Food & Drinks, Life

I was a reluctant third-cultural cook

It was years before my cooking became as multicultural as my life.

I used to hate cooking with a flaming passion. Well, that’s a mild over-exaggeration, but for a long, long time, it was really baking that was my ‘thing.’ As a kid, my mom first taught me the art of making the classic American chocolate chip cookies and brownies. Who’s going to say no to that? My mouth is watering as I remember it. I still remember almost 20 years ago – still feels crazy that I can say that – standing in the kitchen with my mom, her blonde hair pulled back into a high ponytail, mixing together the dough for the cookies.

I’d be on my tippy toes next to her, standing on my stepping stool because my five-year-old body was too short to reach the counter. She would scoop the dough onto the counter, then hold my hands in hers as we rolled the dough into balls. Somehow, she let me stick my grubby little hands into the messy dough and even eat some of it raw. Mothers. We’ve got to love them.

Soon, after the cookies had been dropped one by one onto a greased baking sheet, she’d slide it into the oven, and the whole house would smell of chocolate chip cookies. There is no better smell on this earth than a freshly-baked batch of chocolate chip cookies. Honestly.

Since my mother is American and my father is Saudi, we had always eaten what I called an ‘East and West’ mix of food at home. But flash forward about several years later, when my parents and I moved from the U.S. to the UAE.

But growing up in Dubai, I was surrounded by a city where people came from all over the world, bringing their culinary talents and stories with them. At friends’ houses, I find myself fascinated by all the cuisines I was exposed to. From Armenian to Emirati, and Pakistani to Scottish, having friends that came from many different countries fleshed out my palate.

It took a while before my own cooking followed suit.

In 2008, when I left Dubai for the U.K. to study at university, I finally had to learn to cook by myself – a move made purely out of survival. It was with a heavy heart that I relented to the realization that my meals would not cook itself, and that I alone would be responsible for feeding myself. A delicious breakfast was simple enough: oatmeal with water, add Greek yogurt, berries, and some peanut butter and a dash of cinnamon. Pair that with a cup of tea or coffee (or two) and I was good to go. Actually, that’s still one of my go-to breakfasts.

Lunch usually involved me and a few friends searching for a place to sit, shove something semi-nutritious into our mouths and mechanically chew for half an hour, then dash off to class. But dinner was a completely different affair.

For dinner, I actually tried to cook. I like to keep my food groups from getting lonely without one another, so I always made sure to have a protein, carb, and a vegetable or two. There was pasta with creamy mushroom sauce with chicken strips, and omelets with mixed vegetables with cheese. One of the easiest dishes to make is the classic British jacket potato with baked beans and cheese.

All of this can get boring after awhile, so I just began to make up things as I went along.

Instead of using white potatoes for the jacket potatoes dish, I used sweet potatoes. I’d slice them in half, drizzle in olive oil, bake for about 15 minutes, and then mash some cottage cheese onto it. Add some salt and black pepper as well as a small salad. Viola — a slightly fancy meal with minimal effort.

I was also homesick for food from the Middle East, so I’d incorporate small things into my dishes, like spices such as cumin and sumac. For breakfast, I’d add dates, into my cereal or oatmeal, dusted with cinnamon. Yes – that’s right, dates. Remember, I was homesick.

Nowadays, my cooking and baking skills are little more refined. I like scallops that are cooked in olive oil and garlic, freshly prepared salads, and homemade desserts using seasonal ingredients. And so far, throughout my life, the food, people, and places I encounter have influence on not just my cooking, but me as a person as well. They have all played a role at every stage in my life, both positive and negative, and the lessons I have learned are ingrained in my heart.

As both a bi-cultural woman and third-culture kid, I believe in embracing it all, every unique flavor and experience. Each one adds so much flavor to our lives.