International Meals – Bulgaria

We’re back in eastern Europe, which means it was time to once again consult my friend Walt.  He was a big help with Bosnia, and Croatia is on the horizon, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing from him again. (If you haven’t checked out his band’s page yet, you should!)

So, Bulgaria.  I had found a recipe or two, but Walt sold us on trying to put together a fairly substantial meal, consisting of a soup, two salads, bread, a main dish, and dessert.  The clock had also been started ticking by the fact that we found some Bulgarian style feta cheese at our local farmers’ market, and so had to use it while it was still fresh.

Bulgaria didn’t require a lot of exotic ingredients – no wacky chili peppers that take a month to arrive or cream that requires a drive to Detroit.  Lots of cucumbers, peppers, onions, and a pumpkin.  So without further ado, the dishes. (We didn’t take a lot of “in process” pictures this time.)

Bulgarian starters - red peppers, walnut soup, and salad.

Clockwise from top, Shopska Salata, Tarator, and roasted peppers.

To start the meal off, we had what I’ve seen repeatedly described as Bulgaria’s national dish – Shopska Salata… which turns out to be a pretty darn conventional salad.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, raw onion, and the Bulgarian feta.  The feta is what really makes it distinctively Bulgarian – it’s smoother and creamier than Greek feta, and made a nice starter for the meal. But it’s certainly not something that felt exotic.

On the other hand, the soup certainly was a little outside of our normal range – it was a cold yogurt soup with cucumbers and walnuts called tarator.  But not just any yogurt – Bulgarian yogurt!  OK, fine, Bulgarian style yogurt.  The good news is that you can find it at Whole Foods, and that really is good news, because the stuff is very tasty – smoother and tarter than Greek yogurt, it made a great soup when balanced with the crunchiness of the walnuts and the mildness of the cucumbers.

To complete our opening course, we roasted some sweet peppers on the gas range.  Shoving food directly into the fire is fun, but I needed to be a bit more aggressive about it – the pictures I looked at after the fact showed peppers that had been much more fully incinerated than ours had, which explains why the skins didn’t peel off as well.  Still, roasted peppers dressed simply with vinegar and oil were a good complement to the soup.

On to the main course, Gyuvetch. Literally, the word just describes a type of pot. Which, of course, we don’t actually have.  After Walt suggested this would be a good choice of main dish, I spent a lot of time trying to chase down a recipe that a) didn’t use beef, which I was assured wasn’t really authentic, and b) had quantities and cooking times.

I completely failed at b).

So, instead, I found a recipe from a tiny little EU government grant, accompanied by a video of a Bulgarian grandma saying things like “now put it in the oven until it’s done.” So we winged it.

The recipe also didn’t call for any meat at all, so I borrowed some guidance on pork from Walt and another recipe and tossed that in.  The final product consists of veg and pork that is first simmered on the stove until tender, and then topped with an egg and yogurt custard and baked.  It’s not quite a pie, and not quite a stew, but it’s very, very good.  We also made a nice loaf of bread to go with, although it did disintegrate a bit on removal from the oven.

Bulgarian main course - gyuvetch and bread.

Gyuvetch and bread. (Structural integrity optional)

Finally – dessert.  This was actually the FIRST dish Walt said we had to make, and he wasn’t wrong.  Tikvenik is what you’d get if you crossed pumpkin pie with baklava – a sweet, nutty, pumpkin filling rolled up in phylo dough. Yummy. It was so good we forgot to take a picture until we were boxing up the leftovers.

Tikvenik - Bulgarian Pumpkin Dessert

Tikvenik. Presentation by Rubbermaid

We ALSO forgot to take a picture of our dinner guest, but Laurie was nice enough to come over and share the experience with us, and bring a lovely Pinot Noir to go with.  These meals are always better with friends!

Next up, we have a whole run of African countries, starting with Burkina Faso.

Recipes:

    • Shopska Salata
    • Tarator
    • Roasted Peppers: Put peppers directly in the gas flame until they turn black all over. Let them sit in a paper bag for 15-30 minutes.  Peel, slice, and dress. Done.
    • Pogacha Bread
    • Gyuvetch (We added 1 lb of browned pork tenderloin to this otherwise vegetarian (but dear lord, not even remotely vegan) recipe.) Bulgarian grandma video here.
    • Tikvenik

 

International Meals – Brunei

I was nervous about this one.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to have had the idea to cook my way through the alphabet.  I follow several other blogs dedicated to the same project.  The most thorough of these is Cooked Earth – a site whose author is MUCH more rigorous than we are.  He won’t substitute ingredients, he does months of research, and his presentation is amazing.  Of course, he also lives in New York, and thus has access to a LOT more ethnic grocery stores than we do.

His opening sentence for his entry on Brunei was “Guys. This one almost broke me.”  He goes on to uses phrases like “fermented Durian.”

Needless to say, this did not inspire confidence.

But on we went.  Brunei is a very small country, so finding dishes which were uniquely Bruneian and not regional was a challenge, but there is one dish that everyone agreed was the national dish – ambuyat.  Ambuyat is boiled sago palm starch.  It’s apparently like nachos, in that there’s not much flavor to be had in the thing itself, but it serves as a vehicle for condiments. (Which can include the aforementioned fermented durian, but dear god, no.)

So, ambuyat it was, with a pair of dips.  In addition, I found a recipe for buttermilk chicken (which does not involve any buttermilk at all) which was described as the recipe that Bruneian college students abroad write home to ask their mothers to send them.

One thing that several sites made clear that sago is NOT the same thing as tapioca, so if we wanted the authentic experience, we needed to get sago, not tapioca.

I have no idea.

But we took the sago pearls and ground them up as fine as my battered old spice grinder would get them.  Meanwhile, Leigh was frying chicken:

We don’t do a lot of deep frying, but this seemed to work out OK.  We still had some peanut oil left over from Belgium, which was (checks notes)… oh dear ago.

Next, we assembled our two sambals. The first was a mango sambal which would traditionally have used a local variant, but we were assured was fine with any old mango we could find.  We mixed it with shallots, chiles, and garlic, for a very unfamiliar mix of flavors:

Colorful though, innit?

The other sambal involved shrimp paste, chiles, and calamansi lime juice. (An asian lime juice which is intensely sweetened.  This stuff is GREAT with tonic water – I recommend getting some if you can find it.) The intensly fishy, salty shrimp, combined with the hot chiles and sweet lime juice resulted a flavor which is probably one of the most… foreign to our palates so far in our trip.  It wasn’t bad, but it definitely had notes that my brain wasn’t used to processing as “this is food.”

Meanwhile, we finished the chicken and made the sauce. “Buttermilk Chicken” apparently actually means “Chicken with Butter and Milk.”  But that’s OK – we LIKE butter and milk.

Also chiles.  Because of course chiles.  Curry leaves as well, which is an ingredient I use all the time for Indian cooking.

Finally it was time to make the ambuyat, by pouring boiling water over the ground sago starch, and bring the whole thing to the table.

Clockwise from upper right: Buttermilk chicken, ambuyat, sambal belacan, sambal cacah, bog standard basmati rice.  (I don’t even know if basmati rice is reasonable for Brunei, but I had forgotten to soak the sticky rice that would probably have been more appropriate.)

The ambuat was.. fine.  The texture was a bit less smooth than it probably should have been but it reminded me of nothing so much as slightly stickier grits.  Dipped in the sauces, it provided a perfectly acceptable medium for moving sauce to our faces.

The buttermilk chicken, on the other hand, was delicious.  Would definitely eat again, if deep frying weren’t such a major pain.

So there you are – we survived Brunei, and it was much less terrifying than I thought it would be. Next time we’re back to Europe for Bulgaria.

Recipes:

International Meals – Brazil

Hold on to your eyeballs, folks, because we remembered to take LOTS of pictures this time.  This may or may not be a good thing.

Brazil is an enormous country, obviously.  Lots of people live there.  How many?  Like, a Brazillion people!

Sorry.

But the fact remains that this is one of the stops on our tour where any choice of dishes is obviously going to be absurdly reductive.  That said, there’s one dish that just about all my sources agreed would be a good choice for the national dish, and that is feijoada: a hearty stew of black beans and various forms of pig.  To accompany that, we would also make pao de queijo: a tasty cheese bread, farofa: toasted cassava flour, and sauteed collard greens.

So first, the stew.  This is for special occasions, so it uses many different kinds of pig, but it’s peasant food, so none of them are what you’d call fancy.  You would, however, call them hooves, ears, and tails.

In addition, we have some pork ribs, and two different kinds of honest-to-god Brazillian sausages.  Where the heck did we find those, you ask? At a store called “International Foods” in Sterling Heights, Michigan.  Despite sounding like a Mafia front, it is actually an amazing little grocery store, which will probably be seeing some return visits as we continue through the alphabet.

There’s also (just under the ear) a piece of what I’m fairly sure is NOT carne seca, despite what we thought when we bought it, but what the hell, into the pot it went.

I was a bit nervous when I read that the correct beans for this stew were “turtle beans”, but it turns out that just refers to the standard black beans that you can get anywhere in the US. So to start, let’s boil up some beans with an orange in the pot. Bay leaves added for some reason. (I’m not convinced they do anything in any recipe, frankly.)

Once they’ve cooked a bit, in go the pig parts:

And that is almost the entire preparation for the stew.  After 45 minutes or so, you pull out some beans, mash them up for texture, and throw them back in to cook some more. So while that cooks, let’s make some cheese bread.

The way we found International Foods in the first place was at the end of a long search for the appropriate type of cheese for the pao de queijo.  This cheese, called Queijo Minas Curado, is murderously hard to find online in English, and as was confirmed by our dinner guest, not even necessarily all that easy to find in Brazil outside of the Minas region where it is made. We had friends looking all over for this stuff, and then we found a store an hour away in Michigan that stocked it!  What are the odds?

I got about 20% of the way through grating the brick of cheese before I remembered we had a food processor:

Once you finish grating the cheese, you mix in egg, milk, some Parmesan, and two different kinds of cassava flour (thanks again, International Foods!) to make a gooey, sticky paste.

Said paste gets formed into balls and baked for a while. We’re now getting into the home stretch – just the farofa and the collards left. Both are trivially easy.  The farofa recipe is basically: cook bacon, cook flour in the bacon grease, then put scallions in the flour.

Which is Iron Chef level of complicated next to the traditional Brazilian preparation for collards: Slice into ribbons and sautee in oil for about three minutes.

With the pao out of the oven, the side dishes ready, and the stew smelling amazing, it was time to eat!

Sadly, this is where we UTTERLY FAILED in our documentation.  We had guests!  These meals are always better with guests, and our friends Alexis, Sandro, and Isla were delightful company.  They even brought dessert!  But did we take a picture with our friends?  We did not.  We didn’t even take a picture of the dessert until we had eaten half of it.

Sandro is himself Brazilian, and was able to confirm that we had gotten everything pretty close to right!  The stew was rich and porky, the toasty farofa soaked up the fattiness very well, the collards were a nice bit of actual greenery and the cheese bread… Oh man, the cheese bread.  The cassava flour gave it a much chewier texture than a standard American biscuit, and they were incredibly satisfying.

Here’s the desert they brought.  It’s called Manjar Branco, and it’s a coconut pudding made in a bundt pan, and usually accompanied by some kind of fruit.  It was so tasty we ate most of it before we even remembered to take a picture.

In summary, Brazil was definitely one of the better meals so far – all of the dishes were delicious, they worked well together, and the company was great.  You may notice that all of the recipes are from the same source on this one – I figure if this guy wants to do all my homework for me, why not let him?

Recipes: Cooked Earth – Federative Republic of Brazil.

Next up is Brunei, and I am vaguely terrified of this one…

International Meals – Botswana

We had been putting off Botswana, because everything I had read indicated that the national dish was extremely simple. Beef, water, salt.  Concerned that it might be a bit boring, I just hadn’t gotten around to making it.

And I was totally wrong.  This was definitely one of the simplest meals we’ve made, but was very tasty.  Complete ingredient list for all three dishes:

  • Beef
  • Water
  • Salt
  • Corn Meal
  • Spinach
  • Broth

And that’s it. You buy cheap beef, boil it for a few hours, then pound it down into individual muscle fibers. Throw it back in the drained pot to brown a bit, and you’re done.

It’s served with boiled cornmeal, which is basically grits. Fully traditional would have been amaranth greens as an accompaniment, but spinach was simple and tasty.

And there you are – simple, tasty, and filling. Nice job, Botswana!  Next up, Brazil!

Recipes:
Beef: Cooked Earth
Pap (Corn Meal Mush): Global Table Adventure
Spinach: OK seriously, you boil it in salted water for two minutes, then eat it.

International Meals – Bosnia and Herzegovina

I’ve been posting about our international food adventures on Facebook, but I’m going to start moving them here, because it’s easier to integrate pictures into the story, and we don’t actually go on vacation that much.  I’ll probably also start retroactively moving the prior meals on here too, which means this explanation will be in the middle of the narrative, and that will be confusing too.

But without further ado – Bosnia and Herzegovina!  I have an old friend who is a professional eastern European musician, so I contacted him for suggestions. Being that sort of person, he opened another chat window to the mayor of Hamtramck, just to make sure he had the right places to send me. (Follow that link, by the way. They’re really good.)

He nailed it, too – I walked into a nondescript grocery store and asked for Kajmak and the dude behind the counter enthusiastically told me “You can have this kind, which comes right from Bosnia, or THIS kind, which my grandmother made this morning.”

Naturally, I went with the grandma Kajmak.

But what IS Kajmak, you ask?  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The centerpiece of this meal was going to be cevapi, which should have a bunch more diacriticals on it, and comes from the same root word as “kebab.”  It’s an uncased beef and lamb sausage that has a very distinctive “springy” texture that you get from grinding the meat several times, and mixing in baking soda.

I had never used a meat grinder before, but fortunately our friends who were coming for dinner were able to loan us one. Meat ground, we tossed in parsley, garlic, and a packet of cevapi seasoning mix that was also provided by the Balkan grocery store. Into the fridge with the meat.

Cevapi is traditionally eaten on a fluffy flatbread called Lepinja – like pita but softer and airier. I came home early from work on the day we were having dinner so I could get the dough started.  The other accompaniments are ajvar, a roasted red pepper spread with eggplant, and kajmak.

Oh right, kajmak.  So kajmak is essentially clotted cream.  You can make it yourself, but it takes a while, so I went with the grandma version. It’s made by simmering milk and heavy cream forever and then skimming off the heart attack that forms on top.  It’s incredibly sweet and rich.

Our friends arrived, so we put on some Bosnian music, and put them to work making sausages, which we tossed onto the oven plate at the same time as we put the bread in the oven.

The bread really did turn out amazingly well for a first attempt.

Once the sausages were done (and the one smoke alarm I missed hurriedly disabled), it was time to feast! To cut the richness of the kajmak, ajvar, and cevapi, we added some raw onion, and served it all up with some Croatian beer brought by our friends.

For dessert, we made what my friend Walt described as “the only Bosnian dessert that isn’t  a variation of Baklava”, namely Tufahije – apples stuffed with honey and walnuts.  Apparently grandmas will actually come to blows over whether they should be made with sweet or sour apples.  We went with sour, and they were fantastic, especially because everything is better eaten with friends.

Next up, Botswana!

Recipes:
Cevapi, Ajvar, and Lepinja
Tufahije
Kajmak – ask grandma