Life in an Onion

I’m 31 years old; yet, only a few months ago, I learned how to cut an onion. It was as if I discovered fire. This might not sound much to most people, but for the first time in my whole life, I knew how to prepare food.

I grew up in a comfortable middle-class family in Damascus. I had the luxury of not having to prepare my own food until I was 27. I never really developed a high food standard. In 2015, I lived by myself for the first time in a dormitory room in Austria. There, I grilled and fried pre-marinated stakes, turkey chops, and shrimps. I boiled pasta and mixed it with premade sauces. I ate hot dogs twice a week. I still wanted to eat healthy, so I tried with potato salad. It was the only thing that I made from scratch.

First S(t)yrian Potato Salad – Graz 2015

I’ve spent more than 22 years of my life on education. I’ve ultimately obtained a master’s degree in the humanities. I was so close to going for a PhD, before I realized that the whole thing was a waste of life. Never have I ever come close to providing a service in my field of study that would earn me a living. Over the past few months, I’ve paid my bills by working at a restaurant – a cock of all things. I now prepare food for dozens of people every week.

It isn’t perfect, but it works.

One thing that I’ve learned from working at a kitchen is that the most important thing about cocking is to properly cut the vegetable. Cutting a medium or a large onion into small cubes is perfect for salads. Slicing small onions into thin rings is perfect for cocking. Garlic is best fried when it’s ground with olive oil. When I use garlic for salad, however, I press it – twice. Investing more into buying organic lemons allows me to safely use the peel. Lemon peel has changed my perception of the word ‘salad’.

I take my time when I cut mushrooms. The last thing I need is to have unequal slices, or worse, finger slices. The same applies on parsley. I pressure it under my knife, yet I take all the time I need to properly cut it.

I cut cherry tomatoes in half to easily grind them later for tomato sauce. As for regular tomatoes, it’s important to cut them into small pieces, but they shouldn’t be too small in order to keep some of their water. I use a net to filter out some of the water. This ensures that the dressing remains intact.

A lettuce should be cut into short stripes that are no more than one-centimeter wide. If one doesn’t have the patience to properly cut a lettuce, one shouldn’t bother cutting it at all. The worst salads in history are the ones containing green leaves that are cut in savage ways.

Another thing that I’ve learned from working at a kitchen is that fixed recipes can be very boring. At the restaurant, we must stick to a menu and to specific proportions of ingredients. This is perfectly fine when you dine at an establishment every now and then. Yet, when you cock at home, you want to break the habit. I never measure how much of each ingredient to add to this dish or that one. I taste samples of what I have while cocking and adjust. For that, I never use a scale, a spoon or any forms of measurements. I just try to be reasonable, which works most of the time.

I am Roman. I improvise. I don’t cock twice a dish that tastes the same. That would be boring. I like to surprise myself.

Tip: Always be aware of the salt, though!

I’m turning 32 today. I’ve decided to celebrate my birthday – for once – by preparing dinner for my wife. I want to put proof on the table that I’m a little bit more than a spoiled “overeducated” brat. It will be simple; a tomato pasta. It may not seem much to most people, but I’m very proud that I no longer need to buy a premade sauce. I will also prepare a Roman salad, which fits perfectly on the side. I’ve always been proud of my salads. Today, I get to make one with properly cut onions.

When I was 22, I was under an illusion. I thought that by the time I left my family’s home, I would be able to afford eating at a different restaurant every day. I believed that we lived in an industrialized world that allowed for the potential of having higher food quality in larger and cheaper quantities. I believed that all I had to do was to focus on “my field”, and let other people worry about theirs. I never imaged that after ten years I would be settling for a simple pasta dish as an accomplishment; yet, it really is.

I don’t know whether this is my failure, or the failure of everything – perhaps a little bit of both. Though, the only thing that I truly regret not doing all these years is not learning how to cut an onion soon enough.

That would’ve been a much better start of my adult life.

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