I have always really enjoyed food. I think I might fit in well here with my family, as they like to tell me that they are “gordita’s” and they like to eat a lot of food. My mom used to tease me when I was younger that I had an uncanny knack to turn up behind her anytime she opened the fridge. So it is only fitting that most of this week has revolved around food. Or in other words, I haven’t been doing much with my time other than working and eating.
The week started off with me missing the invitation to go to Los Angeles to the house of a friend of the family’s for soup. Which in itself seems like an odd sort of invitation, most people back home don’t invite you over for soup. I was more or less told I would be going the week before at the birthday party – although I was confused as to why and what would be happening. I unfortunately missed the event as the day got changed and I had some other work to do. Not to worry the family still had plans once they returned to start on their task of teaching me how to cook Nica style. I had asked them this as I realized that without a rice cooker and due to my general lack of paying attention to time when I cook I really can’t make good rice. Also the soup here is quite good. So the other week I asked casually if they could teach me to cook a few things. I also thought this might help me understand how they cook, which from what I hear uses a lot of oil, salt and sugar. This last bit was more so I would know how to counsel patients in terms of nutrition and healthy lifestyle changes.
The first thing I would learn to cook was to be tostones con queso – which is a fried plantain rounds with fried cheese. Ashley was my instructor and it was decided my kitchen would be best. So she brings in the plantains and a monstrous bottle of cooking oil and we get to work. I am still quite surprised how much more challenging green plantains are to peel – it looks easy but I ended up making a mess of it. The plantain is cut into thin-ish slices and fried until softer in heaping amounts of oil. Then the little slices are removed, put in a towel and smushed with the palm of your hand then put back in to be fried some more. You can just feel your arteries clogging up as this is being done. Then on to the cheese, apparently I had the wrong kind of cheese. The usual cheese that is served with most meals is a white cheese that almost looks as though it is feta with a mix of an unusual Peruvian cheese that squeaks when you eat it. It is a bit firm and doesn’t melt. Which is why it stays in perfect little squares when fried. I however had cream cheese, or so I was told, which meant that it melted when fried and congealed into a strange mass on the plate. Don’t get me wrong it still tastes good –but as a healthy snack perhaps stick to carrots and hummus. Again this cooking lesson was a great conversation piece for the whole family and visiting neighbours who seemed wary of eating the results with Ashley, Neyelli and I.
Another interesting aspect to food here is that it is often gifted to people. I will be working in my kitchen when the mom of the family will burst in with a handful of oranges, bump me out of the way and start washing them and putting them in my fridge. The brother, the first time we met, gave me more bananas, oranges and mangoes than I could hold with my coffee cup in my hand. The man who rents NDI the clinic space will often pop in with various fruit from his property – one when green is a small round fruit that tastes like a crabapple but is apparently sweet when ripe, he also stopped in once to give me mangoes. On Friday when I finished with a patient he thanked me then pulled a red pepper out of his shirt pocket for me. I must admit that I do like this aspect of life on the island very much, as I’m pretty easy to win over if you feed me. And feed me they do. I try to alternate where I have my lunches in LA so I don’t monopolize (ie. mooch) one person’s kitchen. People have commented that even though I may be the slowest person they have ever seen eat, I finish my plate (my mother taught me well). Also I have learned that if someone invites you for lunch you must go – if you don’t it will either be brought to you or they will find you and you will then go there for dinner. This is not something I mind in the least, as especially after a long day it is lovely to have a meal waiting for you.
There is a dark side to this little post about food. As was mentioned in the first part of my post – many people here also really like food and as the example of the cooking methods may have given light to they are a little heavy handed when it comes to oil, and salt, and sugar. If you were to have a regular coffee with a family here you might find unbearable sweet. The problem in changing this is that people are used to cooking this way and they like how their food tastes. Think of how you might feel if someone came into your kitchen and said you shouldn’t cook the way you do and then left. Would you change? Would they actually help you to learn how to cook a different way? And if they would, would you prefer your way to theirs? People are comfortable with their cooking methods and enjoy the taste. It takes awhile for people to enjoy other, foreign ideas on cooking and different meals. The ubiquitous use of salt and sugar has resulted in some nasty health problems, namely diabetes and heart trouble. It is very challenging to change these habits from a room in a clinic without being able to offer them alternatives.
When patients come in and I’m trying to make sure that they are as healthy as possible I often hit roadblocks when it comes to nutrition. First knowing what town they are from helps give me an idea of what they have access to. Most often for the smaller towns it is a fruit and vegetable stand, likely a butcher of some sort and many Pulperias (very much like corner stores, but smaller and can be found in side rooms of houses. They have everything from Fresca to chips to antibiotics). Next up is what season is it and what is there access to. Thirdly are they able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables. The prices of produce here are shockingly low compared to Canadian standards, but when comparing it to what people make here it can often be out of their budget. The hard thing is that people can find money to go to a fiesta, recharge their phone or buy a sugary drink or candy but cannot find in their budget money for fresh produce. Whenever I try in my limited Spanish to explain the importance of fresh produce I try to let people know that they just need to eat more of what is available to them and cut down on the sugar. It is hard to believe that access to fresh produce here would be such a challenge as there seems to be mango, cahote, and orange trees everywhere, as well most of the people on the island are farmers. Unfortunately most of the farms are for tobacco, coffee or sugar – rather than nutritious crops that can be used to feed people here and most of the yield is slated for export, which explains why many people drink instant coffee. Another important aspect is how do people cook. Most people cook over open fire, or 2 little gas burners, some have a full stove and most don’t have a refrigerator. This means that storage of food is a concern as well as how the kitchen is ventilated is hugely important in terms of breathing concerns as the women of the house spend a significant amount of time cooking and kitchens here, similar to back home, tend to be a hub of activity where people gather and chat.
Another interesting aspect of this culture in respect to food is that meals are expected at various events. At the little girls birthday party there was almost a three-course meal served to about 20 or so people. The family cooked an entire sac of rice! Also NDI is the process of organizing for International Women’s Day with several other organizations here on the island and debate has been running about the idea of refreshments. There are expats that are working on organizing and for the cost and difficulty to feed the amount of people we are planning to have it was thought perhaps that people could either bring snacks or we could organize for vendors outside the event. This idea was literally laughed at when brought up in the meeting! If there is any sort of gathering food is expected, whether it is a political gathering, work meeting, or public forum. I think this is another example of how food plays a central role in culture, here in particular but I am sure there are equivalent examples in all other cultures.