Republic of Botswana

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.

Whole sorghum (left), ground sorghum (right)

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.

Note the yeasty chunks floating on top... mmmmm

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 want to make a joke here so bad.

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.

Can of callaloo, you're my only hope.

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:

Bogobe
2 cups plus 2 tbsp sorghum flour/meal
water

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.

Serve hot.

Seswaa
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.

Morogo
1 bunch amaranth greens (or 1 can callaloo)

Clean and boil in salted water for 2 minutes, or until tender. Drain and serve hot.

Sources

http://www.squidoo.com/a-botswana-wedding-and-seswaa-recipe

http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/miscellaneous/fetch-recipe.php?rid=misc-seswaa

http://food.fienipa.com/content/bogobe

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mielie-meal

http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/rbotoole/entry/botswanas_finest_chefs/

http://funkymunky.co.za/african.html

http://www.daff.gov.za/docs/Infopaks/Amaranth.pdf

http://www.visitbotswana.info/index.php?Datain=106&LID=1&page=Beef-Seswaa

http://www.kidcyber.com.au/topics/botswanfood.htm

http://www.botswanaembassy.or.jp/culture/index5.html

http://www.yousigma.com/countryculturesandlifestyles/bogobe.html

http://www.this-is-botswana.com/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=232&Itemid=83

http://www.google.com/imgres?hl=en&client=firefox-a&sa=X&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&biw=1040&bih=491&tbm=isch&prmd=imvnse&tbnid=JNdtlTre0wKhnM:&imgrefurl=http://www.photographersdirect.com/buyers/stockphoto.asp%3Fimageid%3D899633&docid=GBud8efF_DqfFM&imgurl=http://img2.photographersdirect.com/img/12366/wm/pd899633.jpg&w=500&h=333&ei=kfkOT5LjIeTj0QG22rWrAw&zoom=1

Bosnia and Herzegovina

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??

Ehhh. Heh.

Time to make the kajmak.

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:

Bosnian ćevapi are squat, around 1" x 2"

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.

RISE! RIIIIIISE!

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:

Kajmak
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.

Somun
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.

Ćevapi
adapted from Choosy Beggars blog

Serves 4

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!

Sources

http://www.marga.org/food/int/bosnia/cevap.html

http://balkan-cuisine.com/2009/09/bosnian-somun.html

http://horinca.blogspot.com/2009/05/sarajevo-cevap-report-part-one-sarajevo.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaymak

http://easteuropeanfood.about.com/od/cheeses/r/kajmak.htm

http://easteuropeanfood.about.com/od/sausages/r/cevapcici.htm

http://easteuropeanfood.about.com/od/croatianserbbreads/r/lepinje.htm

http://www.choosy-beggars.com/index.php/2010/03/31/cevapi-balkan-grilled-minced-meat/

http://www.europeancuisines.com/Balkan-Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian-Lapinja-Lepinje-Somun-Flat-Bread-Recipe

http://saltandfat.com/post/9168043369/kajmak

http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/19004/lepinja-serbian-bosnian-croatian-balkan-flatbread

http://paulinescookbook.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/kajmak/

http://books.google.com/books?id=-W2XYRYORFcC&pg=PA33&lpg=PA33&dq=authentic+kajmak&source=bl&ots=kDKuTfZC-P&sig=96kJhrPs6jXr7rErO0dWujtPQJ8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=kGwDT7nDI4yv0AHx8K1G&ved=0CFYQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=authentic%20kajmak&f=false

http://mybread.tumblr.com/post/265273893/lepinja-serbian-flat-bread

Plurinational State of Bolivia

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.

Whole and ground ají amarillo (left) and ají panca (right)

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.

Plump, albeit slightly freezerburned, rocotos (left) and limp-and-defrosted-but-good-enough huacatay (right)

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.

Fresh llajua, ready to punish your mouth

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 best Jell-O mold I've ever made

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.

Kiss your ass goodbye

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:

Salteñas

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

Masa (dough)
6 cups flour
4 tsp sugar
4 tsp salt
4 tbsp ají amarillo
4 eggs
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.

Pique Macho
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
black pepper
mayo
mustard
ketchup

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.

Llajua
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.

Sources

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salte%C3%B1a

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pique_macho

http://gosouthamerica.about.com/od/cuisine/a/PeruBolivia.htm

http://tuvida.aol.com/especiales/mes-de-la-hispanidad/recetas/canvas/_a/pique-a-lo-macho/20050915000609990001

http://www.boliviabella.com/pique-macho-recipe.html

http://www.recipelink.com/cgi/msgbrd/msg_script.pl?printer=1&board=3&thread=5802

http://www.rocoto.com/2010/09/saltenas/

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llajua

http://www.boliviaweb.com/recipes/english/saltenas.htm

http://gosouthamerica.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=gosouthamerica&cdn=travel&tm=101&f=20&tt=14&bt=1&bts=1&zu=http%3A//www.bolivianet.com/recetas/

http://www.bigoven.com/recipe/175388/pique-a-lo-macho-tantalize-your-tastebuds

http://gosouthamerica.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=gosouthamerica&cdn=travel&tm=263&f=20&tt=14&bt=1&bts=1&zu=http%3A//www.boliviaweb.com/recipes/english/

http://www.rocoto.com/oldsite/quirquina.html

http://www.saltshaker.net/20060302/llajwa-weekend-herb-blogging

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolivian_Coriander

http://nolysinc.blogspot.com/2010/03/how-it-all-started-wacataya-wednesdays.html

Kingdom of Bhutan

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?

Yak.

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.

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.

Water, butter, boil.

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.

Eue Chum
1 cup Bhutanese red rice
1 ¾ cups water
Pinch salt

Cook in rice cooker.

Esay/Eze
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.

Sources

http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/miscellaneous/fetch-recipe.php?rid=misc-jasha-maroo

http://thinley.tripod.com/recipe/

http://news.yahoo.com/king-bhutan-marries-commoner-bride-040837856.html

http://www.reimerseeds.com/sha-ema-hot-pepper-bhutan.aspx

http://www.fiery-foods.com/chiles-around-the-world/74-asia/2763-blessed-to-be-in-bhutan?start=1

http://books.google.com/books?id=LohMBqO3nBYC&pg=PA115&lpg=PA115&dq=bhutan+esay&source=bl&ots=AiEstsw_9I&sig=JJjBXHhONyXWWVCnbyFjHrHZyiw&hl=en&ei=Z854Ts7CKKrD0AHk2rzxCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=bhutan%20esay&f=false

http://www.durangotelegraph.com/index.cfm/archives/2008/september-25-2008/ite28099s-a-bhutanese-e28098thinge28099/

http://ediblyasian.info/recipes/jasha-maroo-minced-chicken-

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_national_happiness

Republic of Benin

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:

Ingame Pilé
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.

Sauce d’Arachide
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.

Ago Glain
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
salt
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.

Sources

http://www.friends-of-benin.org/Fonisfun/beninese_food_recipes.htm

http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/miscellaneous/fetch-recipe.php?rid=misc-ingame

http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/miscellaneous/fetch-recipe.php?rid=misc-ago-glain

http://www.cdkitchen.com/recipes/recs/47/Ago_Glain_Benin44907.shtml

http://archives.echo.levillage.org/65/amiwo.shtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddoe

http://healthy-life.narod.ru/wor_ek22.htm

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=12&ved=0CB0QFjABOAo&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.friends-of-benin.org%2FBeninPCVCookbook.doc&rct=j&q=benin%20red%20sauce&ei=LDpuTp3MM6Pz0gHmj6XvBA&usg=AFQjCNEteuqi2yvrey2ZKIu8kl00746Wrw&cad=rja

http://norainbenin.blogspot.com/2011/07/beninese-food-and-demystification.html

http://www.everyculture.com/A-Bo/Benin.html

Belize

This entry is a perfect illustration of my inability to keep anything simple. Somehow, I can take a gloriously easy and compact dish like falumou and find a way to make it difficult and time-consuming. “Why would I use canned coconut milk when I could positively tear my hands apart while making it from scratch?” I said to myself. Nice work, chief!

Ehhhhhhhh but first, a few quick details about Belize:

Belize is home to three major ethnic groups, each with their own distinct culture and cuisine. The Maya/Mestizo group encompasses a cooking style that most in the U.S. would recognize as classically Central American – corn-based specialties like tortillas, tostadas (garnaches) and tamales, a variety of beans, and even something akin to tacos called panades. Even though all of these dishes sounded really good, I was afraid of cooking any of them and possibly painting myself into a corner… there are a LOT of countries that eat this stuff, you know?

The next group, the Kriols, have a variety of dishes that are not very different from what much of the Caribbean eats – beans and rice, lots of fish and bushmeat (iguana being one…) and a heavy reliance on coconut. Their main dish, known as Boil-Up, is something like the ubiquitous and infinitely varied “pepperpot” stew found throughout the islands of the Caribbean – a bubbling cauldron of eggs, fish, pig parts, lots of starchy things like plantain and yam, and even tomato and cocoa. Again, a little too close to things I’d be making for other countries, though I love the idea of eating something called “Boil-Up”.

The last ethnic group, and the one that I chose to represent Belize in my project, are the Garifuna people. A compelling mix of native Caribbean, Latin, European and West African (oral history even goes so far as to trace the African lineage of these Belizeans to one slave ship from Nigeria that wrecked on the island of St. Vincent!), the Garinagu (that’s the plural form of Garifuna) really kindled my interest, especially once I read about their most famous dish, falumou – fresh fish poached in coconut milk, and served with mashed plantains (which is basically an analogue of the African staple of fufu).

My first step was the completely unnecessary and even slightly haughty task of making fresh coconut milk. Why not, right? I unloaded all of my spite, and malice, and will to dominate on four mature coconuts (that means the dark brown ones with the stringy hairs all over them) with a hammer, and then not-so-carefully separated the meat from the shells with a sturdy serving spoon.

After washing my blood off of everything and tending to my rent flesh, I broke out the blender and, in batches, loaded it with coconut meat and enough hot water to lubricate the blades. I ended up with this:

After straining this mash through some cheesecloth, I left the liquid to settle and refrigerate.

Now I had to prep the hudut, or pounded plantains. When they say “pounded” they really mean “pounded” – they are traditionally prepared by being boiled, placed in a big wooden mortar on the floor and then given the business by a strong adult wielding a huge wooden pestle. It can take hours to get the right consistency.

I do not possess such a monstrous mortar and pestle. Luckily Yolanda Castillo, the Belizean chef at a Chicago restaurant named Garifuna Flava, has posted a video on her website that shows a shortcut to the same consistency – the food processor. If you think about it, the pounding is really just tenaciously isolating the plantains’ fibers, separating them and breaking them down into a gooey, starchy pulp. Some careful pulses in a Cuisinart will achieve the same result, like so:

With my accompaniment ready, I got to work on the falumou. I was so thankful to have a dish that, for once, seemed to cook itself. All I needed to do was put some things (a few okra pods, my homemade coconut milk, an onion…) in a pot and turn on the gas. While red snapper is a beloved fish in Belize and in most of the Caribbean, Garifuna Flava also uses kingfish, native to Belizean shores. So I used a little of both: the meaty tail section of a red snapper and a couple of thick kingfish steaks, ringed with opalescent grey skin. And, as is my wont, I decided to “bus’ a peppah”, so I slit the bottom of a whole habanero pepper and tossed it in.

On their own, these foods are a bit monochromatic. I mean, we’re talking simple dishes – comfort foods, really. Just a few flavors stand out: coconut, fish, capsaicin heat and starchy, even funky fruitiness. But together… damn. What a satisfying match. If I had to do it all over again I would have gone a little longer in my “pounding” of the plantains, but the small lumps did not change the overall stomach-warming awesomeness of the dish.

Garifuna women are said to use magic, or obeah, in order to maintain control over the men in their lives. They believe that this magic will help them keep their husbands in love with them. I don’t really know why they would go to all that trouble… a constant supply of falumou seems like it would be enough to keep any dude around.

Now you go:

Hudutu Baruru
3 green plantains, peeled
1 yellow plantain, peeled
2 tsp salt
1 gallon water

Boil plantains in salted water for about 30 minutes, or until soft. Drain and let cool.

In small batches, pulse in a food processor, adding small amounts of cold water if needed to loosen up. Repeat with the rest of the plantains until you have a soft, smooth paste. Taste and add more salt if desired. Form into an attractive mound.

Serve at room temperature with falumou.

Falumou
4 cups canned coconut milk (OR coconuts (to make 4 cups coconut milk) OR
2 lbs. red snapper or kingfish, whole or in steaks
1 onion, halved
2 cloves garlic, crushed
8 okra pods
1 habanero pepper, left whole but slit at the bottom
2 bay leaves
salt & pepper

Bring coconut milk, onion, salt, pepper and bay leaves to a boil in a large pot. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the fish pieces. Stir gently and often to prevent the coconut milk from clumping or scorching.

When fish is cooked (app. 25 minutes), remove the fish pieces from the pot and place on a serving plate. Bring the remaining coconut milk gravy to a boil and reduce until it clings to the back of a spoon. Pour over fish pieces and serve hot, with hudutu baruru.

Sources

http://www.garinet.com/main.php?module=gcms&node=gcms_front&action=get_content_detail&content_id=2423&category_id=203&parent_id=224

http://www.belizeforum.com/belize/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=136382

http://www.beinggarifuna.com/blog/2010/05/02/yolanda-castillo-from-chicago-garifuna-restaurant-garifuna-flava-shows-how-to-make-hudut-baruru-with-tikini/

http://www.hotelmopan.com/recipes/hudutfalumou.htm

http://m.chicagoreader.com/chicago/a-caribbean-rarity/Content?oid=1173304

http://ambergriscaye.com/pages/town/fishing.html

http://www.intheknowtraveler.com/archives/5129

http://www.garifunaflava.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=46&Itemid=54

http://www.blacfoundation.org/garifuna_cuisine.pdf

http://www.coupleofpics.com/cassava-bread-making/

http://www.marketmanila.com/archives/fresh-coconut-milk

http://www.globalrhythm.net/print.cfm?rubricarticleid=974

Kingdom of Belgium

Belgium has been a long time coming. From ingredient hunting and recipe research to execution – along with a hasty move a few blocks down the road – a month was barely enough time to pull it off.

When people think of Belgian food, most of them immediately imagine the semi-national dish of moules-frites (mussels and fries), along with maybe some fluffy waffles and sour beer. I think mussels are just fine and dandy, but they were a little too obvious for me. I decided to instead search for the mother of all recipes for carbonade à la flamande, a beef, onion and beer stew that really emphasizes the Flemish aspects of Belgian culture.

The research was arduous. I found so, so many versions of this dish, all with tiny variations and unique ingredients. I even had to make a spreadsheet to compare all the miniscule differences. Seriously. A major resource, and one that I recommend to any researcher of food and/or culture, is eGullet, a service provided by the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “advancement of the culinary arts”. The people there are beyond knowledgeable, and with a little discretion and common sense you can find an unreal amount of accurate information on world cuisine.

My recipe is, in truth, an average of the many recipes I found. The only thing I omitted (and with some trepidation) was extrait de chicorée, or chicory root extract. This powder, harvested from the root of the Belgian endive, is often employed by beer-makers to give a bitter flavor to their dark beers and stouts, and can even act as a stand-in or additive to coffee. It only appeared in one recipe for carbonade and seemed like more of a flavor-corrector than an essential ingredient, so I left it out.

Here’s the byzantine process of carbonade-making:

First, make pain d’épices. “What the hell is that?” you may ask. Well, it’s a spiced honey bread, something akin to gingerbread, and it is a vestige of the French presence in Belgium. “What the hell is it for??” you may then ask, more aggressively. Well, it’s crucial to our stew, as you’ll see later on. For now, save a few slices for the stew and eat the rest with some butter or jam.

Next, make a nice veal stock. Roast some veal bones and toss them into cold water with carrots, leeks, onions, garlic, parsley stems, a thyme sprig and a couple bay leaves. Simmer for a few hours, strain and cool overnight. Discard the solidified fat. Boom, veal stock.

Next you will need to assemble your main ingredients – some beef in rough chunks (a mix of chuck and rump, preferably – whatever is cheapest), some salt pork, a few onions, shallots and garlic cloves, and your seasonings. The salt pork gets rendered and the beef gets browned briefly (alliteration woo!) in a dutch oven (funny, since the Dutch are a big deal in Belgium) and set aside.

The other two ingredients are the most crucial – they represent exactly what makes this dish a carbonade, rather than just beef stew. The first is a Trappist beer, made in a Belgian (or possibly Dutch) monastery by Trappist monks. Relax, you won’t have to climb to a little house on some remote mountainside to get this – they have it a Whole Foods. I chose a Westmalle Dubbel, which, according to the beer snobs on Wikipedia, is a brown ale “with understated bitterness, fairly heavy body, and a pronounced fruitiness and cereal character.” Yeah. You could use any beer produced in Belgium for this dish, really, and each one would give the stew a different character.

The other ingredient in the discreet black packaging was the toughest to get. It’s called vergeoise brun, and it’s a variety of brown sugar that is unique to northern France and Belgium. It’s made from sugar beets, not cane, and is more free-flowing and soft that the brown sugar we usually get in the U.S. I had a hell of a time finding this – at one point I even had my friend Charlotte scouring Paris’ shops for a small bag of it. (Charlotte is a peach, by the way, and you should listen to her radio broadcasts here, on Radio Vinci!) After much ado, I got a reasonable package of vergeoise brun from L’Epicierie.

Why the sugar? It sort of nudges the onions and shallots to a deeper caramelization, while adding a sweetness that will complement the sourness of the beer and the richness of the various fatty meats. Why not just regular, freedom-loving brown sugar, made in the US of A? Well, clearly my Belgian dish would not taste right without Belgian ingredients – that’s the whole point of this project, you know? Here, take a look at the before/after difference in this onion montage:

At this point, we’ve prepped everything. It’s time to let the unforgiving heat of the oven do it’s job for a few hours. Deglaze the pan with red wine vinegar, and dump everything into the pot.

Remember that pain d’épices? Hopefully you didn’t eat all of it. Slather four thin slices with good Dijon mustard and float them on the surface of the stew, like so:

The bread will slowly break down and act as a liaison, or thickening agent.

While that’s cooking you have a few hours to drink the other bottle of beer you hopefully bought, and prep the potatoes (the longest ones you can find) for their magnificent transformation into Belgian frites.

Peel them and slice them into half-inch batons, and immediately throw them into a big bowl of ice water. They can soak anywhere from an hour to overnight. I did about four hours.

Next, fry them in small batches at medium low (about 280 degrees) for about 8 minutes, until they are semi-opaque. Drain them in a single layer on a paper towel.

After a little rest (and another glass of beer), raise the oil’s temperature to 375 degrees (a fry thermometer is the best ten dollars I’ve spent in a while) and, again, fry the taters in small batches until golden brown. This second fry is the reason that restaurant fries almost always taste better and come out crispier than yours.

Hopefully you’ve timed all this correctly and your stew has reduced down to a thick, dark sauce. The beef pieces will be easily smashed with a wooden spoon.

Here’s the final product:

and the accompaniment:

The flavors in this carbonade are hard to describe accurately, but I’ll try – sweet, sour, beefy; somewhere between French onion soup and stewed plums, but way meatier. The beer also holds its own in every bite. There’s a LOT going on here. It’s a rich, warming dish, ruddy brown and stripped of éclat. With the toasty, carb-y, salty canvas of the frites as a foil, you’ll be huffing down bowls of this in a frenzy. Especially if you drank a whole bottle of that Westmalle Dubbel – dude, it’s like 8% alcohol, slow down.

Now you go:

Pain d’épices

I used David Lebovitz’s recipe

Pommes Frites
adapted from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook

4 Idaho potatoes – big, long ones
2 quarts peanut oil 1/2-fill pot
Kosher salt

Fill a large bowl with ice water. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/2-inch thick sticks. Put them immediately into the bowl of ice water to keep them from oxidizing. Leave them in the water anywhere from one hour to overnight, then rinse well in cold water to take out a large amount of the starch.

In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil to 280°F and cook the potatoes in small batches, about 6 to 8 minutes for each batch, until they are soft and their color has paled to opaque white. Do not get impatient and yank them out early. Remove them from the oil and spread evenly on the baking sheet. Let them rest at least 15 minutes.

Bring the oil up to 375°F – no hotter, no cooler. Fry the blanched potatoes in batches for 2 to 3 minutes, each, or until they are crispy and golden brown. Remove from the oil and immediately drop the fries into a large bowl which has been lined with a clean, dry paper towel. Add salt to taste. Toss well. Serve hot.

Carbonade à la flamande

1 lb. beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 lb. beef rump, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 lb. unsmoked salt pork, sliced into thick lardons
2 large onions, minced
4 large shallots, minced
4 cloves garlic, smashed
3 bay leaves
1 sprig thyme
4 thin slices of pain d’épices (see recipe above)
1/2 tbsp white flour
1 liter (32 oz) brown veal stock (MAKE THIS YOURSELF)
1 large bottle (375 ml) Belgian beer (I recommend Westmalle Dubbel)
2 1/2 tbsp vergeoise brun
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tbsp dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Render the salt pork in a heavy dutch oven. Drain pieces and reserve.

In the pork fat, lightly brown the beef chunks for a few minutes until medium rare (they should still be a little bloody). Set aside beef chunks.

In the rendered fats, and over medium heat, saute the garlic first, then the onions and shallots. When they have begun to turn brown, add the vergeoise and stir well. Continue to stir occasionally until the contents of the pot have taken on a deep, dark brown color.

Deglaze the pan with the red wine vinegar. Add the stock, the beer, bay leaves and thyme, and the white flour (whisk this into the broth to avoid lumps).

Smear the mustard evenly across four thin slices of pain d’épices and float them on top of the stew.

Let the stew cook uncovered in the oven for about 4 hours, stirring every 20 minutes or so, until it has reduced to a thick brown sauce.

Remove bay leaves and thyme sprig. Serve hot with frites and a glass of the same beer you used in the stew.

Sources

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belgian_cuisine

http://principiagastronomica.com/post/21

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbonade_flamande

http://simplyrecipes.com/recipes/carbonnade_beef_and_beer_stew/

http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2009/04/pain-depices/

http://chefsimon.com/carbonade-flamande.html

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?/topic/40839-carbonnade-de-boeuf-flamande/page__st__30

http://chefsimon.com/pommes-frites.html

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viande_bovine

http://www.bonjourparis.com/story/pain-depices-bit-history-and-special-recipe-your-h/

http://www.travelchannel.com/TV_Shows/Anthony_Bourdain/Special_Features/ci.Tonys_Favorite_French_Fries.custom

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