Camus told me about paying 12 euros for a bottle of Silver Swan soy sauce in Barcelona. Liana shared a sad recollection of seeing bottles of bagoong at a shop in Aarhus that had become crusty with mold from neglect. Another friend brought up the homesickness tax, which is not only the added hit we take to our wallets, in the painstaking effort to recreate familiar flavors, but the time we spend just tracking down those tastes.
In my first weekend at Stuttgart, I found out that 1) the closest grocery is a 15-minute bus ride away on top of the fact that 2) the bus only arrives every hour, and never after 11 pm and 3) groceries are closed on Sundays. Pretty much everything in Stuttgart is closed on Sundays, except for a handful of little diners here and there and the large museums (the stadtmuseum in Gerlingen, oddly enough, is only open on Sundays).
That first Sunday, having gotten sick of what little I had managed to squirrel away during my first grocery run, I ducked into a Chinese diner off Rotebuhlplatz and ordered a plate of noodles that would have been comforting had they not been too salty. Spring onions and bokchoy were replaced with broccoli florets, red peppers and huge, coarsely chopped chunks of onion interrupting the overwhelming amount of soy sauce that was also oddly tinged with…curry. I would have ordered a drink to break up all that salt, but one Tsingtao cost 2,50, and I did still have enough Chinese in me to hold back, knowing this cost far less elsewhere–elsewhere being the other side of the globe.
At my first dinner with all the fellows from the Akademie, Wiam, a writer from Cairo asked if I cook. “I love cooking,” I answered, and went on to talk about the joys of things like a curry left to stew for hours, then allowed to sit for the rest of the day, or congee topped with fried tofu dished out on a rainy day.
I usually enjoy traveling, and my favorite part is always that first trip to the grocery, where I get to see the small, ordinary things that make up one’s everyday existence. I like comparing the prices of produce, seeing which condiments get entire aisles to themselves and which ones get tucked into some obscure corner. Food is probably the most concrete thing that ties you to home, flavor allowing you to relive certain comforts, but all that feels oddly reduced to the abstract once you try to describe it.
“You should make those things then,” Wiam tells me over that same dinner (which, for the vegetarians, was a confusing interpretation of an “oriental” noodle dish, consisting of impossibly dense egg noodles cooked in coconut milk, topped with broccoli florets [broccoli is super cheap in Germany], fried tempeh, a swizzle of peanut sauce, and some kind of fruit that may or may not have been maracuja) and I’ve been trying. Some days I would wake up just thinking about tastes, like the taste of ginger scallion noodles, then I would scour the city looking for these things.
When I finally made it to the Asian Supermarket off Rotebuhlplatz, it saddened me to find it was probably the saddest place in all of Stuttgart, full of empty shelves, dim fluorescent lighting, and overpriced supplies. A bottle of soju, usually less than a hundred pesos, went for 4,99 euros here.
At Edeka, a large supermarket chain, I silently congratulate myself for figuring out how to weigh my own produce while buying a massive knob of ginger–only to find a couple of hours later, that German ginger (ingwer) doesn’t taste like anything, and I’m left with a pot of salabat that tastes like boiled turnip water.
“The organic stores carry the smaller, tastier ginger,” says David, who lives across the hall. I make a mental note of this, as well as the premium I’d have to pay for organic ginger, and decide it’s bullshit. I was already kicking myself for paying 2,20 euros for a bundle of leeks! Was ginger really necessary? Would Ginger tea, at least a good ginger tea, like soju, have to wait?
I have a growing list of these things that “have to wait”, which is really just food I miss and did not realize was such a huge staple of my diet until I accepted that I would have to go 5 months without it. That list now includes bun cha, congee, tantanmen at Wabi-Sabi, and pretty much any fried noodle dish that should not have broccoli (because I’m pretty sure that if I order Pad Thai here, it will come with a heaping of broccoli and I will flip the table over in rage. Then feel very bad because food here is expensive).
I try not to complain to my peers about it. Every place, after all, has its own food culture which we need to respect. The food culture in Stuttgart, from what I gather at least, consists of doner kebabs and expensive but underwhelming things.
Over the past couple of weeks though, several things happened: some of the fellows started wrapping up their fellowships and leaving the castle. Along with leaving came the usual festivities–shared dinners, drinks, farewell speeches–and in that collective moment–groceries. Half-empty bottles of olive oil, unopened yogurt canisters, jars of spices appeared in shopping bags at the Akademie cafeteria. “Take whatever you like,” they said. And over these left-behind staples of everyday life, we would go from being an Akademie to being a household. This was, after all, what it should have meant to live together and coexist, with conversations that went from “I have…” as in “I have this amazing dashi,” to “Would you like some?”
Most of my anxiety, at the beginning of my stay, had to do with the state of my kitchen cabinets. And while it seemed smart to make do with less, it also made it difficult to make a home of this new space.