79. Australia (part 1)

When originally dividing each country in the world into a total of 80 culinary regions, I faced many difficult choices. In retrospect, I wish I’d had more time to explore some of the places that I grouped together, while others that I separated ended up being a little thin on unique cuisines. However, no choice was more agonising than what to do with Australia. Having grown up and lived in Australia all my life, I feel like this is the only place in whose culinary scene I can truly have some semblance of authority. However, I’ve always felt that this “scene” is at times a bit of a joke, and at worse, shameful. Let me explain, Australia was settled/invaded by British colonists in 1788, after which the indigenous Australians, who arrived on the continent more than 50,000 years ago, were systematically slaughtered by violence, displacement, diet or disease. This resulted in the complete extinction of Tasmanian Aborigines, and a tiny representation of 3.3% of the population in modern times, only being granted the right to vote as recently as 1965. These particularly horrific statistics are always in my mind when thinking about Australian cuisine, because the culture and traditions of the Indigenous people were predominantly not shared or integrated into modern colonial customs, as they were (to some extent) in the USA (e.g. Thanksgiving) or various parts of South America. There is also the fact that the British settlement of Australia was so recent, and begun predominantly with convicts, that there perhaps hasn’t been the time, or the original expertise, to develop much of a distinct cuisine. Australia is therefore arguably unique in its dearth of original culinary tradition, and has therefore taken on a position of thief-extraordinaire. This is spurred by the increasing multicultural composition of the Australian populace, with a recent census showing that under half of Australians have both parents born in Australia. Visitors from all over the world quickly comment that modern Australia has an incredible diversity of international cuisines, from local restaurants (there are Persian, Italian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Greek, American BBQ, Mexican and Mongolian varieties within 10 minutes of my house, to name a few), to home cooks, who are usually keen to experiment with recipes from any continent on any given weeknight. Indeed, I don’t know any Australian who can’t proficiently use chopsticks, which might give you an idea of how integrated we have become with Asian culinary practices. Despite the tragic beginnings of modern society, I love this aspect of modern Australia, as well as how it reflects on the growing multicultural population, and I think it probably contributed to my deep passion for international food, and hunger for culinary variety. However, I can’t just cook a mix of foods clearly recently stolen from other cultures and brand it Australian, can I? I need to display some of the unique original meals that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. For this reason, and because I feel like I can speak with some authority about Australia, I’ve divided the two weeks dedicated to Australia into, first, the scattering of unique foods developed post-white invasion (part 1), and then a foray into the indigenous ingredients of the country, hopefully with an appreciation of some of the culinary culture and practices of the Aboriginal Australians (part 2).


Mango, prawn and avo salad

prawn mango and avo salad.jpgAustralia, and my family especially, are big salad eaters, especially during the summer months when the idea of using heat to prepare meals is more than anyone can bear. This salad is a representative of a diverse suite of salads Aussies gobble in the summer months, often with a South-East Asian-inspired twist, such as the inclusion of tropical fruits that are in season and grown prolifically in tropical Australia, like mango. There is often meat or seafood included in the salads, and the combination of mango, prawn and avocado is a particular classic. Indeed, this salad is especially Australian to me because it typifies the type of food that my (Australian) Mum loves most and is famous for cooking, and so when I think of typically Australian food of my childhood, it appears at the forefront of my memories. Indeed, my Mum is quietly famous among our friends and family for her mango salad dressing, which she makes in huge vats in the summer months from fresh ripe mangoes, also including oil, lemon juice, sweet chilli sauce and lots of dill in the food-processed concoction. The resulting thick liquid is ideal with salads and cold seafood, which forms the basis of most meals for us during the long hot Brisbane summer. This dressing is one of the most reliable staples at my family’s Christmas Day spread, accompanying the cold meats, seafood and salads that typically feed the overheated celebrating contingent. I’m aware that other families still rigidly adhere to the old British traditions of roast meats and other heavier food for Christmas, but Aussies are increasingly forging their own, more suitable, Christmas traditions, which haven’t yet fully emerged as typical national customs. Give us a few years and we’ll try to present this amazing salad to the world as an alternative Yuletide tradition for the marginalised Christmas celebrants in the southern hemisphere!


Roast lamb, veggies and Vegemite damper

roast lamb, veggies and Vegemite damper.jpgLamb is a hugely important meat in Australia, and indeed a 2017 report showed that Australians are the largest consumers of lamb in the world, with 8.5 kg per capita per year. We are also the second largest producers of sheep meat in the world, perhaps contributing to the status of a roast leg of lamb as a strong contender for Australian national dish. The popularity of lamb has also been driven by famous TV ads for the meat, usually advocated by renowned celebrity “lambassador” Sam Kekovich, whose less famous roles include ex-football player and sports commentator. I cooked my lamb via a family technique of poking garlic and rosemary into holes in the raw lamb leg, covering it in salt, pepper, olive oil and some lemon juice, then placing the whole thing in a sealed oven bag and roasting until tender. The oven bag may not sound very glamorous, but it renders the meat incredibly tender and juicy, and conveniently collects all of the juices for easy gravy assembly. I served my roast lamb with assorted typical roasted or steamed vegetables, which generally accompany roast meats in the adopted British custom of “meat and three veg”, although, truth be told, I’ve always been more of a seven veg kind of gal… I also made mini dampers flavoured with rosemary and Vegemite. Damper is a traditional Australian camp fire bread, prepared by swagmen/drovers/stockmen travelling and working the harsh Australian land and sleeping outdoors in a “swag” (camp bed roll) and cooking over an open fire or camp oven. Damper has simple ingredients of flour, water and milk, and sometimes baking soda for a little leavening. Traditionally the bread was eaten with meat/stew or golden syrup (a sweet syrup made with cane sugar), but I made my damper with the less traditional flavourings of rosemary and Vegemite, the latter of which I included mostly to have an excuse to talk at length about the eternally divisive theme of Vegemite. Vegemite is a thick black Australian spread that you might put on bread/toast or crackers and which is made from yeast extract. Vegemite’s taste was famously described by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as “like licking a cat’s arse”, however, a less… emotive description would be a very salty and umami flavour, reminiscent of the strong flavours of mushrooms or soy sauce. As a true blue Aussie, do I like Vegemite? Yes, I do, but I actually grew up eating more Promite, which is a less famous Australian spread that is very similar to Vegemite, but with a slightly milder and sweeter flavour that I prefer to this day (although I’ll happily dig into Vegemite if Promite isn’t on offer). Indeed, whenever I’m sick, my primary go-to comfort food to soothe my upset tummy is Promite on toast. So, if you are a non-Australian reading this who has tried Vegemite in the past, you may now be asking how the hell I and other Australians could possibly eat this stuff, let alone be comforted by it? The secret is that nobody actually enjoys eating Vegemite alone, by the spoonful, as nasty Aussies often trick foreigners into doing. The way to sample and enjoy these foods is by spreading them VERY thinly on a piece of toast, with a ratio of butter-to-Vegemite of at least 2:1, with only the mere ghost of Vegemite spread across the surface. Think of it as a competition for how thinly you can spread the Vegemite while still colouring the surface of the bread a little and you might be reaching the right level. Then, over time, if you enjoy this preparation, you can slowly and cautiously increase the amount of Vegemite to meet the 1:1 ratio that might be more commonly enjoyed by the locals. Once you’ve sampled Vegemite in this way, you’ll understand that it’s just a vehicle for salt that enhances the taste of carbs – not sounding too bad anymore – right?


Meat pie floater

meat pie floater.JPGI know, I know, a meal title that includes the word “floater” is not off to a great start, but hear me out to the end… Meat pies are iconic in Australia, having been suggested as the national dish by important figures such as a former New South Wales premier in the past. Aussies consume an average of one meat pie per month, and they are available from specialist shops, bakeries, petrol stations and commonly associated with sporting matches, when they are sold from stadium canteens. So beloved is the dish that annual national contests have been held for more than 25 years for the best commercially produced meat pie in Australia, and it has even been integrated into American fast food chains, most memorably resulting in a Pizza Hut pizza with mini meat pies embedded in the crust. Très chic(!). The importance of the institution of pies in Australia was writ large for me when I began talking to my Australian parents about them prior to this week. Without skipping a beat, they launched into reminiscences of pies related to significant events of their lives, taking turns to tell these well-practiced stories in the elegant way that only couples of over 30 years can, like songbirds chirping counterbalanced harmonies back and forward. These stories included the (purportedly) “best pies ever” from a truck that had a wood oven in the back where the pastries would be baked in my Dad’s home town of Rockhampton, which he would enjoy immensely in his childhood and was eager for Mum to try on one of her first visits there years later to meet his family. This was closely followed by the tale of a pie shop in northern New South Wales that sold my parents some memorable lentil pies for lunch on their first date. Next came the infamous and oft-told story of my Mother’s conversion from 20 years of vegetarianism upon becoming pregnant with me, into a ravenous meat pie addict, consuming up to six pies a day and surely somehow affecting my embryogenesis in the process. Finally, they told the more recent tale of a pit stop at the nationally-renowned Yatala pie shop on the way back from a mission for materials to fuel one of their many shared DIY projects, and which they were shocked to learn is actually now a drive-through pie shop. I love that pies have punctuated so many significant and seemingly insignificant aspects of their lives, marking sweet shared moments of culinary enjoyment, as all great and iconic meals should. So, perhaps because of growing up with these romantic tales from my parents, or perhaps because the pie overdose of my foetal development shaped my appetites, I have always adored a good meat pie. One of my most reliable favourites is steak and pepper, although steak and mushroom, chicken and vegetable, cottage pie (topped with potato) and even curry pie are close contenders. Of course, consumption of these pies necessitates lashings of tomato sauce (which the USA calls ketchup), and it is simply unAustralian to claim otherwise. Fact. Additional acceptable (but less obligatory) accompaniments include mashed potato, mushy peas, and gravy, which can all be served either on the side of the pie or underneath the detached pie lid. The mushy pea combination is also extended in the concept of pie floaters, which are prominent in the state of South Australia, but less so in the other states, involving a meat pie floating in a bowl of thick or thin pea soup. It sounds strange, but is purportedly beloved by high-profile international visitors such as Anthony Bourdain and Joe Cocker, although was gently mocked in a Terry Pratchett novel. For my meat pie-based meal I chose to make a pie floater with thick pea soup (to avoid soggy pastry as much as possible), because I’ve not spent much time in South Australia and so have never tried it. Of course, it was delicious, but I think I would prefer to have the two served separately and so have control over the ratios of combination.


Barbie

barbie.jpgYes, barbie, as in “barbecue”, as in “throw another shrimp on the …”. It’s an iconic part of modern Australian life, perhaps because of the mostly-clement weather that encourages year-round outdoor entertainment, centred on the barbecue. International visitors are often shocked to find that there are many free public electric barbecues in local parks and beaches, with shaded seating, running water and amenities usually situated close by. This means that if you do not possess a barbecue or even a space in which to barbecue, you still have the opportunity and right to undertake a barbie of your own in Australia. Having actually experienced many true Aussie barbies, I am acutely aware of how much bigger the custom is than simply the typical cuisine. For instance, when I think about Aussie barbecues, I recall not just the taste of the food, but the hot and humid feeling of the infinite summers, the smell of salt or chlorine as it crystallises on your skin from a recent dip into water to relieve the heat, the ever-present aroma of sunscreen and insect repellent (tropical strength), the tinny sound of slightly out of date tunes piping from a small radio wherever someone could find an electrical outlet, sweaty beers nestled in their “stubby holders”, and the rhythmic anthem of everyone sporadically saying “jeez how hot is it mate?”, or variations thereof. So complex and sensorily encompassing is this experience that I could not even begin to properly describe it to you, and this realisation makes me a little sad that I am missing so much of the food rituals of other countries from my cooking adventures. More excuse to go travelling and witness the real deal, I suppose. The “throw another shrimp on the barbie” line from Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan in a memorable ad for Australian tourism is factually incorrect in that we never say shrimp, always prawns (which are a bigger variety of shrimp). However, it’s true that we are known to include prawns in a barbecue, so that part is right. I put my prawns on skewers along with veggies, which is a popular option, sometimes with chicken, lamb, beef, or tofu for the vegetarian attendees. Sausages are a staple of the Aussie barbie, and when guests come to your barbecue, the most standard contribution is a pack of sausages. I have here presented my sausage (called a “snag” in Aussie slang) in a very typical way, which, depending on the locale and time of year, might be called a “Bunnings Snag”, “Democracy Sausage”, or simply “Sausage Sizzle. Let me explain. This is the typical presentation of a sausage-based snack from a stall that is raising money (e.g. for a school or community group). The most reliable location that you might find these stalls it outside the most common hardware store (Bunnings) on a weekend. However, they are also everywhere during political elections, where voting occurs in halls/schools/churches, and you have the opportunity to buy your “Democracy Sausage” from stalls raising money for community groups after casting your (mandatory) vote. All of these sausage sizzles exhibit a strange and universally-agreed upon phenomena, where trying to upgrade the quality of any of the ingredients completely ruins the experience. The sausages need to be home-brand plain beef, the bread cheap white pre-sliced squares, the onions a little bit burned and the sauces (basic brands of mustard, tomato and barbecue) free and plentiful. Please believe me when I tell you that this combination is so much greater than the sum of its parts, and that if you try to substitute fancy organic sausages or artisanal bread (or, heaven forbid, a hotdog bun), you will definitely ruin it. The burger I made is a classic Aussie burger, unique internationally by its inclusion of a slice of beetroot and pineapple in addition to the standard beef patty, lettuce, tomato etc of burgers worldwide. International folk I’ve met have sometimes turned their noses up at the thought of beetroot and pineapple on a burger, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; the addition of vinegar from the tinned beetroot and the sweet acidity of the pineapple is incredible. I also cooked a steak, which is internationally associated with Australia via the restaurant chain “Outback Steak House”, which the internet informs me exists in Australia, but which I’ve never seen. There’s no doubt, however, that we produce and eat a lot of beef, and it’s delicious, so I have no complaints about including it in my typical Aussie barbie.

Advertisements

78. Vietnam

Vietnamese cuisine is internationally renowned as one of the finest and healthiest in the world. Many elements contribute to this, including its reliance on fresh vegetables and herbs to create a clean and aromatic flavour, its liberal use of seafood umami flavours like fish sauce and shrimp paste to add a deeply satisfying salty undertone, the sweet and aromatic notes provided by lemongrass, ginger and sugar, the tart notes of vinegars and lime juice and the hints of spice from clever incorporation of fresh and preserved chillies. This concept of balance between flavours is deeply ingrained in Vietnamese cuisine, influenced by the Asian principle of the five fundamental tastes, all of which are represented by elements: sour (wood), bitter (fire), sweet (earth), spicy (metal) and salty (water). Each of these elements is also related to its own colour, sense, body organs and nutrient, rendering the prospect of creating the perfectly balanced and nutritious Vietnamese meal that captivates the five senses somewhat daunting, if I’m being honest. The concept of yin and yang, particularly as it relates to contrast, is also important in cooking, which can be seen in the frequent combinations of opposites: hot with cold, fresh with fried, crunchy with soft, wet with dry etc. The incredible flavour combinations achieved by this cuisine are even more impressive when you consider the centuries of war and conflict endured by the Vietnamese people, creating a society built upon instability and poverty, and necessitating ingenuity in the creation of dishes from cheap and available ingredients under less than ideal circumstances. This has also led to a world famous use of all (and I mean ALL) the various parts of the animal in the cuisine, as well as the consumption of any animal available, including rat, crocodile, snake, silk worms, porcupine and cobra. In addition to availability of local ingredients and ingenuity of native people, Vietnamese cuisine has also been shaped by a long history of international contact, beginning with China centuries ago, instigating the adoption of dumplings, wheat noodles and fried rice among others. France also left its mark on the country after its occupation beginning in the 1800s, introducing bread, onions, potatoes, lettuce, dairy products and coffee in the process. The neighbouring countries of South East Asia have also mutually influenced one anothers’ cuisine, including sharing the love of coconut milk and fish sauce, as well as exporting spices and curries, particularly influenced by India and Malaysia. Finally, Vietnam’s history of support for Communism has resulted in some unexpected influences from comrades in Eastern Europe, including stuffed cabbage soup and Russian salad. Vietnam has put its own stamp on all of these influences, creating a unique and, according to many, unparalleled cuisine. Indeed, I have long privately thought that Vietnamese is a strong contender for my favourite cuisine, although this cooking adventure has given me too much insight into all the world has to offer to possibly make such a choice anymore!


Chicken vermicelli salad and rice paper rolls

chicken vermicelli salad and rice paper rolls.jpgWhenever I’m away from Australia for more than a couple of weeks, visiting countries that have less authentic Asian cuisine options, such as almost all of Europe or South America, I inevitably develop an intense craving for Vietnamese food, specifically vermicelli salad. There’s just something about the aromatic clean cool flavours, the combination of fresh crunchy vegetables with soft comforting noodle that is ultimately satisfying. A local Vietnamese restaurant has therefore become one of my first stops on the way home from the airport after a lengthy international sojourn. The vermicelli salad consists of a bed of (usually cold) long thin rice vermicelli noodles, topped with fresh vegetables such as carrot, cucumber, lettuce and bean sprouts, mixed herbs (especially mint), peanuts, as well as some sort of protein source such as sugar cane prawn, grilled beef/pork/chicken or tofu. All of these ingredients are combined with a sweet and subtle dressing, for example combining rice vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, lime and garlic. Within my vermicelli salad I’ve added rice paper rolls (also called Vietnamese spring rolls, cold rolls, summer rolls or salad roll depending on where you are in the English speaking world), which are often filled with similar ingredients as are included in the salad, but rolled up within a thin film of rice paper and served with various dipping sauces, including hoisin, peanut or fish sauce based dips. These rolls are thought to have origins in the spring rolls of China, coming to Vietnam with Chinese immigrants, but which were subsequently adapted to suit local tastes, especially with the addition of handfuls of fresh herbs that typify so much of Vietnamese cuisine.


Pho bo

pho bo.jpgLike many English speakers, I have been guilty of mispronouncing “pho”, as “fo”, but which is purportedly pronounced more like “fur”. It describes a dish composed of a (usually) meat-based broth with rice noodles, with the most common varieties being beef (bo) or chicken (ga). Noodle soups have existed in Vietnam for centuries, but it is usually said that the modern version of pho emerged in the early 1900s in northern Vietnam, when meat (especially beef) became more prevalent in the country due to demand from the French colonists. This increase in beef consumption resulted in a concomitant increase in cheap beef bones, which were used predominantly by Chinese immigrants to make a classic stock that is reminiscent of dishes from southern China. There are two main theories about where the name itself stemmed from, with some arguing that it comes from the French phrase “pot-au-feu” meaning “pot on the fire”, but others declaring that it came from a Cantonese phrase meaning “cow meat noodles”. Pho originated from street stalls, and was sold from kitchens mounted on shouldered poles, remaining most popular at dawn and dusk when consumers buy a nourishing bowl to bookend their hard day of work from vendors who typically wear a distinctive felt hat (mu pho) to keep their heads warm. With a century of turbulence and war ahead of Vietnam, pho spread with refugees first from the north to the south of the country with the partition of Vietnam in the 1950s, and then later to the rest of the world following the Vietnam War and resultant refugees. Nowadays, the dish is internationally beloved, featuring at number 28 on a 2011 list of the World’s most delicious foods. To make my pho bo, I first cooked the stock by simmering beef soup bones and a piece of brisket with large pieces of charred ginger and onion, along with a muslin bag of roasted spices including star anise, cassia bark, cinnamon quills, cardamom, cloves and coriander seeds. The other flavours of the stock, added nearer to the end, were fish sauce and some sugar. After simmering for several hours with regular skimming to keep the broth clear, I strained the stock and served it with fresh flat rice noodles, some of the brisket from the stock, some thinly sliced rare beef rump, a squeeze of lime juice, bean sprouts, chillies, and lumping great handfuls of fresh herbs, including Thai basil and Vietnamese mint. I have long held an affection for pho – I even think that it’s a strong contender for the best meat-noodle soup in the world, mastering the balance between fresh and hearty flavours with subtle aromatics from the spices. Also, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively healthy and nutritious meal, and, once you’ve found the herbs, it’s very easy to make, especially if you cook an excess of stock and freeze the leftovers for next time.


Banh mi

banh mi.JPGBanh mi (literally “wheat bread”) is a Vietnamese sandwich that is often cited as the very definition of fusion cuisine. It consists of a French-style single-serve baguette, composed of wheat flour but also with some rice flour to help the dough rise and become light and fluffy in the hot and humid environment, then filled with a mixture of meats such as cha lua (native Vietnamese pork sausage), other cuts of pork such as roast pork loin or belly and pâté, along with pickled carrot and daikon vegetable, cucumbers, mayonnaise, chillies and coriander. It’s world-renowned for its incredible balance and contrast of crusty bread, fatty meat and mayonnaise, crunchy and tart pickled vegetables and spicy chillies. The history of this sandwich is clearly linked to the French colonisation of Vietnam in the 1800s, when European crops and recipes were introduced to the country. One of the more troublesome of introduced crops was wheat, which struggled in the hot and humid climate, and therefore needed to be imported at great expense. Bread, therefore, was an expensive and scarce commodity in Vietnam at the time, and was usually reserved for the French colonists. However, following the outbreak of World War I, disarray of the French forces ensued as they scrambled to face the threat in Europe and closed some of the largest German import companies in Vietnam, with the result that bread and other exclusive products such as cold cuts and cheese flooded the Vietnamese market and became available to the locals. The adoption of bread by the local people increased and finally, after the defeat of the French in Vietnam in the 1950s, the people were free to combine native ingredients into the sandwich without French reproach. And so, the Banh mi was born! A couple known as Mr. and Mrs. Le are often credited as the first to sell the sandwiches, perfectly convenient for eating on the go, and their family still owns a restaurant in Vietnam today.


Lemongrass pork chop with broken rice

Lemongrass pork chop and broken rice.jpgLemongrass pork chop is a typical food sold by Vietnamese street vendors. It is prepared by first marinating pork chops in a mixture of finely ground lemongrass, fish sauce, chillies and sugar, for a couple of hours or preferably overnight. The pork chops are then grilled over charcoal until the inside is cooked and juicy and the outside is golden with the sugary marinade caramelising in sections, forming a dark and sticky film. The pork chop is most commonly served with steamed rice, which traditionally takes the form of “broken rice”, referring to pieces of the whole rice grain that break off in the harvesting process. Broken rice is a good example of a food product that arose out of poverty and necessity, as poor rice farmers would of course eat and sell this product at a cheaper price rather than throw it away, but which is now preferred in many culinary settings. Indeed, the rice also saves money on fuel by taking less time to cook, and forms a softer consistency than normal rice, often utilised for porridges and congees. Importantly, broken rice is said to better absorb the flavours of accompanying foods, which is ideal for the sweet and savoury juices that drip off a freshly-barbecued lemongrass pork chop. I found the broken rice delicious with a perfect texture, so I encourage you to try it if you have the opportunity. I served my pork chop and broken rice with some traditional accompaniments of sliced cucumber, chilli sauce and a fried egg.

77. Finland

Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom from the middle ages until periods of instability in the 18th century, ending with the Finnish war in 1809 when it became a Grand Duchy of Russia until 1917, when it became a republic. During its occupation by other countries, local Finnish people were relegated to peasants and slaves, with the upper class of the country speaking Swedish. The coexistence of these two languages is perhaps stranger than it would first appear, as Finnish belongs to an entirely different language group (Uralic) than virtually all other European and West-Asian languages, collectively termed Indo-European (including languages from Iran, India, Russia, Poland, Greece, Germanic languages (German, English, Swedish etc) and all of the Romance languages including Spanish and French). It could therefore be argued that Swedish is more related to languages in India than to Finnish! This may explain why the Finnish language, and perhaps other aspects of Finnish culture, survived so long in the face of centuries of external rule, as it was so different that it was difficult to merge the two, as happens in many other cases of colonisation. There were also a few dramatic famines over the years that decimated the working class population, all of which has shaped the Finnish cuisine to make use of cheap local ingredients, including those that can be farmed but also those that can be found in nature. Preservation methods, such as pickling, to survive the long unproductive winters were also prevalent, and can still be seen in modern Finnish culinary customs.  The infamous comments of two high-profile figures in Europe, Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi, that Finnish cuisine is one of the worst in the world, is therefore especially insensitive to the long history and struggles of the country. Also, as far as I can tell, it’s absolutely not true! Nowadays, Finland, like many Nordic countries, is an impressive performer in international metrics of income, welfare, gender equality, civil liberties, quality of life, education etc, including the most stable country in the world from 2011-2016. The current culinary scene is therefore respectful to the “agricultural/peasant/country food” traditions, while also heavily incorporating modern styles and ingredients. The cuisine of the country is often separated into influences from the west (close to Sweden and Catholicism) – more fish and meat typically cooked on a stove top – versus the east – (close to Karelia and Orthodox traditions) – more vegetable and mushroom dishes, typically cooked in the oven. Wholemeal grains and breads, such as rye and barley, berries, dairy products and root vegetables are popular all over the country, but no foodstuffs are more popular than cow’s milk and coffee, both of which are consumed at the highest rate per capita in Finland than anywhere else in the world. This is disturbing when you consider the statistic that 17% of Finns are lactose intolerant – switch to soy milk, Finns, it’s not worth it!


Joulukinkku with traditional sides

Joulukinkku with traditional sides.JPGFor my own Christmas celebrations this year I chose to cook a traditional spread from Finland, also known as a joulupöytä (yule table), featuring a joulukinkku (Christmas ham) as the centrepiece. This decision seemed apt, given that children the world over send letters to Santa Claus addressed to Finland, specifically to the northern part called Korvatunturi/Lapland, with Santa’s main post office there receiving over 30,000 letters a day during the holidays. Finns typically prepare their ham, a smoked cut, often a gammon (boneless leg), first by scoring the surface and coating it in a mustard sauce, which I made by boiling a combination of hot mustard powder, cream, sugar and some apple cider vinegar until thick. The ham is then coated in a mix of breadcrumbs and sugar, studded with cloves, and baked until golden and delicious. The tradition of eating ham at Christmas is not confined to Finland, with the custom thought to have originated amongst Germanic people in tribute to Freyr, goddess of pigs, harvest and fertility. The breadcrumb tradition lies in the custom of covering cuts of meat in pastry, often rye, before baking, in order to keep it flavoursome and succulent. I loved the combination of hot mustard and sweet crunchy breadcrumbs along with the ham, although I’m not sure if it will replace my deep affection for the sweet sticky glazes of my childhood. Finns go mad for casseroles during Christmas, and often a trifecta of casseroles, including potato casserole, rutabaga casserole and carrot casserole all grace the dinner table on Christmas Eve. As a friend of mine promised to bring her famous potato bake to my Christmas Eve pot luck, and rutabaga isn’t usually sold where I live in Brisbane, I opted to just make the carrot casserole, called porkkanalaatikko (literally “carrot box”). It’s made by combining grated (or mashed) carrot with cooked short grain rice, beaten eggs, salt, nutmeg, milk and butter, then topping it with breadcrumbs and baking until golden. I was pleasantly surprised by the carrot casserole – it sounds a little meagre compared to other lavish carnivorous Christmas dishes, but was actually delightfully sweet and savoury, with a fantastic texture.  The next side was rosolli, a salad made with chopped beetroot and other root vegetables such as potato and carrot, along with pickles, onion and apple for added flavour. I dressed mine with a mixture of whipped cream, vinegar and dill, although sour cream is sometimes used in place of pure cream. The name rosolli is thought to come from the Russian word for brine (rassol), perhaps referring to the brine of the pickles, beetroot or dressing. I also roasted some turnips, which is not strictly a regular Christmas side, but I’m sure they are eaten throughout the year in Finland. A sweet pea sauce, thickened with cream and flour, and which typically accompanies the Christmas ham, completed the spread. One of the most important non-culinary Christmas traditions in Finland is to partake in saunas, an activity that is hugely popular all year round, but especially in the holiday season. My Finnish Christmas was therefore inadvertently authentic, given that Christmas in Brisbane occurs during summer, where the temperature can get above 40 degrees celsius, and where it’s not unheard of for humidity to rise above 80%. Unfortunately for us, we don’t have the luxury of diving into the snow for relief after a Christmas in these conditions – lucky Finns!


Karjalanpiirakka 

Karjalanpiirakka.JPGKarjalanpiirakka, commonly known in English as Karelian pies, are pasties made with a thin rye crust encasing a savoury filling. “Karelian” refers to the territory of Karelia that used to lie between Finland and Russia, which gave rise to this dish during the 1600s. World War II saw the mass immigration of Karelian residents to Finland, and with them came much of their culture, including cuisine. In days of old, the fillings of karjalanpiirakka could include barley, potato or buckwheat, but in modern times usually consists of a rice porridge. I think this filling could use some rebranding, as I discovered that calling them “rice porridge pies” elicits much less excitement from dinner guests than labelling them “risotto pastries”. Lesson learned. I made my rice porridge by combining short-grained rice, milk, water, salt and butter on a low heat until thick and creamy. I then made the rye dough by combining rye flour, wholemeal wheat flour, butter, salt and water, and rolling out thin circles. I scooped the filling into the centre of each pastry and pinched them closed, making the traditional crimped wave patterns in the process, then brushed the whole thing with butter before baking until browned. If I am truthful, I don’t think I’m technically allowed to call the pastries I made karjalanpiirakka, because they have “Traditional Specialty Guaranteed” status in Europe, and so can only be produced by specific regions. Mine can formally be called “riispiirakka” (rice pasties), although I don’t think it has the same ring to it. The pastries are often eaten with munavoi, a paste made of finely chopped boiled eggs mixed with butter. I didn’t include the egg sauce as I didn’t think the karjalanpiirakka needed extra butter or eggs, they were already so rich and delicious! I’m endlessly amazed by the ingenuity of humanity to create such decadent meals out of simple cheap products.


Lohikeitto

Lohikeitto.JPGIn Finnish “lohi” means salmon and “keitto” means soup, so no prizes for guessing what this dish comprises. Lohikeitto is a classic example of the kind of fare you might find during the cold Finnish winters, when green vegetables were not traditionally available, and fish, dairy and stored root vegetables needed to be assembled in creative combinations until the return of fresh produce. I made my lohikeitto by first frying leeks and onion in lots of butter, then adding cubed potatoes and carrots, fish stock, bay leaf, allspice and cream. I simmered the mixture on a low heat until it had reduced and the wonderful flavours had diffused through the liquid, then added the chopped salmon fillets near the end of cooking, removing from the heat as soon as they had cooked through. I seasoned the soup with lots of salt and pepper, as well as lumping great handfuls of dill, which is, in my humble opinion, the ideal accompaniment to fish. One of the greatest revelations that I’ve garnered from my cooking adventure is how much I adore dairy-based seafood soups – they never inspired much interest in me previously, but now I jump at any opportunity to scoff the combination. Lohikeitto was no exception to the rule, and it can proudly join the ranks of outstanding seafood soups that the world has to offer.


Karjalanpaisti

Karjalanpaisti.JPGKarjalanpaisti is known in English as Karelian hot pot or Karelian stew and is a meat-based stew again arising from the Karelian region, regarded by some as the national dish of Finland. Karjalanpaisti is cooked by first browning meat (usually a combination of pork and beef) on a stovetop in a Dutch oven, possibly with some onion. Water and/or stock is then added to the meat, as well as some root vegetables, although the latter isn’t necessarily part of the recipe. The stew is then cooked on a low heat for hours in the oven until the meat is fall-apart tender and has soaked up the simple-yet-effective flavours of peppercorns, salt, allspice and bay leaf. As meat has only become frequently available to the average Finnish family in modern times, this dish was traditionally made for special occasions, especially during Easter celebrations. I am fully on board with the concept of oven-stews, having burned the bottom out of cooking pots more times than I care to admit (okay, it was only twice…). This meal was a surprising hit at a pre-Christmas get together I hosted, and was so easy to make that I fully intend to repeat it at a later date when I have meat and not much else in the fridge. I served my karjalanpaisti with the traditional accompaniments of mashed potato and lingonberry jam, as well as some steamed asparagus and pickles to add a little green to the plate. Having never experienced snow, I have a vague imagining of what it would be like to come into a warm house after long cold hours in the snowy wilderness and tuck into some hearty karjalanpaisti, although I suspect the reality would be even better.

76. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana

Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana are three little countries nestled along the Caribbean coastline of north-eastern South America, with Brazil situated to the south and Venezuela to the west. Now you can see why I couldn’t find a catchy name to incorporate these three countries – northeast South America? Too many directions! The cuisine in these parts is a curious melting pot arising from the long history of colonialism from Europe, influences from other colonies of the same powers, Native American cuisine, neighbouring regions and more recent immigration, ultimately combining culinary aspects from India, Africa, Indonesia, China, The Netherlands, Portugal, Britain, The Caribbean, France and Spain. All of this has culminated in a unique cuisine that is one of the most integrative that I’ve come across in my cooking adventures. The tropical and coastal locale of these countries also means that native tropical fruits and seafoods have been heavily incorporated into the diet, creating typically sweet, fruity dishes that are a perfect accompaniment to a hot sunny day on the beachside.


Fish sauce maracudja, kalawang, giraumonade and fried plantains

Fish sauce maracudja, kalawang, giraumonade and fried plantains.jpgThis dish is an assortment of foods from French Guiana, whose cuisine has influences primarily from Creole, Native American, European and African cooking. The first dish that grabbed my attention was fish sauce maracudja, describing a simply cooked fillet of fish that’s served with a sweet sauce made from a reduction of passionfruit seeds and pulp with orange juice and sugar. I rarely see fish served with sweet sauces outside of southeast Asian cuisine, but I don’t know why – the combination is brilliant, and this dish takes full advantage of the balance between flavours and textures. Kalawang is a green mango salad, prepared by chopping up the mangos and combining them with garlic, chillies, lemon, parsley, vinegar and some oil. This dish is especially popular at carnivals and parties, and is a typical “children food” that all kids seem to enjoy, in considerable quantities if they are fortunate enough to have a mango tree in their garden. Giraumonade (deriving from the French word for pumpkin, giraumon), is a dish of mashed pumpkin with sliced spring onions, butter, garlic, and bacon. I see mashed pumpkin dishes surprisingly rarely and I don’t understand why potato gets all the spotlight – the nutty sweetness of pumpkin is wonderful, and the texture no less creamy and comforting. Fried plantains are a staple all over the region and I’ve cooked them and waxed lyrical over their splendour countless times before, but that will never stop me making them again. I served these surprisingly sweet and tropical dishes with a balancing garden salad, and thoroughly enjoyed the sweet bite of the tropical coast.


Guyanese cook up rice/Surinamese moksi alesi

Guyanese cook up rice:Surinamese moksi alesi.JPGI’ve put Guyanese cook up rice and Surinamese moksi alesi together because they are both considered “peasant food”, consisting of a varied combination of mixed rice, beans, meat and vegetables flavoured with coconut milk, and I think I might have conceivably made a version of both (although each has its distinctive, yet flexible, traditions). For my mixed rice I first fried chopped bacon, onion, celery, scallion, green capsicum, garlic and pieces of chicken breasts, then added chicken stock, coconut milk, rice, chilli, bay leaf, thyme, okra, tomatoes, rice, borlotti beans and red kidney beans.  I then put the lid on the pot and let it simmer until the rice was cooked, but still slightly wet and creamy. These dishes are traditionally made on the weekend, when lots of family are around needing their tummies filled, and leftovers and excess groceries from the week need to be used up. These dishes are also commonly made on New Year’s Eve, perhaps to fulfil the same purpose of using up all of the previous year’s ingredients to start anew on New Year’s Day. I always feel that the popular national consumption of a dish clearly intended to use up leftovers is a clear signal that the country contains very practical and sensible folk – after all, there’s nothing elegant or romantic about a fridge full of spoiled food!


Pom and goedangan

Pom and goedangan.JPGPom is one of the top contenders for the most famous national dish of Suriname. Until the 1970s, Suriname was a Dutch colony for hundreds of years, and this is reflected in its cuisine, as are influences from indigenous locals, African slaves, Portugal, Indonesia, East Asia and French Huguenots. Pom is thought to have originated from Jewish Portuguese plantation owners in Suriname, seeking a little piece of homely comfort in the Portuguese dish “pomme de terre”, a sort of potato casserole. However, potatoes do not grow locally in Suriname, so this dish was adapted to use the local root of the Arrowleaf elephant ear, known locally as “pomtajer”, which gives rise to the etymology of “pom”. Pom is prepared by making a filling of sautéed chicken with onions, celery, tomato and nutmeg, which is sandwiched between two layers of raw grated pomtajer mixed with citrus juice and some juices from the chicken filling. The whole casserole is then baked in the oven until the top is golden brown. Like local food from many past Dutch colonies, pom, and Surinamese food in general, is very popular in The Netherlands nowadays, and has even morphed into a new food: broodje pom, constituting pom on a bread roll. Goedangan is a mixed vegetable salad, commonly bean sprouts, cabbage, steamed green beans and cucumber, combined with hard boiled eggs and a dressing with a basis of coconut milk. This salad has clear roots from Indonesia, coming to Suriname with the Indonesian plantation workers during the Dutch colonisation of both countries.


Pepperpot

pepperpot.JPGPepperpot is one of Guyana’s national dishes, commonly served at special occasions, especially Christmas. It’s comprised of stewed meat, for instance a combination of pork and beef, along with cloves, cinnamon, chillies and cassareep. Cassareep is the defining ingredient of pepperpot, and is a thick black syrup made from the bitter juice of the cassava root. As hard as I tried, I could not source cassareep in Brisbane, so then turned my attention to finding out if I could make it myself. I possibly could have, as it involves a relatively uncomplicated process of boiling down cassava juice until it’s reduced by half, and flavouring it with cloves, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and salt. However, I was put off by the knowledge that the cassava root contains a lot of acetone cyanohydrin, which decomposes to hydrogen cyanide on contact with water and is highly poisonous if not cooked off correctly. Never let it be said that I’m afraid to take culinary risks, but I draw the line at risking my life. Sorry to disappoint! In addition to flavour, cassareep is  used as a preservative, as it’s an antiseptic and so is often added to meat dishes to extend their lifespan. It’s common practice to reheat stews, adding a little extra cassareep each time to make sure it stays safe to eat. The “pepperpot” actually describes a special cooking pot that is commonly used for this dish, and which absorbs more flavour than a usual pot, which it then imparts to subsequent dishes. This has resulted in pepperpots that have been continuously in the same pot for centuries, with a few extra ingredients added daily to top it up. So, having failed to procure or make cassareep, I made a substitute that the internet had me believe tastes similar, using molasses, lime juice and vinegar, stewing it with the meat over several hours until the flesh was fall-apart tender and had absorbed all of the sweet and bitter flavours. The result put me in mind of sweet and aromatic Indian curries, although perhaps even sweeter. In truth, it was a little too sweet for me on its own, but absolutely delicious with any sort of carbohydrate (bread, rice, potato) to soak up the flavourful juices. 

75. Mongolia

Mongolia is a landlocked country bordering China and Russia, holding the title of most sparsely populated unitary sovereign state on earth. Flat grassy plains (steppes) cover most of Mongolia, with select mountain ranges bordering the north and west, and a desert to the south, rendering much of the land hostile to productive agriculture. As a result, Mongolia has long held nomadic and fierce people who rely hugely on their horses for transport, warfare and food, consuming a meat and dairy-heavy diet (the famous “red and white” food groups) and ferociously protecting what few resources they have access to. In no era was this ethos more apparent than the 13th century, when Genghis Khan’s relentless campaign swept through Asia, conquering and uniting neighbouring territories and disparate tribal groups, ultimately forming the Mongol Empire, the largest continuous land empire in recorded history. During this time, there are also stories that warriors would sometimes cut a small vein in the neck of their horses to drink the blood during desperately hungry times on the road. Nowadays, the population is predominantly Buddhist, perhaps contributing to the more peaceful pace of modern Mongolian society.


Buuz

Buuz.JPGBuuz is a Mongolian dumpling filled with meat, most commonly ground lamb. The filling is simply flavoured with onion, salt and maybe garlic, with some subtle hints of fennel or seasonal herbs mixed through. This mixture is wrapped in a dough made of wheat, closed, then steamed until cooked through. The concept of the dumpling is thought to be borrowed from neighbouring China, as is the origin of the name “buuz”, reflecting the Mandarin word for steamed dumpling “baozi”. The dumplings are enjoyed throughout the year, but are particularly traditional during Tsagaan Saar, literally meaning “white moon”, which is the Mongolian Lunar New Year. At this time of year, Mongolian people perform a number of rituals, including burning candles at an altar, exchanging gifts with friends and families, dressing in the national costumes, and greeting each other by performing the “zolgokh” handshake, which involves grasping by the elbows, and asking “Amar bail uu?”, meaning “are you living peacefully?”. After these traditions, families sit down to eat traditional fare, including sheep’s tail, mutton, rice, curds, and, of course, buuz. Buuz is also eaten on the day before Tsagaan Saar, Bituun, which marks the end of the old year, and involves an extreme clean of the house and farmstead, leaving three ice cubes at the front door because a visit from the god Palden Lhamo is expected by horse, and the trusty steed may need a drink. Bituun is a somewhat more sedate affair than Tsagaan Saar, and involves gathering with close family and settling disputes and debts to start the new year afresh the next day. I think the delicious buuz are indeed the perfect accompaniment to both the difficult discussions and hard cleaning of Bituun and the jubilant festivities of Tsagaan Saar, as well as providing some sort of gastronomic continuity between the two days and therefore the two years, despite all the other upheaval occurring contemporaneously. 


Tsuivan

Tsuivan.JPG

Tsuvian is a Mongolian meal of homemade noodles made with flour and water, stir fried together with mixed vegetables (such as carrot, onion, capsicum etc) and meat, usually mutton. The dish’s origins are thought to lie in Chinese noodle stir fries, although over the years tsuivan has morphed into a meal of its own. There is a Mongolian saying that goes “everybody loves tsuivan, regardless of age, sex, religion or social status”, bestowing this dish the honour of the great equaliser in Mongolian society. This concept of levelling societal hierarchy has also been prominent in Mongolian history around burial practices. Genghis Khan, for example, was buried, by his own request, without any markings and without the knowledge of any people regarding its location. Unfortunately this involved the massacre of the entire workforce that contributed to the building of the tomb and the interring of the body. Then, those that killed that workforce also underwent a massacre, just in case. At first I quite liked the humble concept of peace and complete anonymity in death from one of the most renowned people in history, but surely there are less extreme methods than mass murder to demonstrate the equality of all humans under the inevitability of mortality?


Khorkhog

Khorkhog.jpgOne of the first things that might spring to mind about Mongolian cuisine in the Western world is the concept of “Mongolian barbecue”, where meat and vegetables are cooked on huge solid iron griddles in restaurants, often to the delight of watching diners. This spectacular event, however, bears no resemblance to any cooking technique in Mongolia, and actually originated in Taiwan in the 1950s. The technique was originally labelled “Beijing barbecue” by the Chinese creator, but given the rising tensions between Taiwan and China at that time, he renamed it Mongolian barbecue to broaden the political spectrum of potential diners. The real version of Mongolian barbecue is khorkhog, a cooking technique where hot stones and water are placed in a container (such as a metal milk jug) with meat and vegetables. The meat, as seemingly for all Mongolian dishes, is commonly mutton, goat, or, if you’re lucky, lamb. If the searing hot stones aren’t quite enough to cook the contents, it can also be heated from the outside, often over an open fire. Once cooked, it’s traditional for diners to eat the khorkhog with their hands, also directly handling the hot stones to reap their purportedly healthful properties. I found the khorkhog to be wonderfully rustic, with the simple preparation of unspiced meat and unpeeled vegetables allowing the true nature of these ingredients to sing through uninterrupted. 


Budaatai khuurga

Budaatai khuurga.JPGRice doesn’t grow well in Mongolia, as the climate is too cold and dry, but there has been a long history of importation from China to the south, meaning that it has been well and truly integrated into the cuisine. Meat, commonly mutton, is stir fried with finely chopped vegetables, flavoured simply with onion and garlic, and then combined with leftover rice. I saw some recipes include pieces of scrambled egg, so included it in mine as I love egg, but I’m still not sure quite how authentic it is. There are also recipes that are seasoned only with salt, and others that use chilli, cumin and soy sauce, and again I’m unclear about what a Mongolian granny would have to say about these potential deviations to tradition. Given that this dish is already a new interpretation of a borrowed recipe, I think we can permit a few small alterations?

74. Northern USA

While Southern cuisine of USA has defining characteristics of influences from Africa brought via the slave trade, as well as Native, Caribbean, Spanish and French influences, the rest of the USA (which I’ve combined here as “Northern”) is a little harder to define. Certainly the native crops have played a huge role in the cuisine and still represent some of the largest crops in the States today; indeed the USA remains the largest producer of corn in the world. Also, the long history of varied immigration into a “melting pot” society has led to the adoption and diversification of recipes from many countries of origin. This concept is particularly prominent in New York, which traditionally received the majority of seafaring immigrants. As a result, Chinese American, Italian American and Jewish American foods are all hugely popular in the USA, but now bear only a passing resemblance to the true cuisine of those countries. This long-term immigration led to little pockets of culinary influence that has rendered the cuisine of the USA exceptionally diverse and regional in nature. The pockets range in size from suburbs of New York that have distinctly Italian flavours to entire states of the Midwest having clear German and/or Scandinavian influences, to all of New England displaying an affinity for British-style food. Another characteristic of the USA’s food history is the long held affection for industrialised processed foods, which took off alongside the explosive automobile industry (and led to the combination of these passions with the “drive through”). This affinity for processed food was solidified by The Second World War, which necessitated ingenious solutions to food shortages, such as powdered milk and eggs, and orange juice concentrate. After the War, however, instead of relishing a return to fresh whole produce, the USA entered into a long-term idolisation of highly processed and convenient foods, for instance TV dinners, microwavable mac ’n’ cheese, breakfast cereals, and, the epitome of this concept, cheese in a can. The “fast food” idea sent its tentacles into the heart of society, influencing the restaurant scene, home cooking, as well as a significant core of national identity. It’s clear that, however convenient and prosperous, this model of food production and consumption is not good for the country, evidenced by the USA frequently topping lists for the most overweight (over 70% of the population) or obese (over 30% of the population) country in the world.  The consumption of fast food has also been linked to numerous cancers, high cholesterol and even depression. These figures have long puzzled Americans, especially as the convenience food industry rapidly morphed alongside these health issues to advertise “slimming” and “diet” products, but if anything, these innovations seem to have worsened the situation, and the USA remains the largest producer of fast food in the world. The common wisdom now seems to be that the only solution is to break out of this model and return to whole foods, leaving the excessive added sugar, children’s advertising, addictive combination of ingredients and convenient lifestyle behind. This push may have led to a recent rise in the popularity of cooking shows both in the States and internationally, as cooking your own food is a foolproof way to control the ratios and ingredients and ensure you are getting a good mixture of nutrients. So come on, Americans, let’s join together to Make America Cook Again! I promise it’s not too hard and actually lots of fun (although maybe I’m biased)!


Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving feast.jpgThanksgiving is a holiday celebrated throughout the USA on the fourth Thursday of November and is thought to have originated in part from English traditions of harvest festival and the Protestant Reformation’s attempts to create new holidays in order to compete with the loss of many Catholic Church holidays. When these pilgrims and puritans from England emigrated to the Northern USA, they partook in the “First Thanksgiving” in Plymouth, New England, after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. The feast lasted three days and was attended by 90 Native Americans and around 50 Pilgrims – the survivors from the original Mayflower voyage. The story goes that the Pilgrims settled land that had been left empty after all except one of the resident Native Americans died of plague. The survivor, Squanto, came to help the Pilgrims, whose population had also been decimated by plague, at the request of Samoset, another Native American who knew the Pilgrims. Squanto, familiar with the land, taught the Pilgrims to catch eels and wild turkeys, grow corn and generally make use of the land they had settled. This spirit was also mimicked in another Native American leader Massasoit, who gave food to the Pilgrims when their supplies from England ran out during the long hard winter. Accounts of the food present at that original Thanksgiving include cod, bass, waterfowl, wild turkeys, venison and corn. Much of that early traditional ethos was carried over into the spread of Thanksgiving dinner, and many foods native to the Americas feature in the meal, as well as choice ingredients brought over from Europe. My feast was as traditional as I could make it, including bread rolls, corn on the cob, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole (which can have a topping of candied pecans or marshmallows: I couldn’t quite cope with the concept of the latter so chose the former), roasted Brussel sprouts, carrots, mashed potato, and green bean casserole with mushrooms and French fried onions. And, of course, centre stage, the turkey. On Thanksgiving it’s approximated that 85% of Americans partake in the traditional meal, which means over 45 million turkeys are consumed on a single day. Indeed, all of the figures for this day are inflated, with Americans consuming more food on this day than any other of the year. As with almost all histories between colonists and native peoples, the history of Thanksgiving is not without its problems, for instance the Native Americans were killed primarily by plague, which the Pilgrims brought with them, and there were certainly instances of violence, warfare and oppression in those early years and beyond, leading many Native American groups to consider it a national day of mourning. However, with the utmost regard and respect for the Native American perspective on the true events referenced by Thanksgiving, I’ve always been fond of the ethos of this day – it lacks the gross commercialism of Christmas, the religious solemnity of Easter, the dramatic public drunkenness and late nights of New Year celebrations, and is perhaps less egregiously insulting to native people than the “Australia Day” that is hugely controversial here. However unreliable the origin story, Thanksgiving is, at its heart, about setting aside differences, helping your fellow neighbours, and showing appreciation through the act of preparing a delicious meal. Indeed, studies have shown that gratitude, already ceremonially practised by the Native Americans before the arrival of the Pilgrims, can greatly enhance mental health and wellbeing. So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving and practising gratitude, here are some of the things I’m thankful for. I’m thankful that I have truly supportive and kind parents, who I’ve never doubted for a single second of my existence love me with all their hearts. I’m thankful to have wonderful friends that I see regularly and who are a constant source of laughter and comfort. I’m thankful I was born in a wealthy country, and have always had access to vaccines, healthcare, clean water and have never spent a night hungry. I’m thankful that I live in a time and place in which I have had equal rights and access to education and therefore a career I love and take pride in. I’m thankful for the relative and continuing good health of myself and those I love. And last, but certainly not least, I’m thankful for food, more specifically the astounding culmination of technology and opportunity that has allowed me to learn about the foods of the world, cook them, and share them here with you. Happy Thanksgiving one and all!


Cobb salad

Cobb salad.JPGThe USA is a country of paradox and extremes, holding extreme left and right wing views  on many topics. So, just as it is known for its burgers and fries, so too is it known for its salads, with countless hugely popular salad bars existing all over the country. Even McDonalds had to introduce a salad range to keep up with the demand of the populace for salad. Indeed, the seemingly infinite numbers of 24-hour salad bars was one of the highlights of my parents’ trip to New York a few years ago, and was one of the few features that managed to lessen the stress of the insanely busy city. This preoccupation with salad, however, doesn’t seem to have helped the rising obesity figures of the USA, possibly because just labelling something “salad”, does not instantaneously render it healthy and slimming. This fact is well illustrated by one of the most famous of US salads, the Cobb salad. Cobb salad traditionally includes a bed of lettuce/greens on which Roquefort cheese, bacon, tomato, avocado, roast chicken, red onion, hard boiled eggs and pecans are arranged, finished with chives and a dressing of red wine vinaigrette. It is thought to have been invented by Robert Howard Cobb (or his chef), a restaurant owner at the Hollywood Brown Derby, in the 1930s. The story goes that Cobb, working hard, found himself starving at midnight, so mixed together leftovers he found in the restaurant’s kitchen with some bacon the cook fried up fresh for him, combining it together with French dressing. So good was the impromptu recipe that it was put on the menu of the restaurant and became an instant sensation, with devotees including Jack Warner of Warner  Bros. Studios. I found the Cobb salad to be delicious, although, dare I say it, a bit much? I am starting to see how the very concept of excess and “overdoing it” are rooted in even the salads of US society. I think that the same salad but with greatly reduced proportions of meats, cheese and avocado in relation to the other fresh vegetables would suit me much better, as, there’s no denying, this is a delicious combination!


Cheeseburger, hotdog and fries

Hamburger, hotdog and fries.JPGI couldn’t very well cook food from the USA and not mention the most stereotypical examples of fast food, now eaten throughout the world: burgers, hot dogs and fries. So pervasive is this type of food in the culture that it’s disproportionately represented in the restaurant and fast food options where I live in Brisbane, compared to cuisines from the rest of the world. Indeed, that was one of the reasons why I began this project in the first place: a strong conviction that the world had more to offer than just burgers, fries and Chinese food and a desire to sample that variety. Although, to be absolutely fair, in the grand scheme of things Brisbane is remarkably multicultural and diverse in its food scene. The concept of “fast food”, particularly epitomised by burgers, hot dogs and fries, is commonly thought to have been initiated by the White Castle restaurant chain in the 1920s, and then refined and overtaken by McDonald’s in the 1940s. Such has been the complete globalisation of this concept that the “Big Mac Index” is a common way to compare the purchasing power of different currencies, by comparing the prices of the famous McDonald’s burger. A cheeseburger is a variation (and by variation I mean “plus cheese”) of a hamburger, the name of which derives from the German city of “Hamburg”. Hamburgers themselves commonly consist of a ground beef patty between bread, along with vegetables such as lettuce, onion, tomatoes and pickles, as well as condiments such as ketchup and mustard. The connection to the city of Hamburg seems to be the great number of ships carrying immigrants bound for the USA leaving from Hamburg, and the creation of “Hamburg steaks” (minced beef patties) in New York to appeal to this customer base. In the beginning, these patties were sometime served lightly cooked or even raw, similar to the concept of German “mett”, which is like a steak tartare. The history of the hamburger is so long and complicated that there are two separate Wikipedia pages dedicated to the topic, as well as a third page on the hamburger itself, and yet another describing the cheeseburger. The most common consensus seems to be that the USA was the first recorded place in which a ground beef patty was inserted between two slices of bread in the fashion we would recognise as a hamburger today, and therefore claims the invention of the hamburger in the early 20th century. Some say that this invention occurred in Texas, others say New York was the site of creation, specifically its “Hamburg Fair”, which certainly clarifies the name. Others posit that in fact it was invented in Wisconsin, St Louis, Ohio, Oklahoma, by the White Castle chain, or even, controversially, in Germany or Brazil. Whatever the truth, one of the earliest cookbooks, the Apicius, from 4th century Rome, describes a baked beef patty, so it’s clear that at the very least there was precedent for the recipe. Similarly murky origins exist for the hotdog. Certainly pork sausages most famously originated in Frankfurt, Germany, where they have been popular since the 13th century, and they were subsequently popularised in Vienna in the 18th century, which gave rise to the term “wiener” and led to the addition of beef to the pork sausages. The pioneer who decided to put the wiener into a bun, however, is diversely credited to a German immigrant Feuchtwanger in Missouri, who started using buns after his idea of loaning customers gloves to stop them burning their hands backfired when they didn’t return them. Alternatively, some say that Charles Feltman sold them from his cart in Coney Island, New York. The origins of name “hotdog” are similarly unclear, perhaps arising from the oft-rumoured and occasionally practised use of dog meat to fill sausages in Germany. Nowadays, hot dogs are synonymous with street carts, fairs and sports stadiums, and their toppings can be widely disputed by region. For instance, in the Midwest it’s near heresy to have a hotdog without ketchup, except for Chicago, which insists upon a specific combination of mustard, fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers, green relish and pickles (and definitely no ketchup). “French fries” as they’re known in the USA, or “fries” for short, are the all-encompassing side dish for any fast food meal. They are such an ancient global hit that it’s near impossible to know who first had the genius idea to deep fry strips of potato. USA put their own spin on the concept by cutting them very thin, and thereby increasing the total surface area of oily deep fried goodness, simultaneously increasing the calories and associated health issues. In the 1940s, pre-cut fries started being sold frozen, which massively increased their popularity, as well as their liberal use by fast food chains. Purportedly the average person from the USA eats nearly 14kg of fries per year. I have a near disastrous affection for fries, but that sounds excessive even to me!


New England clam chowder and Maryland crab cakes

New England clam chowder and Maryland crab cakes.JPGChowder, to me, will always be intrinsically associated with an old episode of The Simpsons, where the entitled nephew of the Mayor of Springfield had a fight with a French waiter over the pronunciation of the dish. If there was any doubt that chowder was American, this association with the most American of all TV shows solidifies its status. Chowder refers to a general category of soup prepared with milk or cream, most often made with seafood and/or vegetables. The name perhaps derived from the French word for cauldron (chaudron), or perhaps “chaudrée”, a French fish soup. North American chowder is thought to have originated on 18th century sailing ships carrying immigrants to the USA where they commonly ate a seafood soup thickened with long faring biscuits called hardtack. Nowadays, chowder has morphed into a simple dish prepared along the North Eastern coastline with freshly caught seafood (most famously clams) combined with bacon, potatoes, onion, cream/milk and potentially other vegetables and seasonings such as celery, thyme or parsley. The chowder can be quite thin, or alternatively thickened with a roux or with the addition of crackers, which can also be used as a garnish. New England takes its clam chowder very seriously, evidenced by the existence of a national day dedicated to the dish (21 January), as well as the serious consideration of legislation in 1939 proposed to outlaw the use of tomatoes in chowder, which certain heretical rogues were using as a base for “Manhattan clam chowder” elsewhere in the country. Maryland crab cakes are comprised of crab meat, bread crumbs, mayonnaise, mustard, eggs and seasoning, such as Old Bay seasoning. Old Bay seasoning is a mix of spices including celery salt, pepper and paprika, popular in Maryland among other US states. Its name refers to the Old Bay Line, a passenger ship route on Chesapeake Bay, which is particularly famous for its production of crabs, and preparation of crab cakes. The cakes can be grilled, fried or baked, and can be served alone or alongside fries, coleslaw, saltine crackers or as a sandwich.

73. Colombia

Colombia is very high on my (extensive) list of places that I would love to visit. Even when watching a show like “Narcos”, about Pablo Escobar and the violent drug wars of the 70s and 80s, my attention was drawn to the beautiful shots of Medellín, with its colourful tropical atmosphere vividly capturing my imagination. Note: the country is purportedly much safer these days, and welcomes tourism! Another important player in my romanticism of Colombia is renowned author Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez hugely popularised the genre of magical realism, a concept where small coincidences and curiosities of the world are highlighted in ways that could be interpreted as magical, but are not explicitly fantastic, and the stories otherwise revolve around realistic events. This genre was like a breath of fresh air to me, as I had always held a soft spot for the hardcore fantasy genre, stereotypically set specifically in a European-like medieval wooded area. To suddenly have the much subtler and more human stories of magical realism playing out in tropical jungles and rolling beaches, the sounds of jungle birds and monkeys threaded throughout the plot, was so new and exciting – I was instantly hooked. This “late” discovery of magical realism, in my early 20s, mirrored a similar discovery of South American cuisine, which I tried at a similar time and had never before realised could contain some of the same properties I adore from Asian food (fresh, tangy and savoury flavours contrasted with sweet tropical fruits, fried starches and fluffy rice), but with a completely new and exhilarating flavour profile. Colombian cuisine is in part a product of the diverse geographies within the country,  with parts bordering both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean Sea, as well as containing sections of the Amazon rainforest, the huge Andes mountain range and expansive flat grassy plains. On top of this incredible biodiversity of ingredients, there are influences from the indigenous peoples, as well as Spanish, African and Arabic cuisines. Colombian food is one of my best bets for the next big culinary trend – so there’s no harm in starting to cook from this cuisine before the hipsters discover it!


Bandeja Paisa

Bandeja paisa.JPGBandeja paisa will always hold a special place in my heart, as it marked one of my first forays into the splendour of South American platters containing lots of little tastes of a huge variety of wonderful things. This concept is my favourite of all culinary options, perhaps representing sheer gluttony at wanting to eat everything on the menu and resenting the awful situation of only being able to choose one item to try. Bandeja paisa literally means platter of a person from the Paisa region, which lies in northwest Colombia. The exact preparation and contents of a bandeja paisa has a little flexibility, but traditionally contains cooked beans (kidney or pinto), carne molida (spiced ground beef), chorizo and/or morcilla (blood sausage), chicharrón (fried pork belly), fried plantain banana, hogao (spiced tomato and spring onion sauce), white rice, avocado, arepa (fried cornmeal flat bread), all topped off with a fried egg. It’s one of my greatest fears to be labelled a mean cook, so of course I included all of the above in my bandeja paisa. However, other varieties exist all over the country, such as the “extended” version, which adds steak, pork and liver, or another version that makes substitutions with salad and chicken breast for the health conscious consumer. The dish has taken on such national significance in Colombia perhaps because of its representation of the cultural milieux, including influences from indigenous, Spanish and African culinary practices and ingredients. Some regard bandeja paisa as the national dish of Colombia, and indeed there was a push about a decade ago by the Colombian government to rename it bandeja montañera (mountain tray) to make it less region-specific and solidify its uniting status. However, there was a pushback by the populace who still felt that, despite the proposed name change, bandeja paisa is too much of a regional dish to fairly represent the entirety of Colombia. Regardless, many tout it as the national dish, and indeed it’s the first meal that always springs to my mind when thinking of Colombian food. What then, are the other contenders for national dish I hear you ask? More on that to come!


Empanadas fritas

empanadas fritas.JPGEmpanadas originated from Galicia in Spain as a large pie with chicken, onion and capsicum, possibly with inspiration from Persian flavours and Arabian samosas many centuries before the Christian era. The conquistadores then helped to bring the concept of empanadas to The Americas, and following the Spanish colonisation of almost the whole of the southern continent, the variety and interpretation of empanadas exploded and they morphed into the single-serve items best known today. I already made a type of empanadas way back in Chile week, called “empanadas de horno”, literally “empanadas of the oven”. These huge flaky golden beauties are undoubtedly my favourite empanadas, however, there is another variety that come a very close second: empanadas fritas, literally “fried empanadas”. The name “empanada” simply means “enbreaded”, describing any filling stuffed inside a wrapper of dough. While the large baked Chilean empanadas de horno call for wheat flour to maintain a tight seal on the juicy fillings, the smaller empanadas fritas more popular in northern parts of South America commonly have a more delicate (often yellow) cornmeal dough (resulting from a fusion with native ingredients) that quickly and uniformly seals upon immersion in the hot oil. The filling of your empanada could feasibly be anything under the sun, but popular varieties include beef and potato, as well as mixed vegetable, often flavoured generously with onion, garlic and cumin. In Colombia, these small pastries are a popular street food all over the place, but particularly common outside churches, perhaps in a nation-wide conspiracy to associate church with pleasurable experiences in the minds of the populace? I served my empanadas fritas with aji, a condiment made with lots of finely chopped spices jalapeños, coriander, vinegar, lemon juice, spring onion, cumin, and a little tomato.


Pescado frito

pescado frito.JPGWherever there’s coastline in Colombia, there’s seafood, and one of the most famous meals encompassing this resource is pescado frito, literally meaning fried fish. The process of making the dish is very simple, as the freshness of the fish matters more than any seasoning. Nevertheless, the raw fish is first seasoned with salt, pepper and lime juice, and dredged in plain flour. It’s then fried, immersed (or near-immersed) in hot oil, until the outside is crunchy and golden, while the inside is moist and tender.  Colombian poet María Mercedes Carranza referred to this dish in one of her poems, setting the scene of the banal daily life of a relationship, as contrasted with the usual passionate descriptions of love by poets: “con el cepillo de dientes por la mañana/ el pescado frito en la cocina” (with a toothbrush in the morning/fried fish in the kitchen). I know she was trying to convey a dull and monotonous image of romantic life, but honestly, it sounds beyond exciting to me! Importantly, as for many dishes of South America, the accompaniments to this dish are equally, or perhaps even more, important than the main attraction. I made a simple tomato and lettuce salad as well as patacón pisao, which are twice-fried green plantain slices. I also made Colombian coconut rice, which involves first reducing coconut milk until it becomes thick and brownish, then adding rice, water and raisins and simmering until the rice is cooked.


Ajiaco/Sancocho

sancocho.jpgSancocho and ajiaco are, apart from bandeja paisa, the other two most likely contenders for national dish of Colombia. They are often grouped together, as I have done here, because, even to a seasoned chicken and vegetable stew connoisseur like myself, they appear very similar. As I understand it, sancocho, meaning “to parboil” can describe a wider variety of  stews, including chicken, pork, beef, fish, or a mixture of those, with a mixture of vegetables such as corn, potato, cassava, plantain or tomato. Sancocho is also not uniquely Colombian, and can describe popular meat and vegetable stews in Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela, The Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama and The Philippines to name a few. Ajiaco, on the other hand, is relatively more restricted in geographical distribution, being common to Colombia, Cuba and Peru, but particularly popular in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. Unlike the “anything goes” ethos of sancocho, ajiaco’s recipe prescribes a specific combination of chicken, three types of potatoes, guasca (the galingsoga parviflora herb, native to the region), and often garnished with sour cream and capers. I therefore suppose that ajiaco could be a type of sancocho, but not all sancochos could be ajiacos. Am I overthinking this? Regardless of the name, I made a chicken and vegetable stew which I hope could be safely described as sancocho. I first food processed some carrots, onion, garlic, capsicums, cumin and huge handfuls of coriander in chicken stock to make a smooth base. In this I stewed pieces of chicken, cassava, potato, corn, sweet potato and green plantain banana, until the flavours had melded and a hearty chunky soup emerged. Just the thing for a cold night in the Andes!