74. Northern USA

While Southern cuisine of USA is has defining characteristics of a mix 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, for example corn and potatoes, which still represent some of the largest crops in the States today, and 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 countless 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 in a return to fresh whole produce, the USA entered into a long-term idolisation of highly processed and convenient foods, for instance in the form of 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 along with 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 in 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 immigrated 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 as well as subsequently, leading many Native American groups to consider it a national day of mourning. However, with the utmost regard and respect to 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 drunkardness and late nights of New Years, and is perhaps less egregiously insulting to native people than the “Australia Day” that is hugely controversial here. However fictitious the origin story, Thanksgiving is, at its heart, about setting aside differences, helping your fellow human, and showing appreciation through the act of preparing a delicious meal. Indeed, studies have shown that gratitude, already ceremonially practiced by the Native Americans before the arrival of the Pilgrims, can greatly enhance mental health and wellbeing. So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving and practicing 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 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 end 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 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 example 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 posit 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 practiced 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 its 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 this concept by cutting them very thin, and thereby increasing the total surface area of oily deep fried goodness, simultaneously increasing the calories and health issues associated. In the 1940s, precut 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 legislature 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  pre-made 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 rote on Chesapeake Bay, which is particularly famous for its production of crabs, and therefore local 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.

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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 topical 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 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 still too much of a regional dish to fairly represent the entirety of Colombia. Still, 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 originate 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, then 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 possible meat 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 mountains!

72. Arabian Peninsula

I’ve grouped the cuisines of Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen together into the region of the Arabian Peninsula. This area has some of the oldest recipes in the world, as the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Mesopotamia (literally meaning “between two rivers”), is thought to be the cradle for the development of cuneiform by the Sumerians as far back as 4 BC, which is one of the first known writing systems, using a stylus and wet clay. Some of the surviving clay tablets from these times have recipes and, delightfully, shopping lists. It would appear the phenomenon of immediately forgetting what you need as soon as you enter the grocery store is not necessarily modern! Sadly, in more recent times, much of the Arabian Peninsula has been ravaged by war, in part due to its wealth of the globally dwindling resources of oil and natural gas. The peninsula is marked by wide stretches of deserts, broken by few but large rivers that swell and dwindle dramatically with the seasons, as well as mountain ranges along some of the borders, and marshy coastland abutting the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. As such, there are relatively few fertile valleys dotting the region, which are crucial for growing crops and grazing livestock to feed the populace. Much of the cuisine of the Arabian Peninsula is therefore based on grains (wheat, rice and barley), meat (although not pork due to Islamic dietary laws) and dairy, with select well-suited fruits and vegetables also often taking centre stage, such as dates.


Masgouf

Masgouf.JPG

Masgouf is commonly considered the national dish of Iraq, consisting of grilled carp. Carp, being a freshwater fish, is commonly found in the Tigris and Euphrates river systems that snake around Iraq. The whole fish is first butterflied by cutting along the belly and flattening to an even thin circular piece. The raw fish is then seasoned with oil, salt, tamarind and turmeric, and grilled over fire, often clamped between specialised cast iron holders, for a couple of hours until the fat has rendered off and the outside is crispy. I couldn’t source any carp, so settled for barramundi, which is in abundant supply where I live in Brisbane, and is at least considered a river fish, and therefore the closest thing to carp I could manage (although apparently not as fatty, and therefore requiring less grilling time). Carp, because of their incredible hardiness and adaptability, are a terrible pest in Australia, and have contributed significantly to the degradation of the natural ecosystems in many rivers. Likely naively, I therefore suppose it could be helpful if the Australian people developed more of a taste for carp, so that fishing industries could get them out of rivers and onto plates preferentially to other native fish? A job for the delicious masgouf, perhaps. I finished off my butterflied and grilled carp-imposter with a squeeze of lemon, as well as some grilled tomatoes and onions, placed on the fish at the end, and served it on a bed of spinach and pomegranates.  Iraqis adore masgouf, particularly from the capital Baghdad, which is renowned for the best masgouf in the country. Sadam Hussein’s favourite dish was masgouf, and this knowledge apparently led the USA task force to his bunker, after staking out the fish pond of a known associate of Hussein, then tracking a bodyguard who came to collect fresh carp to prepare the masgouf. Were I hiding from USA military forces, I suspect my weakness for food variety would also be my downfall – here’s hoping we never find out. Masgouf can be traced as far back as the 10th century to the earliest known Arabic cookbook Kitab Al-Tabih (The Book of Dishes). Within the book, masgouf is described as looking “like the sun, a radiant delight, redolent with aloe wood, musk and amber”. I think in over 100,000 words of talking about food, I have never come close to the beautiful imagery that the long gone author Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq achieved with that small phrase. It’s somewhat comforting to know that, however much we think we are revolutionary innovators, there will always be much more to learn and appreciate from the annals of history.


Mutabbaq

mutabbaq.JPG

I have come across recipes for mutabbaq (or murtabak) in various forms and spellings for many different regions of the world, including a few countries in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as countries in South East Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. The name means “folded” in Arabic, and seemingly predominantly for this reason, it is commonly cited as having originated in Yemen, which has a large Indian population that is thought to have invented the meal with inspiration from Indian breads such as roti. There is also debate, however, that the dish was invented in India itself, and takes its name from an amalgamation of “muta” (meaning egg) and “bar” (an abbreviation for bread). Regardless, mutabbaq is now famous as a beloved street food and/or breakfast in myriad parts of the world, and Yemen seemed as likely a place for me to attribute its origin as anywhere else. The dish consists of a dough of flour, water, egg, salt and oil, rolled very thinly, and then wrapped around a filling, in my case consisting of precooked ground beef, spring onions, leeks, garlic and spices such as cumin, chilli powder, salt and pepper, mixed together with plenty of egg. Once a flat square package is formed, it is then fried in oil to produce a lovely crispy and golden brown exterior encasing the juicy filling of egg and meat. I served my mutabbaq with a squeeze of lemon and some parsley, and relished finally being able to try the elusive and promiscuous dish.


Kabsa/machboos

machboos kabsa.JPG

I’ve grouped kabsa and machboos together because I haven’t been able to work out how  or if they differ, and honestly I’m not sure exactly which one I made. Indeed, my very basic understanding is that the dishes vary so much between cooks that a single recipe could feasibly describe both or neither. Machboos is commonly listed as the national dish of Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, while Kabsa is more likely to be cited as the national dish of both Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Well, regardless, its clear that, whatever the name, a dish of heavily spiced meat and rice is adored unanimously by almost the entire Arabian Peninsula. I made my version with chicken, tomato, onion, garlic, chillies and a huge variety of spices including turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ground coriander, star anise, pepper, cloves, saffron, bay leaves and dried limes (loomi). I used basmati rice, as is traditional, and near the end of the cooking process added slivered almonds, raisins, fresh coriander and pistachios. I finished cooking the chicken by grilling it in the oven, akin to a Yemeni process called “mandi”, which describes cooking meat over charcoal in a covered hole in the ground. To finish off the dish, I sprinkled it with rose water just before serving, which accompanies the cardamom fantastically, giving the dish a heady sweet and aromatic accent.


Tharid

tharid.jpg

Tharid is a dish of meat and vegetable stew/broth, usually served on top of or combined with pieces of flatbread. It is popular across the Arabian Peninsula, possibly partly because it is widely regarded as the favourite meal of the Prophet Muhammad, and therefore indisputably excellent. This idea came about because the dish is mentioned in many hadith, which are recognised recordings of the words, actions and thoughts of the Prophet Muhammad, second only to the Qur’an in Islamic religious authority. Perhaps for these reasons, or because its hearty nature makes fasting during the daylight hours more manageable, tharid is especially popular during the holy month of Ramadan. Then again, the resourceful ethos behind using up old stale bread, excess vegetables and tough cuts of meat in this meal are also considered to represent the principles driving the self-restraint, practicality and sensibility of Ramadan and Mohammad’s teachings, so perhaps this is an additional reason for its popularity. To make my tharid, I first browned pieces of lamb, then sautéed onion, garlic, chiles and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander seeds, pepper, cardamom and turmeric. I then added diced tomatoes and pieces of carrot, potato and eggplant and covered the mixture with water. After a few hours, when the lamb was fall-apart tender, I added some chickpeas to the stew, by which time it was thick and savoury. Tharid is not complete without flatbread, which can be immersed within the soup, or can serve as a plate underneath it. I knew I would love tharid before making it, as it’s very difficult to misstep with the combination of slow-cooked lamb, vegetables, and bread. I might not quite describe it as a religious experience however – I’ll leave that to the experts. 

71. Korea

I will preface this week by saying that I have not previously had much experience eating Korean food, but I was absolutely floored by how much I loved it. The heavy use of vegetables with varied simple flavourings, such as chilli, fermentation, vinegar and soy, produced gob-smacking taste sensations. Also, after stuffing myself on this cuisine all week I happened to lose weight without trying, which may be coincidence or a testament to its healthful properties. Korean food is based upon the combination of rice or noodles, vegetables and meat, flavoured with ingredients/techniques such as chilli, sesame oil, fermented bean paste, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, pepper, fermentation and pickling. The divide between North and South Korea in modern times is dramatic and fraught with misery for many, although it has only been thus for 70 years, and therefore a lot of the culinary traditions are shared between the regions. Before the divide of north and south in 1948, Korea was divided into eight provinces, and although there were commonalities between them, they also each had their own particular taste preferences and environmental conditions suited to the production of specific ingredients. Food is an important part of Korean culture, and plays an integral part in the four big family celebrations: coming-of-age, wedding, funeral and ancestral rite. In each of these, specific recipes are displayed in particular spatial and temporal patterns, all of which carry deep spiritual significance to the celebration. Korean culture also carries a great weight of rules of etiquette around eating: for example, that the elders of the family must be served and must eat first, with conversation generally discouraged; and one should not lift the bowl or plate from the table while eating. There are also more specific sayings containing words of wisdom regarding dining etiquette, such as “don’t eat so slowly as to appear as if it’s against your will, nor so fast as if to be stealing another’s food”, “don’t speak of disgusting things while eating”, or, my favourite “upon sighting a fat cow, goat, pig or chicken, do not immediately speak of slaughtering, cooking or consuming it”. I think the latter is actually a useful motto that could be more broadly applied to life, advising consideration and reflection before speaking immediately of your desires and impulses. 


Bibimbap

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Bibimbap literally means “mixed rice” and describes a dish of cooked white rice topped with varieties of cooked, pickled or fermented vegetables, a sauce (commonly with a basis of gochujang, fermented soy bean and chilli paste), and egg. The dish is traditionally served in a hot stone bowl, and the egg or egg yolk is often served raw, then stirred through the piping hot dish to cook it to a rich and creamy consistency. However, for those churlish about the concept of raw egg, a fried egg is commonly substituted. Bibimbap is traditionally served on the eve of the lunar New Year, as a way to use up all of the leftover side dishes in the house and therefore start anew in all aspects. However, there are also origin stories of bibimbap in farming communities to feed masses of hungry workers, as a between-meal snack for royalty, and mixing varied food offerings at an ancestral rite (jesa) in a bowl, as part of the memorial ceremony to deceased ancestors. In my bibimbap I included some sautéed beef mince flavoured with soy sauce, ginger and garlic, dried seaweed, sautéed carrot, spinach and shitake mushrooms, gochujang-based chilli sauce, stir fried zucchini, blanched bean sprouts and pickled cucumber, with piping hot rice and a raw egg yolk. The dish is notorious for its beautiful presentation, with all the varied ingredients delicately arranged in aesthetically pleasing clumps of colour; however it is essential that the whole thing be roughly mixed together into a mess before consumption. Within the colour combinations, however, lies complex symbolism, with black/brown representing the north and kidneys, red or orange for the south and heart, green symbolising the east and liver, white for the west and lungs and yellow for the centre or stomach. A balance of these would therefore result in a balance between all of these forces and the healthiest and most delicious bibimbap.


Kimchi-jjigae

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One simply cannot discuss Korean cuisine without mentioning the indisputable national food: kimchi. Dating back to the transition between BC and AD, over 2 million tonnes of kimchi is eaten every year in modern South Korea alone (around 18kg per person), and regular consumption of the food was considered so important to Koreans that millions of dollars were spent on the development of a special kimchi, which was designed to better survive the conditions of interplanetary travel, and was indeed eaten in space by a South Korean astronaut. A South Korean president once famously said that on an international trip he was missing kimchi more than his wife, and a national tragedy emerged from a 2010 cabbage crop failure, when kimchi prices rose by 400%, bankrupting families who, of course, couldn’t just stop eating the food in the same way they couldn’t very well stop breathing air. Kimchi is made from salted and fermented vegetables, most commonly cabbage, although popularly also radish. To the fermenting mixture is added flavourings such as gochugaru (chilli powder), garlic, ginger, scallions, and often some sort of salted seafood, such as anchovies. Every household will have its preferred recipe of kimchi, which also varies according to seasonal availability of ingredients, so the inclusion and proportions of these ingredients varies incredibly according to personal taste and kimchi variety (e.g. white kimchi does not contain any chilli). The other element that is important to imparting flavour to the kimchi is the fermentation process, where jars were traditionally buried in the earth in brown ceramic pots (onggi) to ferment at a stable temperature, although are usually kept in specially-dedicated kimchi fridges in modern times, which can control the temperature and length of time of fermentation and dramatically alter the taste.  The process of fermentation is ideal to preserve vegetables and ensure a nourishing supply over the winter, while also imparting the incredible health benefits of all fermented food to the gut biome, as well as being low in calories and high in dietary fibre, vitamin A, B, C, calcium, iron and carotene. Although kimchi is served as a side dish with almost every Korean meal, it can also form the basis of main meals, such as kimchi-jjigae, a kimchi-based stew. In my kimchi-jjigae I included chunks of pork belly, kimchi, broth, spring onions, onions and firm tofu, stewed together into a chunky and thick stew. I was momentarily perplexed by the concept of heating up kimchi, and therefore killing many of the healthful bacteria, but then remembered that it hardly matters given the quantities of cool kimchi that Koreans (and I, this week), consume on a daily basis. Older kimchi is preferred for the stew, creating a more strongly flavoured stew, but I used the kimchi I made several weeks back that has been fermenting gently for a relatively short period of time.


Bulgogi and banchan

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Bulgogi is one of the most famous examples of Korean barbecue, the name literally meaning “fire meat”. Very finely sliced beef is marinated in a sauce of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, pepper, ginger and onions, then quickly grilled over hot flames until cooked. Beef bulgogi is often eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves, and with other side dishes, which are collectively called banchan. Banchan is an important concept in Korean cuisine, describing the general practice of placing many distinct side dishes in individual bowls in the centre of the table, and eating communally from all of them. They are often accompanied by a meat-based centrepiece (such as bulgogi), bap (rice), soup or stew. The concept of banchan is thought to have originated from a Buddhist influence on Korea during the early centuries of AD, which decreased the consumption of meat for many years subsequent. A varied assortment of vegetable-based dishes therefore became the central point of Korean cuisine, even after the reemergence of meat in the culture. The varieties of banchan can be broadly categorised into namul (steamed, marinated or stir fried vegetables, seasoned with assorted combinations of sesame oil, vinegar, garlic, scallions, soy sauce and chilli), bokkeum (meat or mushrooms stir fried with sauce), jorim (a broth-based dish), jjim (steamed protein), jeon (pancake-based foods), hoe (raw dishes) and, of course, kimchi. For my banchan, I made kongamool (blanched soybean sprouts), pa muchim (spring onion salad), kimchi, steamed broccoli, sangchoo geotjeori (lettuce and chilli salad) and oi muchim (spicy cucumber salad). The more individual dishes served for a banchan, the fancier it is, so of course I wanted to sample at least six. However, I didn’t possess the requisite number of bowls for this, so I had to serve them together (but spatially separated) on a single plate. My banchan therefore does not look as authentic as it could have, but, nonetheless, it certainly tasted delicious.


Mul naengmyeon

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Naengmyeon describes a noodle dish served in ice cold broth, particularly popular during summer, in which the noodles are made from various ingredients, most commonly buckwheat. Naengmyeon is thought to have originated in North Korea, but after the Korean War, spread in popularity to the south as well. There are two main varieties of naengmyeon: bibim naengmyeon, served in a spicy chilli broth, and mul naengmyeon, served in a mild meat-based broth. I made mul naengmyeon, originating from Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, first simmering beef in water and spices for several hours to make the stock, then cooling and adding slices of beef, cucumber, nashi pear, shitake mushrooms and a boiled egg. This delicious dish has recently taken centre stage in acts of diplomacy, as it was given as a gift from Kim Jong-un to Moon Jae-in during the first meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea early in 2018. Perhaps the ice-cold meal was intended to cool tensions between the regions?

70. Northern Mexico

Mexican cuisine is immensely diverse and rich, so much so that it qualified as one of the few countries that I split into two different regions as part of my project: the north and south. While the south is rich in corn-based products, the drier climate and number of grassy plains of the north particularly lends itself to ranch culture and the production of wheat, beef and dairy, especially cheeses. The major influences of general Mexican cuisine are first from the native ingredients and Mesoamerican groups, many of whose original words for food items last as etymological origins of the Spanish and English versions today. After Spanish colonisation in the 1500s came the introduction of domesticated animals and their dairy products, as well as wheat and rice and the development of modern Mexican food. The food from the north was the major influence upon the Mexican cuisine now hugely popular in the United States, which has now taken on a culinary identity of its very own: Tex Mex. I adore Mexican food for its diversity, colour and liberal use of bright fresh vegetables, herbs and spices. Mexicans themselves take food incredibly seriously, the mere idea of eating deeply integrated in social interaction, with food eaten together with lots of people in social celebrations considered far tastier due solely to the context. The ability to cook well (“sazón”), although traditionally attributed as women’s work, is hugely respected, and closely associated with the cook’s regard for their diners. Better said, a delicious Mexican meal represents love from the cook to all of those who eat it, an expression that I fully support – I feel the deepest love from my friends and family when they cook for me!


Pork pozole verde

Pork pozole verde.JPGPozole is a popular and delicious dish that has something of a dark past. It can be traced back to the Aztecs, who cooked the dish combining hominy (large white corn kernels that give rise to the word “pozole” in the Nahuatl language), an ingredient that was considered especially significant due to the belief that humans were comprised of cornmeal. The other major ingredient in the dish was meat, which, some sources say, took the form of human flesh from sacrificial victims, and was eaten by the community as part of the religious ritual. Spanish colonisation eventually led to the cessation of cannibalism, but the dish of pozole persisted, especially enjoyed at celebratory events all over Mexico in different forms, with pork substituted as the closest facsimile of human flesh. I must admit, this knowledge somewhat diminished my appetite for pozole initially, although the wonderful aroma of the soup cooking and my notoriously iron-clad stomach won out in the end. In some ways I can’t believe it took 70 cuisines to bring up the subject of cannibalism – I can’t have been researching deeply enough! There are three main varieties of pozole named after their final colourations: blanco, rojo and verde (white, red and green). Where the white variety is relatively plain, made of the white corn and meat, the red is coloured by various chilles and the green can be flavoured with jalapeños, cilantros or tomatillos. I made pozole verde, the green variety, by food processing a combination of tomatillos (green tomatoes), oregano, garlic, onion, cumin and jalapeños. To this I added the hominy and shredded cooked pork shoulder, garnishing with fresh radish, avocado and cilantro.


Beef barbacoa burrito

beef barbacoa burrito.JPGBurrito, meaning “little donkey” in Spanish, perhaps refers to the surprising ability of the tortilla to carry an enormous amount of cargo, much like the sturdy little beast of burden. This ability of the tortilla to remain integral in the face of a hefty wet filling is crucial to its Northern Mexican origin, as it could only be achieved by the use of wheat flour, as opposed to the traditional corn that ancient taco tortillas have been made from since the time of the Aztecs. The climate of Northern Mexico is much better suited to the farming of wheat than the south, and so this dish is thought to have originated there. It is also sometimes said that the name burrito actually refers to the tightly rolled bedrolls commonly carried by donkeys, or even the shape of their long curved ears, so perhaps the integrity of the tortilla is merely a coincidence. There are numerous legends regarding the origin of the burrito, from a handy dish made by the vaqueros (cowboys) of the north, to being created by Juan Méndez from the state of Chihuahua, a street vendor who started wrapping food in large wheat tortillas to keep it warm while riding around on his donkey (another potential origin for the name). In my burrito I included barbacoa beef, which is thought to be the origin of the English term “barbecue”, referring to heavily spiced meat cooked on an open fire, or, more recently steamed/stewed. To this I added refried beans, tomato and some jalapeño, keeping the fillings relatively minimalist (for my standards), as is traditional in Mexico, compared to the more gluttonous Tex Mex burritos.


Baja California almejas brujas, grilled prawns and Caesar salad

Baja California almejas brujas, grilled prawns and Caesar salad.JPGBaja California is a state in the very north west of Mexico, bordering the state of California in the USA, known for its bright cuisine that takes advantage of the prolific local seafood that can be found in the Pacific Ocean to the west of the peninsula, or the Gulf of California to the east. Fish tacos, for example, are a famous modern export of the region, and have exploded in popularity all over the world in recent times. The cuisine of this region has been labelled “Baja Mediterranean” or “Baja Med” for short, and is unafraid to combine international influences from recent waves of migration out of Asia and Europe with the unique local ingredients to create new and delicious flavours. One of the most recognised of these inventions is the Caesar salad, which I must admit I was surprised to learn originated in Mexico, always assuming the name referred to the Ancient Roman Emperor Caesar, just like the Caesarian section. However, Caesar is a common name in some Latin circles, and the inventor is said to be Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who made the salad in his restaurant in 1924 when an unexpected influx of customers depleted his other salad supplied. This original version is said to be simpler than the anchovy-laden recipe popular today, containing simply cos lettuce, croutons, parmesan cheese and a dressing with a basis of home-made mayonnaise or oil, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce and garlic. There is also debate over whether raw or coddled egg was included in the original version. Along with my salad I made use of some fresh seafood, first in the form of almejas brujas, stuffed clams. Clams are abundant in this region and can be turned into many preparations. I made my stuffed clams by frying some garlic, onion and finely chopped tomato together with the diced clam meat, then scooping the mixture back into the shells and grilling them with some cheese and fresh coriander. I also grilled some whole prawns with garlic and lime juice, a recipe that I can imagine enjoying under a parasol on the beautiful sunny beaches of Baja California, perhaps accompanied by a margarita?


Chile colorado, refried beans, guacamole and Mexican rice

Chile Colorado, refried beans, guacamole and Mexican rice.JPGChile colorado describes a beef stew flavoured with various chillies, of which there are countless varieties in Mexico, all of which make use of tough cuts of beef by slow cooking in a flavourful gravy. One of the major chillies utilised in this dish is actually called chile colorado, or New Mexico chile in other parts of the world. “Colorado” can mean “red” in Spanish, perhaps referring to the deep red colour that the chillies impart. Often these sort of stews involve boiling dried chillies, such as the aforementioned chile colorado, ancho/poblano chillies, or guajillo/anaheim chillies etc. I felt quite overwhelmed by the sheer number of chilli varieties during my preparation for this week! After steeping whatever variety of dried chillies you’ve been able to capture in boiling water, they are blended into a sauce, strained and combined with aromatics and spices such as onion, garlic, cumin, oregano and lime. The smooth sauce is then mixed with chunks of floured and seared beef, and simmered together for hours until the meat is tender and the sauce is thick. The dish is thought to come from the state of Chihuahua in Mexico, and can be eaten by itself, with rice, or even as the filling of tacos or burritos. I served mine with refried beans, which are actually poorly translated from the Spanish “frijoles refritos”, which means “well fried beans” rather than “refried”. Beans, such as pinto beans, black beans or kidney beans are stewed until tender, then lightly mashed until forming a delicious starchy paste. Sometimes the beans are lightly fried, for instance along with onion and garlic after being mashed into the paste, but not always, which further confuses the name. I also served guacamole, which arose from the Mexican Aztecs, perhaps more than 10,000 years ago when avocados were first cultivated, but is now famous and beloved the world over. The name comes from the Nahuatl word “āhuacamolli”, a composite of the words for avocado (āhuacatl) and sauce (molli). To make guacamole, ripe avocados are mashed, with possible additions of finely chopped vegetables (tomato, onion, garlic, chillies etc), or herbs (coriander), lime/lemon juice, and seasoning with spices, salt and pepper. I’ve learned that National Guacamole Day is September 16, the same day as Mexican Independence Day, so feel free to make a batch then, or on any day that takes your fancy! Finally, I made Mexican rice, which is white rice cooked with tomatoes, garlic, onions etc, taking on a lovely yellow-red colour and deliciously savoury flavour.

69. Northern and Central Italy

As noted in cuisine 37 (Southern Italy), while the South of the country is characterised by liberal use of garlic, chilli, capers, fish, olives and olive oil, the North and Centre boast greater consumption of dairy products, such as cream and butter. Whenever I’ve tried to discuss splitting Italy in half, culinarily speaking, for the purposes of my project with actual Italians, I’ve been strongly informed that “you can’t do that; you need to split it into 20 regions, or at the very least, three: North, Central and South”. By this stage I’d already decided on the “80 cuisines” limit, and couldn’t justify taking away another country’s moment in the sun to give a third region to such a small area of the world. However, the Italians were right; their cuisine is so incredibly rich and diverse, with mind-blowing history and ancient cross-cultural influences due to its position in the middle of the Mediterranean and ancient western civilisation. There are so many Italian dishes I had to leave out of my challenge that I would dearly like to cook, eat and discuss. For example I feel like I’ve merely scratched the surface of the universe of pastas and breads, not to mention my complete disregard of polenta, and I didn’t even have the opportunity to showcase any Italian seafood dishes! Maybe one day I’ll cook around each of the 20 regions of Italy to remedy this neglect, but, for now, I must make do. One of the most striking things I’ve discovered about Italian cuisine is the huge gap between what we might consider to be authentic Italian cuisine in English-speaking countries and what is actually traditional. The food tends to be much simpler, with fewer ingredients than I would have expected from growing up in Australia, but at the same time it has a much wider diversity of meals than is represented in the typical Italian restaurant. This focus on quality-over-quantity, and fresh seasonal cuisine may sound familiar: it’s the basis of all modern cuisine and is constantly uttered on every fashionable TV cooking show. However, this is not a fresh concept. The importance of simplicity, as well as top quality and seasonal ingredients was conveyed in the poetry of Archestratus in the 4th century BC. Just further evidence that every generation needs to reinvent the wheel, but inevitably someone in history has already made the same discovery or innovation, sometimes millennia before!


Mix of antipasti

mix of antipasti.jpgAntipasto, literally meaning “before meal” is the first course of any formal Italian meal throughout the country. The ingredients themselves differ between regions, based on tradition and availability, but typically include local varieties of cured meats and cheeses, marinated, stuffed or fresh produce such as olives, peppers, artichoke hearts etc, or seafood such as anchovies. The combination should involve many aspects of taste (sweet, savoury, salty etc), as well as being texturally diverse. The dish is designed to whet your appetite and show off local delicacies, while not being so filling as to ruin the rest of the courses (hopefully!). The custom likely originated in medieval Italy, when spiced nuts and sliced ham were served at the beginning of a meal, with the aim to excite, but not fill, diners. The major task I undertook for this mix of antipasti was making a focaccia, an Italian bread typical of Liguria, which can be flavoured with ingredients such as olives, cheese, rosemary or caramelised red onions. I chose the latter two to flavour my focaccia, and made the dough by combining bread flour, oil, water, salt and yeast, then kneading infinitely and waiting patiently for several iterations of rising, punching down and rising. At the end of this process, when the dough has risen for its final time in its baking tin, it is traditional to poke holes into it with your finger, which prevents huge bubbles forming under the dough and provides wells for the oil and flavourings to fall into, keeping the bread moist. Similar breads were made in Ancient Rome, such as panis focacius, meaning “hearth bread”, with the “hearth” surviving as the root of the current word focaccia. I also made bruschetta, deriving from a word meaning “to toast”, which simply describes grilled bread rubbed with garlic and dressed with olive oil and salt. However, on top of this, myriad toppings can be added, for which I decided on the simple-yet-effective fresh tomato and basil. Grilled bread with olive oil is too old to have a clear origin story, but in my imagination it has been common sense since shortly after the invention of bread to use up pieces that have gone a bit stale by grilling them and slathering them in oil. It is somehow comforting to know that, despite the emerging technologies and changes in the world, this age-old trick to use stale bread will outlast us all.  Also in my mix of antipasti I included produce fairly characteristic of the north of Italy, such as fresh figs, mozzarella cheese, prosciutto di Parma (both alone and wrapped around pieces of rockmelon, a typical summer preparation), marinated artichoke hearts, salami, breadsticks, pecorino Romano (a hard cheese from Rome), marinated olives and capsicums, and fresh tomatoes, all on a bed of rocket.


Trofie al pesto, bucatini alla carbonara and maccheroni al ragù

trofie al pesto, bucatini alla carbonara and maccheroni al ragu.jpgThis meal represents my first foray into the concept of “flag meals”, where you display some typical food from a country arranged in the same design as its flag. For the green stripe, I made trofie al pesto, which is a typical meal from the region of Liguria. Trofie is a short, twisted variety of pasta that isn’t very common in Australia, and whose name derives from local dialect terms such as “strufuggiâ” meaning “to rub”, referring to the way the pasta dough is rolled to form the characteristic twisted shape. This typical Ligurian pasta is most traditionally served with green beans, potato and the most famous culinary export of Liguria, or more specifically its capital Genoa: pesto. Although attributed exclusively to Genoa in modern times, the predecessors of pesto can be traced back to the ancient Romans, who ate a paste made with garlic, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar called moretum as far back as the 1st century AD, when a poem in the Appendix Vergiliana described a simple farmer preparing the meal for breakfast before going out to plough his fields. I made my pesto by food processing fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, salt, parmesan cheese and olive oil into a paste. The name derives from the word “pestâ” in the Genoese dialect, meaning “to pound”, presumably referring to the struggles of the poor cooks prior to the advent of the food processor. This term can therefore technically be applied to any paste that is made by pounding in Italy, and the most famous variety with basil is therefore specifically called “pesto alla Genovese” (“Genoese pesto”). For the white stripe of the flag, I made bucatini alla carbonara. Carbonara is famous the world over, although often with heretic transgressions embedded in the recipes. For instance, cream or garlic must never, ever be included in a traditional carbonara – no exceptions. Now that we’ve addressed the elephant in the room, we can move onto how to make carbonara properly. Trust me, it’s much more delicious the original way (and actually easier!). First, the pasta is cooked to al dente in salted boiling water, for which I used bucatini, common in Lazio, which is the region containing Rome. Bucatini is similar to spaghetti except that it has a hole running through the middle, with “bucato” meaning “pierced” in Italian. While the pasta is cooking, gently sauté some cubed guanciale (a type of thick bacon) and in a separate bowl whisk together as many egg yolks as there are people, plus one extra whole egg, along with some cheese  (such as pecorino Romano) and pepper. Once the pasta is cooked, drain and stir it and the guanciale quickly through the cold egg and cheese mixture, away from heat, and the hot pasta will delicately cook the egg and cheese to a smooth, creamy (not curdled) consistency that lovingly embraces each strand of pasta. The use of a long thin pasta like spaghetti is essential so that there is enough boiling hot surface area to properly and evenly cook the egg. So, that’s the end of the recipe. So simple! So quick! So delicious! Carbonara has to be one of my all-time favourite Italian recipes, and is one I regularly make with my Italian friend when we’ve had enough of the world (although we sometimes add onion to the bacon, don’t tell her granny!). The name may come from the Italian word for charcoal burner “carbonaro”, possibly because it was created to feed charcoal workers, or perhaps as a tribute to the secret revolutionary society of carbonari (charcoal men) in the 1800s, whose wikipedia page makes the delightful claim that “they lacked a clear immediate political agenda”. Too much carbonara to focus, perhaps?  Then again, the dish comes from central Italy, specifically Rome, and in central dialect “carbonada” means bacon, so perhaps the etymology is simple after all. Finally, for the red stripe of my pasta flag, I cooked maccheroni al ragù. Maccheroni, I am reliably informed by Italians, is one of the most popular pasta shapes in Italy, but is almost unheard of here in Australia for reasons unknown to us all. Macaroni, as English-speakers know it, likely came from the same word, but has come to mean small, often elbow shaped, tubes, rather than the majestic large cylinders in my photo. Although under linguistic disagreement, the word likely comes from a series of ancient Greek etymologies meaning “blessed dead” and “blessed, happy” – quite the mixed message! In Italian, “ragù” simply means a meat-based sauce that is usually served with pasta. There are regional variations as to the exact preparation of a ragù, with one of the most internationally renowned being “ragù alla Bolognese” i.e. meat sauce from the Bologna region of Northern Italy. Yes, herein lies the origins of the world famous “spag bol”, as Australians like to say, despite the fact that Italians would not usually eat spaghetti with ragù, preferring tagliatelle or tube-shaped varieties. Indeed, the international version of the dish is said to resemble ragù from Naples more than that from Bologna, despite the misleading name. The ingredients of the true Bolognese ragù include soffritto of onion, celery, minced or chopped beef often with a little pork, wine and a very small amount of tomato, which are added roughly in that order and then simmered together for an hour or as long as you have patience. As with many true traditional Italian recipes that I have discovered, in an authentic ragù, garlic is not usually included, following the surprising rule I learned when cooking for Southern Italy, that Italians would choose to cook with either garlic or onion in a dish, sometimes neither, but very rarely both.


Pumpkin ravioli, mushroom and truffle gnocchi and minestrone

pumpkin ravioli truffle and mushroom gnocchi and minestrone.JPGRavioli are dumplings, traditionally square in shape, with assorted fillings sealed between two thin pasta sheets. Ravioli first burst into written history in the 1300s, when a Tuscan merchant mentioned it in a letter. These early versions were predominantly filled with finely chopped green herbs, cheese and egg, and cooked in a flavoured broth. I made my ravioli with the help of my Italian friend Annalisa, as well as her excellent pasta-making machine to roll out even sheets. We coloured the dough orange with pumpkin, and made a filling of ricotta, pumpkin, nutmeg and black pepper. I served the ravioli with a very simple butter and sage sauce, topped with some freshly grated parmesan cheese. Gnocchi are little balls of boiled dough that could be made out of semolina, polenta, flour or cornmeal. They existed in ancient Roman times, likely from Middle Eastern origin during the expansion of the empire, and were formed with eggs and semolina. However, after the introduction of the potato in the 1500s, gnocchi from the northern parts of Italy are now most commonly made by combining mashed potato, egg, plain flour and salt into a dough, then forming the ridged dumplings and boiling them in salted water until they float to the surface. The name is thought to come from either “nocchio” which means a knot in wood, or “nocca”, which means knuckle. Both options seem a little obscure to me, so I’m not surprised the true etymology remains a mystery! I served my gnocchi with a creamy sauce made with porcini mushroom and black truffle. I was a latecomer to truffles, but I am now a fully dedicated devotee, to the extent that I have eaten a tiny scrape of truffle paste with an egg and cooked vegetables for breakfast every day for the last few years. Truffles are fungal tubers that usually grow next to tree roots. Ancient Greek and Roman writer Plutarch hypothesised that truffles were formed by lightning strikes to the soil; Cicero poetically labelled them children of the earth, while the more practical Dioscorides named them tubers, and indeed the Latin word “tuber” ultimately gave rise to the name. Truffles fell out of fashion during the Middle Ages, and then had something of a renaissance in, well, the Renaissance. Perhaps the eternal puzzlement over the identity and origins of truffles is because of the difficulty of cultivation, which modern science has revealed requires growing seedlings of particular species, such as beech, birch, hazel, hornbeam, oak, pine or poplar, that have been inoculated with truffle, in soil of a specific pH (7.5-8.3), and a delicate level of irrigation and drainage. The trees then need to grow for several years, with the truffles finally appearing between the soil and leaf litter if all conditions have remained ideal. Dogs or pigs are then used to detect the truffles by smell, and there is a delightful table of pros and cons for using either species on “how to” truffle cultivation websites. The take-home message is that female pigs have a natural affinity for truffles, due to an adrostenol-like compound in them that is similar to a boar sex pheromone, whereas dogs need to be trained to hunt them. Pigs, on the other hand, are likely to eat the truffle as soon as they detect them, and this can be detrimental to the harvesting process. I feel increasingly that the truffle pig is my spirit animal the more I read about them. I also made minestrone, which is a hearty vegetable soup that often has pasta or rice added. It’s the typical meal that uses up any extraneous ingredients you might have in the fridge, which could include beans, onions, carrots, tomatoes, celery or even some meat. The dish is thought to be so old that it predates the expansion of the Roman Empire, when simple vegetable soups were a foundation of local diets before the influx of products and influences that increased the consumption of meat and introduced bread to the people. Minestrone, deriving from the word for “soup” is a typical example of “cucina povera”, literally “poor kitchen”, which describes dishes that have roots in the rustic cuisine of the poor masses. Indeed, the English word “frugal” is rooted in latin “fruges” which refers to cereals, vegetables and legumes. This “poor” style of cuisine is contrasted with “cucina nobile” referring to the noble fare of the aristocrats. I don’t know about the ancient Romans, but I quite disagree; I felt like a queen eating the delicious Minestrone!


Risotto alla Milanese con ossobuco

Risotto alla Milanese con osobucco.jpgRisotto derives from “riso” meaning rice, and is a dish from northern Italy made with particular varieties of rice that, when cooked with broth and seasonings, form a creamy delicious dish. These rice varieties include arborio or carnaroli, which have high starch and low-amylose contents, as well as short or medium grains that absorb lots of liquid and release lots of starch to make a thick, gooey consistency. Risotti can be made with countless ingredients, but classically have a base of butter, onion, white wine and parmesan cheese, although even these are not set in stone. Legend has it that an enterprising glassblower first came up with the idea of using saffron, which he used to colour glass, in a rice dish at a wedding, to great acclaim. However, the true origins of the dish are unknown. Although usually served as a first (primo) course instead of pasta, in Milan it is customary to eat risotto alla Milanese as a second course, alongside ossobuco. To make risotto alla Milanese, I softened diced onion in lots of butter, then stirred in some ground saffron and added the rice, stirring until it was well coated in saffron and fat. I then added white wine and vegetable stock a little at a time, until the rice was al dente and creamy. I then stirred through some parmesan cheese and butter, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Very simple, but oh so effective; this is one of my favourite risotto recipes (except perhaps for seafood risotto!). To make the traditional Milanese ossobuco, I coated the raw cross-cut veal shanks in seasoned flour, then browned them in oil and butter. I sautéed a soffritto of carrot, celery and onion, further flavouring this mix with orange peel and marjoram, then added diced tomatoes, white wine and stock, reduced this liquid, returned the meat and simmered the mixture in the oven for a few hours until the meat was falling off the bone and the sauce was deliciously caramelised. I served the risotto and ossobuco with gremolata, which is a mix of finely chopped parsley, lemon rind and garlic. Ossobuco is Italian for “bone with a hole”, and indeed one of the most important aspects of this dish is the hole, or, more specifically, the marrow within, which is delicious and is reportedly full of nutritious iron. My Milanese friend has a long-held aversion to the textural aspects of ossobuco, so she won’t eat it, but she claimed that my version smelled exactly like her granny’s recipe. Good enough for me!

68. Malaysia

Every aspect of Malaysian culture is defined by a huge mix of influences. The population can be mostly split into three self-identifying groups: Malays, Chinese and Indian, with a minority of indigenous groups remaining. Of course, the reality is that most people are descendants of mixed cultural heritage, and the majority of customs and recipes are so entangled in this ancient merger of influences that it is difficult to single out any one. Complicating things further are influences from neighbouring countries and past colonial powers, meaning that elements of Indonesian, Singaporean, Thai, Dutch, British and Portuguese cuisines, to name a few, are also inextricably woven through the culinary traditions. Some staples of the cuisine that form the foundation of many meals are chillies, often ground into a paste, or “sambal”, belacan, which is a dried shrimp paste, coconut, soy sauce, lemongrass, tamarind, pandan leaves, tropical fruits, rice, noodles, local seafood, often dried to enhance flavour, meats that predominantly conform to Islamic practices, as it is the dominant religion, and soy products such as tofu. I have very fond memories of Malaysian cuisine from when I was a kid. My dad travelled through the region in his youth, and has always adored this and all other cuisines – to this day he is always the first to volunteer to try new exotic foods. On occasions when primary cook mum was out and dad was in charge of my sustenance for the day, we would therefore often conspire go to a little Malaysian restaurant in an East Asian district of Brisbane. I was familiar by this stage with somewhat westernised Chinese, Indian and Thai food, but the sheer authenticity of this restaurant meant it was particularly exotic to me. My dad liked to order any drink containing coconut and red beans, while I developed an early appreciation for the salty dried anchovies and aromatic spices of nasi lemak. Of particular note, no matter how “mild” I ordered anything, the cook would still unblinkingly serve a 7 year old child tear-inducing amounts of chilli. In retrospect these experiments were instrumental in building my spice-tolerance, as well as my love of international cuisine. While I was cooking this week I thought frequently of the Malaysian practice of “open house”, where festive seasons or a celebratory occasion is held in a host’s home, which is open throughout entire days for anybody to pop by, and help themselves to the wide array of food available. Sometimes I end up with huge amounts of leftovers that I am tasked with somehow fitting into my tiny freezer, so perhaps putting on an open house could be a useful strategy for the future?


Nasi lemak

nasi lemak.jpgNasi lemak is frequently touted as Malaysia’s national dish, thought to be Malay in origin. This is a much more impressive feat than you might initially think, because Malaysia is especially diverse in terms of its cultural subpopulations, and therefore in its cuisines. The indisputable balance of deliciousness of the dish, however, somehow manages to unite the whole country, as well as being greatly enjoyed by the surrounding countries of Brunei, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. One origin legend of nasi lemak is that it was invented by the daughter of a widow, tasked with cooking while her mother was out earning money. One day, the daughter clumsily spilled coconut milk into a pot of cooking rice, and upon tasting the rice, the mother exclaimed “What did you cook!?” To which she defensively replied “nasi le, mak!” (rice, mother!). However, its name also seems to mean “rich/creamy rice”, referring to the  literal central component: jasmine rice steamed with coconut milk and aromatics such as pandan leaf, lemongrass and ginger. This is then served with traditional accompaniments, including hard-boiled egg, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), sambal (a spicy and slightly-sweet chilli sauce), sliced cucumber and roasted peanuts. This combination can be served alone, or, for a more substantial meal, along with another accompaniment, such as chicken curry, rendang curry, grilled or steamed seafood, or a simple piece of fried chicken (ayam goreng), as I have prepared. There are numerous close siblings of nasi lemak depending on the chef and region of Malaysia you happen to be in, including nasi ayam, nasi dagang and nasi kerabu, the latter of which includes startlingly blue-coloured rice from the petals of butterfly-pea flowers. I’m completely in love with the periwinkle blue of this rice dish, but alas, do not possess the requisite flowers to make it, plus I wouldn’t feel quite right about just using food colouring (and it likely wouldn’t achieve the same outcome). Besides, nasi lemak is undoubtedly the most generally popular and famous of these rice-with-accompaniments dishes, and deserved top priority. It is predominantly considered a breakfast dish, although it can be eaten at any point in the day, and is commonly sold by street hawkers, sometimes with all the ingredients packaged into convenient little triangular bundles wrapped in banana leaves. The dish rose to popularity with farmers needing a filling and balanced meal to begin their day, and I must say, I quite agree; I can’t imagine a more perfectly designed breakfast.


Roti jala, ayam kapitan and sambal udang

roti jala ayam kapitan and sambal udang.jpgRoti jala literally means “net bread”, consisting of an intricate lace of fried batter forming a flat pancake. Given the large proportion of coastline in Malaysia, there is a long history of fishing. The fishing nets are thought to have been the inspiration to the original Malays who invented the roti jala, which is most often eaten alongside curries in place of rice. The runny batter is made with flour, eggs, milk and some turmeric, which is then dribbled in the lace pattern, traditionally using a tool such as a can of condensed milk with holes poked in the bottom, although custom-built tools are available for purchase nowadays. I took many photos of the roti jala, and was incredibly torn about which one to display here. When viewed flat, the roti look like beautifully fine chaotic lace doilies, but can also be folded into halves or quarters to increase the complexity of their patterns. In the end I settled on tightly rolled roti jala, which is one of the most common ways of presenting it that I’ve seen, and which a Malaysian friend of mine informed me looked the most recognisable. The curries I made along with my roti jala were ayam kapitan and sambal udang. Chicken curries are hugely popular in Malaysia, with many varieties calling for slightly different spices or varied combinations of spices and other ingredients, predominantly depending on the cultural group making them. The chicken curry I made (ayam kapitan) is an example of Peranakan/Nyonya cuisine, which arose from the intermingling of cultures from the early Chinese settlers and their descendants. Ayam kapitan is rumoured to have arisen from the Chinese chef of a British ship visiting Malaysia during colonial times. The chef, eager to learn from Malaysian cuisine, saw a local woman preparing a chicken dish that gave off an intoxicating aroma, and asked her to teach him how to make it. The chef then modified the dish to be a little less spicy, and therefore more palatable for the British ship captain, as well as adding a few Chinese ingredients to his own taste. The meal was met with great enthusiasm by the captain and crew, who asked him what the name was, to which he replied “ayam kapitan”, meaning “captain’s chicken” in Malay. Common flavours forming the paste for ayam kapitan include lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, chillies, garlic, ginger, shallots, soybean paste, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, kaffir lime leaves, candlenuts and tamarind. This paste is usually combined with coconut milk to form a thick gravy with the stewed pieces of chicken. Although more common in other types of chicken curries, I also included some pieces of potato in my ayam kapitan, because I love how the starchy nuggets combine with the thick gravy. Sambal udang (meaning hot sauce prawn) is a curry that is also likely from Nyonya origins, although possibly also originally more Malay. The spice paste is formed with red chillies, shallots, lemongrass, garlic, tamarind, kaffir lime leaves and belacan (dried shrimp paste), which is combined with water and prawns to make a rich red curry.


Satay and rojak

chicken satay, peanut sauce and rojak.jpgI, perhaps ignorantly, have always associated the term “satay” with rich peanut and coconut flavourings. However, this turns out to be wrong. In fact, satay refers to a preparation of seasoned meat or protein (beef, lamb, pork, chicken, seafood, tofu etc) threaded onto wooden skewers, then grilled and served with a sauce. This sauce is often flavoured with peanuts, labelled “satay sauce” i.e. “sauce served with satay” hence the common association with the name. The dish is thought to have been inspired by Indian kebabs, and is particularly popular with the Muslim population of Malaysia in recent times. I made a fairly traditional marinade for my satay, combining oil, lemongrass, garlic, salt, sugar, ginger, shallots, turmeric, cumin, coriander powder and a little chilli. I made the peanut sauce with chillies, garlic, galangal, tamarind, palm sugar, ginger, lemongrass, coconut milk and, of course, peanut butter. I’ve made this sort of peanut sauce before, however, every time I make it I am surprised anew by how immensely delicious it is. It’s all I can do not to eat it directly out of the pot as it cooks. Anyone who is scrutinising my blog to find out my weaknesses: this is a big one. Rojak has come to colloquially mean an eclectic mix, although I’m unclear whether this term lent its name to the dish or vice versa. Regardless, it’s clear that the two are inherently connected, as the dish is indeed an eclectic and variable mix of fruit and vegetables, combined with a spicy dressing. Rojak is found in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, and takes on wildly different forms between and within these countries. In my rojak, I included fruits such as pineapple, mango, apple and papaya, as well as baby spinach, radish, cucumber, bean sprouts and fried tofu. I topped off my rojak with a sprinkling of peanut pieces, as well as a dressing made of sambal oelek, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), shrimp paste, lemon and grated palm sugar. In Indonesia, rojak is said to be craved by pregnant women, and takes centre stage as a predictor of the sex of the unborn baby: if the dish tastes sweeter than usual to the expectant mother, it will be a girl, but if it tastes spicier than usual, it will be a boy. This theme is continued with the red hibiscus, the national flower of Malaysia, as well a symbol of the Indian goddess Kali, Mother of the universe. This symbolism, however, is contraindicated by modern research showing that the consumption of hibiscus can result in contraceptive effects and sometimes even miscarriage. This is a shame, given that hibiscus tea is known to be rich in vitamin C, as well as other substances known to decrease cholesterol and lower blood pressure. So, ladies of the world be warned, if expecting, partake freely in rojak, but refuse the side of hibiscus!


Mee reebus

mee rebus.JPGMee rebus literally means “boiled noodles” and describes a dish of yellow egg noodles in a thick and slightly sweet curry gravy. To make the gravy, I began with a paste of belacan, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaf and fermented soy bean sauce then combined it with boiled and mashed sweet potato, adding stock until it reached a thick consistency.  The addition of boiled and mashed sweet potato instead of other thickening agents, such as dairy or coconut, is a stroke of genius in my opinion, and a wonderful way to get a sweet, thick and rich result for a fraction of the calories (and guilt). The accompaniments to mee rebus are famously varied and numerous, including limes, hard boiled eggs, local herbs, chillies, tofu and bean sprouts. The noodle dish is commonly sold by street hawkers, carrying two baskets hanging from either end of a pole, one carrying the components of the dish, and the other holding a stove and pot full of boiling water to cook the elements fresh for the hungry patrons. The dish is thought to originate from Indian-Muslim vendors from the West Peninsular of Malaysia, and subsequently spread across the country, picking up influences and ingredients as it went, in a familiar pattern of Malaysian cuisine evolution. However, there are also stories primarily crediting native Malays, the Chinese-influenced Nyonyas and even Indonesians from Java with its invention. Whatever the case, it’s clear that this dish belongs in part to all Malaysians, and, more importantly, it’s delicious!