Sunday, February 26, 2006

Meal 9. Senegalese Thiebou Dieune

For Senegalese food, I did not need to travel farther than my own building! I often smell delicious aromas wafting from Andrea's kitchen, but I'm never sure if it is her Dutch cooking or Moussa's Senegalese cuisine. I should be able to tell the difference, I guess. Tonight will be my first ever taste of what Moussa calls "the national dish of Senegal", Thiebou Dieune.
I take a peek while he is slaving away in the kitchen, and it looks really good. I spot a yellow pepper in the pan, and ask if it is a Scotch Bonnet. Moussa answers he knows it as a Tyson, named after the fiery boxer! I wonder how they called it before Mike Tyson was well known...

While the rice is cooking, I amuse myself by listening to Elias, Andrea and Moussa's 17 month old son. If there was a "Animal Sound" competition for toddlers, he would surely win first prize! If you say "Pig!", he makes a very authentic snorting sound with his nose, "Cat!" a meow, and "Snake!" a convincing hissing noise. And that's only a small sample of his repertoire...
He is being raised bilingually; Moussa speaks to him in French and Dutch, Andrea only in Dutch.
Besides his mother tongue, Wolof, Moussa also speaks French, English and Dutch. But he avowes Dutch is by far the most difficult. He actually met Andrea as a language student; she was his Dutch teacher. We talk about how many people perceive you as stupid if you do not master their language perfectly. My American father, who is a university lecturer in Leiden, is sometimes still frustrated by this fact. (More on him in a meal to come...!)

Back to cooking: Moussa tells me he could have chosen to make several other typical dishes, but thiebou dieune really is what Senegalese eat almost every day.
Other options would have been Senegalese couscous (very difficult to come by in the Netherlands) or mafé, a peanut butter stew with meat.

Tonight's thiebou dieune seems quite elaborate for a dish that is served every evening. The main ingredient is rice, with fish, tiny meatballs, okra, aubergine, pumpkin, carrot and cassava. Andrea pictures the Senegalese women spending hours every day just preparing the evening meal. Traditionally, men are not supposed to cook in Senegal. Moussa laughingly explains that his mother would hardly let him into the kitchen. He only learned to prepare the Senegalese dishes in the Netherlands, aided by his memories of how had seen it being done back home. He explains how fish is the most common source of protein, though beef and chicken are popular as well. Pork is not common, as the overwhelming majority of Senegalese adheres to islamic beliefs. But the small Christian minority does keep pigs, and that isn't a problem. In Senegal, the different religions live together in peace. Muslims will celebrate Christmas, and Christians will also participate in Muslim holidays, Moussa tells me. You can read an interesting article about this tolerance here.

Our meal is accompanied by the sounds of Senegalese musicians. Elias is waving his arms to the music in his high chair. Youssou N'Dour is the most famous, but Baaba Maal and many others have managed to reach wide audiences outside the borders of Senegal.
I have to admit, I don't know that much about Senegal, except that they have a good football team and most of the players seem to be called Diop, Diof or Dioup. (I just checked, and of the 20 players in the current team, there are just two Dioups and one Diop...) Senegal's president between 1981 and 2000 was Abdou Diouf. I haven't been able to find out what this name means and why it is so common.

After dinner, Elias is put to bed, we head to the couch and Andrea brings out some vanilla ice cream with home-made elderberry syrup made by her mother. Not something you would find quickly in Senegal! Though Moussa tells us you can find a lot of Dutch powdered milk in Senegalese shops. Our cows are sometimes more international than we are...

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Meal 8. Hungarian Borsóleves and Túrós csusza

Ildi is the first person I have actually met who has had her eyes lasered. She jokes with her high-school friend Andrea about walking around with sunglasses for half a year afterwards and getting strange looks at night. They tell me Hungary is the up-and-coming destination for laser and dental "tourism", because of the quick service and cheap prices.
Andrea (in black) and Ildi are both language students from Budapest. Andrea studies Dutch and English and is improving her Dutch by staying in the Netherlands for 8 months. She works as a teacher's assistant at a school for security agents.
Ildi is visiting, she studies Japanese and English, but has not been to Japan Hungary is part of the European Union, there might be more possibilities for exchange programs. Andrea is obviously very fond of Ildi, but jokes she just likes having her around so she can wear her hair in two ponytails; Ildi makes the perfectly straight part in the back!
Some of the ingredients for tonight's meal were especially brought over from Budapest. A bag of pasta named fodros nagykocka after 'ruffles' because of their shape, carrots, 'white carrots' and some real Hungarian paprika powder, supposedly the essential ingredient in traditional soups and stews.

And last but not least: a candy bar with chocolate and cottage cheese called Túró Rudi. According to Andrea this will be all the rage in Europe within a year, and when I google the name of this delicatessen I find out she has a point! I didn't know people could be so fanatic about a bar of chocolate.

Ildi's dish, the túrós csusza (at left), is really simple to make: just the frilly pasta with a sauce of drained cottage cheese and salty bacon bits. And a dollop of sour cream on top. A kind of "pasta carbonara", I guess.
I'm missing some veggies though. But Andrea's pea soup, borsóleves (at right), with fried chicken wings, carrots and 'white carrots' (the official word is parsnip) takes care of that.
The soup is Andi's mix of traditional pea soup with the basis of most Hungarian stews: onions fried in oil till they disintegrate, plus paprika powder. The powder gives the soup it's distinctive taste and red colour.

What else is typically Hungarian, I ask. "Poppy seeds!", answers Ildi. "We mostly used them in cakes. Officially you're not allowed to grow poppies in your garden, because the green seed pod contains the ingredients for opium. But they still grow everywhere. When my grandmother was small, she once ate some green poppies from a field."
"What happened?", I ask.
"She slept for three days straight! The doctor came and told her parents:"Just let her sleep...", and afterwards she was okay."

"Wow!" I exclaim, "and I thought Holland was special, with marihuana plants growing in gardens and on balconies..."
Then Andrea tells me about an old lady who made the news in Hungary because of her marihuana plants. She planted them between her cabbages, supposedly to keep the worms away. The police had to force her to remove the plants. But the next year, she did it again. And made the news again. According to Andrea and Ildi, this was just a smart way of making publicity. You have to let people know you are selling wormless cabbages somehow...

Ildi has been to the States to visit family. She has two uncles living there who both fled their country in 1956 because of the anti-Soviet Hungarian Revolt. They're in their seventies now and even speak Hungarian with an American accent after all these years. The story goes that the oldest brother crossed the border by hanging onto the underside of a train for a couple of kilometers!
It reminds me of how my own great-grandmother is supposed to have escaped from the Ukraine hidden in a haywagon. Crossing borders makes for interesting stories...but maybe time passing makes them even more interesting!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Meal 7. Turkish Turkey, Dolmas and Aşure

My hosts tonight are Kadria, who came to the Netherland 42 years ago, and Fatma, her daughter, who was born here. They are both ex-colleagues of mine, and Fatma is still a colleague of my oldest sister, Anna. They actually already made a wonderful meal for us once, in this blog is a good excuse for a repeat.
We start by joining Kadria in the kitchen, where she explains how to make rice the Turkish way. First you soak it in water for a few hours, then fry it in lots of oil and then boil it.
The method for making ayran, our drink, is a bit simpler. It's just yoghurt, water and salt to taste. Served chilled, it is very refreshing and pretty much similar to Indian lassi.

Dinner starts off with a white bean stew. As it turns out, the white beans have been brought over from Turkey, as have the olives, the laurel leaves and the wine leaves for the dolmas later on. Quite impressive. Kadria tells me many people bring back so much stuff from Turkey, they actually choose their airline according to how much baggage weight they allow!

Fatma brings out the dolmas with a special smile on her face. This is a real treat that takes quite a lot of work to prepare. The slightly bitter wine leaves are filled with sweet rice, raisins and pine nuts. Yum.

Kadria reminisces about her youth. We laugh about her stories while enjoying the delicious food. It is great to still have contact with her after all these years. Kadria has known me since I was thirteen and we always had fun drinking coffee together at work. I also remember presents of olives and a Turkish peasant blouse. The olives really came from her family owned olive orchard. Tonight's olives as well. I always find it amazing how people ever invented the way to prepare the raw olives. When you eat them fresh from the tree they are truly disgusting. You have to soak them in salt water for weeks to make them palatable.

The turkey, served with rice and sweet corn, is the third course. It is very tender, and even looks appetizing in the picture, don't you think? (I realized that taking the photos at an angle instead of straight from above helps...)
Though turkey was named after the country, the bird originally is from Mexico. In Turkish it is called hindi, because they thought it came from India! A bit confusing, huh? If you're interested in the linguistic details, click here.

The turkey is so good I even ask for an extra portion. By now, I am really stuffed. But there is more to come...puff pastry triangles, börek, filled with spinach. My stomach streches a little more and we head to the coach to recover. Fatma, who is very slender, shows me her belly. I put my hand on it and seriously, she seems to be three months pregnant! She swears that this is always the case after dinner, but that a short walk and a cigarette will make it disappear.

After flipping through some of the 42 Turkish channels Kadria receives through her satellite dish, that is exactly what we do. We head out into the cold and take a short walk through the neighbourhood. Chilled to the bone, we rush back in after ten minutes to a blissfully warm apartment. Time for our fifth course, a special dessert called aşure. Fatma shows me a Dutch cookbook with the recipe. Supposedly Noah made this dessert with all the ingredients he had left after landing on Mount Ararat. For those as ignorant as me; Ararat is were Noah landed after the Flood and it is the highest mountain in Turkey.
This dessert has a certain set of rules; it should be served in the month after February 9 and it has to consist of at least 7 ingredients. What's more, it should be served to at least 7 people. So Kadria will bring some to her friends the next day to comply with this rule.

To warm up even more, we end the evening with a cup of Senseo coffee, a Dutch touch after a thoroughly Turkish meal.

Dutch clogs with the Turkish protection against the evil eye on Kadria's tv

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Meal 6. Sudanese Molokhia and Mahashi

Tonight the first African meal on this blog! Nejla is a scientist at the biomedical lab where I'm an intern at the moment. She has given me simple tips that make a big difference. For instance, she advised me to use post-its to rubricize my enormous stack of articles. Now I can quickly find the one I'm looking for.

When I arrive at her home in Wageningen, a bit early, Nejla is still video-chatting with her sister, who lives in the United States, but she welcomes me warmly and quickly signs off.
She tells me the other friend she invited, a girl from Kenya, has cancelled. One thing Nejla certainly appreciates about the Dutch is that they stick to their appointments. Once they say they will do something, they do it. I know the Dutch, or maybe "Northern Europeans" in general, have trouble adapting in other countries where people will say yes to something and then not show up. On the other hand, a Spanish guy I know complains about how in the Netherlands, everything is planned a month in advance and no space is left for spontaneous get togethers.

About the meal, Nejla tells me that she actually hardly ever makes Sudanese food. Partly because it takes hours to make, and partly because she likes it so much, she can't stop eating it once she starts!

The menu for tonight is a Molokhia (a spinach like vegetable) with lamb meat, Mahashi (a tomato stuffed with beef and rice), rice, flat bread and a fresh green salad. The molokhia really reminds of a dish I've eaten before, but I don't know where. It's as if I see an actor on tv and recognize him, but don't remember from which movie. Frustrating! But Nejla tells me the dish is not only common in Sudan, but in Egypt as well. So probably I had some while visiting friends in Cairo last year.

I start out eating with a spoon, but Nejla is interested in how I eat with my hands. Of course, immediately I make the mistake of touching the food with my left hand. This is a big no-no. Mostly because your left hand is used for "toilet purposes", but according to some, because using the right hand is obligatory in Islam.
Also, your fingers should not really go in your mouth, this is not polite.
In the end, I spoon the food into pieces of bread and pop those in my mouth. The salad I eat with a fork though.

After the meal, we listen to Bob Marley on her computer and debate how he died exactly. I thought stomach cancer, Nejla thought lung cancer (from smoking too much?). So I look it up, and it turns out it was skin cancer that spread to his lungs and stomach.

Over dessert (a delicious crème caramel) we talk about double standards for men and women in the Netherlands and in Sudan. As an example, I say: "Take a girl in high school who kisses another boy each week in the disco. This girl will be seen as a bit of a slut. But if it's a boy that kisses a different girl each week, he is seen as a stud!"
Nejla asks me:"But who will talk about her? Mostly her friends? Or the whole community?"
I answer: "Mostly just her friends and the people at school."

During the evening we talk about lots of different things, among others, that Nejla is devout and serious about her faith. However, she does believe that her faith is between her and the Almighty, and that other people do not have the right to judge her in this respect and tell her what to do. She does not tell other Muslims how they should practice their faith either. This is something personal. we part, we are still in the middle of a discussion! About how many Northern Sudanese highly value their light skin and soft hair and feel Arabic, not African. Nejla admits that Arabic is her mother tongue, but still she feels more African. In general, she feels that people should not put so much weight on skin color and that no one should be judged by their ethnicity.

We go to into the elevator together, because Nejla is bringing the leftover crème caramel to a friend of hers on the tenth floor. By accident, she presses number 13, because her best friend lived on that floor before moving back to Sudan. Nejla still misses her a lot.
So, on the tenth floor, we kiss goodbye and I promise to invite her over to my place soon for a Dutch meal!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Meal 5. Italian pasta: Farfalle alle gamberi e zucchine

It has taken a few cancellations before I really find myself at Alessandro's place. He's a young piano tuner from Conegliano, a small town located about 50 km from Venice. Just by looking at him, you wouldn't immediately know he was Italian...his hair and skin are pretty light and his eyes are grey. As a child, people would call him "the little German boy" because of his white blond hair.

When I arrive at his place at around 6:30, he is still undecided about what to make. His all-time favorite recipe is pasta with dried horse meat and radicchio di treviso, but those ingredients aren't readily available in the Netherlands. He could make polenta or gnocchi, but both recipes take more than an hour to prepare, and after discussing all the options and googling radicchio, I'm kind of hungry. So we agree on pasta with shrimp and zucchini (a.k.a. courgette/eggplant) sauce.

Off to the supermarket to buy the ingredients and some wine, Italian of course. Actually Conegliano hosts the oldest wine school of Italy, and maybe of Europe, I'm not sure. These kind of facts you only know if you are from the city itself. I always thought everybody knew Leiden was the oldest university in the Netherlands, but no...and what about Utrecht having the highest church tower?

While Alessandro is cooking, he tells me a bit about food in Italy. He lived with his mother till he was 26, he then moved to the Netherlands. This is actually a common situation there; you live with your parents till you marry or move to another city. Though Alessandro would sometimes cook for himself, he preferred having his mother cook for him. As by miracle, his mobile phone rings while we are talking about this and who can it be, but La Mamma.
They shortly discuss the weather in Utrecht and in Conegliano, his buying a new car and his work. Then he has to ring off, because else the farfalle will no longer be al dente! Pasta that is too soft is a cardinal sin in Italian cooking. Alessandro also begs me never to commit another sin, which is to add cheese to a sauce with seafood in it. He once saw a British cook do this on tv, and still horrors at the thought.

Then we sit down with our plates on our laps and enjoy the slightly spicy pasta dish. The sauce contains shrimp, zucchini, onions, garlic, white wine, lots of parsley and one dried chili pepper. The two garlic cloves are only crushed, not chopped, and removed before serving the meal. Thus only a subtle garlic aroma is added to the flavor of the sauce.
After dinner, we have some Viennetta, an ice cream product actually developed by a Brit...but who cares, it tastes fine. During our meal, Alessandro's housemate walks in, Elvir, an artist originally from Bosnia. I start telling him about my 80 meals project and he is very enthusiastic; it seems like I have a new nationality willing to participate!

Somehow it is already midnight when they decide to watch a DVD with their beamer. My chair is so comfortable and my eyelids so heavy, I don't manage to stay awake once the movie has started. One and a half hours later I wake up suddenly and see the final scenes of the movie, Caligula. Lots of blood and gore, and I'm happy I slept through most of it. Checking out the description on the box confirms this. It seems to be some kind of bloody, soft porn cult film about the crazy Roman emperor, made by Italian director Tinto Brass.
My camera was still lying on the table after dinner, so sneaky bastard Elvir made a flattering portrait of me snoring away(at left). Kind of scary, huh?