Cultural Diversity, Mexican Style / Diversidad Cultural, Estilo Mexico

Cultural diversity is one of the trademarks of my office. When I started working here in 1999, this was the office which housed all the cases for customers that needed interpreters. There were employes speaking 42 different languages! I was very impressed to see that many countries were represented at the office and was excited to start my career with the County in an environment where diversity is not only welcomed but one in which we are encouraged to share our backgrounds and culture - how wonderful!

From the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, in January (the date varies depending on the lunar calendar), Black History Month in February, and the Cambodian/Lao Lunar New Year in April, to celebrating Philippines' Independence  Day in June and our own Independence day on the Fourth of July, my office fosters acceptance of all and unity among employees. Cultural diversity has been a major part of my personal and professional growth. I cherish all the things I can learn from my coworkers and also love to share my culture and traditions which is why this year, the Mexican-American employees organized a Second Annual Mexican Cultural Event this past September 10th. We were very happy to share a little bit of our culture through our exhibits, pictures, traditional vestments, music and, of course, delicious food.

This year our theme was food, so we had a representation of a Mexican mercado (market) in which we wanted to showcase produce from Mexico. We included fresh fruits and vegetables as well as herbs, spices and grains. Everyone could get an idea of what kind of foods can be found in a traditional Mexican mercado. The room decorations were traditional in Mexican festivities and the center pieces were also food inspired. We all wore with pride our traditional attire which is also part of our cultural heritage.

Above the mercado, we had a photo gallery of mouthwatering Mexican dishes prepared with ingredients from the market. Employees were able to browse through the pictures and see how many of those dishes they could recognize. We invited everyone to find something interesting and to make sure they look for it in their next visit to a Mexican restaurant or their next trip to Mexico.

Our menu was a delicious taco trio that included birria de res, a beef stew made with a red sauce of dried chili peppers and spices used since Pre-Hispanic times; second, a chicken stew made with a green sauce from fresh peppers and tomatillo, also legendary ingredients in Mexican cuisine; and the third choice was a vegetarian option, made with fresh zucchini, corn, onions and tomatoes. To enrich the flavor, we add herbs and top with queso fresco, a ranch style  Mexican cheese that is something you'll find in every Mexican kitchen. If people wanted to keep it strictly vegetarian, we suggested not to add cheese. As side dishes we had beans and the real pico de gallo made with fresh fruit. And to wash it all down, we had aguas frescas, a typical every day drink made with fruit and/or vegetables. This time our drinks were made with three different flavors; spinach, hibiscus flower, and rice - all very delicious! After the meal, everyone enjoyed a Mexican style rice pudding – it was the perfect dessert!

In Mexico, we celebrate the day of the dead. Every year in November, we invite our departed loved ones to come back and celebrate with us. We build an Altar de Muertos in their honor. The altar is made up with pictures of our loved ones, with artifacts, flowers and the food they used to enjoy when they were alive. This is  another great tradition in our culture that we shared in one of our exhibits.

We also had displays showcasing the crafts and materials used in the different states of Mexico; copper, wood, silver and others. Also, a display representing influential people of Mexican descent and another one with the Aztec, the Mayan and other great civilizations of Mexico. And, of course, a display with pictures of our closer ancestors and of us. This year we have about 50 Latin-American employees in the office. Most of us are from Mexico but we have representations from Chile, Honduras, Cuba, Argentina, Peru and Dominican Republic. They were our special guests - everyone was!

We had other exhibits; a table showcasing toys that are enjoyed by kids and grownups alike throughout Mexico - most of us played with these toys while growing up. Another fun thing we had was the table with Mexican candy. These are favorite treats for Mexican kids but I know of one or two adults in the office who will kill for these treats! 

We displayed the history of chocolate, which was a gift from Mexico to the world and an inspiration for our offerings and dessert contest. This year the invitation was to submit a dessert that included Mexican chocolate in the preparation. We counted several delicious entries which were carefully rated and we handed out prizes to the winners.

While everyone enjoyed their meal we had a demonstration on how to make corn tortillas which was another gift native Mexicans brought to the world. This exhibit consisted of explaining the process of turning dried corn into masa and then into the wonderful homemade tortillas everyone loves. It was a fun thing enjoyed by many who had never seen this process before.

Then we allowed a little time for everyone to enjoy the food while we showed a video with music and pictures from Mexico. And later we had a live performance delighting everyone with a traditional Mexican song.  We welcomed everyone at the photo booth where they took pictures with their unit or by themselves.

Overall, our Second Annual Mexican Cultural Event was an amazing representation of our food and traditions that everyone enjoyed. And I couldn't be happier to share this with my coworkers. I am also very proud of my compatriots who help put this celebration together. They showed pride in our heritage and were eager to share with everyone, plus, they all looked amazing in the traditional vestments of our country - they are beautiful, talented and wonderful exponents of our culture. Thanks to all who made this a fun and exciting event!

Many thanks to Lorraine and Ericka who provided me with some of these pictures.


My walk through Somalia / Mi Paso por Somalia

Map taken from the web
I’ve been on an international quest, culinarily speaking. My friends and coworkers are helping me achieve my goal.  I have already ventured through India with malai kofta and methi rice, through Italy with some pasta dishes and focaccia bread. I have been to the Middle East with stuffed eggplant in tomato sauce and basmati rice with vermicelli. And, of course, I have made many Mexican dishes. My new adventure is with Somali cooking. Wow, this one is different! 

I hooked up with my friend, Samira, who taught me how to cook some Somali dishes. I also learned traditions from Abdi, another coworker. I inundated them with my questions and they have been very generous and they graciously shared their recipes, traditions and little anecdotes with me - I am very grateful for that. 

I asked Samira what Somali people eat in their homes. I wanted to learn a dish from her country, something with history and tradition. She said that, since Somalia was colonized by Italians, they eat a lot of pasta dishes, but when Somalis want to preserve meat, they prepare a dish called oodkac, which is a jerky-style meat preserved in butter. This way of preservation has been used by ancient nomads as sometimes the only way to have meat available to them. Oodkac has many uses; it is often prepared when going on a long journey. It is also prepared for wedding ceremonies. This is the tradition that Samira shared with me which I will be sharing here with you.

When oodkac is made for a wedding, they use the Xeedho as part of the ceremony. The Xeedho is a decorated basket shaped like an hourglass. It holds a vessel full of oodkac and dates. Samira told me that this dish is prepared by the women of the bride’s family. The Xeedho containing oodkac is secured with a rope that has complicated knots hard to untie, and it is covered with a white dress representing the bride. On the seventh day of the wedding ceremonies the Xeedho is presented to the family of the groom. They perform a ritual where the men in the groom’s side try to untie the rope. In the old days, if the men were successful untying the knots, they claimed the bride as part of their family and everyone was happy. However, if the knots were not untied, this meant that the groom would not have means to support his new wife and he could not take her as part of his family. Nowadays, especially among Somalis living in the United States, the tradition takes a different form, more like a game, in which the two families enjoy a fun time together – the bride is welcomed into the groom’s family regardless of how successful they are at untying the knots and then they enjoy the oodkac.

Aliyah, Samira's daughter

I learned how to prepare oodkac which can be made with different types of meat, but it is traditionally prepared with camel meat. The meat is cut into long, thin strips that are left to dry in the sun, and when completely dried, it is cut into tiny pieces and preserved in butter. It is hard to find camel meat in the United States so I used beef. I also made this with some variations to the original method of preparation. Before I start the recipe, let me tell you a little about Samira and Abdi, my two coworkers from Somalia. 

Samira was born in Kismaayo and Abdi was born in Mogadishu. They both were forced to flee their native country when the war in Somalia started in 1991.  Their families relocated to Eastern Ethiopia where Samira and Abdi spent their younger lives. Samira was only 8 years old when her family came to America, “I remember that day”, she said. “It was February 6, 1996. My first fascination with America was the tall buildings, and I remember the incredible feeling when we arrived at the airport.” Abdi was 13 when his family brought him to America. He also said the tall buildings were mind-boggling to him. As little kids, they enjoyed everything and they rapidly adapted to their new home. They went to school, learned English, and did all the things kids do when growing up in America. They are both college graduates and now work in my office. 

Abdi has never been back to Somalia or Ethiopia but Samira has. She was back on a trip visiting her extended family, which she barely knew as she was so little when she left them. I asked Samira and Abdi what their favorite Somali dish was; Samira said Canjeero with Shaah, which is bread and tea. Canjeero is the Somali version of the Ethiopian Injera which is made with teff flour as opposed to wheat flour used for Canjeero. Shaah is an infusion made with cinnamon and milk. I have tried both and they are delicious! Abdi’s favorite dish is Bariis which is rice cooked in canola oil and has different spices. He says it is very flavorful. I have to try it. He also likes oodkac but he likes it with camel meat. “We cannot get camel here but people sometimes bring it from home. They smuggle it in their suitcases because they miss it so much,” he said in a conspiratorial tone. 

There is a big Somali community here in San Diego, but Samira and Abdi think it used to be bigger. They said people have moved to other states - especially to Minnesota which has the largest congregation of Somali people in the United States. They said they go there because the cost of living is lower and the job market is better than in San Diego. I can understand that, but I’m very glad I have a chance to work with and meet so many Somalis. I’ve always thought they are very happy and generous people - smart and beautiful! 
Here is the recipe:
To prepare the meat:
2 lb. lean beef (use your favorite cut), cut in very small cubes 
1 cup canola oil, for frying
2 garlic cloves (this is my addition)
1 large bay leaf (this is my addition)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cook the meat in a pot over medium heat for about 10 minutes. When the meat releases its moisture, drain and discard the water. Return meat to the pot and add oil, garlic and bay leaf. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Fry for about 15 minutes stirring continuously. When meat is well fried, drain the oil and set the meat aside.

To prepare the butter:
3/4 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup canola oil 
1 teaspoon ground cardamom

In a sauce pan, melt and brown the butter over medium heat. When the foam starts to subside, add oil and stir in the ground cardamom. Cook for a couple of seconds longer and then set aside. 

To prepare the dates for the Xeedho:
1 lb. dates, seeded
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Place dates in a bowl and mash them down with the back of a spoon forming a paste. Stir in pepper and cardamom until well combined. *Form small balls and set aside. 

To put it all together:
Place the meat in a container to be preserved (I used a sterilized jar). Cover with the melted butter and top with the date balls. Store in the refrigerator or in a dark cool place in your kitchen until ready to use. 

*The date paste is used to form a dome over the meat when preparing the Xeedho. This protects the meat. I only made a small quantity of oodkac and did not prepared the Xeedho so, I formed small balls and placed them over the meat.
Somalis eat oodkac over canjeero for breakfast. I stuffed dates with the oodkac and served it as an appetizer. It was very yummy!


- Especial thanks to Halima, Samira's mom, for letting me borrow her Xeedho and for sharing tips that helped me prepare this dish.-