Are you living abroad, a foreigner living in an alien land? As an expat, surely, you have times when you hanker for familiar foods from your home country, things like Twinkies, pickled herring, spotted dick, vegemite, mopane worms and other mouthwatering delectables. Being Dutch, I crave erwtensoep, thick split pea soup, when winter arrives where ever I may be domiciling. But I even craved it once in the tropics while sojourning in Kenya. At the time, I wasn’t much of a cook, and making this peasant soup for the first time became an adventure, or rather a disaster that tested my brand new husband’s love. I was reminded of this sorry tale because, well, I’m making a pot of erwtensoep tonight.
Note: This is an edited version of my article Seeking Peas on Earth published in the Washington Post Food Section years ago and now buried in cyber space. But the rights are mine.
The Case of the Petrified Peas
My cooking education began long ago, far away and high in the sky of the beautiful highlands of Kenya, East Africa, where I lived in the early years of my marriage — a new bride abroad but not (yet)an expat foodie. One day, on a trip to the capital of Nairobi, I found dried green split peas. I was ecstatic. I could now make erwtensoep, Dutch split pea soup.
Forget whatever you’ve heard of Dutch cuisine (which may not have been encouraging) and just accept on faith that erwtensoep is food for the gods, especially on a dark, cold winter night after you’ve bicycled home through sleet and wind.
There are no winter nights in Kenya, but the evenings in the Highlands can be chilly and I could not wait to make the soup. I wrote my mother for the recipe, which arrived posthaste, and I set off to create my magic with the peas.
Disaster struck early on
After the required hour-and-a-half simmering of the peas they were still not soft. According to my mother, split peas required no overnight soaking, so I had simply put them in water and boiled them, expecting them to disintegrate, as they were supposed to do. I cooked them a little longer. Then a lot longer.
By the time my Peace Corps hero came home from his toil with the local Kikuyu farmers my temper had totally disintegrated while the peas had not. “These peas won’t get soft!” I yelled, as if it were his fault. “I did exactly as I was supposed to do and it’s just not happening!”
“Are you sure?” he asked, looking politely into the pan of boiling green pebbles.
I shoved the Dutch recipe under his American nose. He glanced down. “This is a foreign language to me,” he reminded me gently. “Maybe your mother didn’t write it down correctly.”
I glared at him and he retreated to the living room.
Lonely on the road to pea soup
I consulted my American cookbook about split pea soup. In my superior Dutch opinion, the recipe was seriously inferior, but it said the peas should be soaked overnight. Could it be that not all split peas on earth were created equal? Then again, should all the hours of boiling not have made up for the lack of soaking? I was flummoxed, not to speak of mystified.
I had no one to ask for advice. At the time we were living in a dilapidated colonial settler’s house at the edge of a village of mud huts high in the Aberdare Mountains and we had no telephone (no electricity or running water, either, for that matter) and I knew of no other Dutch person in the vicinity to come to my rescue.
I was truly on my own. It was a lonely feeling. However, Dutch stubbornness in tact, I tried again the next day, having first soaked another pound of the split peas overnight in water from our rain barrel (boiled and strained through a dishtowel).
In the morning I brought them to a boil, then simmered them. An hour and a half later I looked into the pan and stirred.
My apologies, but here comes the cliché: My heart sank. The peas did not look the least bit soft. I took some out to taste them. They crunched defiantly as I chewed, showing no sign whatsoever of even considering the possibility of disintegrating.
I took my potato masher and pounded on the obstinate legumes with a vengeance, which gave me a certain primitive satisfaction, but did nothing to rectify the situation. I ended up with raw pea grit floating in water. Still not ready to give up, I boiled this mess some more, several hours in fact and grew angrier and angrier (I used a polite word here as you can see). I wanted erwtensoep!
Obviously, I wasn’t going to get it.
“What happened to the peas?” my prince inquired as he surveyed his fried-egg sandwich that night. He was a brave man.
“Nothing,” I said through my teeth. “They refused to do what they were supposed to do. They sold me bad peas, that’s all there’s to it. They must be a hundred years old. They’re petrified! I should demand my money back.”
“I don’t think the peas were bad.”
“I refuse to accept that it’s something I did wrong!” I said, trying to sound confident, which I wasn’t.
“I think,” my mate said carefully, “that I might know what the problem is.”
“Oh, really?” I asked. (Did you hear my scornful tone?)
“Think about where we are.”
Yes, where are we?
I rolled my eyes. “We’re in Kenya. Living in a dilapidated wreck of settler’s house in a mud hut village half a mile from the equator. Don’t tell me that I can’t cook Dutch food in Africa near the equator.”
“We’re at quite a high altitude here, 8,000 feet or so,” he stated.
“And what does that have to do with anything?” I asked. “I’m from the Low Countries; what do I know about high altitude?”
“At what temperature does water boil?” My man was beginning to enjoy himself, I could tell.
I gritted my teeth. “At 100 degrees Celsius, at sea level.”
“Right.” He looked at me meaningfully.
There was a silence, and then:
Basic physics to the rescue: The higher the altitude, the lower the boiling temperature of water. Which meant that my precious split peas simply didn’t get hot enough to get cooked and disintegrate. I could boil them until doomsday and they would remain crunchy. Unless I used a pressure cooker, which I didn’t own, being poor and married to an equally poor Peace Corps volunteer.
Relief washed over me in waves!
It was not my fault! There was still hope for me in the kitchen! Trust me, my culinary confidence in those days was rather shaky. But I did learn an important truth that day:
Dutch pea soup is Low Country food.
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Have you ever been perplexed or mystified by something in the kitchen? Or do you have a cooking adventure / disaster to share? Come on, I’m waiting.