For lunch today, I prepared a tuna recipe out of a British cookbook. It required “4 cans of tuna steak”. I have no idea how much tuna is in four British cans of tuna steak. Sometimes, on the internet, I find American recipes with “2 sticks of butter” or, more commonly, “3/4 cup butter”. Until I started using the internet for recipes it had never occurred to me to measure butter in cups and I have certainly never seen a “stick” of butter to know how big it is. Our butter, here in Australia, is sold in 250g or 500g blocks and imagining how that works in a cup is an exercise in spatial awareness. So, in this international world, you end up using common sense or previous experience. And that’s fine. But it’s just interesting to realise that even cooking directions are culturally unique.
Another example is a friend I used to work with who is Indonesian. She told me she’d made “Kelepon” (or Ondeh ondeh, I think Malaysians call it). Kelepon is one of my favourite Indonesian snacks – glutinous rice flour made into a dough and wrapped around a little morsel of palm sugar. The ball is boiled and then rolled in desiccated coconut. You have to eat the whole ball because if you bite into it, you are in danger of being sprayed by melted palm sugar! But the texture and the flavour are right up my alley. Anyway, as soon as I knew this Indonesian lady could make it, I begged for the recipe. I expected her to promise to bring it in tomorrow or to send me an email. But she just stood there and said “You just put the glutinous rice flour in a bowl, add some water and then you mix it until it’s a nice dough. Then you roll it into balls and put the palm sugar in and put the balls in boiling water until they float to the top. ” I was baffled. “But how much flour? And how much water?” She smiled. “How much do you want to make?” Again I was stumped. “But proportionally, how much water compared to flour?” She shrugged. “Just enough so it looks right.”
And that was her recipe. I couldn’t extract much more detail out of her than that. Having now made it, I can see that it works… as long as you know what the end result is supposed to look like.
I know somebody who had a similar experience in Vietnam. At the market, she asked “What is that vegetable?” When it was something she’d never cooked before, my friend asked “How long should I cook it for?” The answer was “You cook it until it’s cooked.” None of the people around her could fathom any other response. In fact, she got the impression they thought she was loopy for asking.
This afternoon a friend (of overseas upbringing) told me her daughter wanted to know whether the week started on Sunday or Monday. She googled it and discovered that (according to somebody) in Australia the week starts on Sunday.
I do find it amusing that Google provided an answer on what “Australians” think on such a topic. Who presumed to document that information? I have lived in Australia for three quarters of my life and this point (on where the week starts) has never been clearly defined or absolutely resolved. So while some official (possibly the official who directs the making of Australian calendars, according to my friend’s take) may have decided that an Australian week starts on Sunday, they have failed to communicate it to Australians at large in any mind-altering way. And part of the problem is that not all calendars sold in Australia are made in Australia. I have often been frustrated, from year to year, that I note things incorrectly because the layout of the calendar is different from the previous year.
I was brought up with the idea that the letter “h” is pronounced “aitch” and that “haitch” is incorrect. I was actually very shocked to learn that other people had been taught the exact opposite and have had to accept that I can’t argue my case any more strongly than the opposition can argue theirs. I also appear to have inherited very strong ideas about what condiments go with what kinds of foods and I am still struggling with the choices made by my husband and now our children. I grew up believing that cars are “liabilities not assets” but have had to rearrange my thinking around that rule too.
It doesn’t matter that all these things are insignificant. Even in this incredibly accessible “international community”, in these tiny ways, we are blinded entirely by the limits of our own experience. We are so influenced by where we live, the product choices available to us, the people around us, what we learned from our parents… that we can’t even imagine the possibility of another way of thinking.