SIDE NOTE: A Challenging Year

I’ve just realised that it’s been almost 2 years to the day since I started on this challenge. A lot has changed in that time and I’ve realised just how few countries I managed to do during 2017. There is a reason for that. Unfortunately my family was faced with some major illness – my brother first having a bone marrow transplant in March and my mother being diagnosed with an obscure form of lymphoma in September. Unfortunately my mother lost her fight a few days before Christmas. I am pleased to say however, that my brother is in full remission and for the first time in many years can start to look far into the future with his young family.
My mother loved cooking and was an amazing home cook. She not only taught me the skills required to complete this challenge, but also a love of trying new cuisines and tasting beyond my comfort zone. I will continue this adventure with her spirit behind me (and no doubt, her voice inside my head asking why I haven’t cleaned the bench or done the dishes yet….).
These few paragraphs are the last I will say publicly about the journey we have all been on as a result of this illness.  Before I continue onto my next challenge, however, I ask you to think about other families who are still facing uncertain futures due to blood cancer and encourage you to educate yourself and consider one of the following ways in which you can help. I have provided links to Australian websites but a quick internet search is sure to provide you with information for similar resources in your home country:

 
Consider joining the registry to become a bone marrow donor: A bone marrow or haemopoietic stem cell transplant is the only possibility of cure for many patients diagnosed with leukaemia or other fatal blood disorders. Find out more about donation here: https://www.abmdr.org.au/ 

 
Donate blood or platelets: 34% of donations received by the Australian Red Cross Service goes to helping treat patients with cancer and blood diseases. You can find out more here: http://www.donateblood.com.au/

 
Help fund vital cancer research through the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation (or another similar institution internationally): We have nothing but the highest praise for the staff at Peter Mac. Their professionalism and compassion during Mum’s fight was appreciated beyond words. The institution’s cancer researches work across all types of cancer and are internationally recognised for their leading role in accelerating the search for cancer cures. They reply on public donations to make their vital work possible. Find out more here: https://foundation.petermac.org/

Thank you.

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Country #47 – Kosovo

047 KosovoChallenge Log:

#47        Date selected:    06/07/17             Date completed:  31/07/17

Country selected:  Kosovo

Dining Selection:  Cooked Own

What was on the menu/Recipe address:

  • Flija

http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/flija/

I remember the Kosovo war.  It was in the late 90s when I had just moved out of home and was studying at university for the first time.  It was regularly in the newspapers and on the television but, I’m ashamed to say, apart from having a vague idea of what the war was about and the ability to…..maybe…..be able to point out the general region on a map, my knowledge of Kosovo is severely lacking.

Kosovo is in the central Balkan Peninsula, landlocked and bordered by Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia (though whilst Serbia recognises administration of the territory by Kosovo’s elected government, it continues to claim it as its own).   Strategically positioned, Kosovo serves as an important link in the connection between southern and central Europe and the Black and Adriatic Seas.

The terrain is mountainous with forests representing a significant 39% of the total surface area of the country.  As a result, there is a wide range of flora and fauna, with more than 1800 species of vascular pant species (with the actual number estimated to be higher than 2500) identified.  Rare or endangered animal species live in this habitat along with 255 species of birds.  These include lynxes, brown bears, lesser kestrel, the golden and eastern imperial eagles, wild cats, roebucks, deers, wild goats, wolves and foxes.

Not surprisingly, the Kosovan cuisine is similar to that of surrounding Albania, Montengro and Greece.  It also draws heavily on influences from Turkish cuisine.  Diary is featured heavily in the diet including milk, cheese, yogurt, ayran, spreads and kaymak.  Beans, rice, peppers and meat such as beef, chicken and lamb are also staples, along with seasonal vegetables.

This challenge was a little like a challenge on top of a challenge for me.  It took me quite some time to decide on what to make but in the end I decided upon a cake……that takes 3 hours to make!

Traditionally Flija is cooked layer by layer outside, near a campfire with friends and family around.  Little by little the cake builds as you chat and monitor the cooking process.  The cake itself is a cross between bread, cake and a pancake I guess but the picture that I found online was what sealed the deal for me.  Delicate threads of batter formed together to create the whole.

As I didn’t have a spare fire pit handy, I found a recipe where the author had worked out how to create the same effect under a broiler or grill.  They recommended using a couple of plastic squeeze bottles and I would also highly recommend this for anyone interested in giving this a go.

The plan was to sit round the oven grill with a bottle of wine, near the end of winter and create this dish.  I had actually invited my sister-in-law around to help but she had something come up last minute and was unable to make it.  I was worried that the dairy products wouldn’t keep long enough for me to make another attempt so in the end it was just me, the stove and a bottle of wine!

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Wine poured and ready to go!

There are two layers to the cake – one is a mixture of flour, eggs and milk, the other a mix of sour cream, kefir and melted butter.  You lay one of the batters around a pan like rays of the sun or spokes in a wheel and grill it til cooked.  The spokes are brushed with dairy mixture, then the next layer of batter is squeezed on between the spokes of the first.

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The first layers

Each layers takes 3-5 minutes to complete but little by little the pan begins to fill.  When you run out of batter, you are done!  It sounds simple enough but the grill is up high and the radiant heat is intense.   The wine was amazing but I ended up having to rehydrate with water on several occasions throughout the afternoon.

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On high heat

The end result though was incredible.  It doesn’t look like a whole lot when you first take it out of the pan, but when you slice it up and the layers become visible, it’s a whole other ball game.  You can see from the picture how the layers start to thin more as you get near the top, that’s because when I first started, instead of brushing the dairy batter onto the first layer, I was actually using it as the second layer of spokes.  I realised a little way in and then continued the correct way for the rest of the process.  It also takes a bit to get used to how the batter will fall into the pan.  I started in the middle, spreading out to the edges of the pan but was finding that the cake was getting much higher in the middle.  In the end I decided to mix it up a bit and did some from the outside in and vice versa depending on how I felt the cake was forming.

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Layers

These bottom layers were a little thicker and heavier than the top but the texture of the top layers was incredible.  Surprisingly light given the heaviness of the batter and broke apart as you ate it.

The taste is very reminiscent of a pancake but the kefir and sour cream give a bit more of a bite to the flavour.  I drizzled some honey over it and the sweetness and texture complimented the cake perfectly.  It’s very moreish and much better to eat fresh – the layers tend to dry out after a day or two.

047 Flija
Flija

I really enjoyed this challenge.  It was completely different to anything I’d done before and I was extremely happy with the results.  I would definitely like to try this again, definitely not in summer, and this time with company so that we can chat as we cook and share in the spoils at the end.

But instead, I’ve got my next challenge to attend to…..

048 germany

 

 

Country #46: The Republic of Congo

Challenge Log:

#46        Date selected:    3/6/17   Date completed:  06/07/17

Country selected:  The Republic of Congo

Dining Selection:  Cooked Own

What was on the menu/Recipe address:

  • Chicken Moambe

https://www.marga.org/food/int/congo/mwamba.html

 

I have to confess, I never actually realised that there were multiple countries with the name Congo.  I knew that The Congo was famous for gorillas and diamonds and was generally a dangerous place to visit, but my ignorance just lumped the countries altogether without realising that most of the stereotypes I had heard related to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

Today’s challenge is The Republic of the Congo which is also known as Congo-Brazzaville, the Congo Republic, West Congo or simply, the Congo.  It’s a country in central Africa that borders five countries and the Atlantic Ocean.  Originally inhabited by Bantu-speaking tribes, the country was colonised by the French and formally part of Equatorial Africa.  It became independent in 1960 and today has some degree of prosperity thanks to oil revenue.  In fact, the Republic is the fourth largest oil producer in the Gulf of Guinea.

 

I was surprised to hear about the relationship between the Bantus and Pygmies in the area.  From birth many Pygmies belong to Bantus which many refer to as a slavery.  The Pygmies, according to the Congolese Human Rights Observatory, are treated properly, the same way “pets” are.  In a move which is first of its kind in Africa, parliament adopted a law for the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples in 2010 – a historic development for indigenous peoples on the continent.

 

A mixture of French, Asian, Arabic and African influences, Congolese cuisine, as with many others, is influenced by the availability of crops and resources.  Maize, cassava, rice, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, tomatoes, pumpkin, plantain and varieties of peas and nuts are common with coffee and palm oil making up important exports for the country.  Fish are plentiful along the River Congo and these, goat and chicken are also widely consumed.  In addition, grasshoppers, caterpillars and other edible insects are consumed.

 

For this challenge a traditional stew called Moambe appealed to me.  It’s traditionally cooked with palm oil but peanuts are often substituted or added to the oil.  Knowing some of the environmental effects palm oil has on the environment, I decided to do the same, finding a recipe that already had the substitution made.

 

It’s a very easy dish to make – simply fry off the chicken and set aside.  You make the sauce by sautéing some onions, adding tomato paste, tomato puree, garlic, green onions, red pepper flakes, salt and water and mixing together over the stove.  The chicken is once again added to the pot and the whole thing is boiled then simmered.

 

To finish you mix peanut butter with a small amount of the sauce, then add the lot back into the pot and cook again until done.

 

The result is a thick golden red stew that almost looks more like a curry.  I served mine with some plain cous cous, a boiled egg and some chopped green onion.  It was delicious.

Chicken Moambe
Chicken Moambe

The hints of the tomato within the sauce cuts through the peanut taste and the chicken remains lovely and moist.  It’s a very thick stew that coats the roof of your mouth and I found the green onion and egg were good at helping break this up a little and adding some more freshness to the dish.

 

It’s beautiful to look at and would make a really nice winter dish for those times that you feel like trying something a little different.  I’d really like to try out a variety of accompaniments while keeping the stew as the main part of the dish – I think it would lend itself well to a wide range of textures and flavours.  Definitely something I’d try again.

Chicken Moambe
Chicken Moambe

But for now, it’s onto the next challenge….

047 Kosovo

Country #45 Djibouti

045 Djibouti

Challenge Log:

#45        Date selected:    26/2/17 Date completed:  3/6/17

Country selected:  Djibouti

Dining Selection:  Cooked Own

What was on the menu/Recipe address:

  • Djibouti Rice (Skoudehkaris)

http://www.healthy-life.narod.ru/wor_ek57.htm

  • Laxoox

http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/recipe-laxoox/

Djibouti is a tiny country located in the Horn of Africa.  It’s surrounded by Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea with coastal borders along the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.  It also has an awesome sounding name.  I’m often swayed by anything with a funky sounding name and I was excited to find that in antiquity the territory was a part of what is known as “The Land of Punt” which to me sounds like something out of a Monty Python sketch.  A.M.A.Z.I.N.G!  I will try my best not to use any bad puns for the rest of this challenge log but please be mindful throughout that my desire to use phases such as “Djibouti-licious” is incredibly high!

I have to admit that I had never really heard of Djibouti when I made this selection but it turns out that there’s quite a lot of information out there (including quite a lot in the way of recipes).  It’s a predominantly Islamic country with Arabic and French making up the two official languages with Somali and Afar also recognised as national languages.

The country is located near some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and as such, it serves as a key refuelling and transhipment centre.  It also is the site of various foreign military bases.  It’s actually been in the news just in the last couple of weeks with China opening a new military base in Djibouti.

Djibouti has a multiethnic population and the cuisine also reflect this.  It’s a mixture of Afar, Somali, Yemeni and French cuisine with some additional culinary influences coming from South Asia (especially India).  Middle Eastern spices such as saffron and cinnamon are commonly used and many variations of spicy dishes are found widely.  Meals are typically halal.  Homes are traditionally perfumed using incense or frankincense after meals.

I struggled in settling on a dish for this challenge but in the end went for a very popular Djiboutian dish called Skoudehkaris (Djibouti Rice).  It’s an easy and hearty lamb and rice dish, flavoured with cardamom and other spices.

To make, you fry off some onions and diced lamb shoulder, add some fresh blanched tomatoes, cumin, cloves, garlic, cardamom and red chilli.  The mixture is covered with water and simmered for around 45 minutes.  When the meat is tender, rice is added and the whole lot cooked into one big casserole.

045 Djibouti Rice (Skoudehkaris)
Djibouti Rice (Skoudehkaris)
The resulting dish is tasty, filling and full of flavour.  The piece of meat I used was a little fatty and you might want to trim this back a bit if you are adverse to fatty food.  Keep some however, as the fat helps with the texture and taste of the dish.  Also ensure that the cardamom is ground finely.  Mine was still a little coarse and gave the meal an occasionally gritty texture.  Still delicious however and would be great for mid-winter.

I also decided to make a flatbread to serve with the rice.  Laxoox is the local variety and it’s again, very simple to make.  Simply make a thin yeast-based batter by throwing everything into a bowl and leaving several hours until it’s bubbly.  You spread a thin layer of batter across an oiled pan and cook it gently until bubbles form and the surface dries out.  The trick is not to flip it so the resulting bread has a lovely honeycomb type texture across its surface.

It takes a few tries to get the cooking right.  I experimented with putting a lid over the top of the pan to try and regulate the heat a little but this tends to steam the bread a bit too much and closes up the holes.  Using a good pan and finding the right heat are, I think, keys to the perfect laxoox.

045 Laxoox
Laxoox
The bread itself has a nice chew to it and is perfectly suited to roll up and mop up the juices from whatever stew or casserole you happen to be eating.  Yum!

045 meal

Next challenge in our cooking adventures…..

046 Republic of the Congo

SIDE NOTE: South Korea Trip – April 2017

 

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Recently I was given the opportunity to visit South Korea for a wedding.  My boyfriend’s mate, a New Zealander was marrying a Korean girl.  Both lived in Melbourne, Australia but had decided to hold the wedding in Jeonju, South Korea so that the bride’s elderly relatives could attend.  My boyfriend and I were invited to attend and we decided to take the opportunity to travel around the country and see (and eat!) as much as we possibly could.

From eating bulgogi during a DMZ tour, trekking 45 minutes uphill at night to banquet at the top of N Seoul Tower and scoffing fried chicken and beer before a theatre performance to sampling street food in markets, sipping cocktails by the beach in Busan and of course trying a range of traditional Korean BBQ (complete with traditional side dishes such as kimchi), we made the most of every opportunity we could.  There was a huge array of things to see and food to try over the two and a half weeks or so that we spent there and I wanted to share some of the food adventures we had along the way.

For the most part, I will leave the pictures to speak for themselves but I will try and offer a little commentary in order that the reader knows what it is that they are looking at.

Korean BBQ:

I thought we should start at the most widely known dining experience that Korea has to offer – the Korean BBQ.  As we discovered, the BBQ varies dramatically from region to region, but there are certain aspects to the meal that remain consistent:

  1. The food (usually meat – beef and pork seem to be favourites) is cooked at the table on a small grill. The grills are usually either charcoal or gas fired and once cooked, the meat is chopped up into bite sized pieces using kitchen scissors before being eaten directly off the grill with chopsticks, or wrapped in a salad leaf of some description, along with a sauce and any sides that you may fancy.
  2. The meat is always accompanied by a series of accompaniments – salads, vegetables, garlic cloves that can be eaten raw or thrown onto the BBQ and of course kimchi, the national obsession (fermented cabbage in a spicy sauce). The accompaniments vary from region to region but there is often a soup served in a little earthenware dish to start (although in one establishment in Busan, we were served some kind of egg dish instead) and almost always a Korean red sauce and/or soy sauce gravy.  Kimchi is a given for almost any meal and also varies dramatically from one place to another – everyone has their own special recipe.

Korean BBQs are simply delicious and we ate ourselves silly at several of these!

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Beef & Taro over charcoal in Yeosu
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Black Pork, onion & gravy with sides on Jeju Island
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Kimchi – fermented cabbage in a spicy sauce.  A Korean staple.
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Tangerine & Broccoli with sesame oil on Jeju Island. Citrus is a speciality of the area.

 

Bibimbap:

This literally translates as ‘mixed rice’ which pretty much sums up the dish.  You’re given a mixture of vegetables and sometimes meat with a bowl of rice.  It often has a raw egg cracked onto the top You mix it all together and it eat directly from the bowl with metal chopsticks.  Of course, like with all Korean meals, there are also accompaniments!

Korean chopsticks are unique in that they are made of metal, are quite thin and are often served alongside a metal spoon.  They are quite a lot heavier than wooden chopsticks and Koreans are apparently known for having well developed index and middle fingers from years of chopstick use.

We were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to try the dish in a traditional village in Jeonju, where bibimbap was first invented.  We tried a traditional style bibimbap with steak tartare and were talked through the process by the bride’s cousin who just happened to be a chef.  We were seated on thin cushions on the ground aside a low table and all the food was served at once, with everyone sharing the accompaniments.

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Jeonju Bibimbap before the rice was thrown in.
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Accompaniments and cutlery in Jeonju

 

Restaurant Food:

There is a huge array of restaurants around, especially in some of the major cities like Seoul and Busan.  There’s also a thriving café culture as well as novelty cafes such as a Hello Kitty Café & a café that you can play with cats, dogs or even racoons or meerkats while you sip your coffee!

Chicken and beer is another firm favourite amongst the younger generation, especially in places like Seoul.  Huge plates of fried chicken are brought to the table and are shared.  Several sauces and salads are also included, all washed down with a local beer or soft drink.

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Korean fried chicken in Hongdae, Seoul

The pictures below are from a restaurant in a tiny village near Jeonju where the wedding was held.  The day following the wedding, quite a few members of the wedding party decided to enjoy a sauna to try and sweat out the impressive amounts of soju, raspberry wine and duty-free liquor that they had consumed after the ceremony!  There was a small restaurant attached and we all gathered for a delicious lunch consisting of two kinds of chicken soup (a ‘clear’ chicken soup and a spicy red one) and a buffet of accompaniments.

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Spicy Chicken Soup in Jeonju
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Buffet Goodness

 

Markets and Street Food:

As with a lot of Asian countries, markets in South Korea are a way of life.  We wandered around a lot of them and found that many are split into sections: fish and seafood are in one area, vegetables are in another and so on.

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Traditional Market, Seoul

Sometimes entire markets were dedicated to a particular kind of food and we did have a wander through some of the coastal seafood markets such as this one near a fishing port in Busan.

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Seafood Market, Busan
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Huge vats of fish in coastal port, Busan

In some of the coastal areas, the time it takes for the seafood to get from the ocean to the plate is minimal.

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Woman prepares seafood for restaurant, Jeju Island

Street food is also extremely popular and it’s easy to find chicken skewers, gimbap rolls and rice cakes soaked in spicy sauce in almost every market or on popular street corners.  There’s roasted chestnuts and crazy coloured ice drinks, ice cream and all things fried.

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Street Food Stall, Busan

 

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Street Food Selection, Busan
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Chestnut stall, Busan

 

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Woman mans drink stall, Jeonju

On occasion, you can find something really interesting, such as this gelatin sweet dish made to look like a large dew drop.  This one was served with chocolate and raspberry syrup and some kind of sweet powdered substance (I’m still not sure what it is!).

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Dew drop dessert
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With toppings

Alternatively there is a range of bakeries, grocery and convenience stores all stocking a range of weird and wonderful culinary delights.

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Squid Ink Sausage Bread
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Cocktail with a beach view, Busan

It was very easy to fall in love with South Korea despite all its challenges.  We both made sure to bring home a Korean cook book so that we can continue to enjoy the tastes and textures of this amazing country.  I can’t wait to be able to cook some myself when I reach the South Korean challenge!

And, of course, I can’t finish this post without saying a huge congratulations to the bride and groom, without whom we would not have been given the chance to experience this incredible journey.

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Country #44 – Japan

044-japan

Challenge Log:

#44        Date selected:    9/1/17   Date completed:  26/2/17

Country selected:   Japan

Dining Selection: Cooked Own

What was on the menu/recipe address:

  • Easy Soba Noodle Salad with Wakame

https://asianinspirations.com.au/recipe/easy-soba-noodle-salad-with-wakame/

  • Japanese Potsticker Dumplings (Gyoza)

https://asianinspirations.com.au/recipe/japanese-potsticker-dumplings-gyoza-2/

  • Special Occasion Japanese Omelette Crepes

https://www.japancentre.com/en/recipes/1210-special-occasion-japanese-omelette-crepes

  • Green Tea Steamed Cake

http://www.justonecookbook.com/green-tea-steamed-cake/

When I first selected Japan as my next challenge, I was filled with a mixture of delight, anticipation and dread.  I love Japanese food, have a great respect for Japanese culture and was excited to try something new, but was also keenly aware of the great care and detail that the Japanese put into the preparation and presentation of each dish.  I knew that to do this challenge justice in my own head, I would need to take the same time and care in the dishes I made.

Japan is located in the Pacific Ocean off the eastern cost of the Asian mainland and if often referred to as the “Land of the Rising Sun.”  For a great many years Japan shut itself off from the rest of the world, only opening its gates to the West in 1853.  Today it has the highest life expectancy rate in the world with a very high standard of living.  It has one of the largest military budgets of any country in the world and is a leading nation in scientific research, with a particular focus on fields related to engineering and the natural sciences.

Having studied and performed one of Japan’s traditional performance arts, Kyogen, for a brief period at university, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty and subtlety that make up much of the Japanese cultural identity.  The painstaking lengths that artists take to learn their craft is quite remarkable with students taking decades to perfect their craft.  Something as simple as the way a performer holds themselves and moves around a space is dissected in intricate detail and perfected over long periods of time.  I remember our teacher saying that one of the greatest compliments a Kyogen performer can receive is that they walk well.

The Japanese take as much care and pride over their cuisine and cooking is often seen as an art form in itself.  A great deal of thought goes into every item served and chefs work to bring out the simplicity of each dish, doing as little as possible to bring out the colour and flavour of each dish.  As with other art forms, apprentice chefs sometimes work in restaurants for ten years before they are allowed to handle the fish or meat.  Particular rules and etiquette are entwined with the process of serving and eating the cuisine which goes to show how ingrained it is within the culture.  In fact Japanese cuisine is only one of three national food traditions recognised by the UN for its cultural significance.  This basically means that the preservation of this way of eating is vital to the survival of the traditional culture.

So no pressure whatsoever……eekk!

I decided that there was no way I was going to be able to replicate a truly traditional style meal so I decided to try a few different smaller style dishes, that would feature a range of ingredients and textures and I would attempt to serve them in a simple yet stylish manner.  With such a huge range of dishes to choose from, I ended up choosing three dishes that I thought were representational of my goals and a fourth dish, gyoza, because I’ve been a little bit obsessed with these dumplings since I tried them many years ago, but have never quite made the leap of attempting to cook them myself.

Gyoza are also known as Japanese Potsticker Dumplings and I discovered why in the preparation of this dish!  They’re simply a fried dumpling with a mixture of pork, spring onion, cabbage, egg, soy sauce & chilli oil however the cooking style is a little more unusual than other dumplings I have attempted before.  You fry them arranged in close rows for a couple of minutes until the bottoms are golden. You then add water, covering the pan and cooking again until the wrappers are translucent.  You then remove the lid and again continue cooking the dumplings until the water has mostly evaporated and the bottoms are crisp.

Inevitably the dumplings become extremely tactile and wind up sticking to the bottom of the pot, which is how they got their name.  This process also makes them very difficult to get out of the pot unscathed and I broke quite a few trying to scrape them out of the pan.

044 Japanese Potsticker Dumplings (Gyoza)
Japanese Potsticker Dumplings (Gyoza)

Boy are they delicious though!  I served mine as the recipe suggested with a dipping sauce of spring onions and soy sauce and some drizzled chilli oil.  They’re a little like dim sims in some regards, but lighter and somehow more delicate.  The juices from the meat burst into your mouth when you bite into the dumpling (a word of warning if you’re eating them straight from the pan – you could be in danger of a burnt tongue) and they’re full of flavour.  I could eat these for days on end.  Simply delicious!

I wanted to include a dish that allowed me to get a hit of umami for this challenge and this, for me, meant something with wakame (seaweed).  I chose a soba noodle salad with wakame for its freshness and because I thought it would go perfectly on an Australian summer day.

Again, it’s a very simple process.  Soak the wakame in cold water until it’s softened and shred.  Cook the noodles and drain and refresh them under cold water.  Mix the two along with finely julienned cucumbers, carrots, a handful of bean sprouts, sliced spring onions, fresh ginger, sesame oil, lime, soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds.  It’s served cold as a meal or as a side dish.

044 Easy Soba Noodle Salad with Wakame
Soba Noodle Salad with Wakame

The salad certainly provided me with everything I had hoped.  It was fresh tasting, surprisingly filling and the umami made the mouth water, enhancing the flavours of the dish even more.  I would (and in fact already have) make this dish again and I could see it going perfectly with some grilled fish or chicken or as a tasty vegetarian alternative.

Next on my list was special occasion Japanese omelette crepes.  I chose this because they intrigued me.  Any omelette I would make usually either has eggs, maybe a bit of milk and not much else or has a mixture of vegetables and/or bacon as a filling.  Instead this one is a mix of ingredients that I would not normally associate with this kind of dish so I decided to give it a try.

The eggs are mixed with soy sauce, mirin, black sesame seeds, sugar and a pinch of salt.  You thinly fry them and they are eaten rolled up.  Usually you are supposed to roll them around a small amount of freshly steamed rice, however, as this wasn’t listed in the ingredients list, I somehow managed to completely overlook this detail until it came time to serving!  I decided to simply roll them up as is and secure them with a strand of chives rather than ruin them whilst I waited for rice to steam (besides by this time I had run out of eggs!).

044 Special Occasion Japanese Omelette Crepes
Special Occasion Japanese Omelette Crepes

The taste of the omelette was very unusual for me.  There was a rich, fragrant taste that almost (but not quite) overpowered the egg.  The egg was still very discernible however and the entire result was a rich, fatty, savoury snack that, admittedly, could have done with a bit of rice to balance out the flavours.  It was still very tasty though and the dark sesame seeds against the yellow of the egg makes for an interesting visual effect as well as providing that gorgeous nutty flavour to the mix.

Finally, knowing the importance of tea to Japanese and other Asian cultures, I decided to make a green tea steamed cake for a sweet option.  I had some matcha in the cupboard which I don’t use very often but loved the idea of adding another dish that I could utilize this ingredient into my collection.  I was also thrilled with the recipes’ claim that it takes less than 20 minutes to cook from beginning to end (disclaimer: I didn’t actually time myself doing this so I have no way to substantiate if this claim is true or not.  It was a very quick process none the less!).

First up is preparing the frying pan by wrapping the lid with a kitchen towel which apparently prevents condensation from falling onto the cakes while they are steaming.  The pan is half-filled with water and covered with the lid as the water brought to the boil.

Next up you whisk together an egg and vegetable oil before adding honey and yogurt.  Sugar is mixed in before you sift flour and baking powder together and add to the mix.  Finally matcha powder is sifted and folded into the batter.  You are supposed to put cupcake liners into the ramekins before pouring the batter, however I decided to pour it directly into the ramekins themselves.  Once the water is boiling, the ramekins are placed inside the pan, covered with the lid and left to steam for 12-14 minutes.

I was originally planning to serve the cakes in the ramekins but found that they came out remarkably easily so ended up serving them on small individual plates with a touch of sweet red bean paste on top as a garnish.

044 Green Tea Steamed Cake
Green Tea Steamed Cake

The cakes were beautifully light and fluffy with that hint of a chewy skin that you can only get from steamed cakes.  The matcha gave the cakes a nice savoury zing that was balanced beautifully by the sweetness of the honey, sugar and red bean paste.  Not to mention that gorgeous dusty green hue that screams of summer or spring.  They were delicious, delicate and incredibly moreish.  I am not ashamed to say that I polished off several small cakes within a very short period of time and this will certainly become a favourite recipe for morning teas or for when I’m looking for something a little different to serve.  I’d be very curious to try making a larger style cake in the same manner and see how that came out.

However, before we do that, it’s onto our next challenge…..

045 Djibouti

 

Country #43 – Turkmenistan

043-turkmenistanChallenge Log:

#43        Date selected:    22/10/16             Date completed:  9/1/17

Country selected:  Turkmenistan

Dining Selection:  Cooked Own

What was on the menu/recipe address:

  • Yogurt Soup with Rice (Akýüwrük)

http://www.turkmenkitchen.com/en/yogurt-soup-with-rice/

  • Dograma

http://www.turkmenkitchen.com/en/dograma/

 

I had never heard of Turkmenistan prior to this challenge.  The country was formally known as Turkmenia (which sounds like some kind of mental mind trick a batman villain might come up with, or perhaps some kind of boy band fan following).  I had never heard of that either.  In historical times apparently one of the great cities of the Islamic world was situated here.  The city was called Merv, an important stop on the Silk Road, and incidentally the name of an Australian cricketer with an amazing handlebar moustache.

As it turns out, Turkmenistan is in Central Asia, wedged between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran, with a western coastline along the Caspian Sea.

Unfortunately the reason I have never heard of it seems to be because Turkmenistan is also one of the world’s most repressive countries according to Humans Rights Watch.  Apparently the country is virtually closed to independent scrutiny with severe restrictions on foreign travel for its citizens.  The country’s ethnic minorities are subject to discrimination with universities encouraged to reject applicants with non-Turkmen surnames (especially ethnic Russians).  Media and religious freedoms are highly restricted and it is considered to be one of the 10 most censored countries in the world.  The Turkmen government banned all satellite dishes in the country in 2015 in an attempt to block access to independent international media outlets.  Human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal and many who have been arrested are believed to have been tortured and sentenced to imprisonment (many of them without a court decision).

The cuisine is generally representative of Central Asia and, as such, I decided to try out a very traditional dish and another that simply interested me.

First recipe was Akýüwrük which I will not even try to pronounce.  It apparently translates to Yogurt Soup with Rice however and I was very interested to see what this dish would taste like.  I thought that this could potentially be a nice refreshing dish for our Aussie summers.

It’s fairly simple to make.  Boil some rice in salt water.  Cool and slowly add yogurt, stirring consistently to stop it from curdling.  You then add garlic, parsley and dill, sprinkling with red pepper flakes and dried mint.

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Yogurt Soup with Rice (Akýüwrük)

The issue I had with this dish was the amount of salt in it.  A full tablespoon of salt was called for and boy could you taste it!  I’m unsure if it was simply a typo in the recipe or if it’s meant to be like this but I found the salt overpowered everything in the dish.

Were it not for the salt however, I think I would have really liked this soup.  It’s thicker than I imagined it to be but could be quite delicate were it not for the saltiness.  I think I will attempt this one again, but cut the salt content down dramatically (possibly completely) and see what the final result is then.

The second dish I decided to make however was delicious!  It’s a traditional celebration dish called Dograma made up of boiled meat, onions and freshly baked bread that has been torn into small pieces.  I wasn’t sure how much flavour you’d get out of a dish with so little in the way of herbs or spices, but I was happily completely wrong.

Mutton or beef is boiled with salt (a lot once again, but this time it didn’t overpower everything else!) and a little tomato until it’s falling off the bones.  The idea is to get quite a fatty piece and skim off the scum when it boils.  The fat and the bones heightens the flavour you get at the end and stops the meat from becoming too dry.  I used lamb rather than mutton as it was the closest I could find that wasn’t too lean.

Whilst the meat is cooking you make two simple yeast-based breads, roll it out thinly and prick it densely with a fork so that it almost has a honeycomb look to it.  Once golden brown, you tear all but ¼ of one of the breads into small pieces over a large kitchen cloth.  Apparently this is a communal task with many members of the family taking part.

You finely chop the meat on top of the remaining bit of bread, using it like a chopping board.  You then mix the meat, bread bits and onion slices all a jumble with your hands, drizzling a few tablespoons of the fatty broth over the lot.  It’s best to leave it wrapped in the cloth for 20-30 minutes to allow the bread to absorb the flavour of the meat and onion.

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Dograma in cloth

When you go to eat it, you add black pepper and can either eat it dry or ladle enough of the broth to barely cover the dograma mixture.

It’s heaven.  The strong flavours of the onion and fat, together with the tenderness of the meat  meld so brilliantly together to make a well rounded meal.  I was surprised that I could just eat this meal after meal for several days and not get sick of it – cold or hot, it didn’t seem to matter.  A perfect example of using basic ingredients to compliment and bring out the best of each.

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Dograma

I will definitely be making this again!  But yes, you guessed it, first it’s onto the next challenge…..

044-japan

Country #42 – Lithuania

042-lithuaniaChallenge Log:

#42        Date selected:    11/9/16 Date completed:  23/10/16

Country selected:   Lithuania

Dining Selection:  Cooked Own

What was on the menu/recipe address:

  • Kugeli Lithuanian Potato Casserole

http://www.cooks.com/recipe/7d8m14ng/kugeli-lithuanian-potato-casserole.html

 

One of three Baltic states, Lithuania is situated in Northern Europe, along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea.  To the west lies Sweden & Denmark, Latvia to the north, Poland to the south, Belarus to the east and south and a Russian exclave called Kaliningrad Oblast to the southwest.

The country has a rich history with many ties to its European neighbours.  It was only in 1990 however, that Lithuania declared itself independent (the first Soviet republic to do so).  I was surprised to learn that, in recent times, the country has been amongst the fastest growing economies in the European Union and is ranked 21st in the world in the East of Doing Business Index (whatever that is).

have to admit that I didn’t know a lot about Lithuania when I started this challenge (to be honest, I’m only moderately more informed now).  My knowledge was restricted to the fact that they ate a lot of potatoes and have been serious contenders for the Eurovision Song Contest.  They will always live in my memory as the boy band entry with sparkly shorts who were robbed in the 2010 semi final and the birthplace of Donny Montell (yes, Eurovision is quite the thing even down here in Australia!).

inculto-from-lithuania-re-007

It’s not just potatoes that features heavily in Lithuanian cuisine however – anything suited to the cold is utilized, including barley, rye, berries, mushrooms, greens and beats.  Dairy is also a speciality.  Due to its position, some similarities can be found to Scandinavian cuisine, however it has its own distinguishing features.

For this challenge I decided on a classic dish – Kugeli or potato casserole.  I kind of describe it as a giant hash brown on crack –totally delicious and seriously moreish.  It’s also incredibly simple.

You brown bacon and onions in butter, add this to a heap of grated potatoes, along with some mil and seasoning.  You add some beaten eggs and put the mixture into a casserole dish and straight into the oven for an hour or so.

Let me just say, if you’re looking for some amazing comfort food over winter, look no further!  It’s difficult to see in the picture, but when first taken out of the oven the crust of the casserole had tiny pockets where the fat had bubbled up and settled into.  The potato softens and is melt in your mouth, apart from the crust around the edges which is deliciously crunchy.  The bacon gives it a nice richness and cuts through the starchiness of the potato.  So so good.

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Kugeli

Apparently this dish doesn’t freeze very well but I can attest to the fact that, while losing a bit of its texture, the taste deepens when kept in the fridge overnight.

Definitely one I’m keeping on the list to make again next winter.  But first, onto another challenge….

043-turkmenistan

 

Country #41 – Cabo Verde

041-cabo-verdeChallenge Log:
#41                    Date selected: 22/8/16                 Date completed: 11/9/16
Country selected: Cabo Verde
Dining Selection: Cooked Own
What was on the menu/recipe address:

Wow I can’t believe how behind I am with my blogging! So much has happened in the past few months that I’ve become a bit slack and haven’t posted nearly as much as what I should have. I have finally moved house and am now living north of Melbourne in a very pretty townhouse with a fabulous kitchen so I have no excuse! I have been cooking I’ll have to try and belt through a few entries and get myself up to date.

The next country on my list is Cabo Verde which is also known as Cape Verde. It’s an island country in the Atlantic Ocean, 570km (350mi) off the coast of West Africa. It’s comprised of 10 volcanic islands clustered in a horseshoe shape and spanning a combined area of slightly over 4000 square kilometres (1,500 square miles).

The country was discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century and, being perfectly located, prospered greatly throughout the 16th & 17th centuries from the Atlantic slave trade. It slipped into decline after the end of the slave trade before recovering and becoming an important commercial centre and stopover for shipping routes.

As the country is quite isolated from the rest of the world, it has resulted in the islands having a number of endemic species. In particular birds such as Alexander’s swift, the Cape Verde warbler and the Raso lark reside here amongst others, along with reptiles including the Cape Verde giant gecko. Many of these are now endangered due to human development.

Fish and staple foods such as corn and rice are staples of the local diet and these make up much of Cabo Verde’s cuisine. These are often supplemented with vegetables such as onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, kale, manioc and dried beans which are available most of the year or seasonal fruits such as mangoes and avocados or papayas and bananas.

I flipped between a few different recipe options when deciding on what to make for this challenge. There was quite a lot that looked very appetizing but in the end I went with a couple of dishes that didn’t require me to purchase too much extra in the way of ingredients and that I thought could be simple, tasty meal options that I could utilize again.

The first was a dish called Canja or thick chicken rice soup. It’s incredibly simple and hearty with a minimum of ingredients. You simply saute some onions, add a whole chicken that’s been cut up into pieces, boullion and water. Boil these up, add some rice and simmer until the desired consistency. So simple!

041-canja-thick-chicken-rice-soup
CANJA (thick chicken rice soup)

The soup itself is very tasty and I could imagine would be great for a winter’s cold. You do need to be wary of the bones from the chicken when eating it but, given how soft the meat is, I would think it would be fairly simple to pick the bones out prior to serving if you were squeamish about such things. Alternatively using chicken breasts or thighs would produce a similar result.
Next on my list was a dessert – Pudim de Queijo or Cheese Pudding. What attracted me to this one was the idea of using goats cheese in a dessert and also that burnt sugar is sprinkled on the bottom. I’ve never attempted to make burnt sugar and its really quite delicious – a mixture of cane or brown sugar and vegetable oil that’s cooked until just beginning to brown. As it cools the mixture takes on a deep brown colour as if it’s burnt.

The pudding is made making a thick syrup from sugar and water then adding the graded cheese. Once removed from the heat you combine this mixture with a LOT of egg yolks and a few egg whites. You sprinkle the bottom of the pan with burnt sugar, pour the mix on top and bake in a double boiler (or by adding the pan that the mixture is in to a pan filled with hot water before putting it into the oven).

The finished product of this dish didn’t quite turn out the way I had hoped and I think there were a few key indicative things I may have done wrong. First, I’m not sure I used the correct cheese. The recipe asks for a soft goat’s cheese. I went for a fetta which was more crumbly than soft and ended up giving the mixture a bit of a curdled texture to it. Something smoother probably would have resulted in a better result. Secondly, the dish I used was long and shallow. I think I would have achieved a better result using a deeper dish. The pudding wasn’t bad but I don’t think my attempt quite lived up to its full potential.

041-pudim-de-queijo-chesse-pudding
PUDIM DE QUEIJO (chesse pudding)

The dish itself if ridiculously sweet – too sweet even for a sweet tooth like me. It made my mouth pucker once the sugar hit the tongue. I would be likely to try and cut back on the sugar if making this again and try it make it less like a punch in the face. That said, the pungent flavour of the goat’s cheese does mean that you need to keep it on the sweet side and I think finding that balance and the consistency of the dish are the two key elements to doing this one successfully. One perhaps to attempt again at a later time!

But for now, onto the next challenge….

042-lithuania

Country #40 – Mexico

040 MexicoChallenge Log:

#40        Date selected:    30/7/16 Date completed:  22/8/16

Country selected:  Mexico

Dining Selection:              Cooked Own

What was on the menu / recipe addresses:

  • Claudia’s Traditional Guacamole

http://thelatinkitchen.com/r/recipe/claudias-traditional-guacamole

  • Mexican Corn on the Cob

http://www.mexicoinmykitchen.com/2015/04/mexican-corn-on-cob.html

  •  Mexican Beef Crispy Taquitos (Flautas) / Taquitos Dorados Mexicanos (Flautas)

http://www.mexicoinmykitchen.com/2010/01/how-to-make-mexican-flautas-como-hacer.html

  • Chicken Mole Enchiladas / Enmoladas de Pollo

http://www.mexicoinmykitchen.com/2014/03/chicken-mole-enchiladasenmoladas-de.html

  • Authentic Mole Sauce

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/223261/authentic-mole-sauce/print/?recipeType=Recipe&servings=4

  •  Vegetarian Chilaquiles

http://thelatinkitchen.com/r/recipe/vegetarian-chilaquiles

  • Mexican Mule

http://thelatinkitchen.com/r/recipe/mexican-mule

 

I may have done a bit of a happy dance when I selected Mexico as my next challenge.  I love Latin food and I knew that there would a huge number of recipes accessible to me that I could choose from.  It was also the perfect excuse to incorporate some tequila into proceedings!

My boyfriend, Shane is also a big fan of burritos, tacos and anything Mexican so we decided to do a Mexican feast at his place one night.  Due to a delay in getting a couple of the ingredients delivered, this ended up being 2 x Mexican feasts spread out over a couple of different nights.  This suited us just fine.

Mexico covers almost two million square kilometres and is the thirteenth largest independent nation in the world as well as the most populous Spanish-speaking country anywhere.  The territory east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (or around 12% of the country) is considered by some geographers to be situated within Central America, however Geopolitically, it is considered entirely part of North America, along with Canada and the United States.

Before first contact with Europeans, the country was formed by many advanced Mesoamerican civilizations such as the May and the Aztec (amongst others).  Chips of stone tools found near campfire remains in the Valley of Mexico date back over 10,000 years.  Beginning around 500 BCE, the domestication of maize, tomato and beans produced an agricultural surplus in the region which enabled the transition from paleo-Indian hunter gathers to sedentary agricultural villages.

The Spanish Empire conquered and colonized the territory in 1521 and became Mexico three centuries later in 1821 after the Mexican War of Independence.

Boasting over 200,000 different species, Mexico is home to 10-12% of the world’s biodiversity and is one of the 17 megadiverse countries of the world.  Approximately 2,500 species are protected by Mexican legislations.

Many widely used food crops and edible plants were introduced to the rest of the world with the discovery of the Americas.  Some of the Mexican native culinary ingredients included avocado, chocolate, vanilla, tomato, maize, guava, many variety of bean and an even greater variety of chilies.  Not surprisingly, many of these ingredients appear frequently in Mexican cuisine.

A cuisine based on pre-Columbian traditions and combined with culinary trends introduced by Spanish colonists, Mexican food is today known for its intense and varied flavours, colourful decoration and variety of spices.  It varies from region to region because of local climate and geography as well as ethnic differences among the indigenous inhabitants and the extent to which they were influenced by the Spaniards.

With so much variety on offer, I found it extremely difficult to narrow down which dishes I wanted to make.  In the end I went with a mixture of recipes that for the most part I had never tried before and which offered a variety of flavours, ingredients and techniques.

First on the list was a traditional guacamole.  I have already made guacamole a couple of times in other challenges and I love seeing the subtle differences from country to country.  Not to mention that I’m a huge fan of guacamole in general!

This guacamole was chunky and spicy with a lovely tang coming from the lime juice and cilantro.  It contained jalapenos which gave it a lovely sweet zing that made your mouth water.  Delicious and complimented the other dishes perfectly.

040-claudias-traditional-guacamole
Claudia’s Traditional Guacamole

Next on the list was Mexican corn on the cob.  I’m always looking at simple and easy ways of incorporating more vegetables into my diet and, being an Aussie, I thought this dish would be a great addition to BBQs in summer.  Having never even seen the Mexican way of preparing corn, I was interested in how these would turn out.

It’s a simple process of boiling the corn still in the husk then spreading them with sour cream and mayonnaise, cheese, chili powder, lime and salt.  They’re messy to eat but oh my lord are they delicious!  I’ve made these several times since and I could quite happily just have a couple of corn cobs for dinner.

040-mexican-corn-on-the-cob
Mexican Corn on the Cob

A word of warning, they are extremely hot when first taken out of the water – make sure you have some kitchen mitts or a tea towel or something that you can use to prevent burning yourself with.  Also have some napkins or damp cloths handy as you will get this everywhere!  The corn is so juicy that it will end up splurting all over your face, the table and any other surface within the near vicinity and the mayo mixture will go everywhere.

I chose the next dish, Mexican beef crispy taquitos (flautas) for a couple of different reasons.  I had considered making tacos but wanted to try something I hadn’t really done before, and also because I knew this dish would be something that Shane would adore.  I was right!

The flautas are basically shredded beef rolled in tortillas and fried til crispy in a pan.  You serve them with cheese, crème fraiche and fresh salad.  It’s almost like a Mexican version of a spring roll.

040-mexican-beef-crispy-taquitos-flautas-como-hacer-taquitos-dorados-mexicanos-flautas
Mexican Beef Crispy Taquitos (Flautas) / Taquitos Dorados Mexicanos (Flautas)

We were using store bought tortillas and found that they started to crack as they rolled so I would suggest using the freshest tortillas you can find if you plan on doing this dish.  They’re lovely though and we’ve since also tried them with a chicken filling and that also works beautifully.  We worked out that wrapping the flautas in lettuce leaves before eating gives them a really fresh taste and saves you burning your hands also.  Adding a bit of chilli sauce also gives them a lovely kick.  So yum!

I really wanted to do some vegetarian dishes for this challenge and I had just found some black beans that I wanted to incorporate so my next dish was Vegetarian Chilaquiles.  I guess in some ways this dish is a little like nachos – you fry up some tortillas until they’re browed and crisp, cook them in the oven with a tomato salsa, then top them with charred corn, black beans, feta avocado, diced onions and cilantro before serving with wedges of lime.

040-vegetarian-chilaquiles
Vegetarian Chilaquiles

I admit that in making this I had a bit of trouble working Shane’s oven so it wasn’t quite as hot as it should have been.  Stubbornly I put the tortillas in too early and the tomato salsa soaked in a little too much.  This made them a little more soggy than they should have been but that said, they still went wonderfully with the other ingredients.  The dish was a lot less salad-y than I had expected and was actually incredibly filling.  You could easily eat this as a main meal by itself.

Mole is one of Mexico’s national dishes and I was fascinated with it as, with something like 30 ingredients in the sauce alone, including things like dark chocolate, several varieties of chillies, raisins, peanuts and tomatillos, my brain couldn’t process what the resulting taste would be like.  With a simple napolitana sauce or something, you know vaguely what the end result is likely to be just from reading the recipe.  Not this one!

I had decided on Chicken Mole Enchiladas and to simplify the process, made the mole sauce the night before.  Despite the sheer number of ingredients, I found it surprisingly easy to make.  It’s mostly cooking groups of ingredients on the stove to bring out their flavours and make them aromatic, then blending them into a sauce.

040-chicken-mole-enchiladas-enmoladas-de-pollo
Chicken Mole Enchiladas / Enmoladas de Pollo

And for the taste?  I’m still not sure that I can describe it adequately.  It’s extremely rich – like a punch in the mouth.  It’s a lot sweeter and thicker than I expected it to be too.  Each of the flavours hit your tongue one by one as you’re eating with a fiery burn at the end from the chillies.  I’ve never tried anything like it.  I enjoyed it but found the intense flavour almost intimidating in some ways.  Definitely make sure that you have some accompaniments to have with it – perhaps some sour cream, lettuce or avocado – nothing too rich.

I think this dish would be a really nice comfort food option during winter though, with so much flavour, it’s probably not suited to someone who is prone to heartburn!

Last on the list was a cocktail, because what would a Mexican feast be without some tequila?!  I chose to make a Mexican Mule.  I have no idea if it’s in the slightest bit traditional or even comes from Mexico but I don’t care – it was delicious none the less.  Tequila, lime and ginger beer – served with ice in a highball glass.  It’s a beautiful and refreshing summer cocktail and I would happily make this again and again.  In fact, I already have on several occasions haha!

040-mexican-mule
Mexican Mule

My Mexican feast completely lived up to expectations and I was so impressed by the variety of flavours that came out of the different dishes.  For the most part they were all pretty healthy too and I’m happy to add these to my recipe book.

But, for now, it’s onto my next challenge……

041-cabo-verde