Monday, July 25, 2011

Beyond The Plates and Palates

From Aforasri Pictures

I flipped through the channels on my TV. I stopped by channel 240, the AFC. Asian Food Channel is one of my favorite channels, just like I favorited Food Network when I lived in the U.S. That night, AFC broadcasted Mexico: One Plate at A Time with Chef Rick Bayless. Chef Bayless went on with his explanation on how a Gelateria in Mexico adapted to Mexican palate. The flavors of the Gelato served in that Gelateria ranged from classic Italian-ish vanilla, mocca, and chocolate to exotic tastes of guanábana, maracuyá, and dulce de leche.

I was struck by the reality, that I have lost my Spanish cullinary vocabularies significantly. It took me sometimes to recall what guanábana, maracuyá, and dulce de leche were. At first I just could recall the dinners and lunches I had at Mr. Pio-Pio, a small joint that serves Latin American and Carribean dishes on Albany's Quail Street. I saw myself facing the menu card with A.G. smiling and explaining name-by-name of the foods and beverages that I pointed. He always said that my Spanish - or my efforts to say Spanish words - sounded cute.

Over that menu card, I remember my efforts to spell "gu-a-ná-ba-na" and "ma-ra-cu-yá", and some other more not-so-easy-to spell words such as Pechuga de Pollo Asado, or that delicious fish soup with the words of pescado and cebolla. Those are my primary memories about guanábana and maracuyá that turned out to be soursop or sirsak and passion fruit or markisa in Indonesian. Coming from a tropical country myself, and missing the tropical fruits all the time when I lived in Upper State of New York made me choose guanábana or maracuyá juices everytime I dined there.

My memory about dulce de leche came with the image of a winter afternoon at A.G.'s apartment. He opened his kitchen cabinet with a happy face. As he turned to me, he got that caramelish-colored bar in his hand. "Do you want some dulce de leche?"
I am a foodie, I love tasting food. Off course, I nodded.
He snapped the bar into two, happily nibbled his part, as I slowly nibbled mine.
Super sweet and dairy-creamy sensation hit the tip of my tongue. I'm a foodie but I'm not a fan of dairy product. The creaminess was to much for me.
A.G. was surprised to see my reaction.
"You don't like it?"
"Mmmm.. it's too sweet and too milky to my taste."
He laughed. He knew too well that I don't like milk.
Anyway, I guess he was happy that none would reduce his dulce de leche's stock. His his mom packed them for him far away from Caracas. Dulce de leche is not a common food stuff in Albany so I somehow feel that he treated them like golden bars. :) (*kidding, hun!*)
And oh, by the way, Dulce de Leche is milk candy.

The AFC's Mexican culinary program made me realize how lucky I was to have abundant of opportunities to experience the Latin American influences during my stay in Albany. I joined many Latin American parties where I had so much chances to taste home-made foods, sip great sangria, dip my chips into very delicious guacamole and salsa... A.G. also took me to Arepas bar in Manhattan and Venezuelan restaurant in Philadelphia and I fell in love instantly with all the dishes - from entree, main course, until the desserts. In some occassions we hit Dominican restaurant in NYC's Washington Heights, that inspired me to learn on how to make good mofongo (smashed plantain).

Knowing that fell in love with Latin American foods, A.G. got me a nice Mexican recipe book for my birthday. For months, I put that book by my bed and read it over in between my readings for communication studies. I love flipping over its pages and learn various names and colors of the ingredients.

I also borrowed a book on Mexican food culture written by Joy Adopon, the Culinary Arts and Anthropology where I learned the history of the "three sisters", the staple foods of the Indians, that consist of corn, bean, and squash. I learned about the ideas of Sazon - the taste of the food that comprises not only physical spices and ingredients, but most importantly, LOVE. It is love that makes the food's tastes infiltrate to the heart. The idea of fulfillment does not only imply the full belly but also the fulfilled feelings.

I found that the philosophy of Sazon influenced my cooking attitude. I always knew that I was happy whenever I cooked, but only after I learned about Sazon I realized that I pour all my love to the meals that I prepared for my beloved other-half. It feels beautiful, almost spiritual. Preparing food takes the nurturing instinct out, the feeling to give, and to care. Somehow I thought I can relate to the feelings of the ladies preparing foods for offerings to the deities in the temples or in a religious ceremony that I saw in Bali or in the cities of Thailand. Love and dedication are expressed through foods. When the signal of love and dedication is right, the love vibes in food goes straight into others' heart, the dedication soften the hearts. I can sense that in grateful smiles drawn on the faces of my beloved ones.

These days I realized that food-related activities reminds me of good memories.
Those make me recall the warm feeling, the smiles, and the joy from preparing and sharing foods with my other-half. Remembering foods, or the names of the foods help us clearing up the clouds of newer memories that make the old ones feel vague.

Food hold the values of a society. It also easily reflect the culture and bonds within a family, or a relationship. It embraces the hints of the events that we share with our friends, parents, siblings, or lovers. Just like the events I recalled when I tried to remember the meanings of guanábana, maracuyá, and dulce de leche, and many other memories of food, meal times, and dining in every places I have been.

I can go over and over with many stories of cooking and dining - to my memories of learning to cook Thai food from the grandmother in my host family's home at a corner of Bangkok, helping my bestfriend cooking in her tiny apartment by the Seine river of Paris, when I cooked for my sister's wedding day in Okinawa... Those memories spread all over the corners of the earth. They are all heart-warming.

Maybe, one day somewhere in this world we will have a relaxation or healing center using food-related approaches. Just my thought, I think it would be good... or yummy. :)

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