International Meals – Republic of the Congo

A project like this is all about tough decisions. For example: “Do we really want to drive halfway across Michigan for an obscure Brazilian Cheese?” (yes) “Do we want to make fermented Durian?” (Jesus Christ, no.) “Where does the Republic of the Congo go in the alphabet?”

We have decided that it goes under “C”.  And Democratic Republic of the Congo goes under “D”.  However, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea goes under “N”, the People’s Republic of China, goes under C, and the Republic of China is… you know, we’re not even touching that one.  If you disagree with any of these choices, feel free to start your own blog… we’ll be waiting for you somewhere in the Fs, probably. (Fiji, Finland, and France)

Coming back to the critical distinction between the Republic of the Congo (henceforth “Congo”), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (henceforwardely, “DRC”), the Congo is the one on the WEST side of the river that was oppressed by the French and is sometimes referred to as “Congo-Brazza,” after the capital, Brazzaville.  The DRC is the one on the EAST side of the river that was oppressed by the Belgians and is sometimes referred to as “Congo-Kinshasa”.

Unsurprisingly they have VERY similar food traditions, which are also not dissimilar from other nearby countries we’ve already covered, such as the Central African Republic and Cameroon.  They even share the same national dish.  So we’ll be following the lead of the “United Noshes” blog, and making that for the DRC. Over on the west bank, we’ll be making two dishes, a cassava leaf stew and grilled quail.

First up, as always – shopping!  There turns out to be a tiny African grocer near my office, and that’s where I picked up a frozen, rock-hard block of grated cassava leaves and a bottle of this stuff:

Bottle of Red Palm Oil

It’s our old friend, Red Palm Oil! Ubiquitous in African cooking, this is a pretty large bottle, but it’s the smallest one they had. Well, DRC, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eretria, and Eswatini (which we could, I suppose, file under “S”) are all coming up soon.

So what about the other ingredient, the cassava leaves? Well, we’re making Saka Saka, which is a Congolese stew involving the leaves, mixed vegetables, and mackerel.  There’s a number of recipes for this online, most of which are in French, and the one we’re using claims to be specifically local to Congo Brazza, so that’s good.  It also has sort of vague quantities, and serves thirty.  So that’s… well, let’s see how it goes.

First off, it calls for the leaves to be boiled for HOURS.  Six hours the night before, and then on a low heat pretty much the entire day of.  They look more or less like chopped spinach, and filled the apartment with a not at all unpleasant vegetal aroma.

Cassava Leaves

Saturday, we headed over to Granville Market to acquire our remaining ingredients.  Six frozen quail, some natural peanut butter, a lovely haul of vegetables…

Fresh Vegetables

…and this bad boy:

Whole Mackerel

I meant to take a picture of the mackerel BEFORE I decapitated it, but, then I had the cleaver in my hand, and I just couldn’t control myself.  It’s still pretty isn’t it?  You cook the veggies in the leaves for about two hours, then put the whole fish on top to steam for fifteen minutes.  (Or as much of the fish will fit in your pot.)

Mackerel on top of stew.
After fifteen minutes, the meat just flakes right off the bones, and you get boneless fish you can mash into your stew with very little effort.  It’s kind of a genius technique.  You finish the stew with the peanut butter, palm oil, and probably more salt than we actually used.

Meanwhile, what about the little birds?  Well, those get marinated in ginger, garlic, onions, oil, and a red pepper.  Except – reading the recipe more carefully, it’s clear that it was actually supposed to be a HOT pepper, not a red bell pepper, as Google translate rendered it.  We didn’t have any of those, but we did have a Jalapeno, meaning that this marinade was a lot less colorful than it should have been.  But we slathered it on the little fellas anyway.

Quail and marinade

It also turns out that although this recipe called for salt, it forgot to mention when to add it.  If you make this recipe for yourself, the answer to that question is definitely “when you make the marinade” and not “never.”

It was a fair evening, if only about 40 degrees out, so we fired up the grill.  (Since we’re in Canada now, I should probably be reporting temperatures in Celsius, or Kelvin, or Moose per furlong or something.)

At this point, we learned a valuable lesson on the topic of “Gas Grill Bypass Mode,” and how you don’t want your gas grill getting stuck in said mode.  Turns out if you try to start it too fast in cold weather, a safety device kicks on and the grill only runs at 10% capacity.  So that was fun.  A little Googling to identify the source of the problem, and we had the grill up to a nice roaring temperature in no time.  And look how purty these quail turned out!

Roasted Quail

And here’s a shot of the stew with some rice.

Cassava Stew

And… it was pretty good.  Once we added a bit more salt to both the stew and the quail to make up for the recipes failing to specify a quantity, and failing to to add it at all, respectively, they were both quite flavorful.  The addition of the fish definitely was a nice increase in complexity above some of the other “greens and peanut” stews we’ve had. And the quail were just yummy.

So – Republic of the Congo, you have tasty food.  We’ll be back in the neighborhood in a bit to try your national dish from the other side of the river.  Next up, Costa Rica, followed by either Côte D’Ivoire, (unless we put that under “I”), or Croatia!

Saka Saka (Congolese Cassava and Mackerel Stew)
Roasted Quail in a Chili Ginger Marinade

International Meals – Comoros

It’s pretty easy to see why this blog has been updating a lot more recently of late – after the world ended in March, we aren’t spending every weekend officiating roller derby.  With everything shut down, there’s just a lot less to do.  The upside is that roller derby is a very expensive hobby.  With less money going to travel and gear, it’s easier to justify splurges in other areas.

On a possibly related note, the national dish of Comoros involves lobster and fresh vanilla.

For those who don’t play a lot of Sporcle quizzes, Comoros is a tiny island nation off the east coast of Africa.  It’s been settled and/or colonized at various times by Africans, Arabs, southeast Asians, Europeans, and possibly Shriners, who knows?  It gained independence in the 1970s. Since then has suffered through over 20 coups, and has the highest income inequality in the world.

On its face, a dish of lobster and vanilla would seem to be something that only a very tiny proportion of such a divided society could enjoy.  Then again, both are local ingredients in Comoros, unlike in the Pacific northwest.  Ultimately, we just don’t know to what extent this is food that the average Comoran could enjoy on any sort of regular basis.  But it is unanimously agreed to be the national dish, so let’s do this.

Before we get to the main dish, however, let’s make our sides.  First up, Mkatra Foutra, a traditional bread frequently eaten with breakfast.  Which is not surprising, because it’s basically indistinguishable from a pancake.  You proof some yeast, then mix it with flour, egg, and salt to make a shaggy dough. You then turn that dough into a batter using (this is the distinctive part) coconut milk, rather than water.

And here we ran into our FIRST seeming recipe error of the evening.  Folks,  when the recipe calls for yeast, but has no rising time at all, you should probably at least CHECK to see if there’s an error in the recipe.  Some post-facto Googling reveals that pretty much every other version of this besides the one we used calls for letting the dough / batter rise for an hour before cooking.

But we didn’t do that, so into the pan they went!

Comorran bread cooking

Sure looks like a pancake, doesn’t it?  Tasted like one, too, although the sesame seeds on top gave it a slightly different crunch.  Didn’t stop us from putting maple syrup on the leftovers the following morning. (Pictures of the fully cooked version down below.)

Our other side dish uses much less expensive ingredients than the main dish. Beans, tomatoes, cumin, coconut milk… wait, HOW much saffron?

Never mind.

This curry actually calls for pigeon peas, which we’ve used on previous occasions.  But we have reached peak legume storage capacity in our kitchen.

You can decide for yourself if this is an argument we have between the two of us, or if this is just my inner monologue.  Either way, “cook the beans you have” won this time, and we decided to use black eyed peas, which are a staple in many African dishes, and therefore ruled by the judges (our cats) to be a valid substitution.

The peas get a quick cook in the instant pot, and then somewhat mushed up with the back of a ladle.

Next they get tossed into a pot with coconut milk, cumin, tomatoes, and… how much saffron?

It’s quite a bit – that’s the ONLY source of the color in this picture, and you can see it’s a really stunning shade of yellow.

The ingredient list also calls for a tomato, but completely neglects to mention when to toss it in.  Since we didn’t notice until we were ready to eat, we just tossed it in raw.  This is probably not authentic, but it was actually really tasty that way – the acidity was a nice contrast to the richness of the beans and coconut milk.

Time for the main event!  Leigh’s one request was that I NOT bring home a big live lobster and murder it in the kitchen.  While I personally believe I have it in me to do the dirty deed, it turns out not to be the right choice for this dish anyway.

There’s two kinds of lobsters you can generally find for sale in North America – whole North Atlantic lobsters, and lobster tails from rock or spiny lobsters.  The whole ones are what you think of when you think about New England lobster dinners – big suckers with claws full of meat.

Well guess what?  Those things aren’t native to the Indian Ocean. Instead, the lobsters you find there are much closer to Pacific spiny lobsters.  When you buy those, you only ever get tails, rather than whole lobsters.  Why?  Why are we denied spiny lobster claws?

Spiny, Slipper, Regal and Rock: The Secret Lives of Lobsters | Scuba Diving News, Gear, Education | Dive Training Magazine

Because they don’t have any, that’s why. (Photo by Marty Silverman, from his article in Dive Training Magazine.  Used without permission. Marty, if you have an issue, let me know, and I’ll take it down.)

Marty’s a much better photographer than I am, but here’s what our Pacific lobster tails looked like before cooking:

In case you weren’t aware, the only turn red AFTER they’re cooked.  But since that only takes about 5 minutes under the broiler, we better get cracking on the sauce!

First we sautéed shallots in butter, then added white wine, the seeds from a vanilla bean AND vanilla extract.  Scraping vanilla beans is fussy work, but oh so worth it.  After this has reduced a bit, in goes heavy cream.  The sauce reduces until the lobster is ready, then you strain out the shallots and pour the liquid over the lobster.   The whole thing is served over wilted spinach.

Here’s our best attempt at food porn for this meal:

Probably not up to Marty’s standards, but it still looks tasty, doesn’t it?  Here’s the full spread, with some more of the white wine.

This was a luxurious meal, no two ways about it.  Vanilla cream sauce over lobster, accompanied by beans with saffron.  We are well aware that we are super privileged to be able to do this, and we certainly wouldn’t do it every day.

But man… it sure was good. Vanilla and lobster are both amazing flavors, and neither one makes the other worse, that’s for sure.  And the beans were rich and delicious.

So what about dessert? Well, that turned out to be yet ANOTHER case (three out of four, if you’re keeping track at home) where the recipe seems to have failed us a bit. We decided to make an Indian inspired sweet called a Ladu, which is made with rice flour on the continent.  THIS version, on the other hand, called for ground raw rice. ?? OK, let’s go with it.  First, you cook the rice in ghee “until it is cooked well.”

I’m not sure how long that is, but I’m also not sure it’s actually achievable without, you know, water.  I don’t think rice can become fully cooked with just fat.  This rice certainly didn’t.  Other commenters on the internet have made the same observation.  The problem is that while there are a number of sites that have a recipe for Comoran Ladus, they all have the same recipe, clearly cut-and-pasted from some Platonic ur-recipe only glimpsed by the people in the cave in the story of the cave by the Greek guy. (no one knows my plan…)


Moving on, the rest of the ingredients aren’t too complicated – powdered sugar, cardamom and a surprising amount of black pepper. Mix into balls, and refrigerate, because there’s nothing else holding them together but ghee and prayer.

Taste-wise, we have to admit they’re pretty good.  Cardamom and sugar are a winning combination, of course, and the black pepper adds a fun biteyness. However the texture was… well, it was ground up, uncooked rice.  We ate them, because they were tasty, but it was “lose a filling” Russian Roulette each time we did.  So far, we’ve won, but we probably won’t play again after this batch is gone.

And that’s Comoros! We hope they enjoy a bit more political stability soon, because their food is delicious, if unevenly documented.  Next off we’re off to the Republic of the Congo, which is more or less equally as democratic (i.e., not terribly) as the Democratic Republic of the Congo next door.

Broiled Lobster Tail With Vanilla Sauce
Mkatra Foutra (Comoran Flatbread)
Pigeon Peas in Coconut Milk (In French)


International Meals – Colombia

We’ve finished our trip through China, although we will CERTAINLY be continuing to cook recipes from that cookbook.  So now it’s time to head back to South America, and Colombia.

But first, let’s talk about Rochester, New York.

If you were unaware, Rochester’s signature contribution to world cuisine is something called “The Garbage Plate.” It consists of a bunch of stuff. On a plate. The base layer is usually a mix of starches like macaroni salad, home fries, or baked beans, topped with various forms of meat, hot sauce, and bread.  It’s… a thing.  They originated at a restaurant called “Nick Tahou Hots,” to which I have actually been.

Why do I bring this up?

Because the undisputed national dish of Colombia, (seriously, there’s no argument at all on this point) is something called Bandeja Paisa. Paisa is a region in Colombia, and bandeja literally means, wait for it, plate.

We’re making a Colombian garbage plate!

This dish consists of about 8 different things, combined into one delicious gut-buster of a meal.  This is not a dish for sitting in an office writing applications for nuclear servicing licenses.  (Oh, hey, guess what I was doing this week?)  This is a dish for going out and challenging llamas to a fist fight.

So what’s on it?


When I went out to hunt for ingredients for this one, I was not expecting to locate Colombian chorizo on the first stop.  The store seemed more touristy than ethnic, and had an (unsurprising) focus on Mexican items.  But when I asked the guy behind the counter “Do you know where I can get Colombian products?” he literally reached into the fridge right next to him and pulled out this.

Colombian Chorizo

Clearly, the producer of this sausage has not been informed of the exciting advances in typeface design since the 1980s. I kind of love that.

Joking aside, I wasn’t a huge fan of this sausage.  It had a LOT of big pieces of fat in it, and we didn’t cook it in a way that melted those out. The flavor was fine, but nothing terribly exciting.

Carne en Polvo

Literally, “powdered beef.” For this one, you “marinate” a piece of flank steak with onions, garlic, and cumin, but no liquid, for a few hours in a plastic bag.

Steak with seasonings in a bag

You then boil the beef, until you have something the rough flavor and consistency of a pot roast.  That gets tossed into a food processor to make a very fine, dry beef mince.

Boiling flank steakPowdered beef

It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Seswaa we made for Botswana, but in that case the meat was returned to the pot to crisp up a bit after being pounded to a pulp. This is more soft in texture.

Chicharrón Colombiano

Pork belly!  I had just made a Chinese pork belly recipe earlier in the week, but this one couldn’t be more different.  For the Chinese Dong Po pork, the meat is cooked slowly in wine for hours, then refrigerated overnight, then steamed until it is falling apart tender and the fat turns to jelly.

The Colombian approach is a bit different.

First you cut slits in the meat side of the pork belly pieces.

Pork belly prepared for cooking

Then you cover them with a little bit of water, cook them until the water evaporates, and then continue cooking until the pork belly is dark and crispy, and your pot is basically never going to be used for anything else ever again.
Cooked pork belly

Tajadas de Plátano

Fried Plantains.  Slice the plantains and quickly fry them.  Done and done.

Fried Plantains

Frijoles Colombianos

Literally, “Colombian Beans.”  Although it’s not traditional, we opted to make this one in an Instant Pot, just because we had so MUCH going on with this meal. And it was still a bit complicated.  You soak pinto beans overnight, and then make a seasoning mix (called a “guiso”) by cooking onions, tomatoes, scallions, garlic, cilantro, and cumin.


That goes into the Instant Pot along with the beans, a ham hock, some shredded carrots, and half a green plantain.

Frijoles Colombianos

Then, you pick the plantain back out again, because you didn’t read the recipe carefully enough.  At least, that’s how WE did it.  If you make this at home, you may wish to skip the last two steps.

After the beans have pressure cooked, you put the plantain back in and let it simmer for a bit to warm everything up.


Our last major bit of prep is a condiment called “Hogao”.  Unlike most of the sauces we’ve made from Central and South America, this one is cooked, rather than just being allowed to marinate.  And it contains almost exactly the same ingredients as the guiso: scallions, tomatoes, garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper.  But it’s cooked down to a much more soupy consistency.  It’s really quite good.


Finally, it was time to bring everything to the table, along with some plain white rice, a few slices of avocado, some lime wedges, and a lack of fried egg.  (Seriously, this thing should also include a fried egg, on top of everything else, but a) that was too much work, and b) I really don’t LIKE fried eggs.)

Full Bandeja Paisa

So there it is, the full Colombian Bandeja Paisa in all its glory!  Although the powdered beef and beans weren’t super highly flavored by themselves, splashing them with big dollops of the Hogao was a great combination.  The sausage was fatty but tasty, and the pork belly was REALLY fatty, but also REALLY tasty, as long as you didn’t think about the cleanup.  The plantains were a nice break from the heaviness of everything else.

Definitely higher on my “eat again” list than going back to Nick Tahou’s.  (Sorry, Rochester!)

All of these recipes are from the site “My Colombian Recipes.”  I’ll link the master “Bandeja Paisa” recipe, and it links through to all the sub-recipes.  Next up, the tiny island nation of Comoros!

Recipe: Bandeja Paisa

International Meals – China, Part 5: The Arid Lands

Well, we’ve come to our final international meal for China.  And the region for this one could accurately be described as “Misc.”  Carolyn Phillips, our guide though this part of the world, combines Tibet, Mongolia, and everything in between, including the ancient capital of Chang An (now Xi’an) in her final chapter.  Confusingly, we also get provinces whose Romanizations are Shanxi and Shaanxi. Additionally, a huge stretch of the silk road passes through this chunk of China.

So where shall we begin? Why not with a salad? I did a crap job photographing this one until the final product, so here’s a picture of a radish:

Partially chopped Chinese Radish
In addition to the radish, the salad includes just a few ingredients: carrots, a tomato, lemon juice, cilantro, and salt and pepper.  Nothing fancy, but this Tibetan dish makes a good compliment to the heavier seasoning on the other two.

Our second vegetable is stir fried Napa cabbage, with a spicy dressing including chilies and black vinegar. One cabbage makes a LOT of cabbage:

Chopped Napa cabbage

A word about black vinegar – this is an ingredient we’ve only started playing with since moving to Vancouver, but it is seriously great.  Get some if you can, and use it anywhere you want your vinegar to have a bit more personality than cider or red wine vinegar.

OK, so on to the main dish: Chicken with Walnuts and Lotus Roots.  You may remember that we made Lotus Root Chips a few weeks ago, which were to all intents and purposes, potato chips. (And equally as tasty!)  For this recipe, we’re going to cut the lotus roots more like you would for a curry or stir fry, into chunks, rather than slices.

Chopped Lotus Roots

Next, we’re going to marinate our chicken in rice wine, egg white, and cornstarch.  Gloppy!

Marinating Chicken
To finish our mise en place, we need chilis, ginger, garlic, green onions, and walnuts. (not pictured)

Mise en place

This was another dish where the actual cooking was so fast that it wasn’t really possible to take pictures.  You fry each ingredient one at a time, dump it out into a work bowl, and then fry the next one in the same oil.  Finally, you slap them all back into the wok together and pour on some sweet wheat paste.  The final product is brown.
Stir fried chicken, walnuts, and lotus roots.

But don’t let the color fool you – this is a FANTASTIC dish!  The textural context between the nuts, lotus roots, and chicken was super interesting, and the chilies kicked the heat up to a nice punchy level. This is another recipe that I suspect will get revisited in the future.

Here’s the full spread:

Chinese meal from the Arid Lands

There were no duds on this plate.  The cabbage was sour and spicy, the salad was crisp and refreshing, and we inhaled the chicken dish, it was so good. And you’re in luck, because Phillips has posted all the recipes but the salad online, so I’ll link at the bottom.

What about dessert?  Well, we had originally picked out a recipe involving silver ear fungus and some more Osmanthus blossom syrup from last week, but when I went to make the shopping list the night before, I ran into this direction: “Begin preparing this dish four days before you intend to serve it.”


The other two desserts in the cookbook involved deep frying, and we had done enough deep frying recently, so off to the internet!  We found a tasty looking rice pudding recipe from Tibet.  It called for “broken” rice, but since the Chinese supermarket didn’t have any, we just took some regular rice, soaked it, and then mushed it up.

"Broken" rice

Rice pudding is one of those dishes that turns up all over the world – it’s simple, tasty, and can be infinitely varied.  This Tibetan variant uses dried apples (trust me, they’re in there), is sweetened with honey, and in a pretty great revelation, is served with a dollop of yogurt on top.

Rice pudding

The tartness of the yogurt really offset the sweetness of the pudding and the apples nicely.  With the leftovers, we may try some vanilla yogurt or cinnamon on top as well.

So that finishes our trek though China!  We’ll probably return to one meal per country after this – we were unlikely to EVER finish this project, but doing this much granularity is definitely going to be reserved for special occasions. (Oh, hi India, didn’t see you there…)  We need to express our thanks again to the author of “All Under Heaven”, Carolyn Phillips, for providing us with a framework to hang these meals on.

Next time, there are surprisingly no “Ci” countries, so we’re off to Colombia!


Vegetable Confetti Salad (not quite the version we used, but darn close)
Golden Edged Cabbage
Chicken with Walnuts and Lotus Root
Tibetan Rice Pudding


International Meals – China, Part 4: The Central Highlands

The central highlands of China means we are into the spiciest region: Sichuan!  However, that’s not the only region in the area with a food pedigree – Hunan is also one of the “eight great” cuisines, and there are others to consider as well.  As always, let’s start by going shopping!

A kitchen table with Chinese ingredients

Lots of stuff we’d never cooked with this time around – Lily Blossom, Osmanthus Syrup, Dried Red Dates, Fresh Water Chestnuts, Fermented Black Beans.  In addition, a fresh jar of something we HAVE used before, all the way back in our meal from Bhutan – spicy broad bean paste, or Doubanjiang. (This is the thing everyone THOUGHT I was holding last week when I pulled out the fermented bean curd.  They are completely different, however.)  We’ll talk about the various ingredients as we get to them, so let’s dive in.

Note that this is NOT the order we cooked things, but just one that makes sense in terms of the meal.
Bitter Melon Frying

Our first dish was simple fried slices of bitter melon.  The cookbook swore up and down that these were delicious.  They were… not our favorite.  We’ve had bitter melon before as a component in a larger dish, and it’s, well, bitter. All by itself, there wasn’t anything to distract from the bitterness, and the frying didn’t really do much to change that.  Perhaps a different frying temperature, or type of oil, or slice size would have made them more interesting.

Or maybe we’re just Philistines, who knows?

OK, on to dish number two – a stir fried assortment of Lily Bulbs, Ginko Nuts, and Chinese Celery.  Except the store was out of Ginko Nuts and Chinese Celery.  So here’s a stir fried assortment of lily bulbs, cashews, and western celery:

It was… crunchy.  All of these things are crunchy.  Yep. Crunchy. It would likely have been different with the correct ingredients.  As it was, it was fine, but not exciting.  Crunchy, mostly.

So – our first two selections are definitely not living up to Sichuan’s reputation for hot and spicy flavors.  This is probably our fault – we picked the recipes, after all.  There’s a lot of other things in the cookbook that might have worked, but we didn’t want to get too crazy with the vegetables so we could focus on the entrée.

The entrée DEFINITELY saved the meal from our otherwise humdrum menu choices.  Mapo Tofu, an American restaurant staple, here in somewhat funkier form!

Once of you have your mise en place ready, this dish comes together fast, so it’s important to get all the prep setup ahead of time.  On separate bowls, dishes, cutting boards, and colanders we had:

  • Soft tofu, poached and drained.
  • One leek, chopped.
  • Ground beef, beaten into paste with the back of a cleaver. (That was fun)
  • Chopped ginger
  • Spice mix: Fermented black beans, Doubanjiang, ground chilies
  • Cornstarch & water mixture
  • Topping: toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns and chopped scallions

Chopped LeekTofu in a colander

Into the wok with all of these things, in their correct sequence, being careful not to destroy the tofu! And at the end, here’s the final meal:
Central Chinese meal
Did the Mapo Tofu bring the flavor?  It sure did!  It was nicely spicy, and thanks to the two bean sauces, also quite funky. Leek is not an ingredient I can recall finding in this recipe in a restaurant, but the crunch was a nice textural contrast to the soft meat and tofu.  THIS is definitely going to come back to the table in the future.

Those of you who have been keeping score at home may have noticed that there’s several ingredients in the picture at the top that we haven’t used yet.  That’s because we also made dessert! (There’s also a jar of Spicy Chili Crisp, which we didn’t use for this meal, but bought because we are trying to pretend we are hipsters.)

Dessert was actually the most complicated part of the whole process.  There was an entire second PAGE of the recipe I didn’t notice until after we started.  So what did we make? Water Chestnut Pastries with Red Date Filling.

To start, the dates come dried, so they have to be rehydrated.

Dried dates soaking in water
These things are pretty tasty, and can actually be eaten straight out of the bag.  They’re also marked “jujubes,” which is objectively fun to say. (Try it!)

Next up, water chestnuts, which I had never encountered except in canned form.  The fresh ones unsurprisingly taste better, but are also a LOT more work to peel.
Water chestnuts - unpeeled, partially peeled, and fully peeled.

I eventually settled on a method where I cut the top and bottom off, then used a vegetable peeler on the sides.  Is this the best way to do it?  Who knows? (I mean – I’m sure LOTS of people know.  Millions of Chinese home and professional cooks, for starters.  But not me.) Optimum or not, it worked, and we had a bunch of peeled water chestnuts, that we then pureed and squeezed as much moisture out of as possible.
Pureed water chestnuts

The dates ALSO get pureed, and toasted with a little oil, sugar, and salt to make a pasted.  You roll  it up into little balls.  Then you puree the water chestnut paste with sticky rice flour and roll THAT into balls. Then you wrap the chestnut balls around the date balls and… GODDAMIT WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP SNICKERING?

Balls of date and chestnut paste.



At any rate, these get deep fried, because we haven’t yet deep fried anything this week, and it’s important to keep rolling the dice on burning the apartment building down.

Deep frying pastries.

Finally, you make a syrup from the soaking water from the dates, the pressed water from the chestnuts, osmanthus blossom syrup and, looking at the recipe while writing this up, 1/4 cup of rock sugar that I am one hundred percent certain that we completely forgot to add. (also some cornstarch for thickening.)

Thing is, we didn’t need the extra sugar.  Osmanthus blossom syrup is a traditional ingredient used for flavoring Chinese pastries, and is already quite sweet.  The sauce was delicious, and the pastries dipped in it were crunchy and flavorful.  Lots of work, but these balls sure are tasty!

Pastries dipped in sauce

Sigh.  I know.  I’m twelve.  But you, dear reader, are too.

At any rate, that was the Central Highlands. Spicy and delicious!  There’s a lot more recipes in this cookbook we want to try when we’re not trying to make a full meal and can dedicate our entire attention to them. I’ll also recommend two other recipes from Serious Eats that we make on a regular basis: Gong Bao Chicken and Hot and Numbing Xi’an-Style Oven Fried Chicken Wings, both of which are excellent.

Next week, our final region from China – The Arid Lands! So probably no seafood.

International Meals – China, Part 3: The Costal Southeast

As we continue our trek through the regions of China, this week we reach the southeast, which includes Guangdong province. “Canton” is an old, botched Romanization of Guangdong, so when we talk about “Cantonese” food, this is the area we mean.  In addition to the Guangdong school, this area also includes Hong Kong and southern Fujian province, which is the origin point of a remarkably high percentage of owners of Chinese restaurants in North America.

Once again, the day was started with a trip to the Asian grocer, this time for several different kinds of greenery, as well as a beautiful glass jar of fermented bean curd.  (More on that later.)

Jar of Fermented Bean Paste

We’ve started getting in the habit of printing out our shopping list in both English and Chinese, and it makes it much simpler to communicate what it is we’re looking for.  On this run, for example, the recipe in English called for “water spinach.”  Asking a clerk for water spinach earned a blank look, but showing them a printout of “空心菜” got me a lovely bag marked with those characters as well as the Romanization “Ong Choy.”

So what’s for dinner tonight? Coastal areas have lots of seafood, of course, so we’ll be following last week’s fish dish with skewered shrimp.  On the side, we’ll have two different vegetable dishes, and a sponge cake for dessert. All of these dishes cook very quickly, (except the cake) so the hard part was trying to make them all at once and get them to the table still warm.

Let’s get to it!  First up, the shrimp.  Although it’s easy to acquire fresh seafood around here, we had a bag of frozen tiger prawns already, and waste not want not.  The prawns get a quick soak in Shaoxing wine and oil, while we make a compound butter with scallions, garlic, and fish sauce.

Compound butter and prawns

Next, the shrimp are threaded onto skewers.  In a picture perfect cooking show world, we would carefully fill the vein cavities of the shrimp with a beautiful line of compound butter.  In the real world, we just kinda smeared some on with our fingers, hoped for the best, and into the oven they went. They sure did look pretty when they came out, though.

Cooked Prawns

So while those were cooking, time to make the veggies.  The simpler of the two is Gai Lan or “Chinese Broccoli”.  If you’ve been to a dim sum restaurant and seen a token plate of green vegetables among all the dumplings and pancakes, it was probably Gai Lan.

Gai Lan

Preparation is simple – just a quick minute in boiling water and it’s ready to eat.  It’s commonly topped with oyster sauce, which we mixed with sugar, rice wine, and sesame oil, which makes a sweet, rich dressing. (We should probably have taken a picture AFTER we stirred the ingredients together, but we were hopping at this point.)

Oyster sauce dressing

Our other vegetable dish features that jar of fermented bean curd from earlier.  Ong Choy has long, thin stems which have to be cooked slightly longer than the leaves, so they got chopped up and separated into different bowls. (Note that “Bublé” sparkling water is not a traditional ingredient, and was not used in this preparation.)

Ong Choy ready for cooking

This one gets stir fried, with the ingredients going into the wok one at a time in cook time order: ginger, jalapeno pepper, stems, leaves, and bean curd.  This Fujianese bean curd has a beautiful red color, a salty, funky aroma, and a texture a lot like feta cheese. I think we used a little too much relative to the amount of green stuff – it doesn’t look like much in the picture, but a little fermented curd goes a long way.

Ong Choy with Fermented Bean Curd

So to sum up – the stir fry time for this dish was about three minutes.  The Gai Lan took about a minute to cook, and the shrimp only baked for 8.  No wonder we were hustling to try and get them all done at once!

Southwestern Coastal Meal

No complaints at all on the results, however!  The salty, spicy ong choy, and the sweet oyster sauce on the gai lan were very different, and didn’t feel redundant at all.  And shrimp full of butter and garlic is a common concept for a reason!

What’s for dessert?  Well, we picked a sponge cake recipe from Hong Kong which is probably more influenced by European colonists than more traditional Chinese sources, but with a twist I’d never encountered before – the cake is steamed, rather than baked.

Ingredients are standard cake stuff – flour, water, eggs, soy sauce, vanilla, milk, sugar…

Cake ingredients

…wait.  Soy sauce? That’s a little different, but in the end you couldn’t really taste it.

Into the wok with the cake (a phrase I have NEVER uttered before), and a ten minute steam produced a beautiful, light sponge cake.

Steamed sponge cake

Two slices later, and it looked like Pac Man, but that’s really more Japanese than Chinese.

Cake with slice missing

So that’s three Chinese regions down, and two to go!  Next up, my personal favorite, Sichuan, a cuisine we attempt regularly even when we’re NOT blogging about it, because it’s just so darn tasty.

International Meals – China, Part 2: The Yangtze River & Its Environs

This time around, we’ll be trying to make a meal of dishes representative of the eastern areas of China around the Yangtze river.  This area includes the city of Shanghai, which is a blending point for many of the historical food traditions of China. As before, we’re going to continue to be guided primarily by Carolyn Phillip’s “All Under Heaven,” so we won’t be sharing recipes taken from that cookbook.

I started the day with an early trip to “T&T” a large Asian grocery store in neighboring Richmond.  Hunting for ingredients is half the fun, and we needed things like carp and lotus roots.  When I got to the latter, I patiently waited for the lady before to carefully inspect a number of roots before picking the right ones.  When it was my turn, I felt they deserved equally as much care, but… what the heck do I know about picking lotus roots?  At any rate, this one seemed fine:

Sliced lotus root

Now the good news is, several of today’s dishes didn’t need to be served warm, so there wasn’t the usual frantic scramble to try and assemble three or four unfamiliar dishes at once.  As seen above, we peeled the lotus root, and then sliced it as thinly as possible.  (Out of a sense of self-preservation, we got rid of our mandolin before moving, so the slices weren’t terribly consistent.)

Into the boiling peanut oil with them!

Frying lotus roots

And it turns out, that, although no one could possibly have predicted this, if you slice a root vegetable thinly, deep fry it, and then put salt on it, it’s really, really good!

Our second make-ahead dish was a braised vegetable dish.  Since both this and our entrée call for green onion oil, lets make that first.  Green onion oil is just oil in which green onions have been fried and then removed, leaving the tasty onion flavor.

Frying green onions

This was used to make a simple sauce, with soy sauce and sugar, which dressed some braised bok choy.
Chopped Bok Choi

After cooking until tender, the veggies went in the fridge to soak up the sauce.

For our main entrée, we picked a sweet and sour fish dish.  However, don’t think of this like a sticky Teriyaki sauce.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but the goal here is something a bit more subtle.

Sweet and Sour sauce ingredients

Sweet and sour sauce ingredients: (clockwise from left) Green Onion Oil, Black Vinegar, Rice Wine, Peanut Oil, Rock Sugar, Chicken Stock, and Ginger.

The fish itself was carp, a common freshwater fish, but not one I had cooked with before.  Fortunately, the nice man at T&T scaled it for me.  I think I’m still picking scales out of my hair from when I scaled one myself way back for Bangladesh.

Sliced Carp

The fish gets poached, which is definitely a straightforward process – boil water, remove from heat, put fish in boiling water with ginger, cover for ten minutes.  The residual heat in the water cooks the fish, and you don’t have to do anything but mix up the sauce, cook the noodles, and realize that that pot of rice you just started isn’t FOR anything, because you’re making noodles.

The noodles in question were marked “Shanghai Stir Fry Soup Noodles,” so we’re going to assume they were region appropriate.

Fully assembled, along with some more of the fancy tea from last week, the meal looked pretty good.

Full Yangtzee area meal

Tasted pretty good, too!  The vinegar sauce was subtle and delicious, and the carp definitely responded well to not being overwhelmed.  The cold veggies weren’t bad, and we sprinkled some of the fried onions on top for crunch.  And again – lotus root chips are amazing.

But what about dessert? Our original plan had been to make a cookie recipe from the same cookbook – “Sea Moss Sandies.”  But then we fell down a rabbit hole of different kinds of sea moss, some of which are native to… Mongolia? Jamaica? And some of which aren’t sustainably grown, and all of them kept forcing me to remind myself that I wasn’t making cookies out of semi-conductors. (Say “Sea Moss Cookies” out loud to an electrical engineer, then ask them to explain that last alleged joke.)

So instead, we decided to make red bean pancakes!  We made this decision early enough in the day that we had time to do a quick run out for some glutinous rice flour and red bean paste.  The process here is fussy, but not overly complicated.  Make a batter out of flour, eggs, oil and salt, and let it cool in the fridge. When it’s ready, make a bunch of extremely thin, crepe-like pancakes.

Spread red bean paste on the pancakes, and fold them into little squares. You can MAKE the paste instead of buying it if you really want to.  But y’all have fun with that.

Red Bean PastePancakes being assembled

Then you take the folded pancakes, and bust out the fry oil for the third time today.  There was definitely a lot of oil in this meal.
Frying red bean pancakes

Finally, dust with powdered sugar and serve:
Finished Red Bean Pancake

It may not look too fancy, but these things are super delicious, and very reminiscent of similar things I’ve had at Dim Sum restaurants.

Note that since the Red Bean Pancakes were ganked from the net, and not out of the cookbook, we can share the recipe:

Shanghainese Red Bean Pancakes

So there we are – our attempt at Chinese food from the Yangtze river area.  Not as hearty as the food from last week, but subtly seasoned and delicious!  Next up, the Coastal Southeast!


International Meals – China, Part 1: The Northeast

One of the many, many challenges with a project like this, as the numerous other bloggers who’ve tried it can attest, is picking recipes.  Picking recipes, and sourcing ingredients.  Picking recipes, sourcing ingredients, and avoiding cultural insensitivity. Picking recipes, sourcing ingredients, avoiding cultural insensitivity, and an almost fanatical devotion to the…

Oh, come in again.

Seriously, though, with SMALL countries, the trick is to pick something distinctive.  What really makes Macedonia different from Albania? With BIG countries, on the other hand, well, how do you narrow it down? And today’s country probably has among the most diverse food cultures on the planet. I say today, but the headline kind of spoils it – we’re going to slice this Gordian knot by making not one, not seven, but five different Chinese meals.

Why five? Glad you, the imaginary person who reads this blog, asked!  Historically there is a taxonomy of Chinese food where it’s divided into “The Four Great Cuisines”, Shandong, Huaiyang, Sichuan, and Guangdong.  There’s another one where it’s divided into eight, adding, Hunan, Fujian, Anhui, and Zhejiang to the prior four.  However, we’ve decided to follow the model adopted by Carolyn Phillips in “All Under Heaven: Recipes From the 35 Cuisines of China”, and make 35 different meals.

Just kidding.  Phillips makes the case that the “great eight” actually leave out a lot of the country, and you’re better off making a broad set of groupings by geography and cultural influence than just picking eight provinces and saying “Those are the good ones!.”  Obviously, there are a MILLION guides we could have picked, but we picked this one. So the plan is to make a meal each from Phillips’ five broad groupings consisting of: The North and Northeast, The Yangtze River Environs, The Coastal Southeast, The Central Highlands, and The Arid Lands.  (Map in the link.)

So for THIS meal, we’re starting with the northeast, including the capital, Beijing, and the provinces bordering Russia and Korea. Our menu included an appetizer of spinach and peanuts, scallion flatbreads, and a lamb stew.

First up, shopping!  I’ve said it before, but shopping for specialty ingredients in Vancouver is AMAZING.  Although the ethnically Asian population is so high, it could be argued that Asian ingredients technically aren’t specialty items.

At any rate, ingredients required for this meal that we didn’t already have included Chinese flour (lower gluten than Western), Sweet Wheat Paste (which is confusingly frequently labeled as “Sweet Bean Paste” even when it’s still made of wheat.), and ginger juice.

Turns out you don’t buy that last one, you just squish a lot of ginger.

We also went to a super fancy tea shop and asked for a tea that would go well with lamb.  We can’t read this, but it was really good. (It’s also not from the northeast, since they don’t grow much tea there.)

Bag of tea, labelled in Chinese

So to work though the dishes from least to most complex, let’s start with our appetizer, spinach and peanuts.  Roast some peanuts, blanch some spinach, toss with dressing, done. The dressing consisted of garlic, black vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil.  It was delicious, and not as salty as the equivalent Korean salad we sometimes make with miso, because I never remember to buy doenjang.
Spinach and peanuts

Next up, the lamb.  The dish, called “Tasimi” (literally, “It’s Like Honey”) was the main entrée, but was relatively simple to prepare – the lamb is marinated in ginger juice, corn starch, soy sauce, rice wine, and black vinegar.  Once it’s ready, you flash fry it  and then toss in sugar and wheat paste.  The wheat paste is a little sweet, but mostly just a blast of concentrated umami.

The result is a hearty, lamb stew that while being a little sweet and a little sticky, is MUCH less overpowering than the goopy stuff you get at somewhere like Panda Express. Much, much tastier, too.

Lamb Stew cooking.

Finally, let’s talk about the flatbreads.  Since the process was somewhat fussy, we didn’t get as many pictures as we would have liked.  The basic dough is just Chinese flour and water.  Combined with that you make a paste of shortening (or lard), salt, flour, and toasted Sichuan peppercorns.

Toasted Sichuan peppercorns. Oh lawd, why didn’t I think of toasting these things before?  They’re even BETTER that way.

Dough made, scallions chopped, and paste, um, pasted, it’s time to make bread!  The dough is divided into several pieces, which are rolled into long strips. (no picture of this part, sorry)  You smear paste and scallion on the inside of the strip, roll it up into a rope, and then roll the rope into a bun, as seen upper right in this picture.

You then roll the bun flat and the whole thing then gets fried in oil.

Chinese flatbreas

And here’s a picture of our final spread, including the tea:

Northern Chinese Meal

The meal was really excellent.  The lamb dish was something I could easily see making again, in particular, and spinach and peanuts turns out to be a great combination. No recipes for the next few entries, because we didn’t poach them from the internet, but if you’d like to follow along at home, here’s the cookbook.

“All Under Heaven,” by Carolyn Phillips

Next up, China! Then China, China, and also China!

International Meals – Chile

For this entry, we return to South America.  So far we’ve made two variations on empanadas, for Argentina and Bolivia, and a hearty bean and pork stew for Brazil.  Doing the research for Chile, I found lots of blogs talking about the great variety of food one would expect from a country that is as long north to south as the US is wide.

I also found an entire blog entry dedicated to how much Chilean food sucks. But that one mostly just reinforced my belief that I don’t like most travel bloggers. (Possibly due to jealousy, who knows?)

So let’s figure out how WE feel about Chilean food, shall we?  Turns out Chile has their OWN variant of empanadas, but we’re going to skip that, since we’ve already done that twice.  Instead, we’re going to make a beef and corn pie called Pastel de Choclo.

This week’s special guest new ingredient is a smoked chili pepper seasoning called “Merkén.” 

Merken seasoning

Specifically, it uses something called a “Goat’s Horn” chili. It is smoky and delicious, and I want to put it in lots of things.  Including a big batch of chili, but going down that road in THIS blog entry is going to get confusing real fast.  So where did we GET a whole bottle of this stuff?

A coworker recommended a Latin grocery store on my drove home from work, and I’d already stopped there once to stock up on whatever looked good – mystery tamales, some kind of mystery bread that looked tasty, some kind of mystery pastry that looked tasty.

All of which, it later turned out, were Chilean.  So we’d basically already HAD at least one Chilean meal this week, that we just hadn’t prepared ourselves. Also, the pastry was called a “Chilenito” which maybe should have been a clue?

Moving on.

To make this pie, ground beef is first simmered with seasonings and onions.

Ground beef and seasonings

In a separate pan, frozen corn is cooked in butter with basil and seasonings.

Once it’s cooked, you give it a mush with the immersion blender, then add milk and cornstarch, and cook it down a bit more to make a sweet, spicy, lumpy yellow mixture.

Beef and corn go into a baking dish, and the whole thing gets baked until it’s nice and brown on top. Standard additions at this point between the beef and corn layers would be hard boiled eggs, raisins, olives, or even roasted chicken breast.

(Shown here with a slice already removed.)

For our second dish, I really wanted to make razor clams with Parmesan cheese, which is apparently something that is extremely common in high end Chilean restaurants, and was introduced by an Italian immigrant in the 1950s. Sadly, although razor clams ARE to be had in Vancouver (yay!) they are not to be had for a few more weeks.

BUT – our recipe indicated that scallops with cheese are ALSO popular, and since the nice fish counter that didn’t have razor clams yet DID have dry scallops, that was a no brainer.

If you’re not familiar with “wet” vs “dry” scallops, “wet” scallops have been treated with an additive to make them keep better during shipping.  Said additive also basically makes it impossible to get a decent sear on them. This was the first time we had actually found dry scallops for sale, and we were VERY excited to see how they compared. (As it turns out, there’s just no comparison – these are infinitely better.)

As tempted as we were to just sear them and be done with it, however, this was a Chilean meal, and we were making a Chilean recipe.

OK, we just made the razor clam recipe, but with scallops. So an Italian Chilean recipe. Made by Americans. In Canada.  Whatever.

This involved making a sauce of butter, cream, white wine (Chilean, of course), garlic, and lemon juice, pouring it over the scallops, and then topping them with a big pile of freshly grated Parmesan.

After baking for a few minutes to cook the scallops and melt the cheese, we wanted to crisp the top a little bit.  Although the recipe didn’t specifically call for it, this seemed an appropriate time to break out the blowtorch. Amazingly, we didn’t get a picture of either the blowtorching itself, or a great one of the final product, but here’s the scallops in the background of the main dish:

Finally we needed a batch of what turns out to be a ubiquitous Chilean condiment, Pebre.  What chimichurri is to Argentina, Pebre is to Chile.  It’s something like Pico de Gallo, in that it uses tomatoes and cilantro, but the olive oil, red wine vinegar, and scallions are a departure from that template.

And yes, we used Sriracha in place of an authentic Chilean hot pepper sauce, but only because the Chilean grandmother of the author of the recipe said we could.

And oh man – this stuff is great.  That may look like a big batch, but we polished it off in two days.  It’s going into the regular rotation for sure.

The main dishes were also fantastic.  The smoky merkén seasoning really shined through in the pie, and the combination of sweet corn with spicy pebre and smoky meat was outstanding.  The scallops were…

Well look – they’re scallops, one of the world’s perfect foods.  With cheese. And a blowtorch. So basically the best thing ever.

Chile, we salute you!  Your food does not suck, no matter what annoying travel bloggers may say. We will be making pebre again in the near future.

And next up, we have the utterly impossible task of programming a single meal from one of the most diverse food cultures on the planet – China.

Pebre (Chilean Salsa)
Machas a la Parmesana (Razor Clams with Parmesan)
Pastel de Choclo (Corn Pie)

International Meals – Chad

OK, let’s just get this out of the way right now. “Chad” is an anglicization of the Kanuri word for “Lake.” So we can skip those jokes, right? Great!  Moving on…

This blog has been deeply indebted to the research of Marc Rinaldi, who we have been referring to as “Cooked Earth Guy” this whole time.  Well, he’s a real person, who is better at research, cooking, food photography, and writing than we are.  What he is NOT better at than us is publishing a new entry on a regular basis.  Probably because he doesn’t have his own blog to crib from, and has to do all the work himself.  I want to acknowledge how much we’ve appreciated all his work because…

…we’ve caught up with him, and this will probably be the last entry that steals his recipes.  His last entry, on the Republic of Chad, was published over two years ago.  Still – lets see how we do with it.

Chad is another country from Central Africa, so we’re going to see similar ingredients to last entry – okra, spinach, peanuts.  In fact, both meals could be described as “One Beef Stew and One Vegetable Stew With Peanuts.”

But there are differences, starting with our first new ingredient for a while: Jute Leves!

Jute Leaves in a bowl with the empty bag

Jute leaves, also known as Molokha, (and a ton of other names) are cultivated all over the world, but particularly in the middle east and Africa.  We picked up a bag at a middle eastern grocery store in Kitsilano. The bag had a penguin on it for some reason. (As far as we know, jute leaves and penguins are not co-located anywhere in the world.)

If you like leafy green vegetables in general, you will probably like these too – they’re a bit gloppy on their own, but as part of a stew, they have a lovely thickening effect, similar to okra. So stew them we did, with onions, garlic, and some beef.

Beef stew cooking

The vegetable and peanut stew used a very pretty assortment of vegetables:

Vegetable Stew in Progress

However, one big drawback of our Vancouver apartment is that unlike our old place, there’s only an electric range.  This makes it much harder to follow instructions like “bring quickly to a simmer, then lower heat.”  If you put it up high enough to come to a simmer within the next day or so, then it’s going to STAY at that heat for a lot longer than you’d prefer.

As a result, the stew both never really thickened up, while at the same time the veggies got pretty mushy.  It still wasn’t bad, but the peanut-to-things-that-are-not-peanut ratio looked nothing like the beautiful pictures on Cooked Earth.  Sigh.  Certainly the one we made last time for the Central African Republic turned out better.

Chadian Meal

The beef stew, on the other hand, was delicious, and jute leaves may have to become a regular freezer staple.  I wonder if we can get them with extra penguin?

All in all, it was a filling dinner, and we got a lot of mileage out of the leftover veggies by cooking other stuff and tossing them on top for the rest of the week.

So farewell, Mr. Rinaldi, and thanks for all you’ve done.  Next up, we head back to South America for the first time in a while, and find out what Chile has to offer us!

Recipes here:
Cooked Earth – Chad