One of the down sides of living at home with parents until your 20s is that you never really get to learn how to cook properly. When I left for Sweden for my Erasmus Mundus year in 2005, I didn’t even know how long it took to boil an egg. My culinary “skills” were limited to — as with most friends I had — cooking rice. As I never shopped for the ingredients myself either, I had as much of a clue as my dad as to the ingredients that go into our meals (I had a vague memory once that my dad cooked us stew. Everyone tells me I must have dreamt this up). So, as in most Filipino families, it was my mother who held the culinary skills and cooked all the meals herself. For the most part, the rest of the family only needed to sit down at the dinner table to a tasty meal whose making remained largely a mystery. There was really no motivation to cook by yourself.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but for my part at least, what this could have meant was that necessity was the mother of learning how to cook. After a few weeks of trying out Swedish cafeteria food (my first cafeteria meal, I remember so clearly, was couscous salad) and eating from bottles and cans (chili con carne and pesto — oh, the memories!), who really wouldn’t like to experiment one bit cooking “real food”? Just out of self respect, really. I couldn’t stand what I was eating. Most of my dorm mates also just ate “dorm food” — the proverbial “man chow” — of instant macaroni topped with ketchup, instant pizzas, and frozen dinners. I saw a mental image of my mom, who loves to stress the importance of good home-cooked food and never packed us instants in our lunchboxes, looking down at our diets with disappointment. Something needed to be done!
My first attempt at cooking was a simple tuna sauce for spaghetti, which is just like meat sauce (bolognese) but obviously not made out of meat. You sauté garlic and onions, add crushed tomatoes and the tuna, and season to taste: “elementary”. Surprisingly, cooking the spaghetti was actually harder. Since I had never seen a stove that wasn’t a gas stove before, I was baffled at how much time it took for the water to boil. One tip I use now is to boil just a little water in the pot and to use a water boiler for the rest. We also developed a Friday night habit among my friends, of inviting each other over to a cooked dinner to recreate the family feeling. And yes, we bummed a lot with fellow Filipinos who had lived long in Sweden. Boy, can they cook!
Since then, and since I’m still living my life in Sweden, I of course discovered how to cook other foods beside tuna spaghetti. Friends sometimes comment about my “domestication”, but hey, one’s gotta eat 🙂 Learning to cook is part imagination and creativity, part daring experimentation (if you dare to eat some of your mistakes, that is!). In that way, cooking has been a learning experience for me, much like most other things about living in a different country.
So, what did you first cook in your year abroad? Did you already know how to cook when you arrived? Do you remember your first meal, and if so, how did it taste in comparison to your expectations? Comments appreciated!
Cristina Joy B. Guerrero
MA Applied Ethics (2005-2006)
Linköping University, Sweden/Utrecht University, the Netherlands