A few years back, I thought I long and hard about why I decided to go to culinary school and why cooking fascinated me so much from a young age.
Not everyone loves to cook, has a natural talent for it, or even wants to be elbow-deep in dishes after dinner.
For me, cooking and being in the kitchen next to my mother or my aunt and uncle in Israel was always an opportunity to learn, to observe, to laugh, to ask questions and to help.
It was in the kitchen that I formed the closest bonds with my family.
Fast forward and here I am, exactly seven years out of culinary school and I am finding myself following everyday New Yorkers around and asking them to invite me over, show me their neighborhoods, special dishes and recipes that have been passed down by family members.
I started doing this selfishly because I thought it would be an opportunity to be a human sponge, watching and learning all that I could about ingredients and age-old handmade food techniques. But after just a single day of snapping pictures and cooking with my friend’s mother Eva, the food or the dish was just a gateway to learn about family history, struggle, and the dilemma of assimilation into U.S. culture.
One common denominator I have noticed with all of the people I have cooked with thus far is that food becomes a very real, very tangible way to stay connected to one’s homeland and to nurture oneself and one’s family.
This week, I found myself nosing around my cousin’s southern California kitchen at 7 p.m. Both Israeli-born, but one eastern European, the other with a Middle Eastern background, Karin and her boyfriend Almog set out to cook some simple, cozy foods that their parents and grandparents taught them to make. Almog made his famous juicy chicken schnitzels, carefully and neatly breaded with his savory flavored egg wash.
Karin’s recipe for Syrian-style rice and noodle pilaf was her grandmother’s dish. When she moved to the States, Karin’s mom wrote down all of her beloved recipes so she could carry on cooking them in Los Angeles. I watched Karin eyeball the ingredients, quickly getting the dish going as her mom and safta, or grandmother, had done for over 75 years.