Does Your Pantry Have Culture?

Does Your Pantry Have Culture?
Naturally, my pantry is full of caviar, smoked salmon, Moët and Chandon, and fragrant black truffles….Bwahahaha!

Caviar anyone? These things seem like they would taste like taramasalata. I think I’ll wait until they grow up, then sautee them in brown butter and garlic! 😉

Clearly, this isn’t the type of culture I want to talk about today.  I love to make foods from around the globe.  I’ve written before, that one of my favorite parts of homeschooling is making dishes from the countries and time periods my kids study.  There are benefits to cooking foods from other ethnicities that you might not expect.

As far as I can tell, every culture has what is refered to as peasant foods.  Historically, ‘peasant foods’ were locally grown, inexpensive, unrefined foods.  Translated to our modern Third World perspective this means CHEAP REAL FOOD!  I love food, and I love to travel.  Cooking these these kinds of well-traveled, but basic dishes lets me feel like I’m traveling.  They have the added perk of not requiring some one willing to sub-in feeding Finnbarr, so I can jet away to enjoy them.

My own culture tends to call these dishes ‘poor meals’.  Growing up in North Central Texas, we ate Red Beans and Cornbread, Chicken and Dumplings, Tuna Patties, Biscuits and Sausage Gravy, and Tex-Mex Style Tacos and Bean Burritos.

Liam is of Irish heritage, and there are terrific ‘poor’ recipes from Ireland!  Years ago, farm families in Ireland would boil yellow potatoes whole for lunches.  When the spuds were done, the water was drained away, and the covered pot of spuds was returned to the heat for a few minutes.  This last step caused the skins to crack open.  When we were in nursing school and Liam was out of work, we borrowed this unusual lunch often.  If we had butter and cheese, we added them.  If not, we still filled in the empty spots.

Having traveled in Ireland, I (and about ten pounds of my bum) can attest, that Ireland’s cuisine is outstanding.  The fresh seafood alone is enough to make this landlocked girl’s heart sing.  However, affluence is fairly recent there.  Ireland has a history filled with war, famine, and oppression that taught her people to stretch a pound of meat to feed a large family.  Irish Stews, Shepherd’s Pie, and Corned Beef and Cabbage are all wonderful and use inexpensive ingredients to round out the meal.

Irish Shepherd’s Pie and Soda Bread

Living in Texas, we have a lot of Mexican influence in our food and culture.  Much of what is served in local ‘Mexican’ restaurants is actually Tex-Mex.  This typically means more cheese, sour cream, meat, and other expensive ingredients have been added to jazz it up.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Tex-Mex and it can be made inexpensively.  However, authentic Mexican food is wonderful and often cheaper!  There isn’t much that will stretch meat like making tamales.  Pozole is a traditional soup/stew with hominy. It’s easy to make and inexpensive.  Migas is an egg dish that I love!  It’s served with red sauce and crunchy tortillas.  When I ate it in Mexico, it was served with dried beef so that’s how I make it.   It’s wonderful, easy, healthy, and…cheap!

Mexican Pozole

We work with and used to attend church with several people from Africa.  Much of Africa has cuisines based around inexpensive ingredients.  I’ve gathered recipes from Nigeria, Guyana, and Namibia.  I don’t claim to know anything about those cultures, except that their food is tasty and can be made cheaply.  Our African friends and co-workers seem pleased and amused when I ask for recipes.

Many of these dishes have dried black-eyed peas, peanuts, peanut butter, and sweet potatoes.  The combination may seem strange to an American palate, but we’ve really enjoyed the meals we’ve tried from Africa.  Well, except one stew.  My family decided it was edible but odd.  Since they’re willing to try new things, I accepted that assessment and took the stew off the menu.  (It really was kind of odd, but then I’ve always thought fried bologna sandwiches sounded odd too!)

Abala (They’re kind of like African tamales made of black-eyed peas and wrapped in banana leaves.) Weird description, but they’re very tasty!

We make Honduran Baleadas, Middle Eastern Falafel, Italian Pasta Frittata, Salvadorian Pupusas, and many other ‘peasant foods’ from around the globe.  I recently added another dish to this wonderful list.  I have a coworker from the Philipines.  We were chatting one night and discovered that we both love to cook.  We picked a night and arranged a swap.  I brought a dish of Irish Beef and Guinness with soda bread, and she brought a Filipino dish called Pancit.

Pancit is chicken, fine rice noodles, and vegetables.  The dish was so wonderful that I couldn’t wait to see my friend again to get the recipe.  As I’ve mentioned, my husband and kids can’t eat gluten.  When made with GF soy sauce, Pancit is naturally gluten-free!  So, I consulted Chef Google and read several recipes for the dish.  Then, I combined them and added a few tweaks to match my friend’s version as well as I could.  The result was a resounding success!  We all loved it, and the leftovers were a hot commodity the next day.

Pancit-Filipino Chicken, Rice Noodles, and Vegetables. It’s wonderful!

I’ve searched the internet for ‘poor’ or ‘peasant’ recipes, and I’ve found some interesting ones.  However, unless I’ve tasted the food before and have a frame of reference, I’m a little dubious.  If you wonder why, just google for recipes of foods you grew up with.  For example, if you look for fried chicken, it typically appears as ‘Southern Fried Chicken’ and has nothing (but the bird) in common with the heavenly dish I grew up with!

Exceptions to this concern are recipes on blogs I read regularly.  For example, The Bluebirds Are Nesting is an Australian blog I’ve read for years.  Annabel has built a great community there.  So, when I see recipes she and her readers post, I don’t feel as if I’m cooking in a cyber vacuum.  If I’m not sure what the final dish is supposed to be like, I can simply ask Annabel or one of the other wonderful Australian ‘Bluebirds’.  I know they’ll get back with me and give me first hand experience and advice!  (A couple of my favorite Annabel recipes: Winter Sunshine Cake and Meat Pies.)

Annabel’s gorgeous meat pies! The link to the recipe is above. Photo from The Bluebirds are Nesting.

Really, my favorite way to learn about cultures is to talk with someone about meals that remind them of home.  “What’s your favorite thing your mom made?”  “What food really means home to you?”  “What was the food you ate when money was tight?”  These questions have been great conversation starters, as well as providing me with wonderful recipes.  Often, these dishes have the added benefit of saving our family money! The great thing about peasant food is that even us peasants can afford it!

So…What’s your favorite thing your mom made/makes?  What food really means home to you?  What was the food you ate when money was tight?  Leave me a comment if you have time!  I love to chat with you, and I’d LOVE to find out about you ‘poor meals’ where you’re from!

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