My secret receta (recipe or prescription in Spanish) for understanding a culture is mainly by the way it cooks, eats, and celebrates with food. That is why, nearly fifteen years ago, I quickly accepted an invitation from my roommate, Juana Mari, to visit her home and cook with her abuela (grandmother). Little did I know that an invite to Murcia would open doors to an adventure that to this day has remained the best learning of my time in Spain.
That afternoon, Juana led me to the outdoor kitchen where abuela awaited. Small and dressed in a white apron over a housedress and close-toed shoes, abuela’s face showed her years of work in the olive groves. In a thick, Andalucian accent, she began by explaining the ingredients of the tortilla española: 5 potatoes, 5 eggs, 1 onion, olive oil, garlic cloves, salt, and pepper.
Under her close direction, the three of us started peeling, slicing, and cooking the mixture. All the while, abuela’s hand gestures and occasional wrinkled nose signaled that we needed to be careful of not overcooking the garlic or allowing the potatoes to stick. Once the eggs had been added to the pan and the consistency met her approval, we were ready for the trickiest part of the tortilla, the flip. By placing a plate over the half-cooked tortilla in the pan, abuela flipped it quickly resulting in an upside down tortilla on the plate, which she skillfully slid back into the pan. Like a pro, abuela stepped away letting Juana and I finish the second side. As she sat with a glass of local red wine, a dumbfounded look appeared as if she were asking herself, “Why is this regular day cooking so interesting to this foreigner?”
Not only did the afternoon in the summer kitchen with abuela teach me the art of the tortilla, but it also instilled a habit that I have taken on many travels since. What souvenir other than a recipe can be so telling of a culture, plus lightweight and reusable?