Thursday, July 11, 2013

Broke Da Mouth

A couple of years ago, when I was getting ready to leave Buenos Aires, an Argentinean lawyer friend of mine named Mariana was getting ready for her own trip to the states. She left for Hawaii on a 4-month work/study visa (this was back in 2010)...and never came back. In fact, she liked Hawaii so much she got a job there, joined a rowing club, and last month got married to a nice all-American boy.  

Before she left, I had told her she should write a guest post for the blog on her impressions of the states while she was there, turning the tables on my usual rantings about the Southern Hemisphere, and she promised me she would. The other day I opened up my mail to find "lo prometido"- an Argentinean take on American culture, more specifically Hawaiian food culture, which is a whole other world pretty much unknown to me. 


When I first came to Maui, Hawaii, the food was one of the biggest culture shocks. I was an Argentinean that, in my own opinion-- and after having travelled through both Europe and South America-- “ate almost everything”. That was far from being the truth.

The first difference wasn’t even the actual food but the American eating culture. To my eyes, the main thing that was missing was an important piece of furniture: the table. To us, the table is where the whole eating routine takes place. We usually don’t start eating unless everyone is sitting; when we’re kids we’re not allowed to leave it until we've finished the meal (and everyone else has finished too); there’s a sort of ritual about serving what we cook and we’re sharing. But not only that, we love sitting after the meal is over, even leaving all the dirty plates on it, just talking and enjoying the company.

America (and when I say this I’m talking about United States Of America: nobody here believes I’m “American” too), is the land of the plastic plate and silverware, paper cups, SOLO cups, tin foil, plastic wrap and “to go” containers. But barely any tables involved. They cook the food and whenever it is ready, everyone grabs a plate and a fork, puts together their own plate and finds a place to sit and eat. The big exception might be Thanksgiving. Food wise, America offers a great variety of cuisines: Mexican, Mexican-American, Thailand, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Italian, and so many others. Most of them are already part of the American daily dishes. Most of the dishes at restaurants’ menus also can be prepared in many different ways or can come with the choice of one or two sides of accompaniment. SO MANY CHOICES…

A typical situation is: you choose your meal, they ask you how you like it to be cooked (first question); then they ask you if you want salad or rice with it (typical second question); if it comes with any sort of bread, they offer you all the different varieties of it (third question). And I could keep going….after taking a long time to determine what I’m going to eat, I end up doubting myself with all the new possibilities!

In most Argentinean restaurants, food is always Argentinean cuisine (that includes Italian, German, French and Spanish dishes), but that’s it. And everything is a la carte. No sides, not substitutions, you'll only be asked how you want your food cooked if you order steak. And there’s a huge chance that whatever you’ve decided to order is not available that day! Another big difference was trying to get used to the many condiments, aiolis, dressings, gravies and sauces of all kinds that may come with the food. In Argentina, we only have salt, pepper and mayo. The worst part (but interesting as well) was dealing with spiciness. There’s nothing spicy in our dishes, chimichurri is not even mildly hot in comparison.

But I’m not only living in America, but in Hawai’i.

The youngest of the 50 US states, Hawai’i joined in 1959. This archipelago was earlier populated by Polynesian civilizations and, after that conquered by Europeans. Later, the Kingdom of Hawai’i would be created.
Along with American English, I had to get used to Hawaiian (the other official language) and learn words like aloha (hello, goodbye, love), mahalo (thank you), hale (house), and keiki (kids).

The (unofficial) third language is Hawaiian Pidgin, a Creole language based in part on English and used by many residents of Hawaii in everyday conversation. "Da kine" is probably the most identifying characteristic of spoken Hawaiian Pidgin, and certainly the most versatile. You can use it anywhere, anytime, anyhow. It's very convenient: it's the word you use when you don't use the word, a place-holder of sorts. 

But when talking about food, the main expression heard is “BROKE DA MOUTH”, used when something is so tasty that you want to eat it all at once. The cuisine of Hawaii is a fusion of many foods brought by immigrants to the Hawaiian Islands, particularly of American, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Polynesian and Portuguese origins, including plant and animal food sources imported from around the world for agricultural use in Hawaii such as pork, pineapples, macadamia nuts and bananas. 

One of my favorite baked goods here in Maui is the banana bread. It’s usually sold by locals along the road, made with the sweet “apple bananas”, brought from the Philippines. I used to bake a lot back in Argentina, and, since I moved to Hawai’i I think I’ve been overwhelmed by the many dishes, flavors and differences in the food that I couldn’t even imagine the idea of cooking something by myself. Last week, some friends gave some ripe apple bananas from their backyard. In the search of the best recipe, I ended up with this delicious banana bread.

Thanks Mariana!

Maui Banana Bread
     recipe from Mariana Lowy

4 ripe, normal-sized bananas (or 8 apple bananas)
1 c. (8 oz.) butter, room temperature
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 ½ c. all-purpose flour 

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter and flour a 9 in. x 5 in. loaf pan, then tap any excess flour out. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together, then beat in the eggs.
Stir in the bananas, previously mashed. Sift the flour; baking soda and powder, salt, together directly into the bowl, then stir well.
Pour the batter into the loaf pan. Bake for 45 min. / 1 hour, until a knife stuck into the center comes out clean and the bread has begun to pull away from the sides of the pan.
Let the bread cool in the pan for 10 min., invert the bread out of the pan, and then put it back right side up on a plate.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Notes from Buenos Aires

While Brazil was exploding over the past couple of weeks, I was further south, in Buenos Aires. It was weird being out of the country while all of our friends protested in the streets, but we had no idea what was going to go down when we bought the tickets. We got back to Rio this past weekend, just in time for the final of the FIFA Federation Cup, which Brazil won, and which immediately had everyone speculating as to how much the Brazilian government paid for the win. I'm not normally into conspiracy theories, but it was far too convenient for the Brazilians to win just now, even more so with an opposing team as strong as the current Spanish one. The protests continue on but less so...

Every time I go back to Buenos Aires I experience it differently. Some (mostly) trivial observations from the last week:
-If I'm not paying attention, I can go a week without eating a single fruit or vegetable.
-Everybody on the subway looks like they want to kill themselves.

-Apparently I'm far more worried about security in Rio than I realized-- I felt myself slowly relaxing and not automatically fearing every dark, person-less street. An Argentinean friend said to me, "People here constantly complain about how dangerous Buenos Aires is, but if you look at the statistics, it is far safer here than most other cities in Latin America and in the states." 

-Catcalling in Argentina is several orders of magnitude worse than it is in many other South American countries-- imagine Latinos crossed with Italians, and, well, you get Argentineans...

-In a sea of blacks and greys, me and my turquoise trench coat stand way, way out.
-Even if the coffee is terrible (and it is), it's lovely to be able to sit down and relax in the elegant, Old World-style coffee shops.

-Argentinean Pesos these days feel like monopoly money-- I was spending 100 pesos/day without even trying. (100 pesos used to last me a week.) The Argentinean government has severely restricted the buying of U.S. dollars, which has resulted in a massive black market. The official exchange rate is around 5 pesos=1 dollar, but on the black market it's more like 8-10 pesos=1 dollar. I went to change dollars into pesos at the black market rate, and it was probably the oddest business interaction I've ever had. Picture a jewelry store with 4 men in black standing by the entrance. You walk in, past the customers actually buying jewelry, and just stand at the back of the store until a guy ushers you into one of many small rooms, each with a guy behind a desk drinking mate. Nobody asks you what you're there for, and you don't say, they just say "hola linda" and you say, "hi, it's 8 to 1 today, right?" and they say yes, you tell them how much money you want to change, and two seconds later you're walking out the door, currency in hand, feeling kind of illicit but really not, because all you did was change money. 

-I had forgotten what it's like to see people reading on buses instead of zombified over their smart phones. I had forgotten what it's like to be able to take buses home at 4 in the morning! Honestly, I'd forgotten what it's like to be in a country with such a tangible middle class, where everybody takes public transportation, public art events and book fairs are packed, and the country doesn't come to a halt because of the telenovela.

On a more personal level, I love going back to Buenos Aires because I get to visit friends and eat empanadas and dulce de leche ice cream (not in any way similar to what is sold in the states, btw) until se me para el ombligo (until my belly button stands up). And you always gotta love dark Argentinean humor, appropriate for the grey streets and 0ºF weather.