A to Z at home

A to Z at home: Cooking in Vancouver

The year of the virus has been a unique experience. It seems there is a pattern in their occurrence, at least when they are truly global, real pandemics. If their frequency is every 100 years (the Spanish flue in 1918, the First Cholera pandemic in 1817…), it is less likely for one person to experience such a horror twice in his/her lifetime. It is not like wars, certainly not like wars in Europe or particularly in the Balkan region, where one cannot live without experiencing war (unless dying from a disease or non-natural causes). (more…)

Gala

I couldn’t help buying a bottle of Ouzo for the sake of that one shot for this Greek dinner, a sip that would bring back memories. Before it was available on the shelves in the Serbian stores, I used to bring a bottle of Macedonian Mastika (from Strumica, North Macedonia), after visiting my family. It is the equivalent to the Greek Ouzo. The unique flavour of mastic resin, these teardrops of the Greek island of Chios, and the sharp smell of anise are enough to take me back to my childhood. It was part of every meze, shared at the table before the meal or during someone’s visit. I was too young to drink, but old enough to steal some juicy tomatoes, feta cheese and olives from the fresh salad. When I grew up, the bottle was kept for special occasions, and usually lasted till next summer.

I love calamari. I know, I know, I should stay away from deep-fried food. And I do, most of the time. Could I make it? This was a test. I wanted fresh squid, just caught, but when I went to Granville Island to get a professional advice on it, I was told that the only fresh squid came from Japan and cost more than I could imagine. The local squid “travels” frozen, but I could get it upon arrival on the market. Good enough.

I make baklava a few times a year, so it wasn’t interesting enough to do it again. I picked tulumba. You can definitely use a piping bag and a nozzle, but this special metal and wood syringe for tulumba came with me when I immigrated to Canada and has been used only a few times in these 20 years. It was time for it to fulfill its purpose of existence.

This whole meal, prepared here in Vancouver, was made with tons of love.

Game

Gushing into Spring,
I close my eyes and let the sun caress my eyelids,
warming my sight.
My vision is orange or blushing pink.

I am back in Greece, Ammouliani,
the Aegean coast,
sunbathing.
I can hear slow motion of waves kissing the shores,
kids’ laughter – play on a hot day,
languages I am trying to recognize,
decode a word or two
as if giving me access to a secret chamber
of their lives.

Pieces of conversation:
“Don’t text me any more.”
“I told her…”
“That is what you do.”
“Do you wanna go this way?”

Seagulls screeching…
Silence.

A seaplane engine running
in preparation for takeoff.
I open my eyes –
– still in Vancouver,
sitting on the bench on the seawall,
Coal Harbour marina.
Boats softly swinging on the water.

Essex Girl, Mi Tai Tai, Pekisko, Spirit Bear,
Urban Cowboy, Whale Tales, Sarah Elizabeth…
Names that hold their meaning
only with their owners.
Memories? Love? Aspirations? Lack of imagination?

A jogger running alone,
a man walking alone,
a mother pushing her stroller alone,
another man doing jumping jacks alone.

People keeping the distance,
Masks that have forced smiles
into hiding.
Time that has made travel
happen only in that orange space,
under our eyelids,
where we feel boundless hugging warmth.

Freaking fabulous

The French are the masters of eating with style. There is so much to choose from. I have been to France only once and it was for a UNESCO conference in Paris. One of my best memories regarding food is sitting on the bench with a colleague and eating fresh baguette with cheese. It was a sunny day and we didn’t have time to go to a restaurant for lunch, so we decided to visit the closest grocery shop. It was just delicious!

When I looked into creating a menu for the evening, there was so much I wanted to try. The dinner was a success, but I still have a number of dishes on my “to-do list”. I am not over with you, France!

Family and fear from fast forward

Far away i wait for the weekend
and a Viber call,
often with a video where I see
top of my mother’s head,
forehead at best,
sometimes her eyes,
or her ear and a lock of hair.
So hard to make it work,
to know where to talk,
where to touch,
how to see me.
Unsteady hands, blurred vision
aging…
Her voice is all I need.
As long as she answers,
I am fine.

My father in the background,
in his world, mostly silent now,
living in the space of books and objects,
that do not require communication,
he cannot participate in.
He sometimes asks me how we are doing,
reading my lips uttering the usual phrase
“We are all well, dad”.
The only question he would really like
to hear my answer to,
is when I will be there.

Everyday essentials

Anyone for a journey to El Salvador?

Latin America is still pretty much a mystery to me. I hope I will have the opportunity to visit places, learn about the cultures, the history stamped on its lands.

It was a wild card to pick El Salvador to cook a meal from its cuisine, but it was fun. The menu was created out of “10 most popular…” website. Everything was testfull, from the refreshing drinks, to a seafood soup, to papusas with beans to a great sweet piece of quesadilla.

I found this interesting store on Kingsway street, that had such a diversity of products, including the Queso Fresco (asked for in the recipe I followed). Yes, you can replace it with Parmesan cheese, but I tried to use the authentic ingredients as much as possible. Although I read it was usually eaten with coffee or as a snack, it was a nice dessert, not heavy and not overly sweet – just the way I liked it. I hope I will taste the real Salvadorian quesadilla in its native environment one day 🙂

Enigma

Ease into expiration.
When does love start to crumble?
Days turn into years,
patience into impatience,
questions into judgment,
expectations into disappointments.

And love breaks into pieces,
like an old loaf of bread,
tasteless.

The crumbs stay around
as an obelisk of life passed:
a postcard sent “with love”,
a photo with smiles,
a gift still on the shelf,
a book among other books,
a colour on the wall,
a habit we don’t recognize
is not ours.

Daily delicious

What is an open sandwich, I wondered? It must be something special as I never heard of it. Soon I learned that “open” means there is no second piece of bread that goes on the top. Ha! A sound of relief. That was so familiar. We had them for breakfast, lunch at a school cafeteria…

My nicest memories of sandwiches were from birthday parties when I was a kid. It would usually start with sandwiches, most often made with ham, potato salad on one corner, boiled eggs, a pickle. After that we would go and play until they called us for a cake. Now, the birthday parties are different, organized by specialists, with magicians and entertainers. I don’t think anyone makes sandwiches any more.

So, open sandwiches it was, for brunch. The Internet helped us make them Danish. Scandinavians often eat fish for any meal, so we had to include pickled herring, roe and some freshly cooked shrimp. There were other delicious condiments as well. I baked two types of rye bread to make the experience more authentic. A shot of aquavit was a good start.

Direction west

Dissolved in the crowd
of thousands of people,
moving from one side of the planet to the other,
my daughter carried a white teddy bear,
my son a small backpack.

We played cards on the plane,
read books,
washing away the 10-hour flight,
and what we left behind.

I promised a beautiful country,
a sky without threat,
a room with light and heat.

The blood kept pumping in those chambers,
aware that no one would wait at the airport,
that I had I no address to go to.

I had a debt in my pockets,
money that I needed to return
and a bundle my parents managed to scramble.
How long could it last?

We will have birthdays
with sandwiches and cakes,
I said to myself,
stepping on the wet Vancouver street,
brushing off the rain from our faces.

Challenge to cook Chinese

I love Asian food, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese… you name it. Full of spices, light and diverse – I can eat it every day. Cooking it is a different story. So many ingredients I don’t know what to do with. I am not sure I am good at trying and tasting, “feeling” what’s missing and creating a delicious combination of flavours.

A colleague of mine and a friend was my motivation to give it a try. I really liked a dish she made for one of her Chinese new year’s parties. A year later, after my repeated begging for the recipe, she gave me a Christmas gift, a package with all the ingredients I needed, with instructions. “This way, you will know what to buy next time, and what it should look like” she said, and she was right. That was the best way to make it possible for me to cook it. I loved it, but my success was not enough to make me move to another dish. A stir fry with a few drops of teriyaki on a busy day, or a jar of hot chili garlic sauce was as far as I would go.

A hot soup was always part of the main dish at my family table. When we moved to Canada, a soup was what you had on its own, or with a salad. My kids would rather skip it and get to the “real deal”. I lost the habit of having it every day, but when my cooking partner suggested hot and sour soup, I couldn’t get rid of a smile on my face. I will do it!

Caring hands

Curled into my favourite place,
that cushy armchair,
I stayed to watch TV,
as long as I could,
rebelliously disobeying
my mother’s strict rules:
a cartoon at 7:15, news at 7:30,
time for bed after that.

Clever move
to drift into the first sleep unnoticed,
knowing that there was a chance
they would not wake me up.

Comfort which I would feel instead,
my dad lifting me in his arms
and carrying softly to my room.
The smell and strength,
of safety and protection,
– all I wanted at the end of the day.

Conspiracy and deception at times,
the evenings when I would pretend
that I am fast asleep,
so that I could have those caring hands
transport me again
into the land of dreams.

Calculating his every step today,
afraid that a crack or a stone
would throw him off balance,
fragile and shrunken,
my father waits for the planes to fly again,
for the hugs to be allowed,
for me to come back and visit.

Best of Belgium

I have never been to Belgium. On every “10 most popular Belgium dishes” sites, there were mussels. I have never cooked mussels before either. Seafood is not my household staple. The only sea I was close to growing up was the Pannonian Sea, 600,000 years away. What was left was occasional carp, catfish or sturgeon swimming in the rivers.

The challenge was on! The recipe didn’t look too complicated and the preparation turned out to be true to what they promised. It was fun to see the shells opening up. The dinner was served with French fries and garlic bread. Waffles were an easy dessert.

Breaking bones

Beach to settle down to.

This is where I wanted to grow old,
close to the water,
relinquished to the sun and calmness,
where cold wind transforms
into an indistinct recollection.

To rub my bones against the sand,
sculpturing them into a perfect shape,
smoothing the sharp edges of ageing.

A pebble whose luscious roundness
is not from youth
but a body of time.

An invitation for a visitor
to carve that special word on it,
such as “Hope” or “Love,”
put it in his pocket
and carry away.

Absolutely Amazing

Thanks to the long history of conquerors, I grew up in the region with reach and mixed cousins. The battles over the fertile fields around the river Danube were frequent, and the need to protect them led to building large fortifications in many cities including my home town. The construction started with the arrival of the Romans and ended in Austro-Hungarian times, under the rule of Maria Theresa (German: Maria Theresia) in 18th century. She was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the Queen of Hungary. The final shape of the fortress with underground system of tunnels, having four levels, was completed in 1776 under Joseph II, Maria Theresa’s eldest son. Sixteen kilometres of the tunnels provided good protection for the solders against Turkish attacks. In addition to the maze-like military fortification, the Austro-Hungarian empire left us with their customs, language and cousin.

The second “invasion” of a very similar way of cooking and dishes happened after the World War I, with the high number of German workers who kept settling in this region from 1918 on.

Armed with this double inheritance, making a choice of an Austrian dish was not too difficult, as it was so familiar to me. More importantly, the first stop in the new A to Z journey felt like warm homecoming. That is exactly what I needed in the era of pandemic where travelling back home and the smell of my mother’s cooking is only a dream.

Alexa is alert

Alone, but still with someone listening?

Loneliness has become normal.
Maybe I just live that way.

I’ve stopped spreading my arm
across the bed, reaching.
There is no expectation.

Suddenly, a moment when the scent of you
and the spring
drifts through the cracks and fills the house.
It comes uninvited,
unannounced,
and grabs me, like a robber in a dark alley.

If I cry for help
in an empty apartment,
will you hear me?
Will I wake up Alexa, sending my voice
into the virtual emptiness?
Will the Big Brother
come and
hug me,
like brothers do?

If I run, will the scent follow me,
light as a feather,
heavy as memories?
My feet pounding in the hallways of
digital labyrinths of zeros and ones.

I don’t want to run.
I want the scent to catch me,
and stay with me.

I am pulling the plug.
Goodbye, Alexa.