When I interviewed her, she was making quinoa and roasted vegetables for company that night.
“I really don’t cook,” she told me flatly.
This is the current, no-frills specialty of a young woman who is the most cosmopolitan I know. A true global citizen, she grew up around the world – but mostly in the Middle East, presently works for the Norwegian government, claims candy as her chief childhood favorite food and tells (true) tales of holidays spent in fancy international hotels drinking hot chocolate and eating precisely timed eggs with her sister. Her name is Monica Hanssen, and she is fascinating.
Monica looks and sounds American, with thick golden hair, piercing blue eyes and an accent that seems a blend of both East and West coast – but she is in fact Norwegian. (Watching all of the beautiful, blonde, of-apparently-the-healthiest-stock-ever women of Norway’s Olympic team marching in this month’s opening ceremonies made me think of her.) Her Americanness comes from a childhood spent attending American schools in Dubai, of all places, along with graduate school in Chicago (the University of) and Washington, D.C. (Georgetown). In between, there was college at the London School of Economics.
Did I say she’s also one of the most educated people I know?
Her patchwork quilt of a background makes for a unique cultural identity, and in grad school, where we met, she was struggling a bit with a mild crisis in this realm. Where was she really from? To what country did she belong? Studying international relations heightened this sense of national nebulousness, which I always thought made her a stronger, more adaptable person. And certainly one with a serious appreciation for international snack foods and condiments.
Aunt Jemima and Log Cabin syrup featured prominently at her childhood breakfast table – and mixes from Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines lined store shelves. But it was candy, specifically, she recalls loving most.
“The Cadbury Curly Wurly bar!” she exclaims. “It was my favorite. Milk chocolate with some sort of caramel toffee inside, all curled together and twisted up.” (I’d never heard of this, but was delighted to find it available here on Amazon.) Not the only sweet she remembers loving, she admits she “always ate a lot of dessert growing up” – but sugary sweets were confined to the weekends.
“We ate a ton of ice cream,” she recalls, notably Bluebell, from Texas – probably brought East by the sizable oil industry population. (This demographic did not include the Hanssens; Monica’s father worked for a major paint company and was called to help run operations in the area.)
But her family table also boasted “amazing fruits and vegetables,” such as mango, papaya and pomelo, most of which were imported from various parts of Asia. “During the week, the fruit plate was the dessert.”
Her family, like many expats in the area, had a cook – theirs was Thai. “I loved Thai food because of it.” Wonton soup made a regular appearance in the kitchen, courtesy of the family cook Ott, and Monica recalls an “amazing broth” her mother made in Ott’s style.
Occasionally her parents made fish-based Norwegian dishes featuring the local fish – hammour (a type of grouper) – “a whitefish but with a strange texture” – as well as flounder or red snapper. Interestingly, her seafood roots don’t mean she likes the stuff.
“Fish is not what I ever crave.” Definitive about what she doesn’t like, this picky eater who only recently starting eating onions – sparingly – even hated ketchup as a child.
When I asked her for favorite recipes from this time in her life, she struggled. Most dishes weren’t written down but passed down visually, and Monica, as someone who doesn’t cook much, doesn’t have them at the ready. But she did produce a loose recipe for the wonton soup – one that lacks ingredient amounts and precise directions, and reminds me of so many recipes of home cooks who just know inherently how much of each spice and vegetable to add but can’t articulate the “recipe” when asked.
What most captured my imagination about her own childhood experience was those holidays spent in fancy international hotels – many throughout Southeast Asia, given its relative proximity to the Middle East – ordering from room service with her sister and sitting in PJs at an elegantly appointed hotel room dining table while her parents celebrated with local friends. The grade-school-aged girls drank hot chocolate out of china and relished six-minute eggs presented in dainty egg cups.
Given my own childhood holidays in my family’s Sacramento living room, the same predictable warmth and coziness every year, the same American food, and certainly no egg cups, the concept of a fancy hotel room holiday in another country was completely foreign. But exciting, too. And pretty fantastical. There was a world like this, I thought as listened to her stories. And I’m sure there were plenty of other kids like her, marking holidays in Hyatts with babysitters and lavish dinner spreads, having things like “housemaids” and having that be the norm of all those around you and not necessarily an indicator of wealth, and identifying with more than a single culture as an adult.
Monica signs letters to friends with kisses, like the Belgian exchange students I knew in high school. She is innocent and sweet and worldly all at once. She is from everywhere. Knowing her has taught me that being from one place, living in the same house your whole childhood is not the only way to be. And that a childhood that leads to an identity crisis in one’s twenties isn’t a bad thing. Being from “all over,” at least in Monica’s case, gives an ability to change one’s perspective, a flexibility, an openness, an awareness of difference. This is something I want for my daughter, and I will have to discover how to give it to her likely without such a jet-setting childhood.
With that, I will share basic instructions for a six-minute egg along with Monica’s mother’s recipe for wonton soup, with my estimates on amounts and a little imagination to fill in the blanks. My guidance to you is to do what you feel when you make it. I believe this is the approach Monica’s mom takes – and it’s really what serves one best while puttering around in the kitchen.
1 large egg
Bring egg to room temperature. Fill a small stockpot half full of water; bring water to a boil. Add egg (still in shell) to water. Cook for six minutes. Remove egg from boiling water with a slotted spoon and plunge it immediately into an ice bath. Peel cooked, cooled egg – or clip top of shell with an egg cutter -and serve, topped with a sprinkle of salt and pepper to taste. (Toast “soldiers” are lovely for dipping into the soft yolk…)
Mrs. Hanssen’s Version of Ott’s Wonton Soup
1 whole chicken
Shredded cabbage to taste
1 package wonton wrappers
300 grams (11 ounces) pork, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Bean sprouts to taste
Coarse chili powder
1 egg white, beaten
Cook chicken first to make a nice broth. Cut up in small pieces when done, and keep the broth. Set aside.
Combine the minced pork with minced garlic and soy sauce, and place a small spoonful of the meat mixture onto a wonton wrapper. Use the raw egg white to wet the edges of the wonton and bring the edges together to enclose the mixture in a pouch. (This is the part of the process we all did together – my mom, my sister and me. We got to add the meat mixture, wet the edges of the wontons and wrap them up. Fun!)
Boil water in a large pot and return to a simmer. Gently add the wontons. They float up when they’re done. Take wontons out and set aside. Discard boiling liquid.
Add chicken, tomatoes, bean sprouts and cabbage to the pot and pour in boiling chicken broth. Add some vinegar, soy sauce and chili powder. Wontons added last. Serve immediately, with extra chili powder and soy sauce for people to add to taste.
Making wonton soup is definitely a good cooking memory – although I remember not liking the actual wontons (go figure) and taking them apart on my plate when we ate…