Bolivian food is neat. I actually ended up cooking the two regional attractions for this entry months apart from each other, partially because they have such different roles in Bolivian cuisine but also since they both took a lot of work to prepare. One of them – pique macho – is basically a drunken inside joke but also kind of brilliant, in the same vein as poutine, or even chili-cheese fries. Salteñas, on the other hand, are more a mid-morning snack – rich, warming and one of the best breakfasts I could ever imagine having.
If you’ve ever had xiaolong bao, or Chinese “soup dumplings”, you’ll have no problem adjusting to the concept of the salteña – it’s basically your garden variety empanada filled with spicy, juicy beef stew. The crust is made from a buttery, greasy dough that is colored with ruddy, achiote-stained oil and ground ají amarillo.
But whoa, whoa whoa. Slow down. Lots to explain here. OK:
Bolivians love peppers of all kinds. They like them fresh, they like them dried. I can’t blame them – they have some really unique and delicious varieties in the Andes, stuff that most of us have probably never tasted. Please allow me to nerd out here for a moment.
We get lots of capsicum annuum in the U.S. – these peppers (which include cayenne, bell, jalapeño, serrano… you’ve seen these, right?) are native to South America, but they grow easily in temperate climates, which makes them the preferred cultivar here and part of our palette’s comfort zone. Over time, we’ve also come to appreciate our native capsicum chinense (habanero, anyone?) and, to a point, capsicum frutescens (Thai birdseye chilis!). Tropical South America (and other tropical zones on Earth), on the other hand, is home to some wild and/or marginally cultivated varieties, like the intensely fruity capsicum baccatum and the fiery, black-seeded capsicum pubescens. The aforementioned ají amarillo, so revered to Bolivians and Peruvians, belongs to the baccatum cultivar, along with its berry-and-smoke-flavored counterpart, ají panca. Remind me later to tell you the story of how I found mine*. They also extensively employ the searing flesh of the rocoto (aka locoto), one of extremely few members of the ultra-exclusive pubescens variety.
In addition to these fiery little dudes, I also needed one more strange ingredient for the llajua, a hot sauce that accompanies both dishes I would be making. Huacatay, also known as Peruvian black mint (but not the same as just “black mint”!), tastes like a cross between basil, mint, tarragon and maybe dill, too. It’s a little weird, your brain doesn’t really know where to categorize it the first time you taste it. Also, a little goes a long way. Like, miles and miles. People like to argue on the internet about whether real llajua should include quirquiña rather than huacatay. My findings showed that different regions of Bolivia prefer different herbs in their llajua – the version I’m making would please the residents of both La Paz and Sucre, if I’m not mistaken. I could be, though.
Time to cook.
I roughly chopped some tomatoes, onion, several rocotos and a wet chunk of huacatay and then mashed them all together by hand, in my molcajete. It seemed right to do it this way – everything I’d read said that a Bolivian could tell a mechanically-processed llajua from a mile away, and would then heap opprobrium upon me. Teeeeechnically I was supposed to use a batán to do the mashing, but jeez guys. Seriously. You have too many rules about making hot sauce.
With my condiment at the ready, I got to work on the stew for the salteñas. Chunks of beef, potatoes, peas and lots of both ají get simmered for a good long while with marrow bones. Once the stock is good and rich and the meat is falling-apart tender, you toss the marrow bones and mix in some unflavored gelatin, cool and refrigerate to basically create an aspic. This gelatinization of the stew is what will let me get it into the soft empanada dough without it just spilling and leaking everywhere – it makes a liquid into a solid, temporarily. Once I heat it, the liquid will de-gel and become juicy again, but stay safely inside the dough. Pretty cool, huh?
The next morning, I made my dough by first frying some achiote seeds in oil, and then mixing it while warm with flour and ever more ají amarillo. I kneaded the bright yellow dough well, broke it down into 2-inch nuggets and then, with a rolling pin and lots of flour, rolled out each nugget into a circle about five inches in diameter. This part is important – one tablespoon of stew-jelly goes into the center of the circle, in addition to one pitted black olive (I used the mild canned ones), one small slice of hard-boiled egg, and no more than three golden raisins (I had briefly soaked them in hot water to soften them).
I’m far from a proficient baker – I suck at making sweets, and I’m awful with dough. Salteñas require a sort of braided seam, which looks very lovely in most pictures I’ve seen. Mine came out a little smashed, sort of like if someone with a combined total of three fingers had made them. I gave them a quick egg-white glaze for shine and threw them in the oven anyway.
I think I may not have cut my ingredients into small enough pieces, but other than that… damn. These are GOOD. Holding them vertically, the first bite is crumbly crust and spicy, pepper-fruity aromatic steam. The next one is boiling and juicy, and if you’ve arranged the olive, egg and raisins correctly you should have a varied experience with each subsequent bite. In Bolivia, the first person to spill any juice from their salteña has to pay for that round of pastries. Since mine were free and I was dining alone, I managed to dodge this technicality.
One dish to go. Better get drunk first for this one.
OK, now I’m ready.
Legend has it that pique macho, or a macho portion of piques (small dishes), was invented by the owner of a restaurant in Cochabamba after some dude got blasted, wandered in and insisted on being served even though the restaurant was closing. A waitress grabbed every scrap of what was left from the day and piled it all on one plate. It was garnished, as is the custom, with tomato and onion. Torrents of mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard went on after, and, in what was likely a hilarious mock-epic gesture, the justifiably excited reveler finally dumped the last of his beer onto the pile of food and tucked in with gusto. ¡Que macho!
It’s called “pique” (PEE-kay) because everything is chopped up, or “picado”. I’ll spare you the repetitive details – the recipe is below if you’re curious. Basically pan fry a bunch of meats (cocktail wieners, chorizo, thinly-sliced steak) with a little cumin and ají and pile them on a layer of french fries (I again used Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for perfect fries). Toss on a couple of halved hard-boiled eggs. Make a little salad out of tomato, onion, rocotos and a splash of beer, and dump it onto the pile. Then come the condiments, and a bunch of llajua if you want. Dig in and hopefully sober up.
This is a gutbomb – it’s assuredly the last thing you will eat on whatever day (or late, late night) you prepare it. If made well, the steak will be juicy, the sausages snappy and well-browned, and the fries saturated in cumin-y grease and beer. The rocotos should keep you awake enough to finish everything on your plate, too. Good luck champ!
*Oh, right, the story:
My trip to Mi Tierra supermarket Jackson Heights and then a sullen, jaded extra jaunt to Kalustyan’s had only yielded ají panca in its compromised, pickled paste form – not what I wanted. Amazon was an option, but I didn’t want to wait ten days for some seller in Florida to ship it to me – I wanted to cook, and soon. I already had my ají amarillo and my frozen rocotos. Come on, man.
I got to Astoria and started trudging home, depressed. On the way to my apartment I passed La Cabana on 30th Ave., a familiar bodega that sells some really good tacos and posole – I’ve inhaled their food on several inebriated very late nights before staggering home and inevitably collapsing into gaseous, fitful slumber. Maybe they sold dried peppers?
The bell on the door jingled as I walked in, but no one looked up. A TV blared the Univision news, and some anonymous brown soup with a long bone jutting from the liquid’s surface was bubbling contentedly on the range behind the deli counter. I started systematically opening every freezer in the place – dried, frozen enormous corn kernels; rocoto peppers; ají amarillo! I saw Producto de Peru printed on one after another of the packages. Oh my god. Ohhhhh my god.
That settled it. I wasn’t leaving this bodega without ají panca.
So I dug, and scoured, and pored. I went deep into the store, deeper than anyone ever goes, past the rack of Cool Ranch Doritos, beyond the cans of Hormel chili and potted Vienna sausages, further still, back where they keep the box full of litter for the bodega kitten. I moved stuff out of the way – weird vinegar, dusty packages of bouillon, milk that you don’t have to refrigerate. My pulse raced as I rapidly ran out of places to look. Down to one shelf, I reached into a box obscured by shadow, grasped a crinkly plastic bag, and held it up to the diffuse light filtering in from the front of the store, virtually miles away. I squinted. Ají panca, read the label. Yes. Yesssssss.
I stood there clutching this dessicated Grail, lightly panting, the dust clinging to my forearms made tacky with claustrophobic perspiration. For two or three seconds, I stared silently at the exhumed bag of dried peppers, grinning from ear to ear. It was then that I accepted that moments like these are among the happiest in my life.
Now you go:
Makes about 20 empanadas!
Aguado (watery stew)
1 lb top round steak, minced (or 1 lb ground beef)
1/2 pound of beef marrow bones, split
1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/4 inch cubes
1 cup frozen peas
2 cups finely chopped onions
1 tbsp ají panca
2 tbsp ají amarillo
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp oregano
1 tbsp black pepper
4 cups hot water
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
4 hard-boiled eggs, halved and then thinly sliced
4 oz seedless golden raisins, soaked in hot water and drained
1 6-ounce can black ripe olives, pitted
6 cups flour
4 tsp sugar
4 tsp salt
4 tbsp ají amarillo
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tbsp achiote seeds (slowly fried in the oil and then strained out)
In a large pot, gently sauté the onion, garlic, oregano and parsley in vegetable oil for about 15 min. Add the ají panca, ají amarillo, cumin, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, raw beef, marrow bones and enough hot water to cover. Simmer covered on low heat for approximately 45 min. Add 1 1/2 cups water, remove cover and reduce on low for about 30 minutes. Remove marrow bones and discard (being sure to not throw away the marrow itself – this should remain in the pot).
Boil peas and potato separately. Drain and reserve. Add the potatoes and peas to the aguado. Thoroughly dissolve gelatin powder in about 1/2 cup boiling water, add to aguado and mix thoroughly. Turn off heat and allow mixture to fully cool. Transfer mixture to an airtight container, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Fry the achiote seeds in 1/4 cup of vegetable oil and strain, reserving the colored oil. Keep it warm.
Sift the flour into a large bowl, adding the sugar, salt and pepper. Add the warm achiote oil and eggs. Mix thoroughly. Add warm water about 1tbsp at a time until the dough is smooth and dry enough to knead. Knead well, about 5 minutes. Cut into pieces and roll into balls of approximately 2-inch diameter. With a floured rolling pin, flatten the balls until you have a stack of round, very thin skins (5″ diameter).
Put 1 tablespoon of gelled aguado on each pastry round, adding 1 thin slice of egg, 3 raisins and 1 olive. Moisten the edges of the pastry with water, bring the edges together and seal them, rolling them with your thumb so that the closing looks like twisted rope. This is hard.
GENTLY brush with whisked egg white. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven until golden brown and serve immediately and piping hot, with llajua.
2 lbs beef round in paper-thin slices
1/2 lb cocktail wieners
1/2 lb chorizo, cut into rounds
6 peeled potatoes
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 rocoto peppers, seeded and roughly chopped
1 beer (Bolivian or Peruvian, of course – I used Cusqueña)
4 hard-boiled eggs
1 tsp cumin
salt to taste
Use the potatoes to make french fries – this recipe is a good one:
Anthony Bourdain’s French Fry Recipe
In a hot pan, fry the beef strips with a little oil, salt, pepper, and the cumin. This may need to be done in batches. Next, brown the chorizo rounds and cocktail wieners. Toss all these meats together in a covered bowl and keep warm.
In another bowl, toss the onions, rocotos, tomatoes and a little salt together. Add a few splashes of beer. Drink the rest of the beer immediately. Might as well do a shot of something, too.
Lay the fries flat on a platter. Then, dump the mixed meats onto the fries, spreading to cover. Do the same for the onion/tomato/pepper salad. Add the beer too!
Top with hard-boiled egg halves, mayo, mustard, ketchup and llajua.
Eat quickly and pass out.
4 roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 rocoto peppers, seeded and chopped
1 cup thawed, previously frozen huacatay leaves, chopped (use 2 cups if fresh)
2 tbsp minced white onion
Salt (add just before serving)
Grind all ingredients in molcajete or food processor till it reaches the consistency of salsa. Add salt to taste. Eat with everything.
There does not appear to be much in the way of technique as far as traditional Bhutanese food goes, but WOW do they like hot peppers and dairy products. Butter in their tea. Butter at their prayer shrines. Butter in their stews. Cheese in their stews. Holy mother of God.
One website I found that had a collection of Bhutanese recipes summed up the foundation of their culinary tradition as “water, butter, boil”. What kind of butter, you may ask?
And cow. But… mostly yak.
To celebrate this hairy beast’s contribution to the Bhutanese diet, I really wanted to make something that nearly every source I found described as Bhutan’s most well-known dish – a sort of casserole of hot chilis and yak cheese called ema datshi.
Now, by this point you folks know me pretty well. I don’t do anything halfway, and I can be a little bit… erm, obsessive. I made calls. I visited farmstands and green markets. I had a cheese-making friend-of-a-friend make calls. I even emailed a company in China. On my word, there is no yak butter or yak cheese – imported or domestic – to be found ANYWHERE in the Tri-State area. Sorry to ruin your week.
[Update, 7/2015 – I WAS WRONG. Dead wrong, it turns out. There are several tiny stores in the heavily-Himalayan Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens that sell packaged yak cheese, although it looks dried/aged rather than wet/fresh. Anyway, just so you know. – MR]
So, ema datshi was out. But there was still a chance at happiness. Luckily, with the help of Kalustyan’s, I was still able to cobble together a respectable and authentic Bhutanese meal – red rice, a chicken and chili stew, and some absolutely diabolical hot sauce.
You may be shocked to learn that most of the adventure in this entry actually came from the rice. Eue chum, or red rice, is native to Bhutan and represents a large part of the diet there. I’m going to go ahead and assume that the bag of red rice I initially bought from Kalustyan’s was packed in Bhutan. Also presumably packed in Bhutan was the army of terrifying critters that crawled out of the bag when I slit the top and poured some out on a plate. These guys were serious – they looked like ants but more military, with lots of sharp edges and spikes. After my initial gag reflex, I was earnestly afraid that I was possibly introducing some unknown predator into the fragile (ha!) New York ecosystem. I started stomping, but soon saw that I was outnumbered. Into a bowl of water went the entire bag and its denizens. I left no Noah to shepherd them. All were lost.
Another trip to Curry Hill, another ride home to Queens. The second bag of red rice I bought from Kalustyan’s was thankfully free of critters, so I threw some in the rice cooker, set it, and forgot it.
Next I made a batch of Bhutan’s multi-use hot sauce, called eze.
I feel silly even calling eze “hot” sauce – it’s so far beyond “hot” that it’s in a different sensorial realm altogether. It’s basically your garden variety salsa until you add in the fing, a beloved ingredient in Bhutan (and elsewhere) that is known to most of the West as Szechuan peppercorn.
I’ve had runs-in with Szechuan peppercorns before, and each encounter has left me with a psychological scar. This, my friends… this was the worst one yet.
Have you ever tasted pure yellow? Smelt blistering frustration or thorny wrath? It’s this kind of synaesthetic harrowing that a knife-tip of eze will introduce to you. Waves of numbness undulate over your taste buds, while the backing heat of the red chilis scorch your throat and lips. Through the eze, things you will see – other places; the future, the past; old friends long gone.
Knowing that this condiment is served with almost every dish in Bhutan, I am certain, now, that every single Bhutanese man, woman and child is born with a dazzling set of chrome cojones. I will never, ever fight someone from Bhutan.
Finally, the main course: jasha maroo tschoem, or minced chicken stew. It’s not very dissimilar from chicken soup, except for the pile of green chilis and the fact that everything is added together raw and then brought to a boil – sort of the opposite of most Western approaches to stew. The chilis can be anything from the capsicum annuum species – I found this out by checking websites of purveyors of vegetable seeds until I found a pepper that came from Bhutan. It was identified as capsicum annuum, which means that jalapenos/serranos or a related variety are essentially native and can be readily used in recreations of Bhutanese cuisine.
This is some good eats – the hot, liquid part of the stew drenches and lubricates the chewy, nutty red rice, and the searing dabs of eze that I was foolhardy enough to streak into my mouthfuls made the chilis in the stew itself seem sweet. All of this is studded with tender bits of comforting fowl. The perfect dish for a cold, mountainous climate. Or just a chilly fall day in NYC.
Unless you are a terrifying rice-bug. RIP.
(NB: Did you know that “Bhutani” actually refers to the members of an ethnic tribe in Pakistan? Not the same as Bhutanese! Huh.)
Now you go:
Jasha Maroo Tschoem
1 whole chicken, boned and minced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2.5 cm (1 in) cube of ginger, sliced into matchsticks
1 onion, sliced thin
1 tomato, chopped
3 green Serrano chillies, diced (Capsicum annuum are native to Bhutan)
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp butter (cow or yak, both are native to Bhutan)
Place minced chicken and tomato in a saucepan and add water to cover, 2 tbsp butter and bring to a boil. Add garlic, salt and ginger to taste. Lower heat and simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring intermittently. Add more water in small amounts if it gets too low – the dish should be fairly wet when served. Garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve with eue chum.
1 cup Bhutanese red rice
1 ¾ cups water
Cook in rice cooker.
¼ cup red serranos
1 small onion
1 medium tomato
1 bunch cilantro
1-inch cube ginger
2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
Roast the red chilis until slightly charred, then crush in a mortar. Mince a small onion, a medium tomato, half a bunch of cilantro, and a cubic inch of ginger. Briefly toast a tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorns in a hot pan and crush it to powder. Mash everything together until it’s a thick red paste, adding salt to taste.
Serve with everything and die.
If you’re like me, you probably would have a hard time finding Benin on a map – it’s a very small country tucked into a nook on the coast of West Africa, wedged between Togo, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. The seat of the pre-colonial African kingdom of Dahomey, Benin was eventually colonized by the Portuguese and then by the French (among others), and both have left their mark on the language, culture and cuisine of the eventual Republic.
The most popular and basic food in Benin is some form of starch – ranging from millet and rice to yuca and “yam” (there’s that freaking word again…) – drenched in a flavorful sauce. One version of this simple and substantial snack is called ingame pilé, or “spicy yam”.
What exactly do I mean by “yam”? Great question. I’ve gone over this before, but very simply: “yam” in West Africa is almost always a corm from the Araceae family – these include taro, “eddoe”, malanga, nyame, and about 35 bajillion other anonymous-looking white tubers. They are abundant, high in calories and very filling, which explains why they are so popular in an area that has historically been wracked with famine.
This big boy, technically either a huge eddoe or a regular-sized nyame, weighed 4.5 pounds. It needed to be peeled, boiled, and then pounded, for hours, in a huge mortar and pestle, by three strong adults. Or blasted to hell in a food processor for a long time, then assaulted with a potato masher for another long time. Araceae release a sort of slime when they are cut, and will develop a gummy, smooth texture after enough pounding. (When I get to Japan we’ll see the sato-imo, another member of this slimy, starchy family.) My technique kinda sucks, and so far I have not been able to reach a gummy consistency like the one I have seen and heard described. I always think I’m there and then… nope.
To go with this fufu-facsimile, I made a typically Beninese version of West Africa’s ubiquitous sauce d’arachide or “peanut sauce”, spiked with piment, which is a bunch of habanero peppers ground to a smooth paste with a little salt.
In the spirit of realism, I also made my own peanut butter from fresh, roasted peanuts. I followed Alton Brown’s basic recipe for fresh peanut butter, but rather than use the food processor I decided to christen my new molcajete (which is one of the best gifts I have ever received!).
Once the sauce is cooked, you simply form the pounded yam into smooth balls, drown them in sauce and start eating them with your right hand. Not the left. Seriously, that’s the rule in Benin. Don’t ask why.
Ingame pilé was a surprise for me. I’ve really only ever experienced Asian peanut sauces, which are usually spiked with lime or fish sauce. With only a beef boullion cube and the Portuguese-scented kiss of hot pepper to flavor it, this version is earthy and rich, and coupled with the dense smoothness of the ingame it makes for a cripplingly filling plate of food.
After a carbohydrate-induced nap, I prepared the main course, a refreshing and blessedly light dish of fresh-picked crab meat in a tomato and chili sauce, called ago glain.
Step one is cooking the crabs in a stock and then draining, cooling and picking them. If you’ve never picked a crab or need a refresher, you should take a look at this tutorial. I strained and saved the stock, as suggested by several recipes, to use in making the rice that would accompany the crab. I also realized that I go through a LOT of cheesecloth, and that that’s ok, and doesn’t make me a bad person.
Once that’s done, the meat is marinated in lime juice while the onion-tomato-chili sauce (augmented with palm or “dende” oil – a culinary link with Brazil!) is simmered.
OK, here’s where you’re going to think I’m crazy, and really? I probably am.
Knowing I would need them for several West-African countries, I tried for a couple of months at the beginning of this blog to find fresh piri-piri (aka “pili-pili” or “African birdseye”) peppers in NYC. I found none. So I decided to grow them myself over the summer and then freeze them for future usage. It was sort of fun and therapeutic to grow them on my erstwhile fire escape (before I moved). I got the seeds on Amazon from some dude in England, and within two months of sprouting I started seeing nice, plump, fiery babies like this one:
We’re almost there – just toss the crab meat in the tomato sauce, and serve it in the empty crab shells. Now make some rice, using the reserved crab stock. Let’s eat:
The crab was sweet, tender and went down like a tomatoey ceviche, leaving a titillating piri-piri burn on the lips and tongue. The rice was a little overpowering in its crabbiness, but in the interest of wasting nothing I absolutely agreed with its role in this meal. Good on you, Benin.
Now you go:
1 lb. nyame, malanga, sato-imo, or eddoe (basically any member of the Araceae family will do just fine)
Peel whichever yam you chose and cut into chunks. Boil in salted water about 20 minutes, until soft.
Pulse in a food processor until very smooth. Add a few drops of water if it is too dry to move around in the processor. Turn out into a large pot or bucket. Pound with a potato masher until homogenous, smooth and gummy.
Serve with sauce.
3 tbsp peanut oil
2 tbsp tomato puree
2 tsp piment
1/2 tsp salt
1 beef Maggi boullion cube
1/2 cup peanut butter (smooth, preferably homemade)
1/3 cup minced onion
1/2 cup water
Heat oil to medium in a saucepan. fry the onion and piment paste. When onion softens, add tomato puree and Maggi cube. Cook about 3 minutes, then add peanut butter and water. Whisk well and slowly bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and, stirring often, cook about 15 minutes or until the mixture thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Serve over ingame pilé.
6 live (1-pound ea) crabs
1 cup vinegar
3 large tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh parsley
3 large onions
2 whole cloves
3 limes, juiced
1 tablespoon palm oil (“dende oil”)
1 teaspoon pili pili
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Rinse the crabs and place them live in a large stockpot full of boiling water to which the vinegar, salt, and pepper have been added. Cook for 10 minutes, skimming off any residue that rises to the top of the water. Then add the whole tomatoes, the bay leaf, parsley, and one of the onions with the cloves stuck in it. Remove the tomatoes after 5 minutes and continue to cook the rest of the ingredients for an additional 5 minutes or until the crabs are done. Remove the crabs.
Reserve the stock in which the crabs have been cooked to use for cooking the white rice that traditionally accompanies this dish.
Remove the crabmeat from the body and the claws, trying to maintain the shells for serving. Place the crabmeat in the lime juice.
Heat the palm oil in a saucepan. Mince the two remaining onions and brown them lightly in the oil. Add the cooked tomatoes and cook the mixture until it is reduced by half. Add the piri-piri, stir well and serve hot. The crabs are traditionally served in their own shells, on a bed of rice covered with the sauce.
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:
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.
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.
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:
I used David Lebovitz’s recipe
adapted from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook
4 Idaho potatoes – big, long ones
2 quarts peanut oil 1/2-fill pot
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.
I’ve been looking forward to preparing this entry for a while – almost since I started, actually. It’s my first completely vegetarian entry, and it serendipitously features several ingredients that happen to be in season at this very moment in summer – beets, scallions, and farm-fresh kefir. I was luckily able to also find some succulent, fresh sorrel at the Union Square Green Market. Then I was off to Brighton Beach to pick up some fresh smetana, the creamy, sour amalgam that would properly gild my borscht-y lily.
At M & I International Foods, probably the best place in NY to find Eastern European/Russian staples, I made friends with the lady who was in front of me in line. She spoke Russian and seemed to know a lot about the dairy products she was shopping for, judging by how unbelievably long she took to discuss the qualities of every. single. cheese. that the lady behind the counter held up for her grave and exacting approval. During a quiet moment, while the cheesemonger rewrapped a piece of bryndza that had been rejected, I abruptly asked her if she was familiar with a Minsk-style variation of borscht called khaladnik – of course she was, she informed me. I then asked if she could suggest the correct type of kefir for such an application, since there were literally twenty varieties, all with different flavors and thicknesses. She suggested this one, which was less liquid and more apt for a thick soup:
I mentioned that I also needed some smetana for my draniki, or Belorussian potato pancakes. Her husband overheard this and asked at what time he should come over for dinner. I told him four o’clock. He laughed and nodded. His wife, in the meantime, had taken charge and ordered my smetana for me (in Russian!). She stared into me with a big smile, gestured at the cheesemonger (whose ability in English was, somehow, almost nonexistent) and said “she is prepared for you now.” How considerate! I gave her a big hug and shook her husband’s hand, thanking them for their help and reminding them of the aforementioned dinner hour. The husband grinned again.
They never showed up.
Preparing the khaladnik seemed much simpler on paper – boil this, shred that, mix well and refrigerate. In the end, it actually took several hours because of the fact that the liquids needed to cool before being mixed together. In brief, the process involved making a stock from the sorrel, then making a stock from the beets, shredding absolutely everything and then mixing all the ingredients together. It also needed to sit for a while in the fridge to let the flavors get to know each other, with the active cultures in the kefir gradually dismantling and reconfiguring the flavors on a molecular level.
While the khaladnik steeped, I started grating potatoes for the draniki.
All of my recipes specified that what makes draniki draniki is their unique texture, which can only be achieved by grating taters on the smallest setting into a starchy liquid. Doing this to five large potatoes took a long time and made my arm hurt.
I fried them in sunflower oil, another draconian requirement of every draniki recipe I managed to uncover.
Here they are, crackly on the outside, chewy in the inside, and served with that dreamy condiment, smetana.
Smetana is frigging awesome – it’s heavy and thick, with a buttery, cheesy richness. If sour cream is the prom king, smetana is the much cooler kid who skipped the prom in order to watch Die Hard 3, get high and eat a bacon cheeseburger at the Howard Johnson’s. I insist you find some wherever Eastern European groceries are sold and eat it with anything you have around, even corn flakes. Probably.
After this little appeteaser, I served myself some khaladnik – garnished with dill and scallions that I had rubbed vigorously with salt, and ever more glorious smetana – along with some piping hot, boiled potatoes. In Belarus (and elsewhere), potatoes are affectionately called “the second bread”, so I had no qualms about serving them twice in the same meal, especially since I was serving them to myself.
The most crucial thing I can say about this soup is that it is unique – it tastes like nothing else I can remember eating, even other variations of borscht. This is probably due to the kefir, which loans a dairy richness that other borschts lack. The sorrel stock gives a background of lemon, and the vinegar that was added to the beets as they boiled buttresses an overarching tartness that mingles with the kefir. Coupled with the fresh, cold sweetness of the cucumber, this is a joy to eat on a hot day. What’s not a joy is washing all the beet-stained pots and pans needed to make it.
Now you go:
Adapted from a recipe by Clifford A. Wright in The Best Soups in the World
10 cups water
3 tsp salt
1 bunch sorrel, chopped
2 large red beets
3 tbsp white vinegar
2 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded and shredded
7 scallions, trimmed and chopped
1 egg, separated
2 cups thick kefir
1 tbsp white sugar
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill
copious Smetana for serving
Boil washed sorrel leaves in 6 cups of water and 2 tsp salt for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Strain and reserve liquid. Discard the leaves.
Place beets in 4 cups cold water and all the vinegar and bring to a boil. Cook covered until tender, about 1 hour. Reserve 2 cups liquid, drain, cool, peel, and shred on largest setting.
Once everything is the same temperature, mix the sorrel cooking liquid, shredded beets, cucumbers, 6 scallions, egg yolk and remaining salt in one bowl. In another bowl, mix beet liquid, kefir, egg white and sugar. Whisk vigorously. Add this bowl’s contents to the the other bowl’s contents and mix well. Refrigerate at least 3 hours. Serve with some scallions and dill rubbed between your palms with salt, and a dollop of smetana. Serve boiled potatoes on the side.
5 large potatoes, grated into liquid
1 medium onion, grated into liquid
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt, or more
7-8 tbsp sunflower oil
Mix grated potatoes and onion, egg, salt and pepper in a bowl. It should be a fairly wet mixture.
Heat enough sunflower oil to coat the bottom of a shallow frying pan. Once it is shimmering hot, CAREFULLY (water + oil = burning splatters) spoon about 2 tbsp of the mixture into the pan to form round pancakes. You may have to squeegee the filling out from the center to create uniform thickness throughout the pancakes – use a spatula for this. Once well-browned on one side, flip the draniki and brown the other side.
Serve hot with an obscene amount of smetana.
This one didn’t go the way I had originally hoped. Barbados is known best for preparing one very unique item – battered and fried members of the family of Exocoetidae, or flying fish. I spent over three months hunting around the Tri-State area for these critters, to no avail whatsoever. I called every single high-end fish market from Citarella to The Lobster Place; I checked with several distributors at the legendary Fulton Fish Market; I scoured Chinatown’s darkest corners and most terrifying freezers; I even went so far as to attempt to buy some whole flying fish directly from Bajan restaurants in Brooklyn, but was informed, sadly, that their flying fish come to the U.S. already fileted and breaded. These fish are simply unavailable here (at least right now), possibly because they are in the paradoxical situation of being vastly over-fished, and yet still considered pests to boaters and fishermen in the Caribbean. In any case, I wasn’t getting any. Period.
As I stated at the very beginning of this blog, I will not make substitutions in my recipes. If I cannot find a key ingredient, I will not make the dish, simple as that. This means, then, that I will sometimes have to dig a little deeper to find a traditional dish that can be made with the ingredients I can locate (and trust me, I try VERY hard to find them). This also means that sometimes, instead of delectable fried fish, I have to eat pickled pig parts.
Pudding & souse, as this dish is called, consists of two parts – the “souse”, a chewy, acidic pickle of the throwaway parts of a pig (think pork ceviche), and the “pudding”, which is a sausage made from batata, burnt sugar and pig intestines. It’s meant to be eaten on Saturdays alongside a cold beer, and may represent the result of centuries of British rule – both in nomenclature (“pudding” = “sausage”) and in style (this is essentially a version of blood pudding that does not rely on the luxury of pig’s blood). Land for livestock is understandably scarce on this small island, but those starchy tubers grow plentifully and make a filling substitute.
The first thing I had to reluctantly do was boil the ever-loving hell out of some pig ears, tails and feet. The ears are chewy, with a snappy layer of cartilage on the middle, while the tail and feet are like big knuckles, boney and gelatinous. Once they are boiled to tenderness, they are drained and cooled. The meat is picked from the bones, and is packed in a jar with grated cucumber, onion, habanero pepper, and a ton of lime juice. I let this sit for a night in the fridge to allow the pickling liquid to penetrate the skin and fat, and perhaps make this underwhelming dish a little more gastronomically desirable.
The next day I got to work on the pudding, which involved tossing grated batata, grated onion, habanero and a West Indian ingredient known as “browning” – basically a deep-brown burnt-sugar syrup – into the food processor and mixing it all into a mushy stuffing. While I worked, I soaked some natural sausage casings in water and lime juice:
So! Now, I had to get the wet stuffing into the sausage casings. Ummmm… huh.
I started working with a halfhearted little fingertip of stuffing, pushing it into the casing as far as I could. Most of it fell out, the casing split… this wasn’t happening. So I had a beer, sat, and thought for a minute. I recalled watching my grandfather, Salvatore, make fresh pork sausages on a big table in his garage. He had a crank-operated meat grinder, and would shimmy the casings onto the nozzle, bunching them all the way up. Then he would tie the end shut with string and slowly crank, releasing the casing as it filled with ground meat and spices. As he worked, he twisted the casings every few inches to separate the individual sausages. Surely I could find a way to mimic this age-old process…
My way is strictly analog, no crank-operated machinery – I bunched the casing onto a funnel, loaded the funnel with stuffing and, using the back of a wooden spoon, jammed the stuffing through the nozzle and into sausage-shaped puddings. If I had to make more than a few of these I probably would have killed myself, but it worked for a small batch of these fellas.
A brief simmer in boiling water and there you have it: pudding & souse.
A few of my casings split open, so I lost some of the weaker puddings in a Darwinian moment of steamy inevitability. Also, the filling in my puddings looks a little coarser than in pictures I have seen of the same dish, so I wonder if the several recipes I’d excavated weren’t too vague. In any case (get it? case? casing? Ahhhh go to hell.) they mimic the cakey, crumbly texture of actual blood pudding, which is their direct inspiration.
Speaking strictly on the plane of flavor – and here I do my best to be kind – the souse is exactly as you’d expect, and that’s not to say it’s bad. It’s also not to say it’s good. It’s certainly unique, piquant and citrus-y, though the rubbery fattiness of the pork is a task to chew through. Maybe a longer pickle could help with this?
The puddings were semi-sweet, and much more bitter than I expected – this probably has to do with the enormous amount of starch in the batata, as well as the deeply caramelized sugars in the browning syrup. At the very least, the casings had a nice snap to them.
Every culture has that one (or more than one) dish that makes visitors cringe and locals smile from ear to ear. In Iceland, it’s fermented rotten shark. In China, it’s bird’s nest soup. And in Barbados, it’s pudding & souse.
Damn you, flying fish!
Now you go:
1 lb. of an assortment of pig ears, tails, snout or feet, washed and scrubbed
1 large cucumber, seeded and grated
3 bay leaves
2 habaneros, seeded and sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
Salt to taste (start with 1 tsp)
Boil pig parts in water until cooked through and pale. Skim any froth that forms on the top. Drain and cool in cold water. Pick meat from all parts, discarding bones (the tail can have the bone left in). Slice large chunks into bite-sized pieces
Mix all ingredients in a large jar. Refrigerate overnight. Serve cold, with pudding and beer.
2 batatas, finely grated
1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp powdered cloves
1 small onion, finely grated
1 habanero, seeded and minced
2 tbsp butter, softened
2 tbsp browning syrup
3 scallions, minced
1/4 lb. pig intestines, soaked in water and the juice of 1 lime for one hour
Place all ingredients except for intestines in a food processor. Pulse until as smooth as possible.
Load a casing onto the nozzle of a funnel or a manually-operated meat grinder. Tie one end of a casing closed with some kitchen twine. Proceed to slowly fill the casing, tying off individual puddings as you progress. Repeat until filling is used up.
Boil or steam until skins are tight and translucent. Serve with souse.