Noshies: Best of the B's

From the Black Sea to Borneo, from the Andes to Arabia, we've visited five continents through the seventeen United Nations members beginning with B. We hereby present the second round of the Noshies, our wrap-up of what worked, what we ate, drank, didn't make enough of, and threw away half-eaten. Note that our experience is cumulative, there are inevitably repeated elements, and those won't be eligible — so although we had red palm oil in the B's, it's not going to win for "most exotic purchase" again. We're also shaking up the categories, getting rid of "Best Cultural Activity" since we don't consistently do those every meal, and changing "Most pleasant surprise" to the more relevant "Top repertoire addition."

Best cuisine: Bulgaria, runner-up Belgium

As a crossroads between Ottoman and Slavic cuisines, Bulgaria offers a tasty and rich, yet not overly heavy, cuisine that we just really loved. I think it helped that we were able to get the right ingredients such as truly tasty yogurt and cumin-spiced sausage. Belgium was also so tasty, with its famous mussels, fries, waffles, and beer.


Best drink: Krupnik (Belarus), runner-up Bissap (Burkina Faso)

The warm cordial of vodka, honey, and spices was so tasty, and fueled a really fun dinner with lots of old friends. It'll definitely make a re-appearance during a cold-weather parties in years to come. In a very different direction, the elixir from tangy red flowers with perfumey orange blossom and vanilla is so nicely tropical and refreshing.


Best dessert: Gaufres de Liège (Belgium), runner-up Guava duff (Bahamas)

This was my first true Belgian waffle, with a three-stage yeast rise, obnoxiously expensive pearl sugar, and way too much butter, and it was utterly amazing. The duff, on the other hand, was the slow but steady type, a lovely and rich steamed pudding spiked up with some rum sauce.


Best main dish: Shisanyama/Braai (Botswana), runner-up Fish stew (Brunei)

This makes two out of two Noshies where the best main dish came off the barbecue. Yet whereas the Argentinean grill was all about quality meat and natural fire, what did it for Botswana was the fantastic marinade and seasoning that made me regret not buying more meat. A big surprise in this category was the tangy, tasty, spicy stew that singlehandedly redeemed the otherwise bizarre Brunei meal.


Best side dish: Frites (Belgium), runner-up muhammar (Bahrain)

Even though it was annoying to cook on the stovetop and I didn't have the perfect type of fries, oh man these double-friend, tender yet crispy fries were just spectacular, especially with a bit of homemade aïoli. The sweet rice was also a real treat, with both fantastic flavor and texture that paired surprisingly well with fish.


Best condiment: Sauce d'arachide (Benin), runner-up Kajmak (Bosnia)

A rich sauce of peanuts, veggies, hot pepper and salty bouillon is so tasty slathered over just about any dish in the African repertoire, while a homemade, super-thick and tangy clotted cream is a sensation with the foods of the Balkans.


Best bread: Pão de queijo (Brazil), runner-up Belarussian dark rye

With manioc flour and lacking any form of leavening, these cheesy balls aren't exactly a traditional bread, but man it's tasty, especially straight out of the oven. The rye bread, with an overnight malting, a small amount of sourdough starter, and almost no bread flour, keep me on edge during the long rise process, but came out rich and beautiful and tangy.


Worst dish: Shokto (Bangladesh), runner-up Ambuyat (Brunei)

This veggie dish came out so unappetizingly bitter that I wonder if I did something really wrong. The ambuyat I know we screwed up, and I'm pretty sure we used tapioca instead of the sago palm starch we needed, and instead of bland and smoothly goopy it was plasticky and lumpy.


Most difficult: Bezar (Bahrain), runner-up Conch (Bahamas)

This mix of many spices turned out great as the crust of fried fish, but not before an hour of roasting on a big pan over the barbecue, and then nearly breaking my Cuisinart in grinding. The conch required a lot of boiling, then tedious and slippery peeling, and finally a good pounding, to be rendered chewable. (I should note that mashing the yam for Benin was a lot of work for Anna, but she handled it with such aplomb that it hardly looked like it was hard for her.)


Most exotic purchase: Cupuaçu (Brazil), runner-up Bitter melon (Bangladesh)

Cupuaçu is an Amazonian fruit, a relative of cacao that's rarely seen in the US, and I was thrilled to see it in the Brazilian supermarket. Bitter melon looks like a comically ugly cucumber, with tons of warts and ridges. Both, unfortunately, turned out to be pretty unappealing.


Most fun to cook: Salteñas (Bolivia), runner-up Boza (Bulgaria)

I've been getting into pastry a fair amount through this project, and the annatto-colored, Crisco-laden dough for these empanada relatives made for some of the easiest dough I've ever worked with. I also enjoyed that the meat filling was made with gelatin the day before, so it was both manageable while cooking and juicy after cooking. These B countries also marked my first attempts at home brewing, and while the ginger beer was sure nice, making a drink (and a halfway decent one at that!) out of millet and sourdough starter was just too fun.


Best music: Bulgaria, runner-up Burundi

We were simply unprepared to be so impressed by Bulgaria's hauntingly beautiful womens choirs and mideast-inspired chalga dance tunes with intriguingly syncopated rhythms — listen to the Spotify playlist. Burundi's music blends hip hop with traditional sounds, and spans several languages to make some music that's full of energy and melody — here's a YouTube playlist.


Top repertoire addition: Bhutanese red rice, runner-up Cashew apple juice (Brazil)

The only thing preventing this, Bhutan's only agricultural export, from being the next big thing might be the presumably limited supply: it cooks as quickly as white rice, but with the health and texture of brown rice, and such an appealing a fruity and nutty flavor. (Look for it at a Whole Foods near you!)I'm also surprised that cashew apple juice, made from the tropical fruit out of which the more familiar nut grows, isn't more of a thing: it's got a pleasantly rich texture and a distinctive flavor, and goes fantastically with rum or mixed into a caipirinha.


I'm proud to say we're right on schedule: in the Noshies for the A's I predicted we'd give our awards for the B's in late March, and here we are! We've got another 17 countries for the C's, from Cambodia to the Czech Republic. It's a riskier prediction with summer travel schedules, but I'll bet you a few rials or korunas that we'll get there in mid-October.

Noshies: Best of the A's

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.