Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Meal 30. Vietnamese Bò Bóp Thâú (Beef Salad)

An has lived in the Netherlands for three years now, and has already developed a taste for zuurkool, otherwise known as sauerkraut. She likes to add sugar, thus creating a nice sweet and sour taste. An:"My parents are from the North of Vietnam, and that is where I grew up. In the North, we prefer our food to be quite simple. The predominant taste is salty. I have lived in the South too, where they like sweet dishes. And my husband is from the centre, where the food is spicy!"
Today, the dish is both spicy and a bit sweet. The beef salad, Bò Bóp Thâú, is perfect summer food. The marinated and fried strips of beef are added to a colourful mix of thinly sliced bell peppers.
It's funny to see how An crushes the garlic with the butt of a big knife, instead of with a garlic press. The technique reminds me of the mortar and pestle they use in Indonesia (and elsewhere) to make sambal. The salad itself is eaten by heaping a bit of it on a pieace of krupuk (shrimp cracker) and popping that in your mouth.
In Vietnam An teaches at the university, and now she is doing her Ph.D. here, to gain practical experience for the lab that has just been built back home. The Ph.D. is being paid for by Vietnam and hopefully will guarantee more job stability in the future. I am impressed by the big sacrifice she is making by leaving her husband and young daughter behind...she only gets to see them once a year.
Yes, An says, Vietnam is still a poor country, but things are changing. The last 15 years or so, the country has modernized a bit, becoming more democratic and more open to foreign investments. Why do foreign companies like Vietnam? An: "Well, my guess is it's because the Vietnamese work very hard, are friendly and don't complain!"
"A good thing is that the Vietnamese do not only do the low level work. There is a construction that involves companies employing locals in management positions as well. After five to ten years, only the chief manager is foreign, and after twenty years, the company should be completely Vietnamese!"
If this really works out that way, it does seem like a good development. An's daughter will probably grow up in a very different Vietnam.

Click here for the "French inspired" recipe for beef salad: Vietnamese Bò Bóp Thâú

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Meal 29. Chinese Stir fried Chicken with Red Pepper

Mike has been studying Economics in Maastricht for a few years now. His real name is Jin, but to make is easier for us Europeans, he lets us call him Mike. He tells me that at elementary school, all the pupils get to choose an English name.
Though he is a bit shy about having his photo taken, Mike is very open about everything else and answers all my questions about China...even when I want to know about the little kids with a big hole in their pants instead of diapers!
As I help him take the skin off the chicken legs, we talk about his first weeks in the Netherlands. He still was the typical Chinese guy, and even when he arrived at a friend's place dying of thirst, he didn't dare accept the first offer of a drink. In China, you should politely decline the first two times the host offers you something and then accept the third time. But here his friend just accepted the first no and didn't ask again. Leaving poor Mike with a parched mouth...
Also, when he would give people a light, he would expect them to touch his hands in thanks, which is polite in China. But in Holland this is deemed to be slightly too intimate when your cigarette is being lit by a stranger.
During the preparations I am blown away by the 25 kg bag of rice Mike has in the kitchen. This size would be enough to feed a small family for two months...
The rice is cooked in an electric rice cooker he brought over from Shen Yang, his home town. His cool pan (with Chinese symbols on the bottom) and many of the spices were purchased in a Chinese shop here in Holland.
Mike learnt to cook from his grandmother, but only really started practicing after he came here. He tells me less and less young people know how to cook nowadays, partly because they eat out a lot. The meal he is making for me tonight is a "famous meal", and he has downloaded a recipe from internet to be sure he does everything in the right order. The recipe looks very exotic to me!
The stir frying is a real show, the hot oil sizzling, especially when the omelet mix is thrown in...an enormous puffy omelet appears in just a few seconds. The omelet with tomato is a big success amongst Mike's European friends, probably because of the secret ingredient...sugar! And maybe because of the mysterious "chicken broth mix" from Knorr that Mike adds to the omelet and the chicken dish. The ingredients list corn starch, salt and monosodium glutamate (the famous flavour enhancer ve-tsin).
After everything is done I do my best with the chop sticks and enjoy the spicy chicken, chinese cabbage with glutinous vinegar sauce and sweet omelet with tomato. Mike tells me that if we had been in China, as a host he should have been sitting with his back to the door. This unspoken rule of communication also entails that in restaurants the person sitting in that position is the person that pays! Good to know if I ever make it to China...

Click here for the recipes:
Chinese Stir fried Chicken with Red Pepper
Chinese Sweet Omelet with Tomato

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Meal 28. Romanian Mămăligă cu Brânză

Antoanella and her Dutch boyfriend Herman met while he was on holiday in Romania. Though in the beginning she hardly spoke any English or Dutch nor did he speak any Romanian, by now they've been a couple for many years and live together in Rotterdam. He has learned some Romanian, and Anto's Dutch is good enough to have completed her Master in Physical Geography here. For fun, she's even started on the novels in Herman's alphabetically arranged bookcase. She's already at the end of the B's!
Before dinner, we have wine and some appetizers, including Salată de vinete, aubergine dip with a smoky flavour. Romanian wine is very famous...in Romania. Anto tells about a local wine winning an important medal in Brussels. But when she googled it, the only sites that reported about this prize were Romanian ones.
Besides wine, (home-brewed) strong liquor is a big favourite in Romania. When travelling by bus or train, it's common that people will go round with plastic cups and 2 L coke bottles with some kind of moonshine. Even if it's 10 o'clock in the morning...this makes travelling by public transport quite fun!
Though a Romanian host will unvaryingly offer ample amounts of food and drink to visitors, it wasn't always that easy to come by ingredients. Anto recalls how during the Communist era, Christmas would mean waiting in line for meat for days. Families would queue in shifts so as not to lose their place in line. The best job during those days was in a shop, even a shoestore. That way, you could trade shoes for food.
Anto's grandfather worked at a farm collective, and with six kids it was sometimes hard to feed them all. He was allowed to take home hay, so would sometimes smuggle along little bags with milk hidden amongst the hay.
Nowadays, Romania is actually doing pretty well according to Anto, and she doesn't really understand why Dutch people still send trucks full of food, clothing and toys to her country. Many other countries are a lot poorer...but she and Herman think the Dutch that started sending over help after the fall of Communism just enjoy their time in Romania. Nice food and drink, locals happy with the gifts...why change the routine? If the food served there is similar to what Antoanella is serving, I certainly wouldn't! After the appetizers, we start with Mămăligă cu Brânză, a kind of polenta with a choice of butter, yoghurt, sour cream and feta like cheese that can be added to taste. The next course is a delicious stuffed pepper, which should be served with bread. Actually, everything should be served with bread in Romania, even if it's a carb laden dish like lasagna or rice. Bread is also used as a kind of utensil, you eat with a fork in one hand and a piece of bread in your other one, to fold around meat or to soak up the sauce. Spoons and knives are hardly ever used.
Our last course is pumpkin pastry made with filo dough. In the Netherlands we aren't familiar with pumpkin in sweet dishes, but I love it! Antoanella assures me all these dishes are easy to make, although the aubergine dip does take some time. If you'd like to try, click on these links for the recipes:

Salată de vinete (aubergine dip)
Mămăligă cu Brânză (polenta with cheese)
Ardei umpluţi (stuffed green pepper)

Plăcintă cu dovleac (pumpkin pastry)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Meal 27. Catalan Pa amb Tomàquet and Patatas a la Riojana

Elena is one of the few Spaniards I know who has taught herself Dutch within a year...most of them concentrate on learning English and stop after five words of Dutch! I don't really blame them, but it does make Elena's accomplishment even more impressive.
She lives in Utrecht with her husband, Javier, and together they have planned an "inter-regional" Spanish meal. Elena is from Barcelona and will make the famous Catalan Pa amb Tomàquet, and Javier will prepare a potato stew from his region, Rioja. Most people will know of it through it's famous wines...usually Rioja is the only wine people know from Spain. They must have a good PR department! Although cava, from Catalonia, is becoming quite well known by now too. Though by now, I have visited quite a lot of Catalonia, in the beginning it was a big surprise to find out it was such a separate region, with it's own culture and language (Pa amb Tomàquet would be Pan con Tomate in Castillian Spanish).
Some foreign students who come to Barcelona on exchange make this same mistake, thinking that speaking Spanish should be enough to follow courses in Spain.
Though Elena and Javier do love their country, they seem to have adapted to Holland amazingly well. They even are okay with just buying a sandwich for lunch and eating it while walking to the next appointment! While in Spain, lunch usually is the meal of the day with three courses and a glass of wine...
They praise the Dutch custom of students moving out of the parental house when they start studying. "It makes you independent earlier on in life," says Elena. Many young people in Spain only move out when they get married. Partly it's a "cultural thing", partly the rent is just too high, especially in Barcelona.
The Pa amb Tomàquet is fun to prepare; rubbing on garlic cloves and tomato halves till only the skin is left, then drizzling on olive oil and sprinkling on some salt. Here at left you see me rubbing on the tomato. The added flavours make the bread infinitely superior to just plain old bread and taste great with Spanish ham like Serrano or Manchego cheese.
The potato stew Javier prepares is an old favorite, you won't find it at a fashionable tapas restaurant...but the chorizo sausage gives it a spicy twist. It's definitely not hard to make, so if you can get chorizo, you should give it a try:

Patatas a la Riojana (recipe)

Pa amb Tomàquet (recipe)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Meal 26. Flemish Witloof uit den Oven

When I arrive at Laura's house in Leiden, I can already see her cooking through the kitchen window. As you can see in the photos, she has adopted the "typically Dutch" custom of leaving the curtains open which lets passers-by easily look in. Laura's parents, when visiting from Belgium, have laughed at this feature, as well as at the incredibly narrow and steep staircases used in this crowded country to save space.
The thing I notice most myself when entering Belgian Flanders by train is that the houses there seem a bit dirtier and less well-kept. But Laura, who is originally from Antwerp, tells me her impression is that as she leaves the Netherlands, she can start breathing. In Belgium, there is more space, and more freedom in building styles. Funny how we have different interpretations of crossing a border!
While preparing the Flemish meal for tonight, Laura exhibits the art of "cooking with one arm", as her left arm is holding daughter Nandana. This typical image recalls the traditional role of the mother in the kitchen...but in fact, both Laura and her Dutch husband Alex have busy careers at Leiden University. Laura even praises Dutch men in general and Alex in particular for being quite emancipated. Her Belgian girlfriends, she smiles, are already impressed if their partners do the dishes...
During the cooking, Nandana is either held in Laura's arm, holding on to her skirt or playing with a jar of rice kernels on the countertop (a useful trick if you want two free arms to cook...).
Once the casserole of Belgian endives, Witloof, is "in den Oven", she is brought upstairs and put to bed.
I enjoy a glass of champagne with Alex, and learn that this is a typical Belgian custom. In Holland, we only drink it to celebrate some special event, but there is common to drink it with an everyday meal. Laura praises the Vranken, an affordable, good quality brand "that made champagne accessible to all Belgians". Sadly it is unavaible here.
Though the Netherlands and Belgian Flanders used to be one country, there are quite a few differences in culture. After sixteen years of life in the Netherlands, Laura says a few of the things that come to mind are that Belgians seem a bit more "family oriented", are less direct/open (e.g. would not discuss toilet paper qualities over dinner) and don't talk about money as much as the Dutch!
The Witloof uit den Oven, Belgian endives rolled in ham and covered in cheese sauce before going in the oven, is served with a generous serving of mashed potatoes. It reminds me a lot of my own mother's traditional Dutch meals with Belgian endives...the two countries do share quite a few customs. Although Laura is greatly disappointed in the selection of potatoes in our supermarkets, they don't have the right ones to make French fries! Actually I should say Flemish fries or Belgian fries, as their thick variety is especially delicious, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. There is even a whole website dedicated to Belgian fries, which traditionally are served with a good steak or mussels.
Laura herself is curious what the Walloon meal will be like...this region of Belgium where French is spoken is almost a separate country so certainly deserves a separate entry in this blog!

Here is the link for the recipe (quite easy to make!):
Flemish Witloof in den Oven