Since moving here to Mexico I’ve had to deal with numerous changes, from not seeing my kids at least twice a month to trying to learn and communicate in a new language. On thing that’s particularly frustrating is when I start cooking. Ingredients that I could easily find in practically any supermarket in the states are difficult to find at best, but more often impossible to find – even in Wal-mart or Sam’s club. In the rare occasions I am able to find something in the imported food section (like a good aged Gruyere) it often costs almost as much as I make in two weeks. Add to this the complication of cooking at an altitude a little over 7,000 feet higher than where I used to live… well, let’s just say it’s been no picnic.
Anything that is cooked in liquid takes longer. Anything that rises generally needs to be adjusted. Sometimes the adjustments are minor (shorter rise time, punch down yeast doughs one extra time) others it’s like a complicated puzzle with no instructions (more flour, less leavening agent, more sugar, less fat and/or more liquid – all in varying amounts.) Even simple omelets act differently, puffing up like bullfrogs if given the slightest opportunity.
I’ve also had to face the challenge of trying to explain exactly what kind of calabasa (squash) I want (among other things). When I ask for unusual things I get a mix of reactions such as: “no, I don’t have that.”, “No.” (along with a look like ‘what an odd person’), to (helpful) “no, check with …. over there.” My personal favorite came when I was looking for powdered ginger (jengibre en pulvo or jengibre molido) for making pumpkin pie. I searched every supermarket I could find (no luck) and then I moved on to checking with the people who sell ground spices in tianguis (the traveling market). This is where I encountered the best reaction of all. I first asked someone selling ground spices and he was nice enough to suggest the person who sells “plantas medicinales” (medicinal plants). I went over to her stall and asked for jengibre en pulvo and she looked at me as if I was stark raving mad and said “EN PULVO!?!” You would have thought by her reaction that I had just asked her for ingredients for voodoo. When I tried explaining that it was for pumpkin pie she looked at me like I was definitely from another planet. I have been back to her stall to make other purchases since then (Rosemary, sage, basil, thyme and hoja santa) and she never smiles at me even though everyone else gets a smile. I guess it didn’t help when I was explaining to other customers exactly what I was doing with some of the ingredients. When I was asked what I use the sage for (a lovely apple and sausage stuffing) the woman said “No! Es medicina!” (No! It’s medicine!) She looked as if she might take the sage back from me and give me my money back. *sighs*
Of course there are plus sides too. I’m learning about cooking with all sorts of plants and spices that aren’t common up in the states. I’m also learning how to make things like Atole de Arroz (the best way to describe the flavor is rice pudding with plenty of cinnamon) which is a perfect drink for the winter. The cinnamon here is the *real deal* and has a much more subtle flavor than the ground ‘cinnamon’ of the States. I have made my own cinnamon sugar here, and everyone who tries it is amazed. (This is not something they sell here, even though they do tend to put cinnamon and sugar on the churros).
Working in our café all day certainly helps me since I am able to experiment with ingredients during the ‘slow times’. The added benefit is that the customers come in and often say “What are you making? That smells good.” and thus a new item for the menu is born.