36. Denmark

I have vague Danish heritage, and have often been told that I look a bit Danish. Indeed, although I have never been anywhere near that part of the world, I feel like I would fit in. The people seem efficient and practical, and I would greatly appreciate the cold weather, as I am definitely not made for Australian summers. A lot of my favourable impressions of Denmark have arisen from the many fantastic Danish TV series, which include Forbrydelsen, a world-class gritty crime thriller, and Borgen, a gripping political drama jam-packed full of heart and social justice. Apart from subtle and fantastic writing, acting and plot, these series often have very interesting multidimensional female characters that are a breath of fresh air compared to typical Hollywood tropes. There wasn’t much emphasis on food in those shows that I can remember, except that Denmark is a large exporter of pork and has a lot of piggeries. However, I’m hazy on whether this information was delivered in the context of political trade agreements or pigs eating murdered corpses (or both?). You never know with Danish noir! Danish cuisine originates from farmers making simple food from local ingredients, but has always held its arms open to exotic influences. For instance, there is evidence from Viking archaeological sites that they already imported and used black pepper in their cooking. Other imported spices that Danes favour are quite sweet, including cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. This has culminated in an honest and subtly aromatic cuisine that is also sustaining through long, hard winters.


Tarteletter med høns i asparges

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Tarteletter med høns i asparges means “tartlets with chicken and asparagus”. Tartlets are very popular in Denmark, eaten at buffets, Christmas dinners, restaurants or at home. They are a fantastic finger food, and although the fillings can take many forms, the most traditional is chicken and asparagus. The asparagus commonly used is white asparagus, which I could only find in a jar in Australia. I therefore mixed up chopped pieces of white asparagus in the chicken mix, as well as some fresh green asparagus, which provided a good textural contrast. Historically, the chicken Danes ate and included in this dish came from old hens that had stopped laying, producing a very strong-flavoured product. However, without access to this sort of chickens, I used boiled and shredded chicken breast instead. Within the filling I also included a white sauce made with butter, flour, and chicken stock, as well as fresh parsley. I bought the tartlet cases from a little bakery, and was impressed by how easy and delicious this recipe was. The cooks of Denmark clearly know what they’re doing – I can imagine the convenience of making huge batches of the fillings and shells, freezing them, and then bringing them out when unexpected guests come for dinner. I served the tartlets on a bed of mixed greens, and was very sad when they were all gone!


Danish pork roast

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As I’ve already mentioned, pig farming is a big part of Danish industry, and pork is therefore frequently on the menu. This is actually a traditional Christmas meal: pork roast with all the trimmings. I’ve learned that the way the fat on the roast is scored is actually an important identifier of roast pork. For instance, if you were Norwegian, you would cut it in a criss-cross pattern, whereas the Danish favour long thin strips (as I have attempted here). I think the pattern of scoring doesn’t matter too much, but scoring the fat is certainly important for achieving a crisp crackling. The cut of pork is rubbed in salt and pepper and then bay leaves are wedged into some of the cuts on top, and the whole thing is roasted until sizzling and crispy. The side dishes I made are also traditional accompaniments: sugar-browned potatoes were a new concept for me, but I knew immediately when reading the name that we would be the best of friends. Small par-boiled potatoes are cooled and then placed in a frying pan with butter and sugar and tossed on a low heat. I think I got a bit impatient with mine and the heat was too high, so they didn’t turn out as even and glossy as those in the photos, but they tasted incredible all the same. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to try them again! I also made stewed red cabbage using vinegar, cranberry juice, apples and salt. This is not a traditional side with Australian roasts, but I think it’s a very clever addition, as the vinegar cuts through the fat of the meat, and the cabbage and apple flavours famously complement pork. My other side, asparagus, although common in Denmark, is not traditionally served with this meal, however I felt like it really needed some green, so I took some artistic liberty. I topped it all off with some gravy, which, let’s face it, can really only improve matters.


Fiske frikadeller and remoulade

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Fiske frikadeller are Danish fish “meatballs”, or as I might call them, fishcakes. I grew up loving my Mum’s fishcakes, which were usually chunky, breadcrumbed, made with salmon, and which I now recognise she craftily packed a few days’ worth of vegetables into without my detection. Danish fishcakes are commonly made with any mild white fish, but especially cod, which is what I used. Whereas I’m used to chunkier fish cakes, the recipes for these prescribed that all ingredients be finely food processed. I was a little dubious that everything would hold together, but regardless I mixed the cod, lemon, egg, flour, cream, capers and dill together, then formed them into patties and dusted them with a little flour. To my surprise and delight they did hold together very well during the frying process, and were a wonderful consistency. In the past I haven’t had as much success with fritters that don’t have a thick coating of egg and flour and/or breadcrumbs; I’m not sure why this worked so well, but I was certainly pleased. Remoulade is originally a French invention, but has since spread across Europe. There are many variations, but it generally has a mayonnaise base which is flavoured with pickles, capers, curry powder, mustard, onion, chives, and many other possible ingredients. The tangy and salty flavours go especially well with seafood, and I think it may have formed the basis of “tartare sauce” which is a regular at fish and chip shops in Australia. I also served my fishcakes with a squeeze of lemon and pea shoots.


Potato and ham soup with assorted smørrebrød

 Potato and ham soup with assorted smørrebrød.JPG

This part of the world has many hearty, warming soups, and this potato and ham variety is no exception. It actually has a lot of vegetables other than potato packed in, including cabbage, celery, carrots, scallions and parsley. These are all chopped roughly and cooked with a hambone, then blended together with some cream and flour to thicken. The soup is seasoned with salt and pepper, as well as nutmeg and strips of the ham separated from the bone. These types of soups are fantastic for getting a massive vegetable injection in a warm and comforting way in the midst of winter. Smørrebrød is sometimes said to be the national dish of Denmark, consisting of open sandwiches on rye bread with infinite varieties of toppings, including cold cuts, fish, cheese, meat, vegetables and spreads. I’ve tried to replicate some traditional toppings, such as smoked salmon, lemon, dill and pickles; roast beef, remoulade and onion; and roast pork with sweet and sour red cabbage, decorated with an orange slice and cucumber. Some of the combinations are so famous that they have quirky nicknames, such as “veterinarian’s midnight snack” or “shooting star”. I couldn’t find any fun names for my combinations, so I will leave you to invent your own.  Perhaps “pig and parasol” for the roast pork and orange combination?

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35. Brazil

I visited Brazil a couple of years ago, and found it to be an incredibly exotic and exciting place. I spent most of the trip in Rio de Janeiro, and I’ve never seen a city like it – the busy urban streets are covered in massive jungle trees, creating a green canopy over the bustling city. Right on the doorstep of the east of the city are miles and miles of white sandy beaches, with green mountains cradling it from the west. Being the fifth largest country in the world, there is a lot of diversity in food throughout Brazil, but my broad impression is that the cuisine is colourful, fresh and commonly incorporates tropical fruit into savoury dishes. There is also a lot of influence from the many waves of European and African immigration since the indigenous cultures prevailed. It saddens me that, at least in Australia, the most “South American” restaurants tend to get is “Mexican” (which is actually North American..). The result is that, although Australians are well-acquainted with any sort of Asian and most European food imaginable, very few have any idea of what real South American food actually is, and how much it varies across regions. Perhaps that means there’s a market for South American restaurants? Noted…


Feijoada

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Feijoada is often touted as Brazil’s national dish, and indeed I found it commonly on menus in cheap and upmarket restaurants alike when I visited. Similar bean dishes were introduced to Brazil during Portuguese colonisation in the 1500s, but feijoada has since taken on an entirely new identity after the incorporation of tropical ingredients and attitudes. The name comes from the word “feijão”, which means beans in Portuguese, and describes a stew of black beans and meat. Traditionally, the meat is a mixture of salted pork or beef, and often includes cheap trimmings such as ears, tails and feet, as well as bacon, ribs and sausage. I included pork ribs, bacon and small choriço sausages in my feijoada, flavouring the stew with onion, garlic, bay leaves, smoked paprika and a pinch of dried chilli powder. The best thing about feijoada, in my opinion, is the sides. The combinations of these vary depending on the cook, but most commonly include white rice, oranges (to aid digestion) and farofa. Farofa is a coarse powder of cassava flour, toasted with butter, salt, onions and garlic that is used as a side or ingredient in many Brazilian dishes. It’s delicious in its own right, but makes magic when combined with food that’s a little moist, as the farofa absorbs the liquid and creates a great texture. I also accompanied my feijoada with hard boiled egg, sautéed greens, Brazilian salsa (tomato, capsicum, coriander, oil and lemon juice), and fried plantain bananas. Feijoada is often served at family gatherings for weekend lunch, intended to be eaten at a leisurely pace throughout the afternoon. This is one of my favourite meals, the combination of all the different sweet, salty and sour flavours is wonderful. You can perfectly top off your meal with a drink of caipirinha, which is the national Brazilian cocktail of cachaça (a spirit made from sugarcane), lime and sugar. Be warned: you may need a very long sesta after this combination!


Moqueca de camarão

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Moqueca describes a seafood stew, flavoured with tomato, onion, green capsicum, coriander, garlic and coconut milk. It can be made with a mix of fish, or, as here, with camarão (prawns). The stew originally hails from the state of Espírito Santo, where it is called moqueca capixaba. This version more closely resembles what I made, mainly because the common Brazil-wide moquecas usually use a lot of palm oil in the recipe, whereas the moqueca capixaba uses olive oil. The stew is traditionally cooked in a clay pot, made water resistant with mangrove tree sap. The incorporation of coconut milk into this stew made it taste surprisingly like a Thai curry, although the other flavours helped to remind me of its Brazilian origins. Seafood and coconut are a match made in heaven, and this stew was no exception – the delicate sweetness of the prawns and coconut contrasted nicely with more savoury flavours. Perfect to be eaten with rice, or pirão, which is a paste made from the same flour as farofa.


Picanha

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Picanha describes a cut of beef that is uncommon in Australia but very popular all over South America. It’s also known as the sirloin cap, rump cap or rump cover, and is a tender part of the rump that has a thick covering of fat. It is usually seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper, barbecued whole (with the fat still attached) until medium rare, then cut up into thin slices to serve. This cut of meat isn’t sold commonly in many parts of the world, so my best advice to those wanting to try it is do your research as to exactly what it is, then form a good relationship with a butcher and ask them to cut it for you. In Brazilian steakhouses (called churrascarias), picanha is cooked over charcoal on rotating skewers, along with many other types of meat including pork, lamb, chicken, chicken hearts and sausage. Waiters come to each table proffering these skewers and a knife, which they use to carve off slices of meat onto your plate. If you haven’t been to a churrascaria, you ought to visit one at your next opportunity – but make sure you’re hungry and not a vegetarian! I cooked my pichana on a humble gas barbecue, and served it with a side salad, farofa, baked cassava and paõ de queijo. Paõ de queijo is bread made of fine cassava starch, egg, oil and cheese, formed into small balls and baked. I loved this meal – the cut of meat is tender and delicious and the sides enhance the flavours even more. I haven’t often barbecued large pieces of meat before, generally opting for single-serve steaks, but I think I will start doing it more – it’s a good way of sealing in all the juices and getting an incredibly tender result.


Empadão de frango

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This dish doesn’t look particularly Brazilian, as it resembles a fairly standard European pie, but apparently it is traditional and the filling has some Brazilian flair. Empadão has a small version, called Empadinha, which resembles a single-serve chicken pot pie. The filling is made with cooked and shredded chicken breast, mixed with crushed tomatoes, onions, garlic, green olives, peas, corn, hot sauce and parsley. This mixture is thickened with milk, chicken broth and flour. The filling is poured into a pastry made with flour, egg yolk, butter and water, and then more pastry used to cover the top. The whole pie is then coated in egg wash and baked until crispy. One of the important lessons I’ve learned during this cooking jape is that pies are much easier to make than they look. The dough for the crust is so buttery it can be mixed in a food processor, and requires very little kneading after that (as opposed to bread which is indisputably a hassle). The fillings can be infinitely varied to your wildest imaginations, and the net result is extremely impressive and delicious compared to the efforts taken. I will definitely incorporate many varieties of pies into my food rotation if and when I complete this mammoth journey.

34. The Baltics

The Baltic nations include Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which nestle around the Baltic Sea. The cuisine of this region is characterised by its love of rye bread, fish, dill, dairy, root vegetables, cabbage, pickled vegetables, pork and mushrooms. These flavours are particularly nostalgic to me, because I had a cherished family friend and babysitter growing up who had Lithuanian heritage: Anna. Apart from being great fun and having an adorable manx cat, she is an incredible cook. I therefore spent many very happy days and nights of my childhood pattering around after her in the kitchen, surrounded by the smells of bacon, cabbage and dill. To this day I think of Anna whenever I smell bacon and cabbage frying. Under her careful instruction, I also learned to love some of the flavours that would be considered strange by Australian standards, such as cold beetroot soup and preserved fish. We would sometimes have a Lithuanian Christmas all together, which is traditionally celebrated on Christmas Eve. This celebration mandates that exactly twelve meatless dishes, representing the twelve months of the year, be laid out on the table for supper. I don’t remember precisely, but I think that the “meatless” rule was not always strictly followed at our Christmases, and there was much laughter about counting the salt shaker, sauce bowl and wine bottle as the 10th, 11th and 12th dishes when everyone had run out of energy and ingredients. Many of the dishes this week are Anna’s greatest hits that I tried to replicate, although, of course, none of them were quite as good!


Saltibarsciai

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Saltibarsciai is a Lithuanian cold beetroot soup, the colour of which could be conservatively described as “violently pink”. People who tried my soup all pronounced it “surprisingly delicious” despite looking “slightly unsettling” and like “a bowl of paint”. I made mine by boiling beetroot in stock and vinegar, then peeling and grating it once it had cooled. I then combined the beetroot, a little stock, red onion, chives, dill, buttermilk, sour cream, cream, hard boiled egg, cucumbers, salt and white pepper. I’ve always loved the taste – earthy and sweet, with lovely aromatics from the dill and chives. It goes very well with dark rye bread, which I usually buy from a Russian deli, as it doesn’t taste as good from supermarkets. Personally, I adore the colour of this soup; it makes me happy to eat something so bright. I’ve noticed that, contrary to what you might expect, a lot of northern European countries take great care to incorporate bright colours into their food. I suppose that in places where food and the surrounds are always colourful, less care is taken with gastronomic brilliance. I appreciate the effort, and encourage you to make this soup yourself – it’s not too difficult and is wonderfully refreshing on a hot summer’s day.


Balandeliai

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Balandeliai means “little doves” in Lithuanian, likely referring to the shape of the parcels. These cabbage rolls are a great favourite of mine and I’ve made them many times. They are prevalent throughout north eastern Europe, with the recipes and names varying from place to place. However, my introduction and love for them began from the Lithuanian tradition, so I stand by that version. I started by sautéing onion, celery, capsicum, carrot and garlic in butter, then added pork mince and stirring until cooked through. After the mix had cooled, I added dill, cooked rice and an egg to bind. I then blanched a big head of cabbage and peeled off the leaves, wrapping the mince mixture up in tight little parcels. I placed these in a pressure cooker with tomato passata, chicken stock and bacon, then cooked it all together until the cabbage rolls were cooked through and had absorbed some of the liquid. I then removed the rolls and reduced the sauce, finally stirring through some sour cream to create a lovely rich flavour and consistency. This recipe definitely takes some time and effort, but is the sort of dish that screams of love and devotion. I’m sure every Lithuanian living abroad can’t wait to get back home and eat Mama’s version of the recipe.


Cepelinai and sprat sandwich

Cepelinai and sprat sandwich.JPG

Cepelinai means “zeppelins” and describes dirigible-shaped potato dumplings that are often said to be the national dish of Lithuania. Although from the outside they look roughly like a potato, they are actually intricately manufactured. The outside is made of a mix of finely grated raw potato, riced boiled potato, minced onion and salt. This is mixed up to form a wet dough, then wrapped around a filling of minced meat (I used pork), onion and egg to bind and shaped into the classic zeppelins. The gravy can vary slightly between recipes, but mandatorily must involve bacon and dairy. I also added porcini mushroom, onion and plenty of black pepper to mine. Cepelinai are certainly delicious, but worth all of the effort? I think if faced with the choice of making them again, I would be tempted to just roast a potato and eat it with a bacon sauce – the tastes would be similar and it would take 1/100th of the time. However, this is definitely an ideal meal if you really want to impress your dinner guests! The sprat open sandwiches are typical of Estonia, where sprat (a herring-like Baltic fish) is commonly eaten. I bought my sprats marinated in a baltic spice mixture of black pepper, allspice, cloves and nutmeg. I made the sandwich with dark rye bread and butter, topped with sprat fillet, red onion, shallot, dill and half a hard-boiled egg. This simple fare is served at every kind of celebration in Estonia, including birthdays, funerals and Christmas. In fact, in 2014, Estonia’s obsession with the sprat sandwich was recorded in perpetuity in the Guinness book of records, when cooks from 20 restaurants in the country’s capital banded together to make the world’s longest sprat sandwich, with concurrent workshops and exhibitions on the subject open to the public for months. All of the recipes for this dish say something akin to “surprisingly delicious” or “don’t be put off by its looks”. I actually love its aesthetic, but it’s true that this sandwich is more delicious than the sum of its parts – and so easy to make!


Sklandrausis

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Sklandrausis is a Latvian hand pie, featuring more examples of the opportunistic showcasing of bright colours in food from this region. It originated in Western Latvia between the 16th and 17th centuries, and is so important that it was the first Latvian dish to be awarded “Traditional Speciality Guaranteed” status by the European Commission. This means that authorised traditional makers of these products can advertise them with a registered logo, ensuring consumers that it is not imitation or inauthentic. My pies didn’t have a logo, but I had a good try at making them traditionally nonetheless. Sklandrausis are a mix between sweet and savoury, with a dark rye crust made with butter and water, filled with a layer of mashed potato, butter, sour cream and egg, then another layer of mashed carrot and sour cream on top. This is then seasoned with caraway seeds and baked until the case is crispy and the filling is hardened and becoming golden on top. The rye crust was very crumbly and therefore difficult to shape into any form that wasn’t “rustic”, but I really enjoyed the taste: it was much more flavoursome than regular pie crusts, and complemented the relatively subtle vegetable fillings.

33. Greece

Greece is world-renowned for its delicious food, having a wonderful mixture of Mediterranean and Baltic flavours. One of the major icons of Greek cuisine is olive oil, made from the beautiful silver olive trees that cover the country. I’ve been to Greece a couple of times for work (lucky me!), and spent most of that time in Crete. Every time I’ve gone, I’ve left half my suitcase empty when packing, and come back with litres and litres of olive oil in metal drums. Luckily I’ve never had a spillage, otherwise I would have had to buy an entirely new wardrobe… Olives and olive oil are so important to Greek culture that there is a story in ancient Greek mythology that the olive tree was created by Athena during a competition among the gods to become the patron and namesake of a new city. Her gift was ultimately judged by the citizens to be the greatest gift to mankind, and Athens was named so thereafter. The quality of olive oil is often advertised as percent of acidity, and luckily I was recently awarded a PhD in science, so I am qualified to vaguely attempt to explain what that actually means. In a fresh olive, fatty acids are bound up into threes and only come into contact with enzymes that degrade them (releasing free fatty acids) when the olive is crushed or starts breaking down/fermenting. These free fatty acids make up the acidity measure, so good quality olive oil is made with fresh olives, handled carefully, so that fatty acids are only allowed to be released for a short period during the crushing process to make oil, and are therefore at very low levels.  Internationally, extra virgin olive oil has an upper limit of 0.8% acidity, but that is actually quite high compared to what’s used in Greece. Purportedly the acidity doesn’t affect the taste, but rather it’s an indicator of the quality of the olives and oil-making process, which definitely does affect taste. When I get the chance, I buy 0.2% acidity Cretan olive oil, and I can definitely taste the difference – it’s light, smooth and somehow doesn’t taste greasy. Oh dear, I seem to have written an essay and only covered olive oil… There is so much to discuss in Greek cuisine, but let’s briefly summarise and get to the food! Other hallmarks include a wonderful variety of seafood, many types of cheese, vegetables, honey and animals that are suited to the climate and terrain, such as goats, sheep and chickens.


Souvlaki and seafood platter

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These platters are my all time favourite thing to eat. I love to have a lot of variety on a single plate, and be free to pick and choose different combinations with each mouthful. Souvlaki describes pieces of meat marinated and threaded onto skewers, then grilled. This is not a modern method – archaeological digs have unearthed grills with recesses for skewers from before the 17th century BC, and skewered meat was mentioned by Homer in the Iliad. No wonder this dish has stood the test of time: it makes magic out of cheap and expensive cuts of meat alike. I made my souvlaki by using chicken breast and lamb fillet, marinating them in a mix of lemon juice, garlic, oregano, olive oil, red onion, thyme and cumin. I grilled them on the barbecue until they were cooked through and browning. I also barbecued marinated baby octopus and squid, which were flavoured with lemon juice, white wine, chilli and garlic. In Crete, I saw octopuses hanging out to dry in the sun on clotheslines before cooking. This apparently helps to tenderise adult octopuses, as does beating it on the rocks to extract the water. This is important because, if you were to grill them with all of the water still inside the flesh, it would steam and become rubbery. However, once the octopuses are dry, the grill can quickly sear them and leave them tender and delicious. Tzatziki is a dip commonly served with all sorts of meat and breads in Greece, made from yoghurt mixed with grated cucumber, garlic, salt, olive oil and lemon juice. I also made saganaki, which is literally just fried cheese, using haloumi, which is a white rubbery cheese that originated in Cyprus with an unusually high melting point. I served it with lemon juice and pepper, and it was delicious in ways that only fried cheese can be. I finished off the platter with pita bread and Greek salad.


Spanakopita and lemon potatoes

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Spanakopita is a Greek pie with phyllo pastry dough wrapped around a spinach, feta cheese, onion, egg and herb filling. Its origins are unknown, but generally thought to be influenced by Turkish cuisine. Spanakopita can be made as single-serve small pastries, or as large pies that are then portioned out. I chose to make a large pie, as I think it’s better for keeping the filling moist, not to mention, much less time-consuming. I was trying to channel Aristaeus while making my spanakopita, who was a minor god in Greek mythology, and the patron of many skills useful to the culinary arts, including beekeeping, plant domestication, animal husbandry and hunting and, importantly, cheesemaking. I have previously made cheese, but feta is a little complicated for me to make from scratch, and I hoped that Aristaeus would favour me nonetheless. It must have worked because my spanakopita turned out splendidly – moist and tasty on the inside, with a light and flaky exterior. I also made lemon potatoes, which I had previously eaten and loved in restaurants, but never made myself. You can make them either by boiling or roasting them in lemon juice. I roasted mine on a low heat, and they were amazing – crispy on the outside and with a fantastic lemony flavour. I found them so superior to normal roast potatoes that I will be reluctant to roast a potato without lemon again!


Meze platter

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Meze is a general term for a selection of small appetisers that usually accompany drinks, such as ouzo, at the beginning of long luxurious meals. I constructed my meze platter by starting with feta me meli. Feta me meli means “feta with honey”, and it’s composed of large pieces of feta, wrapped in phyllo dough and fried. A sauce of honey and red wine vinegar is then drizzled over the pastries, as well as some sesame seeds. This is a great mixture of sweet and savoury, and very easy to make. Next up on my platter I made dolmadaki, which comes from a family of foods common throughout the Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Middle East called dolma, describing stuffed vegetables of many varieties. I’ve always loved stuffed vine leaves and associate them strongly with sunny outdoor lunches shaded by vines in Greece. I first cooked the rice stuffing with onion, vegetable stock, lemon juice and zest, dill, parsley and pine nuts. After the stuffing had cooled, I rolled portions up into vine leaves, and tightly packed them all in a large pot lined with extra  leaves. I covered these in a mix of water, lemon juice and oil to cook on the stove top. I’ve often eaten dolmadaki from a can and found them very tasty, but the home-made fresh ones are fantastic – the textures are more contrasting and satisfying and the flavours are explosive. This dish is fiddly to make, but very rewarding in the end. Next was kolokithokeftedes, which are fritters made with zuchinni, red onion, mint, feta cheese, flour, eggs and parsley. I ate them often in Crete (along with just about everything else…) and found them especially delicious with tzatziki, which I served on the side of my meze platter. Finally I rounded everything off with a big Greek salad. Greek salad is so good that it’s internationally famous, and is usually a “standard” salad option along with garden or coleslaw. However, I worry that this has decreased its standard and therefore esteem, because the real deal is so much better than its reputation. It’s traditionally made with roughly chopped tomatoes, red onion, olives, cucumber, and sometimes capsicum and/or other varieties of mild local peppers. Feta cheese is added, not throughout, but in a big rectangular block on top, which actually lends itself well to keeping the salad to the next day, as the cheese doesn’t get slimy and dissolve in the oil. The dressing of the salad is perhaps the most crucial step – dried herbs (predominantly oregano), salt, a splash of red wine vinegar and generous lashings of the best quality olive oil you can get your hands on. It’s so good that I could just eat it all day with no need for accompaniments, although, I must admit, they weren’t unwelcome…


Moussaka

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Moussaka is a dish of minced meat (usually lamb), in a tomato sauce flavoured with onions, garlic, cinnamon, bay leaf and a bit of red wine. This mixture is layered with slices of eggplant and then topped with a thick bechamel sauce and baked. Moussaka is often touted as a lamb lasagne, with eggplant instead of pasta sheets, although that seems to be a sensitive topic for both Greeks and Italians alike, so I will refrain from commenting. Moussaka was the first meal I ever ate in Greece – at the Athens airport waiting for a connection to Crete. I had little idea of where or when I was after 30 hours of flying, and stumbled into an airport cafeteria. I saw a sign that had a picture of moussaka and greek salad for a few Euros, so I gesticulated hungrily at that and proffered the alien money. The nice lady seemed to get the message and I soon had a piece of moussaka in front of me larger than my head. Perhaps it was my exhausted and deliriously hungry state, but it was one of the best meals I’ve eaten. The meat of the moussaka was rich and savoury, but it was nicely balanced by the bechamel and eggplant, with a smattering of golden-brown melted cheese on top. Heaven. My moussaka turned out very well, but it wasn’t as good as the one in the Athens airport – I doubt anything ever will be again…

32. Southern China

In reality, China is so large and diverse that it is often divided into as many as eight cuisines. However, my restriction of 80 cuisines (and the fact that at some point I want to get my life back) means that I have split it into just two: north and south. The major distinction I have found between the cuisines of southern and northern China is that the former relies predominantly on rice as the staple carbohydrate (steamed white rice, congee etc), while the latter features much more wheat (noodles, dumplings, breads). This is predominantly due to environment; the south has warm and rainy conditions ideal for rice, while the north is dry and colder. The north also has simpler, blander food, while the south is known for its variety of spices and ingredients, as well as abundant seafood. Chinese food, especially Cantonese cuisine, is well known in the western world, evidenced by the fact that at some point there were even more Chinese restaurants in the USA than McDonald’s. This may be partly due to the early Chinese immigration to the USA and Australia during gold rushes. The dishes served in these restaurants, however, have evolved and adapted to suit Western palates, rendering most, if not all, dishes unidentifiable from their origins. The popularity of USA television in China has led to the establishment of USA-Chinese restaurants there, where they even import ingredients from the USA to specifically achieve the right balance of fusion. Chinese food is also intrinsically linked to traditional medicine, and foods are often classified into three categories: cooling foods (such as tofu and celery), warming foods (such as chilli and onion) and neutral foods (such as rice and mushrooms). Some of these make sense to me (such as celery being cooling and chilli being warming), but I don’t know how others were classified. Certain imbalances of yin and yang, and therefore subsequent common ailments, can be diagnosed as the body being too cool and warm, and treated with the ingestion of the opposite category of food. I’m intrigued by the history of this custom, although a little intimidated that a second layer of judgement might be applied to my ingredient choices…


Steamed whole fish and san choy bau

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Steamed whole fish is very popular all over China, but especially during Chinese New Year. One of the reasons for this is that the word for fish sounds a bit like “abundance”, which may portend good luck for the year ahead. I used a small snapper and steamed it covered in ginger inside and out. Once the fish was ready, I poured a sauce of soy sauce and rice wine over the top, and sprinkled some coriander, chilli and scallions over the top. I then finished the dish by pouring some piping hot oil over the top of everything, which cooks the garnishes and releases their aromas dramatically, as well as giving the outside of the fish a great texture and flavour. San choy means “lettuce” and bau means “to wrap” in Cantonese; san choy bau is therefore spiced minced meat wrapped in a lettuce leaf. I made mine by frying garlic, ginger, crushed peanuts, water chestnuts and pork mince together with soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil and lime juice. I stirred through some beansprouts, sesame seeds and coriander at the end, and then spooned the mixture into cups of iceberg lettuce. I’ve always loved this dish – the contrast between the hot juicy flavoursome mince and the cold crispy lettuce is truly wonderful. Maybe there’s something to this hot and cold balance idea after all?


Char siu pork with prawn fried rice

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Char siu pork, also known as Chinese BBQ pork, can be recognised by its distinctive sticky red coating. The overnight marinade is made by boiling honey, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, five spice powder, Chinese rice wine, red food colouring and sesame oil in a saucepan. I then roasted the pork in the oven, continuing to baste all the way through the cooking process to ensure a thick sticky glaze. Fried rice is a recipe created from the desire to use up remaining leftovers, and can therefore include infinite combinations of ingredients. I made mine by frying up some shallots, garlic, Chinese sausage and carrots, then pouring in pre-cooked rice with some peas, rice wine and soy sauce. I added the prawns right at the end so that they didn’t overcook, as well as some sections of rolled-up omelette that I had cooked earlier. I could eat fried rice infinitely; it has a great combination of flavours, with every bite being a little bit different.


Salt-baked chicken with greens and rice

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I’d previously heard of salt-baked chicken, but never tried it. Legend has it that it was invented by a salt-merchant who was given a chicken far from home, which he decided to preserve in salt to keep it fresh until he got back. However, as he travelled he found the call of the chicken too strong, and decided to cook it while he was still travelling, and, lacking much cooking equipment, roasted it completely immersed in salt. He was so delighted with the result that he lauded its virtues to his wife upon his return, and she, predictably, perfected the recipe and wrote it down for perpetuity. A whole chicken is first coated in Chinese rice wine, ginger powder, salt and white pepper, and then left overnight in the fridge, uncovered, to help the skin dry out, and ultimately get crispy during the cooking process. Kilos of salt are then stir fried in a wok until piping hot, and half is added to the bottom of a pot, and the chicken placed on top, wrapped securely in baking parchment to avoid excessive saltiness. More salt is then poured over the top so that the chicken is complete buried. This preparation is cooked over a low heat on top of the stove for about 40 minutes until the chicken is cooked, with a lot more time devoted to letting it all cool down before you attempt to dig it out. I’ve always adored chicken in all forms, so you know that it’s a serious claim when I tell you that this was the best chicken I’ve ever eaten, hands down. The insides are incredibly juicy and seem to taste more “chickeny” than regular chicken, while the skin is browned, a little crispy, and nicely salted. The only thing I would do differently is try it in the oven next time, as my electric stove-top isn’t great at maintaining a constant low heat, and the parchment paper got a little burnt on the bottom, while the top of the chicken wasn’t as browned. I think most recipes propose stove-top cooking because it’s more common and traditional in China, but I will see if using an oven yields superior results. I will definitely make it again, that’s for sure! I served my chicken with steamed white rice, as well as stir-fried Asian leafy greens and broccoli.


Sichuan chilli chicken

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The Sichuan province is located in south western China, and is renowned for its strong, spicy food. One of the most famous flavours from this region is Sichuan pepper, which is a husk from a type of plant that is actually more related to the citrus family than chilli or black pepper, and is famous for causing a tingling, numbing sensation in the mouth, followed by extreme heat. Sichuan chilli chicken, also sometimes called kung pan chicken, is a stir-fry dish where chicken cubes are first coated in Sichuan pepper and five spice, then rolled in corn flour. This process ensures the chicken is tasty, and nicely browned and a little crispy on the outside. These are then flash fried in a wok along with garlic, ginger, dried whole chillies, peanuts, as well as Chinese rice wine and soy sauce. I served mine on a bed of steamed white rice and garnished with chopped shallots. I have been gradually building up my tolerance to spiciness, having previously ordered everything mild like a total wimp. In the last few years, I’ve started really enjoying the numbing of my mouth with moderately spicy foods, although I’m still at amateur levels in the grand scheme of things. I therefore made this dish slightly milder than the recipe prescribed, but really enjoyed it. I’ll work up to extreme levels eventually!

31. Southern USA

The southern parts of the USA are a melting pot of scattered food influences. From Native American beginnings (using native ingredients such as tomatoes, corn and squash) there began immigration and culinary influences from the UK, Ireland, France and Africa. There are also influences from Spain, as well as the neighbouring Caribbean and Mexico. The passion for fried foods in the southern USA may stem from UK influences, and the penchant for beans, okra and most of the spices used (such as cayenne pepper) probably originates from Africa and the slave trade. African American culture is also interlinked with soul food, which is a general term to describe a lot of Southern USA comfort food. Honourable mentions of food that I haven’t included in the four meals of this week are catfish, which I couldn’t source in Brisbane, and okra, which, honestly, I avoided because I’ve always disliked it. It’s so slimy! There’s also red-eye gravy, which I saw on a tv show a while ago and was fascinated by, but didn’t fit with any of my dishes. It’s a thin sauce served with country ham that’s made with meat drippings mixed with black coffee and flour, so named because you need to eat it when you wake up with red eyes. It sounds horrific, but I am also desperate to try it someday… A whole separate food culture of the USA that I probably won’t cover here, but which is very popular in many regions is “Tex-Mex”. I think the addition of Mexican fusion to the melting pot has been so recent that it is still quite similar in name and form to classic Mexican foods (although horribly bastardised, depending on who you ask). Nevertheless, I will cover Mexico itself at some point, and Tex-Mex can evolve for another couple of decades to distinguish itself sufficiently for my liking.


Southern BBQ

Southern USA barbecue

Deep-pit barbecuing, where meat and vegetables are buried with coals below the earth, originated with the Native Americans, and variations of this barbecue technique are popular throughout the southern USA. The classic dug-out “pit” barbecue is now often transformed into an above ground enclosed space, where meat is cooked low and slow over hardwood. Texas, Tennessee, North and South Carolina and Kansas are especially famous for their barbecue. There are four recognised barbecue sauces, each favoured by different regions; mustard based, vinegar-based, and light and heavy tomato based with varying degrees of sweet and spicy. The meat is often coated in a dry rub with spices and seasonings, and can either be periodically basted with a sauce during cooking, or can be cooked without sauce and served with sauce on the side. A large variety of pork and beef cuts are barbecued, including ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork and sausages, as well as cuts of chicken. For my barbecue (keeping in mind I don’t have a garden pit), I coated my raw pork ribs in a dry rub of chilli powder, ground mustard, cumin paprika, salt and sugar, then pre-cooked them low and slow covered in the oven until they were very tender. I next put them on my gas barbecue, basting with a barbecue sauce made from tomato puree, butter, apple cider vinegar, garlic and onion powder, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, cumin and sugar. This method of cooking makes sure the ribs are juicy and tender, but also have that smoky caramelised taste. I also made barbecued chicken wings, which I marinated in a similar barbecue sauce, except I made it a little spicier and less sweet. I also barbecued corn and made cornbread in the oven using cornmeal, baking soda, butter and buttermilk. I made three traditional side dishes: potato salad, baked beans and coleslaw, as well as both ranch and barbecue sauce on the side. I cooked this feast for my ongoing birthday celebrations, partly to treat my friends, but also because I really love barbecue, and especially ribs. I don’t like to brag (here we go…), but I’ve tried a lot of pork ribs, and mine were truly excellent. I think most restaurants cut corners and don’t cook low and slow enough, resulting in gelatinous textures and also bland-tasting meat coated in a too-sweet sauce. I recommend making them yourself; it’s not too difficult and very rewarding.


Fried chicken, mac and cheese, biscuits and gravy, and collard greens

Fried chicken, mac and cheese, biscuits and gravy and collard greens.JPG

Fried chicken is one of the most famous exports from the southern USA. It is thought to have Scottish origins, and consists of chicken pieces (such as legs, wings or thighs) battered and then fried or deep-fried. A typical batter is made with buttermilk, baking powder and flour, flavoured with mustard, cayenne pepper and garlic and onion powder. The end result is a lovely crunchy exterior, leaving the chicken succulent on the inside. KFC has internationally popularised fried chicken, but I always find it a bit greasy and not sufficiently crunchy for my taste. The next player in this comfort-food plate is mac and cheese, which has English origins but is now famously associated with the USA. It is traditionally a casserole of macaroni pasta mixed with a cheesy sauce. Macaroni, the story goes, completely enchanted USA president Thomas Jefferson during a visit to Europe, and he made detailed notes and drawings to commission a machine for its construction back home. This venture ultimately failed, and he ended up importing macaroni and Parmesan cheese, and arranging for the dish to be served at state dinners. I made my mac and cheese by slightly under-cooking the macaroni, then mixing it into a sauce of butter, milk and cream thickened with flour and breadcrumbs, and flavoured with cheddar and parmesan cheese and paprika. I piled it into a casserole dish, topped it with more cheese, then put it into the oven until it was brown and crispy on top. Biscuits and gravy had always intrigued me, but I’d never tried them. This may be partly because of my confusion over the word “biscuits”, which I’d always known as “cookies” and “crackers”, but not “savoury scones”, which is what I now understand USA biscuits to be. They are made with plain flour, baking powder, butter and buttermilk, baked into soft organic shapes. The “gravy” aspect of this combination can be regular meat gravy or, more typically, a gravy made from loose pieces of breakfast sausage and milk, thickened with flour. I made the latter, and found it delicious, but a little rich, especially for breakfast, which is how the dish originated. Collard greens are usually made with dark leafy varieties of the cabbage family (such as kale), sautéed with smoked meat (such as ham), onions, vinegar and seasoning. This side dish is eaten throughout the year, but especially on New Year’s Day alongside black-eyed peas and cornbread, supposedly to enhance your prospects for the year to come.


Shrimp and grits

shrimp and grits

Grits are ground corn porridge, similar to polenta or mieliepap, that are generally served with savoury seasonings and sides. I’d never tried grits before, and, try as I might, I found them impossible to source in Brisbane. This was a big surprise for me, as I’ve always gotten along somehow with finding local ingredients. This was therefore the first time I ever ordered a grocery online. The grits only had to come from Sydney (which is a little better equipped than Brisbane), but took weeks, so the end of this cuisine was a bit stretched out. Most of what I’ve heard about grits has been very negative. My parents ordered grits in New York and found them very unpleasant; they are generally rumoured to be tasteless and with an unpleasant “gritty” texture. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I cooked them a little longer than the instructions suggested, with butter, water, cheese and salt and pepper, and actually found them delicious. My parents also tried mine and pronounced them infinitely superior to the grits they had been served in the USA. Perhaps I’m flouting tradition by cooking the grits until they’re smooth and creamy, and adding in all the flavouring, but I think they tasted fantastic, so I have no regrets. For those who have never tried, they are a bit like very finely processed and thin mashed potato, but taste vaguely of corn. Shrimp and grits originated in South Carolina and Georgia as a breakfast food, but have since spread to other parts of the Southern USA and are eaten at any time of the day. Once you have the grits part cooked, the shrimp is quick and easy – just fry some raw prawns with bacon, parsley, scallions, garlic, lemon juice and a dash of Worcestershire sauce.


Jambalaya

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Jambalaya originated in the French quarter of New Orleans, and from the Provençal word “jambalaia” which means “a mix”. However, there is an alternative old wives’ tale that the name originated from a cook named “Jean” in New Orleans being instructed to sweep something together, which translates to “Jean, balayez!” in French dialect, which was then shortened to Jambalaya. Perhaps the true origin has been lost to time? This dish also has similarities to Spanish paella, which has led to suspicions that Spain may also be an influence. However, folks from the southern USA are a little more relaxed about the ingredients of their dish than the Spanish, including different kinds of meat, vegetables and local seafood (such as crawfish, shrimp or alligator). The traditional base vegetable mixture in Creole and Cajun cooking is finely-chopped onion, celery and green capsicum, often termed “the holy trinity”. In my Jambalaya I also added garlic, cayenne pepper, paprika and bay leaves, as well as chicken, spicy sausage and prawns, all cooked together with rice and crushed tomatoes and garnished with plenty of parsley. It was like a wet and spicy paella, which I found very delicious, as the kick of cayenne pepper combated the common problem of blandness when flavours merge together and are diluted with lots of rice. Indeed, jambalaya is cooked with very infrequent stirring to try to prevent the merging of flavours, although this dramatically increases the risk of burnt pot bottoms…

30. Peru

I visited Peru last year, and I think it may be among my top three all-time favourite cuisines. I first went to the capital city, Lima, which has a shocking degree of inequality. The ride from the airport passes slums with awful living conditions, in contrast to the “rich” suburbs that overlook the ocean, full of gleaming skyscraper apartments, manicured lawns and upmarket shopping centres. I also went to Cusco, which is the town closest to Machu Picchu. Both are extremely touristic places, and therefore fairly affluent and seem to have good living conditions. Regardless of how I feel about the societal dynamics, the food is out of this world, and recognised as such at least in other parts of South America. I think the international high esteem of Peruvian food likely stems from its prolonged and varied fusion of many ethnicities. A strong basis of Incan cuisine based on local ingredients such as corn, potatoes and beans was incorporated into those brought by immigrants from Spain, Italy and Germany. Later, this basis was further influenced by waves of immigration from Japan and China, as well as West Africa. This particular combination, for whatever reason, led to a microcosm of food perfection. There’s a lot of geographical diversity across Peru, and the cuisine varies with it, from coastal regions, to the Andes, to the Amazon rainforest. As such there are a lot of famous and traditional foods that didn’t make it into this week’s list for one reason or another. One of those is guinea pig, which is not a myth and is actually a commonly eaten delicacy in Peru. I didn’t cook it here in Australia because it’s impossible to source except live and cute from pet shops. Although, to be honest, even in Peru I didn’t try it, partly because it was always the most expensive thing on the menu, but also because it was usually spit-roasted whole, which slightly unsettled me. My uneasiness could also be attributed to altitude sickness though, which I experienced at 3400 m above sea level in Cusco, and which rendered me bed bound for the first day. We received coca leaves to chew at the airport, which purportedly aid altitude sickness and are the base component of cocaine, but which only made my mouth a bit numb. Other honourable mentions of Peruvian food and drink include Inca kola, which is a bright yellow soft drink that tastes a lot like Australian yellow creaming soda, and pisco, which is an alcoholic spirit made of grapes, and which Peru and Chile compete over furiously for the title of superior producer.


Ceviche and causa

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Those of you paying close attention may recall that I love ceviche of all varieties with a fiery passion. So much so that I made this meal for my birthday! For those still catching up, ceviche is made of raw fish, which is “cooked” without heat in acids like lemon juice. There is mystery shrouding the origin of ceviche, but I think it’s most famously associated with Peru. With that simple basis, infinite combinations of different flavours can be used to ensure that you never tire of ceviche. I made two typical Peruvian ceviches, the first with white fish (I used orange roughy), lemon juice, red onion, aji amarillo (yellow chilli pepper), garlic, red capsicum, lime and lemon juice and coriander. I assembled the prawn ceviche with similar flavours, except that the prawns were already cooked and had a bit of tomato instead of red capsicum. Ceviche is considered a hangover cure and aphrodisiac in much of Latin America, and its powers are considered to be concentrated in the juice that is left in the bottom of the bowl, which is a sought-after delicacy called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk). I served the two ceviches with traditional accompaniments: sweet potato and corn on a bed of lettuce. I did the corn two ways – a whole fresh cob chargrilled, and a bowl of dried kernels, also called cancha, which is a bit like South American unpopped popcorn. I also made causa, which is a casserole of layers with mashed potato, flavoured and coloured with aji amarillo (yellow pepper) paste, lime, onion and chilli. This potato is layered on the bottom and top, with the filling of your choice in between. These fillings can be vegetarian/vegan (layers of avocado, cheese, tomatoes, corn etc), seafood (tuna salad, prawns) or meat (chicken salad), often mixed with mayonnaise and lime juice. This dish is assembled and eaten cold, and can be layered in a large casserole dish, then cut out into the shape of your choice to serve. Causa is usually served with garnishes of hard boiled eggs, tomatoes and black olives. I think this is an ideal summer dish, and can be made into different varieties to suit any dietary requirement under the sun.


Aji de gallina

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Aji de gallina is Spanish for chilli pepper chicken, and the chilli pepper it refers to specifically is the Peruvian yellow pepper (aji amarillo). Aji amarillo is a little spicy, and has a great deep yellow colour, but is very hard to find fresh in Australia, although specialty stores do sell a paste and whole bottled peppers. To make aji de gallina, boiled and shredded chicken breast is mixed into a sauce made with sautéed garlic, onions, finely chopped walnuts, parmesan cheese, evaporated milk, fresh bread crumbs, and aji amarillo paste. These ingredients all come together to form a delicious balance of spicy and creamy flavours. Aji de gallina is usually served/garnished with sliced boiled potatoes, hard boiled eggs, black olives and white rice. I’ve tried this dish several times before, and always enjoy it; being one of those dishes that’s better the next day after the flavours have blended. It’s also a fairly cheap and easy way to feed a lot of people.


Pollo a la brasa with papas rellenas and solterito

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Pollo a la brasa means charcoal chicken. It was invented in the 1950s in Lima, and consists of a whole chicken or large chicken pieces cooked on a rotisserie above hot coals. I didn’t have a rotisserie or hot coals, so I roasted mine in the oven. However, I did use a traditional marinade of soy sauce, limes, garlic, ginger, oil, aji panca paste, cumin, annatto, paprika, oregano, rosemary and cayenne pepper. If that list doesn’t convince you that Peru is an exemplar of culinary fusion, then nothing will. Pollo a la brasa is often served with sauces that combine the exotic variety of chilli peppers native to Peru with other flavours in a creamy mayonnaise base. I served the chicken with an aji verde (green chilli pepper) sauce, made by food processing jalapenos, coriander, garlic, green onion, aji amarillo paste, lime juice, parmesan cheese, olive oil, and mayonnaise. Papas rellenas are stuffed potatoes, which are sort of like a Latin American croquette. In Peru, they are most traditionally filled with spiced beef mince flavoured with onions, hard-boiled eggs and cumin. A dough is then made out of mashed potato, which is sometimes thickened with potato flour. The dough is moulded around the filling, and then coated in egg and flour or breadcrumbs. The balls are usually deep fried, although I elected to bake mine as I hate to deep fry. They are fiddly to cook, but very delicious, and a good way to do something new and exciting with the humble potato. I also made solterito, which is a Peruvian salad made with lima beans, corn kernels, black olives, tomato, red onion, capsicum, coriander and fresh white cheese. I dressed mine with some olive oil and red wine vinegar, and found it to be a great accompaniment to the heavier chicken and potatoes. Solterito actually means “unmarried man” in Spanish, but I’m unsure of the connection. Perhaps it implies that the salad is so easy to make that even a bachelor could do it?


Lomo saltado

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There aren’t many restaurants in Brisbane that serve Peruvian food, so when I get the chance to sample any, I try very hard to select something I’ve never had before. However, lomo saltado is one of my all-time favourite meals, and therefore often prevents that decision. It’s again a wonderful example of the international culinary fusion of Peru, being a stir fry with strips of beef steak, red onion, capsicum, aji amarillo and tomato. These ingredients are added to a pan at different stages of cooking to achieve cooked-but-still-crunchy textures. The flavourings used in the stir fry include garlic, soy sauce, cumin, vinegar, beef stock, and plenty of coriander and parsley. The flavour combinations are exquisite, and, to me, preferable to anything The East or The West could produce in isolation. Lomo saltado arises from a subsection of Peruvian cuisine called “chifa”, which is heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, although its subsequent popularity has resulted in integration into the mainstream food culture. The term “chifa” comes from a Cantonese word meaning “to eat rice”. Indeed, lomo saltado is typically served with a side of white rice, originating in Asia, but also with potato chips, originating in South America. The two starchy accompaniments soak up the juices of the stir fry in different ways but both wonderfully complementing each other. I encourage you to try this dish at your next opportunity; it’s the best example of old and new world intermingling of food that I know.