Just kidding, I didn’t learn how to cook everything… only breads, vegetables, and beans. .
I carefully selected two new cookbooks to bring with me to Tanzania, and I was overwhelmingly happy with one.
After careful consideration, I selected Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I spent a lot of time browsing through the Deborah Madison book, and there’s a lot that I am looking forward to making but there were only a few recipes in that gigantic book that I could use in Tanzania. For a number of reasons, Deborah Madison’s book just wasn’t very practical for life in Africa.
Mark Bittman, on the other hand, taught me how to take whatever was at hand and make a meal I could be happy with. I was limited by access to and variety of ingredients. Plus, meat and poultry were very poor quality, and it wasn’t a very good idea to eat raw foods (uncooked veg for example). That meant that there several sections of the cookbook that I wasn’t able to try out, but I hope I’ll be able to fill those gaps in the coming years. The cookbook has so many good recipes. Almost everything I’ve made from How to Cook Everything has exceeded my expectations, taste wise.
I really do think I learned to cook while I was in Tanzania, even though I had followed a lot of recipes before moving to rural Africa. For one thing, I had to cook. With no takeout and practically no prepared foods available, I really had to commit to making a lot of meals from scratch. That meant looking after three meals a day – making granola or omelets for breakfast; baking bread and making spreads to eat at lunch; and some combination of beans and/or vegetables for dinner.
I also had to find a way to make good meals out of the things that were available to me. I couldn’t rely on inspiration from magazine spreads or thinking back to what dishes my mother combined for our meals growing up. I couldn't get ahead of myself and make a fancier meal than was actually necessary, because I didn't have access to pine nuts or goat cheese or fresh cilantro. I've got my whole home-cooking career ahead of me and can certainly gussy up a meal anytime I so choose. Yet there's something to be said for being able to cook a pot of perfectly-tender beans, or make a good tomato sauce out of just oil, onions, & tomatoes, or to make a simple but delicious batch of roasted vegetables. Basically, I had to become more flexible, creative and fundamental in the kitchen, because I had to see what was at the market then figure out from there what I could make.
So thanks, Mark Bittman, for coming to Tanzania with me to teach me to cook!