Live Inspired: Cooking, everywhere

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The journey, so far, through five kitchens and a couple dozen markets and to the simple realization that everything is different, yet the same, began in Hualtuco, a beachfront village on the Oaxacan coast of Mexico.

It was the first place in my travels that I had access to the basics: two tiny gas burners, a toaster oven and a small collection of cutlery and bowls, pots and pans.

My host uncle, there, was a fisherman, and would bring home beautiful, pink huachinangos, or red snappers. Once he saw that I had a love for both fresh seafood and using my hands, he began showing me how to prepare them — cleaning and scaling the plump, shimmering bodies and then frying them in chunks, or grilling them whole on the two-foot-high asada, butterflying the ribs open and slathering them with chipotle sauce.

This guest house had a tiny, outdoor kitchen on the second floor, where the guest rooms were, and I cooked there a couple times. It was the rainy season, so evenings were often met with downpours. Buckets of water would plunge off the overhang in sheets as I sautéed shrimp, chopped herbs and refilled my glass of white wine from the icy bottle kept in the freezer.  A couple times, though, I wound up cooking with my host family, down in their beautiful, better equipped space on the first floor of the house. There were so many offered tips: the proper way to cut avocados and mangos, the appropriate method for frying in large batches. One afternoon, we made Sunday dinner together, me mostly watching and taking mental notes between scrapping together a small salad of herbs, tomatoes, avocado and onion. We ate, after our long labor, at the long, outdoor table under palm trees — caldo (fish soup) and fried fish and potatoes and fresh, warm tortillas from baskets covered with colorful towels.

It was like I could breathe a little better, again. And ever after, I’ve placed having access to a kitchen at a premium.

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, I wandered through the maze that is the municipal market, marveling at the colors and the textures and the smells. There was the bright, portly produce. Breezes carrying the heavy scent of dried chilies and spices. And the harsh, corrugated skin of the chickens’ feet, strewn on a table and continually spritzed by a vendor armed with a water bottle. 

I scooped up a bag of freshly ground coffee beans, dark and bitter, some fruit and avocados for breakfast and a small bag of bread, selecting each piece from an array of overflowing baskets. I may have spent a dollar or two in all, certainly not more.

Later, in San Cristóbal, I cooked with a German traveler who was passing through the same guest house, with more goods garnered from the market: sausages and potatoes and a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, herbs and lime.

Afterward, I got my first and only parasite of the trip (knock on wood), probably as a result of our poor knowledge of cleaning vegetables. 

But four days, sick in bed, didn’t stop me from making food, elsewhere and afterward. Because for me, cooking has never really been about being healthy or saving money. It’s art. It’s therapy. It’s a chance to create something, and to feed my soul from the outside in.

I always knew that in order to survive in this indefinite road life, I would need to find a way into the kitchen.

It hasn’t been easy, really, anywhere. 

Every place has offered a very different concept of what kitchen essentials are, and the quality of the tools vary wildly. 

Sometimes there are cutting boards, wooden stirring spoons and sheet pans, sometimes not. I’ve used so many different coffeemakers: the familiar,  espresso hybrids and simple, suspended cloth sacks meant to hold the ground beans which will seep through the fabric into a cup when steaming water is poured over top.

Available foods here, too, differ from what is readily accessible in the U.S. I’ve learned to mostly live without lettuce and leafy greens because for the most part they have looked so wholeheartedly limp and unappealing, save for at a farm that sells such luxuries on the edge of Antigua. Other ingredients are next to impossible to find: miso, flaky salt, lemons.

I’ve learned, more each week, to adapt and substitute and make do. 

It’s still a thrill to walk home from the markets with two bags of vegetables and fruits for essentially pennies. The meat is less inspiring — whole chickens and meaty legs and thighs sitting, unchilled, on vendor counters; big, slabs of raw red meat hanging from hooks overhead.

Instead, I’ve gravitated to the fish, which is at least displayed on ice, probably to reduce the smell. I’ve found some specialty stores with chilled cuts of meat. And I’ve gone vegetarian, often, playing the game of what flavorful thing I can make with all I can find.

Almost always, I go shopping for my new list of staples that are readily available everywhere: olive oil, garlic, white onions, green onions, chilies, tomatoes, limes, cilantro and parsley. Sometimes I buy anchovies or capers or olives. Sometimes I find Dijon or good, thick yogurt for sauces. I’ve started toting with me a small sleeve of chili flakes and a tiny vial of vinegar. Those weapons, a lot of heat and a little wine, can go pretty far.

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The routine, ever-changing as it is, has been pleasant, and necessary.

In Antigua, I had a very nice kitchen setup, with lots of space and everything from a microwave and paper towels (both luxuries in these parts) to colanders and a citrus zester. The knives were old but methodically sharpened. The pans were old, too, but in the best way, because they were all cast iron, and their aged surfaces created delightful crusty, crispy bits on vegetables and meat. It was obvious my host, Cesar, loved to cook, too.

There, I relented and started bleaching my vegetables, which is typical in Mexico and Central America. First, you fill up a huge bowl with water, then add a tablespoon or so of bleach. After the vegetables sit in their bleach soup for a bit, you wash them with aqua pura, or filtered water from Eco Filtros, ceramic basins that use activated charcoal to rid the many bacterias. 

But I stopped this practice after a couple occasions. Throughout the last couple months, my stomach has become strong, and I was nervous to start babying it. Now, I’ve found my happy middle ground: soaking my produce in aqua pura only. 

Here in Panajachel, the kitchen is going to take some getting used to. Impressively, this home is producing nearly zero waste. It’s inspiring, really. But it also means there are no trash cans. A chunky wood island sits in the middle of the big, sprawling kitchen and in the middle, a circular wedge hides the hidden compost beneath. Almost everything else is expected to be eaten, recycled or simply not used; there are no paper products. There is also no running water inside the kitchen, complicating a quick hand wash. And all dishes are scrubbed outside in the pila — a Guatemalan contraption in which dirty dishes are scrubbed on a stone platform with soap and a cloth and a rock, then rinsed with clean, bleached water from a middle reservoir, which is scooped up with bowls and poured over.

Complicated as it is, I also have access, here, to a small garden of lettuces, chilies, herbs and lemongrass — truly opulence.

On Monday night, I sautéed some cauliflower with sausage, chilies, onions and garlic, and made a chimichurri sauce to dollop generously over top. The dull knives forced  less precise cuts and larger chunks, rendering the outcome somewhat rough. But it was delicious, and more importantly my soul had been fed.

After all, it’s not so much about the result as it is the process.