Culture shocks and cucumbers

Last month, the research group I joined recently, got together for the annual Christmas meal or 'Julefrokost' as they call it in Danish. As per tradition, the newest member of the group (me) was in-charge of the cooking. Of course, I decided to cook traditional South Indian food. I had already stirred their curiosity with the food I took for lunch.

A month after eating raw vegetables and boiled potatoes everyday (yes, I am a vegetarian, and no, I don't consider fish as vegetarian unlike my Danish colleagues nor fried bacon a spice), I decided to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual to prepare a tastebud tickling South Indian lunch. This led to another exercise. I had to explain to my colleagues what it is that I was eating every single day. "Sambhar is a lentil-based vegetable curry cooked with a tamarind broth and a 'secret' spice mix,'' I told them after thinking all morning about it.

I took rice and sorekai thovve or lauki dal one day. "Bottle gourd and split lentils cooked with whole and powdered spices with a tempering of cumin seeds, mustard seeds, asafoetida, and curry leaves,'' I told them confidently. They looked at me baffled. Bottle gourd! Asafoetida! Curry leaves! It took me the rest of the lunch break to explain to them what these were. Thereafter, I was careful what I made for lunch. It is one thing making rava idli (from the ready-mix that I made sure I packed while leaving home) and another thing explaining it to someone who has never seen or tasted anything like it before.  

On the day of the Julefrokost, I expected them to be surprised by the okra, snake gourd, spluttering mustard seeds or at least when I mentioned that they had to eat with their right hand only. But the culture shockwaves swept through the room when I asked the person in-charge of the cucumbers why he wasn't milking it first. He was aghast "Milk the cucumber?!" There was silence in the room as everyone wondered if they had heard it right. In a matter-of-fact way, I repeated the question and then realised that this concept wasn't as universal as I thought. I then demonstrated it only to have a few people laughing uncontrollably, few others taking videos and the rest thinking that I was playing a prank.

An Italian colleague entered just as I was defending the process of milking the cucumber to get rid of the bitterness and was trying to use some kind of logical reasoning for it. He casually added that in Italy, even zucchinis are 'milked' and I heaved a sigh of relief that it wasn't just me. He, too, was asked to demonstrate it and obviously he did it the same way you or I would. Then, two bowls were passed around - one with slices of a 'milked' cucumber and the other with an 'unmilked' one - and everyone was asked to identify which one was milked. But how can you tell the difference if the cucumbers are not bitter? I learned one thing that day - there are no bitter cucumbers in Denmark.

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