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