Sunday, December 21, 2008

Meal 50. Chinese-Singaporean feast

Though Derek (or Des) is originally from Singapore, he's lived in Australia since he was 9, and now in Oxford for a year or so. To my untrained ears, he sounds like somebody speaking 'posh', but with a bit of an Australian accent thrown in.
He loves to eat and to cook, and tonight is my lucky night: time for a feast. We've spent many a happy moment in preparation discussing Singaporean cuisine and its similarities to Chinese and Indonesian/Malay cooking (with which I am more familiar).
Though it is 'only' a city state, Singapore has almost 5 million inhabitants and is one of the most densely populated nations on earth. Before meeting Des, I had already read a very enthusiastic article about the world famous 'hawker centres' which seem to bring together specialists of various dishes in hygienic-but-authentic outdoor or indoor conglomerations of foodstalls. Some people seem to visit Singapore only for the food! Sadly, I've only been airport for a stopover...

In preparation, Derek has bought bagloads of ingredients at the local Chinese store in Oxford...this is a great shop that I enjoy wandering around in a mildly perplexed state. One day I came home with paper money that had "Bank of Hell" printed on called Hell Money, used to provide dead ancestors with cash for the afterlife. I also saw a guy in front of me in the queue with a 2 kg bag of frozen chicken feet, hard to get at the local Sainsbury's. Derek shows me some packages that say "Dried Provisions" on them as the only indication of what can be found inside (for those who cannot read Chinese script). Luckily he is a man with a plan and gets to preparing the feast for me and his flatmate. All I need to do is watch and chop the occasional vegetable.

To start, I am served bak kut teh soup with bean sprouts, mince-meat and salted vegetables. These were served with steamed char siu buns (pictured at left). This is the only part of the meal that I have easily recreated at all it involves is buying the frozen buns and steaming them above hot water for ten minutes. I love the sweet and savoury taste of the pork filling.

The main course consists of an authentic dish of stir-fried kailan and cloud-ear fungus with baby corn and oyster sauce. Kailan is otherwise known as 'Chinese broccoli' or 'Chinese kale'. I would say it's more like kale than broccoli, see right. The cloud-ear fungus was one of the 'Dried Provisions'. When fresh...they supposedly resemble human ears. Not sure where the clouds come in.

The final savoury dish is prawn laksa noodles served with fried onions and hard-boiled eggs.
I am absolutely stuffed and need to give everything some time to digest before having any space for desert. Desert is more of a 'fusion' dish, lovely vanilla ice cream with lychee and raspberries.
You can understand why this meal deserves the epithet 'feast' as with so many dishes, it is difficult to chose the one most representative for the whole meal. I think I'll need to travel to Singapore sometime in the near future and venture outside of the airport, but in the meantime hope to entice Derek to teach me more about this cuisine (=cook for me) while we're both still in Oxford.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Meal 49. Polish Żurek, Bigos and Gołąbki

When I arrive at this cosy house in North Oxford for the Polish meal, it turns out the blog was checked out beforehand and lots of photos were made of all the preparations to help me out. This allows me to relax and just chat to Jolanta about what Polish cuisine is like. She warns me:"It is delicious, but it is possibly the most difficult food in the world to digest!"
Possibly this is due to the large role cabbage plays in Polish dishes. Our starter, the white soup żurek (see picture), does not contain this vital ingredient. The main course, though, consists of stuffed cabbage (gołąbki) and bigos, which takes two days to prepare and has both normal and sour cabbage in it. It should normally be drunk with cold vodka!

The stuffed cabbage rolls are called 'pigeons' (due to a somewhat similar shape?) and have a lovely mince and rice filling. In the photo above you can see Yolanta preparing them. They are youngest daughter Zuzanna's favourite and she manages to finish at least four of them. Looking at her slim figure, I must assume that they aren't prepared that often!

Contrary to my prejudiced expectations, Darek (at right) actually did most of the cooking. He and Jolanta met when they were 16 and 13 and by now they've been married 18 years! Their cosy household is a warm haven for the (often single) young Poles who end up in Oxford for work or study.
Though they love everything about Poland (except the politicians), the economic insecurity meant that their move to the UK took away a lot of stress. As Jolanta succinctly puts it:"I no longer have to choose between buying food and paying the rent."
I am very impressed by how fluently she speaks English after so few years here. She said she thought she spoke it while still in Poland, but could not understand a word people said in the UK when she just arrived. Incredibly, she is now well on her way to being an accredited interpreter.
Though at the moment she is still the senior ward housekeeper at the stroke unit in Oxford's major hospital: "Learning to follow what the stroke patients are trying to say is a bit like learning a new language; it is satisfying that I can understand them almost all the time by now."

The dessert after this lovely dinner is a spice cake prepared by Ewelina (at left) who helped me contact the family initially. Another of Zuzanna's favourites (see below)!

We discuss how we would actually need a "Polish meal part 2" to include classic dishes as pierogi, borsht and cheesecake.

I'm up for it, and can confide that I had no digestive problems after this first copious meal...

Here is the recipe Jolanta emailed me to recreate the bigos at home. Be aware that it tastes best if prepared a few days in advance!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Meal 48. Greek Cypriot Makaroniatou Fournou and Ttavas

Maria, a social psychologist, has gone to great lengths to provide an authentic Greek Cypriot meal. The email with recipes solicited from her mother and grandmother is stuck to the fridge. For expert advice on the desert, galactoboureko, a visit was arranged to a local Cypriot matriarch. Maria's compatriot, Yiannis (at right), is helping out - the local matriarch is his auntie. In total, seven people will be enjoying this feast tonight, including Pascalis, a Greek friend who can help separate the typically Greek Cypriot from the plain Greek dishes.
We start off with pita and haloumi, a lovely cheese that is probably Cyprus' most famous export. Maria tells me her grandma prepares this every morning as breakfast for her grandfather.
In general, most Cypriots prefer to start the day with something a bit lighter, such as frappé.
Pascalis immediately informs us that this cold coffee beverage was invented at the International Trade Fair in Thessaloniki (in 1957). So now you know the origins of this famous frothy drink!
The main course consists of Makaroniatou Fournou (a pasta dish with bechamel sauce), and Ttavas, made with beef and tomatoes. Both are oven dishes and preferably cooked in an authentic mud oven in your back garden.
As we all dig in and enjoy the hearty fare accompanied by a feta salad, I try to find out more about Cyprus. For example, what drives the economy? "Tourism!", answers Maria, while
Pascalis laughs: "Money laundering!"
Cyprus has been through a lot...Maria's synopsis is that is was ruled by the Ottoman empire who sold it to the British Empire in the late 19th century. In 1960, Cyprus gained independence after a number of years of protest against the British rule.
The first president was an archbishop and remained in power for 17 years! For some reason, the second candidate was a psychiatrist... and since early 2008 the government is leftist.
But Cyprus is most well know for the division between Greek and Turkish territory. Maria has been to the Turkish part quite often, but Yiannis has never has. He does feel it is part of 'his country'. Though the situation is far from ideal, it is relatively peaceful, with no fighting or terrorism, and according to Maria, many people are alright with the current status quo.
Besides the locals, Cyprus has seen an influx of British expats who enjoy the climate and the relatively cheap property.
As well, I am told there are now quite a few "Russian artists". This is a polite euphemism for even a Polish hooker would be referred to as a "Russian artist"!
Similarly, the many domestic helpers are known as "Sri Lankese", though they might be from the Philippines, Malaysia, etc. Maria tells me it is now so common to have help from overseas, that her own mother, when spotted cleaning by the neighbour's help, was asked:"So...where are you from? Sri Lanka?"

We finish off the meal with the lovely Galactoboureko pudding and sweet Commandaria wine, brought over from Cyprus by Maria's parents during their last visit. You can see how much fondness she has for this wine at right.

Here is the recipe for Ttavas, the beef stew.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Meal 47. Belarusian Draniki and Bliny

This meal is quite special to me, as it marks the continuation of the project in the UK. Inni is my first host in Oxford and is cooking for me at her student housing in the centre of town.
Impressively, she has gained a full scholarship, and is one of the few Belarusian students in the UK, though the country is quite big, with a population of around 10 million.
I have to admit my mind goes pretty blank when the country Belarus is mentioned, though it is really not that far away (bordering Poland and Lithuania). Strangely, Belarusian cities like Minsk and Brest seem a lot more familiar. I even had a friend planning to travel "between four Brests", as there are cities called Brest not only in Belarus, but in France, Germany and Macedonia as well.

The dinner starts with traditional fare that I do associate with the region: red cabbage salad (very easy to make) and potato pancakes called draniki. They are made with grated potatoes and onions and bound with some egg and flour. Very similar to the latkes my father often makes, though Inni uses a much finer grater. The desert, bliny, crêpe like pancakes, again reminds me of a dish my dad makes, called blintzes (see Meal 17. Jewish-American Borsht, Challah and Blintzes). This might just be because his family came from the Ukraine, near Belarus, with similar cuisine. Though Inni tells me the medium-sized town she grew up in, called Borisov, used to be predominantly Jewish. However, most of them left or were killed long before she was born.

Belarus has opened up considerably after the Soviet collapse, but is still pretty much a communist state. When prodded, Inni can come up with memories of how rare bananas were when she was younger. In her recollection, her mother came home one special day with a whole suitcase of bananas. Inni didn't really like them as they were too firm for her taste. By the time they had ripened and become softer, she discovered she loved them. But by then, they were almost finished and she had to wait a long time before she could eat them again!
This story is quite 'exotic' to me and seems typical for someone from a former Soviet state. In most other aspects, I have to say Inni is very much a product of the global village; speaking fluent English, well travelled within Europe and even planning a trip to Nepal.

I give her the names and email addresses of my Nepalese friends (see Meal 2.) and imagine a distant reunion of 80meals participants.

To make your own Belarusian meal, click here for recipes (that Inni diligently penned down for me, at right).

Friday, February 08, 2008

Meal 46. Albanian Groshe

I stumble across the lovely Eri as I am picknicking in the park with a friend. He is sitting all alone with lots of delicious food surrounding him which surprises me. Who would make so much food to eat by himself?
Of course, it turns out his friends were only temporarily absent. But by the time I find this out, he has offered me some of the food and I have speedily convinced him that he is the perfect candidate to make the Albanian meal for this project!

Though he has been living in Holland for the last ten years, he still has a strong dose of national pride and has plans to return to his country of birth when he graduates from law school. [Update: at the time of publishing this blog, he HAS graduated and IS back in Albania]
His brother Lulzim also studied law in Utrecht and is now minister of Foreign Affairs in Albania, a fact that makes Eri understandably proud. Googling him turns up photos with Condoleezza Rice, what a surprise!
Anyway, no offense to Lulzim, but Eri is obviously the handsome one, and proves to be an excellent cook as well.
The white bean soup he is making for the project takes about four hours to prepare, so while everything is simmering on the fire we actually have time to go out for a coffee. I know, normally it is not a good idea to leave something on the fire unattended for so long, but we survived to tell the tale.

Sadly, Eri later tells me the recipe is top secret, so normally you would need your own Albanian sources to find out how it is made.
But, after a bit of sniffing around online I discovered a list with Albanian soup recipes online that seems quite trustworthy. Strangely, though Eri assures me this soup is called groshe, they seem to think that is made from lentils. Whereas fasule would be white bean soup. If any Albanians are reading this, let me know what you think!
In general, cuisine from this relatively unknown country is quite similar to its neighbours' and you might even find tarator on your table (as seen in Meal 45 from Bulgaria). Many of the dishes can be compared to other "Balkan" cuisine and Turkish and Greek food.
One thing I am still curious about is a drink called Dukagjin made with grape juice, sugar and mustard!