When I joined the Peace Corps I knew that I would be finally learning to cook some meals on my own. Always living at home, or at college, I never was in a position where I had to cook my own meals. Of course I could handle the basics like spaghetti, scrambled eggs or other easy fixes. I had even made a cherry pie and banana bread one time. But I guess whenever I made something I followed the directions and measured everything out. If I was fixing oatmeal and the box called for ¾ cups of oats and ½ cup of water, that’s what I put in.
However, living on my own and fixing meals on a regular basis—for the need to survive—has taught me I can bend the rules a bit when it comes to cooking and even experiment. Now when I make my oatmeal, I don’t measure anything. I eye the amount of water I put in to boil. I know how many oats I will need to add to the water to get the oatmeal the right thickness that I like. I sometimes laugh when I think about me measuring for such a simple meal like oatmeal.
I’m finding that cooking is teaching me patience as well. It takes a lot of effort some days to cut up all the vegetables, or to make the tortillas from scratch. Always having the food served to me, never made me appreciate the work and time that goes into making a meal. Even on the days that I’m tired I find that taking the time to make a good meal can help make me feel better in the end.
So what am I cooking, and how does it work? Well I’ve started off with simple things. Instead of buying box macaroni and cheese which is very high in sodium, I now make my own macaroni and cheese and find I like it more than the boxed kind. Then I started adding basil for some color and additional taste. I sometimes make garlic bread to go with this. And since Texas Toast and other popular garlic breads aren’t available here in Samoa, I have to buy garlic cloves (I didn’t know what they were a year ago) and add the chopped garlic to butter in order to make my garlic bread.
I cooked rice for the first time in my life. It sounds like such a simple thing, and after I had done it, I stood there and looked at the rice and told myself, “I really never had done this before, unbelievable!” It was just so easy. I never knew that you had to rinse rice before cooking it either. I use the rice to put into my tortillas or eat it on its own. One time I even added it to some left over spaghetti. Since I’m normally cooking for myself, all that matters is that I like it.
These tortillas I keep mentioning are actually really good. They are better than any tortilla I’ve bought in the stores back in the U.S. because these don’t tear apart when you fill them. They are so moist and soft. They remind me of a taco shell from Chipotle! It does take a little time to make them. All that is required is flour, olive oil, salt and milk. First I kneed the bread and then it sets for 15 minutes before I separate it into small round balls and then they set for 20 minutes. After they set, I use my rolling pin (an old glass Sprite bottle) to roll them out and then they each only take 1 minute to cook on the stove. Sometimes I go all out and fill them with beans, rice, lettuce and cucumber. Other times just rice, or sometimes I eat them by themselves and just put a little butter on them. Recently I’ve found that stir-fried vegetables are really good inside as well.
Stir-fried vegetables are another thing I had never made before but now I love. First I put a little oil in the pan and then add garlic, onion and then put green beans and carrots, and sometimes cucumber in to cook. I add all kinds of seasoning. When some volunteers left back in August, they left me with all of their spices which I now use on a regular basis. Sometimes I add cumin and basil to the vegetables, as well as salt and pepper. It helps make my house smell like a home and really makes me feel like I know how to cook.
Salads are also something I’ve always enjoyed, back home and now here. I normally just put carrots and cucumber in the salad and then use an Italian dressing. I am a huge fan of hard boiled eggs (as is most of my family) but I haven’t fixed any here yet, but soon!
I’ve also done my fair share of grilled cheese sandwiches and tuna melts are my new favorite. I like to top them with cucumber and use whole grain bread! I also tried sweet corn one time last January, but it didn’t even come close to the great taste of Michigan’s sweet corn, so I haven’t done it since.
Since meat is rather expensive here and sometimes hard for transport and storage (do to my small refrigerator), I have never cooked meat in my house. I normally eat with my neighbors a couple times a week and am able to have chicken at their house, or splurge on a hamburger when I go into town.
I cook all of my food on a two burner electric stove, which makes me feel even more accomplished. No oven, no broiler, no microwave, just two small burner tops. It requires me using a fair amount of aluminum foil—say aluminum Mom—(inside joke), in order for me to keep things warm. For example, when I’m doing tortillas, garlic bread or French toast, since I can only do one at a time, I stack the finished food in the foil as I do each tortilla or piece of bread individually.
Sometimes I forget how easy a microwave was. There’s a microwave in the Peace Corps office’s kitchen that we can use. Just last weekend I bought a bag of popcorn and popped it there. I actually had two bags so I brought the extra bag back to my house. This week I was trying to make life easy for myself and performed an experiment. I tried to pop microwave popcorn on my stove top. I got my largest pan as warm as I could and then put the bag inside. Unfortunately, nothing happened. Yet I was so determined to have popcorn that night that I got out my kernels and vegetable oil and did it the old fashioned way. It tasted just as good, but just required a couple extra steps.
Breakfast has become one of my favorite meals; in part, because it’s still cool in the morning and I find it more enjoyable to eat when it’s 84 (normal morning temperature) as compared to 94 (normal afternoon temperature). I was always a big cereal fan back home, so I’ve continued the trend here. There are a handful of Kellogg’s cereals to choose from at the stores in Apia, but they are very expensive. However, there is one cereal called, Weet-Bix which is reasonably priced and happens to be my new favorite cereal in Samoa. It’s not just my favorite —it also claims to be New Zealand’s number one choice for breakfast cereal. It’s 97 percent whole grain and I love to cut up a banana to mix with it. It’s not uncommon for this to be my lunch or dinner if I’m in a hurry or just too tired to cook something “elaborate.”
Other breakfast food I enjoy: I mentioned oatmeal, which I add brown sugar to. I also enjoy eggs or French toast. Back in December and January I was doing a bunch of pancakes from a Betty Crocker box, but I’ve found that French toast is easier and cheaper. I also enjoy a few crackers. The crackers here in Samoa come from New Zealand and they are much thicker than the crackers in the U.S. They are really good to spread peanut butter or jam onto for a snack or with a meal.
And now I must mention my biggest food addiction here in Samoa: peanut butter! Peanut butter is reasonably priced. I always was a Jiff person back home, but since Jiff isn’t sold in Samoa, I’ve switched to Skippy. I eat peanut butter almost every day, and sometimes several times a day. It’s actually something I’m trying to get control of. Because it gets so hot here I keep the peanut butter in the refrigerator, which makes it easily accessible throughout the day. As I mentioned earlier, it’s great to spread on crackers for a snack, but is also great to eat straight from the jar. Yes, that may sound bad, but several other volunteers do it too from what I hear. It must be a real weak spot amongst volunteers here. There’s just something about the taste which is comforting and tasty and very addicting. Even when I wasn’t eating it just from the jar, if I would spread it on crackers, when I was done I would dip the knife into the jar and take a bite before sticking it back in the fridge. Now I have a new rule that I can’t eat it unless I’m sitting down and it can’t be from the jar. Believe it or not, but there’s something less appealing about eating peanut butter from a bowl as opposed to the jar itself, so this has helped me cut down on the amount of peanut butter I’m consuming. I was going through a jar a week (16.3 oz), but now I can make that last me two weeks!
As I mentioned I eat with my neighbors a couple times a week. I’ve enjoyed introducing some of these food to them, and my buddy Milo, likes to come over and watch me fix the food from time to time. One night I took a big tossed salad over there and he devoured it—a 12 year boy who loves salad! I think it’s been a part of the Peace Corps experience for me to learn more about their foods and for them to learn more about mine. Food seems to be universal language that brings different cultures together all around the world.
I hope you have a better idea now of what types of things I enjoy cooking and how I go about it. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m feeling much more confident than I was a year ago at this time. I’m still here to write about it, so I must be doing something right. Below I’ve typed up a list of some of the things I get at the store and the prices in Samoan Tala and then the U.S. equivalent based on an exchange rate of $2.42. And now before I close, I have to confess one more thing that I’ve fixed from time to time. My mom wouldn’t be too happy with me because it has raw eggs in it. Yes, you’ve probably guessed right: cookie dough!!! Except, after I make it here I don’t have to feel guilty about eating it raw, considering I don’t have an oven to bake them in!
Food / Samoan Tala / U.S. Dollar
1 Liter of milk = 3.80 / 1.58
Oatmeal (750 g) = 6.40 / 2.64
Crackers (375 g) = 3.00 / 1.23
Potatoes (2 lbs) = 2.10 / .86
Carrots (1 lb) = 3.08 / 1.27
Eggs (1 doz) = 5.80 / 2.39
Rice (3 lbs) = 4.70 / 1.94
M&Ms (46 g) = 2.70 / 1.11
Coke (355 ml) = 2.50 / 1.03
Bran (15 oz) = 17.00 / 7.02
Bananas (15 small) = 2.00 / .83
Papaya (1 large) = 3.00 / 1.23
Bananas from the market. Smaller than the kind you find in the States, but the same great taste.
A healthy omlet and French toast.
Grilled Cheese and "Sweet Corn."
Spices make food taste much better!
This is what my kitchen area looks like while I'm preparing for a dinner for five guests!