Aaaaaaaaand we’re back!
My apologies for the extended absence, everyone. In the last 18 months I managed to finish my PhD in Comparative Literature, write and co-write a series of articles for various outlets (here are one or two of them), AND get married to the most beautiful, brilliant, hilarious, incredible person I have ever met in my entire life. Needless to say, I was left with very little time to devote to this passion project. BUT! Now that I’m not busy writing about literature and physics every night and weekend, I’m hoping to pick up the pace on this exploration of global cuisine. Where did we leave off? Oh yeah, Cameroon!
Most people’s familiarity with Cameroon begins and ends with that (wholly inaccurate…) scene in Trading Places where Eddie Murphy dresses as an exchange student named “Nanga Eboko,” who is obsessed with beef jerky. Mine only extended slightly farther, by way of a few dishes from Cameroon I found in an excellent cookbook by Cherie Hamilton entitled Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters. Fun fact: Cameroon got its name from Portuguese sailors, who, in the 15th century, found its rivers teeming with shrimp and crayfish, or camarão. The vestigial use of dried crayfish in many of Cameroon’s dishes is a testament to profiting from this particular abundance – but easy, we’ll get there.
Speaking of unusual ingredients – there are quite a few of them in this entry. Aside from the aforementioned dried crayfish (known in Cameroon as njanga, which is often ground into a powder), I needed to track down fresh cow skin (also known as kanda, and also ALSO known as leather, hahahahahahaha no, seriously), tiny, sweet sea snails called periwinkles, some dried, smoked fish and a VERY specific vegetable from West Africa known as ndolé, translated as bitterleaf. As you may have noticed from past entries, I have a sort of obsessive compulsion in locating authentic ingredients for this blog, which, in this case, led to my anxiety being grossly amplified when I kept coming up short in Queens. My home turf was obviously not the right place to be looking.
You see, some people seek access to the hottest club, where they can rub elbows with the monied elite; others, to a prestigious school or college, which will grant them passage to higher echelons of society; still others, to a much-coveted seat at that new, exclusive restaurant where Jay-Z eats. But I? I only want to know where New York City’s West Africans buy their cow skin. Driven by this impulse, I eventually found myself in Brooklyn, where various leads and research had led me to a promising-looking strip of West African bodegas on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was utterly, bitterly, freezing cold.
One well-stocked storefront eventually caught my eye – Diaby African Market & Grocery. When I arrived, the lights were all on but the door was locked. Others waiting for the store to open informed me that the owner had gone to pray salat, and so we huddled patiently by the off-brand suitcases chained to the front gate. No one spoke. Everyone shivered.
In an attempt to stay warm and kill some time, I went across the street to another African market and pushed on the door. It was also locked. It turns out this entire stretch of Fulton Street, aside from the Popeye’s Chicken restaurant and the Key Food grocery store, devoutly shuts down several times a day for Muslim prayer.
After a few more frigid minutes, a muezzin’s voice bellowed out of the tinny loudspeakers of the Masjid at-Taqwa on the corner, calling the end of prayer. The volume was astounding, with the cold, narrow avenue working as an echo chamber — I had the impression of being inside of a bell as it had been struck. A few seconds later, out of a procession of bearded, white-robed men filing out of the mosque, one figure broke away and eagerly approached us, keys in hand. The crowd cheered, sending a flutter of greetings to him in French and Arabic. The man smiled and greeted his relieved customers.
I then understood: this place is important.
Inside the warm, dusty shop, I found myself bewildered among the shelves until a nice man (from Sierra Leone, he would later tell me) saw me rummaging, lost, through a chest freezer full of unlabeled baggies full of green leaves. He kindly offered to help me find whatever the hell it was that I must have appeared to be in desperate need of. “Cow skin?” I mumbled. He smiled and said he needed cow skin, too, and proceeded to give me a guided tour of everything in the freezer, including, blessedly, a cache of frozen kanda.
Elated, I clutched my baggie of ice-cold, rock-hard cow skin (and some dried crayfish and smoked fish the gentleman had also helped me to find) and moved on to confront a big shelf full of dried leaves. A young woman was going through the varieties one by one, sniffing hard at a handful of each with a pensive, critical look after each inhale. I had just asked her what she was looking for when she shrieked with joy. “This!” She gasped, grabbing a fistful of gnarled brown leaves, pressing them close to her nose and breathing deeply. “This is the one! I need it for pepper soup!” She clearly knew her way around these leaves, so I asked her if she knew where I could find ndolé, or bitterleaf. She – along with a chorus of other shoppers – informed me that no, bitterleaf was simply not to be found in the U.S. I thanked them all profusely and received a harmonious chorus of goodbyes, paid up, and left, glancing back just in time to see the same young woman taking another big, smiling, eyes-closed sniff of her soup leaves.
I’ll say it again: this place is IMPORTANT.
I went home. The cow skin went into my freezer, and several months passed.
I did eventually find myself some bitterleaf, against all odds – by mail order, from a tiny African market in Maryland. It arrived in a padded envelope which had torn slightly, and there was no interior envelope. Just a bunch of unlabeled, stiff, dry leaves partially clawing their way out of the Jiffy-Pak. So uh… I GUESS I got bitterleaf? It looks like the picture on Wikipedia, anyway. A trip to the Caribbean neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn yielded some taro root and leaves, and an eventual swing through Manhattan’s Chinatown on a summer day finally netted some live periwinkles. It was, after several months, time to start cooking.
So ok, what are we making, anyway? We’re going to do a couple of stews that are unique to Cameroon, along with corn fufu and a homemade hot sauce called pepe. All together, this would be a pretty substantial family meal, and probably warrant inviting the neighbors over as well. If you do cook these dishes (yes, I know, that is highly unlikely), I encourage you to do the same.
The ndolé/bitterleaf stew takes the longest, so best to start with that. Oh, and yeah – before you can actually “cook” the bitterleaf, it needs to be… uh, “rendered digestible” by being soaked and then boiled in water with a pinch of slaked lime, or alum (aka calcium hydroxide, which is also used in the “nixtamalization” of corn, as well as sewage treatment, paper manufacturing, and cement!). Dried bitterleaf, to give you an idea, looks and smells very similar to black tea – it is tough and I wouldn’t want to try to chew it. The slaked lime, which is an alkali, helps to start breaking down the plant fibers and makes them more digestible. It also murders any fungi that may have grown on the plant while drying. And best of all, it helps keep away the mange! Oh, if only I had known that during my last bout of mange.
(Leela over at SheSimmers – who is amazing – has a great primer on cooking with limestone solution. Check it out.)
With the bitterleaf soaked, boiled, limed and (slightly) softened, my cow skin par-boiled and some smoked fish soaked overnight, I finally needed to decide on which ndolé recipe I would use. I had narrowed the options down to three similar but slightly different recipes, culled from Cameroonian expat message boards and blogs. In the end, as always, I triangulated these into one standard recipe that included only the lowest common denominators, which hopefully gives us the basic theme upon which most other variations of ndolé would be built.
The process is pretty simple – it is a stew, after all. The recipe below will give all the details, but things to know are: puree the ginger, garlic and chilis before you use them; do not use peanut butter if at all possible – instead, finely grind an equivalent measure of peanuts (peeled and soaked in water for two hours) in a blender/processor/grinder; and, most importantly, do not get palm oil on your clothes, as they will stain irreparably. Goodbye, my favorite Mastodon t-shirt!
The ndolé will cook for a shorter time than you might expect, so in the meantime we have to get the other stew going, which is called ekwang. This is one of the coolest dishes I have ever cooked. It reminds me a lot of Italian cannelloni; in the same way that that dish is just a flat roll of pasta filled with cheese or meat and then cooked in a casserole full of sauce, ekwang works the same way except it uses the leaf of the taro plant as the rolling material, grated taro root as the filling, and a stew of smoked fish, ground crayfish, and a little sliced beef as the liquid cooking medium.
As I (and others) have said before, you have to be careful handling and cooking taro leaves and roots, which in their raw forms can cause oxalate poisoning if ingested. They also makes you itchy – REALLY itchy, if you have any small cuts on your hands. Obviously, keep your hands out of your eyes and mucus membranes, and wash them often. And for God’s sake DON’T taste taro till it has cooked for a good while. Seriously.
The procedure for cooking the ekwang is unique – you basically line the outer walls of the pot with the taro leaf rolls, and then fill the cavity in the center with the stewing liquid. This helps the rolls keep their shape and stay in place, so you don’t end up with ruptured rolls and goopy, sticky taro root floating everywhere. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated technique for a dish that is made from such earthy and humble ingredients.
OK, we’re getting mired in small details – let’s skip ahead a little. We need to make the hot sauce, called pepe. Scotch bonnets seem to be, as in most of West Africa, the incendiary flora of choice, with the ubiquitous African staple of Maggi bouillon cubes adding a blast of savory salt to what would otherwise be a very sharp, one-note sauce. This condiment is one of those small discoveries that makes me so happy I am doing this project – I want to put it on every sandwich I ever eat for the rest of my life.
With the stews bubbling away and the hot sauce languishing, we finally have to whip up a quick batch of that popular accompaniment to so many African foods, fufu. In this case, we’re making it with yellow cornmeal, but I’ve seen other ndolé recipes that suggest serving with white cornmeal or cassava fufu as well. Up to you!
Since things are cooking at wildly different rates here, I would stage them as follows:
1) Pepe (Make the day before and refrigerate or cover with palm oil/peanut oil.)
2) Ndolé (Start the night before with soaking, then start cooking the stew about 4 hours before you plan on serving. Reheat as needed at service.)
3) Ekwang (Prep the rolls and the stewing liquid early in the day, then combine and start cooking one hour before serving.)
4) Fufu (Cook right before you serve.)
So, the ndolé: this stuff was, against all of my reservations, actually really delicious. The stew takes on a meaty smoke from the fish and beef, a not-unpleasant, oceanic miasma from the dried crayfish, fresh shrimp and periwinkles (which are pretty entertaining to “kiss” out of their shells), and actually only a slight bitterness from the bitterleaf, which did eventually relent and soften to the consistency of partially-cooked kale. VERY chewable, with a taste that was also not too dissimilar to that of kale – maybe if you crossed cooked kale with soaked black tea leaves. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Kale crossed with tea leaves. The cow skin was the only part that didn’t work so well for me, though I am sure that, like the blubbery, squishy stewed pork skin I grew up eating, it might be an acquired taste.
The ekwang was SO GOOD. The taro leaves, when cooked, are reminiscent in flavor of collard greens or boiled cabbage, and they soften enough to rend easily when bitten, loosing a creamy, starchy paste of root that brought to mind the best version of mashed potatoes ever. The stew itself just kept making my brain go “GUMBO GUMBO GUMBO,” so I guess it tastes like gumbo (itself an African invention) – goopy, smoky, fishy, meaty and rather heavy. Everything but the rolls had broken down to a velvety softness, and a few bites picked up with generous pinches of fufu were enough to fill me up completely. This is comfort food at its savory, starchy peak.
Cameroon, you have oceans, grasslands, mountains, forests, jungles and a desert, and the collective diversity of the biology in all of those places contributes to a distinctive and vibrant spectrum of flavors in your cuisine. Thank you for drying crayfish. Thank you for rolling ekwang. Keep doing what you do.
Now you go:
3/4 cup dried bitterleaf, soaked overnight
2 large white onions, thinly sliced
1/2 tablespoons red chili powder (dried scotch bonnet powder is preferred in Cameroon, and is known as piment or pepe)
2-3 scotch bonnet peppers, pureed
1 tbsp fresh ginger, pureed
2 garlic cloves, pureed
1/4 cup ground dried crayfish (njanga)
1/4 cup peanuts, soaked overnight and ground into paste
1/2 lb. lean beef, thinly sliced (OR 1/4 lb. dried beef slices – maybe there’s something to that “beef jerky” joke in Trading Places?)
1 lb. fresh, unshelled shrimp (heads removed if you prefer)
1 lb. fresh beef skin (kanda)
1 large smoked, dried fish, soked overnight in water, drained and rinsed thoroughly
1 lb. periwinkles (or regular land snails, if they are the only thing around) in their shells
1/2 cup red palm oil
2 Maggi cubes (any flavor)
1 tsp alum/slaked lime (akagwa)
In a large pot filled abundantly with water, add the alum/slaked lime and the bitterleaf. Bring to a boil and keep at the boil for about 1 hour. Remove from heat and drain. Rinse thoroughly, drain again and reserve.
In the same large pot, add the previously-soaked smoked fish and the beef skin. Add enough water to cover and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Drain, rinse and reserve.
In a(nother) large pot, place the beef, onions, Maggi cubes, garlic, ginger and some salt to taste. Add enough water to just cover, place over high heat to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
While that cooks, place the red palm oil in a deep frying pan and heat to medium-low (NOT to smoking – keep a close eye, since palm oil has a very low smoking point and will turn acrid easily.) When the oil is warmed, add the pureed scotch bonnet chilis and ground chili powder to taste. (NB: this recipe is SPICY. If you don’t like things that hot, moderate the amounts used in this step.) Stir fry the puree for about 10 minutes over low heat. Then, add the peanut paste and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve.
By now the beef and aromatics should have cooked in the large pot for 30 minutes. Add the boiled cow skin and the boiled smoked fish to the same pot as the meat and aromatics. Let cook about 5 minutes, then add the periwinkles (or snails). Allow to simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
At this point, you should add the chili and peanut mixture to the pot with the meats, fish and aromatics. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes, then add the fresh shrimp and the drained bitterleaf. Simmer over medium heat for a final 10-20 minute period, until the bitterleaf has softened to your liking. (Feel free to add a little more water if the stew has become too dry at this point.)
Remove from heat and serve with corn fufu and pepe.
3 medium-sized taro roots, peeled
15 large taro leaves, central stems removed – each leaf should yield two rectangular sheets
3/4 lb. lean stew beef, cut into thin slices
1 large white onion, one-half chopped and set aside, the other half pureed and set aside
3-4 pieces of dried, smoked fish (about 1/2 lb., in total)
1 cup whole dried crayfish (njanga)
2-inch piece fresh ginger, pureed
4 Maggi cubes (any flavor)
1/2 cup red palm oil
ground red chili
Wash the taro leaves thoroughly and set aside.
Grate the peeled taro roots with a box grater. Mix the grated taro with a heavy pinch of salt and toss thoroughly.
Start the stew first: place the beef, Maggi cubes and chopped 1/2 onion into a pot along with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside.
Lay each taro leaf section flat on a cutting board. Place several tablespoons of grated taro root on the center of a leaf and roll tightly, folding in the ends halfway through the folding process. This should create a sealed, cigar-shaped roll. Repeat until you run out of grated taro root or taro leaves.
Liberally grease the bottom and sides of a Dutch oven or deep casserole with red palm oil.
Beginning on one side of the pot, begin laying the leaf rolls in alternating, criss-crossing layers around the perimeter of the casserole, leaving an empty cavity in the center (per the image above). Continue until you run out of rolls.
Pour the reserved beef, along with its stewing liquid, into the center of the pot. Top off with enough water to make sure the stewing liquid just covers the ekwang rolls and slowly bring to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes, gently shaking the pot occasionally.
After 30 minutes, add the smoked fish, pureed onion and ginger, and salt and ground red chili to taste; place these directly in the cavity in the center. Give the casserole a careful but determined shake – do NOT stir with a wooden spoon, or you will rupture the ekwang rolls.
Raise heat to medium-high and simmer for an additional 30 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before serving with fufu.
Pepe (Chili Condiment)
5 large scotch bonnet or habanero peppers
1/2 white onion
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 celery stalk
1 Maggi cube (any flavor), crushed into powder
1/4 cup water
red palm oil
Place all ingredients into a food processor or wet grinder and process until smooth.
Pour the mixture into a small pot and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat to reduce slightly.
Add about 1 tsp red palm oil, the crushed Maggi cube and a pinch of salt, and continue to stir over low heat until fragrant (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and let cool completely before refrigerating.
This condiment will keep for about 1 week in the refrigerator.
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
2 cups water
Bring one cup of the water to a boil in a large pot. Reserve the other cup of water at room temperature.
When the water comes to a boil, begin slowly whisking the cornmeal into the boiling water – don’t rush or you will create lumps. Once all of the cornmeal has been added, add about 1/3 cup of the reserved water and stir continuously over medium heat. When the cornmeal has absorbed all of the water, add another 1/3 cup of the reserved water and stir. Repeat for the final 1/3 cup of reserved water. When all water has been absorbed, remove the fufu from heat and let cool slightly before forming into balls about the size of a baseball (or larger, if you prefer). Serve with ekwang or ndolé.
Cambodian food, or really what we should probably call Khmer cuisine, is deviously subtle, complex and, most of all, resilient. The culinary traditions of Cambodia’s dominant ethnic group have survived countless bouts of subjugation, colonization and attempted extermination. Most recently, France acted as suzerain over Cambodia (and several other parts of Asia) in the late 1800s and exerted a strong influence over many aspects of its culture, even introducing the now-common baguette and pâté. Then, from 1975 to 1979, the Communist Khmer Rouge party systematically eliminated large groups of Khmer through forced labor and executions, endangering the whole of Khmer tradition. In addition to the obvious tragedy of the senseless loss of human life, we also cannot guess how close the world came to having let slip away a priceless part of our collective cultural history.
As soon as I read about amok trey, a traditional Khmer dish and the one for which Cambodia is perhaps most famous, I knew I wanted to cook it. And in the spirit of the Khmer qualities of defiance and strength, I really wanted to do it the right way. And to do it right, I needed prahok.
Oh, prahok. Known half-jokingly as “Cambodian cheese,” this paste of fermented, mashed mudfish preserved in salt is a cornerstone of Khmer cooking, and is one of several ingredients that distinguishes Cambodian food from that of the countries surrounding it; namely Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. As you can see, it is a mouth-watering hue of beige, and has a scent that grabs you by the collar and slams you against a wall. With its notes of wet feet, ocean docks and well-worn underwear, I would be lying if I said that upon first contact I was not immediately reminded of the reek wafting out of that one suspiciously empty subway car during rush hour. It’s role is that of providing richness, saltiness and savoriness, much like mushrooms, cheese and any number of other potentially stinky ingredients. It’s also a great example of people making the most of what nature has given them, and of making it last a long time without refrigeration.
I tracked down a jar of prahok in the Bronx at Battambang II Market, one of two stores dealing in Cambodian goods in the area. Since for some reason I thought it completely plausible that I would find a jar with “PRAHOK” written on it in clear English lettering, I was of course let down almost immediately. I asked the woman at the register if they sold prahok (which is pronounced somewhere between “prahok” and “pahok“) and she smiled at me. “The stinky one, right?” she asked. She brought me over to the above-shown jar of paste (bearing the Thai moniker of mắm cá lóc) and handed it to me. “You wanna smell it?” I agreed, and she opened the top with little “pop,” waving it under my nose and chuckling.
Friends, I’m no stranger to fermented seafood products – you may recall my unceremonious baptism by cencaluk back in Brunei as an example of this. So to say that I fully gagged when I caught a double-nostrilled blast of what was in that jar is saying quite a lot. Ni, the nice Khmer woman who showed me around Battambang Market, laughed her ass off, as did I and the other five people milling around the store on a Saturday morning. It seemed like a hazing, and I think I passed the test, although I still have that harrowing aroma stuck in my sinuses.
Anyway, besides prahok we’ll need a couple of other ingredients to make an authentically Khmer amok trey; for example, this little dude:
The leaves of this cute noni tree, known botanically as morinda citrifolia and colloquially as “cheese fruit” or “vomit fruit” – due to the reek of its lumpy yellow fruit’s ripe flesh – lend a light bitterness to the pungent yellow kroeung (a typically Khmer spice paste) that will be used in our fish amok. I bought this baby tree on Ebay from a grower in Hawaii, but, sadly, after harvesting just these two leaves it went the way of all flora. The cold and dryness of NYC was simply too much for it. RIP little pal :( I’ll pour out some prahok for ya.
The rest of the kroeung is made up of several other roots and herbs: galangal, which is hardy and has a menthol scent a little like Vicks VapoRub; lemongrass; fresh turmeric; and this newcomer to my kitchen, fingerroot.
Fingerroot, or boesenbergia rotunda as the egghead scientists call it, is from the same family as ginger, galangal and turmeric, but has a unique herbal flavor and a stronger aroma that reminds me of alcoholic bitters – spicy and citric but also medicinal. It is yet another distinguishing ingredient in Khmer cuisine, though it has its place in Thai and Indonesian kitchens as well. As I read on several Khmer message boards, you simply cannot make a kroeung that is truly kroeung without it, so I was lucky to find it frozen at a market in Chinatown.
So let’s cook a little: take all the kroeung ingredients and beat them into a paste. This will take a long time, longer than you ever imagined.
Once your astringent, floral paste is well-mashed, you have to combine it with some contrasting ingredients like the prahok, some finely-julienned noni leaf, a bit of coconut cream and lots of palm sugar, and then you have to pour it over some hunks of fish – we’re using catfish, since the typical amok trey uses freshwater fish. You can see already the delicate layering of flavors that Khmer food is known for starting to come together – funky, sour, sweet, bitter. Oh, and we’re throwing in a beaten egg to help it set as it steams, too – a little tip from Ni at Battambang.
While the fish soaks in this sauce, you’re going to use toothpicks and plantain/banana leaves to make little steamer cups. Just lay the leaves two or three deep and start pinching the four corners one at a time and securing them vertically with a toothpick. Before you know it you should have a leak-proof little vessel into which you can pour the fish and sauce mixture, like so:
In retrospect I’d suggest filling the cups after they have already been placed in the steamer basket. This way you won’t have to worry about moving them around too much, as they are a little fragile. They steam over boiling water for anywhere from 12-30 minutes, depending on how big they are and how much fish is in each cup. Just jiggle the basket a little – if the sauce is still liquid, keep steaming. The fragrances flowing out of your kitchen will bewilder: sweet coconut, spiky galangal and turmeric, and sneaky, seeping prahok that will make your apartment smell like a hostel for people suffering from trimethylaminuria. Layer upon layer upon layer.
Once the amok is set, take it off the heat and let it cool for just a couple of minutes. Spoon some more coconut cream over the top – I highly recommend the Chaokoh brand shown above – and garnish with some more noni leaf, kaffir lime leaf and/or sliced chilis. Ni recommends serving it with jasmine rice, too.
If you did it right, the amok should hold its shape when you undress it. Mine was maybe a little too liquid, or I could have used another egg. I’ve amended the recipe to correct for this, so you are good to go.
Since many Americans’ most familiar exposure to Southeast Asian food is Thai, and since I am American, I was pleasantly surprised on my first bite to find something rather different. Nothing sharp, no throat-closing heat, but instead a mellow and complicated sweetness. The texture is like mousse, interrupted only by flakes of catfish and the occasional shard of unmashed galangal or turmeric. And so, so much coconut – oh God Almighty, the coconut. The more you eat, the more you want – it’s maddening. No one ingredient stood above the rest, which is impressive considering how many ingredients are in this dish.
OK, a quick dessert before we wrap things up.
Speaking of wrapping things up:
Num ansom chek, or banana sticky rice cake, is served at weddings as a symbol of fertility. Why is it a symbol of fertility? Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
The ingredients are so simple: baby bananas, glutinous rice, coconut cream, ever more palm sugar and sweet red beans. These beautiful little vine beans are used all over Asia in snacks and desserts, though the word “sweet” is relative – those expecting anything in the realm of an Oreo or a Snickers will be sorely disappointed. My guess is that their soft texture and mellow flavor synch up really well with sugars of various origins, with the palm variety being an exceptional match.
It’s not a hard recipe, but the wrapping process shown above does take a little time and practice – I tore through a few sheets before I got the hang of it. Once they are wrapped tight and tied shut, these cakes need to boil or steam for at least two hours (for small ones) and up to six hours (for large ones). I boiled mine, and I think next time I would try steaming them instead; being submerged in water for that long made them a little less sweet than the ones I tasted at Battambang, probably because the sugar dissolved and flowed out of the leaves. I’d also go for a ratio of less rice and more banana. To eat, just unwrap one and get at it:
If wrapped well and prepared correctly, these cakes are soft, lightly sweet and very filling. The coconut cream soaks into the sticky rice, and the banana leaves impart their own fruity flavor to the outer surface of the roll. The red beans, having been cooked for hours as well, are mushy and rich and serve as a starchy countermeasure to the more assertive palm sugar.
Cambodia, you’ve made it through some tough business. You’ve protected the traditions that define your cuisine and you’ve given us some very unique flavors and techniques. And your smelly fish paste will haunt my nightmares forever.
Now you go:
20 10-inch x 10-inch sheets of banana leaf, soaked in water for about 1 hour (cut larger leaves to size and remove outer husk if necessary)
2 lbs. catfish fillet, washed and cut into 2-inch pieces
4 lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced (use only the softer root section)
1-inch piece galangal, peeled and thinly sliced
1-inch piece fresh turmeric, peeled and thinly sliced
2-3 fingerroot tendrils, peeled and thinly sliced (do not use the central core, or “palm”)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
6 dried chiles de arbol (or Thai chilis), soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tsp prahok, mashed (use less if you prefer)
1/4 cup palm sugar (you may need to grind this into powder if it comes in pucks)
1 13.5-oz. can coconut cream
2 morinda citrifolia leaves, washed and finely julienned
1/2 tsp. salt
1 red Thai chili, julienned for garnish
2 kaffir lime leaves, washed and julienned for garnish
Place a large pot of water over high heat. Place bamboo steamer baskets over the top of the pot and cover tightly. Alternately, prepare commercial steamer pot according to manufacturer instructions.
Make the kroeung; in a mortar and pestle, grind the following ingredients in the following order: dried chilis, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, fingerroot, shallot, garlic. Grind until a thick paste is formed, adding about 1-2 tsp. of water as needed to reduce friction. Alternately, process all ingredients in a blender until smooth.
In a large bowl, combine the kroeung, prahok, fish sauce, palm sugar, morinda citrifolia leaves, eggs, salt and half of the coconut cream and mix well. Add the fish pieces and toss to coat. Let rest, covered, in refrigerator for at least 10 minutes, and up to one hour.
While the fish rests, stack 2-3 banana leaves at a time and pinch each of four corners to create a small cup. Secure corners with toothpicks. Repeat to make 5-6 cups.
CAREFULLY pour the fish and sauce mixture evenly into the banana-leaf cups and set gently into the steamer baskets. Cover tightly.
Steam for at least 12 minutes, until the sauce is set and is no longer liquid. Remove baskets from heat and let cool slightly.
Pour remaining coconut cream evenly into each cup. Garnish with lime leaf and red chili. Serve with Jasmine rice.
Num Ansom Chek
20 10-inch x 10-inch sheets of banana leaf, soaked in water for about 1 hour (cut larger leaves to size and remove outer husk if necessary)
Butcher’s twine or ribbon
8 small, ripe bananas
4 cups white glutinous rice
2 cups red Azuki beans
1 13.5-oz. can coconut cream
4 heaping tbsp. palm sugar
1 tsp. salt
Soak the rice and beans separately in abundant water overnight. Drain well.
In a large bowl, combine the rice, beans, coconut cream, palm sugar, and salt. Mix well.
Lay four overlapping banana leaves to cover a 15-inch square area. Pour two cups of the rice mixture in long pile down the center of the square. Lay 2-3 bananas over this pile in a straight line.
Bring the two vertical sides of the square together and pour an additional cup of the rice mixture down the tube to cover the bananas. Fold the leaf repeatedly downward to form an open tube. Tie one length of butcher’s twine or ribbon around the center to secure the tube.
Bending one end of the tube shut, turn the other end upward and tap the tube gently to move the rice toward the center. Bend the open end shut as well, and tie in two places to secure.
Turn the tube over and repeat the process with the untied end – open it, tap the tube gently, then bend tightly over the center and tie in two places to secure.
Repeat this process for the remaining leaves and rice mixture.
Place the tubes in a large pot of boiling water or in a large steamer basket or colander over boiling water and cook, covered, for at least two hours and up to six hours.
Remove from heat. Let drain and cool. Serve at room temperature.
If I’ve learned anything in the last few weeks, it’s that fermented foods and beverages are just the cat’s proverbial PJs in Africa, specifically those made from their primary crops. What piqued my interest in particular was Burundi’s version of plantain moonshine, known as urwarwa. I got on the wrong track for a while because most literature refers to it as “banana wine”, so I assumed it was made from what we Americans call “bananas” – specifically the sweet, fragile Cavendish variety that we all grew up eating in our Saved by the Bell lunchboxes.
News flash, Mark! The rest of the world does pretty much everything differently than you do.
It turns out the main variety of “banana” grown in Burundi is what Americans have come to know as plantains – the wiki tells us that: “There is no formal botanical distinction between bananas and plantains, and the use of either term is based purely on how the fruits are consumed,” which quite helpfully puts us absolutely nowhere closer to understanding anything. Regardless: I looked at lots of photos from Burundi and read lots of entries on their agriculture, and trust me – urwarwa is made from “plantains”. Ok?
So now: queue my reading an endless series of blog posts, historical accounts, etc. to find a recipe for plantain hooch. Finally, on a long shot, I did a journal search at my graduate school’s library and came upon a miracle: an article entitled “Traditional fermented foods and beverages in Burundi” in the academic journal Food Research International (WHY AM I JUST FINDING OUT ABOUT THIS JOURNAL NOW!?!?) The authors and my personal saviors, Mzigamasabo Aloys and Nimpagaritse Angeline, wrote down pretty much everything except for exact measurements, but this was good enough for me to get started.
So now this had to happen:
“Green bananas are ripened for 3-5 days in a covered previously-warmed pit lined with banana leaves to insure uniform temperature.” Uhhhhhhhhhh-huh.
OK. What we’re going to do here is get a big jar. We are going to put a little potting soil at the bottom, to mimic the bottom of a pit in the ground. Then we will layer some plantain leaves (found in the freezer section of my Trade Fair grocery store) to make a flat base. Then we jam in as many plantains as we can, put in another layer of leaves to make a closed cavity, and then insulate the top with more soil, like so:
The “previously-warmed” part of the description is referring to the typical method of building a fire inside the pit, letting it burn down to embers, and then using the residual heat to accelerate the ripening of the plantains once they are sealed underground. Since my renter’s insurance is not paid up right now, we’re going to mimic this the safe way by using my girlfriend’s heating pad. Thanks honey!
It’s a little chillier in my apartment than it is in Africa, so we’ll give it an extra couple of days and see those ‘nanners in about a week!
Welcome back! Funny story – when you put a bunch of wet crap in a sealed jar, guess what happens.
That’s right – MOLD!
After a week, I had bloomed a major colony of mean-lookin’ spores and interestingly enough, the plantains were no riper than when I had put them in; in short, a big ol’ bucket of FAIL. It just isn’t hot or dry enough here.
Well. Since the point of the burying process is to ripen the plantains, why don’t we just skip ahead and, I don’t know, buy some already-ripe plantains? Sounds good to me. What’s next?
“The ripe bananas are mixed with spear grass.”
Oh for the love of… ok, speargrass, speargrass… riiiiiiight. You must mean heteropogon contortus, indigenous to central Africa. Let’s see – research reveals that this grass is used primarily as animal feed, and as a natural remedy for dysentery and fever. My best guess is that its inclusion in the recipe for urwarwa is mostly to combat the risk of illness caused by the more-or-less unsanitary methods of its production, and not necessarily for any contribution to flavor or texture. I feel confident in leaving it out, since I’m making my batch in a sealed jar inside (and not in the ground outside), and most especially since I’m sure as hell not smashing these things with my feet.
OK, so now a bit of argy-bargy in the mortar and you get this homogenous paste of plantains.
Mix this mash up with an equal part of water in a large bowl or jug, and get in there with your hands to get the starches out of the mash and into the water. Then, strain the solids out and collect the cloudy water in an airtight jar. Dr. Aloys’ recipe states that one part mash-water be mixed with three parts clean water, so that’s the ratio I followed as well.
Then you add in a pinch of roasted sorghum flour to encourage the bacteria, shake well, and wait!
After about three days you’re going to see a big, foamy head appear at the top of the jar. This means that the bacteria in the air has begun turning sugar into ethanol, and that you can start imbibing your homemade banana hooch*.
*I should be really clear about this – DRINK HOMEMADE BOOZE AT YOUR OWN RISK. The potential for optic nerve damage, botulism, illness, death, inadvertent resurrection, etc. is sky-high and I am NOT responsible if you croak. Have fun!
Anyway, after three days you can drink it – it’s still sweet, since much of the sugar is still intact. At five days it’s getting a little gamey and a hell of a lot stronger, but it’s still tolerable. At seven days it’s vinegar – the oxidation process is continuing the whole time it’s sitting in the jar, which means that all that fun-loving ethanol is continuing its degradation into acetic acid (or some other acid, I can’t find much science on banana wine), which tastes sour. This ties in nicely with the description of a 1911 travel guide by German geographer Hans Meyer (translated by blogger Dianabuja) which mentions that, in the time around the plantain harvest when urwarwa is made, people in Burundi get CRUNK for about a month straight – if this is true, it probably because urwarwa does not have a very long shelf-life and needs to be produced quickly before the plantains rot, and then quaffed straight away, before it sours.
Now onto dinner, which seems simple by comparison – a stew of red kidney beans and plantains, accompanied by ubuswage, or pounded, fermented cassava, and something called lenga lenga.
Dr. Aloys saved the day again with another article entitled “Traditional Cassava Foods in Burundi – A Review” – seriously, this guy is the best! He outlined the traditional ubuswage methodology as such: peel cassava; boil; ferment in water for two weeks; boil; pound; wrap in leaves; serve. When you finish, you get a sweet-and-sour smelling ball of gelatinous paste, like this:
You can increase this carbohydrate’s shelf life (in Africa) for up to eight days by wrapping it in a flamed plantain leaf. I gave it a shot for one day.
As a point of record: I opted for ubuswage over the perfectly acceptable accompaniment of rice for two reasons. First, I am insane. And second, the majority of rice currently grown and eaten in Burundi is of dubious pedigree – it’s some kind of ultra-enriched “super rice” that comes from an aid organization, and while that is indeed a great thing I would be unable to get the same kind of rice for my experimenting. What I COULD reliably get was cassava root. Ta da!
Now, to get started on our stew. This is perhaps the humblest dish I’ve made to date; just some red kidney beans and green plantains, an onion, some salt and chili powder and a dribble of red palm oil.
(Ahhhh palm oil, we meet again. I want to love you SO BAD, but when I smell you it just makes me feel like I’m hugging my grandpa in a damp attic with my eyes closed. It is without a doubt the most common lipid in Africa, and much loved at that, but my nose and tongue are still not there – its aroma is rich but dusty, heavy and wet. It has a hilariously low smoking point and it sticks to nigh on everything it touches, so there is no such thing as “a bite that has less palm oil on it”. It endures. It coats.)
Anyway – soak the beans overnight. Fry the onion in the palm oil. Open a window. Add everything else and some water to cover. Stir. Simmer. Wait.
The last accompaniment to our stew, lenga lenga, is actually someone we’ve met many, many times before – our old pal amaranthus. Seriously, are Americans the only ones NOT eating this veggie?? I know we’re all kind of busy with our buffalo wings and bacon cheeseburgers, but JESUS dudes, get on it!
As usual, finding green amaranth in the winter was a fool’s errand, which is the type of endeavor in which I specialize. I tried the Patel Brothers grocery store in Jackson Heights (that’s in Queens), where it might be known by any number of names – I eventually found it frozen as thotakura, but sadly it was already minced and formed into cubes, which was useless for how we are planning to prepare it. Then I tried the mostly-Chinese Pacific Supermarket in Elmhurst (also in Queens), which had the much-more common red-leaf amaranth (not gonna work for lenga lenga…) and, next to it, an unlabeled green veggie that looked similar. When an employee sauntered by I pointed to the veggie and invoked its Chinese name: “shen choy?” He soooort of looked like he heard me but ultimately chose to ignore me, so I asked again – “SHEN CHOY!?” He looked at the leafy stalks and mumbled what sounded like “shen choy, yeah, yeah, shen choy.”
My heart alight, I strode over to the register and asked the young girl who was ringing me out, “shen choy??” You guys, I was speaking CHINESE!!! She gave me that same sort of unsure look, and quietly said “yeah… shen choy.” OK then! Thanks!
When I got home, I noticed that the receipt actually showed the name of this vegetable in Chinese. Desperate for confirmation, I tore through the internet (the whole thing) and found the Chinese script for shen choy. NOPE. No match. I kept looking for other common Chinese greens, which are shown in a nifty little list here. Eventually, I figured out the little communication breakdown I was having at the store – I had, in fact purchased a succulent bunch of basella alba, also known as saan choy. So basically, I was all like “SHEN CHOY SHEN CHOY HEY YOU GUYS HEY SHEN CHOY HEY” over and over again and these poor people were like “Is this white dude out of his mind? What the hell is he saying? Is he trying to say saan choy??” So, big up to myself for once again appearing deranged in public, this time in another language for a change.
Long story short: I am ashamed to announce that we will once again have to resort to canned amaranth, labeled as callaloo and grown in Jamaica. It’s fine and all, but nothing canned can compare to the fresh version – this summer I am going to cook and freeze all the green amaranth I can find, so we don’t run into this problem next winter.
Right, lenga lenga: you take another onion, some more palm oil and some piri-piri chilis (I’m still working off a now-dwindling supply of frozen piri-piri that I grew last summer), sauté, add some tomato and the lenga lenga leaves and smaller stems. There you have it!
The whole meal looks like this:
The stew, to me, is on the bland side of the spectrum, but that’s because I’m an American who grew up in the eighties and has spent his life eating abominable things that carry adjectives like “EXTREME” or “JACKED” or “ATOMIC”. Taking a more meditative approach to eating this dish led to more sensitivity; beans never tasted more like beans, their skin distinct from their creamy innards, and the all-but-flavorless ubuswage started to carry a sour, astringent counterpoint to the palm-oiled plantains’ sweetness. The lenga lenga would have been SO much better with fresh greens, but at its core it’s not far off from the Italian treatment of veggies that I grew up trying to get out of eating. Except for the palm oil, of course.
A note: Pretty much every blogger who is doing this “cook the whole world” thing has made this bean and plantain stew because it is one of the only Burundian recipes to be found on the internet. I would really love to see Central African cuisine better documented in general – information is scarce and what does exist is inexact and patchy. I lucked out with Dr. Aloys’ two articles, but there HAS to be more…
Burundi, you do a whole lot with very little, and I respect the hell out of you for it. Thanks for the killer hooch and the reality check.
Now you go:
Beans & Bananas
1 cup dried red kidney beans
2 green plantains
1 tbsp palm oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp salt
Hot chili powder or flakes to taste
Soak the beans overnight in lots of water. Drain, place in a pan, cover with water and boil until tender. Drain and reserve.
Peel and slice the plantains. Add the oil to a hot pan and immediately add the onion. Sauté until translucent. Add the beans and plantains to the oil, season with salt and chili pepper and fry for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until plantains are soft and the stew is thick. Serve hot with rice, ugali or ubuswage.
1 bunch amaranth leaves and small parts of the stems, washed and drained
1 tbsp palm oil
2 small tomatoes, quarted
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
Salt to taste
Hot chili pepper to taste (piri-piri is preferred)
Add the palm oil to a hot pan and immediately add the onion. Sauté until translucent. Add the amaranth, salt and chili pepper and toss to coat. Add the tomatoes. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve hot as an accompaniment.
For two servings:
1 large yuca/cassava root, peeled and sliced into thick rounds
2 large plantain leaves, quickly passed over a gas flame (or briefly boiled)
Place the cassava slices in lots of boiling water, and cook for about 40 minutes. Drain and let cool. Carefully remove and discard the central fibrous filament from each slice – it will run through the center of the slice and will be tougher than the rest of the flesh.
Break apart the remaining flesh and submerge in a large container of water (I used a big Tupperware container). Change the water after 2 days, and again after a week.
After two weeks, drain the cassava flesh and place again in boiling water. Cook for about 30 minutes.
Drain again, and, while still hot, pound in a wooden mortar until the consistency is gummy, sticky and completely homogenous. Form into 2 balls and wrap tightly in plantain leaves.
Serve at room temperature, as both an accompaniment and as a utensil.
Aloys, Nzigamasabo & Nimpagaritse Angeline. “Traditional fermented foods and beverages”. Food Research International, Volume 42, Issues 5–6, June–July 2009, pp. 588-594.
Aloys, Nzigamasabo & Zhou Hui Ming. “Traditional Cassava Foods in Burundi – A Review”. Food Reviews International, Volume 22, 2006, pp. 1-27.
Think of the stuff that you know about Burma:
But what else? Candidly, I had never really thought much about this exotic-sounding country, tucked between some of the biggest players in Asia – China, India, Thailand… The potential for deliciousness was sky-high, but I never knew it until I started researching for this entry. Coincidentally, at the same time that I was desperately groping for a reliable source of Burmese recipes, a rightly-acclaimed writer named Naomi Duguid released precisely that: a gorgeous cookbook entitled Burma: Rivers of Flavor. Burmese cuisine is covered so exhaustively, so sensitively and so accurately in this book that I feel a little funny even attempting to add anything to the conversation. Naomi walked the path and now has a brilliant jewel to show for it. Her book was indispensable to me as a reference. So, instead of rehashing what can easily be found in her book, I’m going to get right to the food.
I love noodles. Possibly more than I love myself. They are without a doubt the single greatest accomplishment of our collective human history.
I also love FIXINS. You know that crazed feeling in your heart when you get some fro-yo, and you walk over to the den of sin where they keep the chocolate chips, crumbled Oreos, peanut-butter cups, caramel sauce, etc.? I go batshit crazy. (I also can’t seem to spend less than $10 on a cup of frozen yogurt.) It seems to me that the Burmese get to have that kind of personalized fun at every meal, and I honor them for their spirit. Both of the dishes I’m making for this entry feature a mostly skeletal framework that is augmented by a multitude of crunchy, nutty or spicy fixins that can be added according to each diner’s preference and whim.
For these reasons, my first Burmese dish, and one to which I have excitedly counted down on my list for over a year, is a coconutty, chicken-y, fixin-laden noodle soup called ohn no khao swè. It involves quite a lot of prep work, since most of its elements are prepared separately and then combined at the end – noodles, broth, chicken, hard-boiled egg, shallots, scallions, rice-noodle crunchies, chili oil… There’s nothing too scary going on here, just a lot of elbow grease and numerous dirty pots and pans to wash. But the end result is a marvel.
Without exaggeration, this might be the best soup I have ever had. It’s rich like a chowder, but light and elemental like chicken soup. When you get a good mouthful with a bit of all the garnishes, there is a textural diversity that hits all the corners – Americans, just think of clam chowder with oyster crackers and you’re basically there. The “broth” is more like a sauce, and it has a deep, savory flavor that is permeating without being too assertive from any particular direction. Simmered coconut milk makes a velvety backdrop against which glimmer the flashy jewels of lime, chili and raw allia. There’s also a funky little note of fish sauce behind every sip of the broth, too, which is actually what makes this soup feel “Asian” and not, say, British or American. And the bright streak of Chinese-style la jiao also highlights the wild mix of influences going on here. Overall, it reminds me a little of my favorite Thai soup, tom kha gai, but it’s thicker and earthier thanks to a chickpea flour slurry that is stirred in halfway through. It’s also not so very far in spirit from laksa, another incredible soup that is heavy on the condiments but also a little funkier.
Oh, and the noodles! The noodles. My god.
Ohn no khao swè has been named as the progenitor of numerous variant dishes in Southeast Asia, and a great article on this cultural exchange is available here. I learned a whole lot from this impeccably-researched article, and the photos are breathtaking. There is a lot of controversy over which noodles are the correct ones for this soup – all my Burmese sources pointed to egg noodles, but did not specify a width. So I picked some that looked as thick as the ones I saw in the aforementioned article. If I am way off, I hope someone from Burma might be so kind as to provide a correction… I would not be at all upset at the chance to make this dish again. Heh.
Time for tea! Not to drink though, to eat. Yes, I’m serious. No, not as ice cream.
This stuff was hard to get! I read a great article that mentioned a Burmese Baptist church community in Queens. Sadly, the store mentioned in the article has since closed, so I was out of luck. I emailed the church about where I might find some laphet, but never got a response. (NB: since most laphet in the U.S. is imported and sold illegally, I can’t really blame them for ignoring a random email from some insane white dude. So no hard feelings, my friends! But the embassies of Brunei, Burundi and Cambodia? MAJORLY HARD FEELINGS. Seriously, write me back.)
I then made a sweep of about five or six Asian groceries in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, but came up dry as well. In a serendipitous twist, a Burmese Buddhist temple in New Jersey was running a food bazaar one weekend, but I really struggled with the wisdom of spending over $100 on transportation to potentially buy about six dollars worth of pickled tea. I finally settled on the boring-but-cost-effective – and supremely sketchy – mail order option. Relatedly, I do hope this little project of mine is worth the constant risk of identity theft and/or credit fraud to which I am exposing myself.
I was a little choosy about the brand of laphet I was buying since I had read that a number of top brands had been contaminated with a cancer-causing dye in recent years. This one, Golden Hinthar, didn’t make the list. I think.
Anyway, when you open a bag of pickled green tea, it smells of jasmine, Froot Loops, rubbing alcohol and new tires. It’s not wet, but it is sticky and a little waxy, kind of like jerky or Twizzlers. Sampled undressed and on its own, it tastes like the smell of a new He-Man action figure, or even like a particularly sour weissbier. In other words, “fermenty”. The twisted little leaves look and feel at first that they will be quite dry and stringy, but after the recommended short soak in water they actually become as tender as cooked spinach.
We’re using this stuff to make a tea-leaf salad, laphet thoke. It has the important social function of being a dish of welcome in Burma, and is apparently eaten constantly. It’s also pretty high in caffeine, which means that people must be just bouncing off the walls in Burma.
The first and easiest step is pounding out the tea leaves with a little green chili. Then you have to get started on the fixins, which, much like those for the ohn no khao swé, require a good amount of prep. Typical toppings for this salad can include sliced tomato, shredded cabbage, roasted peanuts, toasted sesame seeds and an assortment of fried beans. I went for what I had seen included in laphet thoke “kits” on that mail-order site: chana dal (split, dried black chickpeas) and Indian butter beans (aka val dal aka lablab purpureus – I found this at Kalustyan’s). PROTIP: As I and my dentist learned, it is absolutely crucial that you soak these beans overnight before you fry them. If not, they become rock-hard (and burn easily, too).
Once you have all your ingredients ready, you arrange them all on a plate in a pinwheel shape and everyone gets to make their own bowls or mouthfuls as they like. Be sure to squirt on a little lime and drizzle some fish sauce, too. It’s meant to be a communal dish, and serving it this way invites everyone to gather around and catch up with each other.
This salad is actually very refreshing and makes for a fitting dessert after a rich soup. The commercial laphet comes in a few flavors, and I guess I must have chosen the “sweet” option since it ended up tasting that way (there is not much available in the way of Burmese-English translation), which is assuredly better than the “extremely violent spicy death” variety. Load up your chopsticks with a good bite and you get some soft vegetal matter, a little crunch from the beans and a bit of moisture and sugar from the tomato. The beans came out a little darker than I wanted – go for a bit less color if you fry them yourself. Also, expect to be awake for a few days – the caffeine seems rather reluctant to leave your bloodstream. Time to get started on that novel!
Burma, you’ve had a rough go of it, and things are still not going so great. Your snakes are way too big. Your country has a lot of problems, but your people have a lot of good in them and your food rules. I wish the best for you, no matter what your name is.
Now you go:
Ohn No Khao Swé (Coconut Chicken Noodle Soup with Fixins)
2 medium white onions, diced
1/2 inch chunk of ginger, mashed into paste
4 cloves of garlic, mashed into paste
2 shallots, thinly sliced, soaked in cold water for about an hour
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 lb. (250 grams) Chinese or Thai egg noodles (or Burmese, if you can get them – I couldn’t)
4 boneless chicken thighs, thinly sliced
2 tbsp chickpea flour (aka gram flour aka besan flour)
200 ml coconut milk
Small handful of dried flat rice noodles
3 tbsp dried chili flakes
3 tbsp paprika
1 lime, sliced into wedges
2 eggs, hard-boiled, sliced in half
1 chicken stock cube
First make the fixins:
Mix the chili flakes, 1 tbsp paprika and 1/2 tsp salt in a heatproof cup. Heat 1/2 cup of vegetable oil in a small pan. When it’s hot, pour the oil over the chili flake mix. CAREFUL – it will sizzle and spatter. Set aside to cool. This will keep covered for about one week.
Snap the dried rice noodles into small pieces. Over medium heat, add 1/2 cup of oil to a small pan. When hot, gently place the noodles in the oil in small batches. They will immediately puff up. Using a slotted spoon, remove from the oil and place on towel lined plate to drain. Set aside.
Boil the egg noodles and drain. Set aside.
Now make the broth:
In a large pot over medium heat, add about 2 tbsp oil. When hot, add the onions and gently saute. After about 5 minutes, add the garlic and ginger. Let cook for another 10 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk the chickpea flour with 1/4 cup cold water and then add to the pot. Add 1 tsp of fish sauce and the stock cube. Add 2 cups cold water and bring to a simmer.
While that comes to a simmer – in a small frying-pan over high heat, add 1 tbsp of oil. When hot, add the chicken, a pinch of salt and 1 tbsp paprika. Stir-fry until cooked through. Add this to the pot of broth along with the last tbsp of paprika and the coconut milk. Stir once and bring to a boil. Remove from heat.
Place the egg noodles in deep bowl, then add enough hot broth to just barely cover. Top with shallot, scallion, egg, crispy rice noodle, chili oil, lime and fish sauce as desired.
Lahpet Thouk (Tea-Leaf Salad with Fixins)
5 tbsp pickled tea leaves, soaked in cold water for about 10 minutes and then drained
1/2 cup peanut oil
5 garlic cloves, sliced into thin chips
2 tsp dried chana dal
2 tsp dried Indian butter beans (aka val dal)
2 tsp unsalted peanuts, roasted
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
2 green chillies, thinly sliced
1 tomato, thinly sliced
1 tsp fish sauce
1 lime, sliced into wedges
Soak both the chana dal and Indian butter beans in separate bowls of water for at least 8 hours. Drain and dry thoroughly with paper towels.
Heat the oil in a pan and add the garlic. Fry until golden. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Do the same for chana dal and Indian butter beans. Reserve oil.
Pound the tea leaves and green chili together in a mortar (or pulse in a food processor? I don’t know) until they are well-incorporated. Transfer to a bowl and add 3 tsp of the reserved peanut oil. Set aside for about 20 minutes.
Arrange all the fixins on a round plate or platter, with the tea leaves in the center. Serve with lime wedges and fish sauce as desired. Small bowls and chopsticks would help, too.
During my time as an adjunct professor, I was lucky enough to teach at several colleges around New York City. Two of these were in Queens, my home for the last seven years and the most ethnically diverse area in the entire world. Researching Burkinabé food for this entry made a lost memory swell up: of a young woman I had in one of my introductory Italian classes. Her name was Veronique and she spoke impeccable French and English, which made her go at Italian quite successful in a very short period of time. Meaning to encourage her to test into a higher level of Italian, I met with her after class over a cup of absolutely terrible cafeteria coffee. We discussed her career plans – nursing – and her educational history, much of which took place in her birthplace, the West African country of Burkina Faso. I had never heard of it.
Veronique made a big impression on me as a young teacher, since she was one of extremely few students that seemed to actually be taking her education seriously – all of it, even the unrelated requirements like Italian. While I was angrily ousting cheaters, haranguing chatterers and holding ne’er do wells’ cell phones hostage during my thrilling indirect-object pronoun drills, Veronique would be furiously taking notes, writing down what seemed like every word I said. She passed my class with a glittering A+, and I never ran into her again.
When I started planning the menu for this entry, I tried to track Veronique down – I wanted ideas and facts from someone who knew this cuisine firsthand, and also hoped to check in on one of my most promising students. Alas, my memory not being what it used to, and having taught a few hundred students over an eight-year period, I was at a complete loss for her last name. As you might guess, I didn’t get very far.
Anyway – greetings in Burkina are supposed to include a welcome beverage, something refreshing, so we should probably start off the same way. Some popular options include a sorghum beer called dolo and a type of iced hibiscus tea called bissap. There’s also fermented palm sap called banji, but where the hell can I find a palm in NYC? No, no these wouldn’t do – I wanted something a little more, I don’t know… substantial. The answer? Zoom Koom.
“Zoom Koom” means “flour water” in the Mòoré language of the Mossi people, Burkina’s ethnic majority. It tastes like you blended together ginger ale, a fruit smoothie, a chili pepper, some raisins and a little bread dough and poured it over some ice. (Go ahead and spend a few minutes imagining that, or even just weighing how close to insanity I have drifted.) The zoom part of the name refers specifically to millet flour, which has a sweet, raw cereal flavor and makes the drink a little gritty, and grittier still the longer it steeps in the liquid. The addition of piment en poudre – powdered scotch bonnet pepper – also induces sweating to cool you off even further.
Another crucial component of this drink is tamarind, specifically in the form of a decoction – in other words, you clean it, you boil it and then strain out the liquid, leaving the depleted solids behind. The resultant liquid is tart, but with a kind of yeasty sourdough aftertaste. Once added to the Zoom Koom recipe its sharpness is dulled by the sugar and the fresh ginger. Ginger is, indeed, the strongest flavor here, which not only makes this drink feel refreshing but also makes it NOT feel cloying or heavy – the calorie load from the millet alone is quite high (90 calories for 1/8 cup raw flour), so it is impressive that someone could drink this and not have to take a nap right after.
Speaking of millet (bet you’ve never started a sentence like that) – it’s a major crop in West Africa and in other developing countries, probably because of its high calorie content, its adaptability to dry climates and its relatively short maturation period. More energy with less work in less time. It’s actually really delicious as a breakfast food – you can make it into something like a porridge or oatmeal, and it’s naturally gluten free. It’s also high in fiber – and that’s fun for everyone!
OK, enough with the Zoom Koom. You’ve been properly greeted. Let’s eat.
Besides millet, two other major agricultural products in Burkina Faso are peanuts and legumes, with the most notable being the “cowpea”, or black-eyed pea. I LOVE these beans. Maybe a little too much.
A popular street food based on mashed black-eyes peas carries the benign French name of beignets de haricots – bean fritters, basically – but the Mossi people have another more colorful name for them: Boussan touba. It’s basically translated as “Bissa’s ears” – the Bissa being another ethnic group in Burkina Faso. I am guessing that the joke is that the Bissa have big ears, but since the Mossi and Bissa both descend from the Mandé people of Ghana (and much of West Africa), it seems to me that their ears might look pretty similar. Whatever, I’m staying neutral on this one.
These things are good. They taste like festival food, something you’d find at a carnival.The black-eyed peas, well-boiled, relax into a starchy mash that could easily be confused with potato. No single flavor stands out on its own here – instead, the humble ingredients merge into a deeply satisfying, crunchy, creamy, even juicy fritter that reminds me of the best of french fries and chicken soup simultaneously. Without seasoning, they are pretty bland. But once you begin to add salt, a savoriness begins appearing everywhere. There is a robust richness in these boring old beans, but it first has to be coaxed out with fat and a good pinch of sodium.
I ate the mashed and fried equivalent of a one-pound bag of black eyed peas. Shameful, but necessary.
This next one was hard to pronounce, and even harder to find a recipe for – mougoudougou. They are supposed to be little golf ball-sized snacks of raw millet flour, mashed ginger, sugar and either ground peanuts or peanut butter. The jury is still out on this one. There is one – count it, ONE – recipe for this dish on the entire internet; trust me, I’ve checked. In English AND French. And it basically goes “take everything and mix it together.” So, you know. I’m not exactly working with L’Escoffier here.
Since the ingredient list gets no more specific than just saying “peanuts”, I made a batch using freshly shelled, raw peanuts that I ground in a spice grinder. This was clearly wrong. I took a bite and all I felt was dry, crumbly, grainy displeasure. They also didn’t look as soft and supple as the ones I had seen in pictures. I amended the recipe to use peanut butter, and it worked MUCH better – soft, with a peppery-ginger bite and the texture of raw cookie dough. That millet cereal-sweetness was still there too. Oddly enough, it sort of tasted a little bit like the Zoom Koom.
Something still seems fishy to me, though, since the only place I have ever seen “peanut butter” is in the U.S. But then, I’ve also never been to West Africa, and from the looks of things they really know their peanuts. I will leave it to any readers from Burkina Faso to confirm/deny this recipe for me. Help!
Finally the main course – riz gras, or “fat rice”. It really is a simple dish – rice, cooked with meat and veggies and a little tomato to stain it all red. I was ready for this one to be a softball recipe, but then when it came down to choosing the correct type of rice to use, I hit a wall.
I mean, we all know our Asian rices: basmati, jasmine, japonica, etc. The there are the weird “enriched”, par-cooked American rices, which are more science than nature. But then what? What the hell type of rice do they eat in Africa??
Two words – Oryza glaberrima.
Most of those Asian varieties are from the oryza sativa species, and are cultivated absolutely everywhere. But oryza glaberrima – also known as African rice – is native to West Africa, which makes it undoubtedly the preferred vehicle for the flavors of riz gras. It is also far less cultivated than it’s Asian cousins.
OK, so… how do I get some?
It turns out tons of research has been done on this, and the findings are surprising, but also completely logical. The most well-known cultivar of African rice available in the United States is… good old Carolina Gold. The hypothesis is as follows: in order to feed slaves being carried from West Africa to America during the long sea passage, slave ships were packed with loads of African rice. Upon arrival, there was occasionally leftover African rice, which somehow found its way into the dirt of the Carolinas and Georgia. It eventually came to be the most cultivated variety of rice in the American South, though now it is sadly relegated to “heirloom” status. I got a batch from Anson Mills, here. I believe that they are doing important work to preserve what is a dwindling variety of superb rice, so please consider supporting them.
Riz gras is one of those dishes that doesn’t need to be flashy to be good. It’s like the John Cazale of food. First, you brown the meat. Then you sweat some veggies and throw in some water, the meat and the secret ingredient – a Maggi chicken stock cube. (NB: this seems to be a secret ingredient all over the world.) The recipes I found did not dictate a cooking time, just that everything should “cook”. Thanks dudes! My rule is that lamb should stew for at least two hours to be fork-tender, so I followed that. I used some lean stew lamb, but fattier and on-the-bone pieces are also an option. They would have probably made it greasier and higher in calories and fat, but since meat is such a luxury in this part of the world that would probably be just dandy. The real highlight is the tomato, which makes the rice sweet and faintly tart, and also serves to break up all the oil and rendered lamb fat.
That fancy heirloom Carolina Gold rice held its shape perfectly – it stayed light and starchy, and did not get waterlogged even when I clumsily overcooked it a bit. It’s built for a dish like this, soaking up flavors readily. It also has that nice chew in the center, like riso arborio or arroz bomba.
For humans, this is as good as it gets – protein, carbs and veggies all in one bite, with a flavor that is satisfying but not challenging. It’s a comfort food, just like arroz con pollo, kabsa, biryani, and every other variant of this dish that exists in the world.
Good on you, Burkina Faso. Here, I’ll raise the last of my Zoom Koom to Veronique – wherever she is, I hope that she’d be as proud of me now as I was of her then.
Now you go:
Zoom Koom (“Flour-Water”, aka “eau de bienvenue”)
1½ cups fine millet flour
1 cup sugar (to taste, though it should be quite sweet)
4 cups tamarind decoction (see recipe below)
2 two-inch x two-inch pieces of ginger, peeled
1 pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks
1 pinch piment en poudre (powdered habanero/scotch bonnet pepper)
Blend the pineapple and ginger in a blender until smooth. Add the flour. Pulse for a few minutes until everything seems homogeneous. Add tamarind juice, sugar and piment en poudre. Blend well again. Pour through a fine mesh strainer. Serve over ice.
1 lb tamarind pods
8 cups water
Prepare the tamarind by removing the outer shell and peeling off the twiggy membrane attached to it from tip to tail. Place cleaned pulp in a deep pot along with the water, and bring to a boil. Cook for about 30 minutes, mashing occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula. It will smell like muffins as it cooks, enjoy this.
After 30 minutes, turn off the heat. Once it has cooled, strain the liquid through cheesecloth and discard the solids. The decoction is now ready to use.
1 lb. dried black-eyed peas
half a small onion, diced fine
1 carrot, diced fine
1 egg, whisked
salt and black pepper to taste
wheat flour (for dredging)
1½ cups peanut oil (for frying)
Cook the dry beans in boiling water for about 40 minutes, or until they are very soft. Drain them well in a colander. Combine the onion and carrot in a food processor. Add the beans (in batches if necessary) and mix well to form a wet dough. Season well with salt and pepper (probably about a teaspoon of salt and a ½ tsp of pepper to start) and mix to combine. To form the “ears”, shape the dough into golf ball-sized balls and flatten them with your palm. Dredge these patties in the flour and immediately fry in hot peanut oil until they are browned and crisp on both sides (about 3-5 minutes per side). Sprinkle liberally with salt and serve hot.
1 cup fine millet flour
1 cup natural peanut butter
3 tbsp minced and mashed ginger root
1 cup sugar
“Mix everything together at the same time.” Eat with your hands.
1 lb meat, in 1-2 inch chunks (In Burkina this is usually lamb or goat)
2 onions, chopped
3 tomatoes, quartered
¼ head of cabbage, chopped
4 carrots, diced
2 cups of rice
1 Cube Maggi Chicken bouillon
1 ½ tbsp tomato paste
4 cups + 3 tbsp water
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp peanut oil
Heat half of the oil in a dutch oven. When it is smoking, add the meat and brown well. Remove meat and reserve. Add the rest of the oil to the pot. When hot, add the onions and tomatoes. While they soften, combine the tomato paste and the bouillon cube with about 3 tbsp water. Add this to the pot along with all of the other vegetables. Add the water, bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Allow to cook for about 2 hours, or until meat is very tender. Add the rice, stir a few times and cover the pot. Continue to cook over low heat until liquid is absorbed and the rice is done to your liking. Serve hot.
It seems that several cuisines that have already had their day share similarities with the still relatively-unknown food culture of Bulgaria. “Culture” being the operative word, since so many of Bulgaria’s dishes are dependent on their rich, unique and multiform dairy products, including their particularly exceptional yogurt. Ingredients and dishes that most Americans would readily recognize – Greek yogurt (enjoying a creamy heyday even as I write this), feta cheese, the cheese-and-phyllo pie known to initiates as tyropita and the spinachy version called spanakopita, the Roman staple of caciocavallo cheese, the skewered morsels of heaven known as kebab - have analogous counterparts in Bulgarian cuisine. Why??
Let me tell you a little story about some dudes called the Ottomans.
Once upon a time, around the year 1300, a group of Muslim emirs led by Sultan Osman I were like, “bro, let’s start an amazingly tolerant and far-reaching empire.” So they did. At its peak, it stretched from Algeria to Azerbaijan, and even held power almost as far north as what is now Vienna. During its more than 600 years of rule, the Ottoman Empire wisely allowed most of the lands under its control to maintain their own religious and cultural autonomy while still paying tribute to the Turks. This policy has really paid off for people like us who are alive now – food in general is much, much more delicious because of this open approach to exchange between east and west.**
[**Don’t get me wrong – it didn’t work out for everybody. They were an empire, after all. But, you know. – MR]
In keeping with this theme of cultural exchange, I’m going to show you a Bulgarian dish that has etymological roots in Arabic and exists in a huge number of countries. It’s called chorba.
Chorba is just a word for stew/soup in most formerly-Ottoman countries, but the root of the word comes from the Arabic verb sharaba [للشرب] (pronounced more like “shuh-ruh-buh”)- “to drink”. This same verb has given us the English word sherbet/sorbet (frozen liquid, get it?) as well as the shrub, a vinegar-based cocktail that is finally beginning to be made – artisanally, of course – by fashionably-spindly, mustachioed bartenders in V-neck t-shirts. As a word, “sharaba” has mutated from its Arabic root form to the various regional versions we see now – ciorbă; shurpa; shorpo; sorpa; etc. All of these versions refer to stew or liquid food in one way or another.
So what do Bulgarians do with чорба (Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet, duh)? One of the most beloved Bulgarian dishes, and one that has the reputation of being a foolproof hangover cure, is a humble tripe stew called shkembe chorba [Шкембе чорба]. There’s not much in it besides oil, milk, boiled cow stomach slices and a little hot paprika to help you sweat out last night’s sake bombs. It’s not hard to make, but the process of de-funking the tripe is a little time consuming and, well… stanky. You’ll want to change the tripe’s water after each boil, maybe about four times, until the butyric-acid (read: barf) smell has mostly gone away. Oh, and open a window.
If prepared correctly, this stew is not very gamey, though it is pretty hard to forget that you’re eating stomach since there ain’t much else in it. The milk mellows out the tripe, and the warm dairy richness against the black and red pepper is super comforting – sort of like our own mac & cheese, which many people also crave during a hangover. For my own taste, it could definitely use a more profound paprika flavor than most recipes allow, but maybe it’s supposed to be nuanced and inoffensive to a troubled tummy. Texturally the tripe is soft, tender and slippery, even a little gelatinous. The garlic-vinegar condiment also adds a nasal component to the flavor – the dairy stays on your tongue and the sharp fumes go right to your nose, clearing out your booze-battered sinuses.
OK, you’ve had a rough night – go to bed and I’ll have breakfast waiting.
Good morning! Feeling better? No? Well it’s your own fault, you worthless drunk.
Here, have some boza and roasted chickpeas.
Boza is a lightly-fermented drink made from roasted wheat flour. It’s popular in most formerly-Ottoman countries, with the Bulgarian recipe being one of the most prominent. It’s not hard to make, just roast some white flour until it’s light brown, mix with water, sugar and a little leftover boza from your previous batch and let those handy anaerobic organisms do the rest. [NB: to escape the infinite regress of not having any boza to start with, see the recipe below for a boza starter]
Once it has fermented for a few days, give it a good shake and pop it in the fridge. (I hopefully shouldn’t need to tell you to also be sure all of your jars and whatnot are sterile and clean, or you could potentially grow something heinous in there instead of boza.) Cold, fresh boza is really nice if you can get down with the slightly gritty texture. It tastes like a light milkshake made out of fresh cinnamon toast and marzipan. It’s realllllly sweet, very thick, and ever-so-faintly fermenty. It also goes great with the mouth-moisture-eliminating traditional accompaniment of roasted chickpeas and a little dusting of powdered cinnamon.
OK sorry, I’ll go make breakfast now. Do you need a bucket? No? Well, stay off the couch just in case. Here’s a blanket and some Advil.
In Bulgaria, a traditional breakfast will pair boza with a savory cheese pie called banitsa [Баница], which is made from all of the bounty of Bulgaria’s dairy industry. Some recipes use one cheese, others use two, and some even use two cheeses AND yogurt. That’s the version I picked.
The first of our two cheeses (all of which I found at the poorly-named Parrot Coffee store in here in Astoria) will be sirene [бяло сирене], which is a lot like feta – or perhaps I should say feta is a lot like sirene. Where Greek feta has a firmness that can, at times, be a little chalky, Bulgarian sirene is softer, creamier and much brinier. It has a salty, pickled intensity that even crosses the border into “smoky”, and it’s savory to the point where you can feel your brain dumping happy chemicals like Han Solo in front of an Imperial patrol.
Our other cheese, kashkaval [кашкавал], has a name derived from Italy’s caciocavallo cheese, I think. Or it also seems possible that the Italians named their version of this semi-hard cheese (“cacio” = “caseus” = “cheese”) after the horse-riding (“cavallo”) Aromanian nomads that may have actually created it first. The world may never know. In any case, it’s also a bit salty and melts readily, and even shares some characteristics with your garden-variety cheddar.
I’m going to throw together a quick assembly montage on making Bulgarian banitsa. Ready?
Now would be a good time to impart some wisdom – if you didn’t already know, springform pans are NOT watertight. They will hold in a thick cake batter, but not so much a runny mess of club soda and raw egg. So, yeah. Oops.
Speaking of club soda – why? As we’ve seen before, club soda’s main ingredient, besides water, is sodium bicarbonate, aka baking soda. What does baking soda do again? Well, when heated with acidic ingredients, it releases carbon dioxide. If you do it right, these carbon dioxide bubbles will get trapped in whatever you’re cooking, making it light and airy. Like this:
Now you just let it set for a bit (it will deflate), pop it out of the pan and cut a slice. Serve it with a big dollop of Bulgarian yogurt, which is less like Greek yogurt and more like Indian or Afghani yogurt – runnier, saltier, cheesier, grassier. Real “Bulgarian” yogurt must be made with the Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacterium, otherwise it ain’t Bulgarian.
From where I’m standing, the recipe I used appears to have wayyyy too many eggs. Very liquid. Less yogurt, fewer eggs, and more cheese would make for a drier filling that would be MUCH easier to work with.
That aside – DAMN. Steam pours out. So crackly, so creamy. With the cold, tart yogurt against the hot, smoky sirene, rich melted kashkaval and buttery, flaky kori dough, it’s almost overwhelming. A sip of cold, sweet boza and your palette is balanced and reset. It’s like sirene was built expressly for this purpose, like Robocop was built to fight crime and Vicki from Small Wonder was built to… wait, why did they build her? Anyway, this stuff rules.
Bulgaria, you get short shrift but I think your time is coming. Thanks for making awesome cheese and yogurt, and helping drunk people feel better about their life choices.
Now you go:
1 lb. prepared veal or beef honeycomb tripe
1 cup sunflower oil
2 cups whole milk
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp freshly-ground black pepper
1 tbsp sea salt
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
hot chilli flakes, to taste
Clean the tripe thoroughly with water, rubbing it with coarse salt to remove any debris.
Boil the tripe in abundant salted water for about 20 minutes. Drain. Repeat until the stink stops (probably four times or so).
Slice the tripe into chunks. In a pot, combine the oil, milk, tripe, salt, pepper and paprika. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, mix the vinegar with the garlic. Let this sit while you cook the soup.
Serve the soup hot, and garnish with the vinegar-garlic.
Brush your teeth.
1 packet of #4 phyllo dough (Bulgarian “fini kori” or Greek phyllo)
300 grams kashkaval, grated
400 grams sirene, mashed
3 + 1 eggs
½ stick of butter, melted
1/2 cup of soda water
1/2 cup yogurt (Bulgarian!)
Combine the cheeses, 3 eggs and the yogurt in a big bowl. Refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
On a steady work surface, layer 3-4 sheets of phyllo dough, and brush them with butter. Put about 4 tbsp of filling at one end of the sheets, and roll into a loose cylinder. Arrange cylinder in a spiral shape in a greased metal pan, starting from the center. Repeat, continuing the spiral shape until you run out of room.
Whisk the remaining egg with the club soda and pour evenly over the banitsa.
Pop in the oven and bake until the top of the pastry is browned to your liking and the whole mass has risen a bit.
Remove from oven, let cool slightly, and then slice and serve with Bulgarian yogurt and boza.
4 cups water
1/3 cup flour (100 mL)
1/3 cup sugar (100 mL)
boza starter (see below)
roasted chickpeas (as accompaniment)
powdered cinnamon (as garnish)
Bake the flour until light brown, then add the water and the sugar and mix well. Leave in a sterilized, sealed jar in a warm place for 2-3 days. Shake occasionally. Then transfer to fridge and drink when fully chilled. Can be sprinkled with a little powdered cinnamon and served alongside roasted chickpeas.
4 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoon water
2 tablespoon sugar
Mix together all ingredients and leave, covered in plastic wrap, to ferment in a warm place for about 3-4 days. Use in boza recipe (above).
Guys. This one almost broke me.
I can’t really overstate how much time and effort I put into this entry – over six months of preparation and research, visits to at least twelve different Asian markets in three boroughs and a few on the internet, countless informational favors from friends of friends (of friends) and even (unanswered) emails to the Embassy of Brunei in Washington, D.C. and the Brunei Board of Tourism – just sayin, I really, really hope it was worth it. Though Brunei sits on the world’s third-largest island, you’d never know it from the paucity of specifically Bruneian ingredients in New York City.
It was very important to me that, for this entry, I highlight a dish that was unique to Brunei. See, its proximity to other countries in Southeast Asia – especially Malaysia and Indonesia, with whom it shares the island of Borneo – causes most people to assume that Brunei’s food culture is simply an offshoot of these of other sovereignties. This may be true to a large extent, and especially so regarding other Southeast-Asian Muslim countries, but there is indeed a dish found in Brunei that is found nowhere else, and this is exactly what we are going to make.
They call it ambuyat.
Ambuyat is a dish based around cooked ambulung, or powdered sago starch. Ambulung is extracted from the pith of the sago palm‘s bark, and became an important nutritional component of the average Bruneian’s diet during World War II. With the Japanese occupation of the island and the subsequent shortages of rice, Borneo natives in need turned to the traditionally indigenous, calorie-rich carbohydrate staple of sago starch in order to survive. Times have changed, of course, following the discovery of immense oil supplies in 1929, but Bruneians still hold ambuyat - the modern version of this carb – in high regard as an honored piece of their heritage and national character. Blog posts abound of smiling Bruneians enjoying bowls of gooey, gelatinous ambuyat with a seemingly endless array of colorful side dishes and dips. I did not find ready-to-cook ambulung anywhere (not surprising), but I did find real sago from an international seller on Amazon, so I powdered it myself and sifted several times. (Note: Sago is often confused with the sometimes-inaccurately-translated sabudana, an Indian ingredient that is variably made from either sago or tapioca/yuca starch. No way to tell for sure, so I went with the harder-to-find real deal.)
Now, ambuyat on its own has no real flavor – it’s just, well… starchy, kind of like a bland, free-form noodle. This is where the side dishes come in. Ambuyat is meant to be served alongside a variety of dips, condiments, meats, soups and greens. It’s also NOT supposed to be chewed – you’re obliged to use your candas (“chan-das”, a special two-pronged bamboo stick) to twirl up some of the steaming hot goo, dip it in one of the condiments (cacah, pronounced “cha-cha” [NB: I stand corrected, it is pronounced “cha-cah”! – MR]), and then swallow the lump whole. I assume lots of tourists choke on ambuyat.
After looking at a lot of pictures of ambuyat spreads and reading numerous travelogues involving this dish, I decided on three condiments, a veggie and a soup, all representative of a typical ambuyat meal. Let’s start with the most formidable of these condiments – sambal tempoyak, a fermented durian sauce.
Wait, did you say “durian”? FERMENTED durian?!
Oh, yes. Yes, I did.
Durian’s flavor is not really the insipid horror that it’s so often made out to be. (NB: if you’ve never heard of this fruit, you should really read the wiki on it as a primer.) It’s not a taste that I am at all fond of, but after two encounters with this spiky plant I am beginning to understand how some find it to be very appealing. There IS a sweetness buried under its dizzying funk – something not unlike an overripe papaya mixed with rotten onions in a hot dumpster. I have no explanation for this, but the sense memory that most readily springs up for me when I taste durian is actually the pink amoxicillin syrup I had to drink by the tiny-plastic-cupful when I used to get strep throat as a kid – medicinally sweet, cringe-inducing and imbued with reluctance and a little fear. I also taste boiled egg. If you’ve ever tried to thoughtfully tackle a really runny, pungent French cheese that reeks of a barn, you’re getting the idea. To say it’s an acquired taste is a drastic, abhorable understatement. But there is nothing else like it on earth.
The real issue with durian, I think, is that it’s just so AUDACIOUS. Durian is that guy at the party who is incessantly jingling change in his pocket, excitedly slapping everyone on the back WAY too hard and eventually, I don’t know, breaking the bathroom door by accident or something. He’s not subtle at all, and even though deep-down he’s probably a really nice guy and just wants approval, everyone’s always like “ugggghhhh durian is here…” There is no “Durian Lite” – the volume knob is always at 11.
The poor durian’s problems stem partially from its complex profile of volatile compounds – lots of sulfur flavors and esters. Notable among these are ethyl acetate (which carries a smell that many would recognize as nail polish remover), benzyl alcohol (which is present in jasmine and some teas, but also in commercial wood laquer) and, after sitting for a while, ammonia. Another issue for those of us in the West – as the fruit ages during shipping, the ester compounds that provide sweetness break down, while sulfur content remains stable and benzyl alcohol content increases. All this means is that the “off” smell of a durian gets worse the longer it takes to get from Asia to your nose, and unless you taste a durian close to its harvest chances are you’re really only getting a stank, aged, overripe version of it. Couple that with its stringy, mushy texture and it’s knifepoint-sharp spikes and you have a recipe for wholesale character assassination in the West. It’s just criminal.
Anyway, tempoyak - you scoop out the bright yellow seed-nodes from a durian, mash up the pulp, mix it with salt and put it in a jar. Wait a week. Apologize to everyone around you for the aroma seeping out of the fridge while you frenziedly seal the jar in ever-more concentric layers of ziploc bags. Now you have this:
Take everything I said about durian up to this point, and multiply it by six. Then add more onion and egg. That’s tempoyak.
Obviously durian is not the only ingredient in Bruneian cuisine. Like its neighbors, Brunei has an affinity for other Southeast-Asian ingredients like birdseye chilies, shallots and belacan, a roasted, fermented shrimp paste that comes in the shape of a brick.
The flavor of belacan is also hard to describe, since its odor and its taste are so different from each other – to my Western nose, it smells of fresh, wet soil. Taken alone (which is almost never done), it tastes of bitter ocean water. Regular eaters of belacan say that it imbues food with an indescribable flavor, like the umami of Far Eastern cuisine (which has so recently become such an irritating and anemic buzzword in the U.S.) It’s what belacan does to other ingredients that defines its role.
These ingredients, along with juice from the ultra-sweet calamansi lime (found in concentrate form at Shi Eurasia, a Malaysian/Kiwi supply store on Orchard Street in Manhattan), form the base of the condiments that will be served with our ambuyat – the aforementioned sambal tempoyak (funky, fruity), the ubiquitous, classically Malaysian sambal belacan (pure salty fire) and the chunky and unexpectedly effervescent sambal cencaluk (uhhh…)
A quick word on that last one – first off, nobody told me that cencaluk was carbonated (edit: not true, the wiki says it. I’m just dumb.). It’s just salt-fermented/pickled udang geragau, the same tiny shrimp/krill that are used to make belacan. No big deal, right? It came in what looked like an old-school soda bottle, complete with a metal bottle-cap that depicted a cartoon shrimp on it. That shrimp was the last thing I saw before my face, my arms, my chest and part of the ceiling were coated in a heterogeneous veil of aged, semi-liquid shellfish. The bottle-cap had rocketed into another room, and the aroma surrounding me was something like cat food or semi-digested tuna sandwich. Which, if you think about it, is sort of what cencaluk is – sea creature that has been coaxed into an intermediate and retarded state of putrefaction, allowing the volatile compounds within it to merge, disintegrate and recombine into new flavors, odors and colors. Not really all that different from a lot of stuff eaten in the West – wine, beer, prosciutto, sauerkraut, yogurt, pickles… It’s really just the fishy angle on fermentation that freaks us out, since our exposure to it is usually minimal. And by “minimal” I really don’t mean a cup-and-a-half of it violently shot at my face.
OK, we got these sambals pretty much on lockdown, so let’s move on to the main course – ikan kembung asam rebus, or “sour mackerel soup”. Again, I’ll need to introduce a few out-of-the-ordinary ingredients.
First we have fresh turmeric root, which is integral to many cuisines of the East and has very recently become quite the vogue in dietary supplements and as an additive in those heavily-marketed health drinks. Studies are showing that turmeric root touts vigorous anti-cancer properties, and it has an clean, astringent, nasal taste that is very unique. In this soup its main role is to reinforce the “sour” aspect against the fattiness of the mackerel, along with another strange product, asam keping.
Asam keping are dried slices of a Malaysian rainforest fruit that is know botanically as garcinia atroviridis. This fruit is SOUR. Like, short-guy-passed-up-for-promotion-to-manager sour, or quadruple-divorcee sour. Trust me, I chewed on a piece and my face involuntary imploded into a fleshy singularity. To make the soup, you just toss a few pieces into the pot along with the turmeric, chilis, more belacan and mushed-up shallots, and a nice, slender mackerel, hacked in half. Oh, and water.
To finish this dish, you sprinkle on a little daun kesom, which has a grassy flavor that is kind of like mint but also kind of like something else. The Vietnamese superstition is that daun kesom (or rau ram, in Vietnamese) suppresses sexual urges, though with the breath you’d have after eating this I really couldn’t imagine anyone being in much of a mood for the horizontal mambo anyway.
First, some dried anchovies – the same salty fishies that Asian fish sauce is made from! These are to be pounded in a mortar along with the requisite shallot and chilis, and even a little garlic this time.
You take this paste now and saute it along with gorgeously-hued sayur bayam, a sneaky name for the by-now-familiar amaranth. Before I started this blog I had no clue how freaking common amaranth/callaloo/borogo/imbuya/bayam is in the world diet – it grows almost everywhere, and pretty hardily at that. The name amaranth comes from the Greek word for “undying”, which maybe explains its popularity, if not its ubiquity.
As this cooks, it actually smells a lot like an Italian dish I know very well – escarole braised with anchovy and garlic. Finally, a moment of recognizable comfort after spending so many hours wandering with no map (and no GPS).
And so here were are, friends. The hour of reckoning, after so much planning, grimacing and exploding shrimp guts. With no small measure of anxiety I poured boiling water into a large bowl and whisked the ambuyat with all of myself. I couldn’t get the powder ground as finely as an industrial machine could, so it came out a little clumpy, but still far better than I had expected. I also made myself some makeshift, MacGruber-style candas by snapping and then taping together some chopsticks from the Chinese restaurant down the block.
I want to be honest – I’m sort of struggling with how this entry has played itself out. I really wanted to give Brunei a fair shake, and I think I have done that at least through my methodological diligence. The one major setback here has been my palette. I am what I’d consider to be an open-minded eater, but for the first time in a very long time I have found my gastro-cultural foundation to be… inadequate. I have never before tasted flavors so foreign to me, or smelled smells so contextually confused – what others, somewhere else, celebrate and crave has made me recoil, wince, shake my head with panic, “NO!”, while eons of evolved neurological defenses strongly suggested I not allow what was in my mouth go any further into my body. Like an unholy inversion of Proust’s madeleine, a celebrated condiment recalls the taste and smell of tuna-sandwich vomit; a much-loved soup, sniffed with closed eyelids, brings up only sense memories of dumpsters and soil; and a life-saving carbohydrate conjures only the faintest apostate recollection of masticated communion wafers.
Can this be right? Is this what these foods are supposed to taste like? How can I know if I made a mistake??
What else can I say? Brunei, it’s not you, it’s me. I’ll get there, I swear.
Wait for me?
(***One confession before we wrap this up – I was unable to make the über-condiment that goes along with many ambuyat sittings – the eponymous and sour-sweet cacah ambuyat. There are no exports of binjai, a sour mango native to Borneo, to the U.S., or probably to anywhere for that matter. Binjai is necessary in ambuyat cacah, though, and you know my policy – sine qua non, no substitutions, no bullshit. I did confirm, however, that ambuyat is normally served with a choice of condiments, and that not everyone chooses or even likes the version with binjai. The side dishes I did include should all be legit and have been quadruple-checked. If you are Bruneian and see this, pleaaaaase inform me of any accuracy issues and I will gladly look into a correction.***)
[UPDATE: WOW! Lots of Bruneians have looked at this entry, based on the wonderful comments below and my WordPress hit map. Terima kasih to you all for the kind words and helpful information! This is precisely the type of feedback that I pray for with each entry. Now, a few corrections to make:
– The dip that accompanies ambuyat is pronounced “cha-cah”, not “cha-cha” as previously explained.
– Binjai is apparently NOT necessary to make a proper cacah!
– The belacan that I used is possibly the wrong regional type – rather than the chalky brick version, it has been suggested that I instead use what I can only assume to be petis udang, a stickier, fresher-looking version.
– Ambuyat is apparently also found in Maluku, Indonesia and Papua where it is known as papeda.
– Cooking sago is hard for Bruneians, too.]
Now you go:
1 cup mashed durian pulp
1 tsp salt
Mix well. Store in an airtight container for 1-2 weeks. Eat. Will keep in the fridge indefinitely.
Sago pearls, ground
Whisk boiling water into a large bowl containing the ground sago starch. Continue to whisk until it sets. Serve with sambals, using candas.
Sayur Bayam Goreng
2 bunches amaranth (bayam)
handful dried anchovies (ikan bilis)
4 shallots (bawang merah)
2 cloves of garlic (bawang putih)
sliced birdseye chili (cili padi potong)
Pound the shallots, garlic, chilis and ikan bilis in a mortar. Saute in a little neutral oil until fragrant. Add the amaranth and continue to cook until tender. Serve.
Ikan Kembung Asam Rebus
1 mackerel, cleaned (ikan kembong)
2 red birdseyes (cili padi)
2 red serranos (cili merah)
1/2 inch belacan
4 pcs asam gelugor/keping
3 sprigs daun kesom (persicaria odorata)
1-inch knob fresh turmeric, peeled
salt to taste
Clean the fish and cut it to fit the pot. Pound the chilis together in a mortar until smooth. Top the fish with the pounded chilies, asam gelugor, turmeric and water. Let it boil and add the daun kesom and salt. Cook about 20 minutes or until the fish is flaky and cooked through. Serve hot!
4 tbsp cencaluk
2 tbsp sliced red birdseye chili (cili padi)
1 tsp palm sugar
2 tbsp calamansi lime juice
Pound the chilis, shallots and sugar in a mortar. Mix well with cencaluk and lime juice. Serve. (NB: if using calamansi concentrate omit the palm sugar! It’s already sweetened.)
4 tsp tempoyak
3 birdseye chilis (cili padi)
1 serrano chili (cili merah)
1 tbsp belacan
Salt to taste
Pound the chilis and belacan in a mortar. Mix well with tempoyak. Serve at room temperature.
4 oz sliced chilis (cili padi)
1 tablespoon belacan
1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons palm sugar
2 tablespoons calamansi lime juice
Pound the chilis, belacan, salt and palm sugar in a mortar. Mix well with lime juice. Serve. (NB: if using calamansi concentrate omit the palm sugar! It’s already sweetened.)