Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Meal 16. Indian feast, Bihari style

Tonight´s feast is being prepared by Anjana, a Ph.D. student from Bihar, a region in the North of India (she´s originally from a small town, Patna. Later her family moved to New Delhi and even later to Bombay). Also present is her friend Saraju, from North India as well.
During the preparations Anjana explains that as a Hindu, she is not allowed to eat beef, but she laughingly reasons that only the Indian cows are holy, not the Dutch, Australian or whatever the country of origin of the beef sold in the Netherlands is. She is sure it is not Indian.
For tonight´s keema with peas she visited all the supermarkets in town and none of them had ground lamb meat, so beef it is. This topic reminds me of something that happened to Irfan, another friend from Bihar. Waiting for someone at a Dutch trainstation, he was accosted by a hurried Indian, who started speaking to him in Hindi about beef. This man had come to Holland only to preach the importance of not eating beef. Irfan nodded politely and the Hindu evangelist went his way, without having asked if Irfan was actually Hindu. In fact, he is a Muslim, so the whole beef thing isn´t an issue for him.
While Anjana is preparing a treat of deep fried aubergine, she tells me about her youth. Though she is in essence a ¨city girl¨, she knows about country life, as she visited her father´s village (Farda, on the Ganges river) every year. In India the father´s village is more important than the mother´s birthplace. And in Anjana´s case, her mother´s village was difficult to get to. A full day´s travel, including a 13 km walk (difficult for small children). Her mother´s little sister would be picked up and brought to the village in a palanquin, but this deluxe treatment wasn´t available for a whole family.
I ask: ¨No donkeys to help transport the kids and the luggage?¨
Anjana laughs and answers:¨No...but before, my mother´s family had two elephants to help with the transport! But those are long dead by now...¨
Much has changed in Indian society besides the elephants; Anjana´s mother married her father as a young girl in an arranged marriage. By now, most of Anjana´s friends follow higher education, work (at least for a while) and have a say in their future husband. However, Anjana is the first of her circle of friends to leave India to get her Ph.D. in ¨the West¨. This was a big decision, as it wasn´t the path her family would have chosen for her. Nonetheless they are very proud of her and hope that her younger sisters will follow her example.
Then Saraju arrives, bringing ice creams as a gift. Anjana protests: she feels that as they are good friends, Saraju needn´t always bring presents...she is welcome empty-handed as well!
When the aubergine is done, we take spicy chicken wings from the oven and head over to Anjana´s room. The table is completely filled with the chicken wings, the keema (ground beef) with peas, dhal (lentils), rice with veggies (boro ki saabzi) and the deep fried battered aubergine (baigan ka bachka). These last two dishes are very typical for the Bihar region of India.
We drink red wine to go with the meal...Saraju explains that as a Brahmin (the highest caste) you are not supposed to drink from the glass. The liquid should be poured from the glass into the mouth without the two touching. This way, you can share the glass with other people. Drinking from a bottle or a glass directly is seen as a way of saying:¨This is my water!¨ and is thus very impolite.
But the Brahmin have many other rules as well. For example, younger people may not sit at a higher level than their elders in the same room. Anjana is not Brahmin, but has often visited their homes and mostly knows what not to do. Though one time she was sitting next to a Brahmin friend who kept hissing:¨Down! Down!¨ Anjana already was keeping her head down low, as is the custom, but trying to adapt she inclined her head even more, till her chin was touching her chest....and still her friend was telling her, ¨Down! Down!¨
At last, it turned out it was her leg that was supposed to be lowered, crossed legs were not comme il faut...
Though Anjana and Saraju are impressed by my eating-with-my-hand abilities, I fail miserably when I try to drink without touching the wine glass. The liquid dribbles on my chin and on my shirt. Luckily, I was smart enough to try with water, and not with the red wine!

Meal 15. Czech Bramborová polévka and žemlovka

My Czech linguist host, František has somehow created the stage for a Babylonian scene; English, Dutch, Czech and Indonesian are spoken in rapid succession.
František himself does research on the languages of Indonesia, his friend Ivana has spent time there as an anthropologist, and their friend Gershon is from Papua and worked at the museum of Ethnology in Leiden. Wow!
But the first moments of the evening I get to spend alone with František (Franti for short) and he shows me the thick cookbook his mother gave him. As many male expats, he only learnt how to prepare typical dishes after leaving his country. At home, his sisters helped mom cook and bake...especially on Saturday, "baking day", as traditionally, one is supposed to have enough treats for all the Sunday visitors. František sometimes misses the "open" culture back home, where he could always drop in at a friend's place without calling in advance.
After Ivana and Gershon arrive, we start the meal with some "comfort food", bramborová polévka, a hearty potato soup with forest mushroom and lots of other vegetables. It tastes great, but according to the cook, it will be even better tomorrow, when the flavors will be more intense.
For the next course we head to the kitchen to witness the preparations. I am impressed by Franti's professional chopping of the apples. He learnt the technique in his part-time job at a Mediterranean restaurant in Nijmegen (where he did his MA). The apples go into our sweet main course; žemlovka, a kind of oven baked french toast with fruit and raisins. Just pour an egg and milk mixture over old bread and throw in some chopped apples.
František and Ivana are the first people in my project that can remember life in a communist country (Andi and Ildi from Hungary were too young...), so I am very interested in how that was for them. According to Ivana, it wasn't that bad for kids: the communist government organized a lot of activities and camps for the children. František recalls monthly military excercises in the forest. All the kids would don gasmasks and raincoats to prepare for a (fictional) gas attack. Also plastic bags around the hands, which you were supposed to remove with little twigs to avoid contact with the "contaminated" plastic. Franti mostly remembers this as being silly, but good fun. The boys would also practice shooting, and because František was good enough, he was allowed to handle a Kalashnikov. And he was only thirteen or fourteen at the time!
He says he was afraid of Americans, he mostly pictured them as soldiers. Till one day he went to a concert of an American youth choir! The whole show he kept looking at one of the girls singing, she was so pretty...they exchanged addresses afterwards, but nothing much came of it. But at least his image of Americans as soldiers was changed in this one evening. Ivana also says her first contact with Americans was a group, singing Queen songs at her school. As one of the negative aspects of the communist era, she remembers how difficult it was to buy exotic fruits. Her grandfather waited in line for two hours once, just to buy half a kilo of bananas!
And František mentions how being (openly) Catholic could make life difficult under an atheist regime. During biology class, his teacher would explain about evolution and then teasingly say: "But František doesn't believe that, does he now?"
Also, it would have been difficult to get into university and get a good job as a Catholic. But the Velvet Revolution (1968) came before that could have an impact on Franti. Examples of small changes were Donald Duck on tv on Sunday, and the availability of some new kinds of vegetables in the winter. These were so new, that media campaigns were set up to teach the Czech how to prepare them!
After dinner I linger and check out Franti's laptop. Melancholic Czech music from the computer has accompanied our meal, but now my attention is caught by the slide show with dozens of photos of one very pretty Chinese girl. It turns out to be Franti's girlfriend from Hong Kong, a fellow researcher...he has to be content with photos till July, when she will return to the Netherlands. Who knows if I can arrange a Chinese meal then?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Meal. 14 Nigerian pounded yam with Egwusi soup

Bede and his Dutch wife, Petra, are the first to invite me for dinner purely on the basis of a newspaper article about the project (see the Volkskrant magazine link in the sidebar).
They are surprised to hear that nobody else has made the same offer....though Petra confides that her colleagues at work were astonished that she was receiving someone in her home that she did not know at all.
I take the train to Amsterdam with Petra, and when we arrive at their flat, the novel fragrances of Nigerian cooking waft from the kitchen. I see a big bag of "pounded yam", cassave flour, on the floor.
Bede tells me a 2.5 kilo bag costs an amazing amount in Holland. In Nigeria it would be supercheap (for European standards). There, pounded yam is what potatoes are for the Dutch...the basis of every meal.
Considering the markup, it is no wonder Bede is planning to set up a shop with Nigerian food products. At last some competition for the only Nigerian shop in Amsterdam, that draws crowds from all over the country.
Over dinner (pounded yam 'balls', two thick sauces to dip the balls in and deep-fried plantain), we discuss the bad image Nigerians seem to have in the West. I listen while I dip the starchy balls in the different sauces, egwusi and agbono, and try to keep my fingers clean.
Bede suggests that part of the problem could stem from non-trustworthy people from Cameroon and Ghana etc. who can easily get a Nigerian passport.
Together we laugh about the stupid (and greedy?) people who react to -mostly Nigerian- bank spam. You must know about those emails about "my father, ex-minister of Defense, left 70 million dollars and I desperately need to transfer it to a European bank account".
Bede emailed back with his phone number as a joke and when some guy called he kept him on the line for a while questioning him on where he was from. Did he know this city and that town?
At last he disclosed he was Nigerian himself and told the man to hang up and not waste his phonecard any longer...
In Nigeria he already knew some Westerners. In his home town, an American missionary often visited his mom's house. And in Abuja (a big town), he would chat with Irish ex-pats in cafes.
They usually worked for the Heineken brewery there that also makes Guinness beer.
After dinner we have tea and I leaf through their photo album. I admire a picture of Petra in Nigerian wedding dress. Also there are some clippings pasted in of Bede's football accomplishments. He first lived in Sweden for a while and shows me action photos of him during football matches in Sweden and Holland. In this sense you could call him a true "international", as he has played for teams in three different countries. But by now (he is 30) he has given up on his dreams of becoming a professional player. New dreams of opening a shop have replaced the older ones...I hope to be at the opening someday soon!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Meal 13. Chilean empanadas and cazuela

For this meal, I travel a bit further than usual: to the island of Texel. I don't have to worry about logistics; my friend Estela, who grew up in Texel, leads the way. She studies law in Amsterdam, and we met a few years ago at a summercourse on genocide and crimes against humanity. (What I was doing there? What...don' t you think veterinarians should know about genocide?)
Her father, Santiago, has made empanadas for us. Estela's mother, Isabel, actually ran a restaurant for a good number of years, and she has prepared the cazuela (a stew).
But first, we start off with a stiff drink: pisco sour. Santiago makes this drink with pisco, lemon juice, sugar and egg whites. The eggs are the chicken in their own backyard! They give the drink a nice frothy layer.
As we sit down and the empanadas are served, I wonder how to tackle them. Santiago seems to read my mind and says: "With your hands! In Chile, we have a saying: Empanadas, the guitar, and the woman...these are all touched with the hands!"
So I dig in and take a bite. The filling is delicious; a piping hot combination of ground beef, raisins, boiled eggs and black olives. Plus onions and garlic to taste. Try this link if you want to make some yourself.
Over dinner we get to talking about how Santiago and Isabel came to the Netherlands. It was in 1978, and Isabel was just a young girl of 19. They were fleeing a country where Pinochet had been in power for five years, since the military coup against Salvador Allende, the democratically chosen president. They describe the period after the coup as being horrific. There was no access to news, so nobody knew what was going on. No television, only military marches on the radio, no public transport and no gasoline for the cars. People had to walk for hours to find out if their friends and family were okay. And walking around town was dangerous as well, because there was a curfew.
Santiago was being educated as a marine biologist at and one of his teachers just "disappeared". Sometimes the military marches on the radio would stop, and the executions of that day would be broadcast. Thousands of "enemies of the state" were murdered, and Isabel tells me how even boys who only had been a member of the communist youth groups had to fear for their lives. It was a period of fear.
Five years after the coup, it was clear for Santiago that he had to leave, and a possibility opened up for a trip to the Netherlands.
He and Isabel were both young, and it was a time of big uncertainty. But within half a year, through unlikely events, he managed to find an internship as a marine biologist in Texel and they have stayed on the island ever since.
Isabel ran a restaurant on the mainland and describes how people would not know what to do with Chilean soup, the cazuela. This soup consists of broth with big potatoes, carrots, corncobs and chunks of meat in it. Isabel herself prefers to move the big pieces to a separate plate. But Santiago and Estela just eat the pieces first and then ladle up the broth. I go for their technique.
Over dinner we sip Chilean red wine, Casillero del Diablo. Santiago tells me this used to be very expensive wine in Chile, and he is pleased it is quite affordable in the Netherlands.
We talk about how he sees his future. Though he is happy with his job, his friends, and his house, he still wants to move back to Chile someday. Isabel, however, sees her future in the Netherlands. She works at Ecomare, a ecology centre mostly known for protecting seals. She is a Spanish teacher as well, and has been involved in local politics. But why does she feel differently? Estela suggests it could be because a lot of her family has moved to the Netherlands and that gives her a sense of home. Isabel cannot really explain it. She does still feel Chilean. Her first trip back to Chile brought tears to her eyes, thinking of all the struggles her countrymen had been through while she was elsewhere.
Estela feels pretty much Dutch, albeit with "Chilean roots".
Just to check if she has been raised with a bit of Latino flavor, I ask; "What about the chancleta?"
I remembered this online quiz: "You know you're a Latino, if....your Mami would threaten you with her chancleta!"
And indeed, Estela affirms that on occasion Isabel would grab her slipper and wave it about to scare her away. It didn't cause any major traumas though-they are still very close!
The next day, we have empanadas and eggs for breakfast and with Estela I watch a movie, Machuca. It's a touching film about a young boy and how he experiences the military coup. I feel honoured to have spoken to people just the night before who have really lived through this period.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Meal 12. Moroccan Couscous

Couscous is the first thing that comes to mind when Moroccan cooking is mentioned. That's why Fatiha decided to make it as a "typical Moroccan meal". But it turns out she doesn't even like couscous herself! She makes it three or four times a year, only when there are guests. Her own favorite meal is based on potatoes, so it seems she has adapted well to Dutch society (see Meal 1. Dutch andijviestamppot). We actually met as "integration buddies" about two years ago, a scheme organized by the Utrecht municipality. I was supposed to introduce her to Dutch society, I guess. But usually we just ended up drinking tea and chatting. The six months I had to integrate Fatiha have long since passed, but we still enjoy each other's company.
When I arrive, she tells me she had almost cancelled our date. Why? Some wire had short-circuited and there was no electricity on the ground floor of her house. And the guy who came to fix it was four hours late! So most of the day she had been walking around with candles.
Also, her oven is electric; so there will be no Moroccan cookies to go with the mint tea tonight...
The couscous is prepared the traditional way. This entails steaming it twice, with butter or oil added. In the photo you can see the special couscous pan, behind the pan with pumpkin. The whole dish consists of plenty of couscous, potatoes, pumpkin, carrot, tomato, onions, chickpeas, chicken wings and cilantro to taste.
Adding potatoes is actually not that common in Morocco, but Fatiha's mother did it as well, so we can call this a "traditional" dish...
Above right you can see Fatiha's youngest daughter, Miryam, posing next to the finished platter of couscous. Will she be preparing the same meal in 10 years time? Quite possibly, though at the moment her main concerns are playing with her baby brother and jumping off the couch in creative ways. Fatiha is planning on letting her follow gymnastics classes to focus her energy. This might mean cartwheels and handstands in the living room in the future! Osama, Miryam's 9-year-old brother, has already taken to playing soccer inside. He's a big fan of Ibrahim Afellay, a very succesful Dutch/Moroccan soccer player for PSV. After dinner, there's an interview with this 19-year-old wonder boy on TV. I'm mostly impressed with the amount of gel he manages to put into his curls, but also by how far he has come for a boy his age.
Osama tells me Ibrahim lives right around the corner from his aunt, here in Utrecht. A local role model.
Fatiha's husband, Azzedine, is working late tonight; he's a bus driver. And a good cook as well. A few months ago he made a great meal for us with fried fish, shrimp and mussels. But according to Fatiha, there is one problem with having him be the cook: he doesn't clean up the kitchen afterwards! I have to say; my mother complains about my dad doing exactly the same thing...
After dinner, we have some fruit. Fatiha has bought 3 kilos of oranges, because her youngest son, Adam, really likes the taste of them. But the whole family will be going to Germany in a few days to visit Fatiha's parents, so they won't be able to finish all of it. She gives me some fruit to take home with me; a touching gesture she has made in the past as well. As if she wants to ensure that I will still get enough vitamins living my "student lifestyle"...

Friday, March 03, 2006

Meal 11. Jamaican Rice 'n Peas and Jerk Tilapia

My sister Rivke and I frequently go to dancehall concerts and are often joined by our half Dutch, half Jamaican friend Azinta. Though she's lived in India, Indonesia, China and Jamaica part of her life, most of her high school years were spent in Heelsum, a village with 4000 inhabitants near Arnhem. And this is where Rivke and I arrive to enjoy a typical Jamaican meal, that Azinta's mother Marcia agreed to make for us. The whole village is blanketed in snow, and Azinta shows us Heelsum's main attractions; two restaurants, a bar, a pharmacy and a church. We sneak into Azinta's house by way of the backyard and meet Marcia for the first time. She is busy preparing pre-dinner snacks and summons Azinta to prepare us a drink. Above you can see her showing off a bottle of Appleton rum, one of Jamaica's favorite drinks, besides Red Stripe and Ting ("The Real Ting!").
The rum goes into the rumpunch, with sorrel and lime. Very refreshing! I had never heard of sorrel before; it's a red fruit that you can turn into syrup or jam.
While we sip our drinks, Marcia shows us all the different kinds of jerk seasoning (at left) she has bought in Jamaica. It's a fiery sauce that you can use to make jerk chicken, or to spice up fish, which it what we're having as a main dish tonight. At the supermarket nearby, they actually sell tilapia from a Jamaican producer. Marcia even knows him. It's a small world...
I ask how people say something is delicious in Jamaica. Marcia thinks for a while, and comes up with "It taste good!". Rivke contributes that a woman she knows well will say: "It allright...", or "It nah too bad," if she is really happy with something she has made.
While Marcia is preparing the tilapia, we enjoy the fried fish and tofu snacks she has made and talk about her plans for moving back to Jamaica. At the moment they are renovating a farm so that Azinta and her sister will also be able to visit when it's done. The only thing she's not really looking forward to is the quality of the roads. The rains this last year have only made them worse.
After the snacks it's time to start the "real meal" with spicy pumpkin soup. The secret ingredients are star anise and spring onions.
And then the main meal arrives. It's a true feast consisting of rice 'n peas (a Jamaican classic), jerk tilapia, salad, spinach, festival ( sweet fried bread) and avocado.
I always wonder how rice 'n peas taste so much better than you would expect of a dish that's just rice and beans. The answer is that most cooks add coconut milk, onions, garlic or other spices like thyme. I'm not sure what Marcia added, but it is really good. It nah too bad!
To arrive at home on time, we should actually have taken the ten to ten bus...but Marcia persuades us to stay a little later. How did she manage to convince us? The magic words "Homemade", "Banana" and "Ice cream".
Served with caramelized slices of pineapple. Mmmm. Too bad we don't have time for some coffee. Jamaica's Blue Mountain coffee is one of the best coffees in the world, and one of the most expensive. The rains mentioned above supposedly ruined much of last year's crops, raising the prices even more. Rivke and I imported some from an organic coffee farmer, Oliver, preferring this Jamaican product to the more stereotypical ganja...

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Meal 10. Finnish Makaronilaatikko

How I arrived at Laura's dinner table is quite funny. We met in Antwerp at a Hospitality Club meeting. Later we had drinks in Leiden (where my parents live), at a nice bar, the WW. But only when we called to set a date for the Finnish dinner, did I find out she lives two houses down from my parents! I have actually played football in the park with the boys Laura is taking care of as an au pair. They are quite a lively bunch and it was impossible to make them sit straight for a photograph, as you can see.
Laura tells me the meal she made, Makaronilaatikko, is a great favorite with children. Basically, it's just macaroni with ground meat, bell pepper, and a thick layer of cheese on top. Laatikko is Finnish for casserole, a.k.a. a dish baked in the oven. I'm surprised to see the boys smother it in ketchup, but according to Laura this is not a problem. Adding ketchup to everything is very Finnish, as well as eating reindeer meat, and drinking lots of milk, even with gourmet food or in restaurants.

After a while the parents, Patricia and Pieter, arrive and have their heated up version of the macaroni. Then they head upstairs to put the kids to bed. Laura and I go downstairs where she has her cosy room. She has her own bathroom as well, but is missing out on one Finnish amenity: the sauna. In Finland every family has their own sauna within the bathroom, and she would usually go three times a week. To slough off dead skin cells and promote circulation, you hit each other with birch twigs. Sounds kind of SM to me, but I guess that's part of the fun.
As I take a better look at Laura's duvet cover, I see it is a Marimekko design. One of the few Finnish companies I know, besides Nokia and...Finlandia vodka.
Laura tells me Marimekko products are going through a revival, especially bags with the Unikko design. When she was an au pair in Brussels, all the other Finnish au pairs (more than twenty), had versions of the bag. Laura herself has one "official" bag, and one her sister made from Marimekko fabric. Plus a bag for toiletries and a pencil case. I ask her to pose with all of them and it makes for a colourful picture.
Marimekko and Laatikko are easy to recognize as Finnish words because they have those double vowels and consonants. Pronouncing words like tuli, tulli and tuuli correctly is quite a challenge for foreigners! They all mean something else; fire, customs and wind respectively...
Another interesting fact is that the current Finnish president, Tarja Halonen, is a Conan O'Brien look-a-like. She was re-elected on January 29, 2006 and O'Brien, whose comedy show is very popular in Finland, even aired a couple of mock Halonen campaign ads. Too bad the picture at left misses colour, it's especially the pale skin and red hair that is supposed to make them look so alike.