Sunday, August 12, 2007

Meal 45. Bulgarian Tarator, Musaka and Pitka

How I get in touch with my various generous hosts is quite diverse. Often it happens through mutual friends, and I stumbled across the host for my Albanian meal (no. 46) while he was picknicking in the park. Kristina, however, contacted me just minutes after I got a Skype account. I saw her last name and immediately asked where she was from....and what do you know, Bulgaria, unchartered territory for this blog! She seemed to take my strange request for a meal in her stride (after she checked out the website) and a few days later I am ringing her doorbell just minutes away from my own home. I get to know her husband (a mathematician with Russian roots) and her baby boy, Marin, with luminous blue eyes.
Kristina came to Holland to study piano and now practices daily in her colourful flat. Her son is growing up surrounded by music...and good food!
Our starter is a deliciously tart yoghurt and cucumber soup called tarator. Kristina assures me is very simple to make and it seems perfect for summer dinners; you can just take it from the fridge and it's ready to serve cold.
The main course is warm and hearty, a 'meat and potato' dish, musaka. It is somewhat similar to the more famous Greek moussaka, but without eggplant (aubergine). Kristina is a bit embarrassed, because her musaka turned out darker than she would have liked (some would even say burnt), but it is quite tasty nevertheless! It is accompanied by fresh salads and a lovely flower-shaped bread called pitka.
After dinner we discuss similarities between Russia and Bulgaria as former USSR nations, I play with Marin (carefully, as I don't want him to catch my cold) and listen to an impromptu piano recital from Kristina. Sadly, I have to admit I cannot remember the evening in much detail as I have delayed posting this story almost a year after moving to the UK. Every time I log in to Skype I feel enormously guilty seeing that Kristina is online and without anything to show for all her efforts. The last time we chatted through Skype, she even sent me new photos of her son, who has of course grown enormously since I saw him. But the luminous blue eyes and gentle smile are the same. I wonder if he will feel Russian-Bulgarian when he grows up, or Dutch-Bulgarian-Russian? But who knows where their little family will settle permanently? A pianist and a mathematician can grow roots in many countries...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Meal 44. Bengali Motor Polao and Pangas Mach

Ahmed is the master cook of this authentic Bengali meal. Though I was first a bit confused by the difference between "Bengali" and "Bangladeshi", a quick search taught me the latter epithet refers strictly to the nation. Bengali includes West Bengal, officially part of India. As this evening with Ahmed teaches me, he does feels the ties with India. We watch highlights of Bollywood movies, a compilation of mostly musical interludes with the megastar Shah Rukh Khan.
Somehow, in my long and (I try) multicultural life, I have never really watched a Bollywood movie. I'm impressed by how they seduce me with their fantasy world. The songs and dances vary from the classic to the modern, in desolate landscapes and ornate palaces. Ahmed explains how in one classic dance sequence, every movement of the arms, the legs, the head means something. He can understand what the female character is trying to express to the male love interest without a word being spoken. Amazing! In all of the romantic sequences shown, the actors never kiss, though some touching of the naked female stomach obviously is allowed. Ahmed tells me nowadays some actors do kiss for real, but that it is bad for their image. You will see a tantalizing amount of 'almost' kisses, which to be fair, might be more interesting in the end.

Now, for the cooking...when I enter the communal kitchen in Ahmed's student house, I am impressed by the enormous pan of rice waiting for us. It is more than enough for the four people that will be enjoying this meal tonight. As Ahmed is leaving to return to Bangladesh in just a few days, I wonder who will eat it all. The rice is infused with yellow colour, and aroma, because of the saffron added. Ahmed obligingly poses with the Motor Polao rice at right. But the fish is more special. He calls it Pangas Mach. Googling that turns up nothing, though I do find Panga is a type of fish found in the Indian Ocean. It is serves with Dal Aloo Ghanto, a lentil sauce. The vegetables draped on top are called "Indian root" in Bengali, but Ahmed isn't sure of the English translation. It is all artfully served and quickly gobbled up by me, a young Dutch friend who is always up for Bengali food, and Shusil, our Nepali friend who prepared the second meal for this project.
The same relaxed atmosphere is present now as at that evening more than a year ago. As we go to leave the dirty dishes in the kitchen, we find Ahmed's housemates preparing a meal including magic general, in my world, stimulating company beats chemical stimulants any time! Although, in a way, maybe food counts as a stimulant as well? I do enjoy good company more in combination with good food!

To check out some Bengali recipes at home, try out these websites:
A collection of Bengali recipes
Anita Pal's Bengali recipes

Friday, May 11, 2007

Meal 43. Sahrawi Couscous

This meal is the most "political" meal I have had during the whole project. The nationality "Sahrawi" probably won't ring a bell for most people. It is the term used by/for refugees from the Western Sahara territory. This is a huge chunk of Morocco; on some maps it will have a different color. After Spain left Morocco in 1975, control of the Western Sahara has been disputed by Mauritania, the Moroccan government and Frente Polisario, who want independence for the region.

And it is the representation for Polisario in the Netherlands, Ali, who will be making couscous for me tonight. I got to know him through a friend of mine, who got a visa from him to visit the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. It is very interesting to meet someone whose life has been influenced so strongly by the politics of his home country. He had just been studying medicine in Spain for three years when he was called back in the mid seventies to help his country fight the Moroccan rule. He mostly served by running the Red Cross and remembers the period as very difficult. There was a lot of fighting then, guerilla warfare with a lot of people getting hurt or killed.
The Polisario formed a kind of government in exile of the Sahrawi refugee population in Algeria. Ali was their minister of education for a while and tells me about many young Sahrawi being educated in Cuba. Mostly as doctors and as teachers. They shared the language and the common past as Spanish colonies.
Ali has had many different "nationalities", as the Sahrawi passport is only recognized in certain countries and he has to be able to travel freely to represent Polisario. At the moment, he is officially Spanish.

During the preparations for the meal, we speak about the past and present of his country and I am impressed by his gentle spirit. His attitude seems to be a mix of sadness, frustration, determination and hope. The fight for independence has been going on for so long now, more than 30 years. And though there has been a ceasefire and talk of a referendum since 1991, no real steps forward have been taken. It is virtually impossible for a Sahrawi to travel from the camps in Algeria to his birthplace because of the wall that has been built by the Moroccan government.

In essence, the couscous Ali is preparing is not that different from the Moroccan couscous I had earlier (see Meal 12. ). Again, the couscous is steamed twice, with a lot of attention to the "fluffing" in between, as seen at right. It is served with succulent lamb, chick peas and a multitude of vegetables. Squash, carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, tomatoes and nabos, turnips. Ali tells me that though this is typical, a more unique meal is eaten in the Sahara desert. When groups of men head out into the desert for whatever reason, they will take flour, onions and meat with them. The flour is made into unleavened bread with the sand as an oven. This is served with a sauce of meat and onions on top. For the authentic experience I think I would have to travel with them into the desert! Who knows if this might happen one day...who knows what the situation of the Western Sahara will be then...

Friday, March 23, 2007

Meal 42. Peruvian feast

Tonight is the night of the Peruvian feast. Once again, it is a feast, as my hostess, Valeria, has made so many dishes it is impossible to choose one as the "main dish". Besides Valeria, her Dutch partner Geert and me, two other friends have been invited to make all the cooking worthwile. Aparently, Valeria has been at work since the early morning!

We start out with an appetizer of deep-fried yuca with salsa amarilla, a sauce made with yellow bell peppers, cheese, milk and fine cracker crumbs. I used to love havind yuca frita as a snack when I lived in Costa Rica, as a kind of Latino french fries with ketchup. The yellow sauce is new to me.
I have to admit that before this meal, my only association with Peruvian food was: "Guinea pigs!" It seems like all tourists come back from Peru with not only photos of the Machu Picchu, but of fried guinea pig on a plate as well. A locally popular type of meat, the little animals are easy to raise next to the house. Often women are responsable, and sometimes children as well.

But when I ask Valeria, she exclaims:"Cuy!?" No, too much trouble to get cuy in the Netherlands, and besides, there are more than enough other great dishes she would love to make.
After the fried yuca, we are seated around the large dinner table and dig into the wonderful ceviche. Valeria's version of this dish involve nice, big, juicy chunks of fish marinated in lemon juice, with finely chopped red onions, celery, coriander and hot pepper.
Then come the papas rellenas, potato patties filled with ground meat and raisins. I love the combination of meat with the sweetness of the raisins, also found in Chilean empanadas (see meal 13). You can see Valeria preparing the patties at right.

Easy to make yourself is the salad of hard boiled potatoes and eggs, olives and yellow sauce, otherwise known as papas a la huancaina (at left). This yellow sauce is versatile!

We also have fried calamares and fish with a dip, rice with chicken, beef with vegetables (lomo saltado), and as a grand finale the dessert. One of Valeria's first presents to Geert was a Peruvian cookbook, and now he knows how to make fried picarones, a sweet ring-shaped pumpkin pastry served with syrup. Yummy!

We discuss how they met, while he was travelling in Peru. Valeria has traveled extensively in her own country as well, and they met on the road. Their photos make me want to step on the plane to Peru! What a beautiful country. Plus, now I know there'll be more than enough good things to eat, not just guinea pigs!

Check the recipe if you want to learn how to make picarones as well.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Meal 41. Latvian Rosols

Nanda has invited over Digne, a friend who lives in the Hague as well. They met up through a Latvian "Myspace" type website. Digne was checking out the profiles and..."Hey! There are more Latvians here in the Hague!" So now she is here, the official inspector of Rosols, the special potato salad served on birthdays, holidays and all other special occasions. It's a festive dish, but "even boys know how to make it!" Nanda's father often makes it for her when she's back in Riga for a visit. The last couple of years she's lived in France (to study sound engineering) and here in Holland (to study ArtScience).

While we're chopping and dicing the sausage, carrots, gherkins, eggs and potatoes, Nanda tells me lots about Latvia. Russia plays a big part in its recent history, they occupied Latvia till 1990. Till then, all "official" things, like shop fronts or tram tickets, were in Russian. After independence, everything was written in Latvian, but on some facades, the bleached out shadows of the Russian letters are still visible. There's quite a polemic going on now about the language, as the big Russian minority (almost a third of the population) want Russian to become the offical second language of the nation. Nanda was even affected by this struggle personally...when she worked at the ministry of education there was a bomb scare in the building . All because they wanted to change education so that all lessons would be taught in Latvian.
Nanda tells me sometimes at the mark
et she will be speaking to the vendors in Latvian and they will answer in Russian. A bilingual dialogue... The salad progresses and Digne inspects the proportions of the different ingredients. The pieces have to be chopped very finely, as “only grandma’s make rosols with big chunks!” Then generous amounts of sour cream and mayonnaise are added. The aspect mostly reminds me of potato salads I have had in the past at barbecues or parties. But here in Holland it doesn’t have a special name or significance…and often it’s bought at the supermarket and not made at home. Which does make a big difference, as I notice when I take my first bite. The rosols isn’t really photogenic, but it is delicious comfort food and I can imagine it being seen as a “festive” dish.

After dinner we enjoy a cup of lindenflower tea, with lindenflower honey to sweeten it, also typical for grandmothers according to Nanda and Digne. To accompany it, some rock hard caramels that need an unexpected amount of violence to separate them from their friends. Here at right you see Nanda holding a Latvian souvenir…it’s a bread that’s a couple of months old, but she doesn’t want to throw it away just yet. Amazingly, this “real” bread just turns hard and doesn’t get moldy.

Click here for the original Rosols recipe. It's easy to make!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Meal 40. Costa Rican Gallo Pinto

This meal is special....firstly because it is the 4oth meal and thus is the half-way mark of my trip. Secondly because it is Costa Rican, and the food brings back memories of my exchange year in that Central-American country seven years ago. It's great to laugh and chat again with people who have been to the same places and speak Spanish the Costa Rican way. Saying vos instead of tu will sound ridiculous in almost any other country.

Fresia is a Ph.D. student of Physics here in the Netherlands, and her friend Marcela as well, but in Brazil. They have invited Carlos as well, and even though he is Colombian, he is in charge of the patacones...the twice-fried plantains both countries have in common (see Meal 20. Colombian Bandeja Paisa).
A truly unique part of Costa Rican cuisine, though, is the world famous Salsa Lizano (at right) that Fresia specially brought from back home to give her food that typical flavour. The weird thing is that when I look at the bottle a bit closer, the Lizano company turns out to be owned by Unilever, a British-Dutch food (and cleaning products) conglomerate. That's globalization for you!
Fresia has a whole collection of tico (=Costa Rican) food and condiments, but the locally famous spirit guaro isn't included. "I'm afraid of giving my country a bad name if I let people here drink that!", she admits.
Serving the very popular ceviche is a better tactic. This delicious and refreshing dish made of raw fish, onions, lemon juice and cilantro (coriander leaves) is easy to make and often served for lunch.

But more "typically tico" is the rice and beans called gallo pinto. It's supposedly name after the "painted rooster" whose black and white feathers are similar to the colours of this dish. During my year in Costa Rica I must have had this about 365 can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner! Cilantro, fried onions and garlic and Salsa Lizano give it a typical taste, and the chopped bell peppers are added for a touch of colour.
Marcela remembers how her mother made rice attractive for her kids by adding peas, grated carrots or bell pepper.
As we eat, we listen to traditional songs that were always played at Fresia's dance classes. Though in the discos you will mostly hear salsa, merengue with some pop and reggae thrown in, quite a lot of young Costa Ricans have learnt folk dancing at school or university.
I mention how I was surprised that my host family hadn't learned to spell my name correctly after living with them for half a year (Yeny instead of Jenny). Later I noticed many Costa Ricans don't care about the spelling of their own name. One day it's Mainor, the other day Minor. And you wouldn't believe the quantity of boys named Jhonny!
Fresia laughs:"You wouldn't think so, but my name has been spelled in I don't know how many different ways! Fressia, Frezia, Frecia..."
What is also different, is the fact that many people (mostly younger males) are always referred to by some strange nickname. El Muerto (the Dead Guy) for an unusually pale friend, Watchi for someone who looked like a local watchman, Chile for a guy who was from there originally, etc. On my last trip I was presented to a Repollo (Cabbage)...his backpack bore the slogan: "Say no to violence against vegetables!"

If you'd like to try your hand at ceviche, here's the recipe.