Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Luxury of Never Substituting

I stood in the baking aisle, scanning the shelves for Andes mint chips. Finally, I turned to a woman standing beside me and asked, "Have you ever seen mint chocolate chips here?" The woman said she had and proceeded to help me look. After several minutes of carefully looking, it became clear that there were no mint chips to be found. As I considered alternatives, the woman held a bag of walnuts in her hand and asked, "Do you think I could use pecans in place of walnuts in my banana bread?" I assured her that the substitution was fine, when she continued, "You see, I never substitute ingredients in recipes, ever."

Her remark literally stopped me in my tracks. The last several years have been one culinary experiment after another as I have tried to approximate beloved recipes in different countries. In Sweden, we had to make up our own baking powder, because the Swedish baking powder had such a terrible aftertaste. We chopped chocolate in place of chocolate chips. I used creme frache in place of sour cream. I learned to make my own cream soups and bases in lieu of cream of crap canned soup. In Saudi Arabia, I couldn't use pork products, so my beloved Sweet and Sour Pork became Sweet and Sour Chicken for 18 months. Whenever I made scones, I used plain yogurt instead of the sour cream called for in the recipe. I rarely cooked or prepared salads with fresh spinach as it was hard to find.

Living in a foreign country often feels like an endless series of adaptations and substitutions. Sometimes we try and recreate pieces of home with recipes or celebrations. Of course, the flavor is never quite as authentic as we wish. But we still try. And other times, we bend to the inevitable, accept the alternative and make new recipes. My cooking creativity always feels enhanced when living abroad as I learn to adapt to the available ingredients.

And then we bring flavors from our adopted countries home. I can never quite recreate the beautiful food and cuisine centered around the pear so beloved in Sweden. I desperately miss the flavor of Danish chocolate. Sometimes I dream about an authentic Israeli falafel that literally makes me drool. My kids talk about shawarma longingly. I was at a shawarma shop in Boulder, Colorado a couple of weeks ago and shocked the chef when I asked if they put french fries in their shawarma. I miss the delicious flavors of India my friends shared with me. Or the fresh flavors of Korean fare that another friend introduced me to.

It's always a give and take, isn't it? We are always leaving behind something we love and appreciate wherever we may go.

So while I envy the lady in the grocery store the luxury of never having to subsitute ingredients, I feel a little sorry for her as well. She's missed out on some grand culinary adventures. 

1 comment:

  1. I felt lost the first time I tried to make lasagna in Utah and there was no ricotta cheese to be found. (That was back in 1972 but it showed up there before I left in 83). There were other New York things I couldn't get but I survived. I learned to like Mexican food which was unavailable in suburban NY at the time. I also saw more variations of Jello than I'd ever imagined. I've found that things taste better where they are local. Lobster eaten on the coast of Maine always tastes better than lobsters who've lived in a fish tank for a month. Mexican food is better out west and sushi tastes better from a Japanese restaurant than the grocery store. Nothing compares to cheesecake from NY city. (Sorry Cheesecake Factory). When you try to recreate something with substitutes it may ease a craving but I'd rather have a local specialty that is at its best.