Tag Archives: cooking

The Trials & Tribulations of Everyday Incidentals

Imagine you’re 18 and leaving home for the first time.  Your zone of authority has most likely been relegated to one room of the house for your entire life.  It probably doesn’t have a lockable door, or if it does the rest of the household doesn’t take kindly to its employment.  You may have decorator’s privileges, but not without inviting a stream of unsolicited opinions as to the quality of your particular tastes.  Some of them probably have veto rights.  You likely cannot come and go at your pleasure but must apply to the board for approval of your intentions, however well-planned or purely whimsical.  They inevitably demand more detail than you’re comfortable or prepared to produce on a regular basis.  Maybe your music bothers them, or your friends, or your gaming, or your internet search history. Maybe theirs bothers you.  The concept of privacy?  Veritably unfathomed.  Heading into one’s first home-away-from-home, the bar hasn’t been set too high.  Friendly roommates and you’re golden.

Now imagine you’re 36 and haven’t had to capitulate to anyone’s house rules in return for food and shelter in roughly a decade.  You’ve managed to keep yourself alive, to varying degrees of success, for a while now.  Being an adult is not all it’s cracked up to be, but we do it anyway because creating your own home remains the province of the vertically advanced and the youthfully impaired.  You can leave your bed unmade and your clothes on the floor and eat Cocoa Puffs for dinner – all without bringing your maturity into question because no one is the wiser.  You can infiltrate the fridge or commandeer the kitchen at any time, day or night, without petitions or excuses.  Bedeck the walls in whatever apparel appeals without answering for it.  Finally acquire that massaging-recliner or four-poster bed you still resent Santa for withholding.  Find the picket-fenced yard, start a fur family, develop that home theater or game room or man cave or lady lair you’ve always dreamed of.  This is why we trade in our badges for business cards, flying capes for collared shirts, and home-cooked meals for freezer food – to be kids, er, kings of our own castles.

And this king has been unceremoniously uncrowned.

I admit, I was seduced by the brochure.  Sure, I can handle a dorm… if it’s IN A CASTLE.  I’m sure the bay-window reading nook and rustic rock fireplace will compensate for whatever trifling gnats the neighbors may make of themselves.  Arriving in St Andrews, I lugged my backpack and two suitcases off the bus and, after a cursory scan of the horizon, made for the nearest towering, turreted stronghold.  Lower the drawbridge, Dunwyn, I’ve finally arrived.

But the drawbridge never descended.  Although the goal was in sight, it remained inaccessible and impenetrable.  I wound my way around a large green, up a hill, through a parking lot, past the campus field, and finally arrived at the gate which was, rather unwelcomingly, sealed shut.  Making my way around the perimeter I tried various doors with no success.  Finally I followed my ears to a nearby spot of activity and made inquiries.  A staff person led me around to the back of the beckoning stone masonry where a no-nonsense, asylum-looking structure was hiding in its shadow and impersonating its name.  “The main building is under renovation” the girl explained chirpily.  That wasn’t mentioned in the leaflet.  Sorry Mario



The castle and the asylum.


The room was, to phrase it generously, a shoe-box.  Four white walls, some recycled office furniture, and a stripped mattress.  One of the more scandalizing discoveries I’ve made about Saint Andrew’s accommodations is that they are strictly BYOB: Buy Your Own Bedding.  They generously offer bedroom and bathroom sets for your purchasing convenience.  Determined to bargain-hunt, I spent the first week sleeping on thrift-store throw pillows and trying to turtle under a jacket.



The shoe-box.


Justice in the asylum is maintained by on-site officials aptly called “Wardens.”  Ornamentation is absolutely opposed by the tricky tactic of forbidding all forms of fastening – from tacks right down to poster putty.  Bring a pile of family photos to stave off the homesickness?  They kindly supply a pin board for that which, incidentally, is also utilized for general notices and regulations, not to be removed or obstructed.  I figured I could rig something up with string and clothespins, but the room has been meticulously scrubbed of any lasso-able extensions you might utilize to commit something so scandalous.

Despite the fact that the hallway looks like something out of a horror movie, it quickly becomes a happening social hub for the new arrivals, which I have the benefit of participating in from either side of the sociably eavesdroppable walls.  The tiny window offers a welcome reminder of the breathably spacious outdoors, but the curtains look like they’ve been upcycled from Aunt Gertrude’s old school dresses, themselves upcycled from an antique tablecloth inspired by the lovely color patterns of an upchucked potato stew.  One of my study abroad organizers, herself a former international student, raved about the welcome package included with her room, offering practical items like a UK sim card.  I find a pinstriped french-fry bag filled with a lollipop, bubblegum, and a few pieces of hard candy.  Malcom Gladwell would be proud.



Hallway of horrors.


Delicious curtains.


But these are mere trifles.  The real surprise comes three days into my incarceration when a sharp knock awakes me from blessed semi-slumber beneath my luxurious hoodie-blanket.  Through my sleep-addled brain and the benefit of hotel experience I suddenly ascertained the word, “housekeeping!” and immediately ejected an emphatic, “No, thank you!”  The door swung wide and a woman poked her head in.  “I need to get the bins,” she stated patly.  I sat in my shoe-box as startled as a hounded hare, and nearly as naked.  “Sure,” I mumbled, shell-shocked and dream-dazed.  “Go right ahead.”

In consecutive days, the incident repeated itself courtesy of the managerial staff and the porter.  I studiously composed a pleading appeal to the management to inform me of impending appointments, but soon learned that students do not require such extravagances when my request was politely ignored.  Welcome to the playhouse – it’s great to be a kid again.

The kitchen oven proves another insurmountable hurdle for my simple American mind.  There are two separate knobs, each with its own little series of incomprehensible symbols.  A pro-Googler, I soon learn about the wide array of conduction methods of which the modest English oven is capable.  I expertly select the fan symbol, set the temperature after a quick conversion to Celsius, and watch my dinner sit in the dark, getting colder.  But wait!  Everything, and I do mean everything has a wall-switch in Scotland.  Yes – here it is, marked: “cooker”!  I flip it triumphantly. A little while later finds me improvising with two cookie sheets sandwiched over the graciously functionable stove. (Turns out English ovens can’t cook without knowing the time, and you have to depress a cleverly randomized set of buttons to do it.)



The oven challenge.


Not to be shown up by the kitchen, the bathroom has its own set of hurdles in store.  It consists of a small room with toilet, sink and showerhead.  The latter is hung just to the right of the throne in a deformed-diamond shape corner of the oddly-angled room.  It’s partitioned off by a curtain which falls about a foot short of the floor, and a four-millimeter depression in the ground tile.  These are there to present toe-stubbing opportunities and the illusion of containment.  Don’t be fooled: the entire bathroom is your bathtub.  Your toilet will be standing in a centimeter of water on the memory-foam bath mat.  I initially sought to combat this unwelcome wading pool with sand bags strategically placed for maximum trippage, but ultimately found that an extra-long curtain resolved the issue more gracefully.  Score one for Ravenclaw.



The shower challenge.


The shower diamond is about 30 inches across at its maximum width and barely sufficient to contain even a skinny sneetch like myself.  A large horizontal pipe additionally protrudes into the space with adjustment knobs at either end for activation and temperature, respectively.  The pipe gives literal meaning to the phrase, “piping hot”, so I spend my mornings skillfully tetrising myself between this and the lecherous curtain.  Most tragically of all, my beloved hand-held showerhead is conspicuously absent from this Scottish dormicile. I’m forced to resort to the medieval method of standing in the stream.

So far, this grand new adventure proves commendably challenging.  Level one starts off with a bang, dumping me into the playing field without even a tutorial (who’m I kidding?  I never use those) and forcing me to relearn the basics.  But I expect no less from this strange new Scottish world.  The princess may be in another castle, but the game hasn’t defeated me yet.



Stranger in a strange land.

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Filed under Jordan in Scotland

Learning to Say Yes

I think I have changed quite a bit since the start of my study abroad experience in Morocco, but in a good way. The core of myself is the same, and I still have similar hopes and ambitions, but the way I look at and make decisions is a bit different. Looking back on my life before study abroad, I can remember that I was lacking some self sufficiency. I was open to having new experiences, but within a certain range. I didn’t have much confidence in doing things alone in a country where I did not speak the language. Taking taxis, trains, and renting apartments all seemed like hurdles I would struggle with. And they were when I first came to Morocco, but at this point in my semester, they are simple, painless, and sometimes exciting everyday tasks.


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A taxi driving past a protest in Marrakesh.


Although I have not improved my Arabic as much as I had hoped, I have learned enough to have simple conversations with taxi drivers who light up whenever I ask them how they are doing in Darija (Moroccan Arabic). My negotiating skills in Arabic have improved quite a bit. Sliding in a bit of Darija, and calling the taxi driver or merchant “brother” usually softens them up a bit, or at least puts a smile on their face.

I was very concerned about being able to cook for myself while completing the independent study portion of my study abroad. I had never really cooked much before, aside from breakfast and a sandwich here and there. The two other American students I was staying with are gluten intolerant and vegetarian. The food they made was not my cup of tea, to be honest. So I had to dive in, and try my hand at the easiest things I saw my dad make at home: pasta, pizza, and calzone. Yes, I know, stereotypical Italian, but it’s supposed to be easy, so I thought I should give it a shot. The pasta went by without a hitch, easy enough. Next was the calzone. We went to the grocery store to look for pre-made dough and they didn’t have it. I was going to have to make dough from scratch. I used the ever useful internet to find the ingredients and followed the recipe step by step. I made dough, with my own hands, and it was good. The filling of spinach, olives, and mushrooms was perfect, if I must say so myself. Now, when I go back home to the United States, the kitchen will no longer be just a place for my dad and his culinary expertise. There is a new cook in town, and he learned how to make pizza and calzone in Marrakesh.


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My first successful calzone.


Generally, I think I have become much more relaxed and willing to say yes to things I probably would not have before, and I am so glad I did. Do I want to stay at an Algerian film student’s house in Marrakesh for a week and a half? Why, certainly. Do I want to wake up at 6:00 am to watch the sun rise over the Sahara? Don’t mind if I do. Do I want to go with my friend to bear witness to Moroccan bureaucracy as he pays his traffic ticket and unwittingly get snuck into a Moroccan-only courthouse. Uh, yeah, sure, okay, why not. Probably don’t want to do the last one again, but it was an interesting experience. These experiences have, I believe, made me a more open person: someone who can see the benefit in experiences that might seem a bit uncomfortable, but that yield rewards that are worth it. If I had not done these things, I would not have seen things, or met people that have made my experience what it has been. Although it can be a bit uncomfortable to be pushed outside your comfort zone, you can come out a better, more experienced person.


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The view from Rami’s apartment in Marrakesh.



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Filed under middle east, Savin in Morocco

“You need to understand that everything in Serbia revolves around food.”

“You need to understand that everything in Serbia revolves around food,” my host-mother told me as I accepted a third helping—sans protest—of her delicious Sarma (mince-meat wrapped and cooked in cabbage leaves). “It doesn’t matter what is happening, food is always in the center!”

My three months in the Balkans have adequately communicated that whatever the occasion is, it absolutely relies on the presence of food and drink. For the Balkans in general, food is the conversation and substance of life.*

One of my favorites, šopska salata is made with chopped tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and crumbled or grated cheese.

One of my favorites, šopska salata, is made with chopped tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and crumbled or grated cheese.


Serbian cooks spare no oil, sugar, butter or any other traditionally “fattening” but flavor-intensifying measures when preparing their daily goods. In fact, a typical response to any complaining about gaining weight while in Serbia would probably be met with the common phrase “poprevila si se” which literally translates to “you fixed yourself”—as in gaining weight is always an improvement to one’s profile.

It is also customary that, especially as a guest, your host will continue filling your plate despite even the most adamant of protest. While you are expected to admit defeat (because you literally won’t be able to eat any more)—i.e. “ne mogu” (I can’t)— it is downright rude and devastating to your hosts to refuse. Just. Keep. Eating.

Serbia has so much to offer in terms of food that I didn’t miss much from home. A friend and I did manage to develop a craving for marshmallows, however, which was satisfied with Rolling Barrel Pub’s unique topla čokolada (hot chocolate)-one of the few places where marshmallows can be found. Photo by Emilija Lafond.

Serbia has so much to offer in terms of food that I didn’t miss much from home. A friend and I did manage to develop a craving for marshmallows, however, which was satisfied with Rolling Barrel Pub’s unique topla čokolada (hot chocolate) – one of the few places where marshmallows can be found. Photo by Emilija Lafond.


Serbians generally begin their day later than the average American or western European, so breakfast is a light affair: coffee, perhaps a pastry from the local pekara (bakery), etc.

But, Serbs do not generally grab their coffee to go. Like the rest of Europe, cafes dominate the social space in the Balkans (village or city, it doesn’t matter), and sitting down for a cup and conversation are both a leisurely and necessary experience. Cafes—which do not include Starbucks—tend to fill up in the afternoon and evening when families, friends, couples, etc. gather for conversations that can last upwards of two hours.

After their morning and coffee rituals, Serbians eat “lunch” which is usually served in the late afternoon or early evening. This is the main meal of the day and can be a sumptuous affair involving a variety of traditional dishes. A host might offer you supa (soup) first, then salad and a main dish. And at my host family’s, we always like to have “something sweet” after.

Some also eat dinner later, some not. But because of the nightlife scene that is virtually always active (all night, all year), you can eat any time. Open late food stands or pizzerias feed you at night, and bakeries open early in the morning. Belgrade is always awake and never hungry.

Various varieties of burek are served with yogurt in Pristina, Kosovo.

Various varieties of burek are served with yogurt in Pristina, Kosovo.


If you’re a proper Serb, you probably have these things on hand:

#1 – Hleb (bread)
This is bought fresh every day from the local pekara – another centerpiece of Serbian food culture – and it is served with basically everything. At meal times, the bread goes to the side of the plate on the table, never on your plate.

#2 – Rakija
This often homemade brandy-type alcohol is Serbia’s national drink. It is usually made out of fruits (plum is most common, opt for cherry if you want something sweeter) although I’ve heard honey makes an exceptional version. Rakija is also the main ingredient in a variety of Serbian home remedies.

#3 – Kafa (coffee)
Turska Kafa (Turkish coffee) is called different ways depending on where you are. Serbian/Bosnian or domaci (domestic) are all versions, but it is always made the same way—boiled in water over the stove top, grounds sit at the bottom and must not be drank in any circumstance—and always delivers the same strong flavor.

#4 – Kajmak
The closest I can get to describing Kajmak is a cross between butter and cheese (it’s actually boiled dairy cream). And it’s delightful. Eat with pljeskavica, čevapi, on bread, anything!

#5 – Ajvar
And speaking of spreads, ajvar—a red pepper relish, sometimes with eggplant or garlic—is also absolutely delicious. It packs a multi-layered flavor punch great on sandwiches, on crackers, etc.

#6 – Jogurt (yoghurt)
Jogurt in Serbia is produced slightly thinner…drinkable basically. It is commonly served to balance heavy dishes and strong flavors.

#7 – Plazma
Serbia is crazy about these cookies, which come with or without chocolate, in a variety of shapes and other flavors, etc. You can also get crumbled plazma which is often sprinkled on palačinke (Serbian crepes).

#8 – Eurocrem
Like Nutella (but possibly even more popular here), Eurocrem is the universal go-to sweet spread for palačinke, hleb, etc. Half of the tub is dark chocolate, the other white chocolate.

There are many good reasons to visit the Balkans, including for the food! Here are some of my recommended culinary experiences:

Friends and pljeskavica after visiting our favorite food stand in Belgrade.

Friends and pljeskavica after visiting our favorite food stand in Belgrade.

Out and about in Belgrade, Serbia:

1. Begin your morning with a burek and jogurt at a local pekara (bakery). Burek is filo-dough pasty filled with meat and/or cheese, and it’s to die for.

2. Visit the local pijaca (market) for fresh and delicious fruits, vegetables and a variety of other goods—you’ll never have sweeter jagode (strawberries) or prettier cveče (flowers). Serbia’s agricultural industry is unsubsidized and many pharmaceuticals are banned so market wares are essentially organic.

3. Serbian food stands are incredible. Here you can get pljeskavica, a mince-meat burger in pita bread. Add some onions, tomatoes, kajmak and whatever else captures your fancy.

4. After a long day, particularly after seeing the local nightlife, savor the favorite crepe-style pancake palačinke—sweet or savory. I recommend Nutella or Eurocrem with bananas or strawberries.

Topla čokalada (hot chocolate), warm wine and palačinke on top of a ski hill in Kapaonik, Serbia.

Topla čokalada (hot chocolate), warm wine and palačinke on top of a ski hill in Kapaonik, Serbia.

In beautiful Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina:

1. Go to the Turkish Old Town and sit down for some Turska Kafa* or Čaj (tea). This is usually served with ratluk* (Turkish delight). I recommend having dessert along with the drinks. Baklava (filo-dough pastry layered with honey or sugar syrup and walnuts or almonds) is a necessary choice, but Tufahija (baked apple with cinnamon and walnuts) is also excellent.

2. Even Serbians rave that Sarajevo has the best Ćevapčići (mince-meat sausages). These are usually served with kajmak and pita bread.

Turska čaj and baklava in Sarajevo, BiH. Photo by Emilija Lafond.

Turska čaj and baklava in Sarajevo, BiH. Photo by Emilija Lafond.


While visiting baba (grandma) in small-town Smederevo, Serbia:

1. Serbians are natural hosts, and you’ll often be welcomed to their home with a spoonful of slatko, a thin fruit preserve. The flavor is delightful but extremely sweet, so you will also be given a glass of water to help balance the potency.

2. And if you’re lucky, maybe your host—particularly if she is your baba—will send home a jug of zova with you. Zova is a sweet syrup made by boiling elderberry flowers; the syrup is mixed with water to make juice and is my favorite Serbian drink! And apparently it is also quite healthy, or at least that’s what babas here are always telling you about everything they make…

All images by author unless otherwise noted.

*I live in Serbia, so unless otherwise noted I will use the Serbian variant of names, recipes, and etc. However, to attempt to explain an incredibly complex history of factors that breach into all realms of identity in far too few sentences—food included—suffice it to say that Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian languages were Serbo-Croat until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and that there are several variations in vocabulary and grammar (i.e. dialects) that currently exist (particularly regarding food which is indicative of these very consciously created cultural and political distinctions but which alone would require their very own blog post…or book actually).

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Filed under Anlan in Serbia, Eastern Europe


After two months of living with my wonderful host family, it is time to bid them adieu. The final month of my study abroad program is the ISP (Independent Study Project) period and in that period we are responsible for our own housing, our own travel plans, food, and other expenses. We were all a bit intimidated when it came time to find a house to rent! And of course, after two months of taking classes with the same 12 people, what could be better than getting a house together? Not all of us are living together right now as Alex is living with the guys from another program and some of the girls need to be in other cities for their research, but that leaves ten of us renting a beautiful house with one bedroom, two large salas with very comfortable couches if I say so myself, and a western style bathroom. It also has a fairly decent kitchen and sitting room! The best part however is that the house comes with a pet. Finally, I can wake up every morning to the shrill chirping of a bright yellow parakeet… Now I remember why I hated it when my little sister had pet finches in her room.

We had three days from the final day of class to the official end of our homestay. I spent those three days packing and bringing my stuff over one suitcase at a time, one bag per day to the new house. I explored to supermarkets for ingredients for food, and I looked up stove top recipes for my favorite treats that usually require baking. I waited until I officially moved out to go buy perishable ingredients and for dinner on my first night in the house, I made a nice rice pudding. Of course, before I could make the rice pudding, I had to find vanilla. In the supermarket, they had no flavorings of any kind. In the baking section, they had pre-packaged mixes, rose water, and orange blossom water. They also had vanilla sugar, orange sugar, and various types of chocolate. No pure or synthetic extracts of any type! I wound up asking the program coordinator how to say vanilla in French and Arabic and wandering up the streets in the medina to every singe spice vender…. Vanille? Vanille? La (NOT) sucre! Finally, right before I gave up and caught the bus to go down town to a big supermarket with an international section, I struck gold… or bean really. Gourmet whole vanilla beans! When I asked at the final vendor, they began to say no, then paused and fetched a bag from behind the register and asked if it had vanilla beans in it and lo and behold! I bought three whole vanilla beans for 36 Dirham… $1.50 US per bean. When I told my mom she started hinting that I should look up how to make homemade vanilla extracts since it’s higher quality than anything you can buy in a store and with the price of the beans here it’s way cheaper apparently! My mom said in the US vanilla beans cost about $5.00 per bean… I’ve never bought or used whole vanilla beans before so it was a new experience.

Next weekend I’m going to have my host family over for lunch so they can see where I’m living and sample some all-American food. I’m feeding them potato salad, coleslaw, rice pudding with raisins and toasted almonds, and southern-fried chicken like my grandma makes! Hopefully they like it! And hopefully I’ll be able to find all of the ingredients for this more efficiently and with less hilarity than finding the vanilla.

I’m down to exactly 32 days… and I have 26 days to write a 25 page paper on a migration issue in Morocco! I need to begin reading and researching and analyzing if I’m to finish it on time while also having the ability to start travelling and seeing more cities in this fair country. Until next time!

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Filed under Danielle in Morocco, middle east