Culinary Medley of Weirdness
The other day a friend heard me talking about all the delicious Russian dishes I used to have as a kid, and she asked me: "what exactly is Russian cuisine like?" Whenever old friends hear me talking about food, even if its the friends I grew up with, someone always asks me "what exactly did you eat as a kid?". I get why they're surprised. I was born and raised in Latin America, but I'm fluent in the art of pancake and Mac and cheese making, I also enjoy the strange flavor combos of Eastern Europe, and I can make an arepa like the best of them, not to mention the best German platter ever, don't even get me started on chupe, a typical Peruvian soup. Did I mention the fact that Spanish paella is a regular at our house? So yes, "culinary medley of weirdness" is what I ate as a kid, and this continues to this day.
Why talk about this in a post and podcast episode? As you know one of my missions at Brownble is to get you back in the kitchen, and today I'm going to tell you some family stories (of the culinary and passport kind) in the hopes that you start finding your very own style of cooking.
I've always told you that even though cooking was one of my biggest passions before going vegan, it was leaving meat and dairy behind that really brought my cooking to a whole new level. I loved the challenge of having to find vegan alternatives, and I think I also loved how freeing it was. There was no risk of undercooking the chicken, and no risk of salmonella when licking the spoon after making a cake. No overcooking steak. Vegan food was all about truly playing around with ingredients and having fun with them.
I've heard from so many of you that this was the case for you too. That finding little veins or tendons freaked you out, but that figuring out the difference between adding a chili with or without the seeds was just plain fun, and getting into the kitchen started to become a more regular occurrence.
Since getting you back into the kitchen, and helping you relate to your ingredients and to food preparation in a new way is so much fun for me, and since it's so incredibly helpful in improving your relationship with food, I'm going to tell you some stories and try to describe what that culinary medley of weirdness was, what it taught me and how it can help you.
For me, it wasn't only going vegan that helped get me in the kitchen more often, it was finding my voice in the kitchen. By voice I mean, the style, type of cuisine, number of ingredients, type of preparations, utensils, etc., that made my cooking my own.
To tell you that story though, we need to go back in time a bit, and I need to tell you what I ate as a kid, and the smells that filled my kitchen and formed my taste buds and my cooking.
So you grew up eating what now?
Here's the deal, I was born and raised in Venezuela. Pretty straightforward right? Well... not exactly. The thing is I was born and raised in Venezuela but I'm actually the very first person in my entire family who was born there, unlike Carlos for example who comes from generations of Venezuelans.
As you know, I was raised by a single mom, and she along with her two brothers were born in Argentina, they actually had a Uruguayan passport (long story), and her parents, my grandparents, were Brazilian and Argentinian but of Russian and Polish descent.
Basically my family is made up of all the nationalities that had to flee some sort of war, communist regime or dictatorship at some point in history. To make things even more complicated, my mom and her brothers went to school in England (just one year for my mom which was enough to make her believe she was the queen of England and submerge herself -and all of us- in tea). Then, my grandmother and one of my uncles became American citizens, he then married and his side of the family is also American.
To add on to this weird mix, my grandpa spent his youth in Germany, where his sisters were studying music, until they all had to flee just in time for World War II to sweep over Europe.
My grandparents also divorced long before I appeared in the scene, my grandma went to take the business world by storm in New York City, and my grandpa got remarried to a woman who was Colombian.
Last little influence? I went to American schools, meaning the snacks, Halloween junk food and also Thanksgiving and all the festivities were part of my childhood, AND I have lived in Venezuela, New York City and now Madrid, Spain.
Talk about an international family!
If you ask any of us where our culture is from, any answer would always begin with all of us staring at each other for a minute. We would all probably give you a different answer.
So when you ask me what I ate growing up, the answer is hard to explain, but it was definitely a dream for a cook in the making like me. To top things off, some additional nationalities and cuisines also made a strong appearance when it came to the kitchen, but we'll get to these in a bit.
What did this mean in the practical sense?
I grew up eating everything from New York bagels with cream cheese and lox, NY cheesecake and Entenmann's everything.
The food at home had a HUGE Venezuelan influence because my mother had fallen in love with Latin American cuisine and the flavors and dishes of our country. So much so that compared to other VERY Venezuelan families around us we had the traditional Venezuelan dish "pabellón criollo" every single week on the very same day.
We also had afternoon tea every day, usually with some kind of cookie or pastry, and on Sundays, with a total English tea spread including my mom's favorite cucumber, cream cheese and dill tea sandwiches, strawberry tarts and apple pastries.
Some weekends, when my grandpa would come over, he would always be craving the foods that filled his childhood in Germany, which for him meant a plate of sausages, sauerkraut, lots of mustard and my mom's potato salad, and apple strudel for dessert. When we went to his house on Sundays, his Colombian side of the family would always make a big hearty stew made with corn and potatoes.
My mother also wanted us to pay tribute to some of the dishes she had had as a young child, which came from the recipe books of her Russian great grandmothers, and that meant lots of borscht (a beet and meat stew), lots of stuffed cabbage rolls, pickled fish, Russian salad, and poppy seed pastries.
Argentina and Brazil had to make an appearance so we always had big barbecues during the weekend, and on my grandpa's 80th birthday we overdosed on every Brazilian dish you can imagine. It was also the first time I got alcohol poisoning because my friends and I stole one too many caipirinhas from the bar (which was terribly illegal and a very bad idea).
At home I also had the influence of two amazing women who helped my mom in the kitchen at different times through the years, one from Colombia, and one from Peru, which means I learned about cooking with chilies and how to make things like ceviche, chupe and cause limeña, arepas with eggs inside, and the amazing flavors of Colombian cuisine.
Then there was my uncle, who basically taught me how to know and appreciate food, he knew all about French cooking techniques and making killer sauces. Then came my Godmother, who taught me everything my uncle didn't, would make Mediterranean and Morroccan foods like no one I will ever know, including things like pickled lemon salad, tangines and couscous, and countless amazing desserts.
Oh yes, and every Sunday we had pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast with hash browns and sausages.
Oh yes, and then I went vegan and I started making all this stuff vegan. ALL-OF-IT!
This (imagine me making a big circle with my arms as I say "this") is what I grew up eating.
All amazing. All great fun to make and eat.
Finding a style of cooking
When my friend asked me about Russian cooking, all I could say was, "well, Russian cooking doesn't look as pretty as other cuisines, but it's so full of contrasts and it's so incredibly hearty. Russian cooking is kind of very mild in color (sometimes greyish or brownish, often bright pink!), it uses a lot of potatoes, lots of cabbage, lots of pickled and pungent or acidic tastes, lots of beets, lots of horseradish, mushrooms, and of course lots of meat. Desserts are so sweet and satisfying, with things like dark sweet cherries, sticky honey and poppy seeds and nuts. Things are stewed for a long time which means the textures are really soft but the flavors are deep and earthy.
If you were to ask me this same question of Venezuelan food, I would say Venezuelan cuisine is all about the perfect layering of flavors, and lots of sweet and savory together. You can have sweet fried plantains next to something with lots of aji dulce (the most typical sweet and pungent chili that is put in almost everything). Black beans are beloved and rice is served with almost everything. Lots of cumin and bay leaves are used, same goes for avocados, peppers and onions. Corn is a part of every aspect of Venezuelan street food.
My grandpa's Brazilian food was all about the beans, lots of rice, lots of fresh herbs and contrasts between veggies and the fragrance of oranges or orange peel, spices and rich molasses. It's simple but very bold with flavor and so colorful.
I could do this little exercise for every cuisine that filled my childhood, but, here's what's really important. With all this culinary medley of weirdness, I found what ultimately became my style of cooking. It wasn't exactly Venezuelan, it wasn't exactly Russian, or German, or Peruvian or Colombian or French, and it certainly doesn't include English tea service every day anymore. It was just what remained of tasting all these flavors and seeing all these incredible people cook what they considered to be their own home cuisine.
I was left with my love of that balance of sweet and savory (hi Venezuela and Brazil!), my love of baking with rich creams, flaky doughs and fruits (hi France and the US!), my love of hearty meals and stews (hey Russian great-grandmas!), my love of perfect American diner food (hi Brooklyn!), and especially, recipes that require lots of layering of flavors (hi Latin America!), and making the perfect rich sauces (hi Paris!).
This is where I found my jam.
But what if I had found it in very simply cooked ingredients like in Japanese cuisine, or sweet and spicy like in Thai cuisine, or lots of little dips and separate dishes like in Ethiopian cuisine or Greek Mezze?
Which one is going to get YOU in the kitchen? That is the question!
Finding your Culinary Soulmate
Whenever someone asks me what tips I have to inspire them to cook in a more varied way and not just for what I call "survival cooking" (aka I only cook so there isn't a riot at home), I always answer the same thing that I would to someone who is asking me about getting motivated to exercise. I say: "you need to find your soulmate".
There are so many styles and types of cuisine out there and they not only vary in terms of ingredients and dishes, but also in terms of techniques, how simple or how elaborate they are, and it can make a world of difference for you to find your culinary soulmate. Just like you might love yoga but not running, you might love to cook in a wok but not find any enjoyment in making hearty stews for 2 hours.
It doesn't matter if you live in the US but Mexican food is what you love to make. It doesn't matter if you're French but Japanese is your cup of tea and all you want to do is make bowls of ramen or sushi. As you can see from my upbringing, you can come up with your own way of putting meals together, and sometimes that starts by getting into a cuisine and getting to know it, and then, trying another.
Of course, it goes without saying that you can cook ANY cuisine, and I mean ANY cuisine, in its vegan version.
So here's a little lowdown:
Mexican cuisine is all about the heat, the different chilies, layering that with the fruity creaminess of avocados and perfectly ripe tomatoes and tomatillos, but also acidic ingredients like limes. It's about slowly cooking proteins down and infusing tons of flavors into them. These can be beans, tempeh, tofu, seitan, jackfruit, etc. It's all about contrasts, sweet and hot, creamy and crunchy, acidic and fresh.
Venezuelan cuisine is all about sweet and savory, developing flavors, it's about developing a good sofrito before you start a dish (that's a sauté of onions, peppers, chilies and garlic in oil), to really layer all the flavors. It's about grilling, and slowly simmering and taking your time to develop flavors.
Peruvian cuisine is all about the heat and acidity, and contrasts between hot and cold in some cases. playing with chilies, limes, pickled onions, spicy sauces, and less time over the stove but more time in the marinades, and then a quick flash in the pan or the grill.
Thai food is all about putting lots of unique ingredients together and developing flavors in a quick and flavorful sauce, using things like palm sugar, chilies, ginger, soy sauce, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, etc.
Chinese food is all about a quick flash in a wok, with lots of aromatics, chilies, star anise, and sauces.
Russian food is all about deep earthy flavors, lots of long stews but with very basic ingredients.
Spanish food is all about the delicious Mediterranean flavors, using olive oil and lots of tomatoes, olives, peppers and spices like paprika and saffron. Lots of rice making, and dishes that make veggies shine with very bold flavors but simple preparations.
French food is all about technique, about creamy and rich sauces over perfectly cooked fresh ingredients. the perfect ingredients of the best kind. It's also about plating in a beautiful way, and depending on the region, it can be very fancy, or very down to Earth and all about the herbs.
Japanese food is all about simplicity, about making vegetables shine without fussing over them too much, and it's all about honouring tradition and making dishes the same way they've been made for centuries.
I could go on and on, and this is of course a very simplified list of each of these cuisines, not to mention the fact that within each country there are so many different regions and specific types of cuisines, but as you can see, they can all be miles apart, and surely there will be one that calls your attention, not to mention the one that you love eating!
Start by buying a book on one of these cuisines and trying to veganize these recipes, or searching for vegan Indian, vegan Morroccan, vegan Japanese, and find out about dishes that others have made plant based for you to try.
Some great books on specific international cuisines are:
Vegan Richa's Indian Kitchen by Richa Hingle
The Chinese Vegan Kitchen by Donna Klein
Farm to Table Asian Secrets: Vegan & Vegetarian Full-Flavored Recipes for Every Season by Patricia Tanumihardja
Vietnam Vegan by Ariya Netjoy
Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions by Elizabeth Andoh
Japanese Cooking: Contemporary & Traditional, Simple, Delicious, and Vegan by Miyoko Schinner
Teff Love: Adventures in Vegan Ethiopian Cooking by Kittee Berns
Viva Vegan!: 200 Authentic and Fabulous Recipes for Latin Food Lovers by Terry Hope Romero
Find countless others by typing in the name of the cuisine and the word vegan and you'll find just about anything!
No matter what type of food you think is your inherited cuisine, try to venture out, try to find the techniques and methods, the number of ingredients and the utensils that you love to use, you just might find your soulmate cuisine in a very unexpected place, or in a combination of many like me. Use it to inspire you to get into the kitchen more often, and find what you love to cook and eat.