Early in the pandemic, I channeled my worry into creating ambitious culinary creations. As the pandemic-related restrictions dragged on, my motivation and joy for cooking fizzled out. Now I’m fried. Recently, when one of my children asked, “what’s for dinner?” my mind flashed to an old sitcom in which the mom collected leftovers during the week, layered them in a casserole dish and heated it up. This “leftover parfait” actually enticed me. Something had to change.
My preoccupation with my family’s health, running the household, and the immediacy of producing something appealing for our next meal were my constant companions.
Meanwhile, my 20-year-old daughter, Robin, was lamenting the cancellation of a long-awaited adventure. Summer 2020 was supposed to be her ultimate travel experience before starting university in the fall. The next three summers would be dedicated to work internships or classes.
Because of her compromised lungs, her world had shrunk to our home. Her room doubled as a classroom where she spent countless hours on her computer for Zoom lectures, assignments, and exams. She emerged occasionally to shower and grab food. Her overall enthusiasm had dropped like a failed soufflé.
“I’ve been dreaming about touring the cities I’d planned to visit,” Robin said.
I heard the disappointment in her voice and stroked her arm.
“I even imagined the food I wanted to try.” A foodie since childhood, my toddler devoured seared scallops with beurre blanc while her playmates ate Tater Tots.
Our conversation prompted me to reframe our situation and devise something to nourish us both. Based on a trio of mutual passions: food, travel, and literature, a challenge was born. “Cooking ‘Around The World In 80 Days,’” in which we virtually circumnavigated the globe one delicious dish at a time.
Robin scrunched her nose. “That’s a lot of recipes.”
We set the guidelines: research the countries’ cuisines, select an appetizer, a main course, a side, or a dessert, and split the tasks.
“You’ll be fine,” I said.
With a laptop on the counter in our Montreal kitchen, we launched Google Earth Pro, spun the digital globe, and began our journey in search of palate-pleasing possibilities. The first stop was Yemen, where we found Chicken Mandi and Rice.
I assembled the Yemeni spice mix: cumin, ground coriander, cinnamon, ground cloves, turmeric, cardamom, black pepper, and chili powder.
My kitchen companion frowned as she studied the recipe. “There isn’t enough spice mix.” Robin’s scientific mind and perfectionist personality concluded.
I disagreed, and Robin pointed to the ingredients list that stated: “a half chicken.” I nodded and explained this was part of her learning experience. She didn’t buy it.
I asked Robin to coat the meat with the melted butter and spices. She grimaced as she held a tiny piece of the drumstick between her thumb and index. It slipped and flopped onto the counter. She grumbled but embraced using her hands.
With the chicken now in the oven, we washed our hands, Robin held up her sun-yellow-stained hands.
“Turmeric hands!” I said, showing her mine.
Midway through the baking time, we peeled off the foil, the spices released their magnificent fruity and nutty perfume.
At the table, Robin said, “Normally, this chicken is cooked underground over coals for hours.”
I added, “mandi” means “dew,” referring to the moistness of the meat.
Robin watched as her dad took his first bite. “It’s delicious,” he said.
We feasted on a browned chicken that hit all the flavor notes: the spice mixture melded and produced an earthy, sweet, and rich taste. The basmati rice puffed to perfection and was topped with a sprinkling of raisins and slivered almonds.
Next, craving something sweet, we landed in Peru and found a heavenly dessert called “Suspiro de Limeña,” a Peruvian version of dulce de leche.
Robin took on the delicate task of making the meringue. Watching her whip the egg whites, I smelled a bitter odor. I’d forgotten about the sugar syrup boiling on the stove and it burned. Robin grinned. I grumbled and started over.
When we gathered to enjoy this treat, Robin explained the dessert’s name means the “sigh of the Peruvian woman.” We understood why as we ate this luscious caramel-flavored pudding, topped with the fluffy meringue and a dusting of cinnamon.
We then flew to China. Buying food once a week meant using the short rib in the freezer, but we wanted something other than our usual side of sticky rice.
A little digging yielded bao, a yeast-leavened bun with a touch of sweetness that can be filled with meat or veggies. I’d assumed they were too difficult to make at home. Wrong.
Out came the mixer, we combined yeast, sugar, flour, cornstarch, and baking powder. That’s it! The tricky part was the resting time to proof the dough. After its “beauty rest,” we punched the dough—seemed a shame to let it puff only to pound it down, but it’s a great pandemic stress-buster. Robin cut out discs from the dough, flattened them with a rolling pin and popped them into the steamer.
We stuffed these little pillowy pockets with meat, pickled carrots, and fresh coriander. Yum!
This challenge became a unifying part of our family’s day. My husband and other daughter were intrigued to see what Robin and I cooked up, and it sparked conversation about different cultures.
Our virtual voyage took us places we’d likely never get the opportunity to visit. Instead of typical vacation photos, our 2020 album contains a collection of memorable food experiences. Did things always turn out well? Hell, no, but that didn’t matter. We ate our mistakes; the mishaps were as much a part of the adventure. As for my travel buddy, Robin, she came away with cooking skills that will serve her well. She’s looking forward to making these dishes for her friends, in person.