After graduating from college, I found myself cowering in the face of responsibility. For four years, I’d complained about 8 AM seminars and whined every hour through an all-nighter. I could not wait to graduate. That is, until I caught wind of exactly what came next.
Faced with an ultimatum: work or die, I tapped into my creative problem solving. I came up with a clever scheme to travel, and still make some use of my degree. Under the pretense of “field work,” I booked a flight to Central America and summoned a friend to take it on with me.
We arrived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and headed right to the small town of Suyapa on the outskirts of town. The taxi stopped, and we found ourselves looking out-of-place and bleary-eyed in a quiet plaza central. According to our “formal instructions” we would be greeted by a friend of a friend. Just as we were beginning to grow concerned, a friendly voice hollered across the square. The gringas had landed and word traveled fast.
We were immediately swept up into a growing entourage and led through town and up the hillside. On our way, we passed women vending tortillas and children playing in the streets. The welcome we received was warm, and we were happy to have arrived.
Winding past modest houses, the scent of chorizo drifted to the street. Before we knew it, we were home. We walked into our quaint little compound and were given swift instructions not to exit without an escort after dark. The presence of gangs was strong up the hill and it just wasn’t safe.
Exhausted from the transit, we assessed our open-air apartment, clambered under a mosquito net, and drifted off to sleep. That is, until we were awoken by our neighborhood roosters. Right on schedule, at about 3 AM, and promptly every few minutes thereafter.
Over the next few weeks, the cock-a-doodle-doos morphed into lullabies and we grew accustomed to the new digs. In the evenings, when not out visiting with friends, we were face-to-face with confinement. Wanting to make the best of the situation, we got creative. We tried yoga, and successfully freaked out a repairman when surprised mid-om. Other times we visited with our neighbor to practice our Spanish. More often than not, however, we got creative with the local ingredients.
Working with not much more than rice, beans, and tortillas, we looked forward to the days when we’d find a truck in the main square. Its bed would be filled with fresh produce, and the pineapple really mixed up our salsa-of-the-day. Other days, we’d find the cheese man.
Usually just across from the pupusa stands, he would wheel up his cart filled with blocks of soft, white cheese. Initially taking it to be some kind of farmer’s cheese, we arrived shortly at its variety. Endearingly dubbed “essence of vaca [cow]” due to the musty overtones, when sandwiched between tortillas it was the next best thing to delectable.
Gradually, we developed a taste for the funky cheese (or the boredom left us exercising hand-to-mouth technique). The kilos began to multiply. After leaving, I didn’t think I’d miss the bovine delight, but turns out I much prefer pasture to plastic. Korea’s endless supply of processed cheese is anything but enthralling.
With springtime taking hold in Korea, it’s bittersweet. I find myself inhaling the penetrating scent of manure, and trying hard not to pass out. I feel I am not alone in this quest. As I pass students in my rural school’s halls, their hands cover their noses, and their eyes show signs of an Armageddon. They move swiftly, and scramble into their next weather-sealed classroom. The situation being what it is, I’ve channeled the disgust and shifted my thoughts to nostalgia. An ode to the vaca, I decided to take on homemade cheese.
The modernity of Korea’s pasteurization methods seem to have eradicated the udder cowiness from locally sourced milk. This means a vaca-free cheese, but it doesn’t account for the cross-contamination of machinery. Cheesecloth seems to be a specialty item, and in my neck it just couldn’t be found. Coffee came into play with my endeavor, and I’m hoping “essence of java” isn’t all that awful.
I set up shop with the best I could find: a hand-drip coffee percolator and a utility-sized filter. This certainly wasn’t ideal, but it was all I could do. Due to the lack of drainage, I ditched the filter part-way through. This is good news to one disgruntled barista. It proved exhausting to coax just one filter from her industrial stash, and I wasn’t looking forward to a follow-up visit.
The contraption didn’t drain the cheese as efficiently as I had hoped. In crisis mode, I also involved a tea sieve. This allowed for some extra whey to escape, and should also round out the flavor with a nice herbal quality.
Rather than admit defeat, I’m going to make it work. I was planning to use my queso for enchiladas, so the liquidy goodness should mix fine with chicken and green chiles as a filling. I’ll report back post-consumption, but all in all not a complete lost cause. I could keep tweaking until the cows come home, but I’m hungry. “It’ll do, pig, it’ll do.”
Makes about 4 ounces
1 quart (1,000 mL) whole milk
2 T lemon juice
coarse salt, to taste
1. In a non-aluminim pot on the stove, heat the milk until just about to boil (85 degrees Celsius/185 degrees Fahrenheit). Mix in the lemon juice, and turn off the heat. Allow the mixture to stand for about 10 minutes. You should see curds starting to form along the surface as they separate from the whey.
2. Pour the mixture into a straining device of your choice. If cheesecloth is available, take this route. Next best, use a fine sieve. Last resort, try the coffee dripper. Allow the whey to drain off of the curds for a couple of minutes, then sprinkle curds liberally with salt.
3. Continue to drain the cheese overnight. The next day, squeeze or press the heap of goodness to wring out any excess moisture(I’m still figuring out how to do this). Enjoy.