Faces, Places, Tastes
"Food is never just something to eat”
People frequently ask me where does the passion for food comes from, and I always struggle to find a straightforward response. Perhaps, having been raised in a bicultural home (my dad is Ecuadorian and my mom is Polish) was the first step towards opening my eyes to the fact that food has many expressions and cultural manifestations. I soon realized that not everybody in Quito eats what we ate at lunch and not every mom cooks fish for Christmas -a very Polish thing.
My mom, a delicate but strong-willed lady, fiercely fought for the right to hold on Polish traditions at home. Since she had left her home country to start a life with my dad in Ecuador, after they both had graduated from college in Krakow, it seemed only fair to ask this much in return. Decisive and stubborn as she is, she managed to do so. My sister and I learned Polish language, celebrated Polish festivities, read Polish books and ate Polish food at home. Well, not all was Polish food. Throughout the years, some Ecuadorian dishes were introduced, but always keeping in mind my mom’s dietary restrictions (no seafood, no dairy, no fat, no onions). Homemade food was delicious, but we wanted more. Besides the occasional familiar outings to restaurants in town, my dad would take us once in a while to have street food or meals in small eateries that would make even daredevils think twice before entering. But these are the places where the real taste of local cuisines were to be found.
The more new flavours I discovered the more I wanted to start experimenting at home. I started buying and getting cook-books. Although my projects were rarely successful at the beginning and the strange pottages and weird concoctions were not always to everyone’s liking, these were the first steps I took in the kitchen.
As I went to college, I had to start cooking more often than just on “special occasions”. I studied in Warsaw, which helped expand my horizons tremendously. Never before in life had I been surrounded by people from such a rich mix of cultures from around the world, each one with their own style of cuisine and appreciation for food. This is an episode whose impact I keep feeling even today.
The real breakthrough, I believe, came when I moved to Italy. It was there where I learned how to appreciate an ingredient for its freshness and quality – for its essence. I slowly understood the importance of mastering a cooking technique; the value of seasonality and locality of products; and, the meaning of simplicity - the perfect combination of few elements that shine together and create a wonderful something. This experience deeply changed me and it is how I truly became infatuated with cooking, food history, food regional diversity and any other food-related issues.
Now that life has brought Marcin -my husband- and me to China, for another exciting adventure, we both continue exploring the limits of our taste buds … literally. The vast array of regional cuisines, flavours, textures and smells this country has to offer may only be eclipsed by the rich history that lies behind them. To me, a culinary experience is only complete when what we eat is accompanied by what we learn about the context in which a dish is embedded.
Food is a complex phenomenon and entails a social experience: Who cooked a dish for us? Who did we prepare a meal for? Who are we eating with? Who gave us the recipe? Food also carries information about the history, the economics, the politics, the sociological trends, the cultural traditions and even the linguistic developments in a given place. But, food is utterly a sensorial occurrence: How does a dish taste? Do we like it? Has it disappointed us? Why? Will we remember it? The taste of what we eat is the what at the end of the day will linger in the back of our head and will make us return to a place or avoid it in the future.
This bi-weekly blog was born as an attempt to channel all the different ideas, experiences, illusions, expectations and projects of mine -related to food. I wish to share my insights about the places that have left an impression in my brain and palate; about the people that have contributed to such an experience, and when possible, to share my opinions and perceptions of how something tasted. I sincerely hope that these pieces of writing will be an easy and light reading for those that are passionate about food or to those that as myself, have travelled from abroad and have embarked in the meandering road of uncovering the many “secrets” of food and life in China.
Dominika Mejía L.
Blogger, home cook, globetrotter
Photo taken by: Marcin Grabiec
Marcin Grabiec is a collaborating editor for the blog and author of several photos for this site.