One of the best things about the intermingling of cultures in Canada, is that it gives up the opportunity to move out of our comfort zone and try food that is not our 'own' - as I've written in a previous post on exploring ethnic cooking, it's never been easier. Everyone grows up with comfort food, and food that they know and cook/eat from their childhood. So when we try food that is not our own, it is a way of understanding and experiencing a different culture.
I grew up in India, and eating only Indian food. My first taste of Thai food came when I was twenty one, and away at university, and then backpacking around South East Asia gave me an opportunity to try out foods which were completely exotic to me. Until then it was all about food my mom made, and while it was fabulous Indian food, it certainly didn't mean that I could cook a perfect bowl of pasta or learn to do so till much later in life.
Everything I know about world food is through eating, learning, reading, traveling and most of all, not being afraid to try a recipe in my kitchen even when I have no idea what the finished dish should taste like. It's all well and good to be 'authentic', but as far as I am concerned, if your curry is too spicy, no one in your family will eat it. Everyone adapts recipes. The only difference here is, how do you make a recipe that is unfamiliar to you, your own? Where do you start?
How to Source Unusual Ingredients
Good food starts with great ingredients. And learning how to cook food that is not necessarily of your own culture starts with learning about and developing an understanding of what the ingredients of that particular cuisine are. How do they look? What they should smell/ taste like? And most importantly, where can you find these ingredients?
1. Research Your Ingredients
The internet is a fabulous resource for finding out about everything, but you can also start by flipping through a cookbook's head notes. Most cookbooks will have a comprehensive section where they go over ingredients, equipment and even recommend places where you can source these.
2. Check Out Your Local Supermarket
Your supermarket's ethnic section is a great place to look for unusual ingredients. I am always surprised at how much they stock and I am also struck by how little people know about it. Sometimes you might find a knowledgeable supermarket worker who will know exactly where they stock the star anise. Other times you will just have to explore and read packages until you find what you are looking for.
Superstore, for example, stocks some great spicy Jamaican ginger beer, and if you didn't know it was there, you would totally miss it. Look on high shelves, and in sections you wouldn't normally go to, and there is a treasure trove of ingredients just waiting to be found.
3. Your local specialty store
There are some ingredients that you do need to head out to your ethnic stores for. Usually, people working in these stores tend to have excellent knowledge of their ingredients and, will go out of their way to help you. Don't hesitate to commandeer one of them, and ask for help. Ask for tips on cooking, and for brands that they themselves use in the kitchen. Ethnic grocers will also tend to be a little cheaper than supermarkets, and are great for buying things like whole spices, rice and flours in bulk.
4. Online Stores
The internet is another fantastic place to shop for hard-to-find ingredients. The only drawback is that rare ingredients tend to be more expensive, so it's worth seeing if you are able to substitute cheaper, more readily available products. And more often than not, your cookbooks and the internet will help you out by suggesting substitutions.
Understanding Flavour and Techniques
One of the key things while adapting recipes is understanding flavours and techniques. You could start by trying out a restaurant that serves the food that you want to experience. Once you have an idea of how a recipe should taste, and its predominant flavours, you are ready to experiment in the kitchen. There are several ways in which you can work with unfamiliar flavours and techniques.
1. Taste as you cook
Tasting right from the beginning will help you develop an understanding of how flavours develop in a particular dish. Understanding how an ingredient features in the dish goes a long way in helping adapt the flavours to what you are looking for.
2. Check out videos and how-to recipes on the internet
The internet is full of how-to videos. From making a basic spice mix, to learning to how make choux pastry swans, it's all there somewhere. Most people are visual learners and watching helps understand techniques. Videos are also a useful supplement to recipes in cookbooks. A lot of cookbooks now come with DVDs that illustrate the techniques used in the book itself. Once you master a certain technique, it is easy to work with it and adapt the recipe to suit yourself.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but the only way to hone a technique is by practicing it. The more you work at it, the better you will get. Unfortunately, there is no way around this. The more you cook a certain cuisine, the more you will understand it, and the better you can adapt it.
4. Experiment and analyse
Your first adapted recipe might not taste perfect. Don't let that put you off. Talk it through with your tasters, and try to analyse what could be improved upon. It can be disappointing when ingredients don't always behave the way we want them to, but that's the fun of cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. Sometimes the best recipes come about by accident.
The world is a lot smaller today than it was, say, even just ten years ago. Food is a lot more universal and is a language that many of us understand. Ingredients that were seen as rare and unusual, are now pretty much almost available everywhere. So cooking food that is not part of your own culture just gets easier and easier and something that everybody can do in the comfort of their own kitchen. And it opens up a whole new world out there for us to explore and understand and play with.
Cooking Exotic Food - Making Recipes Your Own was written by Michelle Peters-Jones. Michelle blogs at The Tiffin Box, and is a food writer, recipe developer and communications professional. She loves weaving stories around food, and creates recipes inspired by her family and friends. She writes about East Indian, British and Canadian food, with a strong focus on using fresh, local and sustainable ingredients. Michelle writes a regular column for FBC called the Spice Box.