Friday, December 23, 2005

Cook's Corner: A discovery is made

I now know how Columbus must have felt when he first saw land on the western horizon, or what must have been going through Balboa's mind when he climbed the crest of a mountain and spotted the glimmering Pacific beneath his feet. I have joined the ranks of the world’s great explorers, because this evening I stopped dumbfounded in a Ukrainian super-market and raised to my eyes a jar of classic American peanut butter -- peanut butter, in the wilds of Eastern Europe!

I wasn’t prepared for this. Just last week, a public affairs officer with the State Department told me of a bazaar held each year at the US Embassy in Kyiv for the benefit of the ex-pat community. “Next year sell peanut butter” – this was what they'd heard again and again. “We can’t find peanut butter anywhere.”

Nor could I, though certainly I'd tried. This very same week, at a market just north of Kharkov National University, I’d thought I’d come across some. It was a small plastic tub, like the type you might see used to sell cottage cheese in the states. On the lid was a picture of a rabbit (related to Bugs Bunny from the looks of him) who was poking up out of a small circle (again, very reminiscent of the opening of any Looney Tunes cartoon -- you quickly get the idea that a copyright attorney would have a field day here). Beneath this (and a word I didn't understand) was a bold amber word, “Maca,” which I took to be the Ukrainian equivalent of the Russian word for butter, “Maclo.” This by itself wasn’t exciting, but the cartoon peanuts that were scattered all around the lid were. I was the holder of a Master’s degree in English, after all -- a linguist you could say, capable of connecting meanings and tracing roots, and here was a word that meant butter and there were pictures that meant peanuts. Synthesize the two and you had peanut butter.

So yes, I put the tub in my basket and walked proudly to the front check-out. And of course it wasn’t the right thing. Opening the lid, I found something inside that was thick, spreadable and white -- certainly nothing resembling the peanut. And instead of nuts, the concoction was spotted by the stray yellow raisin. I tested it out on a corner of bread. It wasn’t bad, but it wouldn’t go with jelly. If anything, it belonged inside a bliny. I put it away, resenting once again, in this city that speaks only slightly more Ukrainian than Vietnamese, the lack of bi-lingual packaging. (And say what you will about Ukraine’s need to assert its independence and establish a national identity, but know too that it’s more than frustrating to leave the pharmacy, as I’ve done on more than one ocassion, with three or four things that include instructions only in a language that’s all but impossible to learn in the American university system. Maybe when Ukrainian politicians don’t need coaching on their country's official language, maybe then I’ll say Ukraine's ready to be mono-lingual. But until then, for the sake of my sanity and the simple health of any Russian-speaking tourist industry that might develop …)

Back to the peanut butter, though, and fast-forward to this evening. That’s when I entered the Target super-market just off the Marshal Zhukova Metro stop. I’d been here before, I’d seen the massive blue and yellow building taking up half a city block and heard it spoken of as the Ukrainian Wal-Mart. But I’d never seen peanut butter inside its concrete walls, and I no longer expected to. Like all dreamers, I’d learned the futility of unrealized potential. I was hoping to buy some eggs, some lavash, maybe a can of peas. I was happy to make-do. But then there it was, arranged neatly on a little island display away from the shelves. A flag planted, as if planted into the soil of a new world, rose from between the many plastic jars: Oreshka Peanut Butter, it read.

The contents of the jar were concealed by a plastic halter on which a striped and amber cat offered a wide grin, looking vaguely like a cousin of Tony the Tiger’s (though with a poofy white hat borrowed from Chef Boy Ardee). Running off to the sides of his cartoon face were pictures of peanuts.

I flipped it over to look through the clear plastic bottom: a thick brown paste. Like gold, Texas tea, most definitely peanut butter. I looked again at the label, which offered up a loving combination of Ukrainian and Russian, belying its origins in the eastern city of Lugansk. Oreshka, it read, classic peanut butter, No. 1 in Ukraine.

Here was the national dish of America, and even the marketing reminded me of home. It was awash in bullshit. Number one in Ukraine? Of course! Because there is no number two! Still, who cared?

I write to you three sandwiches later, content to my very core. This comes one day after cooking home-made, curry-flavored tofu burgers, the blocks of bean curd found at the sprawling Barabashova Market, hidden away from the outdoor vendors and located in the Asian market behind the handful of walk-up Vietnamese lunch counters.

If you’re looking for bok choy, I’ve got a guy who can score me some of that too. Anything else, let's talk.


Myfanwy Collins said...

Ah! Two of my favorite foods--tofu and peanut butter! This is a funny post, Stephan, and I'm so happy that you found your peanut butter.

Incidentally, one of my favorite meals is broiled tofu and mushrooms over steamed green beans, all covered in peanut sauce. Yum!

WittyName32 said...

Thanks, Myf, I've been meaning to post a call for comfort food recipes, things that are easy to make and consisting of only the most basic ingredients.

I was actually looking for peanut sauce tonight. The hunt continues ...

Irzan said...

Oh my God. Yet another lost American in Ukraine. I am lost I know. But that's because there's cheap education here, nothing more!

It's sad reading your plight for the peanut butter... :( same like me, searching high and low for coconut milk but to no avail. Anyhow, be thankful you're in Kiev but not in Simferopol, the "metropolitan" village.

:) Cheers!

WittyName32 said...

I understand your plight regarding the coco milk. I smuggled some back from Norway in November so I could cook Thai food, and treated the stuff like white gold, going through only one of my four cans. Rumor has it I can find replacements at the same market where I found the peanut butter, but I can neither confirm nor deny that. As for me, while I am lost and have spent much of my life in the darkness of a wood or ill-kept philosophy, I also write from a place where it's okay to make fun of myself. The search for a PB&J could be filed under said heading.

Good luck in Simferopol; you've got some nice spots within striking distance. I'll do my best here in Kharkov.