When I was a kid, I was sure my parents had me only so I did the chores they didn’t want to do themselves. Like going out for bread on a Sunday morning.
“Yulyosha, can you run out and get a loaf of white?” my mom would peek into my room at 8 am on a Sunday.
“Nu maaaaamaaa!” I would roar from under the blanket. Then I’d get dressed and walk to the grocery store nearby. The kind of store where all the goods are displayed behind the counter and you have to ask a shop assistant for what you need. Remember those?
When it came to bread there were three options: white, black, and baton. White was a rectangular loaf made of wheat flour. Black was round, wholemeal. Baton is the Russian version of baguette, in that it’s elongated and meant for breakfast. In all other respects it’s nothing like baguette and the French would be appalled that I even made that comparison. Baton is soft and chewy, with a crust that’s shiny and bright yellow.
Sometimes mom would send me to buy a few other things, like tea, sugar or salt. Tea should be always bought loose, never tea bags. Between large tea leaves and small tea leaves, always go for large.
Sugar was just sugar, sold in plastic bags, one kilo each.
Flour was flour. Always wheat, either premium grade or first grade.
Salt could be with iodine or without. We bought the one with iodine for the table and the one without for making pickles late in summer.
And even potatoes were simply potatoes. None of that starchy, floury, and waxy business — just potatoes.
Enter Yulia who moved abroad and started writing about food. One summer I tried to recreate my mom’s pan-fried potatoes and failed. About a dozen times. Naturally, I went down the rabbit hole of exploring all the different types of potatoes thinking that must be the culprit. I asked mom which type she uses and the answer was “normal potatoes”.
I did eventually figure the recipe out, but here’s the thing: my mom can fry any potatoes to perfection, she simply doesn’t know that they are the wrong type.
Which got me thinking about the sea of options we have when it comes to food these days. I once made a peach galette that required three types of sugar: caster, soft brown, and Demerara.
There’s a rational part of my brain that says: caster sugar for the dough, so it dissolves easily; soft brown sugar for the filling to add a deep molasses flavor; Demerara sugar to give some texture and crunch to the crust. But there’s also a part of me that wants to scream: “Three types of sugar in one recipe! Are you kidding me?” It must be noted, though, that at that exact moment I had all three types of sugar in my pantry.
One has to know and differentiate between the light brown, dark brown, muscovado, turbinado, raw cane and caster sugar. Consider this quote from Bob’s Red Mill website:
“Caster sugar is also known as castor sugar, superfine sugar, or even baker’s sugar. This is not to be confused with another sugar you may have used, which also has a few different names: powdered sugar, also known as icing sugar or confectioners sugar.”
Now imagine you have to know all those names in three languages. Because although I search for recipes in English, I am a Russian who lives in Germany. And if you type “caster sugar” in Google Translate, it will provide you with Puderzucker as German translation, but Puderzucker is powdered sugar and not at all caster sugar. Google Translate could’t care less that your buttercream will turn crunchy.
Salt is no better. I recently dived into Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat and now my pantry boasts at least four types of salt at any given time. Right now: crystals, fine sea salt, chili salt, and Maldon salt.
Crystals go into soups and stews. Fine salt is universally used. However, if you decide to substitute one for another remember that crystal salt is twice less salty than fine sea salt by volume. So if the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of fine sea salt, you’ll need 2 teaspoons of crystals, but if the measurements are given by weight, not by volume, you don’t have to make the conversion.
Don’t put flakey salt into soups, because what’s the purpose if the flakes dissolve? And don’t put the crystals into salads: too much crunch.
Is your head spinning yet? Sometimes I ache for simpler times when salt was just salt. But then I order Maldon salt on Amazon — 27 euros per kilo!— and my whole world is changed forever. I also added za’atar to the same order, and now my breakfast eggs are as fancy as can be. Even my husband who was skeptical at first told me: “I have to admit, this salt is pretty good”.
Whenever I read recipes these days, I have to Google an alarming amount of ingredients. 2 unwaxed lemons. There are waxed lemons? Who would wax a lemon? I thought wax is used exclusively on shoes.
What’s Marsala? Dukkah? Bottarga? Why do food writers mention these ingredients so casually, as if these were potatoes, eggs, and apples?
I tried an avocado for the first time at the age of twenty one. I discovered asparagus at twenty seven. There simply were no avocados or asparagus in my little town when I was growing up. Our food was simple. It came straight from the garden.
Two decades later I am hunting down the freshest olive oil from Tuscany, tahini halwa from Turkey, and spices from Sri Lanka.
I am both overwhelmed and excited. I can’t decide whether this new complicated order of things is exhausting or exhilarating. Perhaps, it’s both.
Perhaps, also, it is not complicated at all. It’s all simple. Think of it: za’atar is not complicated for someone who comes from Palestine. Maldon salt is no big deal for the people of Maldon, Essex. Dukkah is as easy as apple pie for someone from the Middle East.
On the other hand, my beloved farmer’s cheese (which only takes 48 hours to make) is met with surprise by anyone who was not born in Eastern Europe. My head may be spinning, but my tastebuds know better than to complain.