Canada! Ohhhhh, Canada.
Our calm, patient neighbors to the north. You are known to us for your forward-thinking approaches to social programs, your excellent comedy (and comedians) and that weird separatist thing going on in Montreal. But we don’t know a hell of a lot about your food other than poutine.
Poutine has become a big deal in the U.S. in the last few years, with cheap dive bars and expensive cocktail clubs alike commonly offering some pared-down or scaled-up version of this sloppy, savory comfort food on their menus. The average American is not afraid of poutine even though it sounds French, because it contains all of the things that we already enjoy – french fries, gravy, and cheese. I mean, there actually may not be another dish in existence that binds Yanks and Canucks together as brethren as much as this dish does.
This is exactly why I will NOT be making poutine today. It’s too easy, it’s too expected, and it’s not really that exciting of a dish, to be perfectly honest. Isn’t there anything else Canada can offer us that has a little more… I don’t know, zazz?
My favorite book that takes place in Canada is The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx. It’s a devastatingly depressing (but ultimately redemptive) story of a charmless, hopelessly average man who relocates to his ancestral home of Newfoundland to try to find a connection with his past. Aside from just being an exceptionally well-written book, it also really piqued my gastronomical interest with its mentions of several Newfie dishes – magical-sounding things like squidburgers (not a real dish), seal flipper pies (a real dish) and fried herring with pork cracklings and potatoes (also real). Newfie food definitely had to be on the menu for this post.
I also wanted to try to represent some other culinary traditions in Canada. I recalled a conversation I had had a couple of years ago with a very talented, fellow-Queens-based food writer named Regan Hofmann (she’s on Twitter at @Regan_Hofmann – give her a follow!!) over some killer Cypriot food. Regan is originally from Canada, and aside from schooling me on Canadian punk rock, she also told me about a few dishes that she considers to be specifically Canadian: cretons (a spiced pork pâté); pâté chinois (a shepherd’s-pie variant that derives its name not from those who prepared it, but from those for whom it was prepared [read: Chinese railroad workers]); and butter tarts, which are sort of like pecan pie minus the pecans. (Thanks Regan!!)
Taking Regan’s suggestions to heart, my final Canadian menu looked like this: cretons (French) as an appetizer, followed by fried cod tongues and rappie pie (Newfie), and then butter tarts (pan-Canadian) for dessert. This was going to be great.
Easy. Boil some ground pork in milk and spices, cool, stir. You got it.
The only trick here is to make sure you don’t give yourself botulism – cool it down fast and don’t leave it hanging around the stove once it has reduced to a thick paste. The fat will solidify as it cools, and then when you stir it around it will be incorporated into the paste in the form of tasty little lipid morsels. It will also give the pâté a rustic, rough texture, providing a little more variety in each bite than just a homogeneous paste.
Schmear it on some toast and you’ll have yourself a very satisfying Québécois breakfast, as well as a few hours of Christmas-scented burps. It’s really good, even if you don’t normally like pâté made from liver or other organs.
Seriously, this dish is extremely hard to screw up, so I won’t spend any more time on it. Plus, a great story awaits.
Erm, yeah. You know how stuff doesn’t always work out for me when I get obsessed about a specific ingredient? Well, it happened again.
The main ingredient in cod tongues is – you guessed it! – cod tongues. I have never seen these before, although I have seen cod cheeks become de rigeur on menus in the past few years as the cuisine of poverty has become more and more fetishized in fine dining. The “tongue” of the cod is not really a tongue like a cow or human might have, but really a hyoid apparatus – it’s function is similar to that of our tongue, except instead of manipulating food around the mouth it is used, rather, to slam food back into the throat or gullet. Cod tongue’s texture was widely described as “jelly-like” or “gelatinous” in the sources that I read, and it seems to be a throw-away part that Newfoundland fishermen got used to keeping and cooking for themselves, so as not to literally eat their profits from the more-desirable cuts of the cod. I was desperate to try it.
My go-to place for exotic seafood is always The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market (in Manhattan) – they are probably the most expensive fish market in the city, but they also have, fittingly, the best quality and the biggest selection of specialty items. Since it’s a haul from Queens, I emailed my guy there first. His response: “This is something we can source and we do see it from time to time, however there is a 40lb order minimum for us to bring this in. Typically when we see them in the market it’s because a couple of our wholesale customers have shown some interest. The vast majority of whole cod that we see comes in head[ed] and gutted, so unfortunately we can’t save some for you. Unless you’re looking for 40lbs worth, the best thing to do is to sign up for our e-newsletter, which comes out weekly and lists specialty products. When we see this item on our wholesale buy list we bring it in and it will be on this e-newsletter list.”
I mournfully watched the newsletter for a couple of months, but no cod tongues. Time to cast a wider net.
I tried fish markets closer to Canada, calling and emailing a few in Maine and Massachusetts. Almost everyone just said “no,” and Harbor Fish Market in Portland, Maine emailed me back, saying “I have not seen those in so long… we don’t carry them anymore.”
Had northern New England lost its taste for this slippery delicacy? The quest for domestic cod tongues seemed to be at a dead end. My next tactic was to try to get someone in Newfoundland to overnight them to me, frozen – much less convenient, and definitely more expensive. I set a firm spending cap for myself because I have come to grips with the fact that I am insane, and starting sending emails to Newfoundland. The results were not good.
Belbin’s Grocery Store: “Sorry we do not ship out of province.”
Bidgood’s Supermarket: “Sorry but we are not permitted to export goods to United States.”
Stoyles Wholesale Seafood: “Sorry, we do not ship cod tongues to the U.S.”
Best of the Sea Fish Market: “Sorry, but we cannot ship seafood into the USA due to US Customs’ regulations. The only way that you would be able to get some would be to have somebody here who is flying to the USA and can take them back with them on their flight.”
So is this what it was going to take? Would I need to convince a third-party to smuggle them back for me? This was getting ridiculous.
I eventually came across a company in Toronto called Frozen On Time that specializes in shipping small-lot, temperature-sensitive items to the U.S. They were willing to ship a pound of frozen cod tongues to me for a reasonable price, but I would have to convince one of the suppliers to actually get the cod tongues to Frozen On Time’s Toronto location.
Mike Mundell’s Surf and Turf Store in Newfoundland was willing to play ball, but this would involve them first shipping the frozen cod tongues to Toronto, and then Frozen On Time having to get them to me (and through customs) within 36 hours. This logistical nightmare would end up costing me in the $100s of dollars, all for a pound of fish jelly.
No. Even I have my limits. No cod tongues this time, folks. If anyone reading this wants to be kind and bring some to NYC next time they visit, I will GLADLY update this post and put your name in BOLDFACE.
Rappie pie, luckily, is one of the most comforting things you can put in your mouth, maybe next to a pacifier, or whiskey. The name comes from the French verb râper, which means “to grate,” and refers to the treatment of the potatoes in the dish, which are grated to a wet, heavy pulp. The pulp is then placed in a clean towel, which is twisted and squeezed to eject most of the starchy potato water. You are left with a drier pile of potato mush.
Hm. We want the potatoes grated and separated from their liquid. Got it, cool.
Now, that pot of chicken and onions I showed you above contains both the protein of this dish and the liquid means of uniting its disparate elements. You take the boiled chicken and shred the meat off the bones. Next, you mix the potato mush into the boiling-hot broth and stir to make a mush that smells like chicken pot pie (which is more or less what rappie pie is, in the end).
The best part of this dish happens now – render some salt pork chunks and fry them till they’re crunchy. These cracklings are called scrunchions in colloquial Newfoundlandese, and their intense, fatty saltiness and crispy texture will help to break up the monotony of the one-note potato-chicken-broth mush. The rendered fat also gets mixed in with the mush, so nothing is wasted and all calories are accounted for.
After a long while in the oven, our rappie pie comes out and cools briefly – it stays molten hot for a good long time, so don’t worry too much about eating it immediately. Be chill.
Rappie pie is sort of like chicken soup, but without all the splashing and vegetables. It’s flavor reminds me of shepherd’s pie, chicken and dumplings and mashed potatoes. It’s sort of your catch-all North-American dish, in a way. No surprises – save for an errant, briny scrunchion here and there – but comforting and warming through and through. It’s just what you need after a long day of fishing on a cold sea, or hunting online for cod tongues in your boxer shorts.
Lots of salt so far, so let’s move to a sweet dessert. As with the rest of the dishes I picked, this one also demonstrates the effective simplicity of traditional Canadian cuisine. While Canada is home to a vibrant and lively food culture (see Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon for two Montreal-based examples of this), the dishes that sustained it in earlier eras were defined by utility and remained true to their northern-European, fur-trading roots. Then, of course, there is the influence of the First Nations, who were the first to harvest maple syrup and lived, as well, on high-calorie, life-sustaining game and fish.
Anyway, butter tarts. Very simple – make your grandma’s 1950’s-style, multi-purpose Crisco pastry, which you will then use as your tart shell. I only have these large tart molds, but ideally they would be a little smaller.
Once you make your mixture of eggs, brown sugar, raisins and the eponymous butter and pour it into the tart shells, they go in the oven for about twenty minutes and come out looking like they are made of crack cocaine and daydreams:
The shortening-based tart shell is light and flaky, of course, because it’s made of hydrogenated fat and is slowly murdering you. The filling is riotously sweet, with the huffed-up raisins providing fruity little points of light in a sea of dark, sugary oblivion. These are addictive and I understand now why they come up in discussions of Canada’s “national dish.” The recipe I used is from Grahame’s, a bakery in Ontario that apparently makes a legendary butter tart. If mine are even half as good as Grahame’s then they definitely deserve the praise.
Alright, that’s it. We’re done.
You know what? Fine. Fine!
Here’s your freakin poutine. I got this picture off the internet.
Oh, and be sure to check out the recipe below, you are NOT going to like it.
Canada, you have a lot more to offer than just poutine. I hope I’ve helped people understand this, even just a little bit. You’re a good neighbor to put up with us, and your food is awesome. High five! (We can high five because we’re right next to each other.)
Now you go:
I used Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for cretons, which can be found here
1 medium-sized chicken, whole
3 large yellow onions, quartered
12 large russet potatoes, peeled
1/2 lb salt pork (or bacon), cut into lardons
salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Wash the chicken. Place it in a stockpot with the quartered onions with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for about 1 hour, or until the meat starts to come away from the bones.
Remove the chicken from the pot with tongs, and place on a plate to drain slightly. Reserve the broth. When the chicken cools enough to handle it, pick the meat from the bones and lightly chop the meat into bite-sized hunks.
You have two options for the potatoes – you can grate them with a box grater and then squeeze the water out of the pulp through a kitchen towel, or you can just juice them (if you have a juicer). I juiced them. Discard the starchy potato water, and reserve the dry pulp.
In a frying pan, render half of the salt pork or bacon, cooking until the lardons are crispy. Set them aside, and reserve the rendered pork fat.
Bring the reserved chicken broth back to a boil. In a large mixing bowl, CAREFULLY combine 4 cups of boiling broth with the potato pulp and immediately mix well with a whisk or wooden spoon. Add the rendered pork fat and the crispy pork lardons and continue to mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
In a pie plate, take turns layering the potato mixture and the shredded chicken meat until it is all used up. top the pie with the other half of the raw salt pork (making sure that there will be enough room for the fat to collect and not run off the pie plate into the oven).
Bake at 350 degrees for 90 minutes, or until the top of the pie is deep, dark brown and the salt pork is crispy.
I used a recipe provided by Grahame’s Bakery in Kemptville, Ontario, which can be found here
One bag frozen french fries
One can Campbell’s beef gravy
2 cups cheese curds
Heat up the french fries in the oven. Pour the gravy into a bowl and heat in the microwave. Pour the gravy over the french fries.
Top with cheese curds. Serve hot, in the middle of the night.
Feel ashamed that you didn’t try harder.
Aaaaaaaaand we’re back!
My apologies for the extended absence, everyone. In the last 18 months I managed to finish my PhD in Comparative Literature, write and co-write a series of articles for various outlets (here are one or two of them), AND get married to the most beautiful, brilliant, hilarious, incredible person I have ever met in my entire life. Needless to say, I was left with very little time to devote to this passion project. BUT! Now that I’m not busy writing about literature and physics every night and weekend, I’m hoping to pick up the pace on this exploration of global cuisine. Where did we leave off? Oh yeah, Cameroon!
Most people’s familiarity with Cameroon begins and ends with that (wholly inaccurate…) scene in Trading Places where Eddie Murphy dresses as an exchange student named “Nanga Eboko,” who is obsessed with beef jerky. Mine only extended slightly farther, by way of a few dishes from Cameroon I found in an excellent cookbook by Cherie Hamilton entitled Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters. Fun fact: Cameroon got its name from Portuguese sailors, who, in the 15th century, found its rivers teeming with shrimp and crayfish, or camarão. The vestigial use of dried crayfish in many of Cameroon’s dishes is a testament to profiting from this particular abundance – but easy, we’ll get there.
Speaking of unusual ingredients – there are quite a few of them in this entry. Aside from the aforementioned dried crayfish (known in Cameroon as njanga, which is often ground into a powder), I needed to track down fresh cow skin (also known as kanda, and also ALSO known as leather, hahahahahahaha no, seriously), tiny, sweet sea snails called periwinkles, some dried, smoked fish and a VERY specific vegetable from West Africa known as ndolé, translated as bitterleaf. As you may have noticed from past entries, I have a sort of obsessive compulsion in locating authentic ingredients for this blog, which, in this case, led to my anxiety being grossly amplified when I kept coming up short in Queens. My home turf was obviously not the right place to be looking.
You see, some people seek access to the hottest club, where they can rub elbows with the monied elite; others, to a prestigious school or college, which will grant them passage to higher echelons of society; still others, to a much-coveted seat at that new, exclusive restaurant where Jay-Z eats. But I? I only want to know where New York City’s West Africans buy their cow skin. Driven by this impulse, I eventually found myself in Brooklyn, where various leads and research had led me to a promising-looking strip of West African bodegas on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was utterly, bitterly, freezing cold.
One well-stocked storefront eventually caught my eye – Diaby African Market & Grocery. When I arrived, the lights were all on but the door was locked. Others waiting for the store to open informed me that the owner had gone to pray salat, and so we huddled patiently by the off-brand suitcases chained to the front gate. No one spoke. Everyone shivered.
In an attempt to stay warm and kill some time, I went across the street to another African market and pushed on the door. It was also locked. It turns out this entire stretch of Fulton Street, aside from the Popeye’s Chicken restaurant and the Key Food grocery store, devoutly shuts down several times a day for Muslim prayer.
After a few more frigid minutes, a muezzin’s voice bellowed out of the tinny loudspeakers of the Masjid at-Taqwa on the corner, calling the end of prayer. The volume was astounding, with the cold, narrow avenue working as an echo chamber — I had the impression of being inside of a bell as it had been struck. A few seconds later, out of a procession of bearded, white-robed men filing out of the mosque, one figure broke away and eagerly approached us, keys in hand. The crowd cheered, sending a flutter of greetings to him in French and Arabic. The man smiled and greeted his relieved customers.
I then understood: this place is important.
Inside the warm, dusty shop, I found myself bewildered among the shelves until a nice man (from Sierra Leone, he would later tell me) saw me rummaging, lost, through a chest freezer full of unlabeled baggies full of green leaves. He kindly offered to help me find whatever the hell it was that I must have appeared to be in desperate need of. “Cow skin?” I mumbled. He smiled and said he needed cow skin, too, and proceeded to give me a guided tour of everything in the freezer, including, blessedly, a cache of frozen kanda.
Elated, I clutched my baggie of ice-cold, rock-hard cow skin (and some dried crayfish and smoked fish the gentleman had also helped me to find) and moved on to confront a big shelf full of dried leaves. A young woman was going through the varieties one by one, sniffing hard at a handful of each with a pensive, critical look after each inhale. I had just asked her what she was looking for when she shrieked with joy. “This!” She gasped, grabbing a fistful of gnarled brown leaves, pressing them close to her nose and breathing deeply. “This is the one! I need it for pepper soup!” She clearly knew her way around these leaves, so I asked her if she knew where I could find ndolé, or bitterleaf. She – along with a chorus of other shoppers – informed me that no, bitterleaf was simply not to be found in the U.S. I thanked them all profusely and received a harmonious chorus of goodbyes, paid up, and left, glancing back just in time to see the same young woman taking another big, smiling, eyes-closed sniff of her soup leaves.
I’ll say it again: this place is IMPORTANT.
I went home. The cow skin went into my freezer, and several months passed.
I did eventually find myself some bitterleaf, against all odds – by mail order, from a tiny African market in Maryland. It arrived in a padded envelope which had torn slightly, and there was no interior envelope. Just a bunch of unlabeled, stiff, dry leaves partially clawing their way out of the Jiffy-Pak. So uh… I GUESS I got bitterleaf? It looks like the picture on Wikipedia, anyway. A trip to the Caribbean neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn yielded some taro root and leaves, and an eventual swing through Manhattan’s Chinatown on a summer day finally netted some live periwinkles. It was, after several months, time to start cooking.
So ok, what are we making, anyway? We’re going to do a couple of stews that are unique to Cameroon, along with corn fufu and a homemade hot sauce called pepe. All together, this would be a pretty substantial family meal, and probably warrant inviting the neighbors over as well. If you do cook these dishes (yes, I know, that is highly unlikely), I encourage you to do the same.
The ndolé/bitterleaf stew takes the longest, so best to start with that. Oh, and yeah – before you can actually “cook” the bitterleaf, it needs to be… uh, “rendered digestible” by being soaked and then boiled in water with a pinch of slaked lime, or alum (aka calcium hydroxide, which is also used in the “nixtamalization” of corn, as well as sewage treatment, paper manufacturing, and cement!). Dried bitterleaf, to give you an idea, looks and smells very similar to black tea – it is tough and I wouldn’t want to try to chew it. The slaked lime, which is an alkali, helps to start breaking down the plant fibers and makes them more digestible. It also murders any fungi that may have grown on the plant while drying. And best of all, it helps keep away the mange! Oh, if only I had known that during my last bout of mange.
(Leela over at SheSimmers – who is amazing – has a great primer on cooking with limestone solution. Check it out.)
With the bitterleaf soaked, boiled, limed and (slightly) softened, my cow skin par-boiled and some smoked fish soaked overnight, I finally needed to decide on which ndolé recipe I would use. I had narrowed the options down to three similar but slightly different recipes, culled from Cameroonian expat message boards and blogs. In the end, as always, I triangulated these into one standard recipe that included only the lowest common denominators, which hopefully gives us the basic theme upon which most other variations of ndolé would be built.
The process is pretty simple – it is a stew, after all. The recipe below will give all the details, but things to know are: puree the ginger, garlic and chilis before you use them; do not use peanut butter if at all possible – instead, finely grind an equivalent measure of peanuts (peeled and soaked in water for two hours) in a blender/processor/grinder; and, most importantly, do not get palm oil on your clothes, as they will stain irreparably. Goodbye, my favorite Mastodon t-shirt!
The ndolé will cook for a shorter time than you might expect, so in the meantime we have to get the other stew going, which is called ekwang. This is one of the coolest dishes I have ever cooked. It reminds me a lot of Italian cannelloni; in the same way that that dish is just a flat roll of pasta filled with cheese or meat and then cooked in a casserole full of sauce, ekwang works the same way except it uses the leaf of the taro plant as the rolling material, grated taro root as the filling, and a stew of smoked fish, ground crayfish, and a little sliced beef as the liquid cooking medium.
As I (and others) have said before, you have to be careful handling and cooking taro leaves and roots, which in their raw forms can cause oxalate poisoning if ingested. They also makes you itchy – REALLY itchy, if you have any small cuts on your hands. Obviously, keep your hands out of your eyes and mucus membranes, and wash them often. And for God’s sake DON’T taste taro till it has cooked for a good while. Seriously.
The procedure for cooking the ekwang is unique – you basically line the outer walls of the pot with the taro leaf rolls, and then fill the cavity in the center with the stewing liquid. This helps the rolls keep their shape and stay in place, so you don’t end up with ruptured rolls and goopy, sticky taro root floating everywhere. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated technique for a dish that is made from such earthy and humble ingredients.
OK, we’re getting mired in small details – let’s skip ahead a little. We need to make the hot sauce, called pepe. Scotch bonnets seem to be, as in most of West Africa, the incendiary flora of choice, with the ubiquitous African staple of Maggi bouillon cubes adding a blast of savory salt to what would otherwise be a very sharp, one-note sauce. This condiment is one of those small discoveries that makes me so happy I am doing this project – I want to put it on every sandwich I ever eat for the rest of my life.
With the stews bubbling away and the hot sauce languishing, we finally have to whip up a quick batch of that popular accompaniment to so many African foods, fufu. In this case, we’re making it with yellow cornmeal, but I’ve seen other ndolé recipes that suggest serving with white cornmeal or cassava fufu as well. Up to you!
Since things are cooking at wildly different rates here, I would stage them as follows:
1) Pepe (Make the day before and refrigerate or cover with palm oil/peanut oil.)
2) Ndolé (Start the night before with soaking, then start cooking the stew about 4 hours before you plan on serving. Reheat as needed at service.)
3) Ekwang (Prep the rolls and the stewing liquid early in the day, then combine and start cooking one hour before serving.)
4) Fufu (Cook right before you serve.)
So, the ndolé: this stuff was, against all of my reservations, actually really delicious. The stew takes on a meaty smoke from the fish and beef, a not-unpleasant, oceanic miasma from the dried crayfish, fresh shrimp and periwinkles (which are pretty entertaining to “kiss” out of their shells), and actually only a slight bitterness from the bitterleaf, which did eventually relent and soften to the consistency of partially-cooked kale. VERY chewable, with a taste that was also not too dissimilar to that of kale – maybe if you crossed cooked kale with soaked black tea leaves. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Kale crossed with tea leaves. The cow skin was the only part that didn’t work so well for me, though I am sure that, like the blubbery, squishy stewed pork skin I grew up eating, it might be an acquired taste.
The ekwang was SO GOOD. The taro leaves, when cooked, are reminiscent in flavor of collard greens or boiled cabbage, and they soften enough to rend easily when bitten, loosing a creamy, starchy paste of root that brought to mind the best version of mashed potatoes ever. The stew itself just kept making my brain go “GUMBO GUMBO GUMBO,” so I guess it tastes like gumbo (itself an African invention) – goopy, smoky, fishy, meaty and rather heavy. Everything but the rolls had broken down to a velvety softness, and a few bites picked up with generous pinches of fufu were enough to fill me up completely. This is comfort food at its savory, starchy peak.
Cameroon, you have oceans, grasslands, mountains, forests, jungles and a desert, and the collective diversity of the biology in all of those places contributes to a distinctive and vibrant spectrum of flavors in your cuisine. Thank you for drying crayfish. Thank you for rolling ekwang. Keep doing what you do.
Now you go:
3/4 cup dried bitterleaf, soaked overnight
2 large white onions, thinly sliced
1/2 tablespoons red chili powder (dried scotch bonnet powder is preferred in Cameroon, and is known as piment or pepe)
2-3 scotch bonnet peppers, pureed
1 tbsp fresh ginger, pureed
2 garlic cloves, pureed
1/4 cup ground dried crayfish (njanga)
1/4 cup peanuts, soaked overnight and ground into paste
1/2 lb. lean beef, thinly sliced (OR 1/4 lb. dried beef slices – maybe there’s something to that “beef jerky” joke in Trading Places?)
1 lb. fresh, unshelled shrimp (heads removed if you prefer)
1 lb. fresh beef skin (kanda)
1 large smoked, dried fish, soked overnight in water, drained and rinsed thoroughly
1 lb. periwinkles (or regular land snails, if they are the only thing around) in their shells
1/2 cup red palm oil
2 Maggi cubes (any flavor)
1 tsp alum/slaked lime (akagwa)
In a large pot filled abundantly with water, add the alum/slaked lime and the bitterleaf. Bring to a boil and keep at the boil for about 1 hour. Remove from heat and drain. Rinse thoroughly, drain again and reserve.
In the same large pot, add the previously-soaked smoked fish and the beef skin. Add enough water to cover and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Drain, rinse and reserve.
In a(nother) large pot, place the beef, onions, Maggi cubes, garlic, ginger and some salt to taste. Add enough water to just cover, place over high heat to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
While that cooks, place the red palm oil in a deep frying pan and heat to medium-low (NOT to smoking – keep a close eye, since palm oil has a very low smoking point and will turn acrid easily.) When the oil is warmed, add the pureed scotch bonnet chilis and ground chili powder to taste. (NB: this recipe is SPICY. If you don’t like things that hot, moderate the amounts used in this step.) Stir fry the puree for about 10 minutes over low heat. Then, add the peanut paste and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve.
By now the beef and aromatics should have cooked in the large pot for 30 minutes. Add the boiled cow skin and the boiled smoked fish to the same pot as the meat and aromatics. Let cook about 5 minutes, then add the periwinkles (or snails). Allow to simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
At this point, you should add the chili and peanut mixture to the pot with the meats, fish and aromatics. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes, then add the fresh shrimp and the drained bitterleaf. Simmer over medium heat for a final 10-20 minute period, until the bitterleaf has softened to your liking. (Feel free to add a little more water if the stew has become too dry at this point.)
Remove from heat and serve with corn fufu and pepe.
3 medium-sized taro roots, peeled
15 large taro leaves, central stems removed – each leaf should yield two rectangular sheets
3/4 lb. lean stew beef, cut into thin slices
1 large white onion, one-half chopped and set aside, the other half pureed and set aside
3-4 pieces of dried, smoked fish (about 1/2 lb., in total)
1 cup whole dried crayfish (njanga)
2-inch piece fresh ginger, pureed
4 Maggi cubes (any flavor)
1/2 cup red palm oil
ground red chili
Wash the taro leaves thoroughly and set aside.
Grate the peeled taro roots with a box grater. Mix the grated taro with a heavy pinch of salt and toss thoroughly.
Start the stew first: place the beef, Maggi cubes and chopped 1/2 onion into a pot along with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside.
Lay each taro leaf section flat on a cutting board. Place several tablespoons of grated taro root on the center of a leaf and roll tightly, folding in the ends halfway through the folding process. This should create a sealed, cigar-shaped roll. Repeat until you run out of grated taro root or taro leaves.
Liberally grease the bottom and sides of a Dutch oven or deep casserole with red palm oil.
Beginning on one side of the pot, begin laying the leaf rolls in alternating, criss-crossing layers around the perimeter of the casserole, leaving an empty cavity in the center (per the image above). Continue until you run out of rolls.
Pour the reserved beef, along with its stewing liquid, into the center of the pot. Top off with enough water to make sure the stewing liquid just covers the ekwang rolls and slowly bring to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes, gently shaking the pot occasionally.
After 30 minutes, add the smoked fish, pureed onion and ginger, and salt and ground red chili to taste; place these directly in the cavity in the center. Give the casserole a careful but determined shake – do NOT stir with a wooden spoon, or you will rupture the ekwang rolls.
Raise heat to medium-high and simmer for an additional 30 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before serving with fufu.
Pepe (Chili Condiment)
5 large scotch bonnet or habanero peppers
1/2 white onion
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 celery stalk
1 Maggi cube (any flavor), crushed into powder
1/4 cup water
red palm oil
Place all ingredients into a food processor or wet grinder and process until smooth.
Pour the mixture into a small pot and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat to reduce slightly.
Add about 1 tsp red palm oil, the crushed Maggi cube and a pinch of salt, and continue to stir over low heat until fragrant (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and let cool completely before refrigerating.
This condiment will keep for about 1 week in the refrigerator.
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
2 cups water
Bring one cup of the water to a boil in a large pot. Reserve the other cup of water at room temperature.
When the water comes to a boil, begin slowly whisking the cornmeal into the boiling water – don’t rush or you will create lumps. Once all of the cornmeal has been added, add about 1/3 cup of the reserved water and stir continuously over medium heat. When the cornmeal has absorbed all of the water, add another 1/3 cup of the reserved water and stir. Repeat for the final 1/3 cup of reserved water. When all water has been absorbed, remove the fufu from heat and let cool slightly before forming into balls about the size of a baseball (or larger, if you prefer). Serve with ekwang or ndolé.
Cambodian food, or really what we should probably call Khmer cuisine, is deviously subtle, complex and, most of all, resilient. The culinary traditions of Cambodia’s dominant ethnic group have survived countless bouts of subjugation, colonization and attempted extermination. Most recently, France acted as suzerain over Cambodia (and several other parts of Asia) in the late 1800s and exerted a strong influence over many aspects of its culture, even introducing the now-common baguette and pâté. Then, from 1975 to 1979, the Communist Khmer Rouge party systematically eliminated large groups of Khmer through forced labor and executions, endangering the whole of Khmer tradition. In addition to the obvious tragedy of the senseless loss of human life, we also cannot guess how close the world came to having let slip away a priceless part of our collective cultural history.
As soon as I read about amok trey, a traditional Khmer dish and the one for which Cambodia is perhaps most famous, I knew I wanted to cook it. And in the spirit of the Khmer qualities of defiance and strength, I really wanted to do it the right way. And to do it right, I needed prahok.
Oh, prahok. Known half-jokingly as “Cambodian cheese,” this paste of fermented, mashed mudfish preserved in salt is a cornerstone of Khmer cooking, and is one of several ingredients that distinguishes Cambodian food from that of the countries surrounding it; namely Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. As you can see, it is a mouth-watering hue of beige, and has a scent that grabs you by the collar and slams you against a wall. With its notes of wet feet, ocean docks and well-worn underwear, I would be lying if I said that upon first contact I was not immediately reminded of the reek wafting out of that one suspiciously empty subway car during rush hour. It’s role is that of providing richness, saltiness and savoriness, much like mushrooms, cheese and any number of other potentially stinky ingredients. It’s also a great example of people making the most of what nature has given them, and of making it last a long time without refrigeration.
I tracked down a jar of prahok in the Bronx at Battambang II Market, one of two stores dealing in Cambodian goods in the area. Since for some reason I thought it completely plausible that I would find a jar with “PRAHOK” written on it in clear English lettering, I was of course let down almost immediately. I asked the woman at the register if they sold prahok (which is pronounced somewhere between “prahok” and “pahok“) and she smiled at me. “The stinky one, right?” she asked. She brought me over to the above-shown jar of paste (bearing the Thai moniker of mắm cá lóc) and handed it to me. “You wanna smell it?” I agreed, and she opened the top with little “pop,” waving it under my nose and chuckling.
Friends, I’m no stranger to fermented seafood products – you may recall my unceremonious baptism by cencaluk back in Brunei as an example of this. So to say that I fully gagged when I caught a double-nostrilled blast of what was in that jar is saying quite a lot. Ni, the nice Khmer woman who showed me around Battambang Market, laughed her ass off, as did I and the other five people milling around the store on a Saturday morning. It seemed like a hazing, and I think I passed the test, although I still have that harrowing aroma stuck in my sinuses.
Anyway, besides prahok we’ll need a couple of other ingredients to make an authentically Khmer amok trey; for example, this little dude:
The leaves of this cute noni tree, known botanically as morinda citrifolia and colloquially as “cheese fruit” or “vomit fruit” – due to the reek of its lumpy yellow fruit’s ripe flesh – lend a light bitterness to the pungent yellow kroeung (a typically Khmer spice paste) that will be used in our fish amok. I bought this baby tree on Ebay from a grower in Hawaii, but, sadly, after harvesting just these two leaves it went the way of all flora. The cold and dryness of NYC was simply too much for it. RIP little pal 😦 I’ll pour out some prahok for ya.
The rest of the kroeung is made up of several other roots and herbs: galangal, which is hardy and has a menthol scent a little like Vicks VapoRub; lemongrass; fresh turmeric; and this newcomer to my kitchen, fingerroot.
Fingerroot, or boesenbergia rotunda as the egghead scientists call it, is from the same family as ginger, galangal and turmeric, but has a unique herbal flavor and a stronger aroma that reminds me of alcoholic bitters – spicy and citric but also medicinal. It is yet another distinguishing ingredient in Khmer cuisine, though it has its place in Thai and Indonesian kitchens as well. As I read on several Khmer message boards, you simply cannot make a kroeung that is truly kroeung without it, so I was lucky to find it frozen at a market in Chinatown.
So let’s cook a little: take all the kroeung ingredients and beat them into a paste. This will take a long time, longer than you ever imagined.
Once your astringent, floral paste is well-mashed, you have to combine it with some contrasting ingredients like the prahok, some finely-julienned noni leaf, a bit of coconut cream and lots of palm sugar, and then you have to pour it over some hunks of fish – we’re using catfish, since the typical amok trey uses freshwater fish. You can see already the delicate layering of flavors that Khmer food is known for starting to come together – funky, sour, sweet, bitter. Oh, and we’re throwing in a beaten egg to help it set as it steams, too – a little tip from Ni at Battambang.
While the fish soaks in this sauce, you’re going to use toothpicks and plantain/banana leaves to make little steamer cups. Just lay the leaves two or three deep and start pinching the four corners one at a time and securing them vertically with a toothpick. Before you know it you should have a leak-proof little vessel into which you can pour the fish and sauce mixture, like so:
In retrospect I’d suggest filling the cups after they have already been placed in the steamer basket. This way you won’t have to worry about moving them around too much, as they are a little fragile. They steam over boiling water for anywhere from 12-30 minutes, depending on how big they are and how much fish is in each cup. Just jiggle the basket a little – if the sauce is still liquid, keep steaming. The fragrances flowing out of your kitchen will bewilder: sweet coconut, spiky galangal and turmeric, and sneaky, seeping prahok that will make your apartment smell like a hostel for people suffering from trimethylaminuria. Layer upon layer upon layer.
Once the amok is set, take it off the heat and let it cool for just a couple of minutes. Spoon some more coconut cream over the top – I highly recommend the Chaokoh brand shown above – and garnish with some more noni leaf, kaffir lime leaf and/or sliced chilis. Ni recommends serving it with jasmine rice, too.
If you did it right, the amok should hold its shape when you undress it. Mine was maybe a little too liquid, or I could have used another egg. I’ve amended the recipe to correct for this, so you are good to go.
Since many Americans’ most familiar exposure to Southeast Asian food is Thai, and since I am American, I was pleasantly surprised on my first bite to find something rather different. Nothing sharp, no throat-closing heat, but instead a mellow and complicated sweetness. The texture is like mousse, interrupted only by flakes of catfish and the occasional shard of unmashed galangal or turmeric. And so, so much coconut – oh God Almighty, the coconut. The more you eat, the more you want – it’s maddening. No one ingredient stood above the rest, which is impressive considering how many ingredients are in this dish.
OK, a quick dessert before we wrap things up.
Speaking of wrapping things up:
Num ansom chek, or banana sticky rice cake, is served at weddings as a symbol of fertility. Why is it a symbol of fertility? Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
The ingredients are so simple: baby bananas, glutinous rice, coconut cream, ever more palm sugar and sweet red beans. These beautiful little vine beans are used all over Asia in snacks and desserts, though the word “sweet” is relative – those expecting anything in the realm of an Oreo or a Snickers will be sorely disappointed. My guess is that their soft texture and mellow flavor synch up really well with sugars of various origins, with the palm variety being an exceptional match.
It’s not a hard recipe, but the wrapping process shown above does take a little time and practice – I tore through a few sheets before I got the hang of it. Once they are wrapped tight and tied shut, these cakes need to boil or steam for at least two hours (for small ones) and up to six hours (for large ones). I boiled mine, and I think next time I would try steaming them instead; being submerged in water for that long made them a little less sweet than the ones I tasted at Battambang, probably because the sugar dissolved and flowed out of the leaves. I’d also go for a ratio of less rice and more banana. To eat, just unwrap one and get at it:
If wrapped well and prepared correctly, these cakes are soft, lightly sweet and very filling. The coconut cream soaks into the sticky rice, and the banana leaves impart their own fruity flavor to the outer surface of the roll. The red beans, having been cooked for hours as well, are mushy and rich and serve as a starchy countermeasure to the more assertive palm sugar.
Cambodia, you’ve made it through some tough business. You’ve protected the traditions that define your cuisine and you’ve given us some very unique flavors and techniques. And your smelly fish paste will haunt my nightmares forever.
Now you go:
20 10-inch x 10-inch sheets of banana leaf, soaked in water for about 1 hour (cut larger leaves to size and remove outer husk if necessary)
2 lbs. catfish fillet, washed and cut into 2-inch pieces
4 lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced (use only the softer root section)
1-inch piece galangal, peeled and thinly sliced
1-inch piece fresh turmeric, peeled and thinly sliced
2-3 fingerroot tendrils, peeled and thinly sliced (do not use the central core, or “palm”)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
6 dried chiles de arbol (or Thai chilis), soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tsp prahok, mashed (use less if you prefer)
1/4 cup palm sugar (you may need to grind this into powder if it comes in pucks)
1 13.5-oz. can coconut cream
2 morinda citrifolia leaves, washed and finely julienned
1/2 tsp. salt
1 red Thai chili, julienned for garnish
2 kaffir lime leaves, washed and julienned for garnish
Place a large pot of water over high heat. Place bamboo steamer baskets over the top of the pot and cover tightly. Alternately, prepare commercial steamer pot according to manufacturer instructions.
Make the kroeung; in a mortar and pestle, grind the following ingredients in the following order: dried chilis, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, fingerroot, shallot, garlic. Grind until a thick paste is formed, adding about 1-2 tsp. of water as needed to reduce friction. Alternately, process all ingredients in a blender until smooth.
In a large bowl, combine the kroeung, prahok, fish sauce, palm sugar, morinda citrifolia leaves, eggs, salt and half of the coconut cream and mix well. Add the fish pieces and toss to coat. Let rest, covered, in refrigerator for at least 10 minutes, and up to one hour.
While the fish rests, stack 2-3 banana leaves at a time and pinch each of four corners to create a small cup. Secure corners with toothpicks. Repeat to make 5-6 cups.
CAREFULLY pour the fish and sauce mixture evenly into the banana-leaf cups and set gently into the steamer baskets. Cover tightly.
Steam for at least 12 minutes, until the sauce is set and is no longer liquid. Remove baskets from heat and let cool slightly.
Pour remaining coconut cream evenly into each cup. Garnish with lime leaf and red chili. Serve with Jasmine rice.
Num Ansom Chek
20 10-inch x 10-inch sheets of banana leaf, soaked in water for about 1 hour (cut larger leaves to size and remove outer husk if necessary)
Butcher’s twine or ribbon
8 small, ripe bananas
4 cups white glutinous rice
2 cups red Azuki beans
1 13.5-oz. can coconut cream
4 heaping tbsp. palm sugar
1 tsp. salt
Soak the rice and beans separately in abundant water overnight. Drain well.
In a large bowl, combine the rice, beans, coconut cream, palm sugar, and salt. Mix well.
Lay four overlapping banana leaves to cover a 15-inch square area. Pour two cups of the rice mixture in long pile down the center of the square. Lay 2-3 bananas over this pile in a straight line.
Bring the two vertical sides of the square together and pour an additional cup of the rice mixture down the tube to cover the bananas. Fold the leaf repeatedly downward to form an open tube. Tie one length of butcher’s twine or ribbon around the center to secure the tube.
Bending one end of the tube shut, turn the other end upward and tap the tube gently to move the rice toward the center. Bend the open end shut as well, and tie in two places to secure.
Turn the tube over and repeat the process with the untied end – open it, tap the tube gently, then bend tightly over the center and tie in two places to secure.
Repeat this process for the remaining leaves and rice mixture.
Place the tubes in a large pot of boiling water or in a large steamer basket or colander over boiling water and cook, covered, for at least two hours and up to six hours.
Remove from heat. Let drain and cool. Serve at room temperature.