In a way, this cheese represents my experience with cultural immersion. That might seem like a bit of a leap, but let me explain. Next week will mark two years since I arrived in Ecuador. Two years. And so, naturally, I’ve been thinking about food and culture. And I cannot begin to tell you how much my life has changed since I spontaneously threw myself into this foreign country and way of life.
For better or for worse, I immersed myself in the Latin American ways, all of them. Why? For love, of course. The things we do for that, right? Despite having lived in several other foreign countries before moving here, this particular culture, culinary and otherwise, is unlike any I have experienced.
For starters, no English is spoken here in our city. Not by the locals anyway. Families are loud and huge, (I’m talking dozens of cousins) and are surrounded by a whole mess of expectations and curiosities. Questions that I would never dream of asking in my own culture are daily inquiries. Privacy is probably regarded as more of a suggestion on most topics. Education is different, in every sense. Politics? Ecuador is a socialist country with a democratic government, a combination that has actually been very successful. And it is a country that has progressed tremendously in recent years. Those stereotypes about the danger and drug cartels of South America? I can tell you they are not true for Ecuador. It is truly a beautiful place to live and as safe as any other country in the world.
And the food. Latin American cuisine has undoubtedly been one of the most difficult parts of my transition. In our region of the Andes, staples include white rice (honestly, I have never seen so much rice in my life!), plantains, potatoes, pounded and grilled beef and pork, soups, raw salads, freshly squeezed fruit juices, and coffee.
Lunch is the main meal. It is so significant that students of all ages study either in the morning or in the afternoon, and businesses close for two to three hours every day, so that families can share the meal together.
While this place is fascinating and much of the food delicious, it is not exactly the grilled meat, steamed vegetables, fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal and baked goods that I grew up enjoying. Not to mention school lunch boxes, afternoon tea and family dinners. I still miss those!
This brings me back to the cheese, which is a true rarity here, by the way. Because certain ingredients are not available, I am always on the hunt for those hard-to-find edible delights. No lemons? No good quality cheese? No Greek yogurt, dates or maple syrup? These absences have been a dismay to me from the beginning! Needless to say, I was practically beside myself to discover this Parmesan and formaggio Romano, plus some wonderful smoked bacon, at a temporary market today.
And so I try to bridge the cultural gap through cooking. When I think of home, the most comforting meals, treats and culinary traditions are often what come to mind. Now I attempt to recreate those comforts that I miss the most. In the process, I have not only gained a newfound passion for cooking, but also have begun to learn how to bridge this culture with my own.
Apart from my wonderful husband, Ecuador has given me a lesson about culture: immersing yourself in a new culture never needs to mean smothering your own. The best new cultures evolve by combining the most rewarding aspects of existing ones, like enjoying Italian Parmesan with local fruit. It’s a win-win situation!
Have you had an experience with cultural immersion? What was it like? I’d love to know!