Saturday, October 31, 2009

Brazil - History and Culture

If you want to overload your senses go to Brazil. The stunning beaches and the lively cities will rock your body in motion and your taste buds will kick to the beat as you sink your teeth into the sweet and tropical flavors of this eclectic cuisine. When I think of Brazil I want to dance. That’s what I imagine I’d be doing if I were there, a Salsa band playing on every street corner.

Brazilian cuisine speaks of its history and culture, a melting pot of people and foods that contrast but come together. The country has distinct regional cuisines, but its base and cooking heritage is most heavily influenced by three particular groups: the Brazilian natives, the conquering Portuguese and the African slaves who worked in the sugar cane fields.

Our Brazilian meal was a mixture of all three.

I found a Brazilian restaurant in Toronto called Caju. It was located on Queen Street West, the city’s trendy and cool hot spot. It’s a treat just to drive down this hip neighborhood that has been compared to New York’s Soho. As Julia stared out the window and commented on all the spray painted walls, she informed us she knows how to spell the F word. “It’s in the ‘uck’ family,” she said.

Kevin and I recalled what Americans said about Toronto when we found out we were moving here. We heard over and over again, “Toronto is very similar to New York, only cleaner.” I don’t think they would have thought that if they had been here last summer during the city garbage pickup strike. To me, Toronto is more similar to Chicago with how it sits on Lake Michigan. Then again, Toronto has its own unique and vibrant character, and though I don’t think it’s any cleaner than other cities I’ve been to it is one of the most ethnically diverse and therefore incredibly interesting.

We parked our car on a narrow side street with dilapidated townhouses on one side and a small city park on the other. We got out of the car and we hadn’t walked three feet when we saw a man in front of us urinating on the sidewalk. I grabbed Julia, who was walking a few steps ahead, and we quickly crossed the street.

The restaurant was intimate with modern décor. There were only a couple of other customers and it took awhile for the waitress to get to our drinks and our order. We were famished. This was not a good start.

When the food arrived we were not disappointed. Everything was delicious. We were first served little round egg breads. I learned later that this kind of bread it served at almost every meal in Brazil and it came from the Portuguese. While Kevin and John ordered pork and steak, Julia ordered the national dish called Feijoada. The menu described it like this: pork tenderloin, beef and chorizo sausage, braised in a black bean stew, served with rice, greens, cassava chips, farofa and vinaigrette. This dish came from the African slaves who used every part of the pig for this stew, including the pig’s snout, tail, and feet. The cassava, a root vegetable, came from the native Brazilians.

I ordered Moquica, fish cooked in a tomato and coconut broth with sweet peppers, onions and ginger and served with Basmati rice. Moquica is a staple dish from the Northeast region and its origins are from the Portuguese.

After we finished our meal there was not a crumb in sight. Our waitress was very impressed. We had ordered four large dishes as well as two appetizers and bread. My kids are not only good at trying different types of food they have big appetites. On those rare occasions when we go to all-you-can-eat places, I feel guilty paying child’s prices for them. I know full well they’re going to eat as much as I do.

At the Caju it wasn’t hard to finish our plates, even when eating the heavy Brazilian food. The waitress asked us if we wanted some desert. We skipped that and went back home to the suburbs and ate chocolate ice cream.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Botswana - Mopane Worms

“Mom, why are you making us weird?” John said this after I picked the kids up from school and told them we were going to make caterpillar stew. I saw it as a family bonding experience that we’d talk about for years, but John seemed only half interested. It made me realize that it was a good thing I was starting this eating the cuisines from around the world project now. If I had waited a year or two it would simply have been too humiliating. I was pushing my luck as it was.

A year ago John would have been thrilled to make caterpillar stew and would have bragged about it to his whole class. Still, I had to give him credit. When I first received the mopane worms from a friend (who shall remain anonymous for fear of custom agents knocking on her door) I opened the package and John popped one in his mouth with hardly giving it a thought. I ate one, too, but after careful consideration.

Mopane worms (which are caterpillars) are a species of the moth that feeds mostly on the mopane tree. They are a popular snack in Botswana and packed with protein. The caterpillars are hand picked in the wild and then pinched at the tail and squeezed to expel the green contents of the gut.

To preserve the mopane worms they are dried in the sun, or are smoked to give them additional flavor. The caterpillars are also canned in brine and sold in supermarkets in South Africa. (I received my mopane worms dried)

Christa told me that in some restaurants in South Africa they serve caterpillar stew and you will get a certificate if you eat it. Both her mom and her husband have gotten such certificates.

Our Botswana meal was like an episode of Fear Factor. It was not only gross to eat, but doubly gross to watch others eat. I took a few bites with whole chewy caterpillars and I could barely stand the thought or the bitter, leafy taste. Kevin took a few bites too and announced he could eat almost anything. He was proving it that night and I wondered if this was what he had in mind when he had asked me to marry him years ago.

John was enjoying himself. He kept taking spoonfuls – for pure theatrics sake – until I begged him to stop. How often do you hear a mom saying to her son, “Please, don’t eat your dinner!”

Julia, too, bless her heart, took a spoonful with a juicy caterpillar on her spoon.

With bowls still full of soup, the caterpillar stew was tossed. Then, I got out a pan and made grilled cheese sandwiches that we happily devoured. I promised the kids to give them certificates for their gallant effort in trying the Botswana stew.

This Botswana mopane worm experience made me think of the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. It was released in 1980 and is set in Botswana. It is the story of Xi who lives happily in the Kalahari Desert with his band of Bushmen until, one day, a Coke bottle is thrown out of an airplane. The Bushmen find many uses for this bottle, but since there is only one, the Bushmen begin to fight over it. So Xi decides the bottle is evil and goes on a journey to the edge of the world to throw the bottle away. On his quest he encounters Western civilization for the first time, and we see Westerners from his viewpoint.

Of course, Westerners look ridiculous from his point-of-view, and perhaps we are. In our family, I’m not helping by making us weird. But it’s all in a sure attempt to explore the world; to know new things about other countries and to eat the foods we never thought we’d try.

Botswana, a landlocked country in Southern Africa bordered by South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe - and the setting of one of my favorite book series The #1 ladies detective agency – is the sort of country, we in the West find fascinating. It’s a place where the Bushmen have lived as they have since the Stone Ages. Today it has a fairly stable government and the economy is growing rapidly. The country has a world- renowned diamond industry, and is doing quite well in tourism and manufacturing.

My neighbor asked me, “Wasn’t there any other more appetizing Botswana dish?” I’m sure Botswana has some wonderful food. Beef and goat are the most popular meats, and many fresh fruits are available as well. I could have picked something more to our liking – like grilled warthog, suggested Christa - but the mopane worms were more interesting (and a bit easier to make than grilled warthog, I suspect).

Maybe I am making us weird.

The Bushmans must be crazy – and I don’t mean the Bushmen in Africa.

Caterpillar Stew

200g dried mopane worms
1 onion, finely chopped
2 green bell peppers, sliced
6 tomatoes
1 TBSP curry powder
1 chili, deseeded and finely chopped
500ml water

Wash the worms and boil in lightly salted water for 30 minutes to re-constitute. Drain then add to the pan along with the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for about an hour. Serve with pap or samp and atchar.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bosnia and Herzegovina - dough

Bosnia and Herzegovina is in South-East Europe on the Balkan Peninsula bordered by Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. It gained its independence during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. The country’s tourism industry is growing rapidly. You may remember Sarajevo, the capital, as the host of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. It’s a city known for its religious and cultural sites. It’s also a popular skiing destination and an adventurers paradise who want to hike through the virtually untouched and wild Southern Alps. It is also a popular site for white water rafting with its three rivers, including Tara River, the deepest river canyon in Europe.

Bosnian food is a mixture of Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine with a strong Austrian influence. Typical meat dishes include beef and lamb and much of their meat is from animals raised on free range farms and have not been shot up with chemicals and hormones. Bosnian food also has a wide variety of dairy products.

For our Bosnian meal I made Burek (a beef-stuffed pastry) and a spinach pie (Zelijanica). It was good but a bit bland after Bhutan and Bolivia.

The kids loved making the Burek, even if they did fight over the rolling pin. I was glad they were keen on making this with me. They each got their own bowl in making the dough (we combined them later). Anything that is gooey and creates a mess is fun for them – even at their ages. There was flour all over the kitchen, which only added to my normal cooking mess. The kids dove their hands in their bowls pulling out a gooey blob but they had fun adding flour to it to create the perfect consistency.

I was in no position to complain about the mess. I was all too happy to hand over the dough making to John and Julia. Making bread scares me, and luckily, there was no yeast involved.

The Burek, surprisingly, turned out looking pretty. I had even coiled the dough to look like the kind of Bureks I had seen in pictures. We ate it doused with sour cream.

The spinach pie was simple to make. I had bought sheets of fillo dough and Julia helped me layer the baking dish with fillo dough and the spinach and cheese mixture. We ate it warm right out of the oven and cold the next day.


3 2/3 cup flour
2 TBSP butter, melted
warm water

1 lb minced veal
1 lb minced beef
4 onions
2 TBSP butter, melted
2 egg yolks
salt and pepper

Mix flour, melted butter, salt and warm water to make the pastry.

For the filling: mix meat, melted butter, chopped onions, egg yolks, salt and pepper.

Roll dough until thin and let it dry for a few minutes. Brush pastry with melted butter. Put the meat filling at the edge of the dough and then roll it up to look like a sausage. On the baking sheet create a spiral with the pastry starting from the middle of the pan.

Before completely baked pour a little melted butter on it.

Bake 30 minutes at 375 degrees.

Spinach pie (Zelijanica)

1 package fillo dough
2 bags fresh spinach
2 eggs
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 lb ricotta or cottage cheese (I used half a container)
olive oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
plain yogurt (optional)

Preheat over to 350. Chop spinach and put in a bowl. Add salt and mix with hands. Leave for 10 minutes and then drain. Mix together eggs and sour cream and add to spinach. Add cheese to the mixture. Grease baking pan. Take fillo sheets and lay them on a dry surface. Place one sheet of fillo and cut away excess. Brush with oil. Repeat for six or seven layers. Add some filling and spread evenly. Repeat until the pie reaches to top of pan, or you run out of ingredients. Finish with a fillo pastry on top. Place pie in oven, uncovered, for 35 minutes. Pour 1/4 cup sour cream blended with 1/4 cup of milk. Bake for another 15 minutes. It can be served warm or cold and it is served with yogurt.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bolivia - cornhusks and salsa

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America but rich in natural resources and an interesting place to visit. This landlocked country does not have beaches, but it does have Sorata, a colonial escape on a hillside beneath the snowcapped peaks of Llampu and Ancohuma, and the extremely cold Uyuni, and the jungles of the Amazon Basin and the grasslands of the Southeast. This country has a lot to offer its tourists. They can explore among the ruins of ancient civilizations mixed with the reminders of the country’s colonial past.

Kevin and I knew a couple that moved to Bolivia. I could kick myself now for not taking the opportunity to visit them. But the friends and I got in an email spat over the war in Iraq (they were for the war and I was against) and I haven’t heard from them since. It’s a pity.

We loved the Bolivian food. It was simple, and yet, one could (and should) spice it up with salsa. I made plato paceno, salsa cruda, and leche asada. I went to three different stores to get the ingredients, but I got the majority of my stuff at a Latin grocery store in Oakville. The man in charge was very helpful and he asked me why I was cooking a Bolivian dish. I told him. He laughed and asked us questions about it and we both agreed that one could learn so much about a country through the food. After I paid for our groceries he gave Julia an Argentine cookie. Julia gobbled it down and then said to the man, “We’ve done that country.”

For the main dish, plato paceno, I needed to use cornhusks. In a big pot I placed cornhusks on the bottom, poured boiling water over them and then, on top of the cornhusks I placed some corn on the cob, and then more cornhusks, then lima beans, more corn husks, then potatoes. The water evaporated and I burned the bottom of my expensive William Sonoma pot (one should keep an eye on the water level and add more when needed). The smell that arose was the same as when John burned the popcorn this past summer. The house reeked so bad we had to open all the windows and turn on our fans at full blast. It took days for the smell to go away and the pan, John popped the popcorn in, was ruined. The burn corn husks wasn’t as bad, but I’m still trying to get the burned husks scraped off my pan.

Despite all that, the dish was wonderful particularly since the meal was topped off with fried cheese and salsa. The dessert, leche asada, however, was a different story. I didn’t care for it. It tasted like an omelet with sugar on it.

Now I suppose I’ll try and find my friends who went to Bolivia. I’ll look on facebook. If I find them I’ll try and remember not to talk politics.

Plato Paceno

A package of corn husks
4 corn on the cob
2 cups of lima beans
4 potatoes
4 thick slices of fresh cheese
1/4 cup oil or butter
1 cup spicy salsa (or llajwa)

At the bottom of a large pot put in corn husks and add boiling water until covering them. Place the pot over high heat. When the water boils, add the corn, then more corn husks, then the lima beans. Let it boil for 25 minutes.

Add the potatoes and cover with more corn husks. Let it boil for another 20 minutes, or until all vegetables are cooked. In a fry pan, heat oil over high heat. Fry cheese slices until golden.

On each plate, serve one corn on the cob, lima beans, one potato and a slice of fried cheese. Add llajwa or salsa.

Salsa Cruda

1/2 cup white onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup tomato, peeled and finely chopped
1 chili pepper, finely chopped
1 tsp fresh parsley, finely chopped.
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper

Mix all ingredients and mix in a few drops of olive oil.

Leche Asada

6 eggs
2 cups milk
1 cup granulated sugar

In a bowl, beat eggs and then add sugar and milk. Mix very well. Pour the mixture into a baking dish and bake at 400 degrees for one hour. Let it cool before serving.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bhutan - The Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan, a landlocked nation nestled in the Eastern Himalayas, is called the “land of the thunder dragon.” It sounds militaristic and malevolent but, in fact, it’s predominately Buddhist and embraces the concept of gross national happiness as opposed to gross national product. In 2006, Business Week magazine rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia.

It is said to be the last Shangri-la, virtually isolated from the rest of the world until the early 1960s. It prides itself on preserving its culture, identity and the environment. For example, Bhutanese law requires all its citizens to wear the national dress in public areas and as formal wear. They have banned the sale of tobacco, Thimpu, the capital, has no traffic lights, and they are passionate about their food, and their chilies. They love spicy hot dishes. Their favorite, and considered the national dish, is the ema datshi – it’s all chili and cheese. This is what I made, only, not the real spicy version (or my kids wouldn’t have been able to eat it). The real version, if you will, is hot, hot, hot – just the way they like it. And in Bhutan, they use yak cheese (sorry folks, I couldn’t find that. I had to substitute it with Danish feta cheese). I hope that someday I can go to Bhutan myself and try it the authentic way.

I can picture myself breathing in the fresh Himalayan air and praying in a Bhutanese Buddhist temple teetering on the side of a mountain. I am not a religious person, but if I had to choose a religion it would be Buddhism. It’s a peaceful religion, I admire the Dali Lama, and I believe in past lives.

I once went to a Lives Between Lives hypnotist who put me under hypnosis for six hours in a two-day period. I saw visions of myself in different lives, but I can’t tell you it was real. It could have been my imagination. I just don’t know. That’s what’s so frustrating about it.

Recently I had a troubling experience. When I went to Chicago for my cousin’s wedding I spent the last day there with my friend, Jen, who lives in a town outside the city. For fun we made an appointment with a psychic. When we met with the psychic, we were all in the same room so I could listen in on Jen’s reading and she could listen in on mine. The psychic said to Jen that she saw her in a past life as a little girl in a bonnet skipping across a meadow towards a man on a horse. Jen and the psychic spent some time trying to figure out who this man was, perhaps a father.

Then the psychic turned to me. She said that in my past lives I had been a warrior and a bird of prey. “I can even taste the blood,” she said. Okay. This was getting a bit much, even for me. Feeling insulted and wondering why she didn’t see me skipping through a meadow in a bonnet, I let her know that I was a very peaceful person.

“I wear a peace sign necklace,” I said to her as I pulled my necklace out from under my shirt to show her. “I hate war and killing anything. When I see a bug in my house, I capture it and set it free.” This is true and I would become a vegetarian if I didn’t love food so darn much! Whatever impression she got of me I was sure she had gotten it all wrong. I may have pranced into her office wearing a Banana Republic scarf and shirt with knee-high fashion boots, but I’m a New Age hippie at heart.

The more I thought about it the angrier I got and wondered what the hell was the matter with this woman! But then I calmed down and realized that sometimes what we interpret and what is real are two different things. Either the psychic was full of crap and she didn’t know what the hell she was doing, or I could look at this whole warrior/bird of prey thing differently. Perhaps the psychic saw in me strength, bravery and a determination to succeed.

And, perhaps, that’s how we must see Bhutan. Not as a fire-breathing dragon country closed off from the rest of the world, but as a country who takes great measure in preserving its culture so that it can remain a sort of Shangri-la.

Ema Dashi

1/2 lb hot green chilis (can substitute poblanos)
1 medium sweet onion, diced
3/4 cup water
1/2 lb Danish feta cheese (normally made with Yak cheese)
2 tsp vegetable oil
2 tomatoes, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp fresh cilantro, chopped

Remove seeds and ribs from chilis and cut chilis lenthwise into 4 pieces each. Place chilis and onion in water with vegetable oil. Boil 10 minutes. Add tomato and garlic and simmer for 2 more minutes. Add cheese and simmer on low for another 2 minutes - enough to blend the cheese without completely melting it. Add cilantro and stir. Serve with rice (Bhutanese red rice if you can.

Kewa Datshi

4 potatoes
1/3 cup cheese (swiss, farmers or any white cheese)
1/4 cup chopped red onions
1 TBSP oil
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp chili powder

Cut potatoes into small pieces. Put the potatoes, oil and salt in a saucepan. Add 1 and 1/2 cups water. Cut the cheese into small pieces and when the potatoes are almost done, add the cheese. Then add chopped onions and tomatoes to taste, and chili powder.

Don't put too much water in this dish, and don't let it dry up. Add a little bit of water everytime it gets low.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Benin - voodoo

When I was five we moved to Lagos, Nigeria. I loved living there, but my mother was relived when we finally left two years later. We had to deal with coups, power shortages, American hatred, and bouts of hepatitis. There was always the fear we’d stumble across a dead body lying around. They were common on Ikorudu road near the airport where there was lots of heavy traffic; people would get hit by cars and left lying in the street. Bodies were also seen floating in the harbor washed up along the beach. And then there was always the chance you’d have a juju put on your house. Someone had put a juju on the Embassy Air Attaché’s house. Sensibly, they hired someone to take the juju off and went out of town for the weekend. And there was the incident at the house of an Embassy secretary. One morning she went out to find a dead chicken in her yard and it was surrounded by a ring of stones.

Benin is the birthplace of voodoo. I don’t know if these jujus placed on the houses of our friends in Lagos were from voodoo or just some witchcraft, but here, in the West, they are one and the same. Voodoo is a misunderstood religion, sensationalized by Hollywood and demonized by Christian missionaries. But it’s a religion that has been around for 400 years and African slaves brought voodoo with them to the Caribbean. It is practiced in places like Haiti and New Orleans.

In Benin, the religion of voodoo is officially recognized and about 60% of the population follow voodoo. The religion connects its worshipers to the land, culture and ancestors. For some of us it’s frightening since it has animal sacrifices, spirit possession and many deities. It does have a dark side where sorcerers are asked to place hexes on adversaries, but voodoo priests also pray for peace and give hope to a people who face war and AIDS.

The republic of Benin is located in West Africa on the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea. It borders with Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria.

When my father was stationed at the American Embassy in Lagos as the security officer, one of the countries he was responsible for was Benin - only then, it was called Dahomey. He traveled to Contonou, Dahomey quite often and once my mother went with him. Contonou is the country’s economic capital and its largest city. It is also where the U.S. Embassy is located, even though the official capital is Porto-Novo. Cotonou was only a three-hour drive from our house in Lagos. My parents drove along a coastal highway across the Dahomey frontier through the jungle and little villages with grasshuts. In Dahomey, the people along the road were much the same as Nigerians, dressed in colorful cloths and women carrying baskets on their heads.

Contonou was right on the ocean and had wide tree-lined streets, fresh ocean breezes, and large old houses. It was a French-speaking country and all the street signs were in French and it looked different from English-influenced Nigeria. But the country was very primitive, there was a dirt road in front of the American Embassy, and my father noticed a steady decline of the country in the two years he was stationed in Africa. This decline was due, most likely, to the government nationalizing everything and running French businesses out of the country.

While my father worked, my mother went around to the local markets and dropped cash all over Contonou. She bought carved wooded chairs, wall hangings, necklaces, brass bells and even French bread.

Benin is now one of the poorest countries in the world, and yet, it has some of the best food in the region.

For our Beninese meal I made couscous Azindessi and it was delicious. It had chicken, tomatoes, onions, garlic and lots of peanut butter and dry-roasted peanuts. Everyone loved it and even took two or three helpings. It is something I might make again.

The night I made the couscous Azindessi both the children were at a friend’s houses. Kevin and I were able to enjoy a nice quiet meal alone. Before long, the children came home and I had their couscous Azindessi ready for them at the table.

When Julia was dropped off by her friend’s parent, Julia and her friend were giggly and goofing off as we stood by the front door. As the parent and child left the house Julia ran outside after them. “Julia, come back in here and eat your couscous!” I yelled. The parent of Julia’s friend and I had a laugh over that.

I wonder if my mother had said something similar to me when we lived in Nigeria, the country next door to Benin.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Belize - Under the shade I flourish

One of the things I love about living in the Toronto area is it has a diverse society. Many of my friends are from all over the world, and world travelers. Christa, one of my best friends, is from South Africa and from her I have learned about her country, culture, language and food. In turn, I have taught her about the United States and my culture. Learning from each other has only enriched our friendship.

Belize, a country the size of New Hampshire, in Central America in the Caribbean Sea, also has a diverse society with many cultures living together and speaking many different languages. Kriol and Spanish are widely spoken, but English is the official language.

Because of this diversity, the Belizean cuisine has a mixture of Caribbean, Mexican, African, Spanish and Mayan culinary influences. They eat lots of fresh seafood such as fish, shrimp, lobster and conch. Rice and beans is often served as an accompaniment to a main dish. Belizeans also eat meat and poultry, as well as some unusual game. How would you like to eat gibnut or iguana? Before you answer that let me first tell you that gibnut is a large rodent. It is often called “The Queen’s Rat.” I read that Queen Elizabeth was served gibnut during a visit. Did they want her to come back? Supposedly, gibnut tastes like rabbit. And if you’re reading a menu in Belize, don’t think bamboo chicken is some Chinese chicken dish - it’s iguana. But it tastes like chicken.

For our Belizean dinner I made Belizean rice and beans and Banana fritters, and to go with the rice and beans I bought tamales. Tamales are widely eaten in Belize, but too labor intensive for me to make. I’m a little crazy, but not that crazy. My life has been one exhausting whirl since I started this project so labor intensive just won’t do. I had to go to a Caribbean grocery store to find black beans in a bag. In my regular grocery store they just had them in a can. I guess people aren’t into soaking beans for hours these days, which is what I had to do. I then cooked the beans in garlic, onion, coconut milk and thyme. The recipe also called for pig’s tail, but thankfully that was optional.

Surprisingly, my banana fritters turned out. I had to dunk the bananas in a very funky egg and flour mixture. But they looked pretty and tasted all right. So our Belizean dinner was like the country; it was a Mexican, Caribbean, Island meal. The flavors complimented and blended together. It made the meal interesting, like blending people from different countries.

One of Belize’s national treasures is the mahogany tree. Most of the country is heavily forested and during its colonial period the exploitation of these trees began. But the industry formed the basis of their economy.

The Mahogany tree is a beautiful giant that towers above the forests. The motto on Belize’s Coat of Arms says: “Sub Lembra Florero.” It means: under the shade (of the mahogany tree) I flourish.

With my wonderfully diverse friends in Toronto I flourish. They are my treasures.

Belizean Rice and Beans

1 cup beans (black)
1 tsp salt
1 cup coconut milk
6 -8 cups water
1/2 tsp pepper
2 garlic cloves
2 cups rice
1/2 tsp thyme
1 med. onion
1 small pig's tail (optional)

Soak beans for 4 - 6 hours. Boil beans until tender with garlic, onion, (and pig's tail). Season with black pepper, thyme and salt. Add coconut milk. Stir. Let boil.

Add rice to beans. Stir, then cover. Cook until water is absorbed or rice is tender. If necessary, add more water gradually until rice is tender.

Banana Fritters

3 - 4 firm green bananas
1/4 cup flour
2 TBSP lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
4 eggs, separated
Oil for frying

Peel bananas and cut lengthwise in slices and cut each slice in half. Squeeze lemon juice over bananas. Drain.

Beat egg yolks until thick and light. Add flour and salt. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into mixture. Heat oil. Put banana slices in batter. Add coated banana slices to oil. Turn once and cook until brown on both sides.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Belgium - Mussels

My love affair with food began in Belgium. I was six and my parents and I were on our way to Israel to live for two years. My father was assigned to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. To get there, we decided to take the scenic route through Europe. We spent several days in London and then flew to Amsterdam to pick up our new car, a Fiat. We spent the night in Amsterdam, then drove to The Hague the next day, and then drove on to Brussels. We eventually ended up in Paris, our last stop, before we flew to our new home in Tel Aviv.

Our drive through Europe was glorious. We drove mostly through the countryside, past picturesque farms and little towns before we arrived at the old city of Brussels. We stayed in a hotel that was built in1696. I wish I could remember the name of the hotel or how I felt to be staying in such an old place.

That night my father wasn’t feeling well and he stayed back at the hotel while my mother and I roamed the city streets. It was a lively place, even late at night. I remember I felt very grown up to be out so late and with just my mother. That’s what was so special about that night, never mind that I was in Brussels surrounded by beautiful boulevards, grand churches and 17th century buildings.

Eventually, we walked into a packed restaurant and sat down. A waiter came over and asked us what we wanted. I stood on my chair and peered around at what everyone else was eating. I saw a lady at the table next to us eating mussels.

“I want that!” I said loudly and pointed to the woman’s plate.

“Are you sure? You’ve never had mussels,” my mother warned. But I insisted. My mother shrugged and told the waiter to bring me what the woman at the next table was having.

The waiter showed up with an enormous bowl of mussels. I ate every one of them and then told my astonished mother that I wanted more. From that day on I told everyone that my favorite food was mussels, and I first ate them in Brussels.

For my Eat Planet project, my family and I went to a restaurant called The Fat Belgian in Toronto. It was a small, two-story establishment in the heart of the city. We sat at a table by the window on the second floor. From our seats, we could observe city life in action: people swiftly walking to their destinations in the darkening night sky past restaurants, shops and beggars who had planted themselves on street corners. Directly across the street from us was a Hooters.

“What’s so special about Hooters?” John asked after Kevin and I discussed how I had never been to that restaurant.

“The waitresses have big boobs,” I said matter-of-factly. John gave me an embarrassed smile.

“And,” Kevin piped in, “they have good chicken wings.”

“Yes, let’s not forget,” I added.

When our waitress came over we ordered the mussels and fries, a typical Belgium cuisine. I also ordered a dark Belgium beer, and Belgium waffles for dessert. We ordered two types of mussels. The fat Belgian mussels were steamed in Dekoninck draft, toasted walnuts, leeks, Gruyere cheese, butter, scallions and tomato concassees, and we ordered the Mussels Mariniere. They were steamed in a white wine butter sauce with scallions, tomato concassees, Sambuca and butter. Our meal was simply scrumptious,

Belgium shares borders with France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. They have three official languages: Dutch, French, and German.

“If we were living in Belgium,” I teased John, “maybe you would be taking Dutch or German immersion instead of French.” John takes French immersion in school since Canada has two official languages: French and English.

I also mentioned how Belgium may have the highest quality of life in the world. This is due to many things including excellent healthcare, housing, education, a low poverty rate, and good food.

While I sucked down my Mussels Mariniere and reminisced about my lively night in Brussels with my mother, the people across the street were being served burgers by big-busted women. Inside The Fat Belgian we were enjoying one of the finer things in life: eating delicious, quality food in an atmosphere of warm ambiance. Kevin, John and Julia and I were clearly in a different world – a better world in my estimation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Belarus - Potato

Have you seen the movie Defiance? It came out in 2008 and stars Daniel Craig, the current 007 in the James Bond movies. Defiance is about the Bieski brothers, Jewish brothers who fled to the forest when Hitler invaded Russia. They built a village in the forest from which they rescued over a 1,000 Jews and mounted guerilla attacks against the Nazis. This village was referred to as “Jerusalem in the woods,” and the Bielski brothers are said to be three of the greatest unsung heroes of the Holocaust – equal to Oscar Schindler. The location of “Jerusalem in the woods” was the Belarusian forests. The Bielski brothers were from a small village near what is now Navahrudak, Belarus.

Belarus is a land lock country in Eastern Europe bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. During World War Two Belarus territory was completely occupied by Nazi Germany and the Belarusian people resisted the Nazi occupants. This resistance made a great contribution to the victory over the Nazis, but 25% of the Belarusian population was lost and most of Minsk, its capital, lay in ruins. It took many years to restore the city. It wasn’t until 1991 when Belarus declared independence from the USSR. In 1994 Alexander Lukashenka was elected the country’s president and remains president to this day.

One of the most popular dishes of Belarus cuisine is draniki, thick pancakes, prepared from shredded potatoes. Mushroom stuffed draniki is what I prepared for our Belarusian meal. Belarusian forests are plentiful of mushrooms so we were in keeping with the staples of their cuisine. I used a variety of dried mushrooms and I don’t know if they were indigenous to the Belarus forests or not – probably not. But, there was no second-guessing when it came to the potato pancakes. The people of Belarus call the potato the second bread and there are over 300 recorded Belarusian potato recipes. They have songs and dances about the potato and in the Soviet Union Belarusians were scornfully called potato eaters.

On our Belarus night we were potato eaters and enjoying every moment, though I did not have much luck stuffing the potatoes with the mushrooms. I couldn’t quite figure out how to flip the potato mixture without my draniki falling apart and my mushrooms falling out. So I suppose you could say we had draniki with mushrooms. The kids loved it. Anything involving potatoes are a big hit in my family. You can also top your draniki with sour cream and cheese, but unfortunately I did not figure this out until we were done with our meal.

Later, Kevin, John and I watched Defiance. It was about revenge, loyalty, and survival. Like most Holocaust movies it showed the worst of humanity and what humans can tolerate when pushed to the brink. The movie made us wonder if we could be just as brave, just as determined to survive in such horrible circumstances. Now we know what happened in the woods of Belarus. I wonder if you can still feel the anguish in the cold forest air.

Mushroom stuffed Draniki

4 potatoes
2 tsp flour
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil for frying

For stuffing:

1/2 oz. dried mushrooms (dried because they are more flavorful than fresh)
1 onion, finely sliced
oil for frying

Wash the dried mushrooms and soak in cold water for 3 to 4 hours. Wash the mushrooms again and return to the water you used to saok them. Pour water with mushrooms into a saucepan and boil for about 1 hour (this didn't work for me. All the water boiled away). Remove mushrooms from the stock.

Meanwhile, fry the slice onion until golden. Add the minced mushrooms and 1/2 cup of the mushroom stock and mix well.

Shred the raw potatoes and wring them out. Add the flour. egg, salt and pepper and mix. Shape the potato mixture into small balls, flatten with your hand, put a little bit of filling on top, and cover with more potato mixture, Flatten into patties and fry until golden brown. Place in oven for a few minutes and serve. You can top the draniki with sour cream.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Kangaroo (Australia)

In the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto where I found the Barbados flying fish, I also found kangaroo burgers. For my Australian meal I cooked beer battered fish and chips but when I saw the kangaroo meat I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to try this unusual meat.

Kangaroo is produced in Australia and is exported to more than 55 countries worldwide. It was an important part of the traditional Aboriginal diet as a bush food. It wasn’t until 1993 that the consumption of kangaroo meat was legalized for all Australian states. Only about 14% of Australians say they eat kangaroo more than four times a year. But apparently the consumption of this meat is becoming more widespread. Many Australian supermarkets provide various cuts of kangaroo, including “kanga bangas” or other wise known as kangaroo sausages.

Kangaroo is free range. They are not produced on organized farms and are hunted by commercial farmers. The practice is supported by some Australian ecologists who argue that kangaroo farming is more environmentally friendly than farming sheep and cattle because Kangaroos require less food, are well-adapted to draught, and do not destroy the root systems of native grasses. However, the Australian Wildlife Protection Council claims that kangaroo hunters shoot female kangaroos, many who have young. The young are either brutally killed or will escape only to die of starvation, or by some other means, later. They also claim that the commercial hunters fail to meet any of the meat hygiene requirements when hunting this animal.

I’ve read that there is an increasing popularity in this game because of its health benefits. Kangaroo meat is high in protein and low in fat, and has a very high concentration of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may also reduce body fat and high blood pressure. Plus, it is known to have anti-diabetes and anti-carcinogenic properties.

Kangaroo meat is surprisingly tender and has a strong flavor. It’s been compared to venison and tastes gamy. When frying up the burgers the meat was crumbly because it has very little fat. I was glad I cooked it on the stove and had not attempted to grill them outside. I think most of the meat would have fallen in the cracks of the grill, and I’m not very good at flipping. I personally did not care for the meat but Kevin and the kids seemed to like it.

Kangaroo meat was fun to try, but I will investigate the way the kangaroos are killed before I will consume them again. I do like the idea that they are free range - I buy free range chicken eggs and I also try to buy free range beef - but I wonder how the killing of kangaroos compare to some of the devastating farming practices of cattle in the U.S.? Then again, I know that if I investigate too far into this topic I will become a sworn vegetarian. That would make it difficult for me to continue this project.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Barbados - Flying fish and kangaroo

I called eleven places in a thirty mile radius of my house until I finally found the Barbados flying fish at a place called Mike’s Fish Market. It was located in the famous St. Lawrence Market in the center of the historic Old Town Toronto. According to Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides, the St. Lawrence Market is “ considered by gastronomes around the globe as one of the world’s best markets, a visit here is reason enough for food lovers to travel to Toronto.” I cannot describe to you my enormous relief when I heard the words, “Yes, we’ve got flying fish.” I was desperate to get these fish. I was ready to go to great lengths - short of flying to Barbados myself to get the dang things!

You must understand: Barbados is called, “the land of the flying fish.” These little buggers are found in its warm surrounding waters, they are depicted on coins, made into sculptures, are found in artwork, they are even a part of the official logo of the Barbados Tourism Authority for God’s sake. The Barbados national dish is flying fish. Do you get my drift here? You simply cannot go to Barbados and leave without at least tasting this fish. It would be like going to Mexico and never having a taco. It would be like going to China and not having a bowl of rice. See what I mean?

I live in a town outside of Toronto and going into the city is not the easiest thing in the world, especially if you’re going there just to pick up some fish. But as it turned out, it couldn’t have worked out more perfectly. I was already going to Toronto the next day to see Meryl Streep – me and six hundred other people. My friend, Lynn, had managed to snag tickets for me and my other friend, Christa. I gladly offered to drive and packed a cooler with ice.

Before seeing Meryl we stopped at the St. Lawrence Market. It simulated the senses and made us want a market like this in our town. It had over 120 specialty shops with a huge selection of meat, fish, cheese and produce. They had a large variety of meat, including Kangaroo and camel. I bought Kangaroo burgers – not because I get off on carnivorous thrills – but in honor of Australia. When I was cooking my Austrian meal I had joked about getting kangaroo meat, and there it was! I couldn’t pass it up.

The next night I cooked our Barbados meal of flying fish and cau-cau, which, together, is the national dish. Flying fish are common to tropical waters and they are a small fish shaped like a herring. They have wings and they can fly, or glide. The wings are actually large pectoral fins that enable them to glide through the air at fast speeds. Cau-cau consists of cornmeal and okra. The dish became common in Barbados during its early colonial period. The origin of cau-cau goes back to the island’s African ancestry and was a regular meal for the slaves who were brought over from Africa to Barbados.

Barbados is a Caribbean island nation in the Western Atlantic Ocean. The original inhabitants had come from Venezuela, but had disappeared by the time the first British settlers came to the island. For over three hundred years Barbados was a colony and protectorate of the United Kingdom, and still maintains Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. Colonists first cultivated tobacco and cotton, and then later, switched to sugar, which proved to be very profitable. Slaves were brought in from Africa to work on the sugar plantations. It wasn’t until 1834 that slavery was abolished in the British Empire. The island gained independence in 1966.

Barbados seems to have it together. It is one of the most developed islands in the region with a high literacy rate and a booming capital, Bridgetown. The pictures look beautiful and is said to have a very pleasant tropical climate. The beaches look lovely and coral reefs fringe the Barbados shoreline, perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving. It sounds so impressive that I would like our family to consider this destination for our winter vacation.

Our Barbados meal was quite good. I encrusted the flying fish in flour, egg and cornflakes crumbs before frying them in oil. I then garnished them with lime. They were crunchy and flat and the flavor was mild but had a distinct taste. The cau-cau, however, had little flavor – a sort of filler dish – much like our bread. It was interesting to try and I’m glad I knew its history. It made for a colorful conversation at dinner about slavery.

After we ate, I fried up some kangaroo burgers – even though I was no longer hungry. The meat had de-thawed in the cooler while I was in Toronto. I felt I had no choice but to cook it up right away. So we finished our flying fish and began eating kangaroo. But I’ll tell you about that in another post.

Fried Flying Fish

1 lb flying fish
1 1/2 tsp salt
juice of large lime
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 small onion
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
dash hot pepper sauce
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup cornflakes crumbs
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
oil for pan frying
2 limes quartered for garnish

Season fish fillets with 1 tsp salt and lime juice and set aside for 15 minutes. Drain and pat fish dry with paper towels. In a small bowl, mix garlic, onion, marjoram and hot pepper sauce together. Rub mixture on fillets. Mix flour, cayenne pepper, 1/2 tsp salt and pepper in a bowl. Dip fillets in flour, then egg, then cornflakes crumbs. Heat oil in skillet and cook fillets for 3 minutes on each side. Garnish with lime wedges and serve.

Cau Cau

4 okras
4 cups boiling water
2 cups corn meal
2 cups cold water
1 tsp salt
1 TBSP butter

Cook okras in boiling water for 10 to 12 minutes. While they are cooking, mix the cornmeal and cold water to a smooth paste. When okras are soft, lower the heat, add salt and corn meal mixture, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture becomes stiff.

When the mixture breaks away cleanly from the side of the saucepan, the cau-cau is ready.

Butter a bowl; turn the mixture onto it, shaking it so that it takes the shape of the bowl. The turn it out onto a serving dish, make an indentation on the top and place a knob of butter on it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bangladesh - weddings

This was the week that Julia and I went to Chicago for my cousin Christy’s wedding. We left Thursday. I had three days to cram in a week’s worth of work. Of course this was the week Kevin was out of town on business. And, of course, I had a dinner to go to on Wednesday night. And, of course, I just had to cook a world cuisine before we headed off for Chicago.

On Wednesday afternoon I made the Bangladesh meal. In retrospect I should have made a traditional Bengali wedding dish. I’m sorry I didn’t. But when I was looking at recipes I wanted something vegetarian. Ever since we’ve started this project we’ve eaten so much meat, and we’re not big meat eaters. While the kids were in school I made Masoor Daal and Fulkopir Baati Jhaal while watching The View.

Masoor Daal is mashed lentil with fried onions, cumin seeds, turmeric powder and green chili. The Fulkopir Baati Jhaal is a potato and cauliflower dish mixed with ground mustard paste, tomato, green chili and turmeric powder. Both dishes were tasty and made a healthy lunch. I love lentils and I cook them often, but I never thought to mash them. A flat bread is the perfect accompaniment. You can use the bread to scoop up the masoor daal. After I was done eating I wrapped up the two dishes and put them in the refrigerator for the kids. They would eat the Bengali dishes for supper.

When I left for the evening to go out to dinner, I put John in charge. “The Bangladesh meal is in the frig,” I told him. “Heat it up and remember to take pictures!”

At a Thai restaurant a couple of women and I surprised our pregnant friend with a card and gift. She’s ready to pop and we gladly shared with her our own labor stories. We shamelessly went into morbid details about our cervixes and episiotomies. After our birthing horror stories we smiled and reassured our soon-to-be mother friend that she was going to do just great.

Early the next morning, Julia and I were off to Chicago to celebrate yet another life-changing milestone. (Kevin arrived back home late the night before and he and John stayed behind since John had a football game on Sunday).

Julia and I had a fabulous time at the wedding despite the fact that I’m not one for formal ceremonies and traditions. But I do admit that it is interesting to study the wedding ceremonies of different cultures.

In Bangladesh, a Muslim country located in Southern Asia between Burma and India, the weddings are colorful celebrations. They include many rituals and ceremonies that can span for several days such as turmeric ceremonies or gaye holud. It means “yellowing the body." Turmeric paste is rubbed on the skin of the bride and groom. At the wedding the guests wear colorful clothes and the bride wears red with heavy gold ornaments. The reception party is the next day and arranged by the groom’s family.

No matter the culture, weddings are about celebrating with family and food. Christy’s wedding was no exception. It was fun dancing and drinking with the people I have known all my life. I told everyone about my blog and how I had cooked a Bangladesh meal. I mentioned that in Dhaka, Bangladesh a poultry farmer won a 14 inch T.V for killing 83,450 rats and collected their tails for proof. I now know all kinds of weird world information, which makes great conversation starters.

I watched Julia play with little Joey, my cousin Joe’s son. It was striking how Joey looked like Joe when he was a boy. Julia could have been my double when I was a little girl. The two children laughed and danced together, bouncing and twirling, their age difference about the same as Joe and I - he being a few years younger. Everyone exclaimed how adorable they looked. It made me smile. The only thing missing was our grandmother who died just last April. It would have brought tears to her eyes to have seen them. I could almost hear grandma say, “I can remember how you and Joe used to play. You two were so cute together.”

When the party was over we all said good-bye with hugs and kisses. Joe and I acknowledged that our children were the younger version of us and we marveled at how quickly time passes. “I’ve missed you,” I said to him and we promised we’d see each other soon.

Fulkopir Baati Jhaal

1 cup potato, diced
1 cup cauliflower flowerets
2 tsp freshly ground mustard paste
1 med. tomato, quartered
1 green chili
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
salt to taste

Mix all the ingredients in a small saucepan, and add a cup of water. Cook covered, on low heat until vegetables are done. Serve at room temperature.

Masoor Daal

1 cup of masoor daal (red spilt lentils)
1 med. onion
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
salt to taste
1 green chili

Wash and boil lentils in 2 1/2 cup of water. Mash the lentils. Heat 3 TBSP of oil. Rast cumin seeds until red. Add the sliced onions and fry until golden brown. Pour the mashed lentils into a wok and add turmeric powder, salt and green chili. Let the lentil mixture simmer for at least 10-15 minutes.