67. The Caribbean: Lesser Antilles

I had originally intended to group much of the Caribbean together – it just has so many tiny-yet unique nations that it felt too difficult for me to even begin deciding how to split it up. However, my fascination and adoration with the exotic melting pot of food in this region ultimately won out, and I split it into first Cuba and The Lucayan Archipelago, second, The (rest of the) Greater Antilles and third The Lesser Antilles. The Lesser Antilles describes the group of islands on the most easterly end of the Caribbean, trailing down towards continental South America. The Lesser Antilles itself can be loosely divided into many Leeward Islands (Virgin Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Dominica etc), Windward Islands (St Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenadad, Trinidad and Tobago etc), and the Leeward Antilles (Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire etc). Many of the islands of the Lesser Antilles are territories of, or closely associated with, colonial powers such as the US, UK, Netherlands and France, and influences from these countries, as well as local fare and African customs via the slave trade and latterly Indian and Chinese influences from migrant workers. I’ve already waxed lyrical about my love of Caribbean food’s vibrancy, taste and variety, and the Lesser Antilles didn’t disappoint my high expectations!


Crab and callaloo

crab and callaloo.JPG“Callaloo” is popular all over the Caribbean, and is a lose term describing any sort of stewed indigenous leaf vegetable (amaranth, taro lead or xanthosome being a few examples), each with their own regional flairs and ingredients. In some parts of the Caribbean, callaloo is a thick fibrous dish more akin to collard greens,(see the The Caribbean: Greater Antilles week for a Jamaican example served with ackee and saltfish), and in other parts it constitutes a runny soup-like consistency. Trinidad and Tobago famously adores the latter sort of callaloo, and it is considered by many as its national dish, thought to be created by African slaves in the 16th century. The callaloo soup itself is made by stewing greens combined with onion, garlic, scotch bonnet peppers, coconut milk, thyme and okra, then pureeing it into a silky homogenate. The thickness and chunkiness of the soup is entirely determined by the preference of the cook, and can be made to match the desired accompaniment. For instance, callalloo can be eaten by itself, with protein (most commonly seafood or meat) immersed in it, or as a gravy-like side to flavour rice, dumplings, or any other meal. Crab and callaloo is a particularly popular pairing in Trinidad and Tobago, most commonly eaten for Sunday lunch with friends and family. This dish was an unexpected hit when I took it to Sunday lunch to share with my parents. My Mum, a hardcore lifelong fan of all things vegetable, loved the idea of combining tonnes of leafy greens into a delicious side dish that could be slopped onto anything. My Dad, an accomplished artist, particularly appreciated the colours and Picasso-esque presentation of the soup, which we quickly agreed to subtitle “deconstructed crab”.


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. 


Flying fish and cou-cou

flying fish and cou cou.JPGCou-cou, also known as fungi/fungee, forms at least part of the national dish on many islands of the Caribbean, including Antigua and Barbuda, The Virgin Islands and Barbados. It describes a thick mash of yellow cornmeal and okra, with origins in Caribbean-African slaves creating a cheap and filling meal with inspirations and ingredients from both continents. After cooking a large vat of cou-cou, I started to understand the utility of the “cou-cou stick”, unique to this part of the world, which is a miniature cricket-bat like utensil that I imagine would help immensely to quickly stir the cou-cos without it getting stuck to everything and lumpy. In Barbados, cou-cou is paired with flying fish to create the country’s indisputable national dish: flying fish and cou-cou, traditionally served on Fridays. The fish can be fried or steamed, and in the latter case is often served with a thick sauce of onions, garlic. tomatoes, peppers and thyme. Just the name of this dish is so evocative to me of sunny, palm-tree lined, paradisiac beaches, where your afternoon sipping on rum-based drinks and eating delicious food is punctuated by flying fish leaping from the nearby water, gliding for a seemingly supernatural amount of time before disappearing into the brilliant turquoise below. Unfortunately, although a paradise in its own ways, the east coast of Australia where I live does not contain any flying fish, and so it was impossible to source this particular species for the dish. Indeed, pollution and overfishing have lead to a decline in flying fish in the Caribbean, so this fantasy is likely scarce even in Barbados. I substituted the flying fish with sardine fillets, and a visit to Barbados will obviously be necessary for me to fully understand the differences – such a sacrifice(!).


Goat water

goat water.jpgFrom the outset I’ll say this about goat water: it could use a marketing team. First off, the name: it put me in mind of some muddy water that live goats have bathed in, or, perhaps worse, some variety of thin liquid excreted from a goat orifice. An alternative name, kiddy stew, makes me think of the witch in Hansel and Gretel making a soup out of children. Next, we have the aesthetics, and even the most of ambitious of food photographers online have struggled to dress it up as anything other than a bowl of brown lumps floating in watery brown liquid. This introduction may have come across as disparaging, but let me assure you it’s anything but. My urgency for the better marketing of this dish is because, after tasting it, I felt I’d discovered a wonderful secret hidden behind many off-putting layers. Goat water is the national dish of Montserrat, and is thought to take inspiration from Irish stew, substituting the more readily available goat meat, stewed in liquid or stock until tender. Other flexible possible ingredients include potatoes, carrots, squash, breadfruit, unripe plantains, onions, papaya, celery, all spice, garlic, thyme, rum, tomatoes, and of course the ever-present scotch bonnet pepper. It is also commonly paired with rice, bread or, as I have done, soft dumplings made with white flour, baking powder, salt and milk. These ingredients combine into a wonderfully savoury and hearty medley of warming comfort, with the slightly gamey goat meat perfectly flavouring the blander vegetables and dumplings. Goat meat itself is lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol than many common meats, higher in protein than beef, and rich in iron and many vitamins. Goats also need less pasture area than cows, and are a more adaptable animal to changing landscapes, perhaps making them an important meat source for future environments impacted by global warming. So, hopefully by now I’ve convinced you of the many taste, health and ecological virtues of this dish, as well as trying my hardest to make it as aesthetically appealing as possible. Now it is up to you to go forth and make/try goat water for yourself and subsequently proselytise its wonders to the world. But how can we band together to rebrand it? Jamaica has a famous goat soup called “mannish water” which has had songs written about its purported aphrodisiac qualities. However, these qualities are imparted in particular by the addition of goat offal, and the effects spurious, so perhaps that isn’t an ideal strategy. “Chevon” is sometimes used to market goat meat in the United States, so maybe we could use that to start a new name; Chevon chauldron, for a whimsical element of alliteration, perhaps?

54. Pakistan

Pakistani cuisine is influenced by neighbouring Indian cuisine and Central Asia, as well as having historical influences from the Mughal Empire, ruled from the 1500s by a Muslim dynasty. There is great diversity across the varied cultural groups and regions of Pakistan, particularly along the east-west axis, with the eastern part of the country favouring strongly seasoned and spicy food, similar to their Indian neighbours, whereas the western part favours milder recipes that resemble their Central Asian neighbours. One thing seems to unite many Pakistanis however: the average citizen eats many times more meat than their neighbours. The Indus valley, which runs through Pakistan, was one of the early cradles of civilisation due to its climatic conditions and fertile earth. This region nurtured the rise of numerous ingredients critical to Pakistani food from as early as 3000 BC, including eggplant, turmeric, cardamom, black pepper, mustard, sesame and the domestication of cattle. As with some Central Asian countries, it is common for many families to eat cross-legged on the floor around a cloth called a dastarkhan, or a slightly raised platform called a takht. I think I might start championing this custom all over the globe – it would be great to save space by not having a big bulky dining table that’s rarely used, and to be able to invite innumerable guests for dinner, only requiring a large enough cloth to accommodate them all!


Haleem

haleem

Haleem is a thick stew or soup that is enjoyed widely throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It is always made with meat (often lamb or beef), a grain such as wheat, barley or sometimes rice to thicken it, and some variety of lentils. The main constant in this recipe is the time taken to cook it, which can be hours over a low heat, reducing it to a thick, homogenous paste. I made mine with beef chunks, mixed lentils (yellow, black, brown, green) and barley, stewed along with garlic, ginger, saffron, fenugreek, coriander, cumin, chaat masala, turmeric, chilli and garam masala, and garnished it with fried onions, coriander and lime. The idea only occurred to me later, but I regret not cooking this in my slow cooker – I think it would have been just as good, and I wouldn’t have had to watch the stove all day! The origins of haleem can be traced back to a cookbook scribed in the 10th century, which listed recipes popular among the lords and leaders of Baghdad, and is thought to be the oldest surviving Arabic cook book. Apparently the version of haleem (then called harees/jareesh) from this cookbook is very similar to those cooked in Pakistan today, after being introduced some six centuries later and slightly modified to suit the local palates and ingredients. Haleem is enjoyed all year in Pakistan, but is most frequently made during Ramadan in particularly Muslim regions, when the faithful fast between dawn and dusk. After eating my haleem I can understand why – the warming mix of complex carbohydrates and proteins means that it would be very sustaining during the long hours of obligatory fasting during the day!


Chapli kebab, chana chaat and green salad

chapli kebab chana chaat

Chapli kebab originates from Peshawar in northwest Pakistan (and is therefore also sometimes called Peshwari kebab), but is now popular all over the country, as well as in India and Afghanistan. It can be served at barbecues, by street vendors, in lunch boxes, by restaurants or home cooks. The word chapli comes from a Pashto word meaning “flat”, which refers to the classic shape of the kebab which resembles a round hamburger patty. However, there are also some who argue it comes from another word meaning “sandal”, and that the kebabs are supposed to resemble the size and thickness of the front sole of a traditional shoe. I made my chapli kebabs by marinating beef mince (although lamb is also sometimes used), with garam masala, chilli powder, cayenne pepper, coriander, mint, onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, cumin, lemon and egg to bind. I then formed them into patties and shallow-fried them in a saucepan. Chana chaat is a classic street food made with cooked chickpeas, cubes of potato, onion and tomato, spices with chilli, cumin, chaat masala, lime/lemon juice, coriander and mint. Its name comes from words which can mean “a delicacy” “to lick/taste” and “to eat noisily”. A name to raise one’s expectations if ever there was one! Indeed both the kebabs and chana chaat were extremely aromatic and delicious, and, along with the green salad, provided a mix of colours, temperatures and textures that was very enjoyable.


Chicken jalfrezi

chicken jalfreziChicken jalfrezi is considered a Pakistani Chinese dish, mixing elements of South Asian and Chinese cooking. However, it also has origins in English interpretations of cooking on the Indian subcontinent: the story goes that a British Raj would make it by frying up leftovers with chilli and onion. Its name derives from words meaning “spicy food” and “suitable for a diet”, which already sounds good to me. Indeed, the tomato base, lean chicken and vegetables mean that it is a very light and low-calorie curry compared to other varieties laden with fats and cream. Chicken jalfrezi is also popular because it’s very fast to make, unlike many Pakistani curries which can take hours and hours to slowly stew. I made mine by marinating chicken pieces in cumin, ground coriander, garam masala and turmeric, then frying them with a sauce of onion, garlic, chilli, tomatoes, capsicums and fresh coriander. It was deliciously spicy and light – much more refreshing than many classic curries from the region. Just the thing to eat for a moderate lunch on a bed of fluffy white rice!


Nihari

nihari

Nihari is often touted as the national dish of Pakistan, and is usually made with shank meat from beef, lamb, mutton or goat. The meat is stewed for several hours along with a strong symphony of spices, including pepper, turmeric, coriander seeds, ginger, fennel, cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf and nutmeg, with only a little plain flour to thicken the mixture. I found the flavour a very unusual mix of strongly spiced/aromatic notes, with a richness from the lamb fat, but it was also strangely thin, given that it isn’t thickened with cream, tomato or other vegetables, as with more familiar curries. The dish originated from the Muslim population of the Indian subcontinent, apparently first concocted centuries ago by a “hakeem”, a wise man or doctor of the time. The dish became particularly popular in Pakistan after independence and the subsequent mass migration of Muslims from northern India. In some Pakistani restaurants, an essential component of the daily nihari is that some leftovers from the previous day (called taar) be added to the pot, which reminds me somewhat of a sourdough starter. There are even very old establishments who boast centuries of unbroken taar! As with many spiced meaty broths around the world, nihari is made by fretful parents and spouses when their loved ones fall ill with common colds and fevers. In addition to being a fool-proof home remedy, nihari is also a popular breakfast/brunch dish. Cooks will put the dish on to simmer overnight, and then by the morning the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and completely infused with the cacophony of spices. In fact, the name nihari itself means “dawn”. I served my nihari with the bones, as is traditional, and although not pictured, with plenty of naan to sop up the liquid.

53. Spain

I went on a holiday to Spain a few years ago, and my first exposure to Spanish cuisine was during a conversation with the taxi driver who picked us up at the Madrid airport. In the grand tradition of taxi driver stereotypes, this one was an overweight middle aged man, with social ideologies slightly to the right of Hitler. We asked him generally about the food scene in Madrid, including whether or not we might find restaurants specialising in Basque, Catalan or even South American cuisine that we could try in addition to the local favourites. The driver laughed and told us that he would never eat any foreign food, including any that came from other parts of Spain outside of Madrid. As you may have guessed by now, one of my greatest pleasures in life is sampling exotic food, so this proclamation rendered me speechless and horrified. Eventually I managed to attempt to clarify the statement with a stammered “but… you really don’t eat anything that’s not traditionally from Madrid? Not even pizza or pasta?” to which he conceded “well, of course, everyone loves pizza and pasta!”. I feel like this curious interaction did represent Spanish cuisine in a strange way – it is a country proud (sometimes to the point of inflexibility) of its traditional food, although with a chequered history of invasions, introductions and influences that have shared and muddied the true origins of foods. Certainly, many of Spain’s most famous modern dishes rely on ingredients such as the potato and tomato, which were only introduced after the discovery and colonisation of the Americas. Before the Roman Empire, however, Spain was divided into the Celts of the north, who heavily relied upon seafood, the Iberians of the centre-east, who kept livestock and were keen hunters, and the Tartessos of the South, who were keen miners and producers of precious metal, trading their wares with Africa and Greece, and who probably received much of the early-imported foods such as olives and grapes. Modern Spain, however, is divided into many more political and cultural regions and subregions, each with their own culinary specialities and ideal environmental conditions to produce choice ingredients. I therefore couldn’t possibly cook exemplary cuisine from every single region of Spain, but tried to sample some of the most famous and produce a wide selection that one might find in many parts of the country.


Tapas

tapas.jpgTapa” originally meant “cover” or “lid” and its transition into the term meaning an assortment of small portions of food, often served with an alcoholic beverage, has an uncertain origin. For example, one story posits that a lid was commonly placed over bar patrons’ drinks (especially sweet sherry) to keep off the pesky flies, and that over time it became customary to serve a snack on these covers. Or perhaps it comes from King Alfonso XIII, who ordered a glass of wine in a seaside tavern of Cádiz, which the thoughtful waiter brought covered with a slice of ham so as to protect it from the sand blowing off the beach. The King purportedly enjoyed the presentation so much he asked for another glass, again with the ingenious cover. Alternatively, maybe the tradition began when few Spaniards could read or write, rendering menus pointless and recording orders impossible. Instead, tavern owners took to offering a small sample of their offerings presented on a pot lid. Of course, the fact that most tapas are salty and stimulate thirst to keep patrons drinking, while lining their stomachs sufficiently to prevent too much rowdiness, has probably helped the tradition along. There is also the fact that dinner in Spain is served notoriously late, often after 9pm, and so tapas can bridge the long gap between lunch and dinner, and offers a pleasant opportunity to barhop the afternoon away with friends, often visiting many establishments that each specialise in a different variety of tapas. Sometimes these tapas are served free with a drink, or can be ordered independently to comprise a meal, or a single tapa can even be upgraded to a whole meal (called a ración). They are often served with toothpicks to allow hygienic sharing, as well as with bread to mop up some of the saucier dishes. The association with toothpicks has also led to tapas being called pinchos/pintxos in other parts of Spain, meaning skewer. There are infinite dishes that are served as tapas in Spain, but here I have prepared some that are fairly common: mixed olives, albondigas (meatballs in a tomato and paprika sauce), calamares (battered squid), cheese-stuffed peppers, gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns), patatas bravas (roast potatoes with a tomato-based sauce), pulpo gallego (paprika octopus), ham and cheese croquetas, jamon serrano, manchego cheese, tostadas (toasted bread with fresh tomato and garlic spread), mixed grilled capsicum, tomatoes and quince paste. I would go into more detail on how I made each thing, but I feel tired just remembering the day that I prepared this, so perhaps it will not be enjoyable for you to read all about it. Suffice to say, it was a mammoth task to undertake, but incredibly delicious to eat, as one of my favourite things about any meal is having lots of different things to try, and tapas is the emperor of this concept. Of course, therefore, I love tapas with all of my heart, but maybe next time I will just pay a restaurant to make it all for me?


Tortilla española, gazpacho and ensalada mixta

tortilla espanola, gazpacho and ensalada mixtaOkay, okay, so technically tortilla española and gazpacho are also common examples of tapas. But almost everything can be turned into tapas in Spain, and some things are too delicious for only small portions. Tortilla española is an omelette that, at its simplest and most traditional, can comprise just eggs and potatoes. If you were feeling a bit fancy and rebellious, however, you could splurge by adding some caramelised onions, chives, garlic, or even salt and pepper! Ever the rebel, I included onion, salt and pepper in mine, although drew the line there – I’m not an anarchist. Potatoes are sliced thinly, then sautéed in a skillet, after which they are combined with beaten eggs. The mixture is fried in a skillet, and slices can be served either hot or cold, often as an appetiser. The origins of this dish are mysterious, possibly arising from poverty, with a couple of eggs being stretched to feed six people with the addition of potatoes to bulk up the meal. Another story suggests that a famous Basque Carlist general during the Carlist Wars nicknamed “The Wolf of Las Amezcoas” once happened upon a farmhouse and asked the wife for a meal. This (typically un-named) creator quickly cobbled together a potato omelette with the limited ingredients available, and the general liked it so much he distributed the recipe throughout Spain. Gazpacho is a cold soup from Andalusia, made from raw tomato, as well as cucumber, capsicum, onion, garlic, stale bread, olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt, blended into a smooth liquid. It’s thought that gazpacho has origins in ancient Rome, where soups of bread, olive oil, vinegar, water and garlic were popular and were eventually introduced to Spain. During the 19th century, tomatoes became integral to the recipe as they gained popularity in Europe. I grew up hearing pop-culture references to gazpacho, including Lisa Simpson offering the greatly-disparaged dish as a vegetarian option at her father’s barbecue, and Rimmer making the ultimate social faux pas by loudly sending back his gazpacho starter at a fancy dinner because it was cold on an episode of “Red Dwarf”. It wasn’t until well into adulthood, that I discovered gazpacho, and quickly fell in love with its wonderful savoury and refreshing taste. I served these dishes with ensalada mixta, which is a very flexible “mixed salad”, commonly containing at least tuna, lettuce, tomatoes, olives and onion.


Paella

paella.jpgI approached paella with great trepidation, mostly because I have long remembered the lessons learned by Jamie Oliver, famous British chef, when he published his version of the traditional dish. Social media soon went into overdrive, with comments ranging from pointed-yet-polite suggestions to overt and graphic death threats, mostly surrounding his inclusion of chorizo in a paella mixta. This, apparently, is akin to a cardinal sin, and the anger over the international incident united the oft-fractured Spain in ways that years of diplomacy could not. Oliver is not alone in his crimes: other chefs including Gordon Ramsay have faced backlash for tweaking their paellas with non-traditional ingredients like chillies. I have to admit, until I read about the furore, I would also have guessed chorizo was included in a paella (sorry, Spaniards). So, glad that poor Jamie Oliver took that particular bullet for me, I embarked upon some paella research. Paella hails from Valencia, a community on the eastern coast of Spain, and derives from an old Latin word “patella” meaning “pan”. “Valencian paella” is thought to be the original recipe, involving rice, green beans, meat (chicken, duck and rabbit), white beans, snails and saffron. Quite different to my impression of a paella! Other versions include vegetable paella and mixed paella, but I chose the version that I enjoyed most during my stay in Spain: paella de mariscos (seafood paella). Although not the original recipe, seafood paella is still regarded by Valencians as the only alternative authentic recipe to Valencian paella, as it has long been served close to the coast where seafood is easier to come by than meat. I started by sautéing garlic, chopped red onion and capsicum in a slug of olive oil, then added smoked paprika, saffron, thyme, fish stock and a little white wine and passata, and heated until boiling. I added the rice (of the “bomba” variety, specialised for paellas), evenly distributed it, then didn’t stir anymore for the rest of the process. This is important, as one of the hallmarks of a paella is the crust on the bottom of the rice that is wonderfully flavourful (called “socarrat”), and stirring will ruin its formation. I next added green peas, rings of squid, prawns, clams, and mussels in order of required cooking time, then left the liquid to absorb uncovered over a medium-low heat. I served my paella with slices of lemon and sprigs of fresh parsley, and I cooked it over the barbecue in a paella pan I picked up at a second hand store, which is required to be shallow and wide, to assist in the formation of the socarrat, perhaps. Although my paella pan is more than double the size of any of my other saucepans, it pales in comparison to some of the largest, which have made it into the Guinness World Records after feeding over 100,000 people.


Fabada asturiana

fabada asturiana.JPGFabada asturiana arises from the Principality of Asturias, and is a rich stew of large white beans, chorizo, morcilla (blood pudding), pork/ham/bacon, flavoured with onion, garlic, saffron and smoked paprika. The dish has since spread and is now a favourite all over Spain, especially during winter when its warm heartiness is particularly appreciated. Fabada asturiana is even sold ready-made in cans in supermarkets for the culinarily unskilled or time-poor to enjoy at their convenience. The meal is often compared to the French cassoulet, which, if you cast your memories back to my very first week of southern France, I cooked with confit duck and roast potatoes (and which was, of course, delicious). I can see the similarities between the dishes, and therefore see logic in the theory that fabada asturiana originated from the French travelling to Spain along the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) during the Middle Ages. Legend has it that this meal was well-established by the 8th century, as the King of the Asturias feasted on fabada on the night before he battled the Moors, the victory of which fortified Christianity in the Picos de Europa Mountains for centuries to come. I didn’t have to fight any historically-significant battles after eating my fabada asturiana, but it certainly stuck to my insides in the warm and comforting way one might wish when setting out into the world on a cold winter’s morning.

52. Canada

Canadian cuisine is notoriously variable and disparate, adopting and incorporating dishes from many immigrant and influential cultures. Indeed an ex-prime minister of Canada once commented that Canada has a cuisine of cuisines, not a stew pot, but a smorgasbord. Some of this diversity can be attributed to the combination of the indigenous First Nations and Inuit inhabitants mingling with the waves of Scottish, English and French colonists, followed more recently by immigrants from all over Europe, Asia and the Americas. The native ingredients include berries, wild rice, squash and beans, as well as sea food, such as salmon and lobster, and meats such as moose and deer. These ingredients are particularly important, as the modern Canadian psyche surrounding food seems to place the ingredient, including locality, seasonality and quality, far above the recipe or technique in importance. Speaking of modern Canada, the hunky prime minister himself, Justin Trudeau, has said that the reason it’s so hard to find a typical Canadian food is that there is no typical Canadian, and that Canada should therefore take pride in its amazing diversity of people. Trudeau (are we on first name terms yet?) also favours healthy Asian cuisine and has volunteered a lot of his time to food banks, trying to make sure that good food is accessible to every Canadian… *swoon*.


Maple salmon, wild rice and vegetables

Maple salmon, vegetables and wild rice.JPG

The combination of ingredients in this meal is not stereotypically Canadian, but it does have many Canadian elements. Salmon is a native and much beloved ingredient of Canadian cuisine, eaten fresh when it can be caught during spawning season, or preserved as jerky to be eaten all year. A classic image that springs to my mind when thinking of Canada is the black bear fishing for salmon, possibly narrated by the dulcet tones of David Attenborough. Indeed, this event is thought to be very important for the entire forest ecosystem, as the bears deposit leftovers of their salmon feast, which releases nutrients to the soil and plants. I cooked the salmon under the oven grill, glazed with a combination of mustard and maple syrup, the latter being arguably the most recognisable of Canadian foodstuffs, with the maple leaf taking pride of place at the centre of the county’s flag. It was first collected by indigenous inhabitants prior to European settlement, and can be harvested only during a small window of early spring, by boring small holes into native maple tree trunks, collecting the exuded sap, and then reducing it into a thick syrup either with heat or by freezing it and then removing the ice. Indigenous cooking traditions often include the use of maple syrup where Europeans would use salt: such as to boil meats. Native rituals and legends therefore surround this important commodity, including explaining its development (the work of the legendary spirit trickster Nanabozho, or perhaps wise squirrels?) as well as annual dances in its honour on the first full moon of spring, known as the “sugar moon”. I also made wild rice, which is native to northern America, and has a pleasing black colour. It tasted nutty with a very chewy and firm texture – quite different from normal white rice. This is not surprising given that the two plants are not directly related, but are more like distant cousins. I served these with some fairly stock-standard vegetables, although squash at least is native to Canada. It was a wonderful and nutritious meal, and a lot like the sort of simple fare I would cook in the times before I undertook this adventure. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the addition of a maple and mustard glaze to grilled salmon; it’s delicious without overpowering the subtle taste of the fish.


Poutine

poutine.JPG

Apart from maple syrup, poutine is perhaps the most stereotypical Canadian dish. It originates from the province of Quebec, which is the only Canadian province to have a predominantly French-speaking population. Poutine is thought to have been invented in the 1950s, with many restaurants claiming the title of original inventor, and has since spread in popularity to other provinces, even inspiring annual festivals in its honour. Although poutine was originally mocked and was a source of shame for many residents of Quebec, it has now fortunately been re-appropriated and is celebrated with pride across the whole country. In a survey of the greatest Canadian inventions, poutine (number 10) even beat the BlackBerry and the electron microscope. I’ve used an electron microscope, and it is an incredibly ingenious and complicated machine, so I was excited to try its victor. It is not the prettiest of foods that I’ve cooked, and indeed it’s thought that the etymology of the name relates to a slang Quebecois word meaning “mess”. It consists of a base of hot chips/fries, topped with fresh cheese curds and brown gravy. It sounds simple enough, however, there is great debate and pedantry over the details of this concoction. For instance, most insist that the chips be of medium cut and double-fried to ensure a fluffy interior and crunchy exterior. The cheese curds must be made fresh, and squeak when they are bitten into, which is only possible within a day or two of their preparation. The gravy should be made from some sort of poultry, be flavoured with pepper and some acid and have a consistency that is not too liquid, but not too thick. The toppings must be added to the fries immediately before serving, lest they become soggy too soon. I made my cheese curds with milk and lemon juice, as I couldn’t source any rennet or culture, so it wasn’t strictly traditional, but I did concede to deep fry my chips, despite my general aversion to deep frying. I think that I might have been a little ungenerous with my application of gravy for some people’s standards, but it may take me a while to warm up to the “gravy bath” concept. I have never eaten poutine before, and, of course, it was incredibly delicious. I talk some good talk about sophisticated and exotic international cuisines, but the truth is, in my deepest heart, I’m a chips-and-gravy girl. In fact, whenever I see that famous quote that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, I often muse to myself that those poor people must never have tasted chips and gravy. I was therefore very happy to have this meal, but it may be best to limit its frequency to once every few years…


Lobster roll

lobster roll

As sandwiches are so easy to make, I often feel that choosing them as one of a cuisine’s four representative meals might be cheating, despite my love for sandwiches of all varieties. My other option for this meal, however, was roast goose, and I could not find a goose for love nor money, so the lobster roll prevailed. Lobster rolls are particularly prevalent in Nova Scotia, an eastern province of Canada, but are also popular (and apparently originated) in the nearby USA region of New England. Nova Scotia, however, boasts the largest ever lobster catch, with a weight of over 20 kg, so I think we can let them have some claim to the rolls. All of the areas of the USA and Canada that favour the lobster roll surround the North Atlantic Ocean, which is renowned for its production of delicious lobster. This dish can be served either hot (with the bun toasted and the meat warmed in a little butter), or cold (with a fresh bun and the meat dressed with mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper). I elected for the latter option, as I have long thought that cold seafood has a cleaner and sweeter taste than hot. I have always fostered a deep love of crustacean meat, as well as sandwiches, so it’s mildly surprising that I’ve never eaten a lobster roll. I was not disappointed, however – I could eat one every day. The mild flavours of the bread, lettuce and mayonnaise complement, but don’t overpower, the subtle and sweet taste of the lobster.


Tourtière

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Tourtière hails from Quebec, and is a large pie made with minced meat, onions and potato, spiced with sweet spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper. A mixture of pork and beef is traditionally used, although this can be supplemented with wild game, depending on availability. The word tourtière originally referred to the vessel that the pie was cooked in, resembling a deep pie dish. Although served all year round, tourtière is most commonly cooked around Christmas time, especially Christmas Eve, also known as réveillon de noël. Rural French-Canadians traditionally attend mass on Christmas Eve, and then return home to feast on tourtière before bed. Tourtière can also be made on a smaller scale as hand-pies, which are apparently perfect to pocket for a mid-sledding snack during the frivolities of Canadian winter. Historic evidence of meat pies have been found from 9500 BC, and pies of all varieties have sprung up in all regions of the globe across the centuries. The word pie can be traced to Northern Europe, where stiff, thick and near inedible open-topped dough containers were cooked with hearty meat stews inside. It is thought that the wealthy inhabitants of a household would eat the stewy contents, while the tough container would be given to the servants. The endless possibilities for the filling of these containers perhaps drew an association with magpies (called pies for short), who collect miscellaneous items. That’s one of the theories, anyway! Of course, the French and Italians eventually intervened and sorted everything out by adding a lot more butter to the pie crust, therefore rendering it flaky, edible, and, ultimately, even delicious!

51. Poland

Polish cuisine originated around locally-sourced domesticated and wild meat and game (including bears!) as well as fruits, vegetables, honey and fungi that could be collected from the forests. Most of the agriculture was traditionally based around cereals such as millet, rye and wheat. Alcohol has been an important part of the daily diet, with vodka said to have originated in Poland, and a legend that Polish knights requested to be excused from the crusades because it was rumoured that there was no mead in the holy land – without which they would surely perish. Over the centuries, influences from many other European countries have fallen in and out of fashion in Poland, including via an Italian-born queen who insisted only Italian food be cooked in her court in the 1500s. The communist occupation of Poland after World War II saw a decline in the availability of myriad ingredients, and potato replaced many former staples of the cuisine, such as cereals and breads. However, I was delighted to hear that in the last few decades, the Polish food scene has been dramatically recovering, with a lot of efforts made by the locals to reclaim their old traditions, as well as a marked decline in the popularity of American fast food chains. Indeed, with “fast food” like zapiekanka (baguette stuffed with local cheeses, mushrooms, vegetables and tomato), I would probably boycott the American chains forever!


Kotlet schabowy, placki ziemniaczane and bigos

Kotlet schabowy, placki ziemniaczane and bigos.JPG

Kotlet schabowy is a pork cutlet, flattened, floured, egged, breaded, then fried until golden and crispy. It seems to have arisen during the 19th century, and its popularity grew along with the wider availability of meat. Placki ziemniaczane are potato pancakes, made by grating raw potato and onion, then combining the mixture with spices, plain flour and egg. During the 17th century, this meal was a staple food in monasteries, with the strict caveat that they could only be served with the sparse toppings of salt and pepper. Later on, placki ziemniaczane were used to replace bread in times of economic hardships for the peasant class of Poland. These pancakes form the basis of games during Polish festivals (such as “throw the bad pancake”), as well as competitions to make the largest version possible, with the current record standing at two meters across. The garnishes nowadays are fortunately a little more relaxed than those in the 17th century monastery, including meat sauce, goulash, mushroom sauce, grated cheese or apple sauce. I used sour cream, preferring to keep it a relatively simple accompaniment to other dishes. Bigos is also known as hunter’s stew, and describes a mix of meat (for instance pork, beef, poultry, game or sausage), sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, wild mushrooms and vegetables (such as carrot and onions). Other flavours added often include bay leaves, pepper, allspice, and a sweet element such as honey, raisins or prunes. The origins of this dish may lie in a medieval meal, whose Latin name “compositum” meant “mixture” and consisted of a baked or braised dish of vegetables. As you might expect from the title “hunter’s stew”, the recipe is very flexible, and there is said to be as many versions as there are cooks in Poland. It can therefore use any meat that is the catch of the day, and is often prepared and eaten outdoors, or by travellers making use of its property of not spoiling too quickly.


Pierogi

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Pierogi are possibly the most internationally-recognised and beloved Polish dish. They are large ravioli-like dumplings, with wheat-based wrappings encasing meat, vegetable, cheese or sweet fillings. They are also popular in surrounding Eastern European countries under local names, but possibly most synonymous with Poland. Pierogi can have different shapes and fillings, with characteristic varieties of each being made for significant holidays and occasions. While the love for this food is indisputable (it is estimated that 30,000 pierogi are consumed daily at the annual pierogi festival), its origins are less clear. Before the 17th century they were considered a peasant food (lucky peasants!), but afterwards pierogi were a staple food for all of Poland. Some speculate that they were influenced by Chinese dumplings, via Italy and Marco Polo. Others say that the Russian Tatars first brought pierogi to Poland in the 13th century. Then again, perhaps they were brought by Saint Hyacinth from Kiev, who performed a miracle of regrowing storm-ravaged crops, and received pierogi in return from the grateful townsfolk. This latter story has promoted Saint Hyacinth to the esteemed position of the patron saint of pierogis, and spawned a Polish expression that translates to “Saint Hyacinth and his pierogi!”, which is used to express extreme surprise. Whatever the real story, it is thought that the word “pierogi” has origins in the proto-Slavic word for “feast”, so it’s safe to assume that they have always been delicious enough to necessitate the consumption of more than one. The dough is made with plain wheat flour, water, and sometimes egg, then cut into shapes and wrapped around a filling. My semi-circle shaped pierogi had two types of filling: potato and cheese, as well as pork and beef. They are usually cooked by boiling in salted water or stock, and then sometimes fried afterwards, which gives them a lovely golden colour and firmer texture. Pierogi can be served alone, or with a dab of butter, sour cream, fried onion, bacon, mushrooms or chives. I always preferred my Italian ravioli with minimal sauce, as I think any more than that confuses the flavours, so I am fully on board with this serving style. I loved these pierogis perhaps more than ravioli or indeed Chinese dumplings, so I definitely agree with the hype around them. Maybe the hipsters have got things worked out after all?


Zurek

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Zurek describes a soup that is made with a basis of fermented rye flour, called zakwas. Zakwas is created by combining rye flour, garlic and water, then leaving it to ferment for a few days. This gives it a savoury and sour flavour similar to sourdough, and indeed the word zurek comes from a Middle High German word meaning sour. To this vegetables are added, such as potatoes, parsnips, carrots, celery and onion, and protein such as bacon, sausage (especially a white sausage) and hard boiled eggs. It can be flavoured with allspice, marjoram, bay leaves, horseradish, pepper and some dairy such as cream or sour cream. I served my zurek in a traditional bowl made of a rye cob loaf, which was particularly nice to sop up the rich soup. Zurek is traditionally eaten mostly at Easter in Poland to celebrate the end of Lent, but is also enjoyed sporadically throughout the year, especially as a hangover cure. The combination of fermented starch and protein would indeed be comforting for a sore head and delicate stomach, so I can see how this remedy would be popular. Speaking of Easter, Poland also has a delightful day called “Fat Thursday”, which is the Thursday before the beginning of Lent, and marks the start of “Fat Week”, when all sorts of sugar-laden and fatty savoury treats are gorged upon in preparation for the abstinence ahead. I think we can all relate to having a Fat Thursday that turns into a Fat Week, can’t we?


Rosol

RosolRosol is a generic term describing any sort of meat broth. The most popular type, however, is rosol z kury, which is clear chicken noodle soup, although other varieties include royal rosol (made of three meats) and hunter’s rosol (made of wild poultry and game meat). This soup can be served at all sorts of occasions from humble family dinners to weddings. Of course, as with many cultures, it is also considered a miraculous cure for the common cold. Although the recipe for rosol is quite flexible, one property in particularly is non-negotiable: the broth must be clear. The ways to achieve this clarity is, first of all, to exclude pork from all preparations, as apparently it causes cloudiness. The second way is to simmer the ingredients on a very low heat for many hours, which somehow makes is equally (or possibly more) flavoursome, but looking like lightly coloured water as opposed to murky broth. Some rosols can include just the broth, made with chicken carcasses only, and others include some vegetables or chicken flesh. However, although a lot of vegetables and flavourings go into flavouring the broth (leek, celeriac, carrots, cabbage, onion, bay leaves, allspice etc), they are mostly strained out at the end and only a few are reintroduced minimalistically. I made mine with a whole chicken, angel hair pasta and garnished it with a sprinkling of parsley. I chose to make rosol specifically this week because my boyfriend was sick and needed something comforting and warm, and of course rosol was the ultimate culinary panacea that it is advertised to be!

50. The Philippines

The Philippine archipelago contains over 140 ethnolinguistic groups, and its cuisine is therefore hugely diverse and cross-influenced. This characteristic, however, seems to have worked in its favour, as it’s a rapidly up-and-coming favourite international cuisine, with more popular restaurants popping up with every passing year. Traces of Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish and American influences can be found in the food, and personally I think it is one of the more successful fusions of the West’s love of animal products and sweet sauces with the East’s wonderful array of aromatic spices and flavours. An important ethos surrounding Filipino cooking seems to be the balance of sweet (tamis), sour (asim) and salty (alat) flavours – which I believe is important to keep in mind for any cuisine. Another crucial concept is that of “counterpoint”, where meals are presented with contrasting flavours, e.g. something sweet with something salty. A significant aspect to this balance seems to be the Philippine citrus fruit, calamansi, which is a recommended ingredient in most recipes that I have found, and is meant to taste like a slightly sweeter lime or lemon. Food is to be eaten with either flatware, or with the hands, but generally not with chopsticks, as in many surrounding Asian countries. A lot of the meal names sound surprisingly Spanish, such as empanada, paella, lechón, pastel, torta and chicharónes. Indeed, the Filipino language has a lot of Spanish influences, evidenced by my Spanish-speaking boyfriend being convinced a magical genie had granted him the power of total language comprehension when he could understand the plot of a Filipino TV show we happened upon one night. Because of the delicious and multitudinous nature of Filipino dishes, I had trouble choosing just four to present, so some additional honourable mentions include kare-kare (a peanut-based oxtail stew), sinigang (a sour soup), a wide range of local seafood (smoked, fried, grilled or baked), legendarily hearty savoury breakfasts, and sweet and savoury dishes based on ube, which is a purple yam.


Sisig

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The word sisig originally meant “to snack on something sour” and “salad”. The origin of this sour snack may have been a salad of unripe fruits (such as papaya or guava) dressed in salt and vinegar, but now more famously refers to the meat dish featured here. Sisig these days is a variety of pulutan, which literally means “to pick something up” and is the Filipino version of finger food or tapas. Pulutan are typically barfood, meant to be enjoyed as a snack, preferably with an ice-cold alcoholic drink. Sisig is most often made with various pig meats (including from the head and liver), finely chopped, then seasoned with the native lime/lemon calamansi, chillies and onions. Its popularity has meant that other varieties of sisig are now common, including using other types of meat, as well as fish and tofu. A fascinating woman dubbed “The sisig queen”, Lucia Cunanan, is credited with the honourable achievement of bringing sisig back into fashion in the 1970s, by introducing a hot-plate into the usual boil-and-broil preparation of sisig. This creates a crispy texture and novel serving method beloved by locals and tourists alike. The dish’s popularity continues to rise, however, evidenced by the inception of an annual festival in its honour in the 2000s, local enthusiasm for which was only dampened for a few years when the country went into mourning over the death of their sisig queen, Lucia Cunanan. Unable to source pig head and liver, I used normal pork muscle meat for my sisig, but I cooked and seasoned it similarly and topped it with a traditional fried egg.


Lechón liempo, sinangag, ensaladang labanos, lumpia and sawsawan

lechon liempo.JPG

As excited as I was to begin cooking food from The Philippines, the planning for this week started off with a dramatic failure. For one of the first times I can remember, I was not able to cook the near-indisputable national dish. Before you write me off as a fraud and amateur, however, hear me out. The national dish is called lechón, which consists of a whole pig, spit roasted until the insides are fall-apart tender and the skin is crunchy. So renowned is this preparation that world-famous celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain even pronounced The Philippines as cooking the best pig meat on earth. It is usually made for large parties and celebrations, where people bring their own specialties as side dishes to the main attraction. I hope you see now that it would be fairly difficult for me to obtain an entire pig, build a spit-roast in the backyard of my (rented) property, and corral enough people to eat it all. Well, maybe not the last bit. My relatively humble gesture to this grand meal, however, took the form of lechón liempo, which is roasted pork belly, and shares similar spices, textures and flavours with lechón (albeit on a smaller scale). I marinated my pork belly with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, lemongrass and Chinese five spice, then roasted it and finally broiled the top to crisp up the skin. I have to say – my pork belly skills are improving. I think the main secret that I’ve discovered is using balls of aluminium foil to prop up the slab in places where it is uneven, thus ensuring a uniformly crispy skin with no burnt patches. However, should you fail at this, you can always microwave pieces of the skin alone on paper towel to achieve perfect crispiness. I served the lechón liempo with a number of side dishes, including sinangag, which is a popular fried rice flavoured with a lot of garlic, particularly popular for breakfast. Ensaladang labanos is a salad made with thinly sliced daikon radish, onion and tomato, flavoured with vinegar and green onions. Lumpia are Filipino spring rolls, filled with chopped vegetables (although sometimes also meat) and fried or served fresh. As an accompaniment to all of this I served sawsawan, which is a dipping sauce made with vinegar, onion, garlic, pepper, sugar, salt and chillies. The traditional sauce accompanying lechón is made of liver paste, breadcrumbs, garlic, sugar and vinegar, but I fancied a less-rich, cleaner sauce, which the sawsawan provided superbly.


Pancit

pancit

The name pancit is derived from a Chinese term for “convenient food” and describes a noodle dish, the origins of which were introduced by Chinese settlers to The Philippines. The dish rose in popularity when it was adopted by street vendors (panciteros) who catered especially to women working in cigar factories. The long, hard hours that these women worked meant they had neither the time nor energy to make home-cooked meals, and a hot bowl of pancit was therefore a great relief after a long day of work. There is apparently a legend floating around that you should always eat noodles on your birthday, and pancit is therefore popular at birthday celebrations. The noodles must not be cut, however, as this grimly represents an untimely shortening to the long life and prosperity that the winding noodles symbolise. There are infinite varieties of Filipino pancit, and in the true spirit of home-cooking, I sort of made up my own recipe using elements from many. I combined prawns, tofu, boiled egg and pork belly in a light sauce of soy, garlic, lime, onion and annatto seeds, as well as veggies such as carrot, cabbage, snow peas and capsicum. Often the rice noodles are stir fried with this mixture, but I served mine separately, partly because I prefer the aesthetics, but also because I like to have more choice over the noodle-to-flavour ratios as I eat the dish. I love recipes that allow so much freedom in interpretation! Even though it wasn’t my birthday, I tried hard not to cut my noodles, so perhaps luck will be on my side?


Chicken adobo

 

chicken adobo“Adobar” in Spanish means marinade/sauce, which is precisely what makes this chicken dish so special. The marinade in question is composed of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves and pepper, and the chicken is then simmered in the same sauce until cooked. The process of cooking meat in salt and vinegar dates back to pre-Hispanic indigenous methods, when vinegar was frequently used to preserve meats. However, the vinegar also imparts a delicious flavour, while tenderising the meat at the same time. So many uses! Because it’s such an old and practical recipe, every household (and sometimes even family member) can have different recipes for their adobo, and it therefore tastes dramatically different across the country. Any meat or vegetable can be cooked in the adobo sauce, but chicken and pork are among the more popular variants. I reduced my adobo a lot to form a thick dark sauce that was very strong and tasty – just the thing to accompany lots of fluffy white rice. This recipe reminded me of a regular meal my Mum cooked in my childhood of soy-marinated baked chicken drumsticks. They were a particular favourite of mine and I had all but forgotten about them until I bit into the adobo. I have since confirmed that my Mum doesn’t remember where the recipe came from, and that, like many others, she probably made it up. Nevertheless, it was a nice surprise to recover my beloved childhood chicken memory!

48. Central Asia

Central Asia holds what I’ve been affectionately referring to this week as “the ‘stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The major cultural reference Westerners usually have for this region (and what people have been asking me about all week) is the movie Borat. While I think some of Sasha Baron Cohen’s comedy is brilliant, I felt like Borat was uncomfortably disrespectful of an entire nation of people, without much love or sympathy added to the humour. This is particularly biting given that almost 40% of the population of Kazakhstan starved to death in the 1930s during a famine, during which time Stalin also systematically executed the great writers, intellectuals, artists, historians and politicians of the nation. Kazakhstan was subsequently a site of mass exile of political prisoners from other parts of the Soviet Union. So, if it were true that they were a little backwards in the grand scheme of globalisation, maybe we should cut them some slack? Having said that, many Kazakh officials have praised the movie as “putting Kazakhstan on the map” and increasing tourism to the region. Regardless, if I’m sure of one thing, it’s that shared food is the great equaliser, healer and peacemaker, so I was excited to share the cuisines of these regions. When I first started my research, however, the broad impression I received was “horse appetiser with a horse main course with horse salad, horse soup and a side of horse”. I’ve never tried horse meat (to my knowledge), and although I would be curious to try, it is not readily available where I live in Brisbane, so I began to worry about my options for this week. However, after digging a little deeper, I discovered a wonderful range of colourful and fragrant meals, with wide-reaching influences from the surrounding Middle East, Russia and China. 


Shashlik, tushpara, salad and flatbread

Shaslik, tushpara, salad and flatbread.JPG

Shashlik goes by many names in Central Asia, as well as surrounding regions including the Baltic countries, Russia, the Middle East, and Central Europe. It consists of pieces of meat threaded onto a skewer and then grilled, fried or barbecued, and the name literally means “skewerable” in Turkic languages. Purportedly shashlik was much enjoyed by traders travelling along the Silk Road, which may go some way to explaining its popularity across the globe. I used lamb for my shashlik, which I marinated in a traditional Uzbek way, with onions, coriander, cumin, chilli, pepper and vinegar. With the shashlik I served tushpara/manti, which are small dumplings in wheat-based wrappers, filled in this case with spiced ground beef. I also made a traditional Uzbek salad with tomato, cucumber, and red onion, flavoured with oil, vinegar and dill. Breads of all varieties are an important staple of Central Asian cuisine, and I served this meal with some flatbread and a spread made out of yoghurt and dill. The breads of Uzbekistan are particularly famous: cooked in a tandoor oven and imprinted with infinite beautiful patterns and designs. My bread was not particularly beautiful, but tasted delicious all the same. All in all, I think this would be a meal much enjoyed by the people of Central Asia at a barbecue on a warm summer’s afternoon.


Tuy palovi

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Across Central Asia, there are myriad names for this sort of rice dish, including plov/polov/osh plov/ash plov/pilav/pilau/palaw etc. There are even more recipes and varieties, as each grandmother seems to have created her own variation, ranging from the every-day recipe to the very rare cooked only for special occasions. It seems to have mostly been influenced by Persian roots, where rice pilaf is still popular. Tuy palovi, however, caught my eye because it is a Uzbek dish cooked mainly for weddings, which I imagine is when folk would most like to indulge and show off. The legendary origin of tuy palovi is that a handsome prince fell in love with a beautiful, but terribly impoverished, woman. His position dictated that he could never marry her, and his realisation of this fact caused him to refuse all food, gradually fading away to a waif. His father, the king, invited a skilled doctor to heal his son, who suggested that the prince needed to connect the hearts of lovers throughout the world by feeding them palovi in order to heal himself, hence the connection to weddings. The story has some good elements, including the delicious palovi, and the tradition that men are burdened with the mammoth task of cooking palovi for hundreds of wedding guests, but what happened to the poor girl!? Call me a hopeless romantic, but I prefer stories where the star-crossed lovers eventually overcome their social circumstances to be together. The story doesn’t say whether or not this doctor’s treatment worked, however: perhaps the prince told him to shove his stupid palovi and ran off to his love to live happily ever after? We can only dream… The dish is made of fried pieces of onion, lamb and carrots, which are then simmered in water along with chickpeas, raisins, turmeric, cumin, coriander and whole heads of garlic. Rice is then cooked in this broth and all of the ingredients are finally combined on a single platter. I adore the combination of lamb and rice – the lamb fat is rendered out of the meat and coats each rice grain, creating a sensational taste and texture. The sweet components of raisins, onion and carrots add an important balance to this base, and elevate the rice to a new status. I’m not sure that this dish would heal my broken heart were I to be forbidden from marrying my true love, but certainly it might help a little bit…


Laghman

laghman

Laghman is a dish found throughout Central Asia, consisting of homemade noodles, with stir-fried meat and vegetables. It is thought to have Chinese roots, with the name perhaps deriving from the Chinese word “lamain”, meaning noodle. It is a favoured dish of the Uyghurs of Central Asia, a Turkic ethnic group who primarily practice Islam, and are descended from both Caucasoid and East Asian heritage. For my laghman, I stir-fried strips of beef, tomatoes, green beans, yellow capsicum, red onion, spring onion and parsley, flavoured with star anise, ginger, white pepper, Sichuan pepper, soy sauce, garlic, Chinese black vinegar and some tomato paste. Sometimes more water is added to form a hearty broth, creating more of a noodle soup than a stir fry. The flavour combination was wonderful – fresh and fragrant with a nice balance of salt, spiciness and acidity from the vinegar.


Beshbarmak

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Beshbarmak is indisputably Kazakhstan’s national dish (although also enjoyed in Kyrgyzstan), traditionally consisting of boiled horse or mutton meat on top of a bed of wide pasta sheets, topped with boiled onion rings and parsley and some of the broth from cooking, called “sorpa”. The dish is often served at large gatherings of friends and families, where it is the host’s responsibility to cut the meat and serve it to each guest in order of their importance. A daunting task indeed! If a whole sheep is being cooked, the most prized cut of meat is the head, which is bestowed upon the most senior person at the table, symbolising their wisdom, which they then carve and dole out to the others at the table. Young adults would receive shoulders and legs, while young boys would feast on ears (a reminder to listen?) and girls the palate, but never the knuckle, as it will cause them to grow up to be spinsters. Newlywed women are allocated brisket, however older married ladies eat the neck, the symbolism of which I’m hesitant to comment on… Beshbarmak is thought to originate from the nomadic Turkic people, and initially I was surprised and a little sceptical of its simplicity (there are only a handful of ingredients in the “national dish”, after all). Also, I generally find the concept of boiled meat a little off-putting, as it puts me in mind of depression-era bland and nutrition-less meat-and-three-veg. The fatty cut of lamb that I cooked, however, was ideal for boiling, as it rendered much of the fat from the meat, leaving it incredibly tender, leaner, and flavoursome. The blander pasta sheets complemented the rich tastes of lamb and onion, creating a simple and delicious combination. However, I think I’ll stick to cooking it for myself, as the stress of allocating age, marital status and importance to your guests during the serving process would surely outweigh the deliciousness of the dish for me!

47. Central Italy


Bistecca alla Fiorentina

 

bistecca fiorentina


Truffle and mushroom gnocchi

 

Truffle and mushroom gnocchi

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.


Bucatini carbonara

bucatini 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.


Ribollita

 

Ribollita

One of the most famous areas of central Italy is the scenic Tuscany, and the Tuscans are known within Italy affectionately as “mangiafagioli”, literally meaning “bean-eaters”. Ribollita is one of the many delicious reasons behind this name, being a heart soup made traditionally from the autumn harvest of vegetables, beans and bread. Where in other regions pastas form the prime piatti (first course), Tuscans favour hearty bean soups instead. Legend has it that ribolitas name, literally meaning “reboiled”, comes from the actions of the working class servers at the elaborate banquets of nobility. These wiley peasants would sneak away pieces of discarded bread soaked in juices from the feast, and then later boil them up with beans and vegetables (carrot, cavil nero, celery, potatoes etc) from their land to form a hearty soup. Then again, the name may simply derive from the utility of reboiling any leftover vegetables from a meal in the previous days to create a new meal. This dish has surely endured the centuries due to its convenience and low cost, with generations of homecooks (including this one) wearily sighing at the prospect of venturing out to buy fresh produce, instead cobbling together old pantry staples and pronouncing it “ribollita” to the joy of eager diners. Bean soups had a foundational role in the Roman empire, before the influx of products and influences that increased the consumption of meat and introduced bread to the people. Bean soups such as ribollita and minestrone are often classified as “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 ribollita! Continue reading