Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Meal 4. French Blanquette de veau

I've had quite a few dinners with Florence and her boyfriend Seb before, but these meals were usually Italian or Chinese...so tonight the French meal she is making is by special request. Somehow she (mistakenly) got the idea that this "trip around the world" is a competition, and she has taken pains to show that the French cuisine is indeed the best in the world!

We start off with delicious sausage with thyme and pepper, personally imported from Paris by Florence. She is a real Parisienne, but has lived in Germany for two years before moving to the Netherlands. Her knowledge of German helped her learn Dutch quickly, and many people are confused by her accent. They usually guess Belgian, and not French or German.
The saucisson is accompanied by red wine, which Seb cannot drink, because he is recovering from dengue fever. He contracted it in Sri Lanka, studying the language of the Malay who live there. So...being a linguist can be a dangerous profession. Florence studied law and never thought she would be working in the "language" field, but now she is a legal translator at the French Embassy in the Hague. She can't tell us that much about her new job, because the information is classified. Top secret...though one thing she can disclose is that she has a two hour long lunch break! In the Netherlands, half an hour is normal and one hour is quite long. But two hours--this is very French.

The sausage is followed by little goat cheeses on toast from the oven. I ask: "With honey?", because this is a combination I know and like, but it turns out it is not that popular in France. Somehow goat cheese with honey has become an inseparable entity in Dutch cafés and restaurants. When you order a salad or a sandwich with goat cheese, there's about 90% chance the dish will include honey. (Another fact: 87% of statistics are invented on the spot...)

Anyway, after we remove the small pieces of toast that are burnt, this first course is very good...the chèvre, called Crottin du Berry, has a delicate taste that I haven't come across before.

Now for the main course. This is a dish Florence's mother also used to make, called Blanquette de veau. Don't you agree almost everything sounds better in French? For example, Saumon au crème fraîche sounds nicer than Salmon with sour cream, right? I don't even know if this is an existing recipe...but blanquette de veau definitely is. Though it is usually made from calf's shoulder, Florence is making it with calf's leg. Front or back leg, we don't know, and even I, as a veterinarian, can't tell the difference between a tibia or a radius when the pieces are this small.
The stewed meat is accompanied by carrots with leak, rice, little mushrooms and a lot of white sauce (sauce blanche). I hardly know anyone my own age who makes sauces without the help of a store bought sauce mix. My student friends see it as a miracle that I make my own soup from scratch. "You mean you really made that pumpkin soup yourself? From pumpkins?"

But even I, the miracle soup maker, have never made my own sauce from butter and flour, the way it's supposed to be done.

Then it is time for the cheese platter (plateau de fromage). Florence tells me her family always has cheese after dinner, and that the platter will contain a minimum of four kinds of cheese. These might be the same four cheeses for a while, but still-I am impressed!

To top off this magnificent meal, we have a light dessert: a refreshing and surprisingly good combination of thinly sliced red onion and juicy pieces of orange. That makes five courses! Seb asks me if I have weighed myself, so I can see the difference before I started the 80 meals and when I'm done.
Hmmm, no-but I guess I'll notice when my jeans don't fit anymore!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Meal 3. Indonesian feast, Sumatran style

Tonight my gracious hosts are Heri (officially Nopatakari) from Sumatra (Indonesia) and Ferry, from the Netherlands. They already get a lot of jokes about their rhyming names, so I'm happy they didn't name their son Perry or Jerry, but Gilles (at right). Even though he is in the middel of his "NO" phase, he is still as charming as ever, especially when hugging my leg. It turns out he also does this with strange ladies in the supermarket, exclaiming "Grandma!" and looking up at them with his big eyes.
I especially enjoy dancing around the coffeetable with him, boogying to some Funkadelic grooves. Make my funk the P-Funk!

When I arrive, Heri is busy in the kitchen preparing the rice, and the table is already partly set with a big platter of vegetables. Wow! I'm afraid Heri spent a lot of time preparing this dinner, and this is confirmed when we sit at the table and I see everything she has made. Fried chicken, chicken frikadel (fried minced meatball), rendang (a beef dish with coconut that takes 5 hours to make!), salmon fish heads, homemade sambal and peanut sauce, white rice and the platter with seven different vegetables.
According to Heri, the head of the fish (at right) is truly a delicacy in Indonesia, and more expensive than the rest of the fish. I must say, the salmon heads don't really look appetizing to me, but the morsels I try are delicious. As is everything else being served. I eat so much I have to unbutton my jeans at the end of the meal!

We discuss how food culture is different in the Netherlands...here, if there is a meeting, you will usually get coffee or tea and if you're lucky some cookies. In Indonesia, it is almost impossible to imagine any kind of meeting without food.
Most Indonesians will eat three meals with rice a day; breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a snack, a popular treat is kue (pronounce kway), a sweet treat often made of tapioca flour.
Currently, most kue you buy at the market is bright pink or green with artificial colorings, but they used to be colored brown by gula merah (palm sugar) or light green by pandang leaves.

After dinner we put Gilles to bed and move to the couch to relax. Once I am able to button my jeans again Heri brings out the kue she has made with palm sugar and coconut, and Ferry makes cappuccino to accompany it.

Over coffee and kue, we somehow end up talking about how difficult it is to poop if you are in Antarctica; it is so cold there the turd freezes before you are finished. Then Heri tells a funny story:

Heri's sister is in the living room eating something especially delicious one day. Her brother walks in and starts: "Hey Sis! I just went to the toilet and you wouldn't believe it! My poo was this weird green color and really runny with these little hard pieces--"

She interrupts him:"Oh, stop it! That's disgusting! Now I've lost my appetite because of your gross story..."
And he walks away happily with the treat...

Smart brother, huh? Maybe I should try this some day. I have a large enough supply of disgusting stories...

At around eleven we say goodbye and again I notice how I have to bend down to kiss Heri and look up to kiss Ferry...he is so much taller. Heri says in the beginning he seemed like a lamppost to her-but luckily, a soft lamppost!

Heri, Gilles and Ferry

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Meal 2. Nepalese chicken curry

My second meal is a bit more exotic than Dutch stamppot: Nepalese chicken curry! My friend and colleague, Shusil (at right), actually already had invited me over for dinner before I had the plan for the "80 Meals" project.

When I arrive, only Shusil is there, but just a short while later the lovely Rima arrives, together with her husband, Saroj. They all went to vetschool in Nepal and now Shusil and Rima are doing a MSc at the Veterinary Faculty here in Utrecht.

According to Rima, it is pretty unique to see men at work in the kitchen …in Nepal it is usually the women who do all the cooking. But Rima is lucky; her husband Saroj (at left) enjoys preparing dinner. And Shusil is a good cook too. He learned most of what he knows from his mother.

On the menu tonight is chicken curry (murga) which is not too spicy, adapted to my western tongue. The sauce contains a lot of garlic and ginger. To accompany the deliciously tender chicken, white rice (bhat) is served and fried matchstick potatoes (bhujia). So there is at least one similarity between Dutch and Nepalese cooking: the potato.
The rice is covered with a thin sauce of lentils (dal). Shusil tells me that Nepalese and Indian cooking is quite similar, and indeed, I do seem to remember some of these foreign words from Indian menus in the past.

The meal consisting of chicken curry, rice, lentil sauce and fried potatoes

Rima explains to me:"In Nepal we don’t eat beef, because we are Hindu. For us the cow is a holy animal. We do drink the milk though, and we can eat goatmeat, fish or chicken. Pigs however, are seen as dirty animals, so we don’t eat pork either."
I remark:"So you don’t eat holy animals, or dirty animals,…but only the animals in between!"
She smilingly agrees…

It is interesting how different cultures see pork as being unclean. Both Muslims and Jews will not eat pork, and now it turns out they feel the same way in Nepal!

After dinner, Shusil and Saroj enjoy a beer (Heineken…not very Nepalese) while Rima and I have coffee. Rima tells me how in her culture they only drink tiny sips of strong alcohol, for good luck. For Saroj though, who is from a different caste with different customs, these small quantities take getting used to! I tease him: "So you are convinced that drinking more will bring more good luck as well?"

All in all, this was a great evening with lovely food and lovely people. So much so that Saroj has almost convinced me that I should work in Nepal as a vet after I graduate. I am considering it!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Meal 1. Dutch andijviestamppot

Yesterday the trip around the world started...in the Netherlands. My own mother, Lexa, made a typical Dutch meal for me: andijviestamppot. Most traditional Dutch meals are built around potatoes, and andijviestamppot is no exception. It basically consists of mashed potatoes and strips of andijvie (a green leafy vegetable called either endive or chicory in English). The classic version has spekjes too, fried bacon bits, but vegetarians can add pieces of cheese instead.

I see my mother as a good cook with ample knowledge of traditional Dutch cuisine. As it turns out, she really only learnt how to cook as a student.
About the stamppot Lexa says: "This is a meal I used to eat at home as well. Cooking a Dutch meal would always start with peeling potatoes! The Dutch kitchen really is, or was, based on potatoes. Some people think that's boring, but actually you can prepare them in many different ways...for example, we never were afraid of peeling and preparing too many potatoes. Any boiled potatoes we had left over would be fried the next day and be delicious and crisp. For good fried potatoes you actually have to boil them the day before!"
I ask if the fact that her parents came from a colonial family (Indonesia) made any difference to what they ate at home once they moved to the Netherlands after the Second World War.
"Well, during the week we would almost always eat a meal based on potatoes. In the winter, the big potatoes that are nice and crumbly and in the spring krieltjes would be a special treat, lovely potatoes that are small and firm. But during the weekend we would often eat Indonesian meals, like nasi or bami."
These are typical Indonesion meals based on rice and noodles that are now very popular in the Netherlands. Every Dutch person thinks of rice if you say nasi.
"One aspect of coming from a colonial family was that certain words were never said in Dutch. So banana would be pisang, coconut kelapa and cucumber ketimun. We really never used the Dutch word for banana and I still find it weird to use the Dutch word for coconut!"
Didn't the Dutch miss potatoes in Indonesia? It turns out that if they really wanted to eat potatoes, they had to settle for the canned version...maybe that's why they all developed a taste for rice and noodles in the end.

What about other Dutch meals?
Lexa: "Besides meals based on potatoes we would also eat beans, or pea soup. With stamppot the meat usually consisted of spekjes (bacon bits) or sausage. Chicken really was something special in those days, we would only have that in the weekend. Fish on Friday was traditional...even if you weren't Catholic, there would be good deals at the fishmongers on Friday, so everybody ate fish that day!"

Thursday, January 19, 2006


I just had the idea for this blog about a week ago, and every time I thought about it, I became more excited...the grand "opening" will be tomorrow! Of course, every journey starts at home, so I asked my Dutch mother to make a typical Dutch meal for this occasion.

Friday I will be having my first Nepalese meal at a friend's home. This will be a bit more of a novelty for me than the Dutch meal...I have no idea what Nepalese food is like! Maybe a bit like Indian food?

After each meal, I'll try to post as quickly as possible about how it was and add photos of my hosts and the food itself. Maybe recipes as well, if the meal seems to be something people can reproduce. But the idea behind the blog is really to make a "cultural trip" around the world here in the Netherlands. The meals are just the way I choose to make this trip...the means of transportation, so to say, and not the destination.

If you live in the Netherlands and would like to cook a meal for me that you enjoy making and eating yourself and that is typical for your culture, please post a comment with your contact details or email me eightymeals@yahoo.com