This morning, a student’s father came to my Kindergarten class to tell a story about what school was like when he was a child. “School Stories,” is a way for me to invite parents to be a part of the Kindergarten curriculum. Through this activity children are exposed to the genre of storytelling, the concept of history (long ago and far away) and develop an awareness for the diversity of our world (comparing and contrasting the experiences they have heard and that of their own lives.)
The father is originally from Sierra Leone and one of the stories he told was about eating plantain chips at school for snack. At the end of each of our “School Stories,” families share a snack that has some particular meaning to them. In this case, it also connected to his school story. He also brought along with him pictures of plantain trees taken from a recent family trip to his village. Some of my students had never seen or even known that bananas grew on trees (poor kids!) Plantains- members of the banana family, but greener, longer, thicker skinned and are used in plentiful delicious ways.
When he pulled out 6 small plastic bags full of plantain chips, I immediately wondered where in Prague did he find them? Interestingly enough, I had packed several of these snack size bags of chips, along with 10 ripe plantain to bring back from my summer trip home from NYC. For many of my students, as well as my Czech teaching assistant, it was their first time trying them. The taste of these crisp, salty and thin chips was a surprising return back to memories of being a child and being forced to share with my two brothers. It also reminded me of Turon, Fried Plantains, Ginataang and many more other plantain dishes that I have enjoyed.
The chip satisfied some of my students’ taste buds, but overall most of the 5 and 6 year olds were expecting it to be sweet, similar to banana chips which they were already familiar with. Both my teaching assistant and I were curious to find out where he purchased the chips, so of course we asked. He told us that right in the heart of downtown Prague, there is a store that carries West African goods and that he would be sure to send us the address. My assistant, who was born and raised in Prague was surprised to hear that such a place existed. In her almost 40 years of living in this city, this was completely unknown to her.
The basket of chips eventually disappeared between our lips and some of the students. Then it was back to the regular routines of our school day- Recess, Reading, Writing, Storytime and Lunch. On this particular day, I had planned to leave school earlier as I had an appointment downtown.
Upon exiting the Mustek train station, located in the heart of downtown Prague, turning the corner, I bumped into my student’s father. The same father who visited my classroom early this morning and who brought the plantain chips! We were so surprised to see each other and he immediately asked me if I had a few minutes because he could easily show me the shop in which he bought the chips. It was very close!
I had 15 minutes to spare and so he grabbed my hand and led me up the street. Awkward as it might seem, it didn’t feel awkward at all for him to hold my hand. It was as if he was holding the hand of his daughter’s and was so excited to show her something new. Something that validated him, his past, his roots. A feeling I could truly understand and I was very excited to learn about this shop. After walking past a block of busy retail shops, we turned the corner and walked pass a few more shops and restaurants. Prague is full of what they call “pasáz” many tunnels of indoor passages, where one may find cafes, bars, shops and offices. As we crossed the street, we entered a “pasáz,” where we walked a few more meters and up the steps to an African shop.
As we entered the store, I noticed many African sculptures and masks made from wood and textiles hanging from the window. A bit further back, were two African men, one sitting in front of a mirror, in a barber’s chair draped in a protective vinyl cloak. The other figure was behind him, closely monitoring the electric razor he used to trim the man’s hair. Alongside of them, was a busy shelf housing hair products, weaves, hair extensions and to my delight, bottles of marked up Palmer’s Cocoa Butter. Another one of the many products I usually buy in bulk to bring back. Not only because I like it’s creamy texture, but also because I have bought into the fact that maybe it does help with stretch marks. Back by the cash register, sat a huge carton, where I was told the plantain chips could be found. However, they happened to be sold out as he had purchased the last of them the day before. In the box, was also some bags of other popular West African snacks.
He led me to another level of the shop and there I found more goodies. Along one of the walls, there was a shelf with four open boxes. He pointed out that there were yams and the two empty ones besides them usually held cassava. One day, I silently vowed, to return in order to make cassava cake. On the opposite side, there was a row of shelves which housed cans of sardines, corned beef, bags of jasmine rice, cartons of custard powder and fufu flour. Fufu is flour made from plantains. To the left sat two freezers loaded with frozen bags of vacuum sealed smoked fish, meats, and packages of frozen okra. Sitting on top of one of the freezers there were fresh vegetables wrapped in plastic. Among them, laying and waiting for me, was one of my most favorite green vegetables…OKRA!
Now, I know that some of you can’t imagine why okra could be a favorite, and to those of you I wonder why you can’t appreciate the diverse qualities of this tender vegetable. It can be cooked to a crisp, boiled, steamed or eaten just plain raw. I am aware, that if cooked a certain way it has a bit of a slimy texture to it, but I like that in a food, think custard, think jello, think pudding! They too are slimy but delicious, well, maybe not jello.
The last time I purchased okra was just this past summer, at The Golden Mango, a grocery store in my parents neighborhood in Queens. The package of about 30 pieces of okra costs only $.99. In my hand, I was holding a pack of okra that weighed less than the one I just described and the price tag read 80 Czech crowns. The equivalent to dollars at the current exchange rate made that $4.70 for about 15 pieces of okra. Could I really spend almost $5.00 on a small parcel of okra?
Well, yes. It’s one of my favorite vegetables and I can still remember the first time I saw okra growing in the backyard of my aunt’s home in the Philippines. I was 13 and right behind her porch she pointed to a field of plants as tall as me. Then she walked me over and showed me how the pods were still attached to their stems and how to carefully remove them. All this she highlighted for me, after watching me collect and devour all of the okra in the dish she had prepared.
In the end, I bought two packs, yes I know there is a current economic crisis, but these precious pods of okra would definitely not be a wasted purchase. In fact, I had created a new and exciting challenge for myself. Now, I needed to decide which dishes I would plan to use them for… sinigang, a tangy tamirind stew or ginataang ng hipon, okra boiled in coconut sauce with orange squash and shrimp or stir fried okra in tomato sauce or….well, the list is endless.
Strangely enough, I started out this morning hoping to expand my students’ understanding for the vast diversity of our world through their own family stories. The adventure I planned to take my students on actually led ME to a new learning experience. Today, I had discovered one more shop to add to my list of places to purchase obscure ingredients, but that is not all I received. Although the price of the okra seems a bit exaggerated, it was also a small reminder to never take the little things for granted.