Thursday, March 19, 2015

Flavor Town U.S.A.

Writer and Louisville native Aimee Zaring has spent several years teaching ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) to newcomers across this city. Working with immigrants and refugees opened her eyes to their often inspiring and sometimes tragic stories of leaving home countries, only able to feel as though they are still there by cooking their native cuisine in their new Louisville kitchens.

Zaring stumbled onto these stories after meeting a Bosnian refugee through a Leadership Louisville program in 2008. Zeljana Javork told Zaring about her journey of escaping war in Bosnia, coming to the U.S. before she knew much English, and working her way up to become the English Language Trainer manager at Catholic Charities’ ESL school.

“She invited me to volunteer at the school,” Zaring continues, “which I did, and I soon discovered that working with immigrants was a perfect fit for me, bridging my love of the English language and other cultures with my interest in helping some of the disadvantaged people in my community. I really love working with this population. Whenever I’m with them, I feel like a part of me is returning home.”

Zaring shares their stories and recipes in her new book, “Flavors from Home.” One featured immigrant is Omar Pernet Hern├índez, who was Zaring’s student at the Refugee Elder Program (co-sponsored by Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities). The political activist spent over two decades in Cuban jails defending human rights. Zaring says, “He and so many of the people featured in ‘Flavors from Home’ have sacrificed and lost much – including their homelands, because they wouldn’t, and won’t, compromise their beliefs or tolerate injustice. All of the contributors in the book are heroes to me, and their stories will forever resonate in my mind and heart.”

I asked Zaring if she thought altering traditional recipes for American palates was ever necessary.

“On the one hand, my immediate response is a resounding ‘No!’ But I’m speaking from my own preference for tasting and experiencing food in its most authentic form, or as close to it as possible. That’s what I also tried to do in ‘Flavors from Home,’ keep the original ingredients and methods as close to what the cooks used when preparing the dish for me in their kitchens.

On the other hand, I just visited the Akramis at Shiraz Mediterranean Grill the other day, and they mentioned that they’ve made some minor adaptations to some of their native dishes to appeal to American tastes. I remember Huong ‘CoCo’ Tran (owner of Roots and Heart & Soy) also telling me that when she first opened The Eggroll Machine in 1981 (the first Chinese fast-food restaurant in Louisville) and tried to introduce her native Vietnamese cuisine on her original menu, she found that “Louisville wasn’t ready” yet. So, from a business standpoint, I don’t fault immigrant entrepreneurs whatsoever for doing what they feel is necessary to bring people in the door and appeal to a wide range of tastes.

That said, I think people’s tastes across America and right here in Louisville are evolving. Just look at our growing number of ethnic restaurants and grocery stores, and even American restaurants that are constantly introducing internationally-inspired dishes on their menus. And the more we are exposed to something, as research studies suggest, the more it grows on us and we acquire a taste for it, quite literally, in this case.”

An unexpected side effect of learning new foods was discovering that they would become her staples, too. “I actually crave them like I do my Mom’s German potato salad, cheese grits or chocolate chess pie. When I have a well-stocked kitchen and some time on my hands, I like to make the Persian dish tachin, Somalian sambusas, Vietnamese soft spring rolls and Nepalese momos.

But I also like the faster and equally flavorful recipes where you basically throw everything in a pot and let it simmer, like the Vietnamese green curry soup, Hungarian chicken paprik├ís, Bhutanese ema datshi and Burmese pork curry. I can honestly say there isn’t one recipe in the book that I don’t like.”

Part of the book’s proceeds will help support the efforts of local resettlement agencies. A reception will be held Monday, 6-8 p.m. at Simply Thai in St. Matthews.

c. 2015 The Voice-Tribune

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