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 often taking centre stage, such as dates.


Masgouf

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Masgouf is commonly considered the national dish of Iraq, consisting of grilled carp. Being a freshwater fish, carp 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. I am probably naïve in supposing that it could be helpful if Australians developed more of a taste for carp, so that fishing industries could get them out of rivers and onto plates in preference 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. Saddam Hussein’s favourite dish was masgouf, and this knowledge apparently led the US task force to his bunker, after staking out the fish pond of a known associate, then tracking a bodyguard who came to collect fresh carp with which to prepare the masgouf. Were I hiding from US 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 short phrase. It’s 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

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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 tasting the elusive and promiscuous dish.


Kabsa/machboos

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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, it’s 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 is a fantastic accompaniment to the cardamom, giving the dish a heady sweet and aromatic accent.


Tharid

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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 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 heartiness 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, chillies 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. 

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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!

67. The Caribbean

Caribbean cuisine is an exemplar of fusion from disparate corners of the globe, including traditions from indigenous Amerindian peoples, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British colonists, West African influences from the slave trade, and latterly from East Indian and Chinese settlers when the slave trade was abolished and cheap labour was sought elsewhere. Many of the dishes that are now most synonymous with the region arose from the ingenuity of the African slaves adapting to their new surroundings and ingredients, crafting delicious recipes out of myriad influences of the colonists as well as from their own African traditions. I have been thinking of the cruel plight of such people all week, ripped from their homes and loved ones, perhaps trying to create little pieces of familiar comfort with these meals. Imagine the wasted potential of the genius who came up with these recipes – if their lives were not stolen into servitude, humanity might have advanced lightyears in science, literature or poetry. I’ve already cooked meals from Cuba back in week 26, and I was honestly devastated to lump the rest of the Caribbean together (the Lucayan Archipelago minus Cuba, the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles), given it’s so diverse and delicious. However, one of my main reasons for doing this is that so much of the traditional cooking relies on native ingredients, most of which are not available to me where I live. For example, some of the suggested national dishes for Barbados and Jamaica are flying fish and cou-cou, ackee and saltfish, goat curry, and dishes including breadfruit or conch, all of which have central exotic components that I couldn’t dream of obtaining. All the more reason to visit myself. Unfortunately, therefore, my cooking options were limited, and mostly involved dishes of rice, beans, chicken, saltfish and plantain bananas. I have mentioned some of the other meals throughout the descriptions to try not to leave too much out. 


Mangú con los tres golpes

Mangu con los tres golpes.jpg

Mangú is from the Dominican Republic, comprising a side dish of boiled plantain bananas, mashed up with butter or oil and seasoning. It can be served with all manner of meals, whether it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner, providing a starchy, comforting and slightly sweet contrast to whatever you might be eating. Mangú likely originates from Africans who were brought to the Caribbean during the slave trade. Plantains were thought to have already been introduced to the island, and the African inhabitants used these along with root vegetables, such as cassava, to make various starchy mashes. Many such mashes are still commonly eaten in Africa, where they go by names such as fufu. Indeed, around other parts of the Caribbean, similar preparations to mangú are popular, such as fufu de plátano in Cuba, and mofongo in Puerto Rico. I served my mangú with “los tres golpes”, meaning “the three hits”. These figurative “hits” are fried white cheese, thick slices of fried Dominican salami, and fried eggs. Those are certainly all hits in my book! Or maybe the “hit” refers to the toll on your arteries? I also topped my mangú with the traditional pickled and then sautéed red onions, and added some avocado in an attempt to include some sort of greenery in the meal. 


Doubles

Doubles.jpg

Doubles are a curry chickpea sandwich, popular as a street food in Trinidad and Tobago. The sandwich “breads”, called baras, are formed from a dough of flour, yeast, water, cumin and turmeric, the latter giving them their bright yellow colour. After a period of kneading and resting, the dough is rolled flat and shallow fried, until they puff up, becoming shiny and golden. The name “bara” is an alternative name for “vada”, which is used to described all manner of delicious fried carbohydrate snacks in India. The Indian connection is strengthened by the identity of the filling of doubles: curry channa. Chana is an Indian term for chickpeas, and this filling is a variation of the typical Indian/Pakistani dish chana masala, which are spiced, stewed, chickpeas. The curry channa is made by combining whole chickpeas with sautéed onion, garlic, Scotch bonnet chillies, cumin, curry powder, allspice, nutmeg and thyme. Water or stock is added to this mixture, and it is simmered until a thick stew is formed. This is then sandwiched between a pair of freshly fried baras, and a surprisingly simple-yet-delicious meal is created. Various chutneys or sauces, such as those with a base of green mango, green chillies, garlic, onion or tomato, are often provided at the street stall so that customers can add varieties and amounts to their taste. Doubles began, legend has it, with an entrepreneur named Mamoodeen. Mamoodeen sold various chickpea-based street food, including fried chickpeas wrapped up in a cone of paper, curried chickpeas alone, and latterly curried chickpeas on a single bara. His delighted customers would frequently request a second bara in their order, to turn the preparation into a closed sandwich, hence the name “doubles”. Hence, “Deen’s Doubles” became an explosively popular brand, although there are hundreds of other vendors pedalling the concept nowadays, and the most popular street food in Trinidad and Tobago was born. I can see why: nobody does spices quite like India, but the addition of the extra Caribbean spices like allspice and distinctive Scotch bonnet chillies adds an extra flair that showcases culinary fusion at its very finest. 


Jerk chicken, coleslaw, mango salsa, rice and peas, grilled corn

Jamaican jerk chicken, rice and peas, coleslaw, mango salsa.jpg

The “jerk” style of cooking has origins in the British takeover of Jamaica from the retreating Spanish colonists in 1655, which created an opportunity for African slaves to escape their incarceration into the wilds of Jamaica. Their new surroundings, and a collaboration with the indigenous Taíno people of the Jamaican mountains, prompted inventiveness with the food and resources available, and led to the creation of spicy sauces smothering cuts of meat that are then slow-cooked covered over a smoky fire until the outsides are slightly charred and deliciously caramelised. The term “jerk” could in part arise from the word “charqui”, which in turn is a Spanish interpretation of a Quechua word for dried meat (also leading to the English term “jerky”). Alternatively, “jerk” may refer to the action of poking holes into meat to enhance its marination. Jerk seasoning can be a dry rub or a wet marinade, and is incredibly variable in its composition. However, two ingredients are absolutely indispensable: allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers. Both of these are native to the Caribbean, the former imparting a sweet aromatic taste, while the latter gives a hot and sweet spiciness. The other ingredients commonly include thyme, onions or scallions, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, ginger, brown sugar, vinegar, lime juice, and even sometimes soy sauce. The cooking method of jerk meat has moved from the traditional outdoor fire, to street stalls using halved hinged metal barrels, filled with hot charcoal, with holes in the lid for smoke ventilation. Along with the jerk chicken I served a Jamaican-style coleslaw, including cabbage, scallions, capsicum, carrots, chillies and dressed with mustard and lime juice. I also made a mango salsa, making use of the popular fruit found throughout the Caribbean, combined with red onion, capsicums, coriander and lime juice. “Rice and peas” is an explosively popular Caribbean dish, particularly during Sunday lunch, and can be initially confusing until you realise that “peas” does not refer to green garden peas, but rather any kind of legume, commonly red kidney beans. The rice and beans are cooked together with allspice, onion, garlic, Scotch bonnet chilli, thyme, ginger and coconut milk until tender and delicious. I wish I could have made all of the variations of rice and beans throughout the Caribbean, such as “la bandera” (the flag) in the Dominican Republic, which consists of rice, beans and a hearty meat stew, but unfortunately I only had time to make this basic preparation. I loved the rice and peas, and can’t imagine where the motivation for the famous Bahamian song “Mamma don’t want no peas ’n’ rice and coconut oil” came from – I’m sure my Mamma and many others would adore this dish! Finally, I made grilled corn, and was delighted to find a multicoloured corn to grill. This variety has a particular significance to nerdy geneticists such as myself, as it was the crucial model system used in 1950s by Barbara McClintock, eventual Nobel Prize winner, who bred this type of corn to discover the existence of transposable elements or “jumping genes”: DNA sequences that can change position within a genome, creating or reversing mutations in the process. This process contributes to the non-uniform colouration on some of the corn kernels, but was also a crucial discovery to our knowledge of genetics (about 44% of the human genome is made up of transposable elements), as well as genetic tools with which to alter DNA within organisms. I’ve used technology based on this knowledge myself to alter DNA and make new discoveries about brain development, all thanks to the wonderful McClintock and her multicoloured corn. Sorry to digress from my mistress (cooking) and onto my wife (science) for a moment! Now let’s return…


Green fig and saltfish, festival and callaloo

Green fig and saltfish, festival, callaloo.jpg

Green fig and saltfish is the national dish of Saint Lucia, consisting of a mixture of “green fig”, which is actually boiled plantain bananas, along with flakes of boiled salted cod, known as bacalao in Portuguese, sautéed along with other flavourings such as thyme, onion, garlic, tomato and capsicum. The green bananas are very starchy and not very sweet, so they form a potato-like basis to many savoury meals in the Caribbean. Salted cod is a traditional staple in the region, as it was given to slaves, being both nutritious and cheap, as well as being well-preserved by the salt in the hot local weather. The dish is therefore, as with many delicious meals from the region, thought to have arisen from the inventiveness of African slaves making use of available ingredients and culinary knowledge. Salted cod is used in many recipes across the Caribbean, including accras (saltfish fritters), arroz con bacalao (rice and saltfish), oil down (saltfish and breadfruit stew) and ackee and saltfish. The latter is often regarded as the national dish of Jamaica, consisting of salted cod mixed with onions, Scotch bonnet peppers, tomatoes and boiled ackee, which is a fruit introduced from Ghana related to the lychee. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to make all of these, so because I couldn’t source many ingredients where I live in Brisbane (such as ackee, which also happens to be poisonous if incorrectly prepared – no thanks!), I chose green fig and saltfish as the representative saltfish dish of the region. Another representative placeholder for a huge category of varied creations is festival, a fried maize dumpling from Jamaica, delicately spiced with nutmeg. Other fried breads/dumplings from the region include johnnycakes, fry bakes, spinners and sinkers (named for their movement while deep frying), and, generically, dumplings. I was completely unprepared for how delicious these dumplings were. I made them by combining cornmeal, white flour, milk, baking powder, butter and a little sugar, then formed them into cylinders and fried them in oil. They taste exactly like an unsweetened doughnut, which I suppose they are. I could have eaten a disgusting number of them, so I’m glad in retrospect that I halved the recipe and only made a few. Finally, I cooked callaloo, the concept of which was brought over with the slave trade with inspiration from dishes such as Palaver sauce in West Africa. The dish is made with stewed leafy green vegetables, from whatever plant is locally available across the Caribbean, although with special status as contending national dish in Trinidad and Tobago. The preparation can vary from very simple combinations of leaves, salt, and onions, to also including coconut milk, other vegetables such as tomato, garlic, capsicum and onion, as well as local spices, meat and seafood. I compromised and combined garlic, onion, tomato and leafy greens. 

66. Germany

To me, German cuisine is composed of myriad contradictions. A quick google image search for “German food” will shortly reveal an array of meaty and potatoey dishes, some of which may look hearty and appetising, but very few of which could be honestly described as beautiful. True, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I dare you to look up “mett hedgehog” and tell me hand-on-heart that it is an elegant and subtle example of culinary presentation. For those unable or unwilling to use google, mett is a preparation of raw pork mince, and one of the preferred ways to serve it (still raw) is moulded into the shape of a hedgehog, with raw onion slices sticking out to form the spines. There is, however, something undeniably special about the mett hedgehog: when I explained it to my friends, they were inexplicably and immediately attached to the concept. I’m therefore truly sorry that I devastated so many by refusing to prepare the hedgehog this week – I could give the reason that I wasn’t so sure about eating the raw pork in Australia, but, honestly, my major concern was that my amateur artistic talent could never make the mett hedgehog look appetising, and, indeed, that it might end up being a horrifying eyesore, like a hedgehog trapped in a fire that has started to blister and melt. The contradiction to all of my disparagement, is that Germany is the second most highly Michelin Star-decorated country in the world (behind France), and was also rated as 10th best cuisine in the world by Ranker Travel. This is perhaps due to the willingness of the population to adhere to modern trends in food fashion, such as eating seasonally and locally, and freely adopting international foods and integrating them into the existing cuisine in remarkable examples of culinary fusion. It was appropriate that I completed my foray into German week now, because it is the end of September, marking the start of one of the most famous German celebrations: Oktoberfest. Yes, I know it sounds strange, with the month “October” in the title, but the festival usually starts in mid- to late- September and runs until early October, ending on German Unity Day, October 3, in modern times. The Oktoberfest originated in the enormous celebration of the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese in the early 1800s, which was held in a meadow and open to all of Munich. The people of Munich enjoyed the party so much that the Prince threw another one the next year, using the opportunity to promote and celebrate Bavarian farmers, including sampling their produce. This slowly morphed into a festival primarily focused upon one particularly beloved German product, beer, but also peripherally features traditional German costume and food. These snacks serve an important role in soaking up beer, commonly featuring a lot of wurst and pork products, sauerkraut, schnitzel and pretzels – but more on all of that to come!


Pork knuckle, potato salad, asparagus salad and purple sauerkraut

Pork knuckle, potato salad, sauerkraut and asparagus.JPGPork knuckle, or schweinshaxe, as it’s known in German, is a cured ham hock, roasted until the outside skin is crunchy and the inside is tender and juicy. This is particularly popular in the region of Bavaria, and is a typical example of former peasant foods: ingenious concoctions from cheap parts of the animal. I was pleased to be able to cook this option, because a different ham hock preparation, eisbein, which is pickled and then boiled, is sometimes considered one of the national dishes of Germany, but the pictures of it were so unappetising that I was practically forced to cook roasted pork knuckle in its place. Sorry Germans! German potato salad, called kartoffelsalat, can be served warm or cold, and differs from region to region. The south has the superior option, if my (obviously impartial) southern German friends are to be believed, containing red baby potatoes, bacon, mustard, onion, vinegar and herbs. The potato salad from the north, in contrast, is characterised by any type of potatoes drenched in mayonnaise. I also made a salad with mixed lettuce and asparagus, the latter being particularly beloved by Germans, but especially the white variety when it’s in season. It is currently estimated that Germans eat an average of 1.5 kg of asparagus each per year. Finally, I served the meal with purple sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, literally meaning “sour cabbage” is one of the most famous fermented foods, featuring prominently in a ferment-your-own-food class I attended recently. Surprisingly, sauerkraut originated in China, where it was traditionally fermented with rice wine. It was subsequently introduced to Europe, possibly by the Tatars or even Genghis Khan, where it was modified with the addition of salt instead of rice wine. Although sauerkraut gained popularity all over Europe, with English maritime explorer James Cook, famed for the white exploration of Australia, reportedly never travelling without it because the fermentation process increases the bioavailability of nutrients, and is therefore particularly good for preventing malnutrition diseases such as scurvy. However, the dish has become particularly synonymous with Germany,  to the point where “kraut” became a derogatory term for Germans. It’s dead easy to make your own sauerkraut: chop up cabbage, massage it, salt it, plop it in an airtight container completely covered in liquid (hopefully its own released juices but potentially assisted with some water), then leave at room temperature for as long as your tastes dictate, being sure to “burp” it daily by removing the lid and letting out the build up of gas. The bacteria that cause the fermentation are lactobacilli, which naturally live on raw cabbage leaves, and therefore those dodgy looking outside leaves are important to include in the mix; that’s where all the bacteria are! In Germany, sauerkraut is served either cold or warm, although heating it up too much would kill all those healthful gut bacteria that are well known to improve digestion and prevent many bowel ailments, so I ate mine cold. In addition to this, sauerkraut is thought to alleviate canker sores, maintain eye health and potentially even inhibit the growth of cancer cells! However, the store-bought versions are inevitably pasteurised and therefore have lost many of the advantages, so go ahead and make your own to reap the full rewards of magical sauerkraut.


Assorted wursts, pretzel, grüne soße, sauerkraut, birnen, bohnen und speck salad.

weisswurst bratwurst currywurst sauerkraut grune sosse pretzel.JPGA quick google image search of German cuisine will reveal a wealth of wursts, or as we  call them in English, sausages, in every size and colour imaginable. I have never considered sausages the most aesthetically pleasing of culinary innovations, but it’s clear they are paramount to German food culture, so I had to include some. However, the next problem I encountered was the vast number of sausage varieties, each particular to a certain region of Germany, and each with its own particular traditional accompaniments. Pictured from top to bottom in my sausage array is first currywurst, sometimes said to be the national dish of Germany. Currywurst is usually made with steamed, then fried, pork sausage, such as knackwurst or bratwurst (I used knackwurst), which is slathered in a thick sauce made of tomato ketchup, vinegar and lots of mild curry powder, and served along with a heaping side of hot chips. The origin of the sauce is thought to be a woman named Herta Heuwer in 1949 Berlin, who managed to procure ketchup and curry powder from British soldiers. Herta’s street food snack became explosively popular in the devastating years following the end of the war, at one point selling over 10,000 serves of currywurst every week, and triggering the creation of an entire Museum in its honour in 2009. Next I grilled bratwurst, literally meaning “finely-chopped meat sausage”, with over 700 years of history in Germany. Bratwurst has countless recipes and varieties, and can be accompanied by bread, mustard, sauerkraut or potato salad. Next comes the Bavarian weißwurst, literally “white sausage”, which is made from veal and pork, flavoured with parsley, lemon, onions, ginger and cardamom. They were originally eaten as a snack between breakfast and lunch, certainly before the midday church bells had sounded, due to their highly perishable nature. The sausages are boiled and traditionally served in the hot water that they were boiled in, to keep them warm. The skin of the weißwurst is usually not eaten, and therefore the sausages can be split and the meat scooped out, or, more traditionally, sucked out directly from the skin and accompanied by a soft pretzel and mustard. From all of the possible accompaniments to these sausages I chose sauerkraut, soft pretzel, grüne soße, and birnen, bohnen und speck salad. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the virtues of sauerkraut, but let me now tell you about the wonders of German pretzels. To make them, a dough is first formed by combining flour, milk, water, butter, yeast and salt. After a period of kneading and resting, long thin worms are formed out of the dough, which are then shaped into the classic pretzel knot shape, and then immersed for a few seconds in a boiling solution of water and lye, or as a substitute (as I used), water and baking soda, which gives them their characteristic shiny skin and flavour through a process called the Maillard reaction. The pretzels are then seasoned with salt flakes, and baked until golden and delicious. Pretzels are thought to have been invented by monastery monks in the middle ages, who formed them to resemble arms crossed devoutly to the chest, and were bestowed upon well-behaved children who learned their prayers. However, there is also speculation that pretzels were created by German bakers in 743 after a decree that baked goods shaped into heathen symbols, such as a sun cross, as was previously popular, were henceforth banned. These days, in some parts of Germany, there is a special day called “Pretzel Sunday” during which boys must give their girlfriends pretzels, the size directly proportional to the degree of his affection. No pressure, bakers! Grüne soße, literally “green sauce”, describes a cold sauce made with handfuls of herbs, such as cress, chives, sorrel and parsley, along with sour cream, oil, vinegar, mustard and hard boiled eggs. It is often served as an accompaniment to bread, boiled potatoes, meat or eggs. Famous German writer Goethe famously adored grüne soße, with an urban legend circulating that his mother invented the sauce.  Finally, in an attempt to include some vegetables in the meal, I made a birnen, bohnen und speck salad, combining steamed green beans, fresh pears and fried pieces of bacon.


Käsespätzle

kasespatzle.JPGThe word “spätzle” might derive from a term meaning “little sparrows”, perhaps referring to the irregular and organic shapes of this egg pasta, resembling feathers or wings. Another theory is that the word comes from the Italian “spezzato”, meaning “small pieces”. These sorts of rustic boiled dumplings are popular in surrounding regions, such as Hungary, where they are called nokedli, or Switzerland, where they are called knöpfle. Spätzle is a dish particularly synonymous with Swabia, a region of south-western Germany. To make spätzle, a thin dough is formed with flour, egg, salt and water, then laid out on a wooden chopping board and scraped off in thin irregular shapes. Spätzle are often served as a side dish to meals that have particularly generous lashings of sauce, such as sauerbraten (but more on that next!). I prepared a dish where spätzle was the primary ingredients: käsespätzle, literally meaning “spätzle with cheese”. This involves baking already-cooked spätzle with lots of grated cheese (often Emmental) and fried onion. This is sometimes said to be the German version of USA mac ’n’ cheese, although I would posit that the fresh hand-made pasta, sophisticated cheese and sweet fried onions renders the German version far superior.


Sauerbraten, potato dumplings, grünkohl and vegetables

sauerbraten grunkhol potato dumplings.JPGSauerbraten, one of the forerunners for national dish of Germany, literally means “sour roast meat”. Ah, so literal, these Germans! The dish is usually prepared from cuts of beef nowadays, although more traditionally with horse. The recipe takes quite a bit of forethought, as the meat needs to be marinated for 3-10 days, submerged in a mixture of vinegar, red wine, onion and spices such as bay leaves, pepper, cloves and juniper berries. This process of long-term vinegar marination tenderises even the toughest cuts of meat, and imparts aromatic, sweet and sour notes to the meat. When the long marination is finally complete, the meat is simmered in its marinade, with vegetables such as carrot, onion and celery for several hours until cooked and almost falling apart. The meat is then removed, and the sauce finished, often by reducing, straining and/or the addition of a shocking secret ingredient: crumbled gingersnaps. Gingersnaps, thin, crumbly and sweet biscuits that taste strongly like gingerbread, are a decadent childhood favourite of mine, but I must admit, I was sceptical about how their addition to a gravy would pan out. However, I needn’t have worried, the addition of gingersnaps is completely genius: they thickened the sauce smoothly, while imparting a delicious hint of ginger, as well as a sweetness that counteracts the vinegar of the marinade. All in all, the sauerbraten tasted remarkably cosy, with notes of hot wine, gingerbread, and sweet spices that I would usually associate with mulled wine and winter (and which I suppose many in the northern hemisphere would connect with Christmas). Indeed, many German families do enjoy sauerbraten for Christmas. The origins of sauerbraten are murky, although some figurative giants of world history have been implicated in its creation. For example, some propose that the amphoras of beef marinating in wine that Julius Caesar sent to Cologne over the Alps inspired the dish. Alternatively, others posit that Charlemagne himself invented the meal in order to prudently use up leftover meats. Whatever the story, it is clearly a proud and noble meal! German potato dumplings, called kartoffelklöße, are made by combining boiled and mashed potatoes with flour, eggs, bread crumbs, salt and nutmeg, then shaping the dough into balls and boiling them in salted water until cooked through. On its surface, grünkohl might seem surprisingly healthy for a German side dish, literally meaning “green kale”. Kale has reached cult status in northern Germany, where there are entire clubs devoted to touring country inns to sample dishes that make best use of the vegetable. There are also annual kale festivals, where the king and queen of kale are crowned after merriment and much leafy-green consumption. After a week of eating other German meals, I’m starting to think that Germans intake 100% of their yearly dietary fibre during one of these kale festivals, so that the rest of the year can be devoted to meat and potatoes without excessive gastronomic distress. Nevertheless, the popular side dish of grünkohl is usually not just stewed kale, but also includes pieces of onion, sausage, bacon, duck fat, potatoes and oats to thicken. By this stage in my week of cooking German food, I could almost feel my arteries filling with meat, so I opted to make a simpler version with just kale and onion. I know, cowardly of me, but you beat me, Germany! No more meat and potatoes please!