So you’re an 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, ugali (cornmeal mush), 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.
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. 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!
Green split peas! 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.
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 volunteer 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.
No help in sight!
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.
More pea drama
“What happened to the peas?” my prince 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. That shop 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’s 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?” (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 a 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.”
“We’re at quite a high elevation here, 8,000 feet or so,” he stated. “Maybe more.”
“And what does that have to do with anything?” I asked. “I’m from the Low Countries; what do I know about high elevation?”
“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 elevation, 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. (Warning: Here comes another cliché)
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.
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You know what’s coming, don’t you? Entertain me and tell me one of your cooking disasters. I know you have some.