Loneliness: one of the harsh realities when moving to a new country. As much as I was excited to begin anew in Saigon, I was overcome with anxiety on how I would fare in a city of over 8 million people. Aside from having to navigate a new language and culture, as well as properly learn how to ride a motorbike (if I ever mustered the guts to do so,) I needed to first and foremost, make friends.
Natalia’s eyes piqued at my mention of a food memoir. In order to meet people, I had forced myself to attend a book club to get the social gears a-turnin’. When they asked for recommendations, I chimed in with a travelogue about one man’s journey eating his way through Vietnam. The idea was noted and then politely bypassed. But the girl sitting across from me gave me a look of approval. Food is the one sure-fire way to point out a kindred spirit.
Little did I know this friendship would be go beyond mere coffee dates. She helped me return to a resolution I had long neglected. In a year of reinvention, I told myself that this would be the year I learned to cook. In a family of cooks, I was the eater. I was the person who sat down at the table while everyone else was busy slaving away in the kitchen. But after years of passivity, I began feeling pathetic, not knowing how to even dice an onion properly. This girl Natalia penned food articles for a local magazine. I knew she would have a lot to share on her part so I asked her if she would introduce me to some of her favorite dishes. She went beyond just talking to me about food… she graciously invited me to her home to help her cook a family recipe straight from her abuelita’s kitchen treasury.
Croquetas are a dish Natalia knows inside-and-out. The knowledge was handed down from her mother, who had learned it from her mother, whom Natalia lovingly referred to as her ‘abu.’ A croqueta is a spoonful of flavored béchamel encased in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried. Croquetas started out historically as a poor-man’s meal. Today, it has become a staple of the tapas circuit and it is becoming more premium as less alternative fillings grace the menus of upper crust restaurants. But it still loved and consumed its its most recognizable form, filled with Spanish ham (Jamón de Bellota 100% ibérico) and chicken. A beautiful béchamel sauce depends on a number of factors such as what flour you use (quality counts) and how you stir the mixture. It’s hard work and takes even greater skill to create a creamy, thick béchamel so practice makes perfect. Natalia’s take on croquetas are more fusion, having been inspired by the local tapestry of herbs and spices. In the cooking demonstration, she used local Vietnamese ingredients like lemongrass and chili paste, but the croquetas remained undeniably Spanish. Cooking had been a saving grace in her own trials as an expat and now, it was saving me from feeling alone. As we bonded over shared heartaches while slaving away to prep this labor-intensive meal, I realized that food is truly a love language that provides comfort and happiness to those who choose to communicate in it. She even made a tortilla espanola to go with the red wine I brought to compliment our finished croquetas! Here are some more unusual flavor combinations for some experimenting:
- pumpkin and mushrooms
- mushrooms, pinenuts, and basil
- asparagus and onions
- spinach with gorgonzola cheese & nuts
- raisins with parmesan cheese and pinenuts
Check out the timelapse and enjoy the recipe!