International Meals – Cuba

It’s been less than a week, but it’s the holidays!  Lots of free time, lots of rain outside, and a pandemic still going on, so why not cook?  Today we head to Cuba, land of cigars and pig bays.  We will NOT, however, be making tobacco-infused pork.

Instead, it’ll be the national dish of Cuba, ropa vieja.  This literally means “old clothes,” and originated in the Spanish Canary Islands. There’s a whole depressing legend around the name and a dude eating his clothes, but it’s actually a delicious stew of shredded beef and tomatoes. (The shredded beef is said to resemble torn clothing.)

But let’s start with some bread.  Last week’s Croatian meal marked the first appearance of lard in this blog, and oddly enough, it reappears this week.  (Good thing, too – we’ve still got quite a bit left.)
Lard and flour

This recipe starts by melting the lard, and slowly, slowly mixing it with a blend of regular and bread flower.  But not as slowly as last week’s 30 minute mixing time for the nut roll!  Just regular slowly.  Once the dough has come together, you let it rise for an hour, roll it out, and then roll it into a long, baguette shaped loaf.


Cuban bread being made

After another rise, it goes in the oven and comes out… gorgeous.

Cuban bread

This loaf was incredibly soft, and super rich.  Lard may have to become a regular addition to our bread arsenal.  It made fantastic sandwiches the next day, too.

On to the main event!  The traditional cut of meat for ropa vieja in Cuba would be flank steak, but only because it shreds nicely.  Source after source pointed out that it’s actually a poor choice of meat for a long, slow braise, because it’s got very little fat.  Chuck and brisket are suggested as much better choices, and since brisket was somewhat less bonkers expensive, we went with that.

There are a million recipes for this online, and a million people with strong opinions that any given recipe is either excellent or terrible.  I went with one from Bon Appétit that seemed a happy medium, but we did make a few changes, which I’ll point out as they come up.

First the meat is given a nice sear on both sides.  (Our Dutch oven couldn’t quite handle the whole brisket, so we chopped it in half.)

Brisket searing

Sorry the picture’s a bit blurry.  I promise the actual meat was in much better focus.  We hadn’t gotten to the rum yet.

Once the meat is colored, you pull it out of the pot, and soften up some onions, peppers, garlic, and tomatoes with spices to make a base.  Our first change at this point was to replace the sweet paprika in the recipe with achiote, for two reasons.  One, it’s probably more authentic, and two, we didn’t HAVE any sweet paprika.  (See last week’s error in that regard with the cabbage rolls.)

Sofrito for ropa vieja

Once the sauce is ready to go, you tuck the beef back in for a nice long soak in a low oven. Like, three and a half hours long.  There are lots of recipes for doing this in a pressure cooker, and we’ll likely use one of those next time.

After an impossibly long wait, the stew is super aromatic, and the beef is ready to be shredded.

Ropa vieja after cooking.Shredding beef

Finally, the shredded beef is tossed back into the pot, along with white vinegar for finishing and some sliced olives.  I imagine some sort of citrus, like orange juice, would also be fine instead of vinegar here.

Finished ropa vieja

We departed from the recipe here by NOT adding cilantro, as it seemed to be universally scorned as a garnish by every Cuban person who commented on the recipes we looked at.

We also made a side dish and a drink to accompany our meal.  For our side, the obvious choice was Cuban style rice and beans.  The beans are cooked for almost as long as the meat, and topped at the end with a mix of sautéed onions, peppers, and spices.

Beans at start of cooking

Beans at the START of cooking. The water was NOT this color at the end!

Seasoning mix for the beans

And finally, I believe I mentioned rum?

“American Chopper” a few weeks ago, Jack Sparrow now.  We’re going to be a meme blog before you know it.

No.  No we are not.  However, we ARE going to make Batidos! One of the things I miss  about Michigan is a little Cuban restaurant in Ann Arbor, “Frita Batidos.” They have AMAZING burgers.  Eat there if you have a chance.  But the SECOND part of their name refers to a traditional Cuban drink made with milk, ice, and fruit.  And possibly rum.

While almost any kind of fruit is possible, we decided to go with an inexplicably Pixar-branded pineapple.

What does Nemo have to do with pineapples?

Our blender decided to die halfway through making these, but that’s OK, because we had also forgotten to refill the ice cube trays, so there wasn’t much ice for the food processor to deal with.  Final product, after the obligatory splash of rum:


And here’s our full tropical Cuban meal, in the middle of our rainy Vancouver December:

Cuban meal

Doesn’t that look amazing?  It totally was.  Leftovers for days, too.  The beef was sour and tangy and delicious, the beans were rich and flavorful, and the soft bread was perfect for soaking everything up.

Also, there was rum.

Next time, it’s another island – Cyprus!

Ropa Vieja
Pan Cubano (Cuban Bread)
Cuban Beans


International Meals – Croatia

We have something a little different this week, but very special.  I’ve mentioned our good friend Walt earlier on this blog – he’s been our go-to expert for things Balkan, and even contacted a local mayor to help us find the best ingredients for our Bosnian meal.  He’s a member of the musical ensemble “Harmonia,” which you should definitely listen to.  Possibly even while reading the rest of this entry.

Walt’s family background is Croatian, and in particular, inland Croatian, away from the coastal regions. And as we were heading into the holiday season, he generously sent us a whole stack of his family’s holiday recipes, and offered tons of suggestions for shopping and preparing a Croatian holiday feast!

So welcome to the first Christmas edition of “Everything But A Mule.”  (That title really makes less and less sense for what has turned from a vacation into a cooking blog…)

As always, let’s start by going shopping!  While things like potatoes and onions can be had anywhere, we made a trip to “Jovo the Butcher” to procure an assortment of the smoked or pickled items that help make Balkan cuisine unique.

Ingredients for Croatian Meal

Clockwise from upper left: Pickled Cabbage Leaves, Lard, Sauerkraut, Salt Cod, Smoked Pork, Hungarian Paprika, Kulen Sausage, and a smoked ham hock. (center)

Christmas was on a Friday this year, but when I told Walt I had acquired the ingredients, he suggested making the cabbage rolls as soon as possible.  “They’re really best if they’ve been reheated at least twice.” So Tuesday night, our Croatian meal got underway!  However, as usual, we’re going to talk about the dishes in the order we ate them, rather than the order we prepared them.

At about the same time, we looked at the amount of food we intended to make, (lots) and the number of people available to consume said food, (two) and decided it was going to need to be TWO meals, one on Christmas Eve, and one on Christmas Day. This, of course, will scramble the chronological sequence even further.  Fortunately, it doesn’t affect the actual quality of the food (excellent) or the writing (poor) much at all.

So what ARE we starting with?  Well, according to Walt, it’s just not Christmas Eve in his family without a dish of “Bakalar”, or salt cod with potatoes.  This is more or less the same word as “Bacala” in Italian, “Bacalao” in Spanish, etc. To start, the cod is soaked for three days to draw the salt out.  Then you simmer the cod in one pan, and waxy potatoes in another one, until the one is flaky and the other is tender. (I’ll leave which is which as an exercise for the reader.)

Cod and potatoes cooking.

It’s hard to see in this picture, but there IS water in the pan with the cod.  Once the fish and potatoes are done, you slide the skins off the potatoes under cold running water. Not NEAR the cold water, idiot, UNDER the water.  It’s there for a reason!

One lightly burned thumb later, the potatoes are chopped and tossed with the flaked fish in a bowl.  However, there’s one more key ingredient here – garlic oil!  You brown a few cloves of garlic in oil until it takes on all the lovely flavor, then pour the oil over the fish / potato mixture and let it marinate for an hour to soak up all the garlicky goodness!

Oil being poured over fish and potatoes

The recipe didn’t actually specify any particular use for the fried garlic itself, so we spread it on bread with some kajmak, which you may remember as the heart attack in a jar from our Bosnian meal.  It’s still delicious. (Although I have no idea what your average Croatian grandmother would think of this particular appetizer, waste not want not.)

Garlic and kajmak on toast

Although Walt said that typically his family eats this dish by itself, we had some leftover sauerkraut left over from the cabbage rolls, so we served that alongside.  Yes, we served leftovers from a dish we technically hadn’t actually eaten yet. I told you the chronology on this one got weird.

Bakalar, sauerkraut, and sausage

We also sliced up some smoked sausage, which the butcher assured us was Croatian style.  It was quite spicy, and very good.  The whole meal was absolutely delicious, and I can certainly see how a family tradition could develop around salt cod on Christmas Eve.

OK, you ask, but what about those cabbage rolls you’ve now teased twice?

Well, let’s talk about Christmas day!  (Then we’ll go back and talk about the nut rolls we made on Christmas Eve.  Take that, attempts to wrestle the post back to linear time!)

Our Christmas day feast was going to consist of the cabbage rolls we made on Tuesday evening, and a green bean soup.  Since we’ve beaten that particular horse to death, let’s start with the cabbage rolls.

Stuffed cabbage is a dish with a lot of regional names and variants, but the Croatian name for this dish is “Sarma.”  You start by making a filling from ground pork, rice, sautéed onions, garlic, salt and pepper, and lots of spicy Hungarian paprika. (Note – turns out this was supposed to be SWEET paprika. The amount of hot we used definitely made the dish a bit less authentic, but we sure liked it!)  We were lucky enough to find some great smoked pork at the butcher, which is an optional but very desirable component to the filling.

Next you roll the filling in the cabbage leaves, and layer the stuffed leaves in the pot with sauerkraut, onions, and ham hocks.

Which is where we must pause for a moment.  Several of these recipes call for smoked ham hocks.  In the past, when I’ve purchased ham hocks for cooking, they have consisted of very thick (1″ or more) slices of bone in ham.  When I asked for SMOKED ham hocks at Jovo, they told me “Sure!  We have smoked ham hocks!”

By which they meant ENTIRE HOCKS.  This is a BIG hunk o’ ham:

Smoked pork hock

In the interest of getting something that would fit in the pot, I shaved off some slices and used those.  As a result, we didn’t get any of the interesting marrow and/or tendon based flavors that you usually get from bone-in meat, but the ham itself was smoky and definitely came through in the final dishes.

Here’s our final pot of sarma, before we added the cooking liquid.  I wish to apologize to Croatian grandmothers everywhere – this was the first time I tried making these, and they’re not terribly aesthetic.

Cabbage rolls in a pot

The recipe calls for them to be covered by a weighted plate.  We improvised by putting a normal plate on top, and then jamming a measuring cup between the heavy lid of the Dutch oven and plate to hold everything down.  It seemed to work, and for the next three hours, the rolls happily bubbled away on low heat, and made our apartment smell heavenly. (Some people don’t like the smell of cooking pickled things.  I feel sorry for those people.)

Once they were finished (remember, this is Tuesday night) they were popped into the fridge to cool.  Except for the one that fell apart while cooking.  We ate that one right away.  For science.

Let’s hop forward again to Christmas day, and our other dish to accompany the cabbage rolls, Čušpajz od zelenog graha or Green Bean Soup.  This one starts off by making a stock with some more of the ham hock and some quartered onions.

Ham and onions making stock.

After that’s had an hour or so to reduce (longer would have been even better), we added our green beans, some more peeled waxy potatoes, and a whole bunch of dill.

Green beans and potatoes cooking

While those cooked, it was time to make a roux.  And this roux used as its fat an ingredient I’m actually sort of surprised we’ve never used for this project until now:  lard.

The recipe doesn’t actually specify how MUCH roux to make, but we used about a third of a cup each of water and flour, and that seemed to work, so if you try this yourself (HIGHLY recommended), that seems a reasonable quantity.

If you have never made a roux before, the instructions are basically – “Combine fat and flour. Stir forever. DO NOT STOP STIRRING.”

Roux being stirred.

This picture is the initial stir.  It quickly became homogeneous in color, and VERY VERY SLOWLY got darker. We tried to split the difference between overcooking the vegetables and undercooking the roux, and got something that probably wasn’t QUITE dark enough, but nonetheless thickened and flavored the soup beautifully.  The other major flavor that goes in at the end is vinegar, making for a sour, rich stew redolent with ham and dill.

Green bean soup and cabbage roll.

Absolutely phenomenal.  We reheated some for dinner, and it was still phenomenal then too. And the cabbage rolls were out of this world as well – they had a SUPER bite from the spicy paprika, and lots of smokiness from the smoked pork.

Finally, dessert!  And by “finally”, I mean, “we made it the day before.”  Yes, I know…

At any rate, we made nut rolls, which are a treat I’ve had many a holiday season at Walt’s place, so I knew approximately what I was shooting for here.  We start by chopping walnuts.  The recipe specifies a meat grinder, but absent one of those, the Cuisinart was pressed into service.  The walnuts are then cooked with milk (evaporated and regular), sugar, and a touch of salt and almond extract to make the filling.

Nut roll filling

Next you make one of the most labor intensive doughs I’ve worked with to date.  You start by scalding milk and adding eggs, shortening, salt, sugar, and yeast to make a starter.  If you’re following the recipe at home, I recommend melting the shortening into the scalded milk FIRST, because it takes a long time to cool, and you can proof your yeast and start your nuts while that’s happening.  (As opposed to standing around glaring at the thermometer, which was our approach.)

Dough starter

Once you’ve got the starter made, it goes into the bowl of a stand mixer, and you add in four and a half cups of flour…  over the course of half an hour.  Getting the consistency of this dough right takes patience. Once it’s mixed, you let it rise, then roll it out and spread filling all over it.  Try to do a better job rolling it into an oval shape than I did.

Nut roll, pre-rolling.

Once the filling is smeared, you roll up your nut rolls and stick them in the oven.

Uncooked nut rolls

These are the uncooked rolls. They poof up and brown beautifully in the oven, and then you have to wait an AGONIZING two and a half hours for them to cool before you can eat them.  And agonizing it was, because these things are magical.

Sliced nut rolls

Obviously they’re supposed to be a little more even in thickness, but they still tasted just as delicious as I remembered.

And that’s our Croatian holiday meal!  I can’t thank Walt enough for transcribing his family recipes and sending them to us, and I also can’t thank his family enough for handing down these traditions in the first place.  He has generously allowed me to share the recipes in the links, and the recipe for the nut roll includes a description of their source, which I’ll quote here.  (You should also read them even if you don’t plan to make the recipes – they include some wonderfully opinionated comments about, for example, parsley, and the express lack thereof, due to the fact that the author is not Italian.)

Next time we head back to the Caribbean for the first time in a while, and visit the island of Cuba!

“NOTES ON THE SOURCE: Annie Mahovlich DeNoble was born in Benwood, WV in 1926 to Emil and Ana Mahovlich. Her cooking and baking was in great demand her whole life. At every holiday she would make many of these nut rolls, sending them around the country as family members moved away. Although the formal name for the dish is “povitica” Aunt Annie, her siblings and parents always called it “gibanica”.”
(While these comments specifically relate to the nut rolls, all of these recipes are from Walt’s family.)

Sarma – Stuffed Cabbage – Croatian Style
Bakalar – Croatian Style for Christmas Eve
Croatian Green Bean Soup
Croatian Nut Roll


International Meals – Côte d’Ivoire

This week we return to west Africa, and the country of Ivory Coast, or Côte d’Ivoire.  (That diacritical is going to give me fits.) And for some reason, we’ll be using the local name for the alphabetization.  We’re still not doing Germany under “D”, so consistency is not our strong suit.

This week’s meal wasn’t terribly complicated, and only required two exotic ingredients.  Let’s meet them:

Attiéké and a Scotch Bonnet Pepper

On the right is a pepper that we’ve been looking for for ages – a Scotch Bonnet.  Habaneros make perfectly acceptable substitutes, and that’s what we’ve been doing, but because they’re common in both African and Caribbean cuisines, this makes something like the eighth recipe we’ve done that calls for them.

We finally found a source in the same small African grocer that provided the cassava leaves for Congo two weeks ago.  And bonus – they had the national dish of Côte d’Ivoire: Attiéké!  Attiéké is so iconic to this country that there’s been a recent move to have it designated a DOP (protected name), like Prosciutto di Parma. (Did you know that if it’s not actually from Parma, then it’s just sparkling ham?)

At any rate, what IS Attiéké?  It’s couscous, but instead of being made of… (Google, Google, Google) seminola flour like regular couscous, it’s made of cassava starch.  This gives it a pleasantly sour bite, and is without question my favorite thing I’ve eaten so far that is made of cassava.

But just because it’s the national dish, doesn’t mean that it is dinner by itself.  As a main dish, we made a chicken stew called Kedjenu. And here is where I failed you, dear readers, in the photography department.

We bought an entire chicken.  Whole.  This is not a thing we normally do, and would have made a lovely photograph, don’t you think?

Anyway, here’s a picture of all the ingredients in the pot, sadly taken AFTER I dismantled the chicken.

Uncooked chicken stew

Turns out, there’s nothing terribly unusual here: chicken, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, thyme, bay leaves, bell pepper, white and green onions, and one of them there Scotch bonnets.  Take note – that’s a ratio of ONE Scotch bonnet to ONE entire chicken.

Kedjenou (probably) literally means “shaken”, so the idea is that you’d put all these ingredients into a tightly sealed, heavy pot, and then instead of opening it and letting all the moisture escape, you’d shake the pot periodically during cooking.  And that’s what we did – this Dutch oven is pretty heavy and has a tight fitting lid, so a quick stir, and then everything just went in the oven for an hour.  Easy.

The attiéké was even simpler.  This dried version (you can also get it frozen) just required a 1:1 ratio with water and a quick zap in the microwave.  That’s probably not the most traditional method, but it’s what the box said to do, and who am I to argue with packaging?  (The box also said this product really was made in Côte d’Ivoire, so bonus authenticity points there.)

After a while, the kitchen smells amazing, and out comes the stew:

Finished Kedjenou

The paprika and tomatoes have turned the sauce a lovely red color.  Here’s the whole package:

Kedjenou and Attiéké

I like to think we’re getting better at the food porn here.

This dish was delicious, and the chicken was extremely moist after being sealed in the pot the whole time.  It was also SPICY. Scotch bonnets are not fooling around y’all. (And since we both love spicy food, that’s fine with us!)

Not every one of these international meals has to be a big project!  This one was simplicity itself, and could easily be made on a weeknight.  There’s no rule that says you couldn’t just buy a package of chicken parts if you didn’t want to bother slicing it up yourself.  And while attiéké may be a bit challenging to find, it would also work just fine with rice or standard couscous.  (That said, since WE know where to find it, we’ll be making it more in the future.)

With the holidays coming up, we may defer our next country until Christmas itself, since we have a real expert advising us on our next entry – Croatia!


International Meals – Costa Rica

This week, we travel to Costa Rica!  Lots of good news for us on this one.

First off, there is an acknowledged national dish of Costa Rica, so that potential ambiguity is settled off the bat.  Next, there’s a definitive way to separate Costa Rican cuisine from that of its neighbors, which is often a challenge in this project.  In this case, that definitive way is Salsa Lizano!

What is Salsa Lizano, you ask? It’s a delightfully tangy vegetable based sauce that I would describe as “Like Worcestershire sauce, but less fishy and more citrusy.” In more good news, the Latino grocer that sold us the Colombian sausage two weeks ago had this stuff in stock.  And that really IS good news, because this stuff is SERIOUSLY tasty.  We got the bottle a few days before our Costa Rican meal, and had already started cooking with it, because it’s that good.  (Also, the bottle is huge, so there was no risk of running out.)

Finally, there’s plenty of Costa Rican recipes online in English, so we weren’t reduced to the only available recipe from a country in a machine translation from French.  Like last week.

To balance the ease of acquiring the obscure sauce, we had a hell of a time finding our veg.  The recipe we picked out called for chayote squash, which I didn’t think was all that weird.  So we stopped at a few fancy grocery stores around Vancouver to pick one up.  No luck at any of them. We went to the large public market on Granville Island.  No dice.

Welp.  Guess we’ll need a different vegetable dish.  So I walked up to the Sav On grocery store in our neighborhood to get some carrots and green beans…

…where they had chaoyte in stock.  OK, back to plan A.

So here’s our haul of unusual ingredients for this week, conveniently in one picture:

Salsa Lizano, Chaoyte Squash, and Ox Tails

The meat in this case is oxtail, which will be going into a stew.  That’s the Chayote on the left, and you’ll never guess what’s in the large bottle marked “Lizano Salsa.”

So lets get this party started.  First off, what is the acknowledged national dish of Costa Rica?  Why Gallo Pinto! The literal translation is “Spotted Rooster,” but no roosters were harmed in the making of this dish.  Rather, it’s a rice and beans combination that is often eaten for breakfast. Our other side dish will be Picadillo de Chayote, or “Chopped up stuff with Chayote in.”

Both dishes start with a sofrito, which is a fancy way of saying “cook some onions and stuff in fat first.” There are a million different approaches to sofrito around the world, as evidenced by the fact that even these two recipes from the same country had different bases.  The one on the left is the sofrito for the Gallo Pinto, and is made with onion, red pepper, cilantro, and salt in cooking oil.  The one on the right is for the picadillo, and involves onion and garlic in butter. (Margarine would apparently be more typical in Costa Rica, but the recipe author and we shared an “ick” on that one.) Both should probably have been chopped more finely, but whatever.

Sofrito number 1Sofrito #2

After the two sofritos have… um… sofrited? sofried? soffragated? you toss in the remainder of the ingredients and let them cook.  For the Gallo Pinto, that’s cooked black beans, rice, and Salsa Lizano, and the cooking time is basically just “until it’s warm.”  For the picadillo, it’s chayote and some corn, cooked it down until it’s tender, and then finished with some heavy cream. (not pictured)  What IS pictured is that we scorched it a little.  Oops.

Gallo PintoPicadillo de Chayote

OK, what about our meat dish? We’re going to use a pressure cooker so these oxtails don’t take forever. In they go with a few aromatics that, oddly enough, are not actually in the ingredient list for the recipe in question.  Fortunately, it was all stuff we had on hand, like onion and garlic, but it’s a weird omission.  After the pressure cooking, but before any other seasoning, the meat looked like this:

Cooked oxtail

For seasoning, we pulled out a few cups of the broth from the beef, and mixed it with tomatoes, onion, cilantro, garlic, soy sauce, more Salsa Lizano, sugar, and ersatz ketchup.  (The recipe calls for it, we didn’t have any, so we used tomato paste and little more sugar.)  All this gets combined in a blender.  Or at least, it would, if we had a blender.  Instead, we demonstrated once again why a food processor is NOT THE SAME THING, at least for liquid ingredients.

Sauce for beef stew

But it didn’t make THAT big a mess, and after we mixed up the sauce (and cleaned up), we put it and the beef into a pot for a quick warm-up.

The final meal is what is known as a casado in Costa Rica.  Literally it means “married man,” and the origin is either that restaurant patrons asked to be fed like their wives cooked for them at home, or that the rice and beans are married to the other dishes, since they are always served together. A casado most often has the beans and rice separate, but serving Gallo Pinto instead is apparently fine, and weren’t NOT going to make the national dish.

So here is our happily married casado:


And the verdict on taste?

This meal is the bomb. Or maybe it slaps. Or it slaps a bomb? I don’t know, what are the kids saying these days?

We need some sort of metaphor at this point, because this was simply too good to just say “it’s really good.” All of these recipes could make there way into our regular rotation, and the oxtail stew in particular was f-ing amazing. The combination of spices in the sauce were tangy and tomatoey and citrusy and sour and rich and incredible, and the oxtail just soaked it right up.  The Gallo Pinto is probably one of the best versions of beans and rice I’ve ever made, and even burned, the chayote was creamy and delicious.

And while each of these dishes was fantastic individually, they also blended into a whole that was greater than the sum of the parts.  We used the toritillas in the background of the photo to wipe up every drop on the plate, and the leftovers are NOT going to end up in the compost after a week, that’s for sure.

So, Costa Rica, y’all have some amazing food.  We’ll be making this stuff again, and that bottle of Salsa Lizano is not going to go bad on the shelf, either.  Next up, Côte d’Ivoire!

Estofado (Oxtail Stew)
Gallo Pinto (Spotted Rooster – Rice and Beans)
Picadillo de Chayote

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.