Cooking up Cross-cultural Understanding

It started with bringing two small-handled jugs of maple syrup to my family as a thank-you-for-hosting-me gift. As happened in Turkey, my family didn’t quite know what to make of the mapley liquid. The fact it came from trees somewhat wowed the younger ones in the extended family. I attempted to explain its fabulousness in my rusty Spanish, how we use it on pancakes, and that it’s a product from my home state and general area of the United States.

After over a month of my host mom chiding me in her humorous way to cook, I got over my fear of a dirt-floored, foreign equipped kitchen and bought the remaining ingredients; after which it took another good week to make it happen. Things are slower to happen in Ecuador, you see. With some lengthy conversation about logistics at dinner one night, I decided to make them the next morning to be ready for 8 a.m. I had to leave by quarter of nine to catch the bus, so this would be a very scheduled event.

My family´s kitchen.

Once showered, I went to the kitchen and discovered no one around. Expectation number one not met. I fumbled around looking for ingredients and realized we had no milk. Thank goodness for the Víveres’ at every corner. Managing to mix everything up, the batter looked a bit strange, but so much is different in another country. Ready to cook, I realized I had everything but a pancake spatula. This should be interesting (which turned into expectation number two’s demise).

The pancakes fell apart, which I initially prescribed to only having a fork to turn them. Eventually I got smart and made them smaller, to appease the fork factor. Eager to try my concoction, I doused a couple with maple syrup only to be faced with expectation number three and its wicked ways. Um, things are different here, but why do my pancakes have a garlicky taste to them? With twenty minutes left, crappy confections, and no one yet to arrive, I bailed and put the rest of the batter in the fridge.

Later that night when my family decided to show up (I’ve buried that short lived “resentment”), my mom had a good chuckle when she said I used the wrong Harina. The flour I wanted (the normal, white, all-purpose kind we have, say, in the United States) sat in a black bag on the shelf. What I used is special flour for making crema de maíz and coladas or hot, thick drinks often combined with fruits. The garlic part provided some special amusement.

While I didn’t get the pancakes right, my experience did not lack any cultural lessons. I’m realizing (again) time is variable and subjective here. You say 4pm, they say closer to 5pm, or not. (Ahora, which means “now” in Spanish, means “today” here if that’s any indication.) Moreover, now I know more about making coladas and where the flour lives on the shelf of a hundred other bags of powdery substances (okay, maybe eight). It also provided us a laugh, and way for my family to teach me of their world.

Since then, I’ve successfully made my pancakes once more with Manzanas (apples) and Mortiños (blueberries) with my sister, and my cousin next door asked me to teach her how to make them. I still don’t think anyone gets the maple syrup part though. The way I see it, pancakes serve in the same capacity as French Fries—to be a vehicle for the ketchup. Half the reason I eat pancakes is that they make a spectacular means of consuming one of the most delicious treats on earth, maple syrup. Sometimes the cultural exchange isn’t even. That’s okay, it leaves more for me.

We also have plans (you know, sometime in the general future) to make chocolate chip cookies. If nothing else, cooking provides a social opportunity and a common ground. I get to share something of my culture while living in theirs. Besides the actual differences in cooking styles and methods, I also often learn about the smaller cultural habits and exchanges as well as vocabulary through dialogue and questions. Plus, we get to eat yummy treats that taste like home when we’re done.

Earlier, while the summer volunteers were here, we had a cooking lesson with a local indigenous woman who yearns to start a cooking school and later a hostel in neighboring Panecillo. I’d say we were her Guinea pigs, but then considering what we cooked that night, it might be an inappropriate remark.

Cuye (AKA Guinea Pig) cooking on the fire.

That clear, calm July evening, seven of us gathered in her enormous kitchen to make a feast. The menu included Cuye (aforementioned Guinea pig), Chimbolitos (a sweet, cake like batter that is steamed in large leaves), empanadas (somewhat like turnovers, but less flakey and more savory), and various side fixings. I quickly volunteered to help with making the Chimbolitos, in part because others had assisted previously and had already tried them. This happened to be my virgin endeavor.

As instructed I blended ingredients and whipped the egg whites (in a surprisingly non-chilled bowl), stirring them into the batter. As with any new experience, I relied on information stored in my head as to how to proceed and interpret my task. After several minutes, our fabulous host and instructor, Claudia, ever so politely told me she’d step in. She washed her hands and literally rolled up her sleeves. Claudia took hold of that batter like no mixer ever could. Her hands moved back and forth in a rhythm indicating she had done this no less than a thousand times. Pushing my momentary shame aside, I stood there in a slight awe. Yeahhhh, so THAT’S how you mix it. In something so simple, I learned about her culture and practices that spoke in ways words often fail.


While my ability to speak Spanish affords me a cultural connection that others may miss, I discovered the profundity of how even an individual who didn’t speak any the local idiom could dive into the experience and connected to the culture and activities through mere participation…and some occasional translation. The art and community through cooking seems long a tradition in many parts of the world, and one that still serves to connect each of us involved. Even in our own country, five families could have five different recipes for making the same item. There is such variety among all of us from the same and foreign nations.


4 thoughts on “Cooking up Cross-cultural Understanding

  1. Haha! in Hindi “kal” is both tomorrow and yesterday. No wonder folks here don’t operate in a goal oriented way!

    I’m glad you were able to make (and teach) pancake 101, I still cant make them — even in the US!

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