I traveled the world for a year, cooking with grandmothers along the way.

Brooke Siem
November 09, 2020
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Aminah in Melaka, Malaysia
| Credit: Photo by Brooke Siem; Design by Tyrel Stendahl

Our series, "Just Like Grandma Used to Make," explores why we're craving Grandma's cooking now more than ever—and why we should all embrace our comfort-food cravings.

There are two things I know for sure: When life delivers out-of-the-blue opportunities, it's best to do everything you can to take them.

Also, grandmothers are the best cooks on the planet.

So when a chance to travel around the world for a year fell into my lap, I left my life as the co-owner and founder of Manhattan's Prohibition Bakery in order to traipse around the globe. Predictably, I was motivated by food. But after hustling as a chef-owner for five years, I was tired of the pressure and perfection required to keep a food business afloat. What began as a love of creating beautiful, miniature baked goods morphed into a world of profit margins, cranky customers and marketing. By the time I boarded my one-way flight to Malaysia, I couldn't ignore the resentment I felt toward the thing I once loved most.

And so, I decided to keep my distance from restaurants and instead get back into the home kitchen, learning from the original experts: grandmothers.

Credit: Design By: Tyrel Stendahl

During my year abroad, I cooked with 14 different grandmothers in nine countries across four continents. Thanks to all the years at my bakery, I primarily focused on desserts (though I did get lessons in Czech potato dumplings and Cambodian fish curry along the way). Over and over again, despite different lives and different languages, these women invited me into their homes. Together, we cooked the food that spoke to their soul. And in turn, they helped me gather the pieces of my own.

Here are a few of the lessons that I learned about cooking, and life, from these extraordinary women.

Waste nothing

Credit: Photo by Brooke Siem

The average American wastes 238 pounds of food per year, or about 21% of the food they buy. Throughout most of history, though, waste wasn't an option. Instead, dessert recipes were created using whatever was left over from the main meal.

In Koh Phangan, Thailand, for example, 83-year-old Kaew taught me her favorite childhood dessert made of days-old rice, sun-dried to a crisp and ground by hand using a stone grinder and brute force. The ground rice was combined with local palm sugar and fresh coconut to make a sort of sugary rice truffle. I asked, through my translator, for the name of the sweet. Kaew shrugged. It didn't have a name, she said, it was simply the solution for using up precious leftover rice.

Glutinous rice flour is the stuff of Gods

Made from ground sweet rice—though it isn't sweet at all— glutinous rice flour gets sticky when heated, which results in a uniquely chewy texture. I was familiar with glutinous rice flour thanks to the introduction of Japanese mochi into mainstream American culture, but I didn't realize the impact of glutinous rice flour in pan-Asian sweets until all seven of the grandmothers I cooked with in Asia pulled out a bag for us to work with.

All used more or less the same method: mix glutinous rice flour with a little bit of water and pandan juice, if available, to create a smooth dough. From there, the dough can be used in a variety of ways. Yung and Narin, survivors of the Cambodian genocide, pinched off marble-sized bits of dough and dropped them into a sweet ginger and coconut milk broth for a dish that translates to "fish ball soup." Meanwhile, in Melaka, Malaysia, Aminah steamed her dough in banana leaves along with young coconut and palm sugar for a portable sweet she typically served to break the Ramadan fast.

Credit: Photo by Brooke Siem

Touch your food

Thanks to the invention of the microwave, pop-open cans of baked goods and Uber Eats, it is possible to put together an entire meal without ever touching an ingredient. And yet, all of the recipes I cooked with my grandmothers required some sort of tactile interaction—grating oranges for Portugese quadradinhos de laranja, shelling chickpeas for Mexican garbanzos en miel, or rolling sweet dumplings for Malaysian ondeh ondeh.

Physically touching the ingredients forms an almost sacred bond between you and your meal. No longer is food a mindless means to an end. Instead, there is earned respect for the raw ingredients and what they do for your body. The combined effort between you and the food, quite literally, sustains life.

The best recipes take time

Credit: Photo by Brooke Siem

To dedicate your time to cooking something from scratch simply to bring pleasure to those you care for (or for yourself) is the ultimate act of love.

This doesn't mean you have to sacrifice the whole day to the kitchen. Making a chestnut cake in Italy with Grazia only took about 20 minutes. But the fact that she took those 20 minutes out of her day to teach me when she could have brought a chestnut cake home from the bakery instead, showed me that I mattered enough for her to take time out of her day to just nourish me. We may have been strangers, but that 20-minute cake was an expression of love from one human to another.

When someone invites you into their home, say yes

Though the world grows more digitally connected every day, our hard-coded sense of otherness still threatens the existence of a peaceful Earth. One individual may not be able to alter the course of geopolitics, but inviting different people into our home—and saying yes when an invitation is extended—is one of the quickest ways to break down barriers and learn about what makes us the same.

As Liba told me about watching the Berlin Wall rise and fall, while we filled pillowy koláče with sugared ground walnuts and butter from her home in Týnec, Czech Republic, "To build walls is very easy. To destroy them is much more difficult."