Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Cooking for fun

Suhita, my Indonesian friend from my condo, had had a brilliant idea. Not knowing how to make a certain dish she asked if she could watch her neighbour make it. She learnt a lot and visited more neighbours in the multicultural condo where we all lived. American, Chinese, Iranian, Algerian, Indian, Thai and Swedish ladies all passed on their secrets of herbs, spices and special sauces. This quickly became a regular meeting with word spreading fast. Every two weeks expat wives would meet at someones house, but not for coffee and idle chat – it was a cooking lesson by a real native. There was no membership fee, just the agreement that once a year you would cook for the group. The ladies gathered at 10am and lunch was served at 12 prompt, because several mothers had children in pre-schools that finished early. In 2003 there were about fifteen members. Membership was only granted to certain nationalities though, and there was a cap on three people from the same culture. Suhita called it ‘Cooking for Fun.’

My neighbour, Liz, took me to the first cooking session, a French-speaking African lady who made a chicken stew traditionally served in her village and told stories of how they would catch the chicken for the pot that day. I joined that day after chatting over lunch to ladies from all over the globe. I looked forward to the bi-monthly sessions and over the first few months learnt the how to mix the five essential spices for a Chicken Korma, how to make an Iranian custard-like pudding, an Indonesian spicy salad and had a Japanese sushi demonstration.

What was so nice about the group was that there was no competition between the women. We mostly had children in different schools so we did not talk about teachers and class-stuff. We genuinely admired each other’s cooking and the fact we could talk and prepare a full meal, in just under two hours. I also loved visiting all the houses, from tiny apartments on the twentieth floor with window-less kitchens where we ate on the sofa with plates on our knees, to vast palaces in the suburbs with maids chopping vegetables and the hostess setting the table with real china and silverware.

I had my name penciled in for 2004, but as luck had it my Algerian neighbour couldn’t do her slot and I offered to fill it at the last minute. I had a mild panic as I thought what to do. I was listed in the members list as English/French and thought they might like to learn something traditionally from both cultures. The only recipe that I could do with my eyes closed was my mum’s English scones and fruit crumble. As for the French the easiest thing to do was quiche. So in the end the menu came out as a mis-mash of cultures:

v English Scones with clotted cream and jam (to be served with morning coffee at 11am)
v Salmon and Courgette Quiche (which was my specialty)
v Green salad
v Apple crumble with Bird’s custard

I raced around over-buying and prepping a quiche that was ready-to-eat in case the one I made in front of the ladies burnt, or worse. I made an extra batch of scones and a crumble just in case too. I stayed up till midnight weighing ingredients, organizing the table and folding napkins to perfection. I had had twelve RSVP’s, but only had dinnerware for six. Liz leant me extra chairs, cutlery and plates and was on hand with her hot water thermos, which was a blessing.

On the day I had a rigorous timetable, set by Jacques, which worked to the minute. I actually enjoyed telling them about how to make the breadcrumb-like mix for the scones and crumble and instructing them how to drip the eggy quiche mixture like my mother-in-law does. They asked hundreds of questions and wrote over my printed recipes many times. As we sat down at 12.01 for lunch and I saw the group chatting and eating with much pleasure I breathed a sigh of relief. Over for a year…now I could enjoy cooking for fun.

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