How many times have you sat next to someone new at a restaurant, conference or mandatory fun day and seen a variety of foods and cuisines that you couldn’t name if you tried? Did you ask the person carrying the plate what it was? Chances are, your answer is, “No.” The question I pose to you is, “Why not?”
As military families, we often struggle to meet new people at new duty stations and create meaningful moments to learn about each other. Leaning into opportunities that present themselves organically is one of my favorite secret weapons for building connections, community and friendships.
As a lover of cuisine, culture and cooking, I pounce on every excuse I can to learn about new foods. Asking something as simple as, “What’s that on your plate?” invites others to the table, so to speak. It creates space for them to answer, making it easier for you to determine if they might be willing to participate in a get-to-know-each-other moment.
I remember the first time I felt this notion to the depths of my soul. I was working with a Japanese-American who was born and raised in Japan until her late teens. She was eating dried fish and something that looked like slime-covered beans. As she sat down to the lunch table, I asked, probably more intensely than intended, “Fu, what is that?” She smiled and replied, “Dried anchovies and fermented beans. Want to try some?”
Simple as that, I was eating rotten beans and crunchy fish. To my astonishment, and that of others at the table, I liked them and went back for more. Fu explained that she was trying to conceive, and her grandmother had recommended the fish because of the high content of fatty acids and some other nutrients, such as iron.
She had recommended the beans because fermentation was good for gut health and made the beans, a good source of protein and carbs, more easily digestible. This was a naturopathic way of nourishing a pre-natal body that had become a family tradition of sorts. I was amazed and asked her what other food-based traditions her family had. We chatted for the remainder of that break, and over many future breaks, she enlightened me as to the usually delicious, often mesmerizing and generally beautiful traditions that revolve around Japanese family tables.
From that moment, I was hooked. I wanted – no, needed – to know what everyone’s favorite food is, why it’s their favorite, where it comes from and if there are any traditions that surround it.
It’s no surprise that when I left the medical field, and the job with my food culture-loving pal, my next career was culinary arts. During my years in food and beverage, my passion for food heritage was often indulged by having coworkers from all over the world. From Brazil to Bulgaria and everywhere in between, I met hundreds of individuals over the course of a decade.
One of the first things I asked someone new I met in the kitchen was, “What’s your favorite thing to eat?” If I didn’t know about it, I would interrogate them about all the finer details until I had a thorough understanding of the dish and how to properly create and serve it.
Sometimes, I even asked for a family recipe and would create it to express my thanks for their having taken the time to teach me about their heritage.
I have learned to cultivate a military-affiliated community around food. Pulling on my experience from those late-night kitchen conversations, I have been able to step out of my comfort zone and into the space of others in a way that says, “I see you and want to hear all about where you come from.” As military families, we are often “new to town.” Pulling out the chair and offering a seat at the table is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other.
This salad was made for me one very busy, very hot summer night while working at an Alaska resort. As the sous-chef, I was too busy overseeing the kitchen on the chef’s day off to make myself something to eat.
One of the cooks, my dear friend, Pav, brought me the most beautiful and bountiful salad I had seen in a long time. He explained that it was his favorite lunch from long days of working on the farm his family owned in Bulgaria.
The best part of this salad is that it is flexible to the items and quantities you have on hand. Here, I have listed my favorite ingredients. Use whatever amount suits you in the moment and replace, or omit, any items as you see fit.
½ cup grape tomatoes, halved
½ English cucumber, sliced into half moons
¼ pound ham, diced
¼ pound turkey, diced
2 soft-boiled eggs, quartered lengthwise into wedges
1/3 cup kalamata olives
A handful of julienned red onions
¼ cup roasted red peppers, banana pepper rings OR pepperoncini slices
1/3 cup crumbled feta, sub with dairy-free cheese if needed
¼ cup mushroom slices
A generous handful of greens (optional)
Dressing of choice (my favorite is balsamic vinaigrette)
Place greens in bowl, if using. Place each topping in a pile around the bowl, reserving eggs for last. Place the eggs around the bowl so it marks out eight “areas.” Drizzle with dressing or good quality olive oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To eat, stir together and enjoy!