I was 12 years old and living in Jakarta, Indonesia when my mother set a bowl of soup in front of me, coiling tendrils of steam rising like my suspicion.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Sop buntut," she said. Indonesian oxtail soup. I did not want to eat the tail of an ox. I told her no.
She raised an eyebrow. "Remember what happened with the pistachio ice cream."
The pistachio ice cream story is a cautionary tale, and an effective one, so I sipped the ambrosial broth, engulfed by the heady perfume of cloves. The oxtail was cooked to perfection, beef slipped from the bone to mingle with the tang of carrots and leeks, a peppering of crispy shallots. It was divine.
My mother is one of those mystical cooks who diverges from the recipe to play her own music. She uses instinct, immeasurable love, and a sprinkle of sorcery to stretch the palate. She is a fearless explorer. She tells me that if she could have a single bite of everything on a restaurant menu, it would be her perfect meal.
My mother's love for fusing ingredients, combined with our nomadic lifestyle — she and my father were evacuated from Iran in the late '70s and have lived as expats in various countries every since — meant that my sister and I received an education in the eclectic flavors of many cuisines.
One night, she would summon for us a medley of chicken and beef on skewers, brindled by black grill lines. We dunked them in creamy peanut sauce with a kick as spicy as rich red soil churning under the monsoon rain that painted our windows.
Home tasted like sambal goreng, rendang, and butterflied bananas fried in butter and soy sauce, a recipe my mother learned from her Haitian flatmate in London.
Another, she'd make pasta with smoked salmon, cream sauce, and salvia fritta, sage leaves fried with anchovy paste and whipped egg whites. It transported us to Tuscany, where we had slurped thick, beany minestrone in the dead of winter, drizzled with local olive oil and a snowfall of Parmesan — or summer, when we had made pizzas in a hundred-year-old oven, my father telling us stories while whisking out the bubble-burnt dough with a silver peel.
Still other nights she declared taco nights, celebrating our time in Houston, or jambalaya bursting with the flavors and colors that bounced along Bourbon Street like the notes of a saxophone, where we had slurped down a briny oyster and she let us sip the sweating rum cocktail from her hurricane glass.
Home tasted like sambal goreng, rendang, and butterflied bananas fried in butter and soy sauce, a recipe my mother learned from her Haitian flatmate in London. Her bibimbap sent us back to Korea when we lived in Ulsan with its cerulean winter skies, the most beautiful strawberries I'd ever seen, the bite of garlic hanging in the breeze.
As a child, I filled my lunchbox with rum cake — a moist, almond-kissed sponge drizzled in dark rum glaze as crystallized as the surface of the Al Nasr Leisureland ice rink in Dubai — and traded it with other kids for snacks that had been imported from their home countries. I smiled to myself, sipping a Capri-Sun with Arabic writing decorating its face. I could trade for anything.
Her leftovers were so delicious I often sneaked them for breakfast, wolfing down cold pilau rice before the school bus honks or stealing a slice of rustic French apple tart, glistening and butter flaky and transporting me to a beach in Nice and the first time I tasted France.
Not all the flavors taste good: Once, I caught her eating Stilton soup for breakfast and nibbling on Japanese bitter gourd, so harsh on the tongue that my sister and I shuddered and retched, guzzling chocolate milk to dull the intensity.
Sometimes I would resist, but my mother would always remind me of the tale of the pistachio ice cream.
My mom's most important lesson: Always try the green ice cream.
The story came to me via my mother by way of her French teacher, Mrs. Woodward. Mrs. Woodward spoke about a childhood summer vacation in Ireland. Each day, her family treated themselves to a creamy dollop from a popular ice cream shop. Family and friends all sang the praises of a green ice-cream made from pistachios.
"I don't want to eat ice cream that's green," young Mrs. Woodward said, opting for vanilla, dependable and safe. Every day of her holiday tasted like vanilla, despite her family urging her to try something different.
Finally, on the very last day of vacation, she conceded and selected a pistachio scoop. Mrs. Woodward said that the pistachio ice cream was the best flavor she ever tasted and she only got one scoop to last a whole lifetime because she wasn't willing to try something new.
What's the most important lesson you learned from your mom? Share with us in the comments!