immensely and made me realize that there are so many combinations of flavours I had never dared to imagine; so many types of grains I had long forgotten or never known; so many ways of preparing food that I was always amazed to see yet another technique. Do you know that feeling after a mindblowing journey? When you set off a few months earlier, thinking you knew your stuff? Thinking you were somewhat an expert? Yeah. Ha. Lifelong learning, eh?
My horizon regarding food is constantly expanding and every day, I come across another thing I did not yet know. I cook a lot so naturally, most things I eat are prepared by me. I am in charge of how I slice my tomatoes, can be specific of how I think guacamole should be made and am therefore not exposed to different views and criticism. But what I realised is this: Rather than being in total control of my own cooking preferences, it can be very insightful and rewarding to cook with someone else, to learn their recipes, techniques, their kitchen quirks. Apart from the fact that cooking together is a lot of fun, it truly is a great way to learn and to expand our comfort zone regarding food. I tend to move in my little safety bubble of recipes and ways to prepare them, but sometimes when I observe things like someone eating the entire kiwi including its hairy skin, that bubble thankfully bursts!
Can you imagine that a few years ago, when I lived in Australia, I was amazed by roasted sweet potato (I still am, to be honest), because I’d never eaten them before? Let’s keep this innocent potential for surprise alive. So if you get the chance to cook with someone, do it. If they use a recipe you don’t know, ask about it. If there is an ingredient you don’t usually cook with, challenge your knowledge and learn something new! Let’s tackle that food ignorance that bores our tongues and frying pans. Someone offering you a dish you think you know but with their own twist and signature may make your taste buds explode. Eat new things people, eat!