EXPAT FOODIE: WAR AND PEAS IN KENYA

by missfootloose on February 6, 2010 · 12 comments

in Expat foodie, Food, Kenya, Netherlands

So you’re and expat living abroad. Let’s say in Kenya, East Africa, the place with all the wild animals. Say you’ve eaten your share of the local soul food, irio, and now you want to fix some soul food from your own homeland. Make that country the Netherlands for the story’s sake. And because it’s actually my home country. Are you lost yet? I was. Read on.

Peace in Kenya: Mom and Baby Elephant
Photo by Melanie Lukesh / cc

PEAS ON EARTH

Only the pure of heart can make a good soup. — Beethoven

The path to culinary enlightenment has not always been an easy one for me, as you may remember from my curry calamity tale. Along with delicious discoveries have come deep disappointments, one of which concerned split pea soup, which to any normal Dutch person such as myself is a comfort food that should never be disappointing.

My cooking education began long ago, far away and high in the sky of the beautiful highlands of Kenya, East Africa, where I lived in the early years of my marriage. One day, on a trip to the capital of Nairobi, I found dried green split peas. I was ecstatic. I could now make erwtensoep, Dutch split pea soup.


Forget whatever you’ve heard of Dutch cuisine (which may not have been encouraging) and just accept on faith that erwtensoep is food for the gods, especially on a dark, cold winter night after you’ve bicycled home through sleet and wind.

Photo by sindandune / cc
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There are no winter nights in Kenya, but the evenings in the Highlands can be chilly and I could not wait to make the soup. I wrote my mother for the recipe, which arrived posthaste, and I set off to create my magic with the peas.

Disaster struck early on. After the required hour-and-a-half simmering of the peas they were still not soft. According to my mother, split peas required no overnight soaking, so I had simply put them in water and boiled them, expecting them to disintegrate, as they were supposed to do. I cooked them a little longer. Then a lot longer.

By the time my Peace Corps hero came home from his toil with the local Kikuyu farmers my temper had totally disintegrated while the peas had not. “These peas won’t get soft!” I yelled, as if it were his fault. “I did exactly as I was supposed to do and it’s just not happening!”

“Are you sure?” he asked, looking politely into the pan of boiling green pebbles.

I shoved the Dutch recipe under his American nose. He glanced down. “This is a foreign language to me,” he reminded me gently. “Maybe your mother didn’t write it down correctly.”

I glared at him and he retreated to the living room.

I consulted my American cookbook about split pea soup. In my superior Dutch opinion, the recipe was seriously inferior, but it said the peas should be soaked overnight. Could it be that not all split peas on earth were created equal? Then again, should all the hours of boiling not have made up for the lack of soaking? I was baffled.

I had no one to ask for advice. At the time we were living in a dilapidated colonial settler’s house at the edge of a village of mud huts high in the Aberdare Mountains and we had no telephone (no electricity or running water, either, for that matter) and I knew of no other Dutch person in the vicinity to come to my rescue. I was truly on my own. It was a lonely feeling.

However, not one to give up easily, I tried again the next day, having first soaked another pound of the split peas overnight in water from our rain barrel (boiled and strained through a dishtowel). In the morning I brought them to a boil, then simmered them. An hour and a half later I looked into the pan and stirred.

Sorry, but here comes the cliche: My heart sank. The peas did not look the least bit soft. I took some out to taste them. They crunched defiantly as I chewed, showing no sign whatsoever of even considering the possibility of disintegrating.

I took my potato masher and pounded on the obstinate peas with a vengeance, which gave me a certain primitive satisfaction, but did nothing to rectify the situation. I ended up with raw pea grit floating in water. Still not ready to give up, I boiled this mess some more, several hours in fact and grew angrier and angrier (I used a polite word here as you can see). I wanted erwtensoep!

Obviously, I wasn’t going to get it.

“What happened to the peas?” my husband inquired as he surveyed his fried-egg sandwich that night. He was a brave man.

“Nothing,” I said through my teeth. “They refused to do what they were supposed to do. They sold me bad peas, that’s all there is to it. They must be a hundred years old. They’re probably petrified! I should demand my money back.”

“I don’t think the peas were bad.”

“I refuse to accept that it is something I did wrong!” I said, trying to sound confident, which I wasn’t.

“I think,” my mate said carefully, “that I might know what the problem is.”

“Oh, really?” I asked. (Did you hear my scornful tone?)

“Think about where we are . . . ”

I rolled my eyes. “We’re in Kenya. Living in a dilapidated wreck of settler’s house in a mud hut village half a mile from the equator. Don’t tell me that I can’t cook Dutch food in Africa near the equator.”

Photo by Ein Augenblick / cc

“We’re at quite a high altitude here, 8,000 feet or so,” he stated.

“And what does that have to do with anything?” I asked. “I’m from the Low Countries; what do I know about high altitude?”

“At what temperature does water boil?” My man was beginning to enjoy himself, I could tell.

I gritted my teeth. “At 100 degrees Celsius, at sea level.”

“Right.” He looked at me meaningfully, and enlightenment struck me, or at least I ran smack into some basic physics I remembered: the higher the altitude, the lower the boiling temperature of water.

Which meant that my precious split peas simply didn’t get hot enough to get cooked and disintegrate. I could boil them until doomsday and they would remain crunchy. Unless I used a pressure cooker, which I didn’t own, being poor and married to an equally poor Peace Corps volunteer.

Relief washed over me in waves. It was not my fault! There was still hope for me in the kitchen! Trust me, my culinary confidence in those days was rather shaky. But I did learn an important truth that day:

Dutch pea soup is Low Country food.

______
Note: This is an edited version of my article Seeking Peas on Earth published in the Washington Post Food Section years ago and now buried in cyber space. But the rights are mine.

* * *
Have you ever been mystified or flummoxed by something in the kitchen? Or do you have a cooking adventure / disaster to share? Come on, I’m waiting.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Marja February 6, 2010 at 7:56 am

Learned something new. About boiling the water in high altitude Strange.
Wouldn’t harm me as peasoup is certainly not one of my favourites.
I am still get the shivers about the thick peasoup my mum made.
I am still very full of kenya at the moment as I just finished the book The white Masai, an amazing story about a swiss woman who lived with the masai

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Miss Footloose February 6, 2010 at 12:27 pm

@ Marja, You don’t like snert?? 😉 I know that book, the White Masai — Very strange! Can’t imagine what that woman was thinking, or how she found that sort of life an acceptable choice. Well, she did eventually return ot Switzerland. Actually, her husband wasn’t a Masai, he was a Samburu, a different tribe, but the Masai was used for marketing purposes because foreigners know what Masai is and not Samburu. For what it is worth …

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Middle Aged Woman Blogging February 6, 2010 at 2:22 pm

My family lived in Switzerland for over two years…..I’d go back any day of the week. My daughter lived in W. Africa for over two years while in the Peace Corps after college. I remember her blog and her cooking experiences there. Traveling the world gives us a whole new outlook, does it not?

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Mary Witzl February 6, 2010 at 3:58 pm

I make all my own soups, including split pea (which I adore), and I have had the same experience you describe here. Sometimes the beans really are too old. It’s so frustrating: the longer you boil them, the more you want to see your hard work rewarded, especially when you consider what you’re wasting on fuel. Garbanzos (chick peas) tend to be the worst. You have to soak them for a long time and if they’re too hard, no amount of cooking will soften them up.

My husband messed up a custard once when he was making a dessert for a party. He went through a dozen eggs and it still didn’t turn out right. I stayed away from the kitchen just to be on the safe side and he did the same for me when I got a little bit of egg yolk in a meringue I was making for my daughter’s birthday cake. Cooking can be a real mine field…

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Mara February 6, 2010 at 3:59 pm

I love snert and am very sorry you weren’t able to cook it properly! I hope you have since had more luck.

The worst cooking disaster I ever had was only a minor mishap: I tried to make mashed potatoes and ended up with potato mush because I added too much milk. But I too have a marvelous mother: add brinta (remember that?) and it will be okay. And it was…

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Land of shimp February 6, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Oh Miss F., I felt for you, but sadly understood the problem from the outset, because I live in Colorado, far above sea level. The first time I baked a cake out here (more than twenty years ago now), I thought I’d lost my mind entirely. It had the consistency of pudding, no matter what I did.

Do you know, I’ve never actually heard anything about the cuisine of the Netherlands. Not even one thing. Now, I’ve heard plenty about things like German food, and I’ve eaten plenty of German food. However, my mother (and half brother) are both from Scotland, so I tend to cast aside all regional folklore about food. Although, truthfully? Some Scottish food is every bit as bloody awful as you’ve been told.

I can make a wonderful soup, so here’s hoping that the quote at the head of this is entirely true. I someone doubt it, but here’s hoping!

I could not, however, produce a wonderful soup under those conditions. I’m very, very attached to things like indoor plumbing, and running water. I’m sure I could learn, somehow to function without it, but I’d morosely munch on energy bars for the most part.

I love your stories, thank you so much for sharing them. I had a real sense of empathy for you, and how much you can long for a taste of home when you are elsewhere.

My mother, when she first came to the states, ended up in the state of Indiana, which she loathed . If there is a place on this earth that is that actual antithesis of Scotland? It’s probably Indiana.

She drove herself nearly mad in search of “corn flour” called, “corn starch” here…but she didn’t know that, and in the sixties, long before the internet, no one else did either. Also, she desperately searched for a hard roll, in addition to that.

Eventually my father’s teaching position took him to the state of New York, more civilized baked goods from my mother’s perspective, and the discovery of another person from Scotland who sorted out the corn flour/corn starch thing.

I’m mentioning all that because by the time my mother was telling me that story, the events were thirty years in the past….and she teared up just trying to explain her frustration, she remembered it so well.

You write very well, and you’re quite funny, too! It’s lovely that you can look back and laugh, but I bet at the time, you never longed for home more than you did in the moment you couldn’t soften the damned peas!

Well, there were probably other moments too, but when even peas are in rebellion? You must have felt as if you’d moved to Mars, where all the rules of reality were entirely different.

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Miss Footloose February 6, 2010 at 5:19 pm

@ Middle Aged Woman, yes, traveling does broaden your views on a lot of matters, cooking soup included! I remember your telling me your daughter was in the Peace Corps in Togo and loved it!

@ Mary Witzl: Cooking disasters are always more fun in retrospect! And yes, I gave up on garbanzo beans at any altitude, and use canned. I make hummus myself, recipe from a Lebanese neighbor.

@ Mara: No, I didn’t know about adding Brinta too soupy mashed potatoes! I think in the US it’s instant Cream of Wheat, a hot cereal you eat for breakfast. I’ll have to remember that!

@ Shimp, thank you for all your fun stories here! The reason why you have not heard a thing about Dutch cuisine is that we’re trying to keep it a secret 😉 Actually, traditional Dutch cuisine is basically peasant food, lots of potatoes and fatty meats and sausages.

Modern day cuisine is very international and also we have made Indonesian food “ours.” Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony and many ethnic Indonesian people came to Holland and are now Dutch. It’s wonderful Asian-style food!

About my disaster, it’s been a long time ago so don’t feel sorry for me anymore. I have recovered and think it is funny now.

Yes, electricity and running water are very nice to have. However, it is amazing how well you can learn to cope without if you really have to!

Thanks, everybody! And about running water and electricity, I am sitting at this very moment buried in 30 inches/ 75 cm of snow in West Virginia hoping we’re not going to lose electricity because that would take care of our water too since we have a well with a pump. Hey, let me post some pictures!

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lakeviewer February 7, 2010 at 2:25 am

Peas can be stubborn even at sea level! Lovely story.

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Mud in the City February 10, 2010 at 6:57 am

I’d never have worked that out!

I bought something wrapped in palm leaves for supper lats night and didn’t have a clue what it was.

Still don’t.

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Jungle Mom February 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Which is why my biscuits are so much better in the mountains of WVa than on the coast of Venezuela.

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Nancy February 11, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Wow, I just learned something here! We live at 6,500 feet and it takes forever for beans to cook. I always thought if they were boiling, they were as hot as they could get. Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I love your stories!

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Miss Footloose February 12, 2010 at 6:09 pm

@ Lakeviewer, mi sto mettendo a cucinare minestra di piselli.

Well, I think that’s how you say: I’m going to cook pea soup 😉

Recipe in next post!

@ Mud in the City: Sometimes not knowing what you are eating is a good thing. Hope you enjoyed it!

@ Jungle Mom,&
@ Nancy: When I just started to learn how to cook I had no idea I was actually doing science experiments!

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