Saturday, May 1, 2010

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Butter and salt for your tea, sir?

Butter tea is not just a name, it is actually butter in your tea. While most shiver in disgust at just the thought, Tibetans will happily chug them happily all day long with a salt shaker ready in hand. Butter tea, Po Cha, is unique to the Tibetans and serves a purpose: the fat from the butter gives a lot of energy and much-welcomed warmth for your average Himalayan.

It's definitely odd for a foreigner. Traditionally, the signature-tasting yak butter is rancid and an acquired taste, as travelers' tales enthusiastically confirm. Putting it mildly, even the author of Seven Years in Tibet wrote in his memoir, "My first contact with it... affected my stomach most disagreeably."

Salty butter tea, served in Sherpa Restaurant, Amsterdam, "but with Hollands' butter", beamed the host.

Tibetans have long been fond of tea since early trading with China in what is known as the Tea for Horse Caravan Route. Traditionally, black tea is used, boiled until very thick, added with a little milk and yak butter (or yak ghee). Yak butter is very prominent in Himalayas but very hard to find elsewhere (strictly speaking, there is no such thing as yak butter; a yak is a male, while the female equivalent is a nak).

The nak (female yak) is a great source of milk for Himalayans; however, its butter smells rancid for foreigners.

Then it is churned in a special equipment called dogmo for hours. The longer the churn, the more effort, the better it tastes. Nowadays expatriate Tibetans will just use a blender with Lipton and regular butter. Even in Tibet, while many households have scarce equipments, they still have a yellow Haier blender just for butter tea and reserve the dogmo for special occasions (reference).

Churning butter tea happily the traditional way, and the way most Nepalese families do at home.

Instead of sugar, salt is added to the tea (a practice not unique, see e.g. Mongolian milk tea, Kashmiri salty tea). Too much salt and this tea isn't thirst quenching at all - perhaps that's why they drink 40 cups a day and tea refills are a given in Tibetan joints. I'm not disgusted by butter in the tea though it was off-putting. But, I wonder whether it is healthy to be drinking saturated fats in ghee all day long, even though it is claimed to aid digestion, promote a healthy cardiovascular system, cleanse the body of accumulated lactic acid and rejuvenate inner strength. You can literally feel the butter coating on your lips (note to self: next time, to prevent chapped lips, make butter tea). I can spot an addiction when I see one: drink enough rich butter tea, it could be so comforting that regular tea would taste, oh, so bland.

Monks just looove their butter tea.

1. Butter Tea on Wikipedia [1]
2. Making Tibetan butter tea: Po Cha [2]
3. Butter or worse [3]
4. Tibet handbook: Tibetan Tea [4]
5. Tibetan tea in The Story of Tea [5]
6. Tibetan Butter Tea [6]
7. Not quite Nigella: Himalayan Salted Butter Tea[7]
8. A comprehensive history of butter: Butter through the ages [8]

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Got my red and green Mojo working

Mojo (pronounced "mo-ho", not the folk magic "mo-jo") is a popular sauce originating from Canary Islands, thus becoming fond memories for tourists returning from Tenerife, Gran Canaria or Lanzarote. It starts off with garlic, cumin and extra virgin olive oil. Then it's decision time: red peppers for Mojo Rojo (fiery versions also known as Mojo Picon), or cilantro for Mojo Verde. One says red goes for everything, green pairs with fish, but you'll secretly still enjoy it if you got them mixed up. Mojo is versatile.

Mojo Rojo (left) or Mojo Verde (right) for papas arrugadas? Recipes here and here.

The simplest and most famous Canarian dish is the papas arrugadas (literally wrinkled potatoes) with mojo. The potatoes are boiled in obscenely salted water (traditionally seawater) that as a rule, if the potatoes do not float, it doesn't have enough salt. The salt then crystallizes into a thin layer and should wrinkle the potato (but not so much on mine, maybe I was still shy on salt?). My question was then which mojo works best with the potatoes.

Half a cup of salt - still not enough?

Mojo is supposed to be extremely heavy on garlic. I love garlic but this was very overpowering, but general recipe consensus confirms that you do use an entire bulb of garlic to make a cup of mojo. I had to spend a better part Googling for ways to reduce the sharpness of garlic - most answers go around adding bread, lemon, water, sugar, or just mixing with a new ungarlicked batch - or some others dismissing the idea of too much garlic entirely (e.g. Is there such a thing as too much garlic?).

Green cilantro, green bell peppers - green mojo for the Poached Salmon Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette (recipe)

The two mojos present very different directions of flavors with the garlic, cumin, red wine vinegar and olive oil base. Mojo rojo, with paprika and cayenne, is spicy and gives a good kick to liven up the rather bland potato, while mojo verde, with cilantro and parsley, gives a fresh, tangy summery taste, and as expected, works great with poached salmon. Although I'm a huge fan of cilantro, for the record, I prefer mojo rojo for the papas arrugadas.

Birds of the island, not island of the birds

It took a sauce to teach me that Canary Islands are not named after the birds - but the other way around. The Romans named the islands Canaria Insula after the large number of wild dog ("canis") inhabitants. The native cute birds were recognized as trade potential by the Spanish, who build a monopoly by only selling male canaries to Europe. That is, until an unfortunate shipwreck set canaries loose in Italy and ruined business forever (read the entire story about the wild Canary bird).

Mainland Spanish cuisine are integrated into Canarian cuisine, with additional ingredients like banana and New World imports like avocado and papaya. There are remnants of the indigenous Guanche population, like their staple of kneaded toasted cereal called gofio (source: Iberian foods, All About Spain). Canarian foods have a stronger influence from North Africa, which results in a hotter palate, like the mojo picon.

Christopher Columbus stopped by Canary Islands before heading to the New World (images from St. Catherine's Primary School.)

For a small group of islands, Canary Islands played a good role on global cuisine. Being an important port to the New World, they were instrumental in bringing spices to the New World: cumin and coriander. Cumin is an ancient spice but lost popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages, except in Spain (source: Wikipedia, Food History). It was introduced to the Americas by Spanish colonists. Coriander was brought in in 1670 and was one of the first spices cultivated by early settlers. Later on, emigration from Canary Islands to Central and South Americas spread the mojo all over the continent.

1. Spanish Regional Cuisines: Canary Islands [1]
2. Mojo (sauce) from Wikipedia [2]
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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In search of Kitfo, and everything raw beef

Upon a request, I was on a mission to try Ethiopian food. Ethiopian is not a rage yet in Europe, but we did manage a table in one of Amsterdam's establishments. They serve the traditional Ethiopian platter - thick meat and vegetable stews (called wot) with sourdough pancakes (called injera). Injera doubly functions as side dish and spoon - you rip a chunk of the spongy injera and scoop a handful of wot. But the signature dish we were in pursuit was Kitfo, spicy minced beef served totally raw. Bacterias be damned.

An array of Ethiopian wot (stew): zegeni (lamb), kelwa (beef), spinach and goat's cheese, chickpeas, kitfo (minced beef), alecha (vegetable), zebhi dorho (chicken in red sauce); surrounded by injera (sourdough pancakes)

To our disappointment, however, in the end we got cooked kitfo - the default here while raw ones must be preordered. I have erroneously assumed other way around. Apparently, this is restaurant policy to not scare customers away. At least I had tartare before, so it's a matter of extrapolation to combine the soft, velvety texture of raw beef with the hot kitfo flavor. Even if I missed on eating raw, I had enough to start my Kitfo and raw beef research.

Ethiopian (and Eritrean) cuisine separates itself from Mother Africa. Due to the highly mountaineous region, Ethiopia was relatively isolated because trade and invasions were limited (flat plains, on the other hand, provide little resistance and allow little dumplings to travel across a continent).

The various meat and vegetable wot have a similar base, the berbere - a rose-red hot spice mix including cardamom, ginger among others, dried from some of the hottest peppers available. Surprisingly, the star of our night isn't Kitfo, nor any stew, but instead the edible plate injera. Made out of teff, an Ethiopian grain which is a good glucose-free substitute for bread, this spongy sourdough absorbs lots of sauce. When you finish your injera, you finish your meal.

The real, raw kitfo. Courtesy of Firman.

Kitfo is simple to describe: minced raw beef marinated in mitmita (another very hot chili powder spice blend) and niter kibbeh (clarified butter similar to ghee infused with spices). In the Western world, cooked kitfo is common, as one says, "It is cooked. Unless I know you or if you are Ethiopian, I cook it for you." Mitmita interacts the meat, acting like a beef ceviche, and - Kitfo eaters would love to believe - kills bacteria (see: are chiles really antibiotics?).

Ethiopians have more raw beef dishes (here's more Ethiopian food at Another national dish is gored gored, cubed (instead of minced) beef unmarinated and rolled in spices. Tiré Siga is high quality prime red meat (beef, goat, camel), freshly carved and dipped into lemon sauce and berbere. They should satisfy your inner lion.

Bizarre Foods - Raw Meat in Ethiopia

Eating like lions

Of course, raw beef isn't something that extraordinary around the world. The Tartare - minced, commonly with onions, capers and egg - is one well known and enjoyed in many variations in France, Netherlands, Germany to Poland, but many others exist. Here's a non-exhaustive list:
  • Koreans have yuk hoe - matchstick sized with soy sauce, black pepper, sesame.
  • Dutch have filet american - ground beef, similar to tartare, used for sandwiches.
  • Chileans have crudos - Chilean version of tartare.
  • Lebanese have kibbeh (though commonly lamb) - minced with bulgur, olive oil and seasonings.
  • Turks have cig kofte - minced with bulgur like kibbeh, shaped as meatballs.
  • Italians have carpaccio - thinly sliced, served with pine nuts and parmesan.
  • Japanese have gyuusashi - raw beef sushi, preferably from Kobe beef.

Raw beef around the world (links to source): French Tartare, Italian Carpaccio, Korean Yuk Hoe, Lebanese Kibbeh, Turkish Cig Kofte, and Japanese Gyuusashi.

Kitfo is often dubbed the "Ethiopian tartare" for simplicity, but historically it has no relation. Its origin is from warriors of old. True to a famous African proverb, "If you are in hiding, don’t light a fire," the warriors eat their meat raw to not give away their position. Curiously, this tactic is not applied in elsewhere - other armies care too much for well-cooked meals.

Meanwhile, tartare has a fanciful, though untrue, tale of being a culinary invention of the central Asian Tatar people. The legend goes that Tatars (who, in turn, have a dubious story of originating from the horrifying 'trrtrr' sound of charging horde of horses), or commonly grouped as Mongols, used to tenderize raw horse meat under their saddle while galloping on their horses. (see the history of steak tartare). The method then spread westward where it reached Russia, then eventual trade to Germany. It is here that the story converge with the other story - when Hamburg started to produce minced raw beef (of which some were cooked and inserted between two buns) but became en vogue in France.

Genghis Khan: ruler, emperor, general... experimental chef?

However this story is disputed (see Raw History of Steak Tartare and Steak Tartare wasn't part of Khan's territory), instead the meat under saddle technique was less culinary but more for comfort of both the horse and the rider's buttocks. Some of the worst meat was chosen, and after a day of dirt and horse sweat, it doesn't quite depict the "fresh" label that accompanies steak tartare today. While Mongols were bloodthirsty invaders, even they boiled everything - and drew the line on uncooked meat.


1. Ethiopian cuisine in Wikipedia [1]
2. [2]
3. Stranger in a strange land (good read) [3]
4. Africa cookbook: Ethiopia [4]
5. The history of Steak Tartare (pdf, and plenty of tartare recipes) [5]
6. Steak Tartare wasn't part of Khan's territory [6]
7. The raw history of steak tartare [7]
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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Mole, mole, mole

Who wouldn't love to melt chocolate, even for a sauce over chicken? Mole poblano begins innocently, as you put in chilies, tomatoes, onions, nuts, raisins, and so on... then bam, into the mix comes chocolate and it becomes peculiar yet delightfully sinful. Chocolate lends to the thick, sweet and rich sauce known as the pinnacle of Mexican cuisine.

Turkey with Mole Poblano (recipe)

Of Moles and Menu

Mexican cuisine is too often misrepresented by Tex-Mex cuisine. People eat tacos, burritos, enchiladas and think that they have conquered most of the Mexico menu. In truth, authentic Mexican has plenty of varieties, divided at least into six main culinary regions: The North, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Yucatan. Each region has a distinct proportion of influence from European (Spanish, French and Italian) and pre-Columbian (Incan, Mayan) civilizations.

Meanwhile Tex-Mex is only a fraction of Mexican cuisine with adaptations - for instance, its extensive the use of cheese, especially cheddar, and the abundance on meat. Mexican cuisine does not use cheese. In pueblos, diets are concentrated on beans, rice or corn while fat intake are subtituted by cheaper means, such as avocados. See differences between authentic Mexican food and Tex-Mex food.

Mole (simply, sauce) is arguably the crown of Mexican cuisine - although guacamole (avocado sauce) is the only one well-known outside of Mexico. The most famous amongst the hundreds of moles, because of its striking use of chocolate, is the Mole Poblano (Puebla being its origin). Traditional moles are dauntingly complex to make, requiring an incredible number of ingredients - 30 ingredients are not unusual, and legendary moles are known to use 100 ingredients. While it is not technically difficult, it is painstaking to individually roast chiles, nuts and seeds. The almonds, chili, seeds etc. then are melted together into what I would call a yummy supernut.

After a day of roasting anise seed, coriander seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, almonds, pumpkin seeds, the final (and most enjoyable) stage is the melting of the chocolates.

Among the many ingredients are the chiles. Different moles require different combinations of chiles, each presenting its own flavors (smokiness, hotness, fruitiness, etc). I'm unfamiliar with all these varieties, and what also confused me was because dried chiles have new names. I've wondered what chipotle is, but its just a dried version of jalapenos. Chilaca in its dry form is pasilla, while chile poblano can be dried into ancho (if ripened) or mulato (if unripened). Here is a good list of chiles, chilis, chillis in Mexican Cuisine.

Food for the gods

Who invented this idea? Was it the Aztecs? Any conversation about Mole Poblano will eventually lead to the history of chocolate. Actually it wasn't the Aztecs, although they consumed the prototypical chocolate - a bitter, spicy drink the conquistadors deemed undrinkable, accidentally invented 3100 years ago as a celebratory beer-like beverage. This "food for the gods" was treated with high reverence - chocolate drunk by Montezuma was valued even more than its disposable golden goblets. It was not used for flavoring, the same way communion wine is not used for cooking.

Montezuma drank 50 cups of chocolatl a day. From Larry Gonick cartoons.

Also, cooking with chocolate would have been very expensive - cocoa beans are also highly valued as money. In 1513 the prices were: 4 cocoa beans for a rabbit, 10 cocoa beans for a prostitute and 100 cocoa beans for a slave (note: 30 years later, inflation brought the price of a rabbit to 100 cocoa beans). Here is a nice compilation of the history of chocolate.

Instead, the mole poblano was made by improvisation of less glamorous beginnings. In one version, 16th century nuns in Puebla, having nothing to prepare dinner for the Archbishop, simply threw everything into a pot, including chocolate. They simmered it over hours and basically, crossed their fingers. See History of Mole Poblano. Thankfully the Archbishop was tolerant of new, strange flavors or otherwise Mole Poblano would not have grown into Mexico's national dish.

1. Making pollo en mole poblano with Chef Miguel Ravago of Fonda San Miguel [1]
2. Mole Poblano: Mexico's National Food Dish [2]
3. Food Timeline FAQs: Mexican & Tex-Mex foods [3]
4. From aphrodisiac to health food: A cultural history of chocolate [4]
5. Mole Poblano Sauce [5]
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Monday, April 20, 2009


Is pisto a mushy ratatouille, or is ratatouille a pisto with aubergines? Both are a perfect stew of fresh summer vegetables and a fantastic celebration of the season. They are both staples in the home kitchen, although the French ratatouille nicoise gained exposure from a Disney rat, while Spanish pisto manchego is described internationally as the "Spanish Ratatouille".

It's summertime, time for pisto manchego! (recipe)

What makes one a traditional Spanish or French dish? At the very least, they both agree that it must include onions, garlic, bell peppers, courgette (zucchini) and lots of fresh tomatoes, otherwise it's a different dish. The French version however insists that aubergines (eggplant) are integral, while they are not a strict requirement for the Spanish. But many Spanish grandmothers would swear by using aubergines in their pisto, so would that make it ratatouille?

I found pisto to be more of a sauce than a stew, where the tomatoes and aubergines melt away into a paste and the courgettes tender. Ratatouille is more a stew and an interplay between tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines. Cooking pisto is seemingly more relaxed - just chop and stew, while some ratatouille recipes require meticulous preparation - deseeding, peeling and/or individual cooking. The flavors of the vegetables are more discriminant, like the one the rat cooked in "Ratatouille a la Ratatouille".

Pisto lets the vegetables cook in their own juices with little or none accents of basil or oregano, while ratatouille may use various French herbs such as basil, marjoram, thyme, etc (see: herbes de Provence). But herein lies the problem with popular, traditional food: there are thousands of variations and no single "true" recipe. While some might say, pisto and ratatouille are like apples and oranges, I bet there are many proven pisto recipes that veer dangerously close into ratatouille territory, and vice versa.

At least we have the egg. Pisto is often served with a fried or poached egg, while not many ratatouille does - some French purists would quickly disapprove it. Commonly the egg is poached on top of the stew, a technique I also used while cooking chupe. I wonder if this is a Spanish thing. They sure love eggs.

When hungry, 87% Spaniards think of eggs. Ask Salvador Dali.

1. Pisto and Ratatouille - It's a Spanish-French Affair [1]
2. In praise of pisto and a perfectly balanced meal [2]
3. Pisto Manchego with Eggs [3]
4. Pisto on Wikipedia
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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Everybody loves jerk

It doesn't take much to be a "must-cook" plate of food: Give the name jerk chicken, and I'm already busy trawling the Web for more stories. The Jamaican jerk sauce is fiery hot and bursting with spices. The fire comes from the devil-hot Scotch Bonnet peppers, and the seasoning is a clever mix which features the pimento, also known as all-spice.

Jamaican jerk chicken (recipe) with festival.

The name jerk comes from the Quechua word charqui (dried meat), and related to the familiar term beef jerky. The technique of smoking meat was brought by Africans and later used by Arawaks using local Caribbean ingredients, originally for the modest purpose of keeping flies off the meat. The smoky flavors works wonderfully with the spices.

Pimento, the spice of all spices

The star spice is the pimento, the dried unripe fruit of a plant version, which looks like peppercorn. The name always confuses me because there is also the succulent pimento bell pepper. In Portuguese, pimento is the bell pepper, pimenta is the spice. In English, pimento can refer to either. It's just like the term Indians.

We can call it by the other names, Jamaican peppers or allspice (I think this is the proper English name). But I like pimento better - it sounds more fun. Allspice got its name because it tastes like a combination of flavors like nutmeg, pepper and clove. It's used extensively in the Caribbean, and to some extent in Europe and Middle East, but almost none in Eastern Asia. It is the only spice that is exclusively grown in the Western Hemisphere.

It has a share in history too. Pirates of the Caribbean used it by for boucan, barbecuing anything from fish, pigs, feral cats to turtles. Presumably the strong smell of pimento masks the taste of bad meat used by the ungourmandy crew. So the story goes, the pirates who make boucan for provisions become known as buccaneers. Now, if there's one spice associated with buccaneering, it should be pimento, not something delicate like lavender.

Peppers, evil little peppers

The other trademark of the jerk sauce is the fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers. These peppers are popular in Caribbean cuisine, like Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago. I had to substitute that with Madame Jeanette peppers which is Surinamese and has a more fruity flavor. They carry the same heat - an amazing 250,000 in the Scoville scale which measures chili intensity. Usually peppers I use like Thai pepper (cabe rawit) is around 75,000 while cayenne pepper is 15,000. Not sure how to understand the scale in human sensory terms but it's an impressive number nonetheless.

In my quest for looking for Scotch Bonnet peppers, I found that the hottest pepper is the Indian Naga Jolokia, with a whopping score of 850,000. So obsessed are these heat aficionados that they experiment crossbreeding to produce even hotter chili peppers (I can picture an Indian scientist, after creating the world's hottest pepper, screaming, "It is being alive! It is being alive!")

Madame Jeanette, substitute for Scotch Bonnet peppers. Damn hot.

I hesitated to put six of these little devils for four servings, but I always try to follow the most authentic recipe available. It turned out hot, but not overwhelming hot. Then again I have been conditioned with chilies lately from one of my latest experiment, the Bhutanese "chili curry" Emma Datschi.

Mise en place for jerk sauce, including pimento, pepper, nutmeg, ginger, lime, thyme, cinnamon, olive oil, orange juice, sugar, soy sauce (see complete recipe).

The result following this recipe was a success, it was very tasty. The burnt sugars in the sauce made it rather black, but it is easy to scrape off to reveal juicy chicken underneath (remember to baste it now and then). The overall pimento taste was prominent in the palate, it's hard to individually distinguish the additional cinammon, cloves, and nutmeg added. Even then, next time I won't skimp on the spices. Usually you can look for a "simple" version and a "sophisticated" version of the recipe to get an idea which spices are essential. But from the numerous recipes I looked at, you may reduce the heat but never reduce the variety of spices. You need them all: pimento, peppers, nutmeg, ginger, lime, thyme, cinnamon, etc.

Jerk chicken, festival, rice and peas!

With the quantity of jerk chicken made for two meals, I paired them with two different side dishes. The first one is festival, a sweet flour-and-cornmeal dough, fried in oil. Again, the name festival is too good to pass up. I'm a sucker for some catchy food names. The festival is very sweet, it contains lots of sugar and vanilla.

The next day, we had rice and peas! The name may be unassuming, but the mix is really good. The rice and peas have contrasting textures and the coconut milk adds richness. It is also scented with Madame Jeanette peppers.

Jerk chicken with rice and peas (recipe)

The two different pairings felt like two different concepts. The jerk chicken with sweet festival felt like a big between-meals snack, like hot dogs. The festival is great to be dipped in the jerk sauce. I'd say without sauce it may be too dry. Meanwhile, the jerk chicken with rice and peas feels more like a hearty dinner. I give a slight nod to the rice and peas. Both are great, but I felt the combination works just a little better there.

1. Jerk chicken recipe from Jamaican Travel and Culture [1A]; Festival [1B]; Rice and peas [1C].
2. Jerk chicken from Simply Recipes [2]
3. Allspice from Encyclopedia of Spices [3]
4. Allspice from Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages [4]
5. Chilies from [5]
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