Eating In

OSNABRÜCK, Germany — I started cooking last year after I moved off-campus to live with my boyfriend, who has an

OSNABRÜCK, Germany — I started cooking last year after I moved off-campus to live with my boyfriend, who has an actual kitchen and uses it to make exactly three varieties of salad. When I decided that it was time for us to incorporate heat into our kitchen regimen, my mother saw it as a long-awaited opportunity to instruct me in Chinese cooking.

For months, she communicated recipes through phone calls, despite my insistence that none of them could be carried out without a real wok. My little sister visited me last spring and hauled along a suitcase of edibles, which included packets of dried herbs and berries prepared by my mother (and still sitting in my cabinet to this day). Shamefully, despite mastering made-from-scratch pasta sauce and somewhat authentic baklava, I had yet to prepare a proper Chinese meal when I left Boston this summer to spend a month at my boyfriend's home in Germany.

Once I arrived in his rather provincial hometown of Osnabrück, I subsisted largely on bread, cheese, and cold cuts. I had just visited my family the previous week, and after a few days abroad, my palate already yearned for a taste of home. So one evening, I volunteered to make honey-soy salmon and lettuce wraps for a party of seven, despite Osnabrück being the last place appropriate for my first foray into Asian-inspired cooking.

I say "inspired" because it seemed less than likely that I'd be able to procure all the ingredients necessary for a truly authentic Chinese meal. While Osnabrück boasts a significant Turkish population like many German cities, it isn't exactly what I'd call a diverse place. I've spent nearly two months here in the past year and have seen exactly three Asian people, all of whom worked in the single decent Chinese restaurant in town (a strangely upscale establishment compared to the ones I'm used to frequenting in America). So when I chose Chinese as the theme of the menu, I knew I was putting myself at a distinct disadvantage.

Despite the greater availability of organic produce in Germany, I was fairly certain that ingredients—such as the inaccurately named water chestnut (actually a kind of Chinese vegetable)—were not typical grocery-store fare. I did unexpectedly locate sesame oil in a kitchen cabinet, along with canola honey and expired soy sauce, but the rest of the ingredients had to be acquired elsewhere. My boyfriend, who claimed that an Asian market "definitely existed" in town, was less than helpful when asked for specifics, such as the physical address of said market. So instead, I scurried around the canned food section of an extremely sanitized store (already a bad sign for authenticity) and came away with canned bamboo shoots and baby corn, which would have appalled my mother, who never serves anything that has previously been sealed and shelved.

Due to some mistranslations and improvisation, my meal didn't turn out quite as planned, nor was it very authentic. The wraps actually ended up being more of a salad, because I couldn't explain to my German kitchen aide that the lettuce had to be cut into cups. Instead of jasmine rice, I had to make do with Uncle Ben's as an accompaniment to the salmon, a minor tragedy. But despite the comedy of errors that the dinner turned into, it was a success—if seven clean plates are any indication of culinary victory.

One of the guests inquired about the source of my recipe. "Is this the kind of food you ate at home while growing up?" she asked.

From my faint memories of childhood cuisine, I could recall leafy Chinese greens in oyster sauce, steamed fish flavored with ginger, and savory, sweet broths of whole chicken and berries, but my mother rarely made lettuce wraps, and never once prepared salmon.

I had to confess, "I found the recipe in a cookbook published by the BBC."

I suppose my two-course Chinese feast turned out not to be much of a feast, or particularly Chinese, for that matter. But I think my mother would have nonetheless been proud.

Lena Chen ’10, a Crimson magazine writer, is a sociology concentrator in Currier House.