We're sure learning a lot about the foods of the world, and we definitely have our favorites and our wouldn't-do-agains. Laura and I present to you the first of several rounds of the Noshies, our cheers and jeers for the foods we've cooked, eaten, and cleaned up after. Going forward we'll do these after every letter or two. Best cuisine: Argentina, runner-up Afghanistan
It's said that Argentina has no cuisine, only beef. But damn, that beef is amazing, simply salted and grilled indirectly with wood coals. Also, the flow, with round after round of grilled food, made for a really special dinner party. Afghanistan also made a great showing, with wonderfully balanced flavors, textures, and colors.
Best drink: Rakia (Albania), runner-up Armenian brandy
According to Rudina, our Albanian guest, rakia is used for pretty much everything, from fever to festival. With a brandy this smooth and delicious, I'd be willing to try. And amazingly, no hangover. Armenian brandy is also really nice, with a nice amber color and richness.
Best dessert: Pakhlava (Armenia), runner-up Anzac Biscuits (Australia)
Crispy, buttery fillo drenched in flavored sugar. Pakhlava was really as good as it sounds, and came out beautifully to boot. No wonder so many countries have a dessert like this! The Anzac biscuits were rich, well-balanced, and utterly addictive.
Best main dish: Asado de tira (Argentina), runner-up Tavë Kosi (Albania)
This is kinda like winning best film and best actor at the same time. And these cross-cut, grass-fed, wood-grilled ribs, crackly on the outside and rich and juicy on the inside, made a star performance. For the runner-up, we had a choice of several excellent lamb dishes; the yogurty goodness of the Albanian casserole came on top.
Best side dish: Borani Banjan (Afghanistan), runner-up Erdäpfelsalat (Austria)
Garlic and spices complementing tomato and grilled eggplant in this casserole makes for just about all you could ever ask for in a side dish. The potato salad, warm with a meaty, tangy sauce, made for a really lovely, simple dish courtesy of Austria.
Best condiment: Chimichurri (Argentina), runner-up Narsharab (Azerbaijan)
It's hard to imagine many things that could possibly improve slow-roasted meat, but this mix of garlic, parsley, vinegar and olive oil was a huge hit that we'll surely make again. In a very different direction, the pomegranate molasses is like one part sweet to two parts tangy, and pairs so well with lamb.
Best bread: Tendir choreyi (Azerbaijan), runner-up Nan (Afghanistan)
The so-called tandoori bread is on the flat side for an oven-baked bread, kind of like a ciabatta, with a great crust and spongy interior. The grilled nan was lovely, with yogurt for richness.
Worst dish: Escudella (Andorra), runner-up Vegemite on toast (Australia)
Sorry to any Andorrans, but this stew was a whole lot of nice rich ingredients that turned into an uninteresting bowl of weird meat chunks and like five types of grain. And Vegemite, the spreadable yeast extract, well, it was just pretty nasty, guess it's something you have to have grown up with.
Most difficult: Samani halva (Azerbaijan), runner-up Kaskasu bi'l-Lahm (Algeria)
Sprouting the wheat was tedious enough, but extracting the malty juice was really tough, and then I had to stir it for hours on end before it turned into a mush that I couldn't make into balls as the recipe called for. As for the couscous, the stew part was easy enough, but the recipe I followed for cooking the starch called for five hours of really tedious moistening and drying and raking with my hands, all for something that didn't seem to me a whole lot different from just pouring in boiling water and covering.
Most exotic purchase: Red palm oil (Angola), runner-up Armenian string cheese
Red and grainy and opaque and super-thick, with a distinctive nutty flavor, red palm oil was an avalanche of thick oiliness throughout the Angola meal. On the more fun side, the string cheese was not only a delight to unwrap and peel into strands, but it was also really yummy.
Most fun to cook: Aussie burgers, runner-up Funge (Angola)
This is probably the only hamburger I've ever seen that's taller than it is wide! Stacking up a fried egg, grilled pineapple, pickled egg, cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomato in an assembly line was a real blast. The funge, on the other hand, was just a unique experience, what with sitting on the floor and wildly whipping cassava flour and boiling water into a thick starch.
Best music: Austria
This one is ridiculously culturally inaccurate, but we had a really fun time singing along with The Sound of Music with Laura's family. (This photo is my mother-in-law's head on Julie Andrews' body.)
Best cultural activity: Peeling a pomegranate (Azerbaijan)
As Marsha taught us, at the end of a meal, it's great to linger with friends and family, and slowly peel and eat a pomegranate. You have to do it slowly to avoid squirting yourself with the staining juice, so it's kind of a forced relaxation.
Most pleasant surprise: Dough (Afghanistan)
Salty watered-down yogurt with cucumber chunks doesn't exactly sound very appealing to the Western palate, but I'll be darned, it was really pretty refreshing and not half bad.
That's the first of the Noshies! Stay tuned for the awards for the B's, probably sometime around late March.