Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Memories are strange. Although they don’t really have a physical presence, they exist as if you can feel, touch and hear them, as if they preside in a parallel universe to hold our hands, using us as vessels to connect past and future. This connection is never stronger for me than when I’m preparing a dish that has been lovingly passed down through hands that toiled to create and nourish, both body and soul. No words are necessary as food is an international language. Many times the ingredients may not be familiar but we always identify with the love that went into their preparation. Sharing food evokes trust and promotes peace. Many conflicts have been resolved over a common spread of offerings, both at personal and national levels. I believe in food diplomacy.
You only have to visit the nearest ethnic enclave in your neighborhood to see how immigrant communities congregate around restaurants and grocery stores that connect them to their past through food. I do this at least a couple of times a week. I like to visit the Southeast Asian centers popping up in areas of Dallas that have been abandoned by mainstream retailers. Hardworking immigrants not unlike those that have been coming to our shores for generations, are eagerly introducing us to the the food of their lands sometimes with more love than substance. This was the case last weekend when I ate at a ‘North and South Indian Restaurant’ proudly advertising Vegetarian and Vegan selection. The host went out of his way to explain every dish and to point out its ingredients. Although I’ve tasted better, his enthusiasm convinced me that this place will only improve with time and as large Indian families occupied most tables, I was made to feel as welcome as in someones’s house.
I read the other day that Mark Bittman, chef and New York Times contributor paid a visit to a well known Armenian outpost in Glendale where he joined the owner in the kitchen to learn some ‘tricks’ of the trade. Armenian refugees fleeing political and economic unrest headed to California in huge numbers and found themselves welcome in Glendale. A walk around its business district reveals retail store signage in several languages and the aroma of simmering pots of specialties enticing you to enter. Since for many years Armenians lived in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Russia and other foreign lands, the food is an exquisite blend of the best those countries have to offer, from kabobs to rice dishes to desserts.

Glendale may be home to Armenians but Santa Anna boasts the largest Vietnamese population on this side of the Pacific and Texas is a close second. Hidden from the main restaurant scene, small Mom and Pop stores have been quietly introducing Dallas to Pho, Bah

Sarmale

Sarmale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

n Mi and Specialty Noodle Bowls.  A couple of years ago they went ‘public’ and now there are Vietnamese restaurant in several locations. They have won Dallas over with hot and spicy chicken broth poured over noodles, accompanied by fresh sprouts, jalapeños, limes, and cilantro.

When we first moved to Dallas, the immigrant population was almost nonexistent but a poor lost soul from Transylvania opened a small restaurant serving the much acclaimed ‘Continental’ cuisine of the day: Chateau Briand, Chicken Kiev, Veal Scaloppine, and Baked Alaska with the occasional Vienner Schnitzel. If asked, he would prepare a dish familiar to his compatriots such as Stuffed Cabbage (

Glendale, California, 1910.

Glendale, California, 1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sarmale) or Goulash. He also baked the best bread available in those days and sold it to other restaurants. It would be the ticket to his survival as when the restaurant closed, he made his living baking. Customers are a fickle bunch. Few old establishments survive unless they follow current food trends. But what’s old is new again and the Continental Style of classic restaurant offerings is making a comeback.

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Cultural Identities through Cookery Continued…

RT2010: Transylvania

RT2010: Transylvania (Photo credit: jas_gd)

Tracing cultural identities through food and cooking allows me not only to travel without ever leaving my house, but to also add historical markers to my research. As humanity spread around the world and the powerful of the moment absorbed the less so into their fold, one element stayed constant: the need for nourishment. The empires of the Byzantine, Greek, Ottomans, Romans, Huns and Persians served as early globalizers. Their movements across the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa spread religious and cultural practices while absorbing local customs. Food was at the center of the movement as the masses both conquerers and conquered had to eat. “An Army marches on its stomach” Napoleon Bonaparte was quoted as saying.

Crops, fruits and vegetables, spices and animals thus traveled along the routes of conquest as did methods of preparation. Availability usually determined what was consumed and often scarcity led to inovation. In the span of a few hundred years, certain identities emerged which became associated with geographic location and suitable climate.

In more recent times, the constant competition for resources led to the emergence of new empires as the Spanish, Portuguese and British turned to the seas as a means of travel. Conquering new and far away lands led to an updated chapter in globalization which made goods more widely available. Previously unknown fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, corn and potatoes found their way into the European diet while at the same time, settlers brought their favorites with them.

A much smaller power yet very influential in my life was the house of Hapsburg who created a Constitutional Monarchy encompassing Transylvania and ruled from 1867-1918 as the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. It was that rich culture that my great grandparents were born into and to whom I owe my love for the arts. Although the borders shifted many times before I was even born, traditions survived and everything worth preserving was passed down through the family.

Sadly, the horrors of WW II were too disruptive as the Nazis also plundered Transylvania leaving it unrecognizable, killing many of my ancestors. As survivors spread out across the world, they carried memories that were too horrific to verbalize. Many plowed their efforts into creating new lives and new identities, into building a new world hoping to escape persecution, dreaming of a better future for their children. My father, a Holocaust Survivor, brought his family to Texas and along with it the traditions he inherited. His favorite way of communicating was through food, always looking for delectable treats to prepare and share with us. It was his way of feeding the void left in his life. I am who I am because of the interest he instilled in us for the arts including the art of cooking.

Cabbage Noodles (Hungarian Peasant Food and my favorite as a child)

Chop one large head of cabbage as finely as you can and sauté in about 2 tbsp. of sunflower oil till lightly golden, stirring often. Add 4 tbsp. of tomato paste. Season with salt and pepper and a good tbsp. of caraway seeds.

Cook a pound of your favorite noodles in boiling salted water. Drain and toss with cabbage. Taste and adjust seasoning.

*For a protein boost, add a cup of cooked beans.