Cooking Around The World: Latvia
Sometimes you just need a break.
Such is the case this week. After slogging through the Asia-heavy last few weeks — and last week’s insanely hot meals from Laos (Week 93) — a return trip to the calmer waters of Northern Europe was most welcome.
So, we have arrived at Week 94 of my planet-spanning, alphabetical, learn-to-cookical experiment in OCD and … Latvia!
Slightly larger than the state of West Virginia, Latvia is located on the Baltic Sea, bordered by Estonia (Week 56), Russia, Lithuania and Belarus (Week 16). Originally populated by several Baltic tribes, what is now the nation of Latvia was ruled by foreign powers for most of the time since the 13th Century, going back and forth between German and Russian control (for the most part).
While Latvia did achieve independence after the end of World War I, the outbreak of World War II put a long hold on that when the nation was overrun by the Nazis. After the war, Latvia — along with the other Baltic states — fell under Soviet control and was made a part of the Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991.
Since then, relations with Russia have remained a sore point as a the nation has moved closer to relations with its Western neighbors and has become part of the European Union. Making this especially touchy is the fact that about a quarter of Latvia’s population is made up of ethnic Russians, many of whom were moved there in Soviet years in attempts to dilute the Latvian population. (The fact that many thousand Latvians were shipped off to Siberia in the process kind of smarts, too, I’m sure.)
On the cheerier side, Latvia is the site of Europe’s widest waterfall (the Venta Rapid). And Latvians both inspired the character of Crocodile Dundee (allegedly) and invented the copper rivets you probably have on your jeans right now.
Naturally, the food of Latvia is much like that of its Baltic neighbors, heavily influenced by the cuisines of Germany and Russia, leaning heavily on both potatoes and beets. What’s curious is that it is not particularly similar to the food of its northern neighbor, Estonia (Week 56), as that nation’s food is more Nordic-based.
And, having been ruled by various foreign peoples for so long, the cuts of meat eaten by Latvians historically were the lesser ones, as the better cuts were to be reserved for their German, Russian and Polish rulers.
But what did this all mean for me in preparing my menu?
Well, researching recipes for Latvia presented a couple of problems I’ve had since I started this whole thing nearly two years ago:
- Too damn many recipes for savory items say they serve more than four people, with some dishes this week making 60 (!) of something.
- Some countries’ best culinary offerings are desserts and/or breakfast/lunch dishes.
Such was Latvia. I would have loved to prepare Pīrāgi (Bacon Pies), as in this recipe. But there was no way I was figuring how I could divide a recipe by ten (and still have the right ratios of some ingredients). And crepes sound lovely — if I was doing desserts.
I’m not doing desserts.
So, I was left with a couple of snoozers, a basic preparation for breaded pork chops and another for boiled potatoes.
So, knowing we’re headed back to this general vicinity in a few weeks for Lithuania, I decided I’d just make …
Hey, I needed the rest.
Yeah, I had to hunt down the rare Yukon potato, celery and pork shoulder. It took all weekend. /sarcasm.
This is so not Southeast Asia.
I cut and prepped the various ingredients for the stew (a process that still takes me a ridiculous amount of time).
I heated up the oil in a pot and, after seasoning the boneless pork shoulder with salt and pepper, dropped it into the pot to brown for about ten minutes.
Once I sensed they were browned adequately, I took them out of the oil and put the pieces aside in a bowl.
Then, into the remaining oil (and pork fat), I dropped the minced garlic.
And minced onion.
As you may be able to tell if you have a keen eye, I think the heat was too high since I started to burn the garlic almost immediately. Bad thing. I tried to address that right away by taking it off the heat while I turned things down. I may or may not have waited too long.
Once the onions and garlic were softened, I dropped the pork back into the pot.
And I added the halved, pitted dried prunes.
The chopped celery.
And the chunks of boiled potatoes.
Next, in a bowl, I mixed the tomato sauce and water.
And added in the red wine vinegar.
I whisked that all together.
And I poured the mixture over the potatoes.
And, without stirring a thing, I placed the lid over the top and set it to simmer for an hour, only occasionally coming back to the pot to lift and shake it.
There was an African country I cooked that employed a similar method of occasionally shaking a pot without releasing the steam. But I can’t quite remember which one it was now.
Come dinner time, I ladled out the stew into bowls and it looked like this.
Well, that was a relief. Both The Husband and I liked it quite well.
But it was so simple. Maybe too simple. If I’ve learned one thing watching Top Chef and Project Runway it’s that you can do simple things, but, if you do, they have to be done perfectly.
And this wasn’t done perfectly. I could taste that the proportions of some of the ingredients were a bit off, since I halved the recipe. And having probably burned the garlic and having not shaken the pot enough, it felt a tad overdone.
Also, after eating it, I kicked myself when I realized that I totally forgot to dress the dish with a dollop of the sour cream which I had purchased just for that purpose.
(I did manage to add the sour cream to the leftovers the next day, and that, indeed, made it a better dish.)
Still, that was me just being picky. In the final analysis, the dish was delicious and heartwarming. And that, by itself, was a victory.
Next Week: It’s back to the Middle East for one more nation there and … Lebanon!
Cooking Around The World: Laos
It’s been quite the run, Asia. But this last bit may have been a bit much for such an unprepared soul.
See, owing to the vagaries of the alphabet, there are spots along this journey where nations from one region are bunched close to each other. As it was with so many the “C” nations in Africa, Asia has been having quite the go at me between “J” and now “L.”
Hopefully my system will have time to recover before coming back.
Yes, we have arrived at Week 93 of my obsessively alphabetic culinary educational experiment and … Laos!
A poor, landlocked nation located in Southeast Asia, Laos is bordered by China (Week 36), Vietnam, Cambodia (Week 29) and Thailand. Once the seat of the Lan Xang kingdom in the 14th Century, the land that is now Laos has seen tumultuous change over the centuries, having been controlled by the Burmese, Siamese, Chinese and, eventually, the French.
The nation has been officially independent since 1953, but has seen more than its share of hardship with civil war, American bombardment during the Vietnam conflict and accusations of genocide and major human rights violations since.
One of the five remaining Communist states in the world, Laos has struggled to make a go of it in the world economy, though of late it has been opening up with tourism being an larger part of its plan. And with a deep history and two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Luang Prabang and Wat Phu, outsiders seeking to connect with this region’s history may be helping the impoverished nation move forward.
The long, violent history of the area actually illustrates a curious feature of this nation’s food. That being that the food of the Lao people (one of the many ethnicities that call this region home) is spread far beyond the political boundaries of Laos. In fact, much of what is considered Thai food —or, more specifically Northern Thai food — is actually Lao, only renamed for (let’s say) political reasons.
In picking my menu, this led to an interesting problem. See, most of the most popular Laotian dishes are also Thai favorites, sometimes simply with different ingredients, sometimes just with different names. And finding recipes that were strictly Lao (and not too outré) was quite a feat.
In the end, I decided I’d cook over two days. And since we love Vietnamese, French-influenced banh mi sandwiches, I wanted to give the Lao version of this a shot, too.
So, for Night One, I’d make …
- Lao-Style Chicken Baguette Sandwiches with Watercress using this recipe.
And for Night Two (my regular cooking night), I’d make …
Yeah, this week was going to involve a serious scavenger hunt, as most every East Asian nation has involved seeking out many previously unfamiliar items. The upside is that since Laos is right next door to Vietnam and Thailand, the Asian markets here in South Florida would probably be well stocked in these items.
Well, except for one of them: padaek, a Lao fermented fish paste.
During our visit to a large Asian market in Ft. Lauderdale, we explored the aisle which was entirely devoted to fish pastes, sauces and such and found no such item.
But I could get an entire snakefish in urine in a jar if I was in the mood for something interesting.
In the end, I figured Thai fish sauce would do the job just as well. I hoped.
The Cook (Night One)
Before I could get to making the sandwich, though, I’d have to make the chili garlic sauce for it. (I used this recipe for that.)
I heated up the oil in a pan.
Added my sliced shallot.
And, once golden, I set that aside in a bowl.
Into the same oil, I added the chopped garlic and sautéed it until golden as well.
I extracted that and then dropped the chopped ginger into the pan.
After a couple of minutes, I added in the ridiculous amount of Thai red chili flakes. [You may recall that this ingredient did a job on me a few weeks back during North Korea (Week 89).]
I added in the sugar.
And I stirred it for a few minutes. Once ready, I poured the mixture into the bowl with the shallots and garlic.
Added in the Thai fermented fish sauce.
And a bit more oil.
And, after stirring everything together, the sauce was ready.
On to the sandwich!
I extracted my chicken breast from the fridge and placed it, skin down, on a pan for about four minutes.
I flipped it and cooked it for another seven minutes or so until it was ready. I set it on the cutting board to rest for five minutes before carving.
Meanwhile, I sliced open the baguettes I had purchased and toasted them in the oven under the broiler.
And here comes the assembling!
Looking at the recipe, I did as follows.
Spread the chil garlic sauce on the cut sides of the baguettes …
(MESSAGE FROM CLIFF AFTER CONSUMING THIS: See, that’s what you did wrong. You halved the damn recipe since you’d only need two sandwiches, but you didn’t halve the recipe for the sauce. You should have had half of the hot sauce left over. You didn’t. You fool. You did this to me.)
I spread the mayonnaise over that.
I placed the watercress on top.
Added the shredded carrot.
The sliced tomato.
And the sliced chicken breast.
In the end, the sandwich looked like this.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Oh man, am I sorry.
This is how one stupid mistake completely destroys everything. Honestly, the sandwich was actually quite good in that the chicken was moist, the bread was crispy and the vegetables were crunchy and delicious.
But the heat. Oh holy Kahn Souphanousinphone, was that painful!
Midway though eating the thing, The Husband and I were both off blowing our noses. This cleared my sinuses, his sinuses and the sinuses of the people next door.
Oh, I am so very sorry.
Seriously, I spent the next three days apologizing and cursing myself. Boo.
The Cook (Night Two)
Having declared the foul-up of the previous dinner a mulligan, I gamely soldiered forth with night two of this. For the most part nothing would involve heat (the electric kind) and those damned Thai red pepper flakes were off the menu, so I thought things would go well.
The Papaya Salad
Even though the recipes for the salad and the laap both insisted they be served immediately, there was no way I could do this without making one first. So, the papaya salad would be refrigerated, whether I liked it or not.
I greeted my new friends, green papaya …
And snake beans.
And after prepping the ten ingredients, including shredding the papaya as seen in the video included in the recipe, I decided that my little mortar and pestle would not hold all this stuff.
Hence, I made the executive decision to use a metal bowl and the business end of my wooden rolling pin to smash everything up.
Into the bowl, I added the salt.
Red Thai chiles.
A garlic clove.
And the (smelly, smelly) shrimp paste. [We first met this odiferous substance way back cooking Brunei (Week 25).]
I mixed that all up.
And I added in the shredded green papaya.
Chopped snake beans.
Sliced cherry tomatoes.
Fermented Thai fish sauce.
(Conventional?) fish sauce.
And smashed and mixed like crazy,
After a good ten minutes of this, I figured it was ready and put in a bowl for the fridge.
The Sticky Rice
This one was about as simple as it could get. Only it involved a new ingredient and a new method.
First, the ingredient.
Meet, glutinous rice.
While I’ve had what I thought was sticky rice before, this I understood to be a whole other level of sticky. In fact, normally it’s eaten with the hands.
I started by pouring out the rice the night before and soaking it in water until the next day.
Come time to cook, I took it out of the fridge and it had nearly doubled in size.
I drained the rice and prepared the bamboo steamer by lining it with cheesecloth.
I spread the rice over the top of that.
And I set some water to boil in a pot. Once it got to steaming, I lowered the heat and set the steamer on top. I let that cook for about 25 minutes.
When it was done, it looked like this.
The Fish Laap
I took the tilapia fillets out of the fridge and got to chopping them into small pieces.
I dropped the pieces into a bowl.
And I added the sliced lemongrass.
The sliced green onions.
Fermented Thai fish sauce.
And chopped red Thai chilies.
At this moment, I realized I hadn’t prepared the rice powder that I’d need next. So, I quickly tossed some rice into a pan and got to heating that for a few minutes until toasted.
Once they were just turning golden brown, I pulled them off the heat and let them cool for a second before pouring the rice into the spice grinder.
A quick grind later, that was ready and I could turn back to my laap.
I added to the mixture some chopped sweet Thai basil.
Chopped mint leaves.
And the rice powder I had just made.
I mixed that all up.
And it was dinner time.
I scooped out and plated the rice. I ladled out servings of the papaya salad and the laap and placed those alongside.
In the end, it looked like this.
Oh no, we have a split decision.
A few bites in, I sensed The Husband was being unusually quiet. This was not a good sign.
Basically, he found both the laap and the papaya salad to be too spicy, having not yet recovered from the previous dinner’s gastronomic apocalypse. Also the high sodium level of the laap was a bit intense.
As for myself, I rather enjoyed both the papaya salad, which I found crunchy and flavorful, and the laap, which I found fresh and bright, even if it was indeed very salty. (I now realize that there was salt in the dish and in both fish sauces.)
It’s the super fishy smell/flavor of the dish that was the most notable feature of the laap. And that’s something I can only call an “acquired taste.” (When I first encountered shrimp paste back during Brunei week I was knocked backwards by the scent. Now, though. I’ve come to appreciate it when mixed in with other flavors.)
And thanks to the combined fresh flavors of the sweet basil, cilantro and mint, I really enjoyed the mix of tastes.
As for spice level, it was indeed very spicy, but it didn’t wound me like the Thai red chili flakes did. Instead, I felt a radiating heat which I could see helping keep one cool on in the tropical heat of Laos (or South Florida).
As for the rice, the sticky rice was really sticky, so much so that it was almost difficult to eat it with a fork. But it did a nice job of soaking up the liquids from the other two dishes.
But, sadly, for The Husband it was just all … can I say Laos-y?
Next Week: We get a break from the heat of Asia for a while as we travel back to Europe for … Latvia!
Cooking Around The World: Kyrgyzstan
Look, it’s a yurt!
No, really. The flag. Look at it.
It’s a yurt.
As seen from above.
Yes, that’s the flag of the subject of Week 92 of my alphabetical, around-the-globe, become-the-proud-owner-of-a-millon-rare-ingredients, learn-to-cook challenge and … Kyrgyzstan!
Located in Central Asia in the Tian Shan mountain range, Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked nation nestled between China (Week 36), Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan (Week 86). [In case you’re wondering, this makes this make Kyrgyzstan the third of seven ‘stans.]
It’s the one that sort of looks like Switzerland … which kind of helps explain why it’s called “The Switzerland of Central Asia.”
Once home to forty clans (note the forty sun rays on the flag), the Kyrgyz were united as a people in the 9th Century. Since then, the area has been controlled by the Uyghurs, the Mongols, the Uzbeks, the Chinese (Manchu) and, in the late 1800s, the Russians. Kyrgyzstan eventually became a republic within the Soviet Union and, after the dissolution of the USSR, an independent state.
Since then, the rather poor country has experienced its share of political turmoil and continues to face serious issues of corruption and inter-ethnic conflict.
BONUS TRIVIA: The mountainous nation is also home to the world’s largest walnut grove AND the second largest saltwater lake on Earth.
The history and geography of an area generally defines the food of any country. But Central Asia is particularly curious in that for millennia the peoples of this region have moved back and forth across vague national borders as political and agricultural conditions have changed. And that means that the food of one of them is, to a degree, the food of all of them.
And I just did Kazakhstan (Week 85) five weeks ago.
Which means I’m fresh out of horse meat jokes.
So, basically, the food of this nation is that of its nomads. And — aside from Trigger and Friends — the cuisine is heavy on mutton, fat and lots and lots of starches.
And, if the recipes online are any guide, dishes are made to serve the visiting Mongol hordes. (Hmm. Do I have place settings for 60?)
After some research, I realized that just about every dish involved making dough and some kind of pasta/noodles/dumplings with meat and maybe one or two other ingredients. And I wasn’t about to make the Kazakh “five fingers” dish I did five weeks ago, which also seems to be the national dish here.
Hence, I opted to punt and do the same dish that this excellent global cuisine blogger made, something I try not to do.
Explanation: While I came up with the idea for my challenge independently, I learned a few weeks into my process that there were several other people out there who were attempting the same thing in some fashion. And since I’m relentless, this one amazing blogger may be the only other person who has made it this far in the alphabet without getting bogged down/quitting, etc.
Therefore, I decided to make …
- Oromo (Kyrgyz Stuffed & Rolled Pasta) using this recipe, served with …
- Mint Garlic Yogurt Sauce using this recipe.
Well, one thing you can say for the simple dishes of Central Asia, they don’t need a whole lot of ingredients. But for this one I’d need a new accessory: a bamboo steamer.
See, I had this sense that if I tried to make this dish using the steamer attachment I used for my pot, I’d end up with a total disaster on my hands.
[I have pretty strong memories of how I nearly destroyed everything when I was using this attachment way back during Cambodia (Week 29)].
But, of course, I had no idea how to use the damn thing. Thankfully some chatty YouTube videos filled me in.
If I had read the recipe for the sauce more closely I’d have seen that it recommended making this the day before. That was not happening.
So, cook day, I started early on this.
I spooned the Greek yogurt into a bowl.
Added in the crushed garlic.
And diced mint.
And I mixed it all up. Ta dah.
I covered that and placed it in the fridge.
The Stuffed Pasta
Since I was cribbing this blogger’s notes for the rest of this, I decided to go whole hog and make the pasta using her recipe for that, too.
I scooped the flour into a bowl.
Cracked a couple eggs into it.
Added some water and kneaded that into dough. (I needed a good deal more water than she suggested, even though I halved the recipe for my purposes.)
I kneaded that for an age and made a ball.
I covered it in plastic for a half hour to let it rest.
Meanwhile, I got to preparing the filling. For this, I chose lamb loin.
I knew I’d have to chop that myself since (for the first time) the (new) meat guy wasn’t too enthused at cutting open a package of leg of lamb for my small purposes.
And while every Kyrgyz recipe I found involved adding in vast quantities of mutton fat, I made the executive decision to cut out the fat and only use the meat for this. (Aside from the health implications, I worried that I’d end up with fatty chunks in the food which wouldn’t go over too well. )
And then I got to mixing. I placed the chopped lamb into a bowl.
Added in the chopped onion.
And chopped sweet potato (since pumpkin is out of season now).
I added salt and pepper and mixed that all up.
Once the dough was ready, I divided that into two parts and rolled one out into a thin layer. (Look, ma! I managed to do make thin dough … for once!)
And I spread half of the meat mixture out onto that.
Yes, I know, there seems to be waaay too much dough for the amount of meat. I blame the recipe.
I distributed the sparse meat mixture across the pasta and rolled it up into a tube.
And, after lining the steamer with parchment paper, I coiled the tube into the middle of the cooker.
And after repeating the process with the rest of the dough and meat mixture, I added that to the first coil.
I added water to a pan and placed the steamer on top of that and set it to cook for about an hour.
Disclaimer: I rather foolishly took the guidance of another recipe and added oil to the water for some reason I don’t understand. This made for a somewhat dangerous, sloppy mess. Also, I didn’t realize I had to wait for the water to start steaming before placing the steamer down first, so I had to start over on that, too. Boo me.
After an hour, it appeared to be done.
I sliced up the savory “Swiss roll” and served it alongside a bowl of the sauce. In the end, it looked like this.
Curiously, The Husband rather liked this one. And it wasn’t bad. For me, though, it seemed to be a dish that had potential rather than one that was really good.
I was glad that — probably for the first time — I had confidence that what I made with dough actually came out as intended. But the recipe seemed to really be messed up in terms of the ratio of filling to dough. That meant there was much too much chewy dumpling and not nearly enough meat.
What was great though was that oh-so-basic-I’m-surprised-I-didn’t-realize-it-until-it-was-in-my-mouth combination of lamb, onion, Greek yogurt and mint. (OHAI, gyro!)
Now if only there had been more of it.
Well, at least we have … FOUR (?!) more ‘stans where I can get that right.
Next Week: It’s back to Southeast Asia for … Laos!
Cooking Around The World: Kuwait
It’s been a week. Let’s just say that. What with the July 4th holiday, travel and a whole bunch of unexpected … let’s just say “stuff,” I could hardly concentrate on cooking this week.
Which is just my weaselly way of explaining why I’m a day late with this week’s dish.
Yet, here we are at Week 91 of my Earth-spanning, alphabetical, learn-to-cook thing and … Kuwait!
A relatively small petroleum-powered nation on the Persian Gulf, the State of Kuwait is bordered by Saudi Arabia to its south and Iraq (Week79) to its north. Populated since ancient times, Kuwait is the site of the world’s first sailing vessels and has gone through many centuries of ups and downs.
Originally a series of fishing villages, Kuwait grew into a key shipping port in the 1700s, enabling trade between India (Week 76), the Arabian Peninsula, east Africa and China (Week 36). By the early 20th Century, Kuwait had become known as the “Marseilles of the Persian Gulf” for its thriving economy and diverse mix of peoples.
At the end of World War I, Britain drew borders in this part of the world, and after the Great Depression, the discovery of oil reserves set the nation on its present course toward economic prosperity (for Kuwaiti citizens, anyway).
Who qualifies as a Kuwaiti citizen is a whole other discussion. With roughly 69% of the population not qualifying as Kuwaiti citizens, this sort of matters. It’s kind of what happens when the monied few really don’t need to take low-paying jobs and those imported to do those jobs don’t really get a say in things.
Also, of course, aside from oil, Kuwait is probably best known for the first Gulf War/the Iraq-Kuwait War, when, in 1990, Iraq overran the nation and was pushed back by the U.S.-led, United Nations coalition in 1991.
Owing to its location on the Persian Gulf and with its history as a fishing and pearling capital, seafood is quite a thing in Kuwait. And with its trade with India and the Middle East, its food is a mix of flavors from the Mediterranean, India and Persia.
But, considering the nature of the week’s events, I decided I’d go with the one-pot dish which is the nation’s signature dish.
Ergo, I decided I’d just make …
I hinted at it before, but the events of the week really didn’t make me enthusiastic about searching all of South Florida for rare ingredients. Thankfully, I already had some of them sitting around. And thanks to a visit to the Mystifying Market of Myriad Meal Makings, I was able to lay hands on the dish’s requisite dried limes (or dried lemons) and split peas. Go me.
Lemme tell you (again), few things make me as jittery as vague recipes. To recap: I had zero cooking know-how coming into this. And while I’ve had a year and a half of experience now, seeing recipes that say things like “cook until done” still makes me crazy.
And this was one of those recipes.
How is a person supposed to know when to serve dinner if every step is totally up in the air in terms of time? Grumble.
I started out by cleaning and then soaking the basmati rice in water for an hour or so.
While that sat, I went about prepping the 101 other ingredients for the various components of this.
And after using up every bowl in the house, I was ready to move on to the split peas.
The recipe didn’t specify what kind of split peas, so I hope chick peas would work.
I cleaned and soaked those for a while.
I moved on to making some saffron rose water. Thankfully, I had these ingredients sitting in the cabinet already, having last used the rose water waaaaay back near the start of this whole thing for Algeria (Week 3).
I dropped the (damn expensive) saffron into the rose water and let it sit out on the counter — and make the kitchen smell quite exactly like an old lady’s powder room in the process.
Next, to address the dried limes. Well, maybe they’re dried lemons. Or maybe they’re the same thing. A Google search seemed to indicate that. Plus no one at either the Persian market nor the Global Superstore of Unfindable Ingredients seemed to even know what “dried limes” are.
Hint: They’re limes that are dried.
But seeing this ingredient used in two different places in this recipe, I had to wonder how it is they’re used. After a web search, I guessed that in part one of this recipe I’d use one lime crushed. And for part two, I’d grind up the requisite amount using a spice grinder.
Finally, it was time to fire up the stove.
I dropped my chicken thighs into a pot.
And I added in the onion quarters.
Green cardamon pods (which I had the foresight to crack first).
I set that to boil, lowered the heat, covered it, and let it simmer for about 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, I dropped the split peas in water and set them to boil and simmer for about the same time, constantly checking it to be sure it was “tender but not mushy.”
I whipped out the meat thermometer and checked the chicken for doneness. I seemed to have gotten there after 25 minutes and I pulled the thighs out of the broth and set them aside.
And, as I had had the good sense to check other recipes for this information, I strained the reserved stock, so as not to end up with a dish full of inedible items like cinnamon sticks and such.
Into another pot, I dropped in the chopped onions and sautéed them until golden and translucent.
When they finally got there, I poured in the golden raisins.
The cooked split peas.
I sautéed that for a while and set it aside.
Then, I got started in on the sauce for this dish.
I heated up some oil in a pan and added the crushed garlic cloves.
And four diced tomatoes.
I stirred that until everything got soft.
Meanwhile, I moved back to the pot and added in some oil.
And the cooked chicken thighs.
I let the thighs get crispy(ish) by letting them fry for a few minutes on each side.
Back at the pan, the tomatoes had gotten soft and I was ready to continue there.
I added in the water.
Cayenne pepper for heat.
And tomato paste.
And I let that simmer for about ten minutes.
Finally, it was time to get to the rice. I drained it and placed it in a fresh pot.
And I added in the requisite amount of the reserved broth from the chicken.
And I let that cook for about 15-20 minutes. When it looked like most of the water had been absorbed, I poured in the rose water/saffron mixture and gave it a good stir.
I covered the pot (realizing that the recipe hadn’t originally said to do this earlier) and I waited about ten minutes.
When it looked like the rice was ready and most of the water had been absorbed, I made a hole in the center and scraped in the chicken and other stuffing ingredients.
I mixed that up and let it cook for another five minutes and, ta da, it was ready!
I ladled the chicken and rice out into dishes and (guessing how this is done from a Google Images search) served the tomato sauce on the side in bowls.
When it was all done, it looked like this.
Comfort food. Fragrant and flavorful, the dish had a wonderful variety of tastes from the spicy, tomato sauce to the sweet from the raisins. The split peas gave the dish a little bite and the chicken was cooked well.
The Husband enjoyed the dish plenty as well, and while he was grateful for the heat provided by the sauce, he felt it was a bit too heavy on the tomatoes.
I only wish I had had the wherewithal to cut the meat off the bone before frying it. Also, it may have been a better idea to fry the chicken separately so as to actually accomplish a crispy chicken skin (something I have yet to do right).
Still, it was a score. And for a week like I just had, that’s a victory.
Just sorry you had to Ku-wait for it.
Next Week: We travel north to the third of the seven ‘stans and … Kyrgyzstan!
Cooking Around The World: South Korea
It feels like we were just here. Or, then again, no. Really, not.
Yes, we have arrived at Week 90 of my around-the-world, alphabetical learn-to-cookical challenge and … South Korea!
Well, we kind of covered this last week when we cooked North Korea (Week 89). Yes, Korea is, in a manner of speaking, one country with one cuisine and one history. Only the 20th Century, Japanese occupation, the Cold War, the bloody Korean War and the subsequent armistice since have led to two very distinct political states separated by one very tense Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Since the truce with the North in 1953, South Korea has undergone radical changes from being a mostly agricultural state with a military government in the 1950s to the robust,democratic,thriving economic powerhouse of the 2010s.
So, what else is there to say?
Er, the nation has some of the most educated citizens on the planet … and a toilet-centric theme park? And a phallus-centric one, too?
As I mentioned last week, the cuisine of Korea is derived from its long history and relies heavily on rice, vegetables and fermented chili paste. It is influenced by the cuisines of China (Week 36) and Japan (Week 84), as well as, oddly, Mongolia. It is set apart by its liberal use of garlic, sesame oil, green onions and hot chili.
And, as I mentioned last week, the differences between the dishes of the North and South are subtle, with the South’s being more developed owing to its not being cut off from the rest of the world politically.
Since there are so very many Korean dishes from which to choose, I opted to do this one over two nights. But, even that would be a problem for one reason: kimchi.
Pickling cabbage takes time.
So, the menu worked out like this.
- Bibimbop (Mixed Beef, Rice and Vegetables) using this recipe. (Note: It seems anglicized spelling can be either ”bi bim bap or bi bim bop.”)
Lucky for me, any hunting that was required this week was accomplished last week.
Unlucky for me, this week featured one of my few total strike outs, since I was totally unable to find doraji (dried bellflower root) at the local Asian market. And I didn’t feel like going on a wild root chase at the Massive Market of 1,000,000 Unfindable International Ingredients.
Call me lazy.
So, I did without it. Phooey.
Night One: The Kimchi
Wait! Didn’t you say that the kimchi was for the second night?
Technically, yes. But since the dish takes three days to ferment, I had to start this sucker waaaay ahead of time. (For the record, I loathe dishes that make me do work a day or more before eating. But, you know … learning.)
After having to go to no fewer than three grocery stores to track down Napa cabbage — (If you see me in person, ask me to tell you that story!) — I was ready to go.
I greeted my huge head of leafy greens.
And I divided and chopped it into bite-sized chunks.
I dissolved some salt in water.
And I poured it over the mountain of chopped cabbage.
I stirred it up and let it sit
for four hours overnight. (What? You expected me to be blending things in the processor at 2 a.m.?)
When I was finally ready to proceed, I drained the cabbage.
And put it back in a bowl.
I mixed a ridiculous amount of red chili flakes with water.
And I poured that over the cabbage.
To that, I added chopped garlic.
Chopped green onions.
And fish sauce.
Then, I took out the blender.
I dropped in my onion.
Half a ripe apple.
And half a ripe pear. (The market was out of Asian pears this week, so I had to resort to a Bosc pear. Boo.)
After I devoured the remaining halves of the pear and apple over the sink — Waste not, want not and all — I poured in some water.
And I blended that mess up good.
I poured the sweet mixture over the cabbage.
And, donning rubber gloves, I mixed the whole thing up, blending everything together.
Finally, I took handfuls of the mixture and crammed it into a jar, topping it off with the remaining liquid.
I sealed that up and let it sit on the counter for three days until dinner.
The Cook: Night One, The Bibimbop
Now, for a dinner I actually ate right after cooking.
The first thing I noticed with this one was that the preparation method for the rice was, er, somewhat different that what I’m used to. After some research, I realized this must have to do with the fact that short grain and long grain rice are different.
So, I blindly forged ahead.
I took out my (brown) short grain rice and soaked it in water for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, I got out my little bit of ground beef (a quarter pound) and cooked that in a skillet.
When that was done, I set it aside.
Next, I chopped up some cucumber, carrots and a lettuce leaf. I salted the carrots and cucumber and tried my best to squeeze out the water from the cucumber.
(About this time I realized the recipe was kind of vague. In fact, I realized too late that it didn’t even say when or where to add the bean sprouts from the ingredient list. They’re now just as I bought them safe and sound in the fridge.)
Once the rice’s time was up, I drained it and put it in a pot. Following the directions I added only one cup of water and I set it to boil.
Note: I now see what I did wrong. I should have used a much smaller pot for this. Had I done so, half of the rice wouldn’t have burned. But you’ll see that in a moment. Fun.
While the rice cooked, I continued with the vegetables.
I heated up some sesame oil in a pan.
And I dropped in the cucumber sticks.
After sautéing that for a bit, I put those aside on a plate.
I did the same thing with the carrots.
And the shiitake mushrooms (which The Husband was kind enough to run out and buy when I realized I am a dolt and again forgot to purchase a key ingredient).
Next, I pulled out the red chili paste I purchased last week and scooped out a scary amount of the stiff into a bowl.
To that, I added sugar.
And sesame seeds. (Ed. - I noted after posting this that, while the recipe called for sesame seeds, my muddle brain pulled mustard seeds out of the cabinet. Oops. Thankfully, it worked anyway,(
And I mixed it up.
About this time, I realized that the rice I had boiling, and which I then had left on low for 10 minutes, had actually burnt quite badly.
This would explain the nutty smell of … burnt rice.
Well, fewer leftovers, I figured.
I scooped out what rice wasn’t ruined and placed that in an earthenware casserole which I had coated with sesame oil.
Note: In an attempt to be traditional, this casserole was made insanely hot on the stove, since I gather the concept is that the dish continues to cook once on the table. This also meant I’d have to be careful not to burn my hands … and my table.
I fried an egg.
And I started to assemble the casserole-type thing.
I placed the cooked vegetables on the rice.
Added on the ground beef.
And chopped lettuce.
And deftly placed the fried egg on top.
The hot sauce is traditionally served on the side so as to allow the diner to pick his or her own heat level, so that’s what I did. When it was all done, it looked like this.
Weeeeell … after mixing it all up it was actually quite tasty. However … the rice.
Al dente? Underooked? Chewy? Burnt? All of the above?
Still, I rather enjoyed the whole thing. The sesame oil really is the star of the show, since it imbued the vegetables and the meat with a rich flavor. And the nutty flavor of the brown rice (cooked badly as it was) played nicely off the egg.
I really should try this again. Only not screwing up the rice next time.
The Cook: Night Two, The Marinated Beef with Sushi Rice
Again, we had a dish that required work hours before dinner. At least this one wasn’t the night before.
So, the morning of dinner, I gathered together the thinly sliced sirloin and placed that in a bowl.
To that, I added sugar.
Mirin (sweet sake).
Sesame seeds. (Ed. - Again, I goofed and grabbed mustard seeds instead and didn’t realize this until now. Double oops.)
Blurry chopped green onions.
And I mixed it all up, coating the meat entirely.
I covered the bowl and placed it in the fridge to marinate for a few hours.
Hours later, I got to prepping the rice. This time, I went with white short grain rice and the instructions listed here. I didn’t want more burnt offerings this night.
I washed the rice until the water was clear and I set it to boil, covering it and letting it sit off the heat for the final ten minutes.
In a new twist, I took out a bowl and added some rice vinegar to it.
I mixed in some sugar.
And I zapped that in the microwave for 20 seconds.
When I had cooked rice and a heated up paste, I blended the two and set the rice aside.
It was finally time to cook the beef.
I took the marinated meat out of the bowl and placed it in a heated skillet.
And when it looked like the meat was almost ready, I added in the chopped carrots.
I placed a mound of the rice on each plate, scooped the beef onto the plates and added a serving of the kimchi on the side.
In the end, it all looked like this.
Instantly, The Husband declared this one of the better dishes I’ve made. Which was a relief after the mess of the previous night.
The rice was just what I’d expect and I could taste the little something extra in it, even if The Husband missed it.
The Beef: Thankfully, the beef was indeed tender and fell apart just as it should. This was a relief since the last time I cooked beef [Kenya (Week 87)] things didn’t go so well. It had a sweet and herbaceous flavor and the carrots gave it a nice bit of texture.
The Kimchi: I’ll say it worked, even if it could have used another day to ferment more. And, boy, oh boy, was it hot! Those chilies are really some powerful stuff! Still, what amounts to Korean cole slaw was a great compliment to the otherwise sweet dish, balancing out the flavors nicely.
The only problem is that now I have so much leftover that I don’t know how I’m going to eat that all over the next few months.
Who wants leftovers?
Next Week: Due to the holiday this week, next week’s dinner and blog will be a day late, but … we’ll be going back to the Middle East for … Kuwait!
Cooking Around The World: North Korea
It’s one of those weeks.
It’s one of those weeks where the demons of the alphabet decree that I’m cooking food from a country that is deeply depressing. And it doesn’t help that that sadness is because so many people of said country don’t have reliable access to food.
Yes, we have arrived at Week 89 of my around-the-globe, learn-to-cook-and-satisfy-a-neurotic-need-to-follow-lists challenge and … North Korea!
If the politics of this place weren’t tricky already, for my purposes there was the additional issue of … the alphabet.
Last night, I explained to a friend that for this challenge I have been going off the list of United Nations member states (easy enough) and going alphabetically. This, though, is a problem in the case of a few nations, being as they have a long formal name that throws off any logical order.
Hence, while known formally as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), I’m following Wikipedia’s simplified and more logical order. So, Korea, North comes after Kiribati (Week 88) and before Korea, South.
And, of course, there is the larger issue that — in one way of looking at things — historically, there really is only one Korea.
Taking up the upper portion of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea is bordered on the north by China (Week 36) and Russia and is separated by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from its sister state (?), South Korea.
Korea was the center of a series of empires for centuries before being occupied by Japan (Week 84) in 1895. At the end of World War II, the peninsula was divided, with Soviet forces occupying the North and US forces taking the South.
The Korean War raged from 1950 to 1953 and, well, there’s been something of a truce since then, because, technically, the two states are still at war.
And in the North? Well, take a totalitarian, Stalinist state, mix in a succession of crazed dictators and paranoia and you have the makings for 1,001 late-night jokes, sketches and standup routines … and oppression, famine and such for the people who actually live there.
In fact, just this week news came down the pipeline about …
So, you can see how discussing the food of the place is awkward.
In any case, my research into the food of North Korea suggested that there is very little difference between the food of the two political states. But as I learned way back at the start of this, even a tiny nation like Andorra (Week 4) has regional differences within its cuisine.
What makes North Korean food distinct(ish) is that owing to its political isolation and its proximity to China, its preparations are more traditional and (in theory) less spicy. And due to the less-hospitable terrain in the North, the ingredients used may vary as well.
As luck would have it, I have a friend who — for a variety of reasons — is my source for all information about the hermit state of DPRK. And many, many weeks ago he advised me on what is the preeminent dish of North Korea.
And after doing my own research, I discovered that that dish (in its two variations) was indeed the offering most associated with the North along with another one I chose not to make.
So, I decided I’d make …
- Bibim-naengmyeon 비빔냉면 (Cold, Spicy Mixed Noodles) using this recipe.
This week’s choice meant I’d have to seek out buckwheat noodles (a Korean staple), hot mustard powder, hot chili flakes and hot pepper paste (since I was definitely not making my own vat of that).
Oh, now you’re wondering how North Korean food is “in theory” less spicy? Yeah, I’m wondering the same thing.
Luckily, the Vietnamese-leaning Asian market in town had everything I needed.
The first step was to make the mustard paste. So, I took some of the mustard powder …
Added some water to it.
Mixed it up and I set it in a warm oven to ferment for a few minutes.
Next, I sliced up some cucumber and added salt.
And I mixed it all up and set it aside.
Next, I greeted a new friend, the Korean/Chinese/Asian pear.
When I re-read the recipe the night before my cooking, I realized that part of the pear would be needed for the hot sauce and part for dressing the final product.
This meant that I wouldn’t be able to make the hot sauce the night before as recommended, since keeping half a sliced pear from going black overnight would be a mean feat.
But for a few minutes? I could swing that.
It involved adding some sugar to water.
And, after peeling and slicing the pear, I kept the slices in the water until I needed them.
It also wouldn’t hurt to keep the other half of the pear in water meanwhile.
Next, I hard-boiled an egg.
And, after screwing up the first one and making another, I peeled it and set that aside as well.
Finally, it was time to make the hot sauce.
Into the food processor, I dropped the peeled pear.
An insane amount of hot chili flakes.
And an equally insane amount of hot chili paste.
On top of that, I added sesame seeds.
Chopped green onions.
And soy sauce.
And I puréed that until smooth.
I poured the (potentially gut-burning) liquid into a plastic container and set that in the fridge to do its burn-through-the-plastic-down-to-the-core-of-the-Earth thing. I may have imagined that last part.
Closer to dinner time, I got to making the cold noodles.
I put about half the packet of noodles into a pot of water.
And I set that to boil for about five minutes, stirring all the way to keep the noodles from clumping together.
When they were ready, it was time to “wash” the noodles. I poured cold water into the pot and, repeatedly, kept draining out the water and replacing it with more cold water.
Finally, I added in a bunch of ice cubes to cool them down.
I drained them in a colander.
And I was ready to assemble and serve.
I placed a mound of the noodles in a bowl. I placed pear slices, cucumber slices and some of the mustard on that. I cut the boiled egg and placed the slices on top and drizzled oil over the whole thing.
(Confession: I was supposed to use sesame oil for that last bit, but, seeing as I had neglected to buy any, I settled for sunflower oil. I suspect that may have been a mistake.)
In the end, it looked like this.
The first thing The Husband asked was, “How do you eat this?”
I wanted to answer, “Wearing a hazmat suit.”
But instead I suggested that you just mix everything up and use a fork.
Somewhat surprisingly, The Husband reported that he quite liked it. As for myself, I wasn’t so enthused.
I’ve said before how now I’ve become crazy for spicy food, and I stand by that. But not all “heat” is equal, I’ve learned. And this was … something … else.
It wasn’t so much hot in my mouth, though it was, but it burned all the way down my esophagus. Which kind of distracted me from enjoying the meal. Also, there was an unusual flavor that I wish I could pinpoint. I assume it came from the ingredients in the hot pepper paste, because it had this oily umami (?), almost fishy quality that reminded me of the shrimp paste from dishes from Brunei (Week 25) and Indonesia (Week 77).
But, hey, it wasn’t so bad that i wanted to send it in a rocket into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So there’s that.
Next Week: We cross the DMZ to … South Korea!
Cooking Around The World: Kiribati
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip …
We’re going to want to pack light for this one; there’s a lot we’re going to have to cover and we don’t want the Howells' luggage to weigh us down.
Today we have arrived on the shores of the subject of Week 88 of my around-the-globe, learn-to-cook-and-satisfy-a-primal-urge-to-do-things-alphabetically challenge and … Kiribati!
There are countries where it’s all about the food. This is not one of them.
This time it’s the country that, for my money, is the most fascinating of any nation I’ve covered so far. In part, that’s because I’ve always had a thing for obscure nations and have been following this place for some time. But its story really is engrossing … and totally heartbreaking.
First, I know you’re asking yourself where this place is since you’ve likely never heard of it. It’s here. If you’re all old-timey and have whipped out your trusty globe, fly to Hawaii and paddle due south.
Paddle a long way. Your arms may get sore during this process.
Kiribati (pronounced KI-ri-bass, not ki-ri-BA-ti) is a series of 32 coral atolls and one island in the central Pacific and bears the amazing distinction of being the only nation that exists in the Northern, Southern, Western and Eastern Hemispheres at the same time.
And people and things from Kiribati are i-Kiribati. Got it?
But enjoy it while you can, because the entire crowded nation of Kiribati is expected to become the first country to be wiped off the face of the planet due to climate change. And soon.
All 103,000 some-odd people have been told they’ll need to move, and arrangements have been made with Fiji (Week 58) for everyone move to an area about 8.5 square miles there. People are not excited by this prospect.
Let that sink in. If you’ll pardon the pun.
Head over here and read this long, sob-inducing tale of the state of affairs in Kiribati and how denial, religion, customs and politics clash with impending doom. (At least bookmark it and read it later if you have to.)
Now, if you learned your countries at some point, you may be wondering why you never heard of this place. In part, that’s because the area has had different names over the years.
First inhabited many thousands of years ago, the atolls of Kiribati are populated by Melanesian people, though they have mixed with both Micronesians and Polynesians over time. After European contact, the islands were first called the Gilbert Islands … by a Russian … and a Frenchman … after a British captain who passed through there once.
When they became independent from the United Kingdom in 1979, they chose to name themselves Kiribati after the Gilbertese pronunciation of “Gilberts.”
Other crazy facts about Kiribati:
- The nation used to be divided by the International Date Line. That changed in 1995 when they moved the line so the entire nation could be experiencing the same day at the same time.
- This also made it so that its easternmost island would become the first place on Earth to greet the new millennium at the dawn of Y2K. Caroline Island, congratulations, herefore thee are known as Millennium Island.
- A surprising number of tourists visit (a small island of) Kiribati, since U.S. law makes it so that non-U.S.-flagged cruise ships aren’t allowed to cruise around Hawaii without visiting at least one foreign port. (At least, that’s the latest information I have. Please correct me if it’s changed.)
- Kiribati is also home to one of two islands on Earth known as Christmas Island. (The other is an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. There’s a “community” in Canada with that name, too, in case you’re being picky.)
- Kiribati was the subject of the 2004 true-life best seller The Sex Lives of Cannibals, the tale of a white man and his lady who moved to a “desert isle” to get away from it all.
- Also, the U.S. used to test atomic weapons all over Kiribati. So, that’s fun.
- And, last but not least, Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. Marine Corps history during World War II. Today, children play atop decaying tanks that are half-buried in the sand along the beaches.
Can you tell I’m obsessed with this place?
Lastly, check out this amazing blog entry about a visitor’s three-day visit to the capital of South Tarawa on business for a taste of the place (and some really illuminating pictures).
Now, you’d think that a place as rich in history would have an interesting food story, too. Well, you’d be wrong.
Scrubbing the all the tubes of the Word Wide Webs I discovered only a few facts about the place’s food:
- Much is made from the fruit and leaves of pandan, as that is one of the few things that grow there. And while the plant, also known as the screw pine, grows right outside my own window, the fruit is not ripe at the moment … and I couldn’t find one i-Kiribati recipe for the fruit. [You may remember that I managed to use the leaves from my landscaping back during Indonesia (Week 77)].
- As you’d expect, they eat a lot of fish.
- And coconut.
- And, since like everywhere in Oceania, everything is shipped in, canned, salted meats.
In fact, one recipe I found was basically, open a can of corned beef, fry it and cover it in ketchup. Really.
This even affected the other bloggers who have attempted similar challenges, since they all seemed to refer back to this one blogger’s semi-improvised “bake a lobster tail and make a coconut milk and curry dipping sauce” recipe. Another thing — a pumpkin, cabbage and coconut (!?) casserole offering — seemed more like an attempt to prank people more than an actual local recipe.
So, after much consternation I decided I’d make …
Note: I realized very late that the latter two aren’t specifically from Kiribati, but, hey, at this point … As they say, folks in hell want ice water.
Well, I could have hunted down prawns for the seafood salad had I had the energy. But I just didn’t. Really. Shrimp would have to do.
The Seafood Salad
I juiced a lemon.
And split another into quarters.
After chopping my celery and green onions, I started mixing things.
Into a bowl I dropped cooked crab meat.
The chopped celery.
The chopped green onions.
And the lemon juice.
And I mixed that all together.
I set that in the fridge to cool for an hour. Meanwhile, I hard-boiled a couple eggs.
I peeled and quartered the eggs and set those aside.
Finally, it was time to assemble the salad.
Onto a couple plates, I placed leaves of Bibb lettuce.
Placed the boiled egg quarters.
Scooped the mixture onto the plate.
And I dressed it with the lemon quarters.
In the end, that looked like this.
The Sweet Potatoes and Bananas
I cleaned and scrubbed the sweet potatoes.
And I set them to boil for 20 minutes. (I know now I totally screwed up by not starting my timer once the water started boiling. Bad me.)
Once time was up, I drained the water.
And I peeled the sweet potatoes.
As instructed, I peeled and sliced the bananas into two-inch chunks.
I melted some butter in a pot.
I dropped in the banana chunks and got those well coated in the butter for five minutes.
Again, as instructed, I sliced the sweet potatoes into gigantic two-inch slices and dropped those in with the bananas.
And I let those get coated for five minutes, too.
The Papaya Chicken with Coconut Milk
At least I got one new ingredient out of this week. Meet, Mr. Papaya.
I seeded, peeled and sliced that sucka.
And I got to cooking.
Into a lightly oiled pot, I added my small, blurry cubes of chicken breasts.
And I sautéed those for about five minutes.
I added in the chopped onion.
And I let that cook for another five minutes.
I dropped in the sliced papaya and cooked for yet another five minutes.
When time was up, I scooped the chicken into bowls and gave each one a good dousing of coconut milk. And, not having any other options, I placed the bananas and sweet potatoes alongside on a plate.
In the end, it looked like this.
We’ll start with the bad news.
The Sweet Potatoes and Bananas: Urgh. Again, this hardly constituted a recipe, but even there I screwed up. The bananas were fine, but my idiocy in timing the sweet potatoes (plus the fact they were huge chunks) resulted in hard, hardly cooked orange lumps of phooey. Double urgh.
The Papaya Chicken: This one came out better … -ish. It wasn’t awful, but aside from the fruity flavors of papaya and coconut milk, there wasn’t anything else. In fact, I marveled at the fact that the recipe didn’t even mention salt and pepper at all. Hence, it was bland as all get-out.
The Husband improvised by adding in the bananas and some cayenne pepper and liked his well enough. Me, I just added salt and managed to finish it.
And then the good news.
The Seafood Salad: This was a serious winner! The dish was more “assembling” than cooking, but it was great! Refreshing, crispy, fresh and tangy, it’s one I will most definitely be doing again.
That didn’t take long did it?
Well, how was it compared to three years with the Skipper, Gilligan and a rattan exercise bicycle?
Next Week: It’s off to … really? … OK, then. It’s off to … North Korea!
Cooking Around The World: Kenya
Lions, rhinos, leopards, elephants and buffalos, oh my!
Yes, we have arrived at Week 87 of my culinary globetrotting adventure in getting over my aversion to cooking via alphabetical obsessive compulsive list-following and … Kenya!
Located in Central East Africa, Kenya sits on the equator with the Indian Ocean to its east and Lake Victoria to its southwest. Among its five neighbors is previous challenge subject Ethiopia (Week 57).
An ethnically diverse state, Kenya has been populated by humans as long as there have been humans. And its history is long and complex from the Bantu migration to the rise of Swahili culture, British control in the late 19th century, the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s and eventual independence in 1963.
While still a developing nation dealing with ongoing issues of corruption, vast wealth disparity and conflicts over refugees from troubled neighbor states, Kenya is a stable, democratic state with the largest economy in Central and East Africa.
Tourism accounts for a large percentage of the nation’s economy and with nature preserves home to the "Big Five" and the Great Wildebeest Migration, snow-capped mountains and tropical beaches, it’s not hard to see why.
If we’ve learned anything about a nation’s cuisine so far, it’s that a country’s food is heavily influenced by where it sits on the planet, who its neighbors are and who’s come through to settle and/or conquer.
As such, Kenyan cuisine is a combination of seafood from the Indian Ocean along the coast, and plant and animal life from its fertile highlands. And, with an intertwined history with Arab states and India, dishes and spices from across the ocean intermingle with traditionally African elements.
In doing my research for this, I happened upon this excellent resources that gave me an excellent idea of what are Kenya’s most popular dishes. And, again, I was faced with too many things from which to choose.
Making this more complex was the fact that most of these offerings were side dishes. And the one main item, barbecued meat, meant dealing with the grill.
Hey kids! You know what happens to your gentle blogger whenever he decides to employ the grill here in sunny South Florida? (I know, I’ve said this before; but it’s true.)
Hint: I could probably single-handedly end any drought by simply taking my grill to any affected area and choosing to fire it up at 6 p.m.
But, grilled meat did seem to be the dish that best represents Kenya, so after much consternation I decided I’d make …
- Nyama Choma (Kenyan Grilled Meat) using a combination of recipes, but mainly the one found on this Flash-based global cookbook (sorry mobile users!);
- Sukuma Wiki (Kenyan Greens Simmered with Tomatoes) using this recipe;
- Irio (Kenyan Mashed Peas, Potatoes and Corn) using this recipe; and
- Ugali (African Cornmeal Mush) using this recipe.
I kind of lucked out this week, as I already had most of the ingredients for these dishes. I really only had to procure the meat. That, though, presented a problem since, as I’ve mentioned before, I really don’t know the first thing about this.
Every recipe for the grilled meat just said things like “any meat suitable for roasting” and “goat or beef meat, cut into bite-sized chunks.”
Now, I know from my two previous endeavors (see [Congo (Brazzaville) (Week 39)], cooking goat properly is something I have yet to conquer. And I didn’t feel like screwing up attempt number three at that just yet.
So, not knowing any better, I just bought the beef cut labeled “for marinating and grilling” at the store. I’m going to just guess and say it was a loin(?).
I know, I really should learn these things.
I really didn’t know how I could possibly make all of these dishes at once, so I didn’t even try. Instead, I opted to just make one at a time and hope against hope that they could stay warm in the oven while I made the rest.
I started the day with preparing the marinade for the …
I chopped some garlic.
Squeezed in one lemon.
Added in curry powder.
And salt and pepper.
And I dropped in the beef.
I rubbed in the marinade.
I covered it and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours.
As for the actual cooking …
Well, two things.
First, I had no clue as to how long cooking this would take (and I was completely paranoid that I was going to destroy the meat). So, I consulted this recipe for grilled steaks for guidance.
Second, when came time to light the grill, right on cue, the skies opened and … drip-drip-drip. I again reconsidered my life choices wondering if I should have gone into the rainmaking business as a teenager.
What I’m getting at is that I grilled the meat as best I could under the small covering I have for this. This, of course, meant no pictures.
Just know that I heated them up for four minutes a side and took them off the flame to rest for five minutes before serving.
The Cornmeal Mush
There wasn’t much to this. And I mean that a couple of ways, since I wasn’t too excited to make it.
I mean, when you see a description of a dish that says, “Ugali has the consistency of a grainy dough and the heaviness of a brick,” you don’t get too worked up. But, considering I’ve passed on making this about six times before (a few times on African dishes and a couple Latin American ones, where it has various different names), I figured it was time.
I started by boiling some salted water.
I sifted the cornmeal into the water.
And I let it simmer for about ten minutes, stirring all the way.
As it bubbled, gurgled and popped scalding water and cornmeal in my eyes and onto the stove, I beat out the lumps and stirred in some ghee for flavor.
When time was up, I took it off the heat to cool some. I kept checking to see if this would turn into the aforementioned brick somehow (it didn’t), and finally put it in the stove to stay warm.
The Greens and Tomatoes
Let’s say hello again to kale.
I gather kale has been quite the food trend over the past couple of years. And I had never encountered it until somewhat recently. I had it at a celebrity chef’s famed Miami restaurant and was heartily unimpressed. Also, I know I made it on one of these adventures before. But since I couldn’t remember which one that was, I wasn’t sure if it would work.
Let’s find out.
I started out by sautéing the diced onions.
Once those were translucent, I dropped in handfuls of the chopped kale.
Once the massive amount of kale was appropriately wilted, I dropped in the chopped tomatoes.
And I poured in the beef stock
I let that simmer for about twenty minutes before taking that off the stove and setting that into the oven to stay warm until dinner.
On to …
The Peas, Potato and Corn Mash
Normally, I’d frown on using frozen or canned items, but I wasn’t going to make more work for myself this time when I had so much else to do.
Into a pot, I poured the peas.
And the cubed potatoes.
I covered it with water and added in salt.
And I set that to cook for about 20 minutes.
While that simmered, I got to cooking the corn, pouring that into another pot with some water.
I let that simmer for 20 minutes, too.
When time was up, I drained the potatoes and peas, reserving the liquid.
I put that in a bowl and started mashing up a storm until I had the requested green puree of mash.
Onto that, I poured the drained corn.
And some of the reserved liquid.
Finally when time was up (and I came in out of the rain with my grilled beef), I was ready to plate.
I ladled onto a plate the greens, the potato/peas/corn mush, the cornmeal mush and dropped a piece of the beef on the side. In the end, it looked like this.
The Potatoes/Corn/Peas Mash: We both agreed that this was the standout of the evening, since it had both flavor and texture. The corn gave it a hint of sweetness while the entire dish was (for once) seasoned just perfectly.
The Greens: This one was something of a split decision. The Husband simply did not care for this, thinking the taste just too metallic. I have to admit that it did taste very “green-y,” something akin to some stewed collard greens I’ve had before. The difference this time being that the taste of the kale is pretty damn distinctive and, well, I guess it’s just not a flavor I enjoy.
I just decided that. Someone please change my mind.
The Cornmeal Mush: Yes, this was a throwaway. And The Husband wanted to throw it away. I could take it or leave it.
I know that, as with poi in Polynesia, the world is filled with flavorless, pasty starch dishes that are purely intended to soak up the flavors of the liquids around them. I figured this was no different, since it did a nice enough job of absorbing the liquid from the greens. Otherwise … whatever.
The Grilled Meat: Here, we had a slight difference of opinion. We both agreed that the flavors of the marinade made for a really interesting experience. But the meat itself was where we disagreed. When it comes to beef, The Husband really prefers meat that just dissolved in your mouth rather than more solid cuts.
And this was texturally more like a pork chop … HEY! Maybe it’s a chop that I bought!
Anyway, yeah, I liked it. And it’s a good thing, too, since I made a ton.
Now who wants to come over for safari burgers?
Next Week: It’s time to dust off that outrigger and paddle off to Oceania and … Kiribati!
Cooking Around The World: Kazakhstan
Look! It’s a yurt!
From the lush and rugged Alatai Mountains, to the shores of the Caspian Sea, this is a land of searing desert heat and freezing mountain tops, of nomadic tribes and ultra-modern cityscapes.
Yet this very real place, once known as Genghis Khan’s stomping grounds, is now probably most famous for being the fictitious homeland of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen’s improv character Borat.
Yes, we have arrived at Week 86 of my alphabetical-globe-trotting, learn-to-cook adventure and … Kazakhstan!
Roughly six times the size of the state of Texas, Kazakhstan is a huge, sparsely populated nation, the ninth-largest on Earth by land mass. And surrounded by a host of countries — including giants Russia and China (Week 36) — it is the world’s largest entirely landlocked one.
Populated by nomadic tribes since about the 13th Century, Kazakhstan has a name that roughly translates to "land of the free willed people." After centuries of various conflicts, the Russians took control of the territory, and in 1936 incorporated it to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Under Soviet control, Russians and other non-Kazakhs were urged to come to the nation to work in the agriculture and mining industries. In fact, they came in such numbers to the sparsely populated land that soon ethnic Kazakhs were a minority in their own nation.
But after becoming the last of the former Soviet republics to declare independence in 1991, the nation transformed again as people went back to their home countries and, once again, the mostly Muslim Kazakhs dominated.
Oh, and they’ve had exactly one president since independence. So there’s that fun fact.
Interesting factoid: In the mid 1990s, the nation took a village which had been the site several of the Soviet Union’s most brutal gulags and turned it into a gleaming, ultra-modern city which now serves as the nation’s new capital, Astana. (Translates to “Capital City.”)
Other interesting factoid: The Borat Effect. Despite Kazakhstan being portrayed as a Jew-hating hellhole by the Borat character in the eponymous movie, the film actually resulted in a sizable increase in tourism to the nation. Go figure.
Fact one: Kazakhstan is the place on Earth where horses were first domesticated.
Fact two: Kazakhs eat a lot of horse.
Fact three: I wasn’t going to be cooking horse meat.
Yes, the food of the nomads of Central Asia is all about meat. Meat, meat, meat. Vegans would die of hunger here.
And what isn’t meat is dairy.
Wait. Is mare’s milk considered dairy?
One word that kept coming up on that front is kumis, a fermented beverage made from mare’s milk. That I was something with which I was already familiar, thanks to All In The Family.
(See the joke here. Fast forward to 20:31 for the gag.)
The point being, that wasn’t happening either.
Side note: When I was cooking Jordan last week, I was explaining to my Puerto Rican mother that the dish I was making was served as a layer of rice with the meat served on top. She said that was “a caballo.”
“Caballo” is Spanish for horse.
"No mom, they don’t eat horse," I said, exasperated.
That’s when she explained that “a caballo” — literally “on horseback” — is how one describes serving meat on top of rice.
Little did I know that I’d be facing this this week.
So, what could I cook? The food of the nation is curious in that it starts with the food of the nomads, but is also influenced by all the people that have come and gone through the land from Turkey, though the Middle East to way off in Korea. (In fact, Korea kept coming up again and again in my research, despite it being so far from Central Asia.)
Finally, I figured I’d just make the one thing that passes as the national dish, only with lamb instead of horse, “as is eaten by non-ethnic Kazakhs,” I read.
I decided I’d prepare …
- Beshbarmak “Five Fingers” (Boiled Lamb with Noodles) using this recipe.
The name of the dish translates to “five fingers” because it is traditionally eaten with the right hand. “Hygiene is very important in eating beshbarmak,” read the chyron on one video about the dish which advised to wash one’s hands before and after eating the stuff.
No horse meat meant no hunt this week. In fact, I was most startled by the small number of ingredients that went into this.
Here’s where the learning part comes in. See, I wasn’t that keen on making any of the available dishes from Kazakhstan this week since they were so similar to what I just made last week for Jordan (Week 85).
What sold me on this dish was … noodles. Somehow, I’d make my own.
Still, every recipe I found for this didn’t seem to give enough instruction on how to do this. Was it telling me to make big, LP-sized discs of dough and boil those? And how long is one expected to let the dough dry?
Oh, how I hate it when recipes expect one to know things going in!
So, after some feedback from friends and a very helpful, wordless video of a Kazakh grandma making this dish for her family, I had an idea of how this should go.
First, I took out the four and a half pounds of lamb shanks which I had had the butcher chop into chunks earlier. I prepared a pot of water and set the lamb into it to simmer for about two and a half hours.
Meanwhile, I got to working on the noodles.
I poured out my flour.
And cracked two eggs into it.
And I stirred.
And I got very confused.
That can’t be right. How can I make dough if there isn’t enough liquid? Am I missing a step?
I went back and checked the recipe.
Oh, it’s one of those that don’t bother to tell you when to add things. Love those!
After realizing that the recipe had called for water and salt (and just neglected to say when to add them), I poured in the water.
And I kneaded that into a dough. I turned it out onto the clean counter.
And kneaded myself into a frenzy until I had a ball of dough.
I had found some other YouTube video of someone making egg noodles and noticed how they placed their dough into a plastic bag for 15 minutes, so I just made the executive decision to do this. (I’d like to know why, though.)
Again, working off that other YouTube clip, I cut the dough into portions that I hoped would translate to 12” discs of dough.
I flattened and rolled the sections until I had about seven oddly shaped discs of pasta dough. As I felt that 1/4” thick discs would result in giant, dense dumplings, I (again) made the executive decision to make them thinner.
Why? Because I’m already the king of dense dough. [See entry, Czech Republic (Week 46).]
When the lamb had been boiling for the two and a half hours, I took the meat off the stove.
I extracted the meat from the broth, removed the bones and chopped it into chunks.
In another pot, I mixed the meat.
And chopped onions.
And I sautéed that until the onions were golden.
Note: I had discovered a recipe along the way that suggested sautéing the onions separately, even though it wasn’t the traditional Kazakh method. Now, I understand why. The onions never really caramelized using this traditional style. Live and learn.
Meanwhile, I got to boiling the noodles.
I set the lamb broth back to boil and, one by one, I dropped the dough discs into it.
Now, remember, I have no clue as to how long things take to cook. And this recipe wasn’t going to tell me.
Also, I know now that my general can’t-make-things-a-consistant-size/thickness problem was going to guarantee that some things would get cooked more than others. Still, I did try and, as a result, they kind of all cooked consistently.
When I tasted one and figured they were ready, I got to fishing them out of the broth and putting them in a bowl.
Since I kind of assumed that the noodles weren’t really supposed to remain large discs, I went ahead and let them tear randomly.
I chopped some chives and parsley and got to plating.
I arranged a layer of noodles on the plate and spooned ladles of the meat mixture on top. I sprinkled it with black pepper, and dressed it with the chopped chives and parsley and sliced raw onion.
As instructed, I placed some of the broth in a bowl and served that on the side.
When it was all done, it looked like this.
Here’s the thing: While I was sautéing the lamb, I tasted it and noticed that the meat had exactly zero salt. That seemed wrong.
Similarly, I realized there wasn’t any salt in the broth.
Again, that seemed wrong.
So, I had added salt to the lamb and a bit of salt to the broth.
When I went to serve it, I mentioned this to The Husband. But I kind of said it wrong, so he went ahead and poured a lot of the (salted) broth onto his dish before tasting it.
And that made it way too salty. Which meant it was a “fail.” Sad face.
As for myself, I managed to get just the right amount of broth-to-meat ratio and rather enjoyed the dish, thinking it soul-satisfying and hearty. The broth made what amounted to shredded lamb juicier, since it had started to dry out in the pot. And the chives and parsley gave it a nice hint of flavor. I kind of overdid it with the raw onions, though.
And the noodles? Amazingly, they kind of worked. I’m just impressed that they tasted like noodles and not dense dumplings.
My only complaint on that front was that since the flat noodles were so big, they were hard to eat with a fork without making a huge mess. Which kind of explains why it’s normally eaten by hand and … well, is expected to make a huge mess.
Hey, it’s the nomad’s way. Is nice!
Next Week: After way too long away, it’s time to go back to Africa for … Kenya!
Cooking Around The World: Jordan
The alphabet is a harsh mistress.
To explain …
We have arrived at Week 85 of my around-the-globe-in-193-states’-plates experiment in listmindedness and learn-to-cookery and … Jordan!
And that alphabet thing? Well, it seems that owing to a series of linguistic and geographic quirks, there are a few places along this four-year challenge where I encounter a series of nations all in the same region, one soon after the other. One of those was Africa in the “C”s with (deep breath) … Cameroon (Week 30), Cape Verde (Week 32), Central African Republic (Week 33), Chad (Week 34), Comoros (Week 38), Congo [Brazzaville] (Week 39), Congo [Kinshasa] (Week 40) and Côte d’Ivoire (Week 42).
Now, it’s the Middle East and Central Asia with the letters “I” through “K.”
Just recently I cooked Iran (Week 78), Iraq (Week 79) and Israel (Week 81) and now we have Jordan. By the time the I’m done with the “K”s, we’ll have three more.
That’s a lot of lamb and pita in a short amount of time. Plus, as with most places on the planet, the food of one nation is more often the food of its region, with only small variations between countries.
But it’s called a challenge for a reason.
So first …
Located in the Transjordan region of the Middle East, the modern nation of Jordan shares borders with several of the nations of the area, including previous challenge subjects Israel (Week 80) and Iraq (Week 79).
For millennia the region was either central to or part of a series of ancient empires, before eventually becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I and the Great Arab Revolt, the British and the League of Nations demarcated the lines of Transjordan. And, in 1946, the nation of Jordan was recognized as an independent state by the United Nations.
Since then, the developing nation has been ruled as a multi-party constitutional monarchy and has — despite competing pressures — managed to modernize and adapt as the Arab Spring brings about more fitful change to other nations of the region.
The dishes and cooking methods of the Jordanian people date back to prehistoric times and feature many offerings found throughout the region, including grilled meats, eggplant dishes, various flatbreads and hummus.
Which brings me back to my alphabet problem. I cooked a tabbouleh (originally a Syrian dish) for Iraq a few weeks back. And I made pita and hummus for Israel recently, too.
Knowing I have Kazakhstan, Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan coming up, it’s going to be tough to keep things interesting.
Therefore, I opted this week to cook only one dish. (A year ago, this would have been expected. But I’ve gotten used to doing so much more now.)
And the one dish I decided I’d make is the one dish which is considered the national dish of Jordan, mansaf, an-entire-meal-in-a-dish offering that is commonly served on platters for special occasions.
Making this for two would be interesting.
After examining a host of recipes, I finally decided I’d make …
- Mansef (Jordanian Lamb and Rice with Yogurt Sauce) using this recipe.
Here’s the thing: Every description of mansef I found pointed out that there are two things to know about this dish.
One, as with just about every grandma recipe on the planet, the specific cooking method and the particular ingredients in this vary (and are fought over) from home to home. And, two, the key ingredient is … jameed.
What is that? I hear you asking. Well, basically, it’s a ball of hard, dried yogurt made from goat’s milk. Since bedouins traveled across the desert with little water, it made all the sense in the world to take such a dehydrated item with you and reconstitute it once you got to water.
But finding that in 21st Century South Florida would be another matter.
As it turned out, we were down in Miami for the holiday weekend and I did manage to phone a Middle Eastern market that purported to carry a powdered version of the stuff.
"Powdered?" I asked.
"It makes it easier for the woman. The ball makes it too hard for the woman. This makes it easier for the woman."
And while I did imagine walking into the shop and explaining that — untraditionally? — a man would be cooking this, events on the ground made it so that we didn’t get to the place. And the next halal market we found was super un-helpful.
"That is Jordanian. I am not Jordanian," said the shopkeep-too-busy-to-be-bothered at that place.
Which is just a long way of saying that I didn’t end up finding the stuff and opted instead to use one of the few recipes that described using conventional yogurt for the dish. (Here’s another one that I used for reference.)
Which is kind of a shame, since I gather the goat’s milk stuff has a unique flavor, but what can ya do?
I started out by separating an egg and frothing the whites up good.
Then, into a pot I poured the plain yogurt.
To that, I added the egg white.
Corn starch (which, I gather, is the thing that approximates the jameed).
I stirred that — in one direction, as instructed everywhere else online — as it came to a boil. I let that simmer for about three minutes uncovered before setting it aside on the stove to stay warm.
Then, into another pot, I dropped the two lamb shanks I had purchased. (I purchased shanks because I’ll be damned if I could find any kind of instruction of what cut of lamb to use for this, aside from references to lamb “on-the-bone.”)
I covered the lamb with water and brought that to a boil.
As it boiled, I scooped the scum off the top as best I could. I covered it and let it simmer for 30 minutes, brilliantly forgetting to add the salt and pepper in here as directed.
As that cooked, I pulled out a pan and melted the ghee into it. (My research suggested that using this clarified butter was key, because … er, something about temperature.)
I poured the pine nuts into the ghee to brown them for a few minutes.
Once those were just starting to get brown, I pulled them out of the oil and onto a plate to wait for the rest of the dish to catch up.
Then, into the same oil, I added my chopped onion.
And I sautéed that for a few minutes.
When that was ready, I poured the onion and spices into the lamb.
Added in the pepper.
And the salt which I had forgotten to add earlier.
And I covered that and let it simmer for another hour or so.
Next, I started in on the rice. Nothing too fancy here, save for the instruction to put some ghee into the rice while it cooked.
When the lamb had been cooking for an hour and a half, I poured the yogurt mixture into the pot.
Meanwhile, I had been keeping a few store-bought pitas in the stove to keep them warm. (I know, I could have tried making my own pita again, but, well, you know how well I do with flour-based items. Reminder: Not great.)
Come dinner time, I plated the pita and ladled some rice on top. I extracted the lamb and cut it into bite-sized chunks and placed those atop the rice. I drizzled the sauce over the dish and garnished with the roasted pine nuts.
In the end, it looked like this.
Well, it was hearty. And lamb-y. And kind of crunchy, what with the pine nuts and all.
And the rice and pita did a fine job of soaking up the yogurt sauce, which did have the flavors of the spices.
But … once again I ran face-first into my reduction problem. I’m getting the sense that I’m using too much liquid in these meat-cooked-in-water dishes. So many recipes just say to “cover with water” when it comes to the meat and I’m afraid that if I don’t, the meat will dry out. But then I end up with a sauce that’s way too liquid.
I sort of solved this last week with the stew from Japan (Week 84), but here I went and did it again. I really need to learn how to fix this.
Well, at least I have the letter “K” to figure it out.
Next Week: We head east to … Kazakhstan!