Sunday, January 31, 2010

Guatemala - Spanish Tortilla

Guatemala is located in Central America next to the countries of Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. In the southwest is the Pacific Ocean and to the east is the Caribbean. You can’t go to Guatemala and not notice the Maya heritage, volcanoes, brightly colored textiles and crucifixes. And, although it’s had its problems in the past with guerilla warfare and dictators, and it’s still known to be unsafe in certain parts of the country, it’s a place many people fall in love with and return again and again.

Guatemala’s culture is apparent in its cuisine, a blend of Mayan, Spanish and Mexican traditions. For our Guatemalan meal I cooked Frijoles Negros Volteados (fried black bean paste), Spanish Tortilla and Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan style rice). Everything was very good and not hard to make. I’ve made Spanish tortillas before when, years ago, a friend of mine from Spain taught me how to make it (although she called it a Spanish omelet). The only thing is that you have to be good at flipping mass amounts of potato and egg onto a plate and back again into the pan without it all falling apart. I had a bit of an issue with that. Even when making a standard omelet I end up making scrambled eggs.

Spanish Tortilla

3 large white potatoes, thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 eggs
1 small red pepper, seeded and sliced
Flat-leaf parsley, minced

Skins may be left on the potatoes, if you want. Slice the potatoes very thin. Heat TBSP of oil in a pan and sauté the potatoes and onion, stirring until golden brown. Season with salt and pepper.

Beat eggs and mix the potatoes with the eggs. In a frying pan, heat the remaining oil and pour in the potato and egg mixture. Cook over medium heat. Don’t stir and let it set. With a plate, flip over and cook on the other side until brown. Garnish with pepper and parsley.

Guatemalan Style Rice

2 cups long grain rice
2 TBSP oil
1 cup mixed vegetables (carrots, celery, sweet red peppers, green peas) finely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 cups chicken stock

Heat oil in saucepan and add rice. Sautee lightly until the rice has absorbed the oil. Add the mixed vegetables, salt and pepper, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cool for 20 minutes or until rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed.

Fried Black Bean Paste

2 cups of black bean puree (canned refried black beans)
1 TBSP oil
Sour cream

Heat oil over medium heat in a skillet. Add bean puree and mix. Stir until the puree thickens and the liquid evaporates. Continue until the mix begins to come away from the skillet and you can form it into a sausage shape. Serve warm with tortillas, cheese and sour cream.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Grenada - Spiced Islands

Grenada is called the “Spiced Islands” because of all the spices it produces including cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove. Its waterfront in St George is one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Few people may know this because of the hard knocks this country has had to face in recent years.

First, there was a U.S. invasion led by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Yes, it seems silly that we would invade a country the size of Martha’s Vineyard. It had to do with cold war politics and Cuba being, somehow, involved. Then in 2004, a hurricane destroyed much of the island.

Apparently, they have pulled it together, rebuilt and have a lot to offer a tourist looking for beaches, rainforests and friendly locals.

For our Grenada meal I cooked Jerk Chicken Wings made with spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. I’m not a huge fan of chicken wings but my family gobbled them up.

Jerk Chicken Wings

To make the marinade you will need:

1 onion, chopped
2/3 cup scallions, chopped
2 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp all spice
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup minced pickled jalapeno pepper, or to taste (I skipped this since my kids have a hard time eating spicy food)
1 tsp black pepper
6 drops of pepper sauce, or to taste
2 TBSP soy sauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil

18 chicken wings

In a food processor or blender puree the marinade ingredients.

In a large dish arrange the wings in one layer and spoon the marinade over them, rubbing it in. Let the wings marinate, covered and chilled, turning them once, for at least 1 hour, preferably, overnight.

Arrange the wings in one layer on an oiled rack set over a foiled-lined roasting pan, spoon the marinade over them (I just baked the wings on a baking sheet). Bake the wings at 450 degrees for 30 – 35 minutes, or until cooked through.

Greece - Pastitsio

I haven’t been to Greece since I was a little girl. I was only six or seven so I don’t remember much. But I do remember that my parents rented a van and we drove to a rented beach house. On the way I saw Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, my mother pointed out. She then told me the Greek stories of Zeus, Poseidon and Aphrodite.

I had moussakka for the first time on that trip. The savory combination of cinnamon, lamb, eggplant and cheese were irresistible on my young palate and stuck to the roof of my mouth. After that, every birthday, while growing up, my mom made me a special moussakka dinner. Even though she was not one who spent a lot of time in the kitchen, for me, she’d spend much of the day preparing the meal.

I already cooked moussakka for Cyprus, if you recall. So, for our Greek meal I cooked Pastitsio, a baked meat and pasta casserole. It is one of Greece’s most popular dishes. Most of the recipes I tackle for this project are quick. This one is not, but you’re not going to find many who don’t like this dish.

Pastitsio: Baked Meat and Pasta Casserole

1 1/2 lbs tubular pasta (ziti, penne)
1 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/4 cup chopped onions
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
2 1/2 cups peeled, chopped plum tomatoes
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
6 whole cloves
Sea salt
20 or more ground peppercorns to taste
1 1/4 cup grated Kefalotyri cheese (or Pecorino)
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
Bechamel sauce with cheese

Sautee the onions in 2 TBSP olive oil in a large frying pan. When the onions are translucent, add meat and continue to stir until lightly brown. Add tomatoes, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir well to combine. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid has been absorbed, about 30 to 35 minutes. Meat should be dry without sticking to the pan. Set meat mixture aside, uncovered and allow to cool.

In the meantime (while meat is simmering), preheat oven 350 degrees and lightly grease a baking dish. Prepare the pasta. Cook until slightly underdone, drain and toss with a couple of TBSP of olive oil to prevent sticking and set aside.

Make béchamel sauce with cheese.
2 cans evaporated milk (I used 2 cups of regular milk)
8 TBSP cornstarch
4 cups water
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup grated Kefalotyri or Pecorino cheese
1 TBSP butter
1 tsp salt
Pinch of nutmeg

In a sauce pan, bring water to a boil. Then dissolve the cornstarch in one can evaporated milk, and add to the water, stirring briskly. Lower the heat to medium and add the second can of milk, the salt and butter. Continue to whisk until sauce thickens. Add the beaten eggs and nutmeg, whisking quickly (so the eggs don’t cook) until well blended. Remove from the heat, stir in the cheese, mix well and set aside until ready to use.

Spread the breadcrumbs evenly on the bottom of the baking dish. Use half the pasta for the first layer and sprinkle with a 1/2 cup of grated cheese. Remove cloves from the sauce, add the meat sauce evenly over the pasta and sprinkle with 1/2 cup grated cheese. Add the remaining pasta on top. Carefully pour béchamel sauce over the top and use a spatula to spread evenly.

Bake for 30 minutes, then sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and continue to bake for another 15 to 30 minutes until the sauce rises and turns golden brown. Take out of the oven and cool before serving. Serves 6 to 8 people.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ghana - Steamed Crab

When we were living in Lagos in the 1970s, Shirley Temple Black was the American Ambassador to Ghana. My mother traveled there to visit friends and she wanted to meet the legendary Shirley Temple. Instead, my mother met her daughter, Susan Black. She looked quite a bit like her mother, my mother told me later. She was newly engaged and was sporting a rock on her left hand that would have made Elizabeth Taylor proud.

Ghana means “Warrior King” but these days its one of the most stable countries in the region. It is located in West Africa and borders Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Togo. It’s known for being the first country in West Africa to gain independence, as having built the biggest artificial lake in the world, for its ruined European forts and for its beautiful beaches and vibrant city nightlife.

Ghanaian cuisine is made up of starchy foods and sauce. Many of the dishes are served with soup made with fish, meat and mushrooms. Since it has a long coastline, seafood is very popular. For our Ghanaian meal I made Akotonshi, or stuffed crab.

John and I went to the Asian supermarket to buy the fresh crab. John loved pulling the crabs out from tanks with tongs. We bought four large Dungeness crab. On the way home, John sat in the backseat of the car and took one of the crabs out, much to my dismay, and put it on his lap. When we got home we filled our kitchen sink with water and put the crabs in there. John and Julia were delighted to have crabs for pets, even if it was for a very short while.

On the internet, I found directions on how to steam live crab. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do but, I must say, the end product was delicious. I have to also say that this recipe confused me and there were steps that I didn’t do because I didn’t think they made much sense. For instance, it said to clean and dress the fresh crab and boil the crabmeat for fifteen minutes, then set aside. Later, you are supposed to add the crabmeat to the rest of the ingredients and cook. Then you’re supposed to put this mixture in the crab shells and broil. To me, it sounds like you’re over cooking crabmeat. The only way this makes sense is if the meat from the fresh crabs is raw when you boil it the first time. But how do you take raw meat out of a live crab? Or do I want to know? Maybe there’s another way of killing the poor crabs other than throwing it in boiling water? I’m not sure I want to know about this either.

I’ll write out the recipe as I have it. Perhaps you know more about cooking crab than I do and I wouldn’t want to omit a step because I’m a bit clueless.

Akotonshi – Stuffed Crab

1 tsp salt
3 cm fresh ginger
6 cloves
4 TBSP vegetable oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 bell peppers
1 TBSP tomato puree
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
2 generous pinches of paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 TBSP dried shrimp
Whole wheat bread crumbs
1 hard-boiled egg
4 large crabs

If using fresh crab, clean and dress and then place the crab meat in boiling salted water along with ginger and cloves. Cook for 15 minutes or until the meat is cook through. Drain and set aside. (In my case, I simply boiled the whole crabs and did not add ginger and cloves. When the crabs were fully cooked I took the meat out – at this I’m an expert since I have spent many years on the U.S. east coast where we used to frequent all-you-can-eat crab houses).

Add oil to a large pot on medium heat. Add onion, cook for 1 minute and then add ground ginger and tomatoes. Cook for another minute. Then add the tomato paste, bell peppers, paprika, cayenne pepper and dried shrimp. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring until the vegetables are cooked. Add the crabmeat and stir for another few minutes.

Spoon the mixture into cleaned crab shells or ramekins and sprinkle breadcrumbs on top of each crab. Then toast under broiler. Garnish with parsley and egg. (I just garnished with parsley).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Germany - Been There?

“You flew into Vienna, not Frankfurt”, my dad said to me over the phone. We were discussing how Prague used to be, when my dad lived there, and how complicated it was for me to travel there. I mentioned that I had flown into Frankfurt. I was a kid then, probably thirteen or fourteen. My dad had picked me up at the airport and we spent the night in the city – which city, I’m not sure now – and the next day we drove on to Prague. “It makes more sense that you’d have flown into Vienna. It’s much closer to Prague,” my dad insisted. Maybe, but I’m still convinced I’ve been to Germany.

When most of us think of Germany we think of WW II, the Nazis, the Berlin Wall, the autobahn, Volkswagen. For me, I think of my heritage.

When I scour through family photo albums, and I get to the photograph of my German great-grandfather, his image makes me pause. He’s sitting perfectly straight, his stern features staring into the camera. I never knew him. My dad told me that when he was little he was afraid of his grandfather who yelled at him for climbing trees and making too much noise. On the other hand, my grandmother described her father as generous. During the depression he was a funeral director and he accepted eggs, butter and other farm products as payments from farmers who couldn’t pay their funeral bills. I’d describe my great grandfather as a typical German: stern, hard working, generous and loyal.

To decide what to eat for my German meal I contacted my German friend, Sabine.

Sabine told me that the cuisine in Germany differs from region to region, and season. Sabine grew up in Northern Germany where fried white fish is very popular. It’s served with a green salad and boiled potatoes, with the skin on. Traditionally they are peeled at the table.

As it gets closer to spring, a common dish is steamed white asparagus. This is often served with cold cut ham from the deli and boiled potatoes, with garlic butter.

A very traditional German meal is fried or grilled Bratwurst served with sauerkraut and fried breakfast potatoes.

As you go further south, the meals become hardy. An example would be dear meat, red cabbage and potatoes.

For our German meal we had ham, boiled potatoes (with the skin on) and white asparagus. I couldn’t find fresh white asparagus but I did find it in a jar. It was surprisingly good. Having bought the ham, which we ate cold, had jarred asparagus and boiled potatoes, without even having to peel them, it was one of the easiest meals I’ve made for this project. It was delicious too.

I went to a European grocery store to get the meat and the asparagus. I stood in a long line at the deli counter. There seemed to be quite a few Germans there. I could almost convince myself I was in Germany - again.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Georgia - To Life!

Georgia is a country that you could say is in Europe or Central Asia or the Middle East. Or, you might simply say that it is in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. However you say it, it’s where European and Asian and Middle Eastern cultures emerge. If that’s not intriguing enough for you, (or you’re not blown away by its beauty) visit Georgia for the people’s warmth and friendly hospitality. And, if you happen to go there, make sure you attend a traditional Georgian dinner so you can bare witness to the elaborate toasting and revelry, and the large amounts of wonderful food. There will also be heavy drinking and dancing and, perhaps, someone will read a poem. From this I take away that Georgians know how to enjoy life.

For our Georgian meal I could have made a number of things. In fact, I feel a little sheepish that all I made was chicken soup. If I had more time, or thought of having a Georgian party, I would have made a feast, or a supra. I cooked a very popular chicken soup called Chikhitma. It was very good but I’m now thinking that I should go back sometime and cook more Georgian dishes such as cheese pies, pickled eggplant and fish dishes, plus many more. Or, if I’m lucky, I’ll get invited to a Georgian feast.


1 chicken
2 onions, chopped
1 TBSP flour
1 TBSP butter
2 eggs
1 tsp saffron
2 TBSP grape vinegar
Salt and pepper

Cut the chicken in pieces, add to water and bring to boil. Skim the top. Remove the chicken when tender, strain the stock through a cheese cloth. Sautee the onion in butter, sprinkle with flour and brown. Return the chicken to the stock, thicken with brown flour and onion. Add saffron and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil. Separately boil the vinegar, add it to the soup, bring to a boil again and remove rom heat. Beat the egg yolks, combine with a little stock and then stir into the soup. Reheat but do not bring to a boil or the yolk will curdle. Sprinkle with coriander and serve. (I added chicken bouillon for more flavor)

Gambia - Rice and Peanut Porridge

Gambia is a winter getaway for Europeans. It’s got sun, beaches, resorts, wildlife reserves and a great place to bird watch. But don’t whistle after dark, it’s a taboo.

This sliver of a country with stunning beaches is not without its problems, though it has enjoyed relative stability since independence. This is not to say that Gambia is prosperous. It relies heavily on exporting peanuts. Apparently you earn peanuts when your only major crop is peanuts. Though the country does have tourism and so, as their tourist slogan says: visit the Gambia, the smiling coast of Africa.

I decided to cook a Gambian breakfast. I woke up early on a school day and served John and Julia Churah Gerteh (Rice and Peanut Porridge) before sending them off to school. I figured it would taste like oatmeal, only with peanut butter. It wasn’t exactly a big hit, but it was an interesting start to the day. It’s fairly safe to say that none of their classmates had Gambian porridge that morning.

Churah Gerteh

3/4 cup rice
1/2 cup peanut butter
4 cups water
Salt and sugar to taste

Add rice, peanut butter and water to a pot. Season with salt and bring to a boil. Cook for several minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and continue to simmer for 50 minutes, or until the rice is cooked. Add sugar to taste, spoon into a bowl and add a little milk to thin and cool the porridge.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Gabon - Mustard Chicken and Baked Bananas

I mentioned Gabon to a friend of mine. She said she knew someone who used to work there and he didn’t have a very high opinion of it. “And he got a tropical skin disease,” she said.

I tend to romanticize the places I write about, or the places I’ve never been to. After reading about Gabon I didn’t think it sounded all that bad. Gabon is sparsely populated, compared to its neighbors, and the country is covered in tropical forests. It’s made up of over forty ethnic groups and has the largest population of forests elephants in the world. Gabon is abundant with natural resources and foreign private investments. The jungle is full of wildlife and the government is wise enough to have opened up national parks, closing them to loggers. To me, it sounds like Gabon may have a promising future.

Gabonese cuisine is typically spicy and fish is very common - and giant crocodile is also a favorite, apparently. Their national dish is Poulet Nyemwe, chicken cooked in a sauce made from palm butter or palm soup base. For our Gabonese meal we had mustard chicken and baked bananas. Both dishes were very tasty, especially the baked bananas. We were all surprised at how much we enjoyed this dessert.

Mustard Chicken

8 pieces of chicken (legs, thighs, breasts)
200 ml Dijon mustard (or one jar)
2 onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Juice of 2 lemons

Brown chicken in oil then transfer to a plate. Fry onions and garlic in the same oil until onions are translucent. Transfer onions to a large lidded pot, add the chicken, mustard and lemon juice. Mix together and then cover the pot with aluminum foil then the lid to trap all the steam. Cook on low heat for about an hour until chicken it cooked through. Serve on a bed of rice.

Baked Bananas

4 bananas cut into 3 equal diagonal pieces
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 TBSP orange juice
1 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Sour Cream
Brown sugar

Beat the egg with the orange juice and dip the bananas in this before rolling in the bread crumbs. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan and fry bananas until they begin to brown.

Transfer to a baking dish and place in 300 degree oven for 5 minutes.

Serve 1 banana per person, topped with sour cream and sprinkled with brown sugar.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

France - French food, the Theater and a Lost Car

I think the reason why France is set apart for its cuisine is because it has food integrity. French chefs are bold and creative and the French people love to eat. This is why people who genuinely love food, love French food. It’s also why I like taking my kids to French restaurants. By exposing my children to French cuisine I’m hoping that an appreciation for food will rub off on them, they’ll understand that eating isn’t always just about supplying your body with nourishment.

For our French meal John, Julia and I went to a restaurant called Marcels in Toronto. The restaurant described itself as unpretentious, and it was. It was rather small but packed full and lively and our waitress made a fuss over the children (This experience was entirely different than what we had in Montreal last year when we showed up at a well known French restaurant with our kids and the waiter was horrified – I think he would have been happier if we had brought our dog. We were told that no children were allowed in their establishment and we were banished to the outside seating area to eat our meal). Our waitress, at Marcel’s was, however, surprised by my children’s appetite and their adventurous tastes, being, likely, accustomed to most North American children. For our meal, we had veal, escargot and mussels, which John and Julia devoured happily.

After our scrumptious dinner we went to the theater to see “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was a night of high culture and I was very proud of myself for exposing my children to such worldly experiences. We were all enjoying the show until I suddenly realized that I forgot where I parked. I had driven into the city with Kevin’s company car and we were running late for our dinner reservations and I was having a hard time finding a parking spot. With running late and the traffic and not knowing where I was going I got flustered and a bit turned around. When I finally found a parking lot I pulled in and we quickly jumped out of the car and we ran to the restaurant. Forgetting where I parked is so me. I once picked Kevin up at an airport in a rented car and I forgot where I parked and what I rented. Christa told me about a tracking device for cars. I think I’ll have to look into getting one.

After the show, we spent the next hour walking around downtown Toronto trying to locate our car. It must have been a pathetic scene, a mother and her children wandering the streets on a late and cold December night. As worry and agitation grew I still stubbornly held on to the belief that we would find our vehicle. The last thing I wanted to do was call Kevin and tell him that I lost his company car somewhere in Toronto. Believe me, that would not have gone over well.

We finally found the car, much to our relief. Our evening of sophistication ended with my air-headedness. But I felt satisfied that my children had been properly exposed to the finer things in life and learned a valuable lesson of paying attention to where you are.

FOOD FACT: The French consume approximately 700 million snails a year, making them the biggest snail consumers in the world.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Finland - Ski Week and the Midnight Sun

My dad lived in Finland and he told me that Fins are just as fanatical about ice hockey as the Canadians. In fact, Fins are, for the most part, very athletic and outdoorsy. They love ice-skating and every winter kids get off from school and grown-ups get off from work for Ski Week. Everyone heads for the mountaina to ski and my dad and his family were no exception when they lived there. In the summer, since it’s a short season, the Fins take full advantage of the warm long days and the midnight sun. They fish and sail boats and have summer home cottages. You’ve got to admire these folks who take full advantage of whatever season happens to be upon them.

I must remember this when I’m feeling depressed in the dark days of winter.

When I was in Finland my impression was this: it was simply simple. Not in a bad way, mind you, but in that familiar uncomplicated way. It’s large and mostly remote – though Helsinki is a vital capital – and it has a sense of peace about it. People seemed to go about their business and live their life in a quiet manner. For me, to be honest, I didn’t quite find it interesting enough. I much prefer unpredictability. Too much uncluttered certainty leaves me feeling lethargic. But with that said, my dad, stepmother and their two children loved it and they look back on the three years they were there with very fond memories.

Our Finnish dinner was a typical Nordic meal. We ate cabbage rolls that I purchased at a European grocery store, Rosolli potato salad and a blueberry pastry. The salad I made had potatoes, carrots, pickled beets and gherkins. It was very good and I even got Julia’s friend to try it. She was proud of herself for eating pickled beets. The meal was very similar to something I would cook for Germany, Sweden or Russia.

The food was good, but simple, uncomplicated.

Rosolli Salad

Mix together 4 chopped boiled potatoes, 4 chopped carrots, 4 chopped boiled beetroot or pickled beet root, 1 chopped gherkin (I put in more), 1 chopped small onion, salt and white pepper.

Fiji - Paradise?

I’ve never been to Fiji but my impression is of a sun-soaked paradise with warm sand beaches and sparkling blue waters. I’ve always thought of Fiji as the Cadillac of island vacations.

Despite its stunning reputation as a tourist hot spot its politically unstable because of racial and political tensions since 1987. Trouble in paradise, apparently. I should research this political tension further, but the truth is I don’t want to. I have no plans to visit there anytime soon. A large part of me would like to keep Fiji high on that island utopian pedestal. I want to continue to think of it as a place where you could always go to escape if you should need a hide-away from the world; a place where you can dream about and say, someday I want to go there…. There is just no room for coups and violence in my built-up fantasy of Fiji. You see, when writing articles about all the countries of the world, I write more about war, conflict and poverty than I do about peace, happiness and wealth. I really don’t appreciate having to see Travel Alerts on articles describing, what I always thought of, as perfect vacation spots.

Fiji is a dream come true with its exotic blend of cultures, white-sand beaches and warm azure waters. (Sound of record scratching) Oh, I’m sorry. This island paradise may be dangerous to visit. The political situation could crumble at the drop of a hat. Don’t hang around the capital or any large gatherings and I wouldn’t get in any political discussions with the locals if I were you.

It just sort of ruins it for you, doesn’t it? If I wanted to find myself in the middle of a coup during my vacation I have plenty of other spots to choose from, thank you very much.

Have you noticed that I have been writing about my fantasy? I’m not on some narcissistic kick, I swear. That’s what a place is until you’ve actually been there. It’s your fantasy. You can dream about this place with all the wonderful (or not so wonderful) expectations that you like. It can be anything you want it to be. It’s like when you have a crush on someone that you don’t really know and you’ve got it in your head that they’re the most perfect person in the world and you can’t ever imagine them doing anything wrong or, God forbid, gross. They’re your secret fantasy and you can tuck them away in your heart and feel it flutter every time you think of them. But then, you get to know this person - maybe you date them - and you start to see all their faults and their disgusting habits and suddenly they’re not very appealing.

The problem with researching every country on the planet is that, more than not, it messes with my superficial, dreamy fallacy about certain countries. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised, like when I researched Costa Rica. Other times my heart sinks when I see those travel alerts and I think, God damn it not another f***ing travel alert!

With all that said, our Fijian meal was delicious. For this, I had no expectations, and I loved it. I cooked Fijian Fish Lolo and taro root. I cooked cod in onion, garlic, spices and coconut milk and served it with boiled taro root, a tuber, potato-like vegetable that seems very popular around the world. Actually it is very popular around the world. I read that it was probably first cultivated in India, or somewhere in Southeast Asia, perhaps, as far back as 5000 BC. From there it spread worldwide and this vegetable now comes in many different varieties and has numerous names. It’s widely known as dasheen but in China it is called yutou, in Brazil its called inhame, in Japan it’s called satoimo, in the Philippines it is called gabi, in Lebanon it is called kilkass (Interesting name. Wonder if it’s pronounced kilk-ass) and so on. Whatever the name, it’s easily recognizable with its dark brown hairy skin. The flesh is white and highly nutritious. I knew very little about taro but in Hawaii, it is the base for making poi.

I’m not saying that Fiji is unsafe. The truth is, I don’t know what’s happening over there because, frankly, I don’t want to know. When reading about it I saw a travel alert and I backed off. On this one, I want to remain happily ignorant when it comes to any flaws. I want to keep thinking of Fiji as paradise, as the Cadillac of island vacations. I want to fantasize and swoon every time I think of that crystal blue water. In other words, I want to keep my crush. I’m not interested in having an intimate relationship.

Fish Lolo

1/2 lb halibut or cod
1 TBSP oil
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 serrano chili, chopped (optional)
1 can coconut milk
Salt and pepper
1 TBSP fresh basil
1 TBSP coriander

Heat oil in pan. Add chopped onion, garlic and chili
Saute until onions are translucent. Season fish with salt and pepper. Add fish to pan, fry for a few minutes and then add coconut milk. Bring to boil and then turn to low heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Top with basil and coriander.

Taro root

Peel and cut into 1 inch thick slices. Boil in sated water until soft. Drain water and steam on low heat for 5 to 7 minutes.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ethiopia - Wass Restaurant

When many of us think of Ethiopia we think of the song “We Are the World” and the 1980s famine. My mother was working on the Ethiopian Desk at the State Department in Washington D.C. during that time. She took a trip to one of the famine camps in Ethiopia and she got violently ill from food poisoning, of all things.

Later, when I was in college, my friend, Karla, and I visited my parents in D.C. and we went out for Ethiopian food. For Karla and me, it was our first experience with this cuisine and we both felt a little nauseous when we all dug into a communal plate with our hands, using only the injera bread to pick up pureed beans and bits of meat. It wasn’t an experience we were anxious to repeat.

In fact, I never did go back to an Ethiopian restaurant until recently with Kevin and the kids for my Eat Planet project. There were quite a few Ethiopian restaurants to choose from in the Toronto area, but because of location we chose an establishment called Wass, a new Ethiopian restaurant in Hamilton.

The restaurant was dark and it smelled like cleaning solution. Our waitress, whom I’m guessing was the owner, was very friendly and talkative. She told us that coffee originated in Ethiopia and, if we wanted, she would perform a coffee preparation ceremony. The menu was extensive with lots of explanations and glossy photographs. There was even a detailed description on how to eat with the injera bread. It’s the only restaurant I’ve been to that came with an instruction manual.

I was very interested in the injera bread since I had recently tried to make it myself. The waitress seemed very happy about this but seemed confused when I told her I used teff flour. Because of my interest, I’m assuming, she brought us a free dish to try, chicken with Berbere sauce. It was delicious, better than any thing we ordered for ourselves. We had ordered a lamb dish and a vegetarian combo.

Berbere spice is the key ingredient in most cuisines in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It’s a mixture of spices usually including ginger, fenugreek, cumin, allspice, cloves and cardamon. Sometimes spices are included that are not common in the Western world, but are grown in Ethiopia, like long pepper. The waitress told us that a friend of hers traveled to Ethiopia and came back to Canada with big bags of the Berbere spice. Apparently, this coveted spice was in our chicken dish.

“Many vegetables and fruits grow in Ethiopia,” our waitress assured us. Every time she said the word Ethiopia it sounded like Utopia. “But the government is corrupt,” she said and laughed uneasily. Her country is still synonymous with famine and war.

When I asked her if Ethiopia was doing better, she shrugged. “I’ve never been there. But I want to go.”

Later, a couple of young women walked in and we lost our waitress. She tended to her new customers and then disappeared into the kitchen. We waited a while for our check, and then finally, the kids and I had to go sit in the car because our meter ran out.

The food was good, better than I remembered. But, still, when thinking of Ethiopia the tune of “We Are the World,” pops in my head and I wonder, after all this time, if things have really changed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Estonia - Blood Sausage

Kevin and I have been to Estonia. We were there in the early nineties right after Estonia gained independence from Russia. At the time it was a struggling third-world country. But since independence, Estonia has undergone a rapid transformation. They are a success story and have made some major technological advances. It’s capital, Tallinn, is described as cosmopolitan with galleries, nightclubs and lounges. Apparently, it’s no longer the Estonia I knew.

Tallinn, which is said to be Estonia’s crown jewel, still seems to have the old charm that Kevin and I fell in-love with; the cobblestone streets, old churches and 14th century homes. Now its hip, a quintessential mixture of modernity with old-world Europe. Outside the capital you’ll find seaside towns, quaint villages, forests, islands and castles. I’d like to go back and see it again.

Kevin, my grandmother and I went to visit my dad and his family in Finland one summer. Estonia is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland. We caught a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, about a three and a half hour trip. We were on the rough Baltic Sea and the ship rocked and swayed so much that we all got terribly seasick. But once we hit land we were fine and we spent the entire day shopping in the communist-style shops. Everything was incredibly cheap, even for poor college students like Kevin and me.

We had lunch in Tallinn but I don’t remember what we ate. I didn’t know anything about Estonian cuisine or that they love blood sausage. For our Eat Planet project, I knew I had to find blood sausage, or “blood pudding.” I was having trouble finding any when Christa told me I should go to the European grocery store called Starsky’s. Of course! I don’t know why I didn’t think of that. Our Estonian meal consisted of blood sausage, sauerkraut, jellied meat, potatoes and pork meatballs.

I can’t say this was our favorite meal. The kids were finicky about eating the blood sausage. I think it was mostly for its name. It had sort of a strong smoky flavor. I didn’t think it tasted bad and I can see why it’s called “blood pudding.” When it’s cooked it turns very soft. None of us liked the jellied meat – we didn’t even like the looks of it, or the texture. The dog wouldn’t even eat it, though our cat did.

Another favorite Estonian meal is pig ears with sauerkraut. That didn’t sound appealing to me at all, but then I was watching a show on the Food Network and they were cooking pig ears and it didn’t look half bad; they cut the ears in strips and it was crispy like bacon.

Now I wish I could remember what I had eaten in that Tallinn restaurant all those years ago, in the early nineties, in the beginning, when Estonia was first becoming a country of its own.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Eritrea - The Land of Punt

A small country with big problems, Eritrea, is trying to rebuild after more than thirty years of civil war and conflict with Yemen and Ethiopia. This former colony of Italy – evidence of which can still be seen in the architecture of the capital – is a conglomerate of deserts and fertile lands. It’s known for its long coastline on the Red Sea and bisected by the world’s longest mountain ranges.

In researching Eritrea I found a photograph of the Eritrean Railway that was built during the Italian colonialism. It looked like a scene from a movie – like Out of Africa or The Ghost and The Darkness – and it was so beautiful. Surrounding the railway was mountains of various heights and shades of brown and green, and blue sky; a small train chugged across a railway bridge bellowing out puffs of white smoke.

I am currently reading the book King Leopold’s Ghost and so, despite myself, I find the days of colonialism romantic. It can only be seen this way from a white man’s perspective, of course. Colonialism could be a brutal business but I suppose in some cases good came out of it as well. It depends on how you want to look at it. For instance, during Eritrea’s Italian rule the country underwent industrialization and modern infrastructure was put in place. From a modern Western point-of-view I see this as a good thing, but I wonder what the average Eritrean thought of all that development at the time. Italy ruled Eritrea from 1890 to 1941, only a short span of fifty years. In the 1930s around 100,000 Italian colonists had settled in Colonia Primigenia – this is what Eritrea was called by the Italians.

Because Eritrea is a former province of Ethiopia their food is very similar. For instance, both countries enjoy injera, a pancake-like spongy bread. Pieces of the flat bread is torn off and used to scoop up the food. I decided to make injera, I even found teff flour that I needed at Whole Foods. It wasn’t hard to make, but then again, my injera didn’t exactly turn out the way it was supposed to. For our main Eritrean dish I made Alitcha Birsen, a vegetarian lentil soup. I love lentils and the kids enjoyed the soup. We ate the soup with our spoons, by the way, and ate the injera as I side dish.

From my brief glimpse of Eritrea I get the feeling that it possesses a magical quality. The Egyptian pharaohs referred to present-day Eritrea as The Land of Punt, the area known for its abundant source of gold, ebony, ivory, slaves and wild animals. Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, was to be Mussolini’s “Little Rome” – but it was never to be.

It sounds like Eritrea has great potential. It certainly has a rich history.

Alitcha Birsen

5 TBSP vegetable oil
6 garlic cloves, crushed
250g tomatoes, blanched and peeled
200g lentils
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp ginger
2 fresh red chilies, finely chopped
1 liter boiling water

Heat oil in a pan and fry the garlic until golden. Add the sliced tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes before adding lentils. Simmer for a few minutes then add the ginger, chili and boiling water. Season with salt and pepper, cover the pan and simmer for an hour.


1/4 cup teff flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup water
A pinch of salt
Peanut or vegetable oil.

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl then slowly add water stirring to avoid lumps. Add the salt and stir some more.

Heat a nonstick pan and lightly oil the pan. Coat the pan with a thin layer of batter. Injera should be thicker than a crepe. Cook until holes appear on the surface of the bread. Once the surface is dry, remove the bread from the pan and let it cool.

(This is a quick injera recipe. In other recipes that I saw the dough was turned sour by letting it sit for three days).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Equatorial Guinea - Pick A Pepper Soup

Equatorial Guinea might not be a place you’ll want to visit unless you’re the real adventurous type. If you do go, I hope you like it hot, hot on your palate that is. For our Equatorial Guinean meal I cooked a dish called “Pick a Pepper Soup.” It had peppers, all right, and I know that the soup I made didn’t match up to what the soup should have tasted like. But I’ve got kids to cook for so I had to be careful not to make it too spicy. The pepper I refused to put in was the habanero chili. This pepper is the hottest on earth.

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who can take the heat. I grew up eating spicy food. Kevin didn’t. He grew up eating that bland Iowan food. But his palate adjusted, it had to when he visited my parents in China when we were dating. My parents had a Chinese cook and instructed him not to hold back on the spice, and he didn’t. It took Kevin time to build up immunity, if you will. But still, the hottest pepper on earth? I’m not sure I could handle it, though I’d be willing to give it a try, if I could take a very small bite.

If you travel to Equatorial Guinea you may have to take the heat in another way, from corrupt officials who may want a bribe or from a military officer who wants to check all your papers. The former Spanish colony may be small but now is rich in newly discovered oil and has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. But you may not see evidence of this wealth throughout most of its population where many don’t even have access to clean drinking water. It’s the ordinary people of Equatorial Guinea who shouldn’t have to feel the heat.

Pick A Pepper Soup

1 1/2 cups water
450g red snapper fillets (or any firm white fish)
3 medium onions, peeled and sliced
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 red bell pepper, deseeded, chopped
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 habanero chili, deseeded and pounded to a paste
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp ground guinea pepper (it is also Ashanti pepper – closely related to the cubeb pepper) I used cubeb pepper which I found at Whole Foods.
Pinch of dried rosemary
1 TBSP lemon juice
1/2 tsp vegetable oil
Bring the water to a boil in a large pot and add all the ingredients except the vegetable oil. Cover the pot and allow to simmer gently for 1 hour, stirring occasionally (add more water if the mixture becomes too dry). After the hour is up add the oil and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and serve on a bed of rice.

El Salvador - Needs More Filling

When thinking of El Salvador most will evoke images of volcanoes, coffee plantations and civil war, but for my family and I we will always think of pupusas. These thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, refried beans and pork is a very popular dish. Though they pre-date the arrival of the Spaniards, they did not become popular nation-wide until the 1960s.

I’m not sure I liked my version of the pupusas. I made the tortillas out of masa harina and warm water and used a mixture of mozzarella and an Italian cheese called Tuleggio, much like quesco fresco, according to the cheese lady at Whole Foods. I also heated up refried beans and decided not to go through the trouble of adding pork.

The direction called for one to roll a portion of the dough into a ball, press an indentation into it and then add the filling. You are then supposed to fold the dough mixture over the filling and press the ball into the form of a disc without letting the filling spill out. But how in the world does one flatten something and not allow the filling to come out?

Kevin finally took over since this whole process was proving too frustrating for me. He did it his own way and made a “bowl” out of the ball shaped dough, filled the “bowl” with the filling and then made a “lid” for it. It seemed to work, though I’m not sure that was the correct way of making the pupusas.

We ate our pupusas with salsa, which helped because I didn’t think there was enough beans and cheese, even with Kevin’s “bowl” technique.

Perhaps that’s the way pupusas are supposed to taste, more tortilla than cheese and bean. If that’s the case, I think they need to start making pupusas with more filling. It’s sort of like El Salvador itself. It has all the makings of a great vacation spot – forests, active volcanoes, beaches, museums and a vibrant nightlife – but there’s been too much violence, crime, hurricanes, flooding, mudslides and earthquakes.

What they need more of is the filling – the good stuff.


2 cups Masa Harina
1 cup warm water
1 cup filling

Refried beans
Cheese such as quesillo, quesco fresco, farmer’s cheese or mozzarella
Green chili, minced

In a large bowl, mix together the masa harina and water and knead well. Knead in more water, 1 TBSP at a time, if necessary. You want dough moist, yet firm. Cover and set aside to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

Roll out dough into a log and cut into 8 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball. Press an indentation in each ball with thumb. Put 1 TBSP of filling into each indentation and fold dough over to enclose it. Press the ball out with your palms to form a disc, but don’t let the filling come out.

Fry it in a pan with a little oil until brown on all sides.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Egypt - Begin and Sadat

I have yet to see the pyramids in Egypt, even though I once lived in the Middle East.

It was complicated. My parents and I lived in Israel in the 1970s and you couldn’t exactly get a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Cairo. The fact that we had Israeli visas stamped in our passports and a home address in Israel made it difficult. In any case, we didn’t go into Egypt and I still long for the day to see the ancient relics left by the pharaohs.

That’s not to say we didn’t witness history between Israel and Egypt. While we were living in Israel something historic happened: Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister and Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, agreed to meet. The American Embassy in Tel Aviv was heavily involved with Sadat’s visit. There were many U.S. congressmen in town for the meeting and my mother and her friend, Tracy, volunteered to take two Congressmen’s wives shopping (this was before my mother joined the foreign service and was still married to my father).

I’m not sure how it happened exactly, but my mother and Tracy somehow ended up at the Prime Minister’s office. They walked through lines of TV cameras and newsmen and into a briefing room with the American Ambassador and U.S. Congressmen. Then Begin came into the room and said, “I have news for you. Sadat is coming here on Saturday.” Everyone stood and clapped. Then Begin gave them an impassioned plea for Israel. My mother was in awe. She was seeing history in the making and was right in the center of it.

It’s hard to believe that its been over thirty years since Sadat landed at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv opening peace talks between Israel and the Arab world. In the speech he gave at the Knesset in Jerusalem he said:

I come to you today on solid ground, to shape a new life, to establish peace. We all, on this land, the land of God; we all, Muslims, Christians and Jews, worship God and no one but God. God’s teachings and commandments are love, sincerity, purity and peace.

Two years later, in March 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a comprehensive peace agreement.

For my Eat Planet project we ate falafel, hummus and pita bread, a very typical Egyptian meal. It was something I had in Israel quiet frequently. You can buy falafel mix at most grocery stores but I bought our falafel sandwiches, hummus and pita at a Middle Eastern restaurant and brought it home to eat. In Egypt, McDonald’s has their version of a falafel sandwich, they call it the McFalafel.

John and Julia aren’t fond of falafel, but I like it. It reminds me of my childhood days in Israel, and it’s a healthy vegetarian meal. The kids, however, do love hummus and pita.

Someday I hope to see the pyramids and, though it may sound sort of ridiculous, peace in the Middle East.