I taught myself how to cook by reading recipes. When I began cooking in earnest, I was living in Japan. One of the beautiful things about Japan is the strength and depth of its culture, which extends to its food. While so-called “western” food and ingredients are available, it is often limited or steeply adjusted for Japanese tastes. Nevertheless, most of the “raw” materials needed to cook simple dishes of any sort can be found at most of the larger supermarkets in the country. I had been in Japan a few months when I really started to miss American food (I am from the Midwest), and my budget was too tight to continue appeasing my cravings at restaurants.
Like most Japanese homes, my apartment did not have an oven. I did have a toaster oven, which can function as an oven on a limited basis. Because of this, I learned to cook a wide variety of pasta sauces, soups, and pan-fried dishes.
After Japan, I moved to South Africa. At first I was relieved at the culinary level; South Africans, like Americans, eat pasta in a wide variety of shapes. While available in Japan, different shapes of pasta are decidedly rare, and can be expensive if you want anything besides spaghetti noodles or elbow macaroni. Bell peppers in South Africa are readily available in all four colo(u)rs! In Japan, the only “bell peppers” are green, and about a quarter the size most pepper-eaters might be used to. The size was not really a problem, but one ends up buying a LOT of peppers to compensate. Again, expensive. South African supermarkets all have bacon, rosemary, cilantro (usually called coriander and occasionally dhania), and cheddar cheese available, all the time! One of the more common South African ways to eat chicken is roasted (IN AN OVEN AND EVERYTHING), just like my own experience in the Midwest! I was so excited. Then, I tried the pizza. My Midwestern taste was pretty disappointed at the crackery pizza crust that featured in many of the more popular restaurants in the Cape. I also couldn’t find a real bagel anywhere; lots of bakeries in South Africa sell “bagels,” but these are usually just ring-shaped white bread with an egg wash to give it the sheen of a bagel. Decent tortillas aren’t hard to find, but between 35-45 Rand (around $3.50) for eight flour tortillas does sting a little.
Ultimately, my cooking repertoire has arisen out of my own personal desire for the foods of my Midwestern upbringing, and has been shaped by my individual taste (my love of pasta, tomatoes, and cheese features strongly in my recipes) as well as my interest in travel. At this point, I would characterize my cooking style as modern Midwestern which features Mediterranean flavo(u)rs, with a heavy smattering of Japanese.