Showing unity in diversity through a food project, a professional interpreter from Britain has been cooking a dish from a different country’s cuisine each week.
By Shelley Pascual
Connecting with people over food is something Megan Skinner has done in all the countries she’s lived in.
When she was based in Cambodia two years ago, Megan discovered that food was the key to befriending people at work. “Suddenly, after having lunch together with my colleagues, we were able to laugh and just sort of bond over our differences in tastes,” says Megan.
Food also helped her get to know her roommates when she’d moved into a new house in Belgium in 2010. “We used to eat dinner almost every night together and I would offer to cook,” says Megan. “It was really nice because it was a way to break the ice with them.”
Back in March, Megan embarked on a mission that combined her love not just for cooking, but also for languages and travelling. She would cook her way through various cuisines according to all the letters of the alphabet each week until her 30th birthday this August.
A few weeks into the project, which Megan aptly called March to Thirty, she prepared Cambodian rice porridge after landing on the letter ‘C’. Prior to that, she’d cooked peanut stew from Burkina Faso for the letter ‘B’ and baked Australian soda bread called damper for the letter ‘A’.
When it comes to choosing countries in line with the letters of the alphabet, Megan tries to pick places she’s either familiar with or had the chance to visit.
“If there are no countries that I have a particular connection to, I’ll Google cuisines – the main dishes, their influences, what ingredients they use, etc. – and if I like the sound of it, I’ll find an authentic recipe from that country.”
When she arrived at the letter ‘R’ last week, one of the main reasons Megan picked a recipe from Russia rather than Rwanda or Romania is because, as she writes in her blog, her friend who’d helped her out in the kitchen “has an actual Russian mother”.
After taking her friend’s advice and deciding to make pelmeni, which are essentially Russian dumplings, Megan goes on to explain that the word pelmeni means ‘ear bread’ in languages in northern and eastern Europe and Siberia, such as Hungarian and Estonian.
A UK national and professional interpreter and translator, Megan speaks English, German and Dutch fluently. She can also get by decently well in the French and Spanish language and dabbles in a bit of Cambodian and Danish.
Figuring out the history of dishes and how they came to be named in terms of linguistics is one aspect to the project Megan says she thoroughly enjoys. “Because I love travelling so much and I’m so interested in people, it’s a nice way to understand other cultures,” says Megan.
One of the most surprising things she’s learned is that vindaloo was brought to India by the Portuguese. When researching an Indian dish to cook, Megan discovered that vindaloo was originally a Portuguese dish consisting of pork marinated in garlic and wine called carne de vinha d’alhos. “Then it morphed in various ways to fit more local ingredients in India and the name changed,” says Megan.
As Megan currently lives in Germany, it isn’t hard to believe she prepared German food when she got to the letter ‘G’ back in April. But contrary to cooking a dish with sausage or potatoes in it, she opted to bake German bread rolls called Frühstücksbrötchen.
Though pumpernickel or pretzels might first come to mind when people think of German bread, Megan says it’d be hard to find a bakery in Germany which doesn’t produce batches upon batches of these crusty white rolls every morning.
Megan doesn’t yet know what dish she’d like to cook on her actual birthday or whether she’ll even be in Germany to celebrate it. “I have strict instructions from family to keep the weekend of my birthday free,” Megan says.
Since most of the dishes Megan has prepared over the past few months have fed her friends and family, she doesn’t want to be eating alone when she gets to the letter ‘Z’. “For sure I’ll be inviting people over to have that last dinner with me,” Megan says.
In the meantime, she feels far from nervous about her upcoming milestone birthday, despite the fact that it’s not uncommon for people in their 20s to dread turning thirty.
“There are so many different lifestyles which now are totally acceptable and successful in a different way,” explains Megan. “In the past, it was always owning a car, a house, having a family – if you had those, you’ve made it. Now it’s so flexible. There isn’t so much pressure to achieve all these things before you’re thirty.”
For Megan, the only thing important to have accomplished by the end of August is the completion of her project, which was partly inspired by people she’s close to who also set out to reach certain goals before entering their 30s. Megan’s sister, for instance, challenged herself to run a 10k race on her 30th birthday.
“I have a tendency to not see something through, so to get all the way through the alphabet, to have researched and really learned something and written about it – that in itself will be an achievement,” says Megan.
But if Megan’s March to Thirty inspires others to also step out of their comfort zones – whether that’s inside or outside of the kitchen – or better understand other cultures, or simply embrace life at any age, she might just find she’ll have achieved much more than what she’d hoped for.
Shelley Pascual is a German-speaking multimedia journalist and Toronto native currently based in Berlin. She has written for The Local Germany and J-Source among others. Shelley is also a former English teacher and trained graphic designer who finds both mountain biking and baking therapeutic.