Montreal sisters Helen and Billie Bitzas were struggling with a challenge that is likely not unfamiliar to many first-generation immigrants: recreating their parents’ traditional dishes in their own kitchens. Every time they attempted to pull together one of their family’s time-honored Greek meals, something was always off.
Wanting to preserve these aspects of their culture and heritage for their children, Helen and Billie decided to go to their parents’ home to learn and document how traditional dishes were prepared to create actual recipes.
The sisters recorded their experience by launching a blog called MiaKouppa, which is Greek for “one cup.” Here are some tips from them for those who also want to preserve their family recipes.
Make a project out of it. Instead of getting frustrated with the inexact measurements and ambiguous instructions provided by your family, make a project out of deciphering these “non-recipe recipes.” The Bitzas sisters laugh at some of the vague guidelines their parents would give them, such as, “cook it until it’s done,” or “if you have it, add it.”
Even if older family members may not completely understand why exact measurements and instructions are important, especially if they didn’t learn that way, tackling the project as a family is also a great way to bond.
Cook in your family member’s kitchen (when it’s safe to do so). Observing your more experienced family member in their own kitchen means they’ll feel more comfortable doing what they do best. For the Bitzas sisters, watching their father make his specialty, galaktoboureko, in his own element helped them understand how to properly handle the dough for this dish.
In addition to writing everything down carefully, you can learn how to cook “with the eye.” Watching your loved ones work in their own space will ensure that they don’t waste time looking for things and can focus on making the food while you focus on learning.
Set aside plenty of time. The sisters note that learning how to make a meal with someone takes much longer than the regular cooking time because there’s more explaining going on, and the process is often paused to allow a moment to jot down notes and take pictures. Videos are also helpful so you can refer to them when trying on your own, but they suggest trying recipes while they’re still fresh in your mind.
Don’t wait to ask elderly loved ones to share their recipes and stories. Helen and Billie have shared 360 traditional family recipes on their blog, all of which took time and coordination between multiple people’s schedules. The sad truth is that our older family members won’t be here forever; the sisters have heard from others that they regret not taking the chance to learn from their loved ones who have since passed on.
Ask why a favorite dish is so special to them. Through this project, the Bitzas sisters discovered a lot about their parents and their family history through the stories that are attached to certain dishes. For instance, Billie says that “while making something that included honey, [their] mother told [them] that [their] grandfather and great-grandfather were bee-keepers.”
You will get much more than just recipes if you embark on this journey with your family. Besides delicious traditional food, you’ll become closer to your loved ones and create cherished memories to look back on while you celebrate your heritage and enjoy these meals with the next generation.