78. Vietnam

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


Chicken vermicelli salad and rice paper rolls

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


Pho bo

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


Banh mi

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


Lemongrass pork chop with broken rice

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

76. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana

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


Fish sauce maracudja, kalawang, giraumonade and fried plantains

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


Guyanese cook up rice/Surinamese moksi alesi

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


Pom and goedangan

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


Pepperpot

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

75. Mongolia

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


Buuz

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


Tsuivan

Tsuivan.JPG

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


Khorkhog

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


Budaatai khuurga

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

74. Northern USA

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


Thanksgiving

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


Cobb salad

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


Cheeseburger, hotdog and fries

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


New England clam chowder and Maryland crab cakes

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

73. Colombia

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


Bandeja Paisa

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


Empanadas fritas

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


Pescado frito

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


Ajiaco/Sancocho

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

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. 

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

bibimbapBibimbap 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, pickled cucumber, stir fried zucchini, sautéed spinach,  gochujang-based chilli sauce, sautéed carrot, blanched bean sprouts and shitake mushrooms, 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. There’s something pleasing in the necessary transience of this beautiful dish – it must be destroyed soon after being served to properly cook the raw egg yolk, so your enjoyment of its aesthetics needs to be brief and intense! 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?