Wait, you teach what?

 In Cooking, Healthy eating, Travel

My husband and I recently returned from a 3-week trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It was wonderful and beautiful and illuminating. The illuminating bit crept in every time we had the opportunity to have in-depth conversations with the residents of those countries. As those we talked with eventually got a sense for our level of openness, they often waded into deeper waters. Much to my chagrin, the questions we were asked most often had to do with our electoral process and gun violence. Two topics that make my head and heart hurt, respectively.

But as a chef who teaches people how to cook, one of the most interesting conversations I had was while in Cambodia visiting a monastery for young Buddhist monks where the guide accompanying us had lived and studied for seven years (until his parents, who had sent him there as a child, called him back to help support his family).

The conversation was with a group of young women who were part of a seminar the monastery was hosting. These girls were eager to practice their English and began by shyly asking the ‘Learning a New Language 101’ battery of questions: “How are you?” “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “Do you have children?”


The inquisitors

As relatively few women in Cambodia work outside the home, it took them some time to get to, “What do you do for work?” When I explained that I taught people how to cook, they were initially very enthusiastic and exclaimed in near unison, “Oh, cooking! We like to cook!” For a hot minute it seemed like we’d found some fertile common ground until, one by one, they began to look perplexed. Each had their heads cocked to one side and brows furrowed when the bravest of the girls asked, “Why do you teach cooking? Don’t your mothers teach you how to cook?” It was the most polite version of “Wait, you teach what now?” they could muster.

And then it was my turn to look perplexed.

How could I explain that, according to one study, close to 30% of Americans report they don’t cook because they simply don’t know how? How could I tell them that parents are no longer teaching their children these essential skills? Should I tell them that the vast majority of us rely on corporations to feed us heavily-processed foods so we no longer need to know more than how to press a few buttons on a microwave or how to drive up to window, talk into a speaker, and pick up food at window? The language to explain all this eluded me and I feared that no words could help them understand.

In Cambodia, cooking, eating, and sharing meals is such an integral part of life that we were told that there isn’t even a way to ask if someone is hungry in Khmer. Instead family and friends are asked (in a tone that is midway between questioning and commanding), “Eat some rice?” It is just assumed that you will, indeed, eat some rice.

The Cambodians we saw took their time, savoring their meals while conversing with others. They expended tremendous effort acquiring ingredients both in markets and from the land around them, and they appeared to derive pleasure in doing so while they gossiped with vendors or attempted to catch fish with their neighbors. Sometimes children played nearby but more often than not, they were gleefully helping mom or dad procure food.


Using fishing baskets in Cambodia

And, yes, I am well aware that I am idealizing so-called simpler times. I fully recognize that, the fact that I know where my next meal is coming from, allows my time to be free for myriad other pursuits (for which I’m enormously grateful). But before you (or I) just chalk it all up to the inevitable march of progress, let’s just take a minute to ponder what we’ve lost during the march: How, in America—a land of such abundance and ingenuity—did we forget how to do something as simple and essential as feed ourselves?

So, if what G.K. Chesterson suggests is true that, “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land,” then the I guess the objective has been met.

Have you had an experience traveling abroad that made you reconsider things back home? What was it and what, if any, changes did you make as a result?

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  • Liliana Castaneda Rossmann

    What a great experience!

    Even though my native Mexico is in many ways very similar to Cambodia as you describe it in terms of its cuisine legacy, sadly, I also have seen many people my own age turn to mass-produced foodstuffs.

    Mexico is the country with the highest rate of obesity and diabetes, due, in large part to a lack of potable water, so people turn to drinking Coca-Cola specifically and other sugary sodas. All this in less than 2 generations! The problem is that it’s considered uncool or backwards to go to the farmers’ markets and to cook your own food. My own sister believes to be a sign of development to shop at the new HEB supermarket (yes, the Texas chain!) instead of joining my mother on her weekly social outing at the farmers’ market.

    In fairness, her daughter (my niece/godchild) studied gastronomy and enjoys cooking, but I fear my mother’s cooking, of which there are NO recipes, because she cooks by feel, will become a memory once she is too. 🙁

    Thanks for sharing not just your journey but also this unexpected destination with us!

    “All Hail Bacteria!”


    • Stacey

      Yes, Liliana, while I was there it reminded me so much of when I was briefly living in Mexico 15 or so years ago. I keep hoping that the fate of the Cambodians won’t be the same as that of our southern neighbor. Sadly, what I saw in the more well-developed cities in Thailand and Vietnam tracked with what you and I see here… availability of fast foods and processed foods correlated perfectly with the number of overweight adults and children we saw. Even Burma/Myanmar has a KFC now. Cambodia is likely not far behind as tourism there is really taking off. Let’s hope that won’t be the case. And, while we’re hoping, let’s get a CCTV hooked up in your mom’s kitchen so we can all watch and learn from her!

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