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.)
Whenever I meet someone from Brazil, I ask them what their favorite food is. After steak (picanha), it is almost always feijoada. It’s an old bean, pork and beef recipe, brought to South America, like many foods in many places, by those intrepid, globetrotting spice traders, the Portuguese, and then enhanced, like many other foods in many other places (and some of the same foods in the same places…), by African slaves and their descendants.
If you ask me, though, the finest gift of the Brazilians to the rest of the world is their irreplaceable, defiantly savory and happily chewy yuca-flour-based cheesy-bread, pão de queijo. It almost shouldn’t be allowed to exist.
Tell you what – I’ll make both.
Pão de queijo are basically little ball-shaped breads that are made from cheese, oil, milk and yuca flour. A good one should be toasty and even a little crunchy on the outside, but steamy, yielding and stretchy-chewy on the inside. The stretch comes from the starchy (but not glutenous!) properties of yuca – think of the way that potato makes the texture of gnocchi different from all other pastas… it’s the same deal with this bread.
Absolutely crucial to real pão de queijo is Queijo Minas, a cheese from the region of Minas Gerais in Brazil. It’s a cow’s milk cheese that is quite salty, and gives a unique flavor to the bread that I was unable to get out of any other cheese I tried. It’s usually balanced with queijo parmesão, which pretty much everyone else knows as Parmigiano cheese.
I had a real beast of a time with these, much to my chagrin – I expected pão de queijo to be my ace in the hole, my softball pitch. But, once again, breadmaking has shown itself to be my white whale. I made three separate batches of these, from three different recipes, and while each of them tasted right (one was way too eggy, actually), they just kept flattening out while they baked, melting down like the guy at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I went through two whole wheels of Queijo Minas before I realized that the type I was using (either frescal or meia-cura) was too wet for this application – I should have been using the drier, long-cured version called curado.
Here’s how my best batch came out:
Crunchy, chewy, cheesy… but the wrong shape, and wayyyy too big. Oh well, pretty damn close. We ate them all, anyway.
(Update: about two weeks ago, my Trade Fair started miraculously carrying Queijo Minas curado, so I’ll try to do one more batch soon and see if I can get them to stay spherical. Stay tuned…)
(Update 2: It worked! The picture below is how the new batch came out. I’ve updated the recipe to a final version, too. Enjoy!)
How about some lunch?
Aside from good quality, dried, black turtle beans, there are a few other crucial ingredients for this stew, and almost all of them come from a pig – rib, foot, ear, belly, tail and… well, whatever the hell ends up making it into sausage. The sausages are crucial – it won’t be feijoada without paio and/or linguiça. You also need a nice chunk of cesina, which is just salt-brined beef – you’ll find this in Mexican groceries anywhere, and it’s straight-up deadly in a taco.
If these ingredients seem rustic, they indeed are. Feijoada was born in the slaves’ quarters, out of necessity and ingenuity, and has evolved over time into a dish that has gained international renown. (You can read more about its history here.) It’s all about surviving, using everything at your disposal, wasting nothing, and taking nothing for granted.
I am very lucky to have met Selma from Ipanema Girl, a little Brazilian cafe and grocery store here in Astoria – she not only supplied me with everything I needed to make feijoada and pão de queijo, but also confirmed my recipes and even re-opened her store for me when I showed up, breathless, right as she was closing up for the night. She is a gem and you should give her your business!
There’s actually not much to the technique of this bean stew – like most stews, you throw a bunch of stuff in a pot, heat it up and then leave it alone for a while. There are, however, a few traditional accompaniments that you’ll need to make before you can truly eat it.
My favorite Brazilian resturant, Malagueta (the Portuguese name for the piri-piri chili we’ve seen before), serves their feijoada with medium-grain white rice, shredded and flash-fried collard greens and a big bowl of farofa, which is toasted yucca flour tossed with bacon and scallions. I followed their lead.
Once you have all the parts assembled and your stew (which you have diligently been skimming of excess grease) is ready, time to slice up an orange (which, along with the collards, apparently aids in the digestion of the beans) and plate it up for as many people as you can fit around a table. Whoever gets the ear has to do the dishes! I just made that up.
This dish is so warm, so filling and so utterly comforting (and so high in sodium), I think I understand why, for many Brazilians, it is a defining aspect of their culture. It takes some very humble ingredients – the throw-away parts, even – and transforms them into a blanket made of dopamine, serotonin and cortisol. It’s a wondrous thing.
(NB: This post is dedicated to the memory of my dear student and friend Elígio, who, along with his wonderful wife Cristina, first introduced me to pão de queijo amid laughter and kindness. Eu me lembro, amigo.)
Now you go:
Pão de Queijo UPDATED AND FINALIZED!!
1 lb. sour manioc starch (aka polvilho azedo)
1 lb. sweet manioc starch (aka polvilho doce)
1 cup canola oil
4 cups whole milk
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 lb. finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano (aka queijo parmesão)
3/4 lb. finely grated AGED Minas cheese (curado) (the softer, younger meia cura Minas cheese will NOT work in this recipe!!)
1 tbsp salt
Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F).
Sift flours and salt into a large bowl.
Heat milk and oil in a small saucepan, whisking CONSTANTLY (I’M NOT JOKING, CONSTANTLY) until just boiling. Slowly add to flour/salt mixture and incorporate gently – it should still look dry and lumpy. Leave to cool to room temperature.
One at a time, knead the eggs into the dough until just incorporated. Try not to over-mix. Then, knead in the cheeses, again trying to stop when it is juuuuust incorporated.
Oil your hands well and make golf-ball sized balls out of the sticky dough, making sure they are smooth and evenly shaped. Place them evenly on a lightly greased cookie sheet.
Bake at 375F until the outside is moderately browned, about 30 minutes.
Serve piping hot!
1 1/2 cups dried black beans (turtle is preferred, for texture)
1/8 lb. carne seca/cesina (about the size of your flat hand)
1/8 lb. pork ribs (about 2 thick ribs)
1 pig foot, split
1-2 pig ears
1 pig tail (smoked, if possible)
4 strips smoked bacon, finely chopped
1 paio sausage, cut into thick slices
1/2 lb. of linguiça calabresa (Portuguese-style smoked pork sausage), cut into thick slices
1 white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 orange, peeled (remove all of the white pith!)
8 cups water
The night before, soak the pig foot, tail and ear in cold water to draw out blood/impurities. Separately, soak the cesina in cold water overnight. In yet another bowl, soak the beans in cold water.
The next day, put the foot, tail, ear and cesina in a pot with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, boilf for 10 minutes and then drain. Refill the pot with cold water, bring to a boil again and cook until the meats are tender and beginning to fall apart. Drain well.
In a large pot or dutch oven (preferred), place the beans and 8 cups water, bay leaves, and peeled orange. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmering. Cook for 45 minutes. Add all meats, and cook for 20-30 more minutes.
In a saute pan, fry the onion and garlic on olive oil. Add about 1 cup of beans from the pan, cook briefly and mash well with the back of a spoon. Return the whole mess to the dutch oven and adjust for salt (YOU WILL NOT NEED TO ADD SALT.) Let simmer for about 20-30 more minutes, until beans are tender and meats are falling apart willingly. Remove from heat and let cool about 10 minutes.
Serve with boiled, medium-grain white rice, orange slices, farofa and (chiffonaded) collard greens (that have been quickly fried in canola oil and drained on paper towels. I’d write the recipe but that’s seriously the whole recipe. So…).
2 tbsp canola oil
1 small onion, minced
4 slices smoked bacon, minced
1 cup toasted manioc flour (farinha de mandioca torrada)
1 bunch scallions – only the dark green tops! – thinly sliced
salt and black pepper to taste
Saute the onion and bacon in the oil over low heat until the bacon is fully rendered and crisp. Add the flour a little at a time, stirring to coat. Add the scallions when the flour has just begun to brown. Remove from heat, mix well.
Serve at any temperature, and refrigerate any unused portion – there’s bacon it it, duh!
I’m beginning to understand that beating things with big wooden sticks is pretty crucial to the African cook’s repertoire. It’s a very standard way of preparing a variety of starches – plantains, yams, mountain potatoes, cassava… Perhaps because of this, I wasn’t so shocked when I saw a recipe for a Botswanan wedding dish made of boiled, salted beef, pounded – you guessed it! – with a big wooden stick.
But wait. Before we get into our seswaa (as this meaty repast is dubbed), we’ll need to go back a couple of days to the starchy, funky origins of it’s traditional accompaniment – bogobe, or sorghum meal porridge.
Sorghum is the main crop in the regions surrounding Botswana, and makes up a large part of the indigenous diet. When I checked the nutrition info on the bag of sorghum I got from the health food store, I was amazed at its energy content in comparison with the same amount of either rice, pasta, or corn – one serving, which is not much at all, packs a tremendous 350 calories, certainly a godsend in a country and region where food supplies are often scarce and agricultural yields are necessarily fickle and drought-prone. A little goes a long way.
Botswanans have a few variations on bogobe. One involves cooking ground sorghum with sour milk, another is just plain and boiled with water. But the most interesting by far is called motogo-wa-ting, or just “ting” for short. It’s made by fermenting a small bit of sorghum meal in water for a few days, and then boiling it with fresh sorghum meal and more water. Since this took the longest to make and had the most potential to go wrong, I decided to go for it. Of course.
I mixed about two tablespoons of raw sorghum meal into a bit of water and left it on my kitchen counter. I was a little confused, since the recipe did not call for yeast, or sugar, or any sort of agent that would help promote fermentation. Nevertheless, after about twenty-four hours I started to smell a faint whiff of what can only be called “fermentiness”. At the thirty-six-hour mark, it was getting quite a lot more fruity and sour, like weißbier. Finally at roughly forty-eight hours, I took one more big whiff of my sorghum Pruno, which was now quite funky, and dumped it into a big pot.
What happened here? Well, the sugars in the sorghum converted into lactic acid (the hard work here was done – I think – by anaerobic organisms). I’m pretty sure this also produced carbon dioxide, and possibly ethanol. Anyway, it fermented.
I let that sit for a while while I prepped the seswaa. When I say “prepped” what I really mean is that I plopped some boney, sinewy beef chuck into a pot with water and salt, and turned the heat on. I then waited about four hours, until I had this:
You might be asking, “Mark, why beef?” I saw somewhere that the banknotes in Botswana read “Digkoma se ya banka ya Botswana”, or “Cattle are the bank of Botswana.” Beef is a major resource there, and, fittingly, it is a large part of the national diet. I am sure, however, that cooking it on such a scale is a rare luxury, and the fact that no seasoning other than salt is added here is a sign of how revered the cow’s natural flavor must be.
The next step is the aforementioned clubbing of the beef with a wooden stick. I was doing this on a much smaller scale than what I had seen in Youtube videos and travel writing, so instead of a huge stick in a big cauldron I used a cocktail muddler in a small bowl. Same thing. Probably.
I tried to get the meat to be as pulverized as it looked in my research, where it seemed like every single muscle fiber had been isolated. I think I got pretty close. After that, I dumped the meat back in the pot with what was left of the broth, took out the bones and turned the heat back on.
There is actually a bit more to this recipe than there might seem – it’s not really just boiling meat and then assaulting it with a baton. The real story here is actually more akin to something like carnitas – the meat is first braised/stewed, then shredded, and THEN it’s allowed to pan-fry and lightly caramelize in its own fat. This turns a cheap, tough, bony cut of beef into a morsel with layered and even potentially nuanced levels of flavor. Ingenious! And presumably much, much tastier than the other traditional Botswanan meal of charred mopane worms.
The only thing missing now was the vegetable. Seswaa and bogobe are usually accompanied by something called morogo, which in turn is translated as imbuya, which is, as it turns out, our old friend amaranth, also known as callaloo in the Caribbean. Even though I had seen fresh green amaranth at my local grocery store not one week before this, they were now completely out of it, as is always the case. (NB: This is also the reason why I have a freezer full of cheese curds, pig ears and mulukhiyah leaves – they carry everything, but never when I need it.) Luckily, I had squirreled away a can of callaloo from months before, for just such an occasion. I loathe canned veggies, but in this case it was my only option.
I gave the greens a quick boil and drained them. I also brought my fermented ting starter to a boil, added more water and more sorghum meal, and whisked until I had a stiff porridge. The beef was sizzling contentedly in the pot. It was time to eat.
Here you have it – simplicity and nourishment. Amino acids from disparate sources, aggressively coaxed from their containers and released into a saline medium, attaching to each other to form complete proteins that will sustain life in a difficult and arid environment. I can see why this dish is served at weddings – in its austere completeness, it is a subtle and moving celebration of life itself.
Botswana, your porridge is a little bland and tastes like beer and your beef is well salted and really, really beefy. I like your style.
Now you go:
2 cups plus 2 tbsp sorghum flour/meal
In a small bowl, combine 2 tbsp sorghum flour with about 1 cup of water. Leave to ferment, uncovered, in a warm, clean place for about 2-3 days.
In a large pot, combine fermented mixture with about 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in 2 cups sorghum flour, and stir aggressively until the mixture is cooked through and reaches a stiff consistency. Season with salt if desired.
2 lbs. lean beef on the bone (shin, chuck or similar)
1 1/2 tsp salt
Cut the beef into chunks no larger than 2 inches square. Add to a large pot along with enough water to cover, and the salt.
Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally, until the meat becomes tender.
Collect the bone marrow and keep it to one side. Discard the bones.
Remove meat from pot. Pound with a large wooden spoon, stick, or really whatever you can find until it is flaked as finely as possible. Return to pot and raise heat to medium. When the pot boils itself dry add the bone marrow and lightly fry the meat until browned.
Serve hot with bogobe.
1 bunch amaranth greens (or 1 can callaloo)
Clean and boil in salted water for 2 minutes, or until tender. Drain and serve hot.
Astoria – my Queens, New York neighborhood – is blessed with a level of cultural diversity that would seem like an impossible fiction to many. I remember reading a statistic when I first moved here involving the number of different native tongues spoken in one of our public elementary schools: 52. The cultural soup in which we float here is both glorious and cacophonous, delicious and utterly chaotic. I bristle at my reality when faced with a subway car bursting with wildly disparate standards of etiquette, hygiene and personal space, and I grin like a fool when gobbling down a plate of merguez, kefta, kibbeh and rice, mere blocks from my apartment, at midnight, on a Wednesday.
One of the first jewels I discovered when I moved here about six years ago was ćevapi – little, cylindrical Balkan burgers, served on a fluffy pita and smothered with what I always thought was butter (hint: it wasn’t). Astoria has a well-developed and still-growing Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian community, evidenced by the multiple restaurants serving these Balkan specialties. My favorite is Ukus on 30th Avenue, largely for their somun bread, which is fluffy, substantial and full of steamy nooks and crannies.
Well. Now it’s my turn. How hard could it be to make a hamburger? Right, Bosnia? Eh??
Ever been to England? They have this stuff called clotted cream, which is basically just the fat and solids skimmed off the top of a batch of milk. It is shamefully rich, congealed and spreadable. The Brits enjoy this atherosclerosis-inducing condiment on scones and with tea.
Many other countries have a version of this – Indians have khoya and malai, Afghanis have qymaq, Persians have sarshir and, blessedly, the Balkans have kajmak. As you can see from the image above, it’s made from simmering whole milk and cream in a double boiler (or, in my case, a small pot floating inside a large pot, secured with tin foil…) and allowing the solids to rise to the surface. Then you cool it off, skim the dense cream from the top, and season with a little salt. You end up with a pile of heart-seizing sweetness, like this:
This isn’t hard to make but it does take a couple of days of waiting and resisting the urge to stir. It also involves leaving an uncovered pot of dairy sitting unrefrigerated on your stove for about 12 hours, so if that makes you squeamish… oh well. What can I tell you. The result is well worth the effort – sweet, fresh cream flavor with a texture like whipped butter.
With the kajmak done, it was time to prep the ćevapi, which involved taking ground meat and mixing it with things. Not so hard. One trick I learned from the dudes at Salt & Fat blog was to briefly soak my minced garlic in water before mixing it with the beef and lamb, which presumably reduces its raw sharpness and the risk of dragon-breath. Also crucial is the mixing method. You don’t want to just anger-fist-clench the mincemeat, which will make for a dense, spongy, over-worked meat cylinder. Ease off, bro! Instead, use only your finger tips and lightly toss the ingredients. The idea is to have a loose, coarse mix by the end, which will cook evenly and allow the fat to render readily.
While researching ćevapi recipes, I kept running into people adding either club soda or baking soda to their meat mix. This was curious to me, so I looked it up in my McGee. From what I can understand – which is minimal, as with most things in life – club soda is basically just water and sodium bicarbonate, aka baking soda. What the hell is the role of baking soda here? When mixed with an acid, baking soda turns into carbon dioxide and water. I’m pretty sure that the carbon dioxide bubbles create little air pockets in the ćevapi (keeping them light and airy) and the water keeps them juicy. Also, (and this part comes from Herve This’ Molecular Gastronomy) the sodium aspect of baking soda serves to tenderize the meat, breaking down the collagen sheath around the muscle fibers in a process similar to that of, well… decay. It is a dead animal, for crying out loud. This is a mini-version of what happens in aged steak, and you know how good that is.
Anyway, back to cooking – after the meat has rested overnight in the fridge, press it out into a sheet pan and slice it into stubby cylinders, like so:
Hey, check this out: take the word “ćevapi”. Now, start replacing the consonants with known linguistic antecedents; c = k, v = b, p = b… what do we end up with? “Kebab”. Huh. Was wondering where this little-pieces-of-meat-inside-of-bread idea came from.
OK, I’m starving now. The bread dough (oh yeah, I made bread dough) has risen twice, and twice have I punched it down. It was asking for it, trust me. Separating the blob into three portions, I rolled them out into thick rounds, let them rise another twenty minutes and then blasted them into the oven.
I should note that these somun breads were the most success I have ever had with breadmaking. I’m not very good at it, and things always go wrong. These were far from perfect, but I was pretty proud of myself.
So here’s what you do:
Split a pita. Throw on some kajmak. Add a bunch of ćevapi. Serve with raw onion. Some people like to also serve this with ajvar, a Balkan red-pepper spread, but the Bosnians keep it pretty simple and, honestly, I’m making ajvar when we get to Serbia anyway.
As I mentioned, the somun bread cooked a little too long and had a little bit of an overly-yeasty flavor, which means something went wrong with my dough. Big surprise there. But man… the ćevapi were outrageous – salty, juicy, crumbly and with just the right amount of seasoning. The kajmak melted on contact with the hot bread and steaming ćevapi, slipping into what nooks and crannies actually did form and lubricating each mouthful with buttery, fatty creaminess. Deadly.
Now you go:
adapted from The Best of Croatian Cooking by Liliana Pavicic
Makes 1 1/2 cups
4 cups (= 1 quart) whole milk
2 cups (= 1 pint) heavy cream
1 1/2 tsp salt
Fashion a double boiler from two concentric pots. Fill outer pot with water until it reaches about two-thirds the way up the inner pot. Add the milk to the inner pot. Bring the water in the outer pot to a simmer. Once at a simmer, add heavy cream and salt to inner pot. Stir once. Simmer two hours.
Turn off heat. Let stand 6 hours. DO NOT STIR.
Heat the outer pot to low again, simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Turn off heat and cool to room temp. NO STIRRING AGAIN.
Put in fridge for 24 hours.
Loosen solid cream with knife. Skim using a slotted spoon or fine-mesh, mash well with a fork and serve.
update: after 1 week in the fridge it actually tastes even better – cultured, sour and smooth.
adapted from Europeancuisines.com
3 cups bread flour
2 packets dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
1 cup lukewarm water
1/2 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
Mix yeast thoroughly with the water and add the sugar. Put aside to proof for 10 to 15 minutes or until a good number of bubbles start forming.
Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients, mix well and knead for about seven minutes.
Put the dough in a warmed bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled – at least an hour. When risen, punch down and cover again. Once again, put aside to rise until doubled, usually at least another hour.
Flour a work surface and turn out the dough. With floured hands, knead the dough again briefly, then divide into three portions. Form these pieces into balls, flour them lightly, and allow them to rest for five or ten minutes. Lightly flatten them using a rolling pin to about 2/3 inch thick. Place on an upside-down, floured baking sheet and allow to rise again for another twenty minutes.
Place baking stone in the oven an preheat to 425°F. When at temperature, gently slide the dough rounds onto the baking sheet. QUICKLY – you don’t want the temperature of the stove to drop too much. Bake for five minutes (they will puff up during this time) and then lower the heat to 300°F. Bake for another 7-8 minutes.
Remove from oven and place them on a plate. Cover with a dishtowel for ten minutes or so to soften the crust. Slice open and serve.
adapted from Choosy Beggars blog
1 lb coarsely ground beef
1 lb coarsely ground lamb
1/2 cup white onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced, then soaked in water for 15 minutes, then drained
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup hot water
1/2 tsp baking soda
salt and pepper to taste (start with 1 tsp of each)
additional sliced onion for serving
Add onion, soaked garlic and parsley to the meats in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Mix the baking soda with the hot tap water and pour that in with the meat. Gently combine – you’ll want to use a light touch and never smash the meat – think of it as tossing a salad. You’ll want the mixture to stay fairly loose and coarse.
Pour the mixture out onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Press down with another pan to spread out into a uniform layer. Make sure it’s even! Put the meat mixture back in the fridge and let sit overnight.
Using a knife or a pizza cutter, cut lines into the meat patty which will yield small sausages roughly 1-inch by two-inches. Press hard, to get through the fat and fibers. Heat your grill or grill pan to medium high. A few at a time, cook these little dudes for about 2-3 minutes per side, turning as needed, until they are at about medium doneness.
Serve immediately with somun and kajmak!
Bolivian food is neat. I actually ended up cooking the two regional attractions for this entry months apart from each other, partially because they have such different roles in Bolivian cuisine but also since they both took a lot of work to prepare. One of them – pique macho – is basically a drunken inside joke but also kind of brilliant, in the same vein as poutine, or even chili-cheese fries. Salteñas, on the other hand, are more a mid-morning snack – rich, warming and one of the best breakfasts I could ever imagine having.
If you’ve ever had xiaolong bao, or Chinese “soup dumplings”, you’ll have no problem adjusting to the concept of the salteña – it’s basically your garden variety empanada filled with spicy, juicy beef stew. The crust is made from a buttery, greasy dough that is colored with ruddy, achiote-stained oil and ground ají amarillo.
But whoa, whoa whoa. Slow down. Lots to explain here. OK:
Bolivians love peppers of all kinds. They like them fresh, they like them dried. I can’t blame them – they have some really unique and delicious varieties in the Andes, stuff that most of us have probably never tasted. Please allow me to nerd out here for a moment.
We get lots of capsicum annuum in the U.S. – these peppers (which include cayenne, bell, jalapeño, serrano… you’ve seen these, right?) are native to South America, but they grow easily in temperate climates, which makes them the preferred cultivar here and part of our palette’s comfort zone. Over time, we’ve also come to appreciate our native capsicum chinense (habanero, anyone?) and, to a point, capsicum frutescens (Thai birdseye chilis!). Tropical South America (and other tropical zones on Earth), on the other hand, is home to some wild and/or marginally cultivated varieties, like the intensely fruity capsicum baccatum and the fiery, black-seeded capsicum pubescens. The aforementioned ají amarillo, so revered to Bolivians and Peruvians, belongs to the baccatum cultivar, along with its berry-and-smoke-flavored counterpart, ají panca. Remind me later to tell you the story of how I found mine*. They also extensively employ the searing flesh of the rocoto (aka locoto), one of extremely few members of the ultra-exclusive pubescens variety.
In addition to these fiery little dudes, I also needed one more strange ingredient for the llajua, a hot sauce that accompanies both dishes I would be making. Huacatay, also known as Peruvian black mint (but not the same as just “black mint”!), tastes like a cross between basil, mint, tarragon and maybe dill, too. It’s a little weird, your brain doesn’t really know where to categorize it the first time you taste it. Also, a little goes a long way. Like, miles and miles. People like to argue on the internet about whether real llajua should include quirquiña rather than huacatay. My findings showed that different regions of Bolivia prefer different herbs in their llajua – the version I’m making would please the residents of both La Paz and Sucre, if I’m not mistaken. I could be, though.
Time to cook.
I roughly chopped some tomatoes, onion, several rocotos and a wet chunk of huacatay and then mashed them all together by hand, in my molcajete. It seemed right to do it this way – everything I’d read said that a Bolivian could tell a mechanically-processed llajua from a mile away, and would then heap opprobrium upon me. Teeeeechnically I was supposed to use a batán to do the mashing, but jeez guys. Seriously. You have too many rules about making hot sauce.
With my condiment at the ready, I got to work on the stew for the salteñas. Chunks of beef, potatoes, peas and lots of both ají get simmered for a good long while with marrow bones. Once the stock is good and rich and the meat is falling-apart tender, you toss the marrow bones and mix in some unflavored gelatin, cool and refrigerate to basically create an aspic. This gelatinization of the stew is what will let me get it into the soft empanada dough without it just spilling and leaking everywhere – it makes a liquid into a solid, temporarily. Once I heat it, the liquid will de-gel and become juicy again, but stay safely inside the dough. Pretty cool, huh?
The next morning, I made my dough by first frying some achiote seeds in oil, and then mixing it while warm with flour and ever more ají amarillo. I kneaded the bright yellow dough well, broke it down into 2-inch nuggets and then, with a rolling pin and lots of flour, rolled out each nugget into a circle about five inches in diameter. This part is important – one tablespoon of stew-jelly goes into the center of the circle, in addition to one pitted black olive (I used the mild canned ones), one small slice of hard-boiled egg, and no more than three golden raisins (I had briefly soaked them in hot water to soften them).
I’m far from a proficient baker – I suck at making sweets, and I’m awful with dough. Salteñas require a sort of braided seam, which looks very lovely in most pictures I’ve seen. Mine came out a little smashed, sort of like if someone with a combined total of three fingers had made them. I gave them a quick egg-white glaze for shine and threw them in the oven anyway.
I think I may not have cut my ingredients into small enough pieces, but other than that… damn. These are GOOD. Holding them vertically, the first bite is crumbly crust and spicy, pepper-fruity aromatic steam. The next one is boiling and juicy, and if you’ve arranged the olive, egg and raisins correctly you should have a varied experience with each subsequent bite. In Bolivia, the first person to spill any juice from their salteña has to pay for that round of pastries. Since mine were free and I was dining alone, I managed to dodge this technicality.
One dish to go. Better get drunk first for this one.
OK, now I’m ready.
Legend has it that pique macho, or a macho portion of piques (small dishes), was invented by the owner of a restaurant in Cochabamba after some dude got blasted, wandered in and insisted on being served even though the restaurant was closing. A waitress grabbed every scrap of what was left from the day and piled it all on one plate. It was garnished, as is the custom, with tomato and onion. Torrents of mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard went on after, and, in what was likely a hilarious mock-epic gesture, the justifiably excited reveler finally dumped the last of his beer onto the pile of food and tucked in with gusto. ¡Que macho!
It’s called “pique” (PEE-kay) because everything is chopped up, or “picado”. I’ll spare you the repetitive details – the recipe is below if you’re curious. Basically pan fry a bunch of meats (cocktail wieners, chorizo, thinly-sliced steak) with a little cumin and ají and pile them on a layer of french fries (I again used Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for perfect fries). Toss on a couple of halved hard-boiled eggs. Make a little salad out of tomato, onion, rocotos and a splash of beer, and dump it onto the pile. Then come the condiments, and a bunch of llajua if you want. Dig in and hopefully sober up.
This is a gutbomb – it’s assuredly the last thing you will eat on whatever day (or late, late night) you prepare it. If made well, the steak will be juicy, the sausages snappy and well-browned, and the fries saturated in cumin-y grease and beer. The rocotos should keep you awake enough to finish everything on your plate, too. Good luck champ!
*Oh, right, the story:
My trip to Mi Tierra supermarket Jackson Heights and then a sullen, jaded extra jaunt to Kalustyan’s had only yielded ají panca in its compromised, pickled paste form – not what I wanted. Amazon was an option, but I didn’t want to wait ten days for some seller in Florida to ship it to me – I wanted to cook, and soon. I already had my ají amarillo and my frozen rocotos. Come on, man.
I got to Astoria and started trudging home, depressed. On the way to my apartment I passed La Cabana on 30th Ave., a familiar bodega that sells some really good tacos and posole – I’ve inhaled their food on several inebriated very late nights before staggering home and inevitably collapsing into gaseous, fitful slumber. Maybe they sold dried peppers?
The bell on the door jingled as I walked in, but no one looked up. A TV blared the Univision news, and some anonymous brown soup with a long bone jutting from the liquid’s surface was bubbling contentedly on the range behind the deli counter. I started systematically opening every freezer in the place – dried, frozen enormous corn kernels; rocoto peppers; ají amarillo! I saw Producto de Peru printed on one after another of the packages. Oh my god. Ohhhhh my god.
That settled it. I wasn’t leaving this bodega without ají panca.
So I dug, and scoured, and pored. I went deep into the store, deeper than anyone ever goes, past the rack of Cool Ranch Doritos, beyond the cans of Hormel chili and potted Vienna sausages, further still, back where they keep the box full of litter for the bodega kitten. I moved stuff out of the way – weird vinegar, dusty packages of bouillon, milk that you don’t have to refrigerate. My pulse raced as I rapidly ran out of places to look. Down to one shelf, I reached into a box obscured by shadow, grasped a crinkly plastic bag, and held it up to the diffuse light filtering in from the front of the store, virtually miles away. I squinted. Ají panca, read the label. Yes. Yesssssss.
I stood there clutching this dessicated Grail, lightly panting, the dust clinging to my forearms made tacky with claustrophobic perspiration. For two or three seconds, I stared silently at the exhumed bag of dried peppers, grinning from ear to ear. It was then that I accepted that moments like these are among the happiest in my life.
Now you go:
Makes about 20 empanadas!
Aguado (watery stew)
1 lb top round steak, minced (or 1 lb ground beef)
1/2 pound of beef marrow bones, split
1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/4 inch cubes
1 cup frozen peas
2 cups finely chopped onions
1 tbsp ají panca
2 tbsp ají amarillo
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp oregano
1 tbsp black pepper
4 cups hot water
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
4 hard-boiled eggs, halved and then thinly sliced
4 oz seedless golden raisins, soaked in hot water and drained
1 6-ounce can black ripe olives, pitted
6 cups flour
4 tsp sugar
4 tsp salt
4 tbsp ají amarillo
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tbsp achiote seeds (slowly fried in the oil and then strained out)
In a large pot, gently sauté the onion, garlic, oregano and parsley in vegetable oil for about 15 min. Add the ají panca, ají amarillo, cumin, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, raw beef, marrow bones and enough hot water to cover. Simmer covered on low heat for approximately 45 min. Add 1 1/2 cups water, remove cover and reduce on low for about 30 minutes. Remove marrow bones and discard (being sure to not throw away the marrow itself – this should remain in the pot).
Boil peas and potato separately. Drain and reserve. Add the potatoes and peas to the aguado. Thoroughly dissolve gelatin powder in about 1/2 cup boiling water, add to aguado and mix thoroughly. Turn off heat and allow mixture to fully cool. Transfer mixture to an airtight container, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Fry the achiote seeds in 1/4 cup of vegetable oil and strain, reserving the colored oil. Keep it warm.
Sift the flour into a large bowl, adding the sugar, salt and pepper. Add the warm achiote oil and eggs. Mix thoroughly. Add warm water about 1tbsp at a time until the dough is smooth and dry enough to knead. Knead well, about 5 minutes. Cut into pieces and roll into balls of approximately 2-inch diameter. With a floured rolling pin, flatten the balls until you have a stack of round, very thin skins (5″ diameter).
Put 1 tablespoon of gelled aguado on each pastry round, adding 1 thin slice of egg, 3 raisins and 1 olive. Moisten the edges of the pastry with water, bring the edges together and seal them, rolling them with your thumb so that the closing looks like twisted rope. This is hard.
GENTLY brush with whisked egg white. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven until golden brown and serve immediately and piping hot, with llajua.
2 lbs beef round in paper-thin slices
1/2 lb cocktail wieners
1/2 lb chorizo, cut into rounds
6 peeled potatoes
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 rocoto peppers, seeded and roughly chopped
1 beer (Bolivian or Peruvian, of course – I used Cusqueña)
4 hard-boiled eggs
1 tsp cumin
salt to taste
Use the potatoes to make french fries – this recipe is a good one:
Anthony Bourdain’s French Fry Recipe
In a hot pan, fry the beef strips with a little oil, salt, pepper, and the cumin. This may need to be done in batches. Next, brown the chorizo rounds and cocktail wieners. Toss all these meats together in a covered bowl and keep warm.
In another bowl, toss the onions, rocotos, tomatoes and a little salt together. Add a few splashes of beer. Drink the rest of the beer immediately. Might as well do a shot of something, too.
Lay the fries flat on a platter. Then, dump the mixed meats onto the fries, spreading to cover. Do the same for the onion/tomato/pepper salad. Add the beer too!
Top with hard-boiled egg halves, mayo, mustard, ketchup and llajua.
Eat quickly and pass out.
4 roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 rocoto peppers, seeded and chopped
1 cup thawed, previously frozen huacatay leaves, chopped (use 2 cups if fresh)
2 tbsp minced white onion
Salt (add just before serving)
Grind all ingredients in molcajete or food processor till it reaches the consistency of salsa. Add salt to taste. Eat with everything.
There does not appear to be much in the way of technique as far as traditional Bhutanese food goes, but WOW do they like hot peppers and dairy products. Butter in their tea. Butter at their prayer shrines. Butter in their stews. Cheese in their stews. Holy mother of God.
One website I found that had a collection of Bhutanese recipes summed up the foundation of their culinary tradition as “water, butter, boil”. What kind of butter, you may ask?
And cow. But… mostly yak.
To celebrate this hairy beast’s contribution to the Bhutanese diet, I really wanted to make something that nearly every source I found described as Bhutan’s most well-known dish – a sort of casserole of hot chilis and yak cheese called ema datshi.
Now, by this point you folks know me pretty well. I don’t do anything halfway, and I can be a little bit… erm, obsessive. I made calls. I visited farmstands and green markets. I had a cheese-making friend-of-a-friend make calls. I even emailed a company in China. On my word, there is no yak butter or yak cheese – imported or domestic – to be found ANYWHERE in the Tri-State area. Sorry to ruin your week.
[Update, 7/2015 – I WAS WRONG. Dead wrong, it turns out. There are several tiny stores in the heavily-Himalayan Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens that sell packaged yak cheese, although it looks dried/aged rather than wet/fresh. Anyway, just so you know. – MR]
So, ema datshi was out. But there was still a chance at happiness. Luckily, with the help of Kalustyan’s, I was still able to cobble together a respectable and authentic Bhutanese meal – red rice, a chicken and chili stew, and some absolutely diabolical hot sauce.
You may be shocked to learn that most of the adventure in this entry actually came from the rice. Eue chum, or red rice, is native to Bhutan and represents a large part of the diet there. I’m going to go ahead and assume that the bag of red rice I initially bought from Kalustyan’s was packed in Bhutan. Also presumably packed in Bhutan was the army of terrifying critters that crawled out of the bag when I slit the top and poured some out on a plate. These guys were serious – they looked like ants but more military, with lots of sharp edges and spikes. After my initial gag reflex, I was earnestly afraid that I was possibly introducing some unknown predator into the fragile (ha!) New York ecosystem. I started stomping, but soon saw that I was outnumbered. Into a bowl of water went the entire bag and its denizens. I left no Noah to shepherd them. All were lost.
Another trip to Curry Hill, another ride home to Queens. The second bag of red rice I bought from Kalustyan’s was thankfully free of critters, so I threw some in the rice cooker, set it, and forgot it.
Next I made a batch of Bhutan’s multi-use hot sauce, called eze.
I feel silly even calling eze “hot” sauce – it’s so far beyond “hot” that it’s in a different sensorial realm altogether. It’s basically your garden variety salsa until you add in the fing, a beloved ingredient in Bhutan (and elsewhere) that is known to most of the West as Szechuan peppercorn.
I’ve had runs-in with Szechuan peppercorns before, and each encounter has left me with a psychological scar. This, my friends… this was the worst one yet.
Have you ever tasted pure yellow? Smelt blistering frustration or thorny wrath? It’s this kind of synaesthetic harrowing that a knife-tip of eze will introduce to you. Waves of numbness undulate over your taste buds, while the backing heat of the red chilis scorch your throat and lips. Through the eze, things you will see – other places; the future, the past; old friends long gone.
Knowing that this condiment is served with almost every dish in Bhutan, I am certain, now, that every single Bhutanese man, woman and child is born with a dazzling set of chrome cojones. I will never, ever fight someone from Bhutan.
Finally, the main course: jasha maroo tschoem, or minced chicken stew. It’s not very dissimilar from chicken soup, except for the pile of green chilis and the fact that everything is added together raw and then brought to a boil – sort of the opposite of most Western approaches to stew. The chilis can be anything from the capsicum annuum species – I found this out by checking websites of purveyors of vegetable seeds until I found a pepper that came from Bhutan. It was identified as capsicum annuum, which means that jalapenos/serranos or a related variety are essentially native and can be readily used in recreations of Bhutanese cuisine.
This is some good eats – the hot, liquid part of the stew drenches and lubricates the chewy, nutty red rice, and the searing dabs of eze that I was foolhardy enough to streak into my mouthfuls made the chilis in the stew itself seem sweet. All of this is studded with tender bits of comforting fowl. The perfect dish for a cold, mountainous climate. Or just a chilly fall day in NYC.
Unless you are a terrifying rice-bug. RIP.
(NB: Did you know that “Bhutani” actually refers to the members of an ethnic tribe in Pakistan? Not the same as Bhutanese! Huh.)
Now you go:
Jasha Maroo Tschoem
1 whole chicken, boned and minced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2.5 cm (1 in) cube of ginger, sliced into matchsticks
1 onion, sliced thin
1 tomato, chopped
3 green Serrano chillies, diced (Capsicum annuum are native to Bhutan)
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp butter (cow or yak, both are native to Bhutan)
Place minced chicken and tomato in a saucepan and add water to cover, 2 tbsp butter and bring to a boil. Add garlic, salt and ginger to taste. Lower heat and simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring intermittently. Add more water in small amounts if it gets too low – the dish should be fairly wet when served. Garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve with eue chum.
1 cup Bhutanese red rice
1 ¾ cups water
Cook in rice cooker.
¼ cup red serranos
1 small onion
1 medium tomato
1 bunch cilantro
1-inch cube ginger
2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
Roast the red chilis until slightly charred, then crush in a mortar. Mince a small onion, a medium tomato, half a bunch of cilantro, and a cubic inch of ginger. Briefly toast a tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorns in a hot pan and crush it to powder. Mash everything together until it’s a thick red paste, adding salt to taste.
Serve with everything and die.
If you’re like me, you probably would have a hard time finding Benin on a map – it’s a very small country tucked into a nook on the coast of West Africa, wedged between Togo, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. The seat of the pre-colonial African kingdom of Dahomey, Benin was eventually colonized by the Portuguese and then by the French (among others), and both have left their mark on the language, culture and cuisine of the eventual Republic.
The most popular and basic food in Benin is some form of starch – ranging from millet and rice to yuca and “yam” (there’s that freaking word again…) – drenched in a flavorful sauce. One version of this simple and substantial snack is called ingame pilé, or “spicy yam”.
What exactly do I mean by “yam”? Great question. I’ve gone over this before, but very simply: “yam” in West Africa is almost always a corm from the Araceae family – these include taro, “eddoe”, malanga, nyame, and about 35 bajillion other anonymous-looking white tubers. They are abundant, high in calories and very filling, which explains why they are so popular in an area that has historically been wracked with famine.
This big boy, technically either a huge eddoe or a regular-sized nyame, weighed 4.5 pounds. It needed to be peeled, boiled, and then pounded, for hours, in a huge mortar and pestle, by three strong adults. Or blasted to hell in a food processor for a long time, then assaulted with a potato masher for another long time. Araceae release a sort of slime when they are cut, and will develop a gummy, smooth texture after enough pounding. (When I get to Japan we’ll see the sato-imo, another member of this slimy, starchy family.) My technique kinda sucks, and so far I have not been able to reach a gummy consistency like the one I have seen and heard described. I always think I’m there and then… nope.
To go with this fufu-facsimile, I made a typically Beninese version of West Africa’s ubiquitous sauce d’arachide or “peanut sauce”, spiked with piment, which is a bunch of habanero peppers ground to a smooth paste with a little salt.
In the spirit of realism, I also made my own peanut butter from fresh, roasted peanuts. I followed Alton Brown’s basic recipe for fresh peanut butter, but rather than use the food processor I decided to christen my new molcajete (which is one of the best gifts I have ever received!).
Once the sauce is cooked, you simply form the pounded yam into smooth balls, drown them in sauce and start eating them with your right hand. Not the left. Seriously, that’s the rule in Benin. Don’t ask why.
Ingame pilé was a surprise for me. I’ve really only ever experienced Asian peanut sauces, which are usually spiked with lime or fish sauce. With only a beef boullion cube and the Portuguese-scented kiss of hot pepper to flavor it, this version is earthy and rich, and coupled with the dense smoothness of the ingame it makes for a cripplingly filling plate of food.
After a carbohydrate-induced nap, I prepared the main course, a refreshing and blessedly light dish of fresh-picked crab meat in a tomato and chili sauce, called ago glain.
Step one is cooking the crabs in a stock and then draining, cooling and picking them. If you’ve never picked a crab or need a refresher, you should take a look at this tutorial. I strained and saved the stock, as suggested by several recipes, to use in making the rice that would accompany the crab. I also realized that I go through a LOT of cheesecloth, and that that’s ok, and doesn’t make me a bad person.
Once that’s done, the meat is marinated in lime juice while the onion-tomato-chili sauce (augmented with palm or “dende” oil – a culinary link with Brazil!) is simmered.
OK, here’s where you’re going to think I’m crazy, and really? I probably am.
Knowing I would need them for several West-African countries, I tried for a couple of months at the beginning of this blog to find fresh piri-piri (aka “pili-pili” or “African birdseye”) peppers in NYC. I found none. So I decided to grow them myself over the summer and then freeze them for future usage. It was sort of fun and therapeutic to grow them on my erstwhile fire escape (before I moved). I got the seeds on Amazon from some dude in England, and within two months of sprouting I started seeing nice, plump, fiery babies like this one:
We’re almost there – just toss the crab meat in the tomato sauce, and serve it in the empty crab shells. Now make some rice, using the reserved crab stock. Let’s eat:
The crab was sweet, tender and went down like a tomatoey ceviche, leaving a titillating piri-piri burn on the lips and tongue. The rice was a little overpowering in its crabbiness, but in the interest of wasting nothing I absolutely agreed with its role in this meal. Good on you, Benin.
Now you go:
1 lb. nyame, malanga, sato-imo, or eddoe (basically any member of the Araceae family will do just fine)
Peel whichever yam you chose and cut into chunks. Boil in salted water about 20 minutes, until soft.
Pulse in a food processor until very smooth. Add a few drops of water if it is too dry to move around in the processor. Turn out into a large pot or bucket. Pound with a potato masher until homogenous, smooth and gummy.
Serve with sauce.
3 tbsp peanut oil
2 tbsp tomato puree
2 tsp piment
1/2 tsp salt
1 beef Maggi boullion cube
1/2 cup peanut butter (smooth, preferably homemade)
1/3 cup minced onion
1/2 cup water
Heat oil to medium in a saucepan. fry the onion and piment paste. When onion softens, add tomato puree and Maggi cube. Cook about 3 minutes, then add peanut butter and water. Whisk well and slowly bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and, stirring often, cook about 15 minutes or until the mixture thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Serve over ingame pilé.
6 live (1-pound ea) crabs
1 cup vinegar
3 large tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh parsley
3 large onions
2 whole cloves
3 limes, juiced
1 tablespoon palm oil (“dende oil”)
1 teaspoon pili pili
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Rinse the crabs and place them live in a large stockpot full of boiling water to which the vinegar, salt, and pepper have been added. Cook for 10 minutes, skimming off any residue that rises to the top of the water. Then add the whole tomatoes, the bay leaf, parsley, and one of the onions with the cloves stuck in it. Remove the tomatoes after 5 minutes and continue to cook the rest of the ingredients for an additional 5 minutes or until the crabs are done. Remove the crabs.
Reserve the stock in which the crabs have been cooked to use for cooking the white rice that traditionally accompanies this dish.
Remove the crabmeat from the body and the claws, trying to maintain the shells for serving. Place the crabmeat in the lime juice.
Heat the palm oil in a saucepan. Mince the two remaining onions and brown them lightly in the oil. Add the cooked tomatoes and cook the mixture until it is reduced by half. Add the piri-piri, stir well and serve hot. The crabs are traditionally served in their own shells, on a bed of rice covered with the sauce.