After a career in cooking that took her from her home state of Wisconsin to restaurants in San Francisco and, finally, to the acclaimed kitchens at Fore Street in Portland and the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Lindsay Sterling found herself wanting more. Not that she didn’t love cooking — she just wanted to go beyond the borders of the dominant European-American cooking styles she was accustomed to.
“I’ve just always loved, loved, loved foreign foods,” said Sterling, who lives in Freeport with her husband and two children. “I’m kind of insatiably curious. I always want to know how someone in France makes their ratatouille, or the best way to make rice and beans, or Tandoori chicken.”
Sterling, who is also a writer, knew that an Anthony Bourdain-style worldwide foodways journey probably wasn’t in the cards. But what if that kind of culinary adventure could come to her?
“I thought I’d go cook in a Chinese restaurant for six months, but then my writer friends were like, ‘Why don’t you just see if there’s anyone from China or Central America or whatever who’d want to cook with you?’ And that was really the start of it.”
Immigrant Kitchens, Sterling’s ongoing blog and monthly column published in the Portland Phoenix, is now in its fourth year, and has spanned 50 countries and more than 80 immigrant cooks without ever leaving the state of Maine. While she doesn’t work as a restaurant cook anymore, she does spend one day a month cooking with a different person from a different country.
She’s made Afghan lamb, Congolese stewed goat, Vietnamese papaya salad, Romanian polenta with feta, Indian Tandoori chicken and Somalian chapati flatbread, the latter two of which she frequently makes for her family. It’s all made under the helpful tutelage of a huge variety of generous, eager immigrants — all of whom live in Maine.
“Who knew you could find all these people here? But they start to come out of the woodwork, once you start asking around,” said Sterling. “The first person I asked was a woman who worked at Starbucks. I noticed her accent, and soon enough, she was teaching me how to make Thai food. It’s really been incredible.”
Sterling writes with enthusiasm and sensitivity; she recounts the kindness with which her Afghan host taught her to source and cook lamb, the discussing of cultural differences in dress with her Somalian host, the story of bravery and immigration from the Cambodian woman she cooked with.
“I used to ask, ‘Can I actually find immigrants here in Maine?’ Now my question is, ‘Wow, can I actually cook in every country in the world?’” said Sterling. “I don’t know. Maybe not. There are a few countries that will probably be pretty hard. I still want to cook with some people from countries that are in the news, like Egypt and Libya and Syria. But that’s the path I’m on.”
In addition to her column, which appears online at immigrantkitchens.com and once a month in the Portland Phoenix, Sterling hosts monthly international cooking classes at the Freeport Community Center, often with immigrants with whom she has cooked teaching alongside her. To stay up to date on her upcoming classes, visit her blog at immigrantkitchens.com.