During this world-wide pandemic lock down, I am sitting on the couch in the living room of the apartment I am renting in Montevideo, Uruguay, watching the Argentinian food channel El Gourmet! More specifically I am watching an episode of the show Me Voy a Comer el Mundo with its host Veronica Zumalacarregui. She is being given a tour of Oslo by a very lively man with the tiniest top knot I have ever seen. She is not a chef. He is not one either. She is the enthusiastic stand in for us. He is someone who happens to speak at least passable Spanish, the prerequisite for being the local host for Veronica in any foreign city. They are in a shop eating slices of Iberian style ham made from lamb. She likes it. It reminds her of lamb cooked over an open fire for an asado. When she likes something her eyes, always round, open very wide and she nods and makes small, approving sounds. Next, she is offered a bite of a ham made from cured horse. When she does not like something she narrows her eyes and purses her lips while she chews. Horse ham is “qué raro,” how strange. It has a “strong taste,” something that for Veronica is never a good thing.
She likes most things (eyes wide open) but has narrowed her eyes when chewing a tapas of fried intestines in Madrid and taking a bite of a giant scorpion on a stick from a vendor on a street in Bejing famous for weird snacks. Though, to be fair to Veronica, earlier she had managed wide-eyed approval when nibbling a row of tiny scorpions. But the giant one, her expression clearly said, was definitely worse than horse ham. But Me Voy a Comer el Mundo is not Andrew Zimmern in Spanish. It is not a cooking show either. It is a travel show about food with a particular format. Veronica arrives in a city and immediately a Chinese or Finnish or Irish local Spanish speaker appears to show her around the city and take her to eat and drink. First at a market or bar, but finally at their house. Sometimes the host, as was the case with the tiny top knot man in Norway, takes her back to their apartment to cook a local specialty. But more often, she is taken back home to a mom or grandma who then makes something laborious and traditional which the whole family sits down with her to eat. No matter what the family specialty is, Veronica is wide-eyed about it. She is, as we like to imagine we would be, very polite when eating in someone else’s home and she always leaves with a round of kisses after effusively thanking her hosts.
I confess I have been watching a lot of Veronica. Since I love to travel, and right now I cannot travel further than four blocks to the supermarket once a week, you might think I am watching Me Voy a Comer el Mundo as a virtual travel fix. And that is probably true. But, honestly, as a travel show, it is fairly perfunctory, limited to a few sweeping shots of a central square or scenic river. And though I love to cook, it is not about that either. I could not cook a giant scorpion on a stick or fried intestine ring after watching Veronica eat it. It is something more complicated. All I can say is that when I watch Veronica eat dinners with her host’s family I feel like I have suddenly turned into a high school exchange student or flown to visit a grade school pen pal in a country I really know nothing about beyond what my 5th grade geography teacher taught me. Maybe that’s the fun of it. The people cooking the food are just people. The food is just food. And Veronica, often wearing floppy hats or odd hippy-ish braided bands around her forehead, is just a regular person too or pretends to be.
To be honest, my favorite part of the show is “Qué hay en la nevera?” (What’s in the fridge?) where she looks to see what is in her host’s refrigerator. (If you are curious, you can watch just that segment on the Me Voy a Comer el Mundo youtube channel). I have always loved peeking in other people’s fridges, as an adult going to get a beer at a party or as a kid watching for a friend dig around for a snack. The show makes me think of all those dinners at friends’ houses when I was a kid where whatever they were eating—stuffed bell peppers! french cut green beans! whole fish steamed in banana leaves—was both completely normal to them and totally exotic to me.
But the extra thrill of El Gourmet! is watching all this through a double or triple filter. Veronica is from Spain (clearly so, in Uruguay a fridge is a heladera not a nevera). I am an American who was born in France sitting in Uruguay watching a show broadcast from across the Rio de la Plata from Argentina featuring Veronica speaking castellano and eating dumplings boiled up in an apartment in Bejing by someone’s mom who speaking Mandarin. I love how everything is strange in small ways beyond the ability of even Veronica to answer. For example, in Bejing, Veronica visits not one but two apartments to look in fridges, and both are in the living room, not the kitchen. Veronica asks why, but no one answers. So we are just left wondering. And why not? Some things do not have answers, in travel or in life.
I discovered El Gourmet! in 2010, the first time I lived in Uruguay. Then I was just learning Spanish and the cooking shows, where each chef narrated his or her actions—chop, sauté, boil— made for perfect Spanish lessons, if ones a bit heavy on cooking vocabulary. But I also fell in love with another food travel show that was being broadcast then on El Gourmet!, Ohno en Japón. On it, Takehira Ohno, a chef who had lived and worked in Buenos Aires since 1996, returns to Japan. Ohno tells us he wants to share this return trip with us. He says the trip feels to him not the beginning or the end of a trip, but the middle of an unending journey of migration, travel and learning. And I remember thinking, Yes, we are all in the middle of our journey or, at least, we hope we are.
In 2010, when I started watching the show my daughter Magda was an exchange student in northern Japan, in Aomori Prefecture. I felt Ohno was taking this trip to explain her new country Japan to me—in Spanish my new language. Me and my complicated life watching Ohno narrate his complicated life while looking for clues about what Japan meant for my daughter. Now my daughter is teaching in Kanazwa, Japan, and is going through her own lock-down there, each pandemic day for her exactly 12 hours ahead of mine. Ohno en Japón is not on the current roster of shows on El Gourmet! but just thinking of the show makes me feel closer to Magda.
The series always opens with Ohno on the plane from Argentina to Japan, something impossible right now. He has shaved head, a sad, but sweet face and a pair of always slightly askew glasses and he sits, looking at family photos. Then he looks out the plane window at Mt. Fuji and tells us that seeing it makes him feel like he is home. In the first episode, he travels to the northern island of Hokkaido where his great-great-grandfather who was a samurai lived and where he was born. He eats food, explaining the difference between the ramen in Sapporo, where the broth is made with miso and so is dark brown. He orders a bowl and shows us how it often served with corn kernels and a pat of butter. He explains the tradition of Jingisukan (Genghis Kan), the grilled lamb dish suits the cold climate of the northern island. He visits with family, looking through boxes of family photos. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. He visits school friends and drinks beer with them and they all get a bit teary. He stands in a field and screams with joy as a fast train bound for Tokyo streaks past.
Following his travels through Japan in Spanish was not easy for me then. In the show, Ohno continues his journey through Japan until he finally visits his master teacher and presents him with a specially made knife to thank him for all his teaching meant to his life. Again, Ohno takes off his glasses and wipes away his tears. Watching that reunion in 2010, my daughter in school far from me in Japan, me far from my own home, there were tears in my eyes too. Now I think about Ohno and his teacher, and imagine Magda in Japan, a teacher with students of her own, getting ready for bed in her quiet apartment, and I realize I am crying again.
But the strangest show I watched on El Gourmet! was Patagonia Mia with the Argentine chef Francis Mallman. This is before Mallman had six restaurants, cookbooks published in the U.S., appeared with Anthony Bourdain in the episode of No Reservations set in Uruguay and on the Netflix series Chef’s Table. I had never heard of him before. The show was just Mallman with his dog Luna, out in Patagonia, surrounded by mountains and sometimes by snow. He would stand in the middle of nowhere, turning food on a flat iron grill set over a campfire. It was hypnotic. It was like watching someone cook when you had never seen anyone cook anything, ever. When maybe you did not know what food was. He murmured in low tones, poking at onions or potatoes on the griddle. When I mentioned the show to an Uruguayan friend, he said, “Yeah, watching Mallmann is like being stoned.” I knew what he meant. Mallmann was talking to himself, not us, and we were all just peeking into his mind as if it were a refrigerator on another planet. We were all strangers, foreigners, in Mallmann’s world. I found it very calming.
But the cooking show that perfectly captured my love of watching cooking shows not really meant for me was not on El Gourmet! It was an Icelandic show, Kokkaflakk. I stumbled on to it on an Iceland Air flight from Amsterdam to Chicago and ended up watching all five episodes. It was in Icelandic, with English subtitles. On it, the TV chef Ólafur Örn Ólafsson visits five well-known Icelandic chefs working abroad. He talks to them about their restaurants and why they left Iceland. He asks what they Icelandic food they wish they could be eating right now and always asks if they miss eating their grandmother’s Svið. This, apparently is a dish where Icelandic cooks take a sheep’s head, cut it in half, remove the brain, singe the outside to remove the fur, then boil the head for an hour or more, then serve it with mashed turnips or mashed potatoes. About half the chefs say they miss Svið. The other half say it is why they left Iceland. It feels very much like an inside joke. One I am almost, but not quite, in on. After I land in Chicago, I googled Svið and saw a single sheep’s eye staring up at me from a very dark, mahogany colored half a sheep’s head on a plate.
But what Ólafur Örn Ólafsson does most on Kokkaflakk with the other chefs is eat. He samples some of the food they serve their customers, but mostly he watches them cook in their kitchens late at night, often with a few other chefs they have invited around. And they drink. They drink while they cook and they drink after that at a bar and after that at someone’s apartment or while cooking again in another kitchen. They drink and eat and talk about how their life is a 24/7 round of cooking—and drinking. Until on one episode when Ólafur Örn Ólafsson is in Brussels, a young chef, who has given up drinking, tells him that used to be his life, cooking, drinking, hustling for money to keep his restaurant going, cooking, drinking. But then one day, walking through a square in central Brussels, he realized he was walking in circles but couldn’t make himself stop. He went around and around until he finally fell down on the pavement. An ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital. It was a message, he says, that he had to just stop. Stop. Then after a while, he tells Ólafur Örn Ólafsson, he was able to start again, but much more slowly.
I think about that now. Think about it under quarantine in a country where both the airport and the borders are shut tight. I used to fly somewhere, travel somewhere, nearly every week. Now all I can do is watch shows about travel, watch shows about making or eating food with ingredients I cannot buy right now. And it suddenly seems that my life before this was a bit too much like that Icelandic chef’s in Brussels. That maybe the whole world’s life was a bit too much like that. Frantically doing and doing and doing some more until we were walking in circles, until, like ring around the rosy, that children’s rhyme based on another pandemic, we all fell down.
And I search YouTube for episodes of Patagonia Mia, because the show is not currently running on El Gourmet!. And I put on my headphones and sit with my feet up, watching it. Because right now, this moment, seems like the perfect time to watch Francis Mallmann, dog Luna at his side, staring at potato slowly, slowly cooking over a wood fire.
TACO RICE (Serves 4)
This recipe may be the ultimate collision of cultures through food. It was my daughter’s favorite Japanese food when she was an exchange student in northern Japan. It is still one of her favorites and when I was there, in December pre-pandemic, we ate it in a cafe in Kanazawa where she lives now that also serves fluffy stacks of pancakes, which are also very popular in Japan. I have to say, it was delicious. Taco Rice is said to have had its origins in Okinawa where the U.S. servicemen brought in the basic Tex-Mex ingredients that were then absorbed into Japanese culture and this dish.
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced (1/2 cup)
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 lb. ground beef
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 packet taco seasoning (or 1/2 tablespoon chili powder, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, and 1/2 teaspoon salt or more to taste)
Cook two cups of dry rice by your preferred method. Use Japanese rice if you can, but any rice will do.
Iceberg lettuce, shredded or chopped
Cheese, shredded (cheddar, colby, mozzarella—any soft, mild cheese)
Heat the oil in a large skillet and sauté the onions until tender. Add the garlic and cook until soft.
Brown the beef and then drain any excess fat. Add the water, the soy sauce and the taco seasoning and stir.
Let the taco mixture simmer until most of the liquid has been absorbed.
To serve, top the rice with the taco beef. You can use a plate or a bowl. Then add your toppings!
Jesse Lee Kercheval is a poet, writer, and translator, specializing in Uruguayan poetry. She is the author of America that Island off the coast of France, winner of the Dorset Prize, The Alice Stories, winner of the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize, and the memoir Space, winner of the Alex Award from the American Library Association. She is the Zona Gale Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.