Feature Foreign Food: Stampot

•February 13, 2012 • 2 Comments

For this post featuring a foreign food I’m back to writing about the savory, rather than the sweet: stamppot.

Stamppot (literally, “mash pot”) is a typical winter dish in both the Netherlands and Belgium and is basically potatoes mashed with one or more vegetables.  I know, it doesn’t sound that foreign. But, what I find brilliant about stamppot–and a unique take compared to our typical mashed potatoes in the US–is the vegetables they mix the potatoes with:   endive, cabbage, kale, spinach and turnip greens are all traditional pairings.  I’ve been trying to add these superfoods to my family’s dinner table for the past year or so, without much success.  Albert and Kahlilah tolerated crispy kale, but didn’t ask for seconds.  In contrast, I bought kale stamppot from our local grocery store last week and it was gone before I knew it.  Mainly, you taste the potatoes–who doesn’t like mashed potatoes after all?–so the vegetables are mostly forgotten.  Why this approach to getting your kids (and occasionally husbands) to eat their vegetables hasn’t spread to parents outside the Benelux countries, I do not know.  Genius.

To prepare stamppot, you can either cook the potatoes and vegetables separately and then combine them in order to mash them altogether with milk, butter, salt and pepper or you can just cook them together in the same pot before mashing them.  Traditionally, meat often accompanies stamppot; bacon can be mixed in, sausage served on the side, or gravy poured over.  Since I’m vegetarian and the sole cook in the house, though, I passed on the meat portion of the meal…but was perfectly satisfied with my simple stamppot, my new go-to comfort food.


Kahlilah en Zo*

•January 23, 2012 • 2 Comments

I realize it’s been awhile since I updated you on Kahlilah, so I better get to it… Where to start? I think I’ll start with the word “independence.” This girl is really spreading her wings, and testing the limits of her parents’ patience at the same time.

She loves her bilingual Dutch-English Montessori school, which she’s been attending in the 0-3.5-year-old age group since mid-November.  Since she had never attended a daycare in Venezuela or in Washington DC, we were a bit worried how she’d adapt to being away from us and to interacting with other children.  We needn’t have worried. She jumped in without pause!  She actually is doing so well that we’ve agreed with the teachers’ recommendations to move her to the next age group (3.5-6 years) a bit early.  We met with them last week, and this is what they reported: she is very eager to learn, asking questions and persisting when a task is difficult; she speaks in complete and increasingly complex sentences in English, while also understanding a lot of Dutch without reproducing it yet herself; she follows instructions and can listen to stories for quite long stretches of time;  she is very independent and self-sufficient, able to easily dress herself although not yet committed to always using the potty; she interacts well with the teachers and the other students, constantly talking about “my friends”; she has superb fine motor skills, excelling in doing puzzles and measuring things for the school’s cooking sessions; she can count in English, Dutch and Spanish and she is learning the days of the week, although often confusing their order. As a result of all this, they feel that she is ready to move to the next group where she will have some more challenging activities and older children to interact with.  Another benefit of the older group is that, as of yet, it’s still not full (actually far from it) so the student: teacher is great.  All in all, we are super happy with the school and with how Kahlilah is doing there.

Major emphasis within the Montessori approach is placed on independence, and boy are we seeing the effects.  Most effects are very welcome.  Kahlilah can do a lot on her own now, which is great for her and great for us.  However, she basically wants to do EVERYTHING on her own now – not yet recognizing which things are within her power to do and which are not.  As a result, everything has become a battle.  Getting dressed when she needs to, putting on coat and mittens, getting into the bicycle to go to school, putting on her seatbelt to go to school, and on and on.  Counting to 1 and talking about consequences has had no effect. Basically the only way I’ve shut down full-scale tantrums is to walk away.  Sometimes by the time I come back (30 seconds to a minute later), she has settled down and will let me help her.  Sometimes I have to walk away again.  And again.   This trend certainly tested our limits when we were on vacation to England last week (check out the photos by following the Flickr link to the right).  During one tantrum, she laid full out on the floor of an Underground (Tube) station. One thing I have to say about parenthood is that it strips you of any sense of public shame.  People stared.  People probably talked.  But, what was I to do?  I had to be a parent.

But, let’s not end on that note.  Please check out the video at this link – I love it because it shows so many aspects of Kahlilah right now: her independence, her interest in talking/singing/chanting, her facial expressions.  For those who don’t speak Spanish, the video shows Albert, Kahlilah and I practicing a Chilean chant used at sporting events as well as a similar chant for the USA.   Enjoy!

*En Zo roughly translates to “and such” in Dutch. There are so many stores here that use that phrase in their name; there’s Kaas en Zo (Cheese and Such), Haar en Zo (Hair and Such), Vis en Zo (Fish and Such), and so on…er, I mean, en zo.

Feature Foreign Food (and Word): Hagelslag…Lekker!

•January 9, 2012 • 7 Comments

Believe it or not, my last post featuring the very foreign (practically alien) cauliflower-like vegetable Romanesco didn’t draw in the readers. Okay, alright.  I can understand that. If I couldn’t get my husband and daughter to be that excited about eating a strange vegetable, I guess I should have assumed it would be difficult to entice people to read about it.  So, this post, I’m going with CHOCOLATE.

Ah, chocolate.  Some many ways to enjoy you.  I have to admit that, normally, I may be a bit high-brow in my choice of chocolate.  I blame my mother.  Her truffles set such a high bar that I feel a responsibility to try truffles where ever I go, if only to prove that–yes–mama knows and does best.  But, here in the Netherlands, hagelslag lets me enjoy chocolate like a kid.

Hagelslag are basically chocolate sprinkles, or jimmies as some people call them.  Not so foreign, perhaps, but in this case it’s not the food that is foreign but rather the use of it.  Rather than sprinkling it on top of ice cream as Americans do, the Dutch–adults and children alike–eat it on top of bread and butter, sometimes even making a sandwich of it, for breakfast and often for lunch!(This delectable photo is from the blog The Eaten Path, which also has a great post on this phenomena.)

Hagelslag, which in Dutch is based on the word for “hail”, comes in many different flavors and colors. In particular, the blue or pink ones are used upon the birth of a child. It also comes in different price points, as they say: there’s both cheap hagelslag and high-quality hagelslag.  For example, I learned online that “only hagelslag with a cacao percentage of more than 35 can bear the name chocolat hagelslag. If the percentage is under the 35%, it has to be called cacao fantasy hagelslag.”  Cacao fantasy?  Hilarious. So, when I tried it, I went for a good brand in a dark chocolate version.  I also followed recommendations and used white bread as the base (why, really, try to convince yourself that this is anything but dessert by using whole-wheat?), toasted and buttered it, and ate it immediately after the hagelslag had just slightly melted.  And, the verdict?

Lekker!!!  “Lekker” means “delicious” in Dutch and I really can’t think of another word in any language that more perfectly sounds like it should mean delicious.  Take a second and say it out loud:  ˈlɛ.kər.  Doesn’t it have a nice smacking feel?  When I first learned the word lekker in the Fast Dutch course I took before moving here, I immediately loved it.  To me, words like lekker seem like they should be universal–should cross languages and cultures–because how they feel in your mouth when you say them or how they sound in your ear when you hear them bring to mind their meaning exactly.  Another word I’ve come across like this is “kwan.” It’s a word used in a number of Filipino languages and it means “thing” and particularly something that you may have temporarily forgotten.  So, in English, it might better translate as “whatchamacallit” rather than just “thing.”  In addition you can modify kwan to mean a person’s name that you’ve forgotten, the equivalent of “what’s-his-name.” I love that word!  And, when I was trying to learn Cebuano while living in the Philippines, I REALLY loved it–what’s not like to like about a word that let’s you cover up that you don’t remember vocabulary you should have learned already while at the same time sounding like a local?!?  (Have you come across any words that you’ve loved precisely because they sound/feel like what they mean? If so, please post in the Comments–I’d love to learn more.)

So, there you have it folks, lekkere hagelslag – this month’s feature foreign food.  I hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I enjoyed “researching” it.

Only in Amsterdam (A Day in the Life)

•December 28, 2011 • 5 Comments

Most days I have in Amsterdam are uneventful. On those days, I go through the same routine that I would if I were living anywhere. But, some days, Amsterdam knocks me on my a**. I had one of those days last week.

I think the best way I can share it is to take you through the day with me, hour by hour, and post a few of the photos I took.  Notice the contrasts in experiences. (Also, given that I had to resort to profanity in the first three sentences of this post, you might rightfully assume that this post is not for the kiddos.)


8:00am – Got Kahlilah fed, dressed and out to the Tram stop to go to school. Thought I was about to get a second-hand high from the gentleman toking it up in the Tram stop. But didn’t, since the young man–being a considerate fellow–walked down the road a bit while we all waited for the Tram to arrive.

9:00am – Dropped Kahlilah off at school and then caught the Tram again to go to Amsterdam Centrum, where I hoped to catch some cultural sights I hadn’t seen yet.

9:15am – While trying to find my way to the Oude Kerk (“Old Church”), passed by an eye-grabbing window display. I learned it was for the Condomerie, the world’s first condom specialty store.  Was particularly entertained by their “seasonal”  items. (I didn’t know Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer was such a lady’s man.)

9:20am – Continued on down the street but had to turn back to follow a positively divine smell of chocolate.  Found myself in a cafe that served THE best hot chocolate I’ve had since a trip to southern Chile back in 2003. It was the super thick European kind, that is a bit bitter and so rich that you can only drink the smallest cup of it or you’ll be buzzing all day.  (The whip cream on top helped cut the richness, though!)

9:25am – Found the Oude Kerk, the oldest surviving building in all of Amsterdam–from 1306. But, since it was still closed that early in the morning, decided to continue on to Nieuwe Markt. As I was walking around the Oude Kerk, I looked up to take in its impressive bell tower.  Then I looked down to see where I was walking and thought, in the split second that I had, that’s a interesting-looking mannequin in the store window. Just then, a pigeon flew up from the ground in front of me, scaring the bejesus out of me. I jumped back, causing the “mannequin” (who was actually a sexworker taking a nap standing upright in her red-light district window) to open her eyes and jump back in fear from the window. She and I looked at each other and then we both started laughing hysterically at how scared we had both been. We laughed for a minute together (although we couldn’t actually hear each other since the glass was between us), and then I smiled, waved and continued on my way.

(Side note: When I read in the guide that the red-light district was near the Oude Kerk, I didn’t know they meant THAT near. I guess in the 700 some years that have passed, the neighborhood has changed a bit.)

9:30am – Found the Nieuwe Markt (“New Market”) which is described by the Lonely Planet as “a district as historic as anything you’ll find in Amsterdam” where “Rembrandt painted landscapes.” Decided to have a coffee in the “imposing, fairytale” Waag (“Weigh-house”), the oldest existing fortification in Amsterdam. Built in 1488 and decorated with candles and garlands for the season, it was an extremely pleasant place for a morning pick-me-up.

10:00am – Left the Waag to walk to the Museum het Rembrandthuis, passing numerous ladies of the…morning who were advertising their services in their scarlet-lit windows.

10:30am – Enjoyed walking through the house where Rembrandt van Rijn lived  from 1639-1658, painted and sold his and others’ paintings…before he declared bankruptcy and was forced to move out and sell everything he owned. While most of the art hanging in the house was actually by Rembrandt’s contemporaries or students, saw the Museum’s collection of almost every one of the etchings Rembrandt made.

11:30am – Left the Museum to walk back to the Oude Kerk, passing numerous sex shops and sex show venues. While passing one of the bondage-themed stores’ window displays, saw Santa Claus in a way I would very much like to forget.

11:45am – On the way, was once again drawn into a shop by the smell of chocolate, this one selling truffles. Ate one of the best truffles I’ve ever had, after my mom’s of course – a milk chocolate-honey number.

12:00pm – Toured the Oude Kerk. Particularly enjoyed reading the translations of some of the “morals” carved into the choir stalls. Always interesting to learn what people centuries ago warned against – sometimes they are the same things we struggle with today and sometimes they are totally foreign to today’s concerns.

12:30pm – Took in the statue dedicated to sexworkers, which (of course?) is located in front of the Oude Kerk.

12:35pm – Found a nice lunch spot next to the Nieuwe Kerk, the next place on my list of places to see that day. Saw the Nieuwe Kerk (“New Church”), a late 15th century Gothic basilica that–now secularized–is home to Dutch coronations and rotating exhibitions. That day, they had an exhibition on Jewish historical artifacts–including a segment of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

1:30pm – Walked to the Negen Stratjes (“Nine Little Streets”)  to explore an area known for individual, quirky shops, from 50s vintage clothing and light fixtures to high-end shoes and jewelry to tasty cafes and cheese shops. In particular, tried cheese at the Reypenaer, a cheese shop that offers tastings in their dedicated tasting rooms where you can learn to appreciate different cheese as you do wine. Couldn’t join a tasting that day, so just shamelessly devoured the free samples.

3:00pm – Took the Tram back to pick up Kahlilah and return home for the day.

What. a. day.  Only in Amsterdam.

Yo hablo español

•December 2, 2011 • 7 Comments

Trying to raise a child bilingually is hard. Really HARD.

I could talk about how I didn’t study another language until high school, how I didn’t really learn another language (Spanish) until my mid-20s when I did an immersion program in Mexico and did my thesis research in Ecuador, how even then my vocabulary was largely focused on words related to going out to clubs (Mexico) and agriculture and the environment (Ecuador), or how I’m a first-time mom.  But none of these things are the main reason why I’ve been struggling so much recently with how to raise Kahlilah bilingually. It’s the books and experts! Why must every one I read or hear contradict the one previous to it?!?!

When I was pregnant and we had just entered the Foreign Service life, we took a seminar at the Foreign Service Institute on raising children bilingually. That was my first time thinking about the issue in any real way. Since my husband is a heritage Spanish speaker and much of his extended family still lives in Chile, we knew we wanted our children to speak both English and Spanish fluently. But, how? The lesson I took away from that seminar was that one-parent-one-language (OPOL) is the best approach. That is, one parent speaks one language exclusively with the child and the other parent speaks another language exclusively with the child. We read a little bit more on bilingualism, and those books seemed to back up OPOL.

So, we went with OPOL from Kahlilah’s birth. I felt great about it. It was easy, since all I had to do was speak the language I knew best. And it was consistent with what experts who talked to career expats like us advised. I’ll admit it: I felt almost smug with how well it seemed to be working out at first. (Of course, that was before Kahlilah began saying anything more than “ba, ba, ba,” but I’m getting ahead of myself.)  I did however become aware of one major challenge pretty quickly: I knew that Kahlilah got way more English with me than Spanish with Albert since, for the first year, I was home with her all the time. But, we quickly adapted. In her second year, we supplemented her language exposure by having a Spanish-only-speaking nanny care for her while I worked 20 hours per week at the Embassy.  At that point, Kahlilah wasn’t speaking a lot but she had a pretty good balance of Spanish and English words.

But then, when Kahlilah was almost 2 years old, we finished our post in Caracas and moved back to DC for Albert to complete language training in preparation for our next post here in Amsterdam. Again, we worked hard to try to keep a balance of languages. In particular, we made the decision to bring Albert’s aunt from Chile to care for Kahlilah while I took a few months of Dutch and a Consular course as well.  Since Albert’s aunt only speaks Spanish, Kahlilah had 40+ hours per week of Spanish exposure for several months. Plus, during that time, Kahlilah was lucky to spend a lot of time with Albert’s mom who speaks only Spanish with her as well. Despite all that effort, I started to notice that Kahlilah was starting to inch towards English dominance.

Well, then, we moved to Amsterdam and a number of things happened. First, Kahlilah was with me all the time. Second, Kahlilah started having a spoken language explosion while, at the same time, exhibiting more and more English dominance. It was clear that Kahlilah understood a lot of Spanish but rarely produced it herself. Third, Albert and I were considering preschools for Kahlilah. Should we put her in a Dutch-only, Dutch-English, or English-only preschool, we wondered?  If we went with either the first or second option, we’d go from considering bilingual issues to multilingual issues! Argh. At that point, I started to look for some guidance in books. In particular, I read Bilingual Edge. These are some of the points that I took from it: (1) OPOL isn’t always the best approach, particularly if there isn’t a balance of time between both parents. (2) In fact, sometimes you need to overcompensate with time for the “minority” language over the “majority” language. (The “majority” language is the dominant language spoken in your country/culture.) They recommended that parents speak to their child roughly 80% of the time in the minority language and 20% of the time in the majority language. Their rationale was that the child will get other exposure to the majority language through other outlets, e.g. playmates, teachers, TV. (3) A parent can speak another language with the child even if s/he is not a native or fluent speaker. And (4), you can have different bilingual or multilingual goals–all of which are legitimate. For example, some parents might really want a child to become fluent. That’s a fine goal. Other parents might want to expose the child to another language to “hardwire” the child’s brain for learning that or other languages in the future. That’s okay too.  Or yet other parents may simply want to expand the child’s awareness of other cultures. Also fine.

So, after talking it over with Albert and mulling it over, I decided to go Spanish. I would start speaking with Kahlilah in Spanish as much and as consistently as I could and, in essence, make Spanish our family’s language. It was really difficult at first. It felt odd speaking to Kahlilah in Spanish. It felt even more odd talking to Albert in Spanish, as English has been the primary language of our relationship for the past eight years. And, I realized I needed more (and specialized) vocabulary FAST to be able to handle toddler issues.  I quickly picked up clean-up related vocabulary  (e.g. bookshelves, drawer, dresser) and recently picked up holiday-related words (e.g. sleigh, elves, reindeer).  Within a couple weeks, it felt more natural and I was making progress on my Spanish. (It struck me as so funny: I was improving my Spanish more while living in the Netherlands, than in the two years I had just lived in Caracas, Venezuela!) And, as for the school, we decided to go with the Dutch-English preschool. It was the school where we felt the most at home, it follows the Montessori approach which we wanted,  and it would expose Kahlilah to a Germanic language, with the goal not necessarily being fluency but simply exposure to another language group with its own unique sounds.

So, what’s happened? The results, please. I find that relatively quickly Kahlilah has started to produce a few more words in Spanish voluntarily but, a month into it, she still is clearly English dominant. I know, I know. I’ve been speaking to her in English for nearly three years so we’re not going to see changes that quickly. But, I think I’m more sensitive to her English dominance now that I’m making such an effort to speak in Spanish to her. I also find that I’m still confronted almost daily with contrasting opinions on how best to handle this bilingual/multilingual childrearing issue.  Just before  putting Kahlilah in the preschool, I was told by an administrator that it really wasn’t valuable to put a child into a Dutch-English bilingual program if we were going to be moving in a couple years anyway. What?!?! I thought you’d be with me on this? Errr. Then a couple days after joining the school, a teacher reminded me to make sure not to switch back and forth that much between Spanish and English, that I really needed to be consistent.  I know, alright! I’m trying!!!  And, finally, I just know that some of you reading this blog post who are also raising your child bilingually probably have read something different and are thinking, “Oh no, you’ve got it all wrong, Chela! You need to read X book.”  Ahhhhhh! (By the way, I DO welcome book recommendations and other tidbits of advice. But I can’t promise I’ll look at them this week. This week I feel like screaming!) So, that’s where I am now with it.  For now, yo hablo español.

With Her (In Gratitude)

•November 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

A few years back, I went to a yoga class with a friend.  I had been having a tough year.  Actually, the toughest year of my life. I was sad almost all the time.  Three-quarters of the way through the class, I went into pigeon pose and unexpectedly I started to cry. I didn’t understand what the tears were for, I just felt a release of emotion. After class, I walked out of the building, looked up at the sun and couldn’t stop smiling. I knew then, even though everything in my life wasn’t right, that I could find happiness again.  That moment helped me recognize my happiness again.

Earlier this year, I went to a massage. A quarter of the way through, I started to feel emotion welling up and tears slid down from beneath my closed lids.  I said to the masseuse:  People say that certain positions in yoga can release emotion. Is it the same with massage? He replied: It’s not certain positions of the body necessarily but rather that touch can be very emotional.  This time, I believe, the tears were telling me something very different. They helped me recognize my sadness.

I lost my grandmother—my last living grandparent—just a few weeks before that happened.

People often ask:  Were you with her?  And the answer is, yes, I had the gift of being with her.

I was with her before she passed.  Said all that I wanted to say to her, embraced her, locked eyes with her and told her I loved her, and held my daughter to her face so that she could kiss her.

And I was there when she passed.  There, in that long, hushed moment.

Both experiences were gifts. I truly, truly feel lucky to have been able to be there.

When I lost my other grandmother, almost three years ago this coming week, I was also there.  That was the first time I realized how special it is to be able to be with someone at the moment of their death.  Just as special, really, as it is to be with someone at the moment of their birth.  Both–birth and death—bring such exquisite pain and love.  The moments that my grandparents shared with me in the final passing of their lives both haunt and comfort me.

So, this week, I think especially of my grandparents.  I give thanks for the many gifts—through their life and death—that they shared with us.

Feature Foreign Food: Romanesco

•November 18, 2011 • 1 Comment

Whenever I see ads for adventure food shows like No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain or Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, I’m always tempted to watch them.  As you may be able to tell from my series of posts on foreign foods, eating is one of my favorite aspects of travel!  But, as a vegetarian, I usually find I’ve turned those shows off within the first few minutes because almost invariably they focus on eating strange meat or seafood (or at least strange parts of familiar animals). I can’t say I’ve ever heard a host say, “I’ve gotta tell you about this crazy zucchini I ate.” (The only exception I can think of is the durian fruit, which I’ve seen featured several times. Because it’s legally banned in a lot of ports  in Asia for its scent of “rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks,” it must have the bad-boy reputation necessary to draw in TV viewers.) I understand to a certain extent:  I’m sure eating strange fruits and vegetables doesn’t pull the same ratings as eating brains and, well I’ll just say it, balls. But, I wish it did. I’d TiVo a show that featured strange string beans any day.

When I began to travel internationally in earnest, in my mid-20s, my interest in out-of-the-ordinary fruits and vegetables really took off but, really, it had already been piqued. It happened when I took an ecology class in undergrad where I learned about centers of diversity which, I recently was reminded, are “geographic area(s) wherein the plant exhibits the highest degree of variation” and which often occur where plants originate.  In particular, I remember hearing that there were thought to be a couple thousand varieties of the potato in the Andes, where it originated.  And, as a lover of potatoes, I remember thinking that I needed to get on a plane to Ecuador immediately.  My interest was solidified though when, for another course, we took a field trip to Seed Savers — an organization based in Iowa dedicated to preserving and sharing heirloom seeds. I think it was the first time I heard about heirloom varieties, or plants that are passed down within a family, and for sure it was when I realized, “Now that’s why an eggplant is called an egg-plant.” The diversity of plants they had there was incredible and their mission impressive. It almost made me want to become a gardener. But I’m not quite there yet (sorry, mom).

But, to get back to the post at hand…The Romanesco, which I tried this past week, may not have the bizarre taste to warrant its own segment on the Bizarre Foods TV show, but it definitely has the looks for it and the science behind it.  First of all, which you can see already from the photo, it’s a brilliant chartreuse color that catches your attention immediately.  Second,  and this is where my nerdiness comes out (as if it hasn’t already been on full display), it’s a natural fractal.  Fractal forms, I’ve recently learned, are “complex shapes which look more or less the same at a wide variety of scale factors.”  So, basically, the large cones you can see spiraling out in the photo are made up of identical smaller, smaller and yet smaller cones. Third, because of its strange looks, it often goes by different names: some call it a cabbage, a broccoli, or a cauliflower. While it apparently is relatively common to see on the grocer’s shelf in Europe during the fall season, particularly in Italy which is its center of origin (ha! got to bring that back in), I certainly haven’t seen it or heard much about it in the States.  As a result, I was all the more excited to try it when I saw it here in Amsterdam – despite the $5/head price. And, so, we come to preparation and taste. I decided to keep it simple and just steam it like I would cauliflower or broccoli and add a bit of butter and salt. Maybe that was my mistake since, after all the anticipation, it just tasted like cauliflower.  There were no moments of agony or ecstasy that would call for a camera zoom-in to me eating the first bite.  It was nice but just…okay.  I guess now I see why Bourdain and Zimmern stick to tongue and testicles for ratings.