I love cooking. I always have. There is something about the way something seems to come from nothing that I have always enjoyed about it.
This weekend, I attended the Edmonton Heritage Festival. While the festival’s cultural performances and ethnic items for sale were interesting enough, the reason I, and I suspect many other people continue to attend the festival is for its huge variety of food.
After buying a sheet of food tickets, I was able to wander around the festival, travelling to different countries with my taste buds as my passport. I went to Italy for gelato, India for curry, and Ecuador for a chocolate-covered banana. I also got a mozzarella empanada from Ecuador, hoping to taste one like I used to eat in Argentina.
Empanadas are little pockets of dough usually filled with meat or cheese. They are common across all Latin American countries. I learned to make them when I was visiting an estancia, a South American ranch.
I was staying in a tiny town about an hour outside Buenos Aires, in a province of the same name. Some estancias are open to visitors, like guest ranches here, and I wanted to have the quintessentially Argentinean experience of riding a horse across the pampas. Unfortunately, rainy, muddy weather thwarted my plans.
I met a lady who ran one of the estancias I wanted to visit while I was wandering around the town, and she offered to let me spend the day at the ranch. I accepted.
I spent most of the day indoors. The house on the estancia was charming in a rustic sort of way. Terracotta tiles lined the floor, the furniture was carved wood, and fabric with a variety of woven colours hung on the wall.
She took me to the kitchen. Tomatoes, fresh basil, and mozzarella lay on the counter – all the ingredients for Caprese empanadas, like the classic Italian salad of the same name. The empanada dough was already made.
We set to work dicing the tomatoes and cheese and chopping up the basil. Then we wrapped all three in circles of dough and fried them. The dough turned golden brown and crispy. When I took a bite of one, the cheese inside had melted around the basil and tomato in a mass of savoury goodness.
Earlier in my time in Argentina, I learned to make another kind of food. At the time I was in the city where I was attending university, and living in a hostel. I had been unable to find an apartment or a roommate.
I had my own room at the hostel, and I shared a bathroom and kitchen with the rest of the guests. Being relatively new to staying in a communal environment, I was worried someone would take my food (no one ever did, at any hostel I stayed at). I compensated by eating the breakfast the hostel provided, keeping a few foods in my room, and getting the rest of my food ready-made from the bakery on the corner or the vendors on the beach. Needless to say, my diet wasn’t the healthiest as a result of this.
One night, a number of the other guests approached me and asked if I wanted to contribute to the ňoqui they were making (it’s spelled as “gnocchi” in Italian). I agreed, and added my parmesan, tomatoes, and peppers to the food pile.
Ňoqui is a type of pasta, made from potatoes and flour. A huge pile of potatoes sat in the hostel kitchen, which were peeled, boiled, and mashed. Next, we added enough flour, plus one egg, to turn the potatoes into a dough.
We rolled it into long strands, cut them into pieces, and boiled them again. The dough became slightly firmer. The noodles we’d made were served with a sauce made from vegetables and spices that had been contributed. Everyone who had helped sat around the table in the hostel dining room and ate together. I was lucky if I knew my dining companions’ names, but in that moment, I experienced the power that food truly has to bring people together. We may not all eat the same food, but we all have to eat, and sometimes, that’s all that matters.