Ever since I learned how to talk (they tell me it was long before I took my first step), I was fascinated by language. Creativity was a default for me, coming up with my own words for whatever crossed my path unlabeled, and pretty soon everybody around me adopted my inventive nicknames for grandparents, relatives, and neighbors. I read voraciously and my parents fed my addiction by providing me with reading material at any cost. They bought books from  bookstores, ordered them from catalogs, filled in paperwork for door-to-door salesmen, and even purchased the newest editions from the shady types that would set up their portable exhibits on the trunks of their cars in the parking lot of the only department store in town.

The walls in our house were lined with bookshelves, and there was no prohibited reading – even Father’s medical encyclopaedia and Mother’s beloved art books were not off limits as long as we treated them with respect. We rarely borrowed material from the library, not for a lack of interest, but because the bookshelves in our house were constantly overfed and dripping with such a voluminous variety that we seldom needed to look beyond it.

I did not stop with just exploring the depths of Serbian, or as it was known back then, Serbo-Croatian language. Mother was a German teacher, and since we were small, she would interject words and phrases of Deutsch into our everyday communication. She tucked us in with German lullabies, taught us nursery rhymes, and sang songs about windmills and Lorelei. At ten, I started learning German on my own, using her old college books with yellow pages that seduced me with their smell which reminded me of cramped used-book stores somewhere in Vienna or Prague.

In  fifth grade, I started learning English in school. My English teacher was a strange creature in her late twenties who rented a room from the spinster sisters who lived across the street from our house. She rode her red bike to school, neck wrapped in a red and white scarf. She usually wore a t-shirt with a fading picture of Kabir Bedi as Sandokan* and a pair of ill-fitting jeans when all the other teachers adhered to strict dress codes and wore mid-calf skirts and matronly dresses exclusively.

Kabir Bedi as Sandokan

She pronounced mushroom moo-shroom, and made us learn the English alphabet by heart. To this day, I cannot spell correctly in my head. I have to write the word on a piece of paper or imagine it written to get it right. But in spite of her shortcomings, I became blessedly infatuated by the English language, its irregularities, illogical spelling, and crazy idioms. In order to override my teacher’s inability to correctly pronounce the words, Mother ordered for me an English course that consisted of tapes and shiny books featuring the Union Jack in all its splendor. While the other grade-school kids were busy chasing the soccer ball by the river and rollerskating, I spent afternoons after school rewinding again and again the tape recorded and listening to the proper BBC pronunciation.

The freshmen year of high-school, my teacher was a young and enthusiastic girl, recently graduated from the University of Belgrade. Her ideas were fresh, her methodology unorthodox, and I had a big teacher-crush on her. My sophomore year, the teacher was an older, small, bony woman with a bird face, horn-rimmed glasses and a perpetual frown. Her tight, thin lips were enough to turn me off English conversation, and her constant throat-clearing, which sounded as though she were trying to start a chainsaw, was the most annoying tick. In addition, she had us memorize paragraphs by heart. At sixteen, I was already pretty advanced in the subject, and I found it insulting. I would learn the whole lesson by heart, raise my hand, and recite it in monotone, ridiculing her and her inane teaching methods. This did not make me a teacher’s pet, and she learned to resent me. The feeling was mutual, but she did not kill my love of English.

I lucked out big time in junior and senior years. I knew that I would get along splendidly with my tall, quarterback-shouldered teacher from the first time she said in her perfectly accented Queen’s English, “Put the gum out of your mouth!” She was authoritative, knowledgeable, and completely capable of seeing through the most creative and imaginative bullshit that thirty or so smart, straight-A students in my class attempted to sell daily. I have heard that she moved to Australia a while back. Swept along with the excitement of graduation, prom, finals, and college applications, I never told her how much she influenced me in deciding to follow Mother’s steps and study foreign languages.

As a senior, I took a year of German in high school, attending classes after school and at night. I followed the curriculum, did my homework, took the tests and quizzes, intent on learning as much as I could. The kids looked at me as if I were a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not specimen, questioning my sanity, and laughing at me behind my back (as I found out more than twenty years later at a party 🙂 ). I took all the jokes in stride, smiling all the time, helping them with their homework if they asked, trying to engage in everyday silly student routines. The teacher saw my determination and zeal and put me on the fast track. While the rest of the class was practicing declinations, I was translating passages. On the days when they were drilled on tenses, she gave me poems to read. When I received my high school transcripts at the end of the year, I saw that she had given me credit for four semesters rather than just the two I took.

Without all these women, I would not have decided to study languages and literature. I would not have attended the University of Belgrade’s College of Philology. I would not have married an American, and crossed the ocean toting only two suitcases. I would not have three daughters who speak fluently both mother tongues, mesmerized by foreign languages, and looking at the world of diverse cultures and traditions with wonder and curiosity.

I did not instill in them only the love of languages, but the love of eating well. My family is used to surprises awaiting them at the dinner table. I might not be the most accomplished cook, and I am not putting “personal chef” on my resume any time soon, but my curiosity leads me to explore the cuisines from all over the globe. Each foreign word I learn is like a piece of glass through which I can get a tiny glimpse into the soul of a different nation. And each new dish opens up a window, allowing me to hear the clutter of utensils, to see children seated around a table laden with food, and to smell the spices coming from the steaming plates.

The other day, I prepared Beef Tagine from Jamie Oliver’s book, Jamie Does. As I was rubbing the spice mix into the cubes of meat, I was thinking of the sixth grader sitting on the floor in the bedroom that she shared with her sister, completely absorbed by artificially annunciated phrases in British English coming from a Grundig tape recorder. Not for a second did that girl think that, one day, many years later, she would be making a Moroccan dish by a British chef in her American kitchen.

*Sandokan, or the Tiger of Malaysia, is a fictional pirate from the novels of Italian author Emilio Salgari. Popular mini-series that aired in the mid-70s all over Europe featured Indian actor Kabir Bedi as Sandokan.

This dish takes a little bit of planning ahead, but once the beef is marinated, the spices mixed, and the vegetables chopped, the process is simple and rewarding. The aroma of the spices hitting the heat of the oil fills the kitchen with comfort and anticipation. The sweet potato lends its creaminess and complements the tang of the tomatoes. The fruit is not overwhelming, but adds texture while the nuts give it a surprising and crunchy finish.

BEEF TAGINE (adapted from Jamie Oliver’s book Jamie Does)

Ingredients:

  • 600gr (1 ½ lbs) beef (I used chuck), cut into cubes
  • 3 Tbsp spice rub (recipe follows)
  • sunflower oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small bunch of cilantro
  • 1 can (400gr, 15oz) chopped tomatoes
  • 1 can (400gr, 15oz) chickpeas, drained
  • 800ml (1 quart) of beef stock
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into cubes
  • 100gr (3-4oz) assorted dried fruits (I used cranberries, apricots, and raisins)
  • 100gr toasted hazelnuts

For the spice rub:

  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Tbsp North African spice mix*
  • 1 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, grated
  • 1 Tbsp sweet paprika

*Jamie calls  for ras-el-hanout,  (Arabic for ‘top of the shop’) a blend of the best spices a vendor has in his shop. The mixture varies depending on who is selling it, but can be a combination of anywhere from 10 to 100 spices. It usually includes nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, aniseed, turmeric, cayenne, peppercorns, dried galangal, ginger, cloves, cardamom, chilli, allspice and orris root.

I used cinnamon, cloves, allspice, coriander, hot paprika, turmeric, and nutmeg.

Directions:

Mix the spice rub ingredients in a small bowl. Put the beef into a large bowl, massage it with about 3 tablespoons of the spice rub, cover with plastic wrap and put into the refrigerator for a couple of hours (next time I will marinate it overnight, as Jamie recommends, for the spices to fully absorb into the meat.)

When you are ready to cook, heat sunflower oil in a casserole or a Dutch oven and fry the meat over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Add chopped onion and cilantro stalks, and fry for another 5 minutes. Pour in the chickpeas, tomatoes, and half of stock and stir. Bring to the boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer for 1½ hours.

At this point add sweet potatoes, died fruit, and the rest of the stock. Give everything a gentle stir, then put the lid back on the pan and continue cooking for another 1½ hours. If it is necessary, add a splash of water if it looks too dry.

If it seems too runny, simmer for 5 to 10 minutes more with the lid off. The beef should be really tender and flaking apart now, so have a taste and season with a pinch or two of salt. Scatter the cilantro leaves over the tagine along with the toasted hazelnuts.

I served it with Israeli couscous.