Culinary transitions are one of the most noticeable aspects of moving around the globe. When I was in Bangladesh as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I transitioned from the US, with always available anything, to a land where the seasons dictated the menu. It was my first time fully being immersed in how seasonal changes impact not only the clothing that I would wear, but also the food I would be eating.
Bangladesh had a clearly distinct vegetable period of about three to four months, a fruit season that lasted three to four months, and then a few more sparse months here and there. Within these seasons there would also be food specific seasons. Lychee season lasted a total of three weeks in my town. And during that three-week period, I would consume a plethora of those small red-cased white juicy pulp fruit.
Burma too had its distinct seasons for food, but now I was no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer upcountry, but a development worker expat in the main city. With being in the main city, and having a bit of disposable income, I was able to insulate myself somewhat from the seasonal shifts by buying food at the import grocery markets. While convenient, this did separate me once again from being so in tune with the Earth and the seasons of that area. But then again, I was able to eat apples from Australia, and I think that I rarely ever had an apple in Bangladesh.
Culinary transitions are one part availability and the other part ingenuity. By ingenuity I am referring to what the human population of that area does with the ingredients available to them. While Bangladesh and Burma share a border, are in very similar climate patterns, and have much of the same food available; I was amazed by how different the cuisine was between the two nations. In Bangladesh, the curries had a thick gravy emphasis with strong flavor profiles and rich and hot spices. The curries in Burma were much more watery with an excess of oil and fish sauce with mild flavor profiles. And then, if we were to throw Thailand into the mix as well, there was an amazing diversity of what could be done with the same ingredients.
Having spent so much time in Asia, my wife and I both thoroughly enjoy Asian cuisine. We are very partial to both Bangladeshi/Indian and Thai culinary arts (sorry, but Burmese food just did not sit as well with us.) K, having been primarily raised in Asia, has joined us with this love for Asian food. His favorite food would have to be rice & egg and for a snack he would often call for roasted seaweed. Well, that was all well and good; but now that we are in Sweden, which we have been for less than two months, he has not asked for rice & egg or seaweed in the past month. This week he has demanded to have bread with butter and cheese. He wants it in the morning for breakfast, when he wakes up from naptime, and for dinner.
Bread, Butter, & Cheese. Ick!! But here in Sweden, they are all about there bread, butter, and cheese. And part of living abroad is to experience, and embrace, culinary transitions. But, when K first requested bread, butter, and cheese, I hesitated and thought that is just plain unhealthy and…yucky. I wasn’t going to give it to him. Luckily for K, my wife was there and let me know that here in Sweden, this is a common snack, so I went ahead and fixed him a bread, butter, and cheese sandwich. We also had another expat friend of ours who has been in Sweden for about 5 years, who has a little girl that said she absolutely loves liver paste. She can’t get enough of it!
So, my family and I are now in Sweden. And while my son has turned on to, and embraced, a bit of the culinary traditions of this northern European country; I find that my wife and I are still more inclined to enjoy our Asian favorites. Last night I made a really nice Thai Penang curry with rice. My wife and I ate it up, and yup…K refused to eat it. It was a bread, butter, and cheese night for him. We did get him to eat some chicken, but he flatly refused the rice. This shocks me as rice and chicken was his second favorite meal when we lived in Burma, just three months ago!!
It is fascinating for me to see how these culinary transitions are taking place. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had no choice in what I was to eat; it all depended on what was available at the local market. And for that, I now love Bangladeshi/Indian food. In Burma, I had a choice and choose to exclude the fish sauce and oil heavy Burmese curries from my diet. Now, I am in Sweden and I again now have a choice. I can keep buying Asian foods and avoid the pickled herring and smelly old cheeses that litter half of the shelves at ICA MAXI, or I can embrace the world of bread, butter, and cheese and devour dairy products part and parcel with the Swedish meatballs that I have embraced. Or perhaps my son and I should balance each other out and form a middle way, a path that incorporates both the culinary traditions of our current country and the culinary experiences we have gained through our travels. Maybe next week, we will have a nice seaweed rice pilaf with Swedish meatballs, curried pumpkin, and on the side, bread with butter and cheese.