Benin. Just admit you have no idea where it is. That’s ok, it is in the under part of the part of Africa that curves out at the top

image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

left… you know? Ah, just look at a map. It is a small country, roughly the size of Florida.

The area was previously known as the Kingdom of Dahomey (insert early 90’s joke here), and was a heavily militarized society. This militarization included both men and women, and an all-female regiment often called the Dahomey Amazons (named by Europeans of course) was remarkably similar to that of antiquity. Human sacrifice was practiced, but eventually the kings decided to sell their captives into transatlantic slavery rather than kill them, thus amassing great wealth.

It was briefly a Marxist state from 1975 to 1990, and has since become a multi-party system. French is the official language of Benin, but others including Yoruba are widely spoken. Interestingly enough, Yoruba is the liturgical language of Santeria, the Caribbean religion started by West African slaves. For more on Santeria please consult the internet, or that one song by Sublime.

I think the country looks like the 3D model of the Velociraptor’s voice chamber from Jurassic Park 3…

Untitled-2 Untitled-1

…others have pointed out it is more like a house key, the Statue of Liberty’s torch, or my favorite, a turkey leg from the Renaissance festival.

While the royal palaces at the former Dahomey capital of Abomey (where 12 kings succeeded each other from 1625 to 1900) is a UNESCO world heritage site, Benin in general is not the best place to live. It has one of the most heavily agriculture dependent economies in the world, with little industry diversification. Almost half the country is 14 years old or younger, and close to 40% of the population lives below the poverty line; these factors ultimately result in increased human trafficking.

But the food…the food is good! They do a lot with corn particularly, as well as peppers. I made a traditional Beninese dish called Amiwo (red paste), this version with chicken. Meat is often very expensive in Benin so I tried not to make it the focus. The preparation of this meal is in two parts, the chicken and the cornmeal. I used coarse Italian polenta cornmeal but I think any cornmeal would work the same. To make the dish easier and economical I also used leftover meat from a grocery store rotisserie chicken, torn up and shredded.

There is no word for this meal other than delicious. I continue to surprise myself with how much I can enjoy green peppers in the right application. The polenta/cornmeal made with the tomato incorporated was fantastic and I never thought to infuse any flavors like that before. The overall flavor palate has a lot in common with Spanish or Caribbean cooking and that is not surprising based on shared heritages. Overall it was a nutritious and filling meal, and tasty to boot; what else could you ask for?

 

A NOTE ON POLENTA: If you are a fan of polenta, grits, or cornmeal in general, I highly recommend buying online. On amazon.com you can get a 5 lbs sack which will last you quite a while, delivered to your house for $14.

(http://www.amazon.com/Roland-Course-Grain-Polenta-5-Pounds/dp/B0046LDTGG

They have different grain sizes, although I have only used the coarse, maybe trying the fine or medium is in my future. I never like the look of that premade mush in tubes in the supermarket, it just… doesn’t seem right.

 

Next up, a mini-entry on the British territory of Bermuda because, who wouldn’t want to stop there…

 

 

_____________________________________________________

Amiwo Chicken

4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 cloves garlic (chopped)
  • 1.5 onions
  • 4 tomatoes (chopped)
  • 1 green pepper (strips)
  • 3/4 cups polenta/corn meal
  • 3 cups water (2 + 1)
  • 2 bouillon cubes
  • 9.5 oz pre-cooked boneless Chicken (shredded/torn)

 

——————————————

Polenta Directions:

  • In a pot – heat some oil and add 2 chopped tomatoes- then one 2 cups water and 1/2 boullion cube.

Simmer covered for 10 minutes, then add salt, pepper and one garlic clove (chopped)

  • Add a 1/2 boullion cube and simmer covered for another 10 minutes.
  • Increase heat and bring to a boil then add polenta, stirring constantly. Lower heat and continue to stir until polenta is desired doneness (taste until grittiness is mostly gone – keep adding boiling water if necessary).

——————————————

Chicken Directions:

  • Simmer the remaining two tomatoes with one cup water, onions, one garlic clove (chopped), salt and pepper and the last bouillon cube until vegetables are tender, add water if needed, stir in chicken, cook on low-med heat for 5 minutes.

 


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image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

 

I’m sorry.

So, I felt like getting ambitious. It was well intentioned but did not go as I had planned. I apologize Belize, you deserved better. But let’s start at the beginning…

Belize was known as British Honduras until 1973 based on a series of claims involving the Spanish and the British dating back a few hundred years. The country was kind of like a child in a divorced home, not really knowing…or caring sometimes… which parent was in control. This uncertainty did eventually matter, as there would be a dispute with Guatemala, stemming from certain recognized and unrecognized British treaties. Guatemala essentially says that Belize belongs in whole or in part to them, and Belize of course differs in opinion. This has been such a major point of contention over the years, that many Belizean prime ministers proclaim it as their number one priority. To get by there is basically a neutral zone which seems to prolong any decisions on the subject.

But on to the IMPORTANT stuff… Belize is the only Central American country whose official language is English. And the most important contribution Belize has made to the whole of human civilization… GUM. Remember Chiclets? Come on, you remember… those little squares of gum which the hard shell on the outside…they were good and fun in an old-timey way? Well… the name is derived from the word “chicle” which is the natural gum harvested originally in Belize from trees similar to the way rubber and latex is collected. Ok… not the best visual I get it… “chicle” is the Nahuatl word meaning “sticky stuff”. Where would we be in this world if we didn’t have gum… I don’t want to think about it.

Speaking of sticky stuff… I decided (because I’m smart) to try tackling tamales for the first time. I found a few Belizean recipes… and attempted to “wing it”. It did not go well. I got some good Masa from the local Mexican Grocery (finding out later it was at the supermarket as well, though no employee could locate it). Once combined with water/oil it is very difficult to handle, I had a hard time and the end result was… edible but not ideal.

So I apologize Belize, I will post the picture of what I made, which amounted to a very thick and dryish tamale. I will say that the technique of cooking them wrapped in parchment paper instead of banana leaves worked very well, so that was a positive. I will come back later and re-attempt this or a similar recipe and update at that point, I just didn’t want the blog to be held up on it.

Next? Benin… and one of my favorite recipes to date…

 

   


image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

Belgium…is…complicated.  This is going to be a long post…just a heads up. If European countries were superheroes, Belgium would be a C-lister at best…maybe France’s sidekick. But everyone knows things about France’s history: Charlemagne, The Man in the Iron Mask, Marie Antoinette, stuff from Les Mis, and that they have the dubious reputation for always surrendering. You might surrender, too, if you shared a border with Germany in the early 20th century, I’m just saying. What is overlooked is that each time Germany wanted to invade poorly-defended northern France, how did they get there? The answer was inevitably: through Belgium.

A recurring theme when examining Belgium is “division”. The country is the physical divide between Latin and Germanic Europe. The country’s population is deeply divided culturally, and linguistically, between two groups: the Walloons and the Flemish. And when, in World War II, the Germans wanted to divide the Allied Forces, it was into Belgium they had to go.

The Flemish people originated in Flanders, in the north of Belgium, and speak Flemish, which is a form of Dutch and therefore a Germanic language. The Walloons hail from Wallonia in the south and speak a Romantic language which is from the same family as French. After the country gained independence in 1830, the Walloon population held much power and thus the following century and beyond exhibited the Flemish peoples trying to gain equal status in language and political influence. Despite progress, even to this day there is much social friction between these two groups.

Having just seen The Imitation Game about Alan Turing and attempts to break Axis communication codes during WWII, some parts of history stood out to me as I read about Belgium. So this is going to be heavy on the war history, sorry if that doesn’t interest you; I will get to the food eventually.

 

As I said earlier, Belgium presented a gateway into a weakly defended part of France. Because of this, the Germans launched three campaigns aimed at this area, one in WWI and two in WWII. This was such an important tactical location going back to the time of Charlemagne, due to the Ardennes Forest. A large, heavily wooded, almost 3 million acre area, which could conceal anything. In August of 1914, at the early days of the First World War, the Germans and French battled resulting in a German victory and roughly 22,000 French casualties. The subsequent years of occupation are referred to as “the rape of Belgium”, due to the large amount of violence carried out against the civilian population. But at least everyone learned a valuable lesson about the forest so it would never happen again….wait….they didn’t?!

Fast forward 26 years to 1940. After their defeat in WWI the Germans are back and this time…it’s personal. So Hitler thinks, “Well it worked last time”, and moves a huge amount of troops and tanks through the Ardennes. Although the Belgian army was sure this was coming and even had intelligence to prove it, the French General dismissed the maneuver as not possible, despite the beliefs of many of his own commanders. It, of course, did happen; the Germans had a decisive victory and broke into France. Less than a month later, France surrendered and this time the body count for the Allies was closer to 185,000. But it would NEVER happen again…………… you have got to be kidding me.

It is four years later…December 1944 and the Allies have momentum after the D-Day landing and subsequent quick movement towards Germany. Hitler desperately needs to separate the British and American forces in northern France. So…of course…because it has worked every time in the past, he will launch a Blitzkrieg assault directly through the Ardennes with immense armored forces. The attack completely surprised the Allied Forces. The attack…completely SURPRISED…the Allied Forces. Are you…kidding me?!

This was the infamous Battle of the Bulge.  It occurred in spite of information which emerged later that several intercepted German coded messages alluded to an operation, but were not given merit or acted upon. The name of the battle was colloquially given as the Allied line bulged after being struck by the Blitzkrieg. This was the costliest battle of the war for the United States, suffering roughly 75,000 casualties. Had it not been for Patton’s near impossible maneuvering of the 3rd Army 90 degrees and breaking the siege of Bastogne, thus stopping the German offensive, it could have been much worse. But it will never happen again?…Right?

Ok, history lesson over. Let’s talk about endives! They are a member of the Chicory family and the Belgian variety is arguably the best in the world. It is a very unique vegetable, leafy, tangy, but crisp and flavorful. They can be steamed, baked, boiled, or stewed. Filling them with seafood is also a common preparation. I chose to use them as the signature ingredient because, while so much of Belgian cuisine is close to French, I found them to be part of the Belgian identity. These were prepared au gratin and wrapped in ham- I just went to the deli counter and asked for very thick slices of black forest ham (probably about 1/8” thick).

The crisp earthy flavors of the endive melted perfectly with the cheesy and salty combination surrounding it. I would recommend them as a good vegetable to use for those who don’t like strong, bitter green flavors. Plus the beautiful floral white/pink colors look gorgeous.

As a side dish I made Stoemp aux Poireaux/met Prei (mash pot with leeks), which is a hearty seasoned mashed potato and root vegetable dish (turnip, parsnip, leek, etc). Once again illustrating the division of the culture, the dish is titled with both the French and Dutch word for leeks. This would not be something you would find on a menu for high dining. This at-home comfort food is delicious, versatile (use any root vegetable you like), and made to hold you through those long winter months. I also drank a Belgium amber ale recently and it was…not terrible. That is high praise from someone like me, who only drinks stouts, and that is usually only during the World Cup… and I still think beer is disgusting.

I particularly had a lot of fun making…and eating…these dishes. Belgium is somewhere I would like to visit someday, and certainly a difficult place to truly understand.

Next we go to Belize whose motto is “Under the shade I flourish”…I think I’m going to like it there…

 

   IMG_3193 IMG_3196


 

Belgian Endive au Gratin

4 servings

Ingredients:

 

Belgian endive, trimmed

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese, divided
  • 1 teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or amount to taste
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • 4 slices deli-style ham (at least 1/8″ thick slice)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

——————————————

Directions:

  • Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Place the endives into the water. Cover, and cook until tender, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Place the butter into a saucepan, and melt over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, and stir until the mixture becomes paste-like and golden brown. Gradually whisk the milk into the flour mixture, whisking constantly until thick and smooth. Stir in 3/4 cup Gruyere cheese, Parmesan cheese, nutmeg, salt, and pepper until well blended. Cook gently over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
  • Preheat an oven broiler (on low if possible).
  • Drain the endives. Wrap each endive with a slice of ham, and place into the prepared baking dish. Pour the cheese sauce over the endives. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup Gruyere cheese and parsley.
  • Cook the endives under preheated broiler until cheese is golden brown and sauce bubbles, about 10 minutes.

 


 

Stoemp aux Poireaux/met Prei

2 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 12 large potatoes, peeled (russet or yellow)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 12 cup cream/milk (I used 1%)
  •  1 small onion, finely chopped
  •  1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 2 medium leeks, finely sliced (don’t use the very dark green bits)
  • 14 cup stock (vegetable, chicken, beef, whatever you have)
  • 12 to taste salt and pepper
  • 12 to taste ground nutmeg

——————————————

Directions:

  • Cook the potatoes until they are just tender (you can cube them which will speed up the cooking time). Drain well and mash.
  • While the potatoes are cooking, melt the butter in a large frypan over medium heat.
  • Add the garlic and onion, and cook until just softened, then add the leeks and saute until everything is just translucent.
  • Add the cream/milk and stock. Simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
  • Drain the onion mixture but reserve the liquid. Put the liquid back into the pan and reduce by half. This will take 5 minutes or so.
  • Once the sauce is reduced mix the onions and potato mixture together. Then return to the pan and stir the sauce through until well combined. Season to taste.
  • If the mixture is too dry add more milk very carefully.

 

 

image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

…it’s funny because I learned recently that I am in fact 1/4 Belarusian… and I’ve been drinking White Russians for years! Why is that funny? Read on…

I’m not sure we have had a country yet whose name I will struggle to explain fully. This is largely because in the last century, few regions have gone through so much change as those associated with “Russia” and the USSR. And here is the start of the problem, there is a difference between Russia and -Rus’ . I honestly don’t want to spend the whole blog talking about this, because I know could, so I will say if this type of thing interests you, go search the web for the full details: it won’t be hard to find. Belarus literally means White Rus’ , which often gets translated to White Russia. Using this translation today would be an anachronistic mistake, and could border on the insulting. The origins of the issue are of course debated, between an ethnic meaning, a term denoting the areas unconquered by the Mongols, or the direct translation as White Dew. Regardless, the main aspect to focus on is actually the second word.

 In short, there is a long standing identity clash between what is Rus’ and what is Russia. The former term is the elder of the two which denoted from medieval times current day Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Western Russia. This term later became “Ruthenia,” which in the 17th century morphed into “Russia”. Thus, the identity associated with the earlier names signified the Eastern European self. Today, to avoid confusion…uh huh…you will see the lands belonging to the earlier definition written as “Kievan Rus’”.

 Following the Russian Revolution, and towards the close of World War I, Belarus declared independence as a people’s republic, as they were occupied by German forces. Not long after, the Red Army replaced the Germans and exiled the young government, replacing it with the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (part of the USSR). As of this writing, the council of the Belarusian Democratic Republic is the oldest current government in exile at roughly 98 years old. Although free of the USSR since 1990, the current president who was elected in 1994 has an authoritarian style and has kept several Soviet era policies. The country’s Democracy Index rating is always the lowest in Europe and many people label it as repressed and not free.

The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine occurred less than 10 miles from the Belarusian border. Roughly 70% of the radiation bled over into Belarus and 1/5 of their land, including much farmland, is still affected by fallout today. In 1994, Belarusian scientists discovered that certain rapeseed varieties can pull radioactive material from the soil cheaply and effectively. They have increased the amount of rapeseed cultivation over the last 20 years and still hope that it can ultimately undo some of the damage done.

 Throughout their history there has also been a lot of interaction with their neighbor to the west, Poland. A lot of land has changed hands between Belarus and Poland through several conflicts and treaties to get us where we are today, with them sharing a 250 mile border. The main dish I made has a name of Polish origin, though it is equally as popular in Belarus. This is a Meat and Potato Babka.

Now, for those Seinfeld fans or patrons of traditional Jewish bakeries, this will be a departure from expectations. There are few desserts I love more than a good chocolate babka (yes, cinnamon is fine as well). So I was surprised to see the term used in a savory application. This is a fairly simple meat and potato casserole, and there is nothing wrong with that. Although not much to look at, the salty flavor is melt in your mouth wonderful.

I find that when dealing with a simplistic dish, the factor which holds the key to success is often the ratio of ingredients. This is true for a basic chocolate chip cookie, lasagna, or bread dough. The fewer ingredients there are, and the less technical skills which are required, exponentially inflate the importance of precise balance of ingredients.

Accompanying the savory babka, I prepared a Pskovsky, which is vegetables served with a hot mushroom sauce. This is a super healthy side dish with very little fat (only what you brown the mushrooms in) and the sauce is luscious. Instead of dicing my potatoes as instructed, I had leftover grated ones, so I went ahead and used those which changed the texture of the dish (why my picture isn’t reflective of how yours would be). I think I added more mushrooms than called for also, because I love mushrooms, so it is open to interpretation. Overall, this was not the most visually appealing meal, but it played well on the tongue and isn’t that what REALLY matters?

Next we go to Belgium…and Lee…drinks…a non-stout beer?! You heard it here first…

 

  


 

Meat and Potato Babka

3 servings

Ingredients:

7 potatoes
7 oz meat, finely chopped
1 large onion
1 egg
3.5 oz milk
salt, to taste
vegetable oil

——————————————

Directions:

Add a little oil to a pan and use to fry the meat until well browned but not cooked through. Add the onion then season with salt. Continue frying until the onion is golden brown.
Grate the potatoes then place in a clean tea towel (or salad spinner) and wring out the excess moisture. Transfer to a bowl and beat in the milk and egg. Season with salt to taste. Grease an oven-proof casserole dish with vegetable oil then spoon the meat and onion mix into the base then pour the potato mix over the top.
Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 350°F and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is a nice golden brown in color.

 


Pskovsky

3 servings

Ingredients:

3 potatoes
2 carrots
1 turnip
5 tbsp frozen peas
For the Sauce:
5 tbsp (1/3 cup) vegetable stock – WHICH YOU WILL MAKE IN THE FIRST PART
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp flour
1 onion, finely diced
1 celery stick, finely diced
3 tbsp button mushrooms,diced (or more)
sea salt, to taste

——————————————

Directions:

Wash the vegetables, peel and dice.
Add each vegetable (except the peas) to a separate pan, cover with a little water and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until tender (add the peas to one pot for the last 5 minutes of cooking).
Drain the vegetables (keep the stock) then combine the vegetables.
Meanwhile add about 2 tbsp oil to a pan. Add the mushrooms and fry for 2 minutes then scatter the flour over the top, mix to combine and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Whilst still stirring carefully add 5 tbsp of the reserved vegetable broth, stirring quickly to ensure there are no lumps. Add the onion and celery and season to taste.
Simmer very gently for 15 minutes. Serve the vegetables in a bowl, covered with the hot sauce.

 

Barbados Slim?!…

January 20, 2015

image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

…last time I heard, you were in Barbados!

It’s a Futurama quote. If you don’t get it, don’t sweat it. Now where were we…

So Barbados means “the bearded ones” although it is unclear whether it was the Spanish or the Portuguese who dubbed it so. Neither however felt that in the first half of the 16th century it was a place worth claiming… so they left. When the British showed up in 1627, nearly a century later, they had different thoughts. The island was uninhabited, but one structure showed proof of a previous civilization, a kind of bridge. And so, with the legendary wit of the English, the foundation for the capital of Bridgetown was born.

So what do you do with an empty tropical island 4,000 miles from your country? Populate it of course. So the good King and Earls give land grants to nobles to settle and organize the new land. Or…if 25 years later, the King is overthrown and executed and a genocidal protestant Lord Protector seizes tremendous power and begins an ethnic cleansing of catholic Ireland… he might just ship the “lucky” ones who survive to a remote island as white slaves.

You know, in the scheme of things they both work as options to populate an island, one being… a tad more maniacal… and evil. These events have inspired many films as well as the hit song “Tobacco Island” by Irish punk-rock group Flogging Molly. It also gave birth to the very specific term “Barbadosed”.

Later in 1751, the island would play host to a 19 year old young man named George Washington, who had family ties to early colonists. It is the only country other America to have been visited by the founding father. Barbados has been independent since 1966 yet still recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. It is also the 7th most densely populated island in the world, ahead of Haiti, Japan, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom.

Of course fish, and specifically flying fish, play a large role in the cuisine of Barbados. This is clearly why I chose a pork dish. Many native meals are a mix of British, Indian, and African ingredients and flavors. As I mentioned earlier, the Portuguese were among the first to visit the island and although they did not claim it or stay, they introduced wild hogs to be a food source if needed in the future. The British later ate them all… seriously… but I still felt it was a nice call back to the earliest founding of the island.

This recipe is very easy and can be done with a crock pot or on the stove. It is very sweet. Let me just put that out there, between the tomatoes, sweet peppers, and onions (I caramelize them a little) it is sweet. Just letting you know in case that is not your thing. The sweetness is balanced nicely with the savory from the pork fat (even if you use lean cuts like I would suggest) and the tangy-ness of the garlic and Worcestershire. You can also adjust how much black pepper you add to your taste which would change the balance of the sweet as well. The seemingly small addition of nutmeg, nevertheless adds a sub-continental flare which does stand out. This would go great with beans and rice or pretty much anything… or just a big bowl…that’s how we ate it.

Next we travel to the land of some of my ancestors…Belarus. Which I just learned does NOT mean Beautiful Russia but in fact White Russia. Why? We’ll get into that next time… but it’s not racist… I swear…

 

  


 

Stewed Down Chops Recipe

4 servings

Ingredients:

4 servings pork chops (preferably with the skin on) or lamb chops
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 medium onions, quartered and sliced
1 cup or (2) sweet peppers, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons fresh thyme or
1 tablespoon dried thyme
Pepper sauce to taste
A few dashes of worcestershire sauce
14 oz can peeled tomatoes, diced
2 cups water

——————————————

Directions:

Rub salt on to the pork chops and leave for 10 minutes. Wash and pat dry.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and brown the chops on both sides over a medium to high heat (about 10 minutes). Remove the chops from the pan and set aside.

Sauté the onions until beginning to brown, add the garlic and sweet peppers and sauté for a further couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes, nutmeg, thyme, Worcestershire sauce, water and replace the pork chops.

Cover and simmer over a low heat until the chops are tender (1-2 hours) Add more water during cooking if necessary.

image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

What does Bangladesh even mean?! Bangladesh has gone by many names. Bangladesh, East Pakistan, more names that all essentially mean Land of the Bengals… ok that’s about it. I bet you know as much about this mysterious sub-continental realm as I, which is frankly not that much. Let us learn shall we?

Although one would assume the inhabitants would be called Bengali, this would only be partially correct. That term is specific to the ethnic group of Bengali descent in both this country as well as others such as neighboring India. The term to describe all citizens of the country is Bangladeshi, a slight but important difference. And there are a lot of Bangladeshi, ranking 8th in the world in country population. In 1947 when British rule on the region ended, the Bengal land was split along religious lines. The largely Hindu West Bengal became part of India and the more Muslim East Bengal became part of Pakistan. It would not be until 1971 that East Pakistan would gain independence.

 Prior to all of this, Bengal was one of the wealthiest parts of the sub-continent. Their strength dated back to ancient times when the region was known as Gangaridai (meaning wealth of the Ganges) by the Greeks. Taking advantage of the withdrawal of Alexander the Great’s Hellenic forces, the Maurya Empire was formed which ruled most of the Indian subcontinent. Their greatest ruler was of course Ashoka…the Great. Any relation to the Star Wars character Ahsoka Tano? Maybe. He is regarded as a caring and wise ruler, who referred to his subjects as his children.His carved capital image of four back to back lions is still the emblem of India today.

We should talk about the British I think, if only due to their enormous influence on the entire region. England was in control of the entire Indian region from 1858 to 1947. “But wait “, you say. “That is less than a century of rule, I thought they reigned longer?” You would be correct, as this period is referred to as “The Raj”, or “rule” in Hindi. The prior 101 years from 1757 to 1858 is known as “Company Rule”. And there is only one Company in the history of mankind which could pull off something like that, The British East India Company. Yes, the EIC ruled India longer than the actual British government. This began in 1757 with a victory at the Battle of Plassey against the last regional ruler of Bengal and his French allies from the French East India Company. Yes, the EIC had their own army, I didn’t really know that either. By 1778 the fighting force was 67,000 strong, bolstered largely by Indian troops, a majority of whom were Bangladeshi. This ultimately would lead to their undoing, as many of the soldiers (including the more formidable Bangladeshi) rebelled in 1857 which prompted the British government to take administrative control going forward. The EIC was dissolved and in 1876 Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India. She regretted all the bloodshed and insisted on many things, including publicly guaranteeing religious freedom.

But what do they eat??? The cuisine mirrors that of a lot of other nearby locales. I am finding the most difficult part of this endeavor to be distinguishing between these similarities, but it is possible. As the main course I made my version of Chicken Khubani. “Khubani” is the Urdu word for apricot. In this adaptation prunes could be used as well, and I went with raisins as it was what I had on hand. The important element is the sweetness. The garlic, onion, and myriad of spices (including the once again important cardamom) provide a savory backdrop for the fruit to play against. The tomatoes are acidic by nature which once again is neutralized by the sweet. As a side dish I did a very simple recipe called Alu Posto (Potatoes with poppy seeds). The addition of as much green chili pepper as you are comfortable with provides a nice mild heat, while the turmeric turns them a vivid yellow. I just used some fresh jalapeno (seeds removed) from the local Worthington Farmer’s Market. I’ve had poppy seeds in my pantry since making Poppy filling for Rosh Hashanah hamantaschen several years ago so I was happy to find a new use. Overall the meal felt very…sub-continental…whatever that means.

 But can you imagine for a moment if Google or Macy’s or Starbucks had an army today like the East India Company? Picture a battalion of baristas, hacking their way through the Columbian rainforest to secure the coffee bean routes. Chilling stuff my friends.

Next we swim to Barbados, home of the bearded ones…Where I don’t fit in anymore!

 

  


Chicken khubani

3-4 servings

Ingredients:

16 oz CHICKEN BREAST, in large cubes

1 ONION, chopped

3 TOMATOES, peeled and cut

1.5 oz raisins

2 CLOVES GARLIC, chopped finely

PIECE OF GINGERROOT, grated (1 1/4 tsp powder)

1 CINNAMON STICK (1/2 tsp powder)

1/2 TSP PAPRIKA POWDER

4 CARDAMOM PODS, split open and use the seeds (4 tsp powder)

1 oz almonds chopped

——————————————

Directions:

– Fry the onion and garlic three minutes; add the chicken and fry until brown on all sides. Add all other ingredients except the almonds and add 1/4 cup of water, bring to the boil, put a lid on and simmer for 10 minutes. Take the lid off and boil on high heat until the sauce thickens. Take out the cinnamon stick (if used). Add the almonds.

_________________

Alu posto

Ingredients:

8 POTATOES, peeled and diced

1 ONION, chopped

2 GREEN CHILLIES, chopped finely

1/2 TSP TURMERIC

2 TBSP POPPY SEEDS

——————————————

Directions:

– Fry the onion three minutes, add the potatoes and stir fry 3 minutes more. Add the rest of the ingredients and 1/2 cup of water, put a lid on and simmer for 15 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

The only thing I know about Bahrain is that my college freshman roommate was from there. It is an island, and a very well educated and financially sound country. Apparently the name is derived from the dual form of the word for “sea”. Which two seas are meant by this is debated, but it underscores the influence the water has on the country. Their economy was the first in the region to be non-oil based, favoring tourism and financial institutions.

I have always been a fan of unique and occult artifacts. From the legends incorporated into the Indiana Jones films, Fantasy Novels, Comic Books, and even those based in history. The myths surrounding items of power and meaning simply fascinate me which is one reason for my love of history. The sacking of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, by the very crusaders who were allied with it, fascinated me when I studied it in college. It was such an odd singular event in history that was complex and stood alone…or so I thought.

Apparently during the pilgrimage season of 930, a dissident Muslim group, whose stronghold was in Bahrain, called the Qarmatians sacked Mecca. Unlike the holy city of Jerusalem, which was/has traded hands for millennia due to its vulnerable location, Mecca has been more safely ensconced in strongly Muslim held lands. That is why I was shocked to learn about its sacking, especially by a Muslim group.

That was interesting enough, but then I read that not only did they pillage and perform acts of desecration, but they stole the Black Stone and took it back to Bahrain. I know right?! The actually Black Stone. For those unfamiliar with Muslim relics (as I was before looking this up), I bet it sounds like we just took a detour into a universe of the Maltese Falcon, Ark of the Covenant, One Ring, Excalibur, or a magic lamp.

Although Black Stone sounds menacing and dangerous…I’m pretty sure it is just a stone. It is said that is was a pagan relic from pre-Islamic times and that Muhammad himself set it into the wall of the Kaaba (the building towards which Muslims pray, the most sacred place in Islam) in 605. After being stolen in 930, the Qarmatians placed it in their own mosque hoping to divert the hajj away from Mecca but it did not work. It was ransomed back twenty-three years later for a large sum of money, but was broken in the process of removal and return. The fragments are now set in silver and millions of pilgrims attempt to kiss it every year as they ritually circle the Kaaba seven times, though due to the enormous crowd this is nearly impossible. The end.

Ok, I thought it was a pretty good story actually, especially for one mostly likely without magic. But I did go to the trouble of cooking something, so we should probably get to that. I made Bahraini Chicken Machbūs which is a mixed rice dish. The base of the dish is basmati rice on top of which you lay the heavily seasoned seared/boiled/broiled chicken.

The main flavor punch comes from the surprisingly delicious combination of turmeric, cumin, and cardamom. I really loved everything about this dish, especially the sweetness of the onions and rice contrasted against the very savory chicken. The multiple cooking methods leave the chicken moist on the inside and crispy on the outside, while the rose water adds a very beautiful fragrant aroma to the rice. I am starting to learn the proper use of cardamom, an ingredient which, much like the Black Stone, needs a gentle touch, but can be a unique and powerful addition.

I know that was a weak analogy, give me a break I have a cat chewing on my sleeve and distracting me.

Next up is Bangladesh. Where we can walk like an Egyptian on a manic Monday while looking for an eternal flame…

 

  


Bahraini Chicken Machbus

3-4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/4 cups water
  • 12 oz basmati rice
  • 1 1/2 tomatoes, quartered
  • 1.5 lbs chicken
  • 1 1/2 onions, finely chopped
  • 1/2 green hot pepper, as desired
  • 3/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
  • 1 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 slice gingerroot, cut into small pieces (or ground ginger)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/8 cup lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons rose water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

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Directions:

Heat the water and leave aside. In a small bowl, turmeric, cumin, and cardamom together and add to the mixture one teaspoon of salt. Sprinkle half of the spice mixture on the chicken.

Heat oil in a large cooking pan, fry the onions until golden brown, then add to the pepper.

Add the chicken to the onion mixture and turn it over a few times in the pan. Sprinkle on the chicken a teaspoon of cinnamon and the rest of the mixed spices. Turn the contents all together so the chicken is coated with the spices, cover the pan and let it cook on medium heat for 3 minutes.

Add the garlic, ginger, and tomato cubes to the pan and turn the ingredients in the pan a few times. Cover again for 3 minutes on medium heat. Sprinkle with the rest of the salt and pour on it water while its still hot.

Cover the pan and let it cook for about 1 hour, or until the chicken is cooked. While the chicken is cooking, wash the rice well and soak for 10 minutes in cold water, then drain.

Remove the chicken from the pan and put on an oven tray, brush with some oil and sprinkle with the rest of the cinnamon powder and grill in the oven until the chicken is golden brown.

Add the rice to the chicken stock, stir, then let it cook on low heat until the rice absorbs the stock and is almost done.

Sprinkle rose water and lemon juice over the rice and place the butter pieces on the top. Cover the pan and cook on low heat for 30 minutes.

Serve the rice on a large serving plate and place the grilled chicken halves on the top.