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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In some of the coastal areas, the time it takes for the seafood to get from the ocean to the plate is minimal.
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.
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!).
Alternatively there is a range of bakeries, grocery and convenience stores all stocking a range of weird and wonderful culinary delights.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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…..
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.
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.
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.
I will definitely be making this again! But yes, you guessed it, first it’s onto the next challenge…..
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!).
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.
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….
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
My boyfriend, Shane became very excited when I told him that I was cooking something from Georgia this challenge. That is until he worked out that it was a country and not a US state. He, like a lot of other people I’ve spoken to, didn’t realise there was a country called Georgia.
Well it turns out there is and it’s located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia – bordered by Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea. It has a vast history with its roots leading back to the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire and the successive dynasties of Iran.
Georgia gained brief independence after the Russian Revolution in 1917, only to be invaded by Soviet Russia in 1921. It was able to restore independence again in 1991 but then suffered from civil and economic crisis for most of the 1990s. This lasted until the Rose Revolution, a pro-Western peaceful change of power in Georgia brought about by widespread protests over the disputed parliamentary elections and marked the end of the Soviet era of leadership in the county. The Revolution was named from the climactic moment when demonstrators stormed a parliament session holding red roses. This in turn led to the brief Russia-Georgia war.
The culture in Georgia is one evolved over thousands of years. It’s known for its rich folklore, unique traditional music, theatre, cinema and art. In fact, the Georgian folk song “Chakrulo” was one of 27 musical compositions chosen to be included on a Voyager Golden Record that was sent into space on Voyager 2 in 1977.
In addition to traditional Georgian cuisine which has evolved throughout he centuries, adapting traditions in each era, and the food of other countries have been introduced into the country by immigrants from Russia, Greece and recently China. This challenge however, I have gone for some traditional winter-fare.
The first dish I decided upon was Georgian Chees and Egg Bread (Acharuli Khachapuri) which is essentially the most delicious heart attack you may ever encounter. It’s essentially a boat made from bread containing a bath of melted cheese and a runny egg perched on top. The idea is that you break off the crust and dunk it in the cheese and egg like you would a dip.
It’s incredibly filling, ridiculously fattening and surprisingly easy to make. You simply make a soft yeast-based dough. This is then rolled into circles. A mixture of Muenster and feta cheese is spread over the top before the ends are twisted and a boat shaped formed from the dough. The rest of the cheese is then packed into the cavity and everything is baked on high head for about 15 mins. An egg is cracked on top of each boat and it is returned to the oven for a few minutes to partially cook. If that wasn’t enough fat for you, you’re also encouraged to add a couple of tablespoons of butter on top before serving hot.
This dish is delicious. I ended up using some Provolone as I was unable to find Muenster cheese and this gave everything a nice bitey taste. The egg adds an extra hit of richness to the dish and it’s like the best comfort food you can find times ten. You can see the fat from the cheese bubbling out from the cracks of the bread once you take it out of the oven.
This is a dish that you need to eat straight out of the oven though. Don’t leave it as the cheese will set and you’ll lose the charm of it. I can see this going beautifully with a hearty vegetable soup or something. So yum!
The second dish I decided upon was oyster mushrooms with rachuli bacon. I love oyster mushrooms and I’m always keen to look for some different types of vegetable side dishes. Now I have to point out that rachuli bacon is in short supply here in Australia so I ended up just using the regular kind. It’s difficult to compare when I’ve never tried the original but this dish was yummy none-the-less.
It’s simply a mix of ingredients that also includes onion, chilli, basil, coriander, bay leaves and a whole lot of garlic. The mushrooms are actually boiled in salt for 45 mins to begin with but I found this helped them retain their shape when they were eventually added to the rest of the ingredients. Everything is basically fried off and mixed together like a stir-fry before being served hot.
This is a strong mix of flavours, smoky, fragrant and spicy. The chilli gives everything a big kick (you might want to cut down on the amount added if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing). It’s quite a heavy dish but the herbs do help freshen up the flavour somewhat.
It went well with the bread dish but I think it would be even nicer with a plain cut of meat – maybe steak or some chicken, with some simple boiled potatoes. It would even go quite nicely with eggs and toast as a breakfast dish. Either way, surprising and delicious!
And with Georgia under our belts, it’s time to sail onto our next challenge…..
Let me begin this challenge by saying I love Vietnamese food. I have for years. There’s an area of Melbourne unofficially known as “Little Vietnam” (Victoria Street, Richmond for those who are local and want to check it out) and it’s one of my favourite places to go if I’m dining out. My boyfriend, Shane, has also become a convert and we will happily drive the 40-60 odd minutes it takes to drive in just to have dinner and one of the many Vietnamese restaurants along the strip. It’s always fresh, inexpensive and incredibly delicious.
I did toy with the idea of using the challenge as an excuse to go have another meal there. But in the end I realised that I really wanted to learn how to cook some of the food myself (though we did end up going for another meal there this week as well!).
Vietnam is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia, bordered by China, Laos and Cambodia with Malaysia to the southeast, across the South China Sea. For over a millennium, Vietnam was part of Imperial China before forming an independent Vietnamese state in 939. It was later colonized by the French in the mid-19th century and occupied by the Japanese in the 1940s. Vietnam divided politically into two rival states, North and South Vietnam which eventually intensified into what is known as the Vietnam War.
The cuisine is based around a combination of five fundamental taste ‘elements:’ spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth). It’s considered to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world with its fresh ingredients, minimal use of oil and reliance on herbs and vegetables. Common ingredients include soy sauce, shrimp paste, fish sauce, rice, fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables with plenty of lemongrass, ginger, mint (Vietnamese mint and traditional), long coriander, Saigon cinnamon, bird’s eye chilli, lime and basil. Freshwater fish, crustaceans and molluscs are widely used, mostly due to the fact that meats such as pork, beef and chicken were relatively limited in the past.
The plan going into this challenge was to try a number of dishes. I had settled on four different dishes, a couple that were familiar but which I had never made before, and a couple that were completely foreign to me. I did end up making three of these dishes and made a start on another, however a series of unfortunate events means that I’m only really going to go into two of the dishes in any real detail here. Here’s why:
The first dish I’m skipping is the one I did actually complete. It’s Heo Quay (or Roasted Crispy Pork Belly). It was delicious, albeit not quite as crispy as I would have liked it to have been. It unfortunately fell victim to the same issue with the camera that I had in my previous challenge and no photos exist to prove that I completed the dish. Seeing as I already have two other successful dishes that I’ll write about here, I’ve decided not to write about it here but I have included the recipe link above if you wanted to try it yourself.
The second dish I started, but didn’t finish but in telling you what happened you need a bit of back story. I have a cat. His name is Kilima and he’s Siamese. He’s cute to look at but he’s actually a bit of a bastard. He’s constantly in your face and completely obsessed with food. Like really obsessed. He also has a weird thing for carrots. He won’t eat them, but seems to have some kind of weird auto-erotic fixation with them. Whenever he encounters them, he’ll purr and lick the carrots and smooches up against them. It’s bizarre. I don’t understand why he does it.
Now that you have the background information, I can now tell you that the second dish that I attempted to make was a radish and carrot pickle. You’re starting to see where this is heading now can’t you….?
The process involved slicing the radishes and carrots very thinly then drying them in the sun for several days before continuing with the pickling process. I prepared the vegetables on night after work, put them on racks, put them on the window sill next to the kitchen bench and left them to dry. All was going well and it was only on the third night after work, when I was planning to continue onto the next step, that I realised that the carrots were strewn all over the bench.
What I think has happened is that as the carrots have dried, they’ve given off a particular scent that’s attracted the cat. He’s jumped onto the kitchen bench (which he is not allowed to do!) and proceeded to smooch and lick the slices of partially-dried carrot.
I realised pretty quickly that this dish wasn’t going to happen. The radishes had also been knocked around and I had to put the lot in the bin. They had been a bit difficult to find in the first place and, now that the cat knew that there were carrots around, I was never going to be able to successfully sun-dry the vegetables with him in the house. I had to admit defeat.
Instead, I concentrated my energy on my next two dishes; Lotus Seed Soup and Char Siew Dumplings. I had tried the dumplings before but never knew how they were made. As for the soup, I had never even heard of lotus seed before, let alone knew what they would taste like. I was intrigued by the idea and was able to find some online so the rest is history.
It’s actually quite an easy dish to make. You clean the lotus seeds (which are about the size of a small grape, a light yellowish colour and quite hard when dried – almost like a peanut in texture), weeding out the core of the seeds. They are then boiled until soft. You smash up some shrimps/prawns, marinating them in some salt and pepper before frying them off with some purple onion.
Soaked shitake mushrooms are added to the boiling lotus seeds and the mixture is cooked for a while longer. The recipe didn’t actually state when you put the onion/shrimp mixture in so I added it at this stage.
Next some tofu is added and later some tapioca flour (I actually used cornflour) is used to thicken the broth. Lastly you stir in the white of an egg, breaking it up into long fibres as you do.
The soup is served topped with coriander, sesame oil and pepper on top.
The lotus seeds themselves don’t have a whole lot of flavour to them. When cooked they have a texture similar to a legume and I guess the taste somewhat resembles a butter bean. It’s lighter though with a very slight floral taste to it. It goes wonderfully with the shrimp and shitake and the soup is such a fresh mixture of flavours and textures. I could happily eat this time and time again.
The char siew dumplings were a little more complex to make with several different steps to manoeuvre through.
First was prepping the pork by marinating it in a variety of spices/sauces. A quick note with this one. When the recipe calls for red food colouring, try and use the Chinese variety. I have some powdered magenta type home and it leaves the western style of food dye for dead. A tiny bit of this stuff gives the richest colour – well worth the effort finding it.
After being marinated, the pork is fried, before water is added and the pan is sealed with a lid.
You then turn your attention to making the dough. It’s similar to making a usual yeast-based dough so not particularly difficult. The idea is to make a little pocket by rolling little balls of the dough out lengthwise, then folding it in half over a chopstick. Try not to roll it out too long – I found I got a much better result keeping it reasonably thick.
The dumplings are steamed. To serve, slice the dumplings in half, filling them with slices of the pork and cucumber.
Beware, these dumplings are filling! Despite the dough being light as a feather, you’ll probably only get through one or two of them before feeling stuffed. They’re incredibly tasty though. The fluffiness of the dumpling combines beautifully with the thick flavours of the pork. The cucumber gives it a kick of freshness and a crunch as you bite into it. So yummy!
So in summary, despite a few hiccups along the way, I think this challenge ended up quite a success. I’ve given myself a passing grade and it’s onto the next challenge….
If you look at Rwanda on a map of Africa, it’s actually incredibly small. I think because it’s been in the news so much I always imagined it to be much larger. It turns out that it’s one of the smallest countries on the African mainland.
It’s a few degrees south of the Equator and bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country is highly elevated with its geography dominated by mountains in the west and savanna to the east. A part of the African Great Lakes region, it has numerous water sources throughout.
My knowledge of Rwanda comes from news reports of the civil war. This stems from a long standing feud between two ethnic groups – the Tutsi and the Hutu and this erupted into the genocide in which Hutu extremists killed some 500,000 to 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu in 1994. This era of the country’s history is beautifully depicted in the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and I’d highly recommend watching it.
The cuisine of Rwanda is agricultural-based with local staples such as bananas, plantains, pulses, sweet potatoes, beans and cassava featuring heavily. Potatoes are also popular. The diet is predominately vegetarian with most Rwandans eating meat only a few times a month.
I start this challenge with a bit of a disclaimer. One of my self imposed rules is that I must take photographs of each challenge to prove that I have completed the task. Well, as I discovered last night, this hit a bit of a road bump over the past two challenges. For some reason the SD card in my camera somehow ended up on ‘read only’ protection. It’s just a little slider button on the side which I must have accidentally hit when moving it from my camera to my laptop or similar. Either way, nothing has been recording on it for the past couple of challenges!!
All is not in vain however – by a simple stroke of luck, I had run out of battery for part of the Rwandan challenge so ended up taking photos of one of the dishes on my phone. I also realised the issue in time for me to take photos of most of the dishes in my next challenge too! It does mean that I am lacking in a bit of visual content for the next couple, but I think it’s enough to scrape through a passing grade for each.
The first dish I tried for my Rwandan challenge was Bananas with Split Green Peas. I chose it simply because it sounded strange to me. I could not for the life of me imagine what it would taste like so I gave it a go even though I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it.
You boil the split peas until tender, peel the bananas and simmer them under the peas. You then fry off some onion in palm or peanut oil then add the pea and banana mix. You season the dish with paprika, and salt and serve hot.
The end result is like a thick, gloopy paste with chunks of banana in it. It’s not particularly attractive, but it’s actually surprisingly tasty. That said, it’s also quite difficult to describe. It reminded me a bit of a thick satay. The peanut oil soaks in and gives it a peanut-butter type flavour with a sweetness from the bananas that breaks through now and then. It’s very odd.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this dish, though I feel it needs to be served with an accompaniment. I couldn’t eat much of it by itself. That said, I’m still a bit stumped as to what to have with it. Perhaps a meal or potato mash might lend itself to it but I’m still unsure. Something to ponder in any case!
The next dish I made was one that I couldn’t recover the photos from I’m afraid. A shame because it’s a particularly delicious one!
Rwandan Honey bread is to die for. It’s sweet and a little reminiscent of ginger bread. The smell permeates the house and makes your stomach grumble.
As an adaption of a simple yeast-based bread, it’s also reasonably simple to make. You soak some dried yeast and put aside while you whisk together honey, egg, ground coriander, cloves, cinnamon and salt. You then mix these with the yeast and some melted butter. Add flour to make a sticky dough. This is kneaded, left to rise, then punched down and kneaded again. Unlike most breads, it’s cooked in a casserole dish and you leave it to proov one last time before putting it in the oven.
I could eat this every day. It’s savoury enough to have as a snack or accompaniment if you wish. Alternatively, top it with a bit of whipped cream or the like and eat it like a scone. So yummy!!