Food is a great connector of cultures and people. The act of sharing a meal is powerful; it can combat racism and loneliness. It is hard to hate someone or feel isolated when you have cooked with someone and shared a meal with them. Maybe because when we prepare a meal for someone or with someone, it is an act of giving, we are not taking away, we are nourishing, we are nurturers.
We often talk about food memories and food as a window into different cultures. Lunches from around the world have always intrigued me. I am curious to know what people sit down to eat at lunchtime, what delights are in the lunch boxes of children from different cultures, and what people look forward to on their lunch break. In most countries except North America, people stop and take a proper lunch break. I often think that instead of the trend of "nap rooms" in offices or "game rooms", perhaps just the simple act of stopping work and having lunch together would improve overall productivity. Potluck lunches are a great way to learn about your colleagues, where they are from and hear their stories.
We don't often think of the children of immigrant families and the envy or stigmas that occur during the school lunchtime rituals. I fondly remember moving back to Vancouver from New Zealand and going to summer school. Correction I do not fondly remember summer school, I fondly remember a young woman who sat behind me in grade 8 maths at summer school. We both were new to Vancouver, trying to navigate this new maths system. Summer school ended at lunchtime, but often this young woman would bring her lunch to school. The delicious aromas that came from her lunch bag eventually forced me to turn around and ask her what she had that smelled so good. I was painfully shy at that time, and I remember trying to gain the confidence to talk to her, I think it took a good two weeks before I summoned up the courage. Surinder had recently arrived in Vancouver from India, and her lunches consisted of a tiffin box with dhal, chicken curry and roti, and sometimes samosas. Just by looking at me, you would not know that my father was from Pakistan, so as far as Surinder knew, I was the girl from New Zealand. I remember I asked her what was in her lunch, she was embarrassed, and I felt terrible that I caused her to feel uncomfortable. I quickly explained to her that my favourite dish was my mother's chicken curry, and I recognized the curry smells. Once Surinder understood where I was coming from, she quickly offered to share her lunch with me. I still remember how good that curry tasted, and we immediately struck up a friendship that lasted for the rest of summer school. Two shy girls, new to the city from different countries, found a common bond over a curry. Surinder would continue to bring extra curry in her lunches. We never stayed in touch after summer school, but when I look back on my first two months in Vancouver as an awkward, shy, 13 year old, I remember it was the comfort of a curry lunch shared with another shy 13 year old, that drew me out of my shell.
My Grandmother (Bibi) made the best curries
In My Kitchen host, Patrizia remembers her lunchtimes at highschool. Patrizia would be embarrassed by the sandwiches that her mother would make for her, a typical Italian sandwich with pickled eggplant. Kids want to fit in, not stand out, and school lunches have a way of showcasing diversity. However, to Patrizia's surprise, she would have a line up at her locker every day at lunchtime. Kids would be lining up for the chance to get one of her mother's pickled eggplant sandwiches. They say food is the way to a man's (or women's) heart. I would say it also supersedes schoolyard teasing and posturing....if it is the right sandwich.
In New Zealand, I will admit no one was lining up for my sandwiches. We lived on a farm for a few years in New Zealand, and my Mum's side of the family are farmers for many generations back. It is normal to make braun when it is that time of year that the pig is "harvested." Braun (also known as headcheese) is a cold cut made from the meat of the pig's head. There it would be cooking away on my Grandma's stovetop, and we knew what was coming: Braun sandwiches with gherkins. The time is the early 80's now, and my brother and I went to school in Whangarei, New Zealand. The kids at school would have marmite and chip sandwiches, peanut butter and jam, bologne and cheese slices and there I was pulling out my braun and gherkin sandwich on Vogel bread. I admit, though, that sandwich never got thrown away.
This is braun (or head cheese) If you want to try it, Oyama Sausage on Granville Island in Vancouver sells it. Photo credit: Ross O'Meara
In My Kitchen host, Naomi shares her childhood lunches in her youth bento box making experience. The bento box in Japan is thoughtfully put together with love and care, usually by the mother of the household. Aesthetics plays a significant role in the bento box experience. A current trend in Japan is creating over the top, eye-pleasing bento boxes. There are special bento box classes parents may attend to learn how to create cute faces and characters out of various elements of the bento box. As a registered holistic nutritionist, I am always looking for ways to ensure my boys have a wholesome, delicious and nourishing mid-meal, but it needs to be simple. I don't feed them braun sandwiches ( I did try once), now they make bento box lunches, including trying to master the art of Tamagoyaki making. Tamagoyaki is a Japanese omelette traditionally made in a Tamagoyaki pan (but any pan would work). The fun is in the "rolling" of the Tamagoyaki. The eggs have a little bit of dashi concentrate added to them, and I have yet to meet a kid who doesn't like them.
Naomi making Tamagoyaki - Recipe below
In Vancouver, we are lucky to live in a city full of diversity. However, I have heard it said by many people over the years that they find Vancouver can be a difficult city to make connections. That we can be "cliquey", it saddens me to hear this, but I can see how it is true. I hope that more people will connect over food like Surinder and I did many years ago. We can change this perception of Vancouver. Maybe there will be more potluck lunches in the office, sharing lunches on the school ground and welcoming each other into our kitchens.
A kitchen is a great connector—a crossroad of cultures where entire worlds open. There's no warmer welcome than a kitchen, especially when it's in the home of someone who loves to share their passion for cooking.
Recipe courtesy of Naomi Eguchi and In My Kitchen™
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Prep time: 10 minutes
Serving size: 2 bento boxes
· 4 eggs
· 1 tsp Shiro-dashi
· 3 tsp water
METHOD:1. Whisk all ingredients together.
2. Heat Tamagoyaki pan with a little oil (a small pan works too).
3. Add a thin layer of egg mixture and move pan so it spreads evenly over the pan.
4. When cooked half-way, roll up the egg (the pros use chopsticks!) with a spatula and move to one end.
5. Lightly oil your pan again (use a little oil on a paper towel) and add more egg mixture, let it run under the rolled egg. When cooked half-way roll the egg mixture starting with the previously rolled egg.
6. Repeat until you have used all the egg mixture. Remove from pan and cut into slices.