Friday, August 12, 2005

What's for dinner?

When I first moved to Poland, I didn't speak any Polish. At all. I also didn't have a car. These two facts, combined, put me in an uncomfortable situation, because my family expected me to feed them, and shopping was problematic.

Without a car, I could not go to a large grocery store and stock up on food, even if such a store had existed. (It didn't.) It wasn't really necessary, since there were a plethora of stores selling comestibles all around the neighborhood. I could walk to a store that sold bread, another that sold meat, another offering fruit and vegetables, and still another that offered miscellaneous groceries such as flour, noodles, and a lot of things I really wasn't sure about.

The problem was...I didn't speak Polish. You just couldn't walk into one of these little stores, pick up a shopping basket, and select your items. If only it could have been that simple! These shops had all the merchandise behind a counter. You waited your turn in line, and told the shopkeeper what you wanted. At least, that's what you did if you spoke Polish. If you were me, you pointed helplessly and hoped that the sales clerk was good-natured enough to work with you.

I gradually acquired the vocabulary of food, but the system of weights and numbers was tricky. They use the word "kilo" for "kilogram," and I knew that. A kilogram is 2.2 pounds. That was the only amount I knew how to ask for. So, I had to ask for a kilo of sugar...a kilo of flour...a kilo of onions...a kilo of potatoes...a kilo of mushrooms (oh please!)...a kilo of lunch meat...a kilo of chicken. Are you adding this up? It didn't take long for me to have 20 pounds of groceries to carry home, and that's not even counting the liters of MILK I had to buy every day.

There was just no physical way for me to carry a week's worth of groceries for five people, so I had to shop every day--even before my formal language lessons began. It was one of the greatest days of my life, I think, when I finally learned to ask for a HALF kilo of anything I wanted.

But that was a long time ago

Now I can walk into any shop, and ask for any quantity (measured in decagrams) that I may need. And most of the time, I don't even have to.

Because great big western-style grocery stores have opened all over Krakow, I go shopping once a week, with the car, and put all my own groceries into a cart. Shopping is a lot easier and less time-consuming than it was when I first went to Poland.

I don't miss the "old days," either. But if I did, I could still shop in the little shops. They are still there. As long as Poland has a large pedestrian population who do not drive or own cars, the little shops will continue to thrive. And I have to admit, it really is convenient to send one of the kids next door if you suddenly realize you need ketchup, or sugar, or cinnamon.

Smacznego! (That's Polish for "bon appetit.")

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Mexican? I doubt it.

While visiting wonderful friends in Texas this week, for the Ambleside Online conference, I was privileged to eat at a wonderful Mexican restaurant. They made table-side guacamole, and I had these delicious enchiladas. The food was almost as good as the fellowship, and that's saying a lot. It prompted me to share a story about eating at a "Mexican" restaurant in Krakow, which I was informed was a "blogworthy" event. So here it is.

A brand-new mall was being built within a ten-minute walk from my front door. The really neat thing about this new mall was that they were putting in a food court. To my knowledge, it's still the only food court in Krakow (it wasn't a wildly successful venture). In any case, one of the restaurants was TEX-MEX. I was really pleased, because I love that kind of food, and hadn't had any for a while. You can buy El Paso brand products, but they are imported from somewhere and are very expensive. I waited impatiently for the mall to be finished and the food court to open.

At the earliest opportunity, I walked over and perused the menu. I was eating alone, and I selected a sampler platter with half an enchilada and half a burrito. Mmmmmmmm...

I was a little taken aback by my first glimpse of the plate. Polish people like coleslaw--they like it a LOT--and it is sort of obligatory at all kinds of restaurants. But still--this plate had not only the usual white-cabbage slaw, but also a red-cabbage version side by side. I wasn't planning to eat cabbage with my Mexican food, so I just pushed it out of the way. The burrito was odd, but not too bad. The enchilada, however, destroyed forever my hopes of enjoying Mexican food in Poland. I cut it open, and found it full of vegetables. Prominent among them were small, whole...brussel sprouts.

Brussel sprouts???

I am reasonably certain that brussel sprouts do not grow in Mexico. Mexicans probably don't even know what they are. And if they DID know, I bet they still wouldn't put them in enchiladas.

So, I choked down a few bites, but left most of the Polish-Mexican food untouched. It was a lesson I had already encountered, and my expectations were probably not realistic. In America, the Chinese food, and the Mexican food, and other ethnic cuisines, are tailored to suit the American palate. The same is true in Poland. Chinese food tastes Polish. Mexican food tastes Polish. Polish food tastes Polish. Even McDonald's caters to the regional preferences. (Did YOUR McDonald's ever offer deep-fried cauliflower?)

The only consolation in all of this is that I actually like Polish food. And I do most of my cooking at home, where the Italian food, and the Chinese food, and the Mexican food all taste American!