Cooking Up A Friendship

Want to try your hand at making Spanish ham and cheese croquetas?

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. Read a full review of Eating Viet Nam here. 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 and she invited me over to cook some croquetas with her.

Making Spanish food in Saigon

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.

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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!

food finds recipes
A plate of ham and cheese croquetas

Feel free to print out!

Looking for more recipes?

Albanian Kulaç

Filipino Pancit Bihon

Italian “Pasta Alla Carbonara”

Vietnamese Mooncakes

Spanish Seafood Paella

👉 In the kitchen… comment below to share more recipes for me to discover!


Filipina-American Millette Stambaugh is a thirty-something former expat who has traded her nomadic ways for Philadelphia living. Corporate worker by day, content creator by night, Millette specializes in visual storytelling and joyful journeys and wants to help others find their "next somewheres." Follow her escapades on Instagram, Youtube, and Tiktok @thenextsomewhere.


  • May 16, 2016

    This is great. I love the fact that you found friendship through food, and thanks so much for sharing the recipe. I would like to try the pumpkin and mushroom flavoured ones. They sound really yummy! I might just have a go at making some.

  • May 16, 2016

    I have to agree that moving to a new country can be super isolating and lonely. Even if you have your S.O. with you! It’s harder to find friends with alot in common with you abroad- at least that’s our experience here in Korea. The nice thing though is that the friends we have made will go on to be our friends where ever in the world we are. I love that you made a friend that you can cook with! I really got into cooking when we moved to Korea and it’s become something that I really look forward doing daily! These croquetes look divine! I want to try and make them myself! Thanks for sharing Izzy!

  • May 16, 2016

    Looks like delicious recipe! i only known croquettes made by potato dough and fried in oil, the basic version.

  • May 16, 2016

    I’m like you were…the one to sit down at the table and feel like crap cause I can’t cook to save my life hahaha. My husband has recently gotten into cooking as a form of relaxation (trust me, this dude is HIGH STRUNG and I never thought cooking would be his ‘thing’!). It has really showed me that for him, cooking is therapuetic so it is easy to see how it can bolster friendships too! And you like to read? A gal after my own heart 😉

  • May 17, 2016

    I agree that food indeed is a great leveler, it is food that many a time breaks barriers and acts as the foundation stone for many a friendship. Bonding over food is an essential ingredient of traveling.

  • Jo

    May 17, 2016

    I know how it feels moving to a new country and being anxious about making connections. It was hard for me initially in Indonesia but by the end of my 11 months, I simply didn’t want to read. Yes joining clubs is a great way to get yourself “out” there and meet new people. Croquets are my absolute favorite btw since I first tried them in Holland (And then Indonesia , coz of the Dutch influence). I am yet to find them in India.

  • June 8, 2016

    cooking is an art in itself and it lets you explore yourself. I just love to cook for my friends and family.

    Cheers for the confirmation.


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