The year I was living on a little island out in the gulf of Thailand, I decided to host a special Christmas dinner for all the lovely new friends I’d met over the past few months of travel and through classes at the yoga school we were all attending. We were wandering souls from all over the world, far away from our homes for the holidays, yet still wishing for that feeling of family – even if it was the one we made from loved ones around us rather than the one we happened to be born into.
I loved my new friends and wanted to treat them to a special feast – something that did not include the typical coconut, curry, noodles or rice staples that we’d all been devouring the past few months. The only problem was, I did not really know how to cook and the options for fancy ingredients were a bit scarce when living on an island.
Not to be deterred however, I spent the day in the local town traveling from store to store trying to piece together a meal that would sure to delight all.
The only recipe I knew from memory happened to be a West-African dish incorporating sweet potatoes and a creamy, spicy tomato-peanut sauce. I had made it for a dinner while living back in the US and surprisingly, it had proved to be a favorite with my family.
Knowing my options were limited, I thought, “What better way for this American girl to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Thailand than to serve an African dish to her friends from places such as Scotland, Spain, Belgium and more?”
Nothing says Merry Christmas like West-African fare right?
That evening working from memory while preparing for the dinner, I began to slice the sweet potatoes and fry them in coconut oil while chopping and preparing the ingredients for the sauce. I chopped the garlic and ginger, onions and other ingredients and started sautéing them in a pan adding all the seasonings I could remember.
Everything was going so well until I began mixing the sauce and suddenly remembered I had forgotten to buy the most important ingredient of all – tomato sauce! It was the last ingredient to add at the end, helping to blend all the seasonings together into a deliciously cohesive meal.
Panicked as the time was drawing near for everyone to arrive, I called my friend Gabe from Austria and asked if he could run by the local shop and try to find tomato sauce for me. It didn’t seem like such a feat, but we were living on the island and simple ingredients are sometimes hard to come by.
Gabe, always cool and steady under pressure, assured me it wasn’t a problem and he’d be there soon. When he finally arrived a little later he gave me a hug, smiled at his triumph in accomplishing his task, and handed me a bottle of Ketchup.
“What’s this?” I asked, looking at the cheap bottle of red liquid.
“It’s the tomato sauce you asked for,” he replied with a look of confusion spreading across his face.
I started laughing realizing that when hosting an holiday party for international friends whose native language may not be the same as your’s, some things may get lost in translation. I wasn’t looking for a tomato condiment such as Ketchup, but rather a hearty tomato paste used for cooking.
It took a minute for me to explain to Gabe why I was laughing, but once he understood the humor of the situation, he laughed as well.
Still needing to remedy my special dish, Gabe’s girlfriend – from Spain – jumped in and started peeling fresh tomatoes I had in my kitchen, saying she knew how to make home-made tomato sauce.
So we all stood around, and American, an Austrian and a Spaniard, attempting to cook this West-African dish in my kitchen in Thailand, to serve to the other guests arriving, all of whom were from other parts of the world.
In the end, the dish was a hit and everyone sat around the little table enjoying the company of friends, our newly-formed family living on the island, and told stories of our own holiday tradition from home. I smiled knowing that although I was far from my own home, I was still among my global family and making traditions and creating stories that I would tell for years to come.
Have you ever had to improvise with an ingredient at the last minute? If so, let us know your story in the comments below!
Recipe: West-African Sweet Potatoes
- 6 medium sweet potatoes
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1/3 cup finely chopped onion
- 1 tablespoon grated peeled fresh ginger
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
- 1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper
- ¾ cup water
- ¾ cup tomato sauce (not Ketchup!)
- ¼ cup peanut butter
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Skin and slice potatoes into 1-inch rounds.
- In oven: preheat oven to 375 degrees, place potatoes on baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes or until tender
- Sautee: heat olive oil in skillet, fry potatoes in skillet until soft and slightly crisp on the edges
Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion, ginger and garlic; cook 3 minutes. Add cumin, coriander, and pepper; cook 1 minute. Add ¾ cup water and next 4 ingredients (through salt), stirring until smooth; bring to a simmer. Cook 2 minutes or until thick.
Place potatoes on plate and spoon sauce over each piece. Top each serving with 1 teaspoon cilantro.