Sunday, June 24, 2012

California hygge

Life abroad is full of small victories, and learning how to cook in a new kitchen is one of them.  In my opinion, you can't truly feel at home in a new apartment until you've settled into your kitchen.  In my life as an expat, this means learning how to use a new oven with foreign symbols, discovering the names of favorite spices in a different language, and successfully grocery shopping like the locals.  When I moved to Copenhagen in May, finding a place to live was the first big obstacle to conquer.  Now, finding the right ingredients to indulge in familiar recipes along with new cooking experiments will present another challenge.  Luckily, grocery shopping is one of my favorite activities. 

After living in Santa Monica (home of a world-famous farmer's market) for the past 5 years, I've been spoiled by the ability to find just about any ingredient imaginable.  So I prepared myself that I would have to adjust my eating habits during life in Copenhagen.  I anticipated, for example, that I would not be able to find avocados in abundance-- a food that is a big part of daily life back home.  Before I left for Denmark, I tried to overdose on avocado so I wouldn't crave it-- but as it turns out, guacamole cravings are a part of growing up so close to the Mexican border.  Even so, I didn't intend on buying any avocados (which can be expensive no matter where you are) until I became incredibly desperate for homemade guacamole.  As it turns out, I didn't have to wait for desperation to strike thanks to one friendly grocer in the middle of the city.

After work one day, I set out on an ingredient exploration in the Nørrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen and happened upon some small produce stores on the pedestrian street Blågårdsgade.  You can spot these stores along many streets throughout Copenhagen, and they hold many treasures for the home cook: beautiful bundles of mint begging to be crushed into mojitos, boxes of cherries perfect for transformation into tart form, and nectarines to accompany your morning muesli.  Step inside these stores and you might be surprised at the variety of products you can find: Louisiana Crystal hot sauce (!), Indian spices, jasmine rice, tahini, rosewater, and even Serrano chili peppers (a staple of my California diet.) There is not always a particular theme characterizing these products-- they are simply items you may not find in a typical Danish supermarket.  

It was while exploring the selection at one store on Blågårdsgade that I was converted into a devoted customer, despite the fact that this store is nowhere near my neighborhood.  The owner explained that on this particular day, avocados were 'gratis'-- completely free for the taking.  They were getting quite ripe and a new order was coming in tomorrow.  Naturally, my California heart was struck by his kindness and by the luck of being in the right place at the right time.  I sorted through the flats of fruit, running my hand over the skin of each avocado and trying to strategically pick the least ripe ones.  I gathered an entire box of avocados, and then the owner encouraged me to take another.  So I did.  I was committed at this point and had already gotten my hopes up: I would make a bowl of guacamole that night.  

While some avocados looked past their prime, I knew if I gathered enough fruit, I could salvage enough for a small batch of guacamole.  As a seasoned avocado shopper, I knew there had to be some good ones worth opening.   So I purchased the rest of my groceries, took my free avocados gratefully, and started my journey home.  Because this is a small city, I ran into a former professor of mine during the height of avocado transport mania.  (And because anytime you lug an absurd amount of avocados across the city looking like a maniac, naturally you run into someone you know.)  One very ungraceful, sweaty 15-minute walk to the train station, a train ride, a 10-minute walk to my apartment, and five flights of stairs later, the avocados arrived to my kitchen.  

These avocados may have been free, but I earned this bowl of guacamole-- at the very least because of my intensely determined approach to save the fruit as if it were a life or death matter.  Next came the moment of truth.  I opened each avocado carefully, thinking, there had to be reason for all of this.  Discovering free avocados and Serrano chili peppers in one day?  There was always the chance that none of the avocados would survive, which would have been a cruel fate for my Californian soul.  Could it be the universe demanding that I immerse and only eat frikadellar and potatoes, the most traditional of Danish food?  Carrying those boxes had given my arms a pretty good workout, but I was hoping my stomach would be rewarded as well.  With my craving at a dramatic peak, I opened avocado after avocado in anticipation.  Eventually, my hopes were fulfilled and my bowl started to fill up.  

Of course, I've eaten my fair share of traditional Danish food and plan to eat more.  But this was a comforting treat to enjoy during my first official month of living and working abroad.  A little taste of California, a little bit of hygge, and a new beginning.  Little by little, my struggles in the kitchen are transforming my apartment into a home.