I anticipated a few of our travel adventures before we stumbled upon them. For example, I imagined that decoding foreign train schedules would take a bit of practice (I was right). I imagined reading key words on restaurant menus and placing an order correctly would take a bit of luck (I was right). But cooking in the kitchens of our rented guest apartments? That, I imagined, would be a snap (I was very, very wrong).
I realized I was in for a bit of a challenge before I even set foot in a kitchen – I was still at the grocery store! For better or worse, I grew up with the wack-a-doodle American system of measurements. You know what I’m talking about… 16 ounces to a pound, 2 cups to a pint, 2 pints to a quart, 4 quarts to a gallon, etc.. It’s a ridiculous system, but it’s the system with which I am most familiar. I understand the metric system and use it in other contexts, but it’s akin to a non-native language, and takes me an extra second to sort out in my head.
Here’s a scenario: an item costs 6 Euro 49 per kilogram, and the shop keeper is asking if I would like to make a selection. Hmm. Would I? Well, there are roughly 2.2 pounds per kilogram and $1.37 per Euro. Reasoning out that 6 Euro 49 per kilogram is about $4 per pound isn’t rocket science, but after thinking through the mental math for about 50 items, I was ready to just start chucking random items in my cart. Then I learn that the price shown is “per 100 grams.” I have no idea how much 100 grams of sausage (or cheese or whatever) looks like. Sure, I’ll take 100 grams. Oh. I guess I’ll take another 100 grams.
Previously kitchen confident, I found myself fumbling through scenario after scenario:
- Butter is not packaged in 1/2 cup sticks, but in 200 gram squares. Internet conversions to the rescue!
- Baking powder is not sold in a red cylindrical can, but in little envelopes. I found it… eventually.
- Powdered sugar is not sold in loose bags, but in dense little boxes. I found this also… eventually.
- Something that looks like bacon and smells like bacon might actually be bacon, or it might be a fully cured, prosciutto-like product in disguise. Not that I bought a package of not-bacon by mistake…
- Flour is sold in densely packed 1 kilo packages – very densely packed. I’m just guessing here, but it probably wouldn’t be wise to dump a bag of flour into a resealable container of approximately the same size. I’m just guessing the flour might expand… a LOT… and make a mess that would amuse any pint-size travel companions for the rest of the day. Good thing this didn’t happen to me.
After navigating the market, my adventures continued in the kitchen. Oven gauges are set in Celsius rather than Fahrenheit. Local recipes use units of mass rather than volume (a much more accurate, common sense approach, but unfamiliar nonetheless). Ovens are generally smaller, which is more energy efficient, but also alters familiar baking times. Stovetops are often electric and ceramic, requiring a gentler approach and a bit more patience than open gas flame. Navigating these differences, I managed to serve slices of “rare” cake and saw through a roast that was, er, “well” done.
I also made a few dishes – heck, more than a few dishes – that were pretty darn good. I will leave Germany with a few new cooking skills, a lot of great recipe ideas, and a healthy respect for the similarities AND the differences between German and American cooking cultures.
Next time on Crowded Earth Kitchen, I’ll share photos and stories from an iconic German dining establishment. Then, we’re off to Austria!