Meal 88: Kenya

We've already enjoyed three meals from the Horn of Africa, but it's taken us until the K's to start into East Africa proper. It looks a whole lot more like Central African, though I'm happy and relieved to report that we found it quite a bit tastier.

As with so many former colonial countries, the borders of Kenya arbitrarily threw a bunch of tribes together. Accordingly, there's not exactly a national cuisine as such, but there are a few dishes that are extremely common throughout the country. So we made those collards and corn mush dishes, and rounded out the meal with dishes chosen from around the counties that stretch from the sea to Africa's highest mountain.

After our small trial run for Kazakhstan, we went big for this meal, taking advantage of our new, large dining room to seat twelve around two tables. Our guests were Hannah, Emily, Frank, Don, Chelsea, Sebastian, Craig, Laura, Kaely, and Brett. The first four arrived a half hour early, due to an error in my email, but they proved super helpful in the kitchen, as I'd once again misestimated the prep time in the dishes and was relieved to have a small army of choppers, stirrers, and washers appear! Thanks, folks!

And extra-special thanks to my buddy Walter, who lived in Kenya for several years, and gave me some excellent and very useful advice on what to serve. I love it when someone can distill the essence of a country's foodways and the culture around it — I still do plenty of research to support and understand, but the guidance and structure is invaluable.

Dawa | Vodka and lime with honey swizzle | Recipe

Dawa is the Swahili word for medicine. In this case, it's got the spoonful of sugar built right in, as this drink is essentially a caipiroska (vodka-lime-sugar) taken to the next level with a swizzle-stick dipped in honey. It's tart, it's sweet, it's boozy. And it's in my hand in the above photo!

Ugali | Cornmeal porridge | Recipe

Just about all of sub-Saharan Africa has some sort of mush as the bedrock of a meal. Kenya's no different. I read in a few places that a meal is considered incomplete without this simple mix of cornmeal and water, mixed so thick that you can stand a spoon in it, and then tear off clumps with your hand to use as a vessel for scooping whatever else is on the plate.

Sukuma wiki | Collard greens | Recipe

If you're the average Kenyan on an average day, that other thing on your plate is probably the humble, tasty, nutritious collard greens, simmered for a long time with maybe some onions, tomato, and a bouillon cube. The name means "to stretch the week," as in, it's the food you can afford to eat when your money's running out before you're next paid.

I was afraid I'd find it pretty bland, given that it wouldn't have the benefit of ham or bacon as done in Southern cooking. Maybe it's because this was some super fresh (and enormous! the leaves were like two feet long!) farmers-market collards, or maybe it's really that easy to bring good flavor with a few hours of simmering, or maybe the MSG in the bouillon saved the day. Whatever the reason, the greens were tasty and popular.

Nyama choma | Grilled goat

Some cultures, such as Chinese, bring romance and storytelling to the names of their dishes. So too with parts of Africa: Cameroon has a dish Poulet D-G, standing for directeur général, since the dish is considered so fancy and tasty it's fit for the boss. Not so much with nyama choma, which literally means "burn the meat." To be fair, that's pretty much all you do: once the meat's on the skewers, all you do is slather it with warm salted water every few minutes while letting the flames sear the outside and seal the tasty juices on the inside.

The meat in question here is goat. Several months ago, someone who I wish I could remember so I could give them the credit said, "Goat is like soccer: popular in most of the world, but not the U.S." Fortunately, it's not too hard to find in Portland. I biked in the rain to a Somali market up on Killingsworth, which offered me a choice of leg or shoulder — and we agreed that the latter is the better choice for kabobs. $5/pound including cutting into kabob size. In Kenya, the sale price would have also included free grilling with a place to sit in the back!

But who cares about what it's called or where I got it. The suckers were scrumptious, embarrassingly so given how little I had to do in terms of cheffing to get them on the table. I'm certainly doing this one again on a warm weeknight.

Kachumbari | Tomato "salsa" | Recipe

Mexican pico de gallo is a great foil for the rich meat on a taco. The East Africans pair their grilled meats with almost exactly the same condiment — fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, lime, chili — but it came to them via a completely independent and unlikely source: the English! Just as, in the Egypt nosh, we saw how they introduced a rice-and-lentil dish from India that transformed into the national food, they also brought an onion-and-tomato salad that became ubiquitous on the other side of the Indian Ocean. No point in reviewing: this really was exactly the same as how I'd make a pico de gallo.

Mchuzi wa samaki | Swahili fish curryRecipe

Whereas the grilled goat was the essence of simplicity, likely borne of the necessity of a nomadic lifestyle, this coastal curry shows off what you can do when you're in a tropical setting on the sea, with both the fish and the trading it entails. It gets its name from the coastal Swahili people, whose Kiswahili language has become the common language of much of East Africa. The dish was quite tasty, with a double-dose of turmeric imparting a pleasing color and a haunting flavor that brought zing to an otherwise simply flavored meal.

Muthokoi | Cracked corn and pigeon pea stew | Recipe

This dish of cracked corn and pigeon peas takes us back inland to the Akamba tribe of Eastern Kenya, and we're back to simple, earthy foods. I wasn't planning on making it, but at Mama Pauline's African Market, I got the two ingredients on a hunch that I'd find something to make with them. As you'd guess, this was a hearty and filling dish, with the flavor again coming from store-bought seasoning, a specific brand name called Royco. It's not even listed in the ingredients, and it's even written in lower-case in the recipe, that's how common the spice blend is. (Should you want to make this dish, you could use a bouillon cube, or look up "homemade royco" to find several variants. I can't remember which I used!)

Tea and cake

Walter, my buddy who'd lived several years in Kenya, gave me all sorts of specific and useful advice on the other dishes. But what he said about dessert cracked me up: "You MUST serve Bad Cake. It's effectively the national dish and national pastime. Kenyans love cake more than any people I've ever known, and they make cake worse than any people I've ever known also." This proved quite a challenge: how to make a cake that'd be intentionally bad? And bad in what way? Well, since I had a few gluten-free folks coming, I took advantage of the opportunity, and simply made a gluten-free yellow cake. Maybe it wasn't bad-to-Walter's-taste in the way Kenyans do it, but it definitely was, well, a gluten-free cake. To make the cake more Kenyan, I decorated it like the flag, which was easier and more fun than I expected.

A surprisingly nice start to East Africa, let's see how things go as we explore farther down the coast.

Meal 84: Jamaica

I was surprised to read in my research for this meal that a lot of Jamaicans wish they'd never gone independent from the United Kingdom, missing the economic stability and lower crime of that bygone era. It turns out that this tropical island, which on the surface is about as different as possible from that European one, has a fair amount more in common with it than you would think, at least through the lens of food. The patty, for instance, is probably directly derived from the Cornish pasty. The saltfish in the national dish was introduced through English trading ships, as was the quirky and beloved starch-on-a-tree, breadfruit. Even sorrel, that cheery drink, came on slave ships from West Africa. That said, it's held on good authority that jerk meat is a homegrown creation, and in fact allspice, found throughout the cuisine as mostly a spice for savory dishes, is native to the island.

Our guest of honor was Lois, from Jamaica! We also dined with Heather, Sarah, Brian, Chris, Betsy, and Christen. Despite the fact that it looks like I was pasted in the front there, I swear I was actually there, it's the lighting.

Planter's Punch

There's plenty of disagreement over whether this drink comes from South Carolina or Jamaica, but either way, this drink is a sweet, tropical refresher. Tropical juices and grenadine (which I made from scratch by boiling down pomegranate juice and adding sugar) hook up with dark rum and a dash of bitters, and voilà. There are as many recipes as bartenders!


The word in Spanish for the flower, and the rich red drink it makes, is jamaica. So I’m not at all surprised that the island with the same name loves to drink what we call hibiscus and they call sorrel. It’s got all the color and staining power of beets, with a fruity sourness reminiscent of pomegranate without the sweetness. Accordingly, when making a drink from the dried sepals, you sweeten it after a boil and long soak, and sometimes even add other flavors like ginger and clove. I made this one fairly tart, and Lois said she liked it that way, so hooray. Just be sure to not spill any on yourself or the stain will likely not come out! Goes very well with rum, by the way.

Saltfish and ackees | Recipe

While jerk is by far the best-known Jamaican food up here, the undisputed national dish is a breakfast food that looks like scrambled eggs but is made from an oily fruit and a salty dried fish. It’s curious that, even though they’re surrounded by abundant seas, the national dish is made from long-preserved fish from Canada, but colonial legacies will do strange things. At least the fruit is quite native: ackees look a bit like oversized lychees, but aren’t very sweet. So long as you remember to soak the fish overnight, the dish is a cinch to whip together, and tastes quite a bit better than it looks or sounds. I’d definitely eat this salty, moderately greasy, and tasty plate as a hangover cure.

Patties Recipe

A Jamaican patty is flaky, tinged yellow with curry, and traditionally stuffed with an allspice-heavy, moderately spicy ground-beef filling. I did that, as well as a vegetarian version with chorizo. As I continue to struggle with pastry, I gave up rolling out big sheets of the patty dough, and instead rolled out individual rounds, which was tedious but worked ok. The patties baked up nicely and were really quite yummy.

Jerk chicken Recipe

Once you’ve whipped up the off-white marinade, heavy with onions and the classic thyme and allspice, you’ll wonder how it’ll turn into that super-dark coating that you think of when you think of jerked meat. Well, it takes patience: first for the long marinade, and then the slow grill, but darken it will. It turned out so damn well: I’m sure part of it is due to having used tender local well-raised chicken, but that long marinade just took it to beautiful, spicy, flavorful places.


Ever heard of the Mutiny on the Bounty? The ship was on a mission from the Caribbean to the South Pacific to bring back samples of the tree that grows this big, fleshy, surprisingly bread-like fruit that was rumored to be super nutritious, as cheap food for slaves. It turns out the scaly fruit is kind of a health dud, and the slaves originally refused to eat it, but it eventually became a beloved part of the cuisine of the islands. It’s easy enough to cook: just roast it whole over fire (like I did) or in an oven (if that's more convenient), and cut it open. So what’s it like? Well, it looks like one of those smooth-skinned avocados blown up to several times its size, and tastes something between a banana and an artichoke. They’re kinda hard to come by — this was the fourth Nosh for which I looked in West Indian markets for breadfruit and the first time I got them — so if you happen to see it, do yourself a favor and give it a try. I doubt you’ll develop a craving, but you probably won’t hate it either.

Ice creams: Grape-nuts | Mango

Turns out Jamaica has a pretty big ice-cream culture, so for my final act before selling my machine, I whipped up a few frozen treats.

I was surprised as you probably are to learn that Grape-nuts ice cream is one of the most beloved flavors in Jamaica. (Weirdly, it also is in Maine.) I can see why: there’s something about how the malt plays off the sweet and cream, and the crunch in contrast with the soft, that’s just really delightful. The mango ice cream, with a squeeze of lime, was pretty alright too, though I think the chunks of fruit were too big and got kinda icy.

Meal 81: Italy

In the estimation of many, Italy is the true heart of Western gastronomy. France gets so much of the glory, but it wasn't until Catherine de' Medici of Florence married French King Henry II and brought her chefs with her that their cuisine set on the road to such lofty achievements. A major flaw of going one-meal-per-country is that even the most culinarily interesting and diverse countries only show up once. Well, except for Italian food — thanks to the Holy See (aka Vatican City, a permanent observing state) and San Marino (a tiny but full-fledged member), we essentially get three shots at it! (Oh, I guess thanks to Monaco we'll get French food again. Score!) But even then, there's so much variety across Italy owing to a wide diversity of climates and geographies; to name just one important distinction, the North tends to use butter and the South olive oil as the cooking fat of choice.

One great thing about this project is that there's always a theme for a birthday party. Italy marks Laura's third birthday nosh, after Canada and France. In a shocking break with tradition, I'm the one who took the group photo, so Laura's included! Surrounding her are Erin, Lisa, Anna, Alicia, Jessica, Kirsty, Sarah-Doe, and Elsa. Note the utterly empty bowl that once held pesto pasta.

Antipasti | Appetizers

Our pre-dinner entertainment was tarot card readings (tarot was invented in Italy, who knew?), so we needed an appetizer that didn't require formal service. Fortunately, Italian food has perfected the art of pre-dinner nibbling with the antipasto, literally, "before the pasta." The spread gave me the opportunity to represent preserved foods from around the country.

For meats, we had San Daniele prosciutto from Friuli in the northeast, richly spiced cacciatorini salame from throughout the north and central regions, and a spreadable, fiery 'Nduja from Calabria. I can't even remember all the cheeses, but they included a fresh sheep's-milk ricotta from Lazio near Rome, a delicious, medium-flavored snacking cheese called bra from Piedmont, and a truly distinctive cheese called formaggio di fossa, so named because it's buried in a pit and allowed to anaerobically ferment for a few months, making for a really pungent, sharp, and crumbly cheese. I also roasted some eggplant, chopped it up, and doused it with olive oil, garlic, oregano and salt to make a Southern Italian salad-dip-like thing.

Pane tipo Altamura | Semolina sourdough bread | Recipe

(Sorry there's no photo. Imagine a round loaf of bread.)

I was going to make a ciabatta, until I discovered that it was invented in...1982! So I went searching for an older one, and given my love of sourdough and alternative flours, I ended up with this bread from Apulia, which is known in Italy as Puglia. (Why does English mangle it? Some Anglicizations make sense, like Florence for Firenze and Naples for Napoli. But Apulia, as well as Genoa for Genova, don't seem to add anything.)

Since Roman times, the semolina-based loaf from this particular town has received wide acclaim, and I gotta say it turned out great when I made my best imitation. Moderately spongy with medium holes, a substantial but not overwhelming tang, a bit of nuttiness from the semolina and a crispy but not overly-thick crust made this one of the favorites I've ever made. The only downside is how long it takes to make it: 40 minutes, then 2.5 hours, then 2 hours, then a relatively long bake — something that can only be made on a leisurely weekend day. This bread went great with the antipasti, and the second loaf I made held up admirably for several more days.

Aperol spritz

We're not big fans of Negronis and those other classic Italian cocktails, Laura and I find them too bitter. But this, the famous apertivo of Venice, won our vote: three parts prosecco, two parts Aperol, one part soda, with ice and a slice of orange. Aperol is indeed made of some bitter things, but it's milder and sweeter, and when paired with the dry bubbly, it's just lovely and refreshing.

Pasta fresca all'uovo con pesto alla genovese | Fresh pasta with basil pesto | Recipe

In a proper Italian meal, the primo piatto, the first plate, is generally pasta or soup. Uh, duh, pasta please.

I can't believe I'd never made pasta until now, and it was just as fun and satisfying as folks had told me it would be. With something so simple — it's just flour and eggs — the ingredients are extremely important. I used Italian Tipo 00 flour, which is milled super-fine, which helps it cook faster and also not require as much hydration (hence no added water beyond the moisture from the eggs), leading to a softer texture. The eggs came from the farmer's market. Making up the dough (pasta means paste, as in dough) was easy enough, the laborious part was cranking the sheets of dough through ever-narrower settings on the (borrowed) machine, carefully dusting each layer with flour to avoid them sticking.

Pesto means "pestle," as in the thing you use with a mortar to mash something. Fortunately, the Cuisinart has eliminated the tedium of mashing basil, garlic, grated hard cheese, pine nuts and olive oil with pieces of stone, so this classic Ligurian sauce came together in just a few minutes. Sharp from raw garlic, rich from abundant oil, and fresh and aromatic from basil, the pesto played so well against the soft, mildly eggy canvas of the fresh pasta. There was nary a noodle left after just a few minutes.

Involtini di manzo in salsa di tomate | Beef pinwheels | Recipe

In Northern Italy, meat is traditionally more abundant, and meat dishes are often straightforward hunks of flesh. In the poorer South, meat is treated as more of a luxury good, whose flavor is to be stretched by blending with complementary ingredients. Perhaps an illustration of this distinction is the two meanings of the word braciole: to northerners it'd be medium-thick slices of meat, to southerners it's meat slices pounded thin and stuffed. The latter, which is also universally known in Italy as involtini or "roll-ups," is what we had for a main course. I made it Sicilian-style with breadcrumbs, grated cheese, raisins and pine nuts (ironically, the pine nuts were far more expensive per pound than even the grass-fed beef), held together with a toothpick and browned all sides until cooked through. With the pan juices, I built up a tomato sauce, then put the involtini back in. The great thing about this dish is you can cook ahead of time, and reheat in just a few minutes. (It's also pretty yummy cold!)

Cassata ricetta mia | Sicilian layer cake, my way

A birthday party needs a cake, right? The cassata, probably Italy's most famous cake, is made with sponge cake soaked in rum, and layered with the same sort of creamy spread you find in cannoli. The recipe I found looked cool because it uses a layer of marzipan lined with chocolate to give the thing body; I half-managed to layer the pan with the rolled-out almond paste, but spreading with molten chocolate was a disaster and it all clumped up. I changed course by mushing it all into a layer of chocolatey marzipan, and used that as a layer of the filling. Another layer was sweetened ricotta cheese studded with chocolate curls. Candied fruit is a traditional part of the cake, but Laura doesn't like it, so I kept a corner clear for her. The cassata was rich and delicious, but be warned that whatever recipe you follow is going to be a whole lot of work.

Gelato di cioccolato | Chocolate gelato | Recipe

Drop the mic, put a cork in it, closing time, etc. I shall no longer search for a chocolate ice cream recipe, because there's no way anything could be better than this gem, which comes to us by way of the beloved goddess of Italian cuisine, Marcella Hazan.

What's all the more astonishing is that it's so rich and sumptuous, yet as a gelato contains no cream. So why's it so rich and tasty, and smoother than any frozen dessert I've ever made? Surely the blend of rich cocoa powder and melted semisweet chocolate rounds out the flavor, but the trick is in a dash of caramel that you whip up in a pan on the side and pour into the custard right as it firms up.

We went through roughly a bottle of Italian wine apiece, plus the Aperol Spritz. The recycling collectors must think we're lushes with very particular regional taste in wine.

Meal 79: Iran

We say that with a Nosh we aim to cook a meal appropriate for a special moment or celebration, so it's great fortune when the calendar aligns with a festival — and even greater when it's the biggest of the year in the country. Persians have been celebrating Nowruz, the festival of the spring equinox, for millennia, and specific foods play a central (and delicious!) part of the rituals. Nowruz felt to me somewhere between Passover and Thanksgiving, a holiday tightly linked to many specific foods with imbued meaning. Helping us through this ancient tradition was Sophia. She brought many of the elements of the haft seen, the traditional elements; helped cook some of the dishes; and provided moral support by insisting that Iranians are very inventive so every little mistake or forgotten item wasn't a big deal and could be creatively substituted. We also got useful menu-planning help from Arya. Thanks to you both — and to everyone who pitched in to help serve, clean, and otherwise help out.

As with the India meal, we noshed at a rented space, so we could accommodate twenty people, including Laura's dad, Lyall! I must say this one went more smoothly than India, mostly because I learned the lesson to not cook too many dishes at once.

I should also note that I broke with my habit of using recipes found online. Everything I cooked is from Najmieh Batmanglij's Food of Life, which offers not only clear and tasty recipes, but also history, culture, and even fables to bring fuller context to the meal. Where possible I've linked to either the exact recipe I used, or found something similar.

Sofreh haft seen | Display of the seven "S's"

The next best thing to the way Sophia explained the arrangement is from Wikipedia:

  1. Sabzeh - (Persianسبزه‎)-wheatbarleymung bean or lentil sprouts growing in a dish - symbolizing rebirth
  2. Samanu - (Persianسمنو‎)-sweet pudding made from wheat germ - symbolizing affluence
  3. Senjed - (Persianسنجد‎)-dried oleaster Wild Olive fruit - symbolizing love
  4. Sir - (Persianسیر‎)- garlic - symbolizing medicine
  5. Sib - (Persianسیب‎)- apples - symbolizing beauty and health
  6. Somāq - (Persianسماق‎)sumac fruit - symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
  7. Serkeh - (Persianسرکه‎) - vinegar - symbolizing old-age and patience [we didn't have any so we used wine!]

Moreso than a seder plate, there are many popular traditions of extra items to add to the core. The variation I can think of, and the only one the Wikipedia page on the seder plate lists, is an orange. In fact, one of the haft seen variations involved an orange — but floating in a bowl of water, representing the Earth in the universe. (I guess Zoroastrians didn't believe the Earth was flat?) Another common tradition is a goldfish, representing both life and Pisces, the astrological sign whose time ends on the spring equinox and hence the end of the year that Nowruz begins. According to Sophia, you'll see a goldfish in many Persian households in spring and summer, as a houseguest that arrived on Nowruz. Since neither she nor I could commit to a goldfish, we didn't get one.

Persian Rose cocktail

Alcohol is forbidden in Iran, but the place has a long history with drinking. After all, Shiraz, that inky wine, is named after a Persian city.

This cocktail is a lovely way to build a drink around rosewater. The gin stands up to the strong aroma, the cherry liqueur adds color and roundness, and the lemon of course brings the tart. (We couldn't find sweet lemons anywhere, so we balanced with some extra lemon and also a bit more sugar.) With a rose-petal float, it was quite the classy drink Laura whipped up!

Doogh | Yogurt-mint drink | Recipe

At Kalustyans, I found an artisanal Persian strain of yogurt, "slightly tart with a light saucy consistency" as the good folks at White Mustache Yogurt say. It cost $6 for a one-cup tub (!!), but now that I know how easy it is to make my own, I turned it into a whole gallon more. (And then some! I've since made more batches with the same strain that are just as good.)

We first enjoyed this drink with the Afghan meal, but I have to say I like the Persian version better, minus cucumbers and plus seltzer, and with this silky-tart yogurt as opposed to something lumpier. I might even whip this up again in a few months when I'm seeking relief from the heat!

Nan-e barbari | Buttery flatbread | Recipe

In Iran, like so much of the world, few people bake at home, and rather let someone else deal with the toil and the heat. But I like baking bread, and other than lavash it's just about impossible to find Persian-style breads here. I particularly enjoy working with a dough that has oil in it — it's easier to work with, the goopiness is kinda fun, and of course the end flavor is rich. Since I cracked my pizza stone a while ago, I cooked the breads one at a time on a metal griddle in the oven, which definitely worked to get the bread crispy, but also ended up charring the cornmeal that accrued after several loaves and led to a bit of a smoky condition. Oh well, the bread worked great, and was a fantastic companion for the cheese.

Sabzi khordan | Cheese and herb platter

Making a fresh cheese isn't quite as easy as yogurt, but it's far from impossible. In fact, the hardest part was that I just didn't have enough cheesecloth, so I ended up employing several coffee filters and mugs to strain bits of the curds, finally putting everything back together once enough of the whey had strained out. I'm not sure if I've ever had a cheese made with lime juice before, and the result was delightfully tangy. (I'm having trouble finding a copy of the recipe online, but you should be able to find a substitute. Basically, farmer's cheese made with lime juice and with some nigella/kalonji thrown in.)

With this platter we see the first of many appearances of herbs in the meal, which Persians love year-round and especially for the rebirth and freshness they represent for Nowruz.

Ash-e reshteh | Legume, herb and noodle stew | Recipe

This rich yet healthy stew of beans, lentils, herbs and noodles is as indispensable a part of Nowruz as the turkey is to Thanksgiving. An abundance of fresh greens — parsley, spinach, dill, green onion — of course makes this dish representative of springtime, while the dried legumes and buttermilk (traditionally of a variety that's dried for long-term storage) acknowledge that heartier fresh fare is yet to arrive. But most symbolic is the noodles, which you eat to "symbolize the choice of paths among the many that life spreads out before us."

But enough about embedded, how does it taste? Really good. I used a rich chicken-and-lamb broth which lent a lot of depth, and made the legume base the day before, so there was a lot of concentrated flavor. Tangy yogurt (I left the dried buttermilk at home!) and fresh herbs brought zing and aroma, and the garnish of garlic, turmeric, mint and olive oil made sure the first few bites woke up the palate.

Sabzi polo va mahi | Herbed rice with fried fish | Recipe

If Ash-e reshteh is the equivalent of turkey, then this fish-and-rice dish may as well be the cranberry sauce in terms of relevance to the holiday. (Nowruz is celebrated over the course of two weeks, so there's many meals for fulfilling the traditions.)

The rice is cooked in the peculiar Persian style: basmati rice washed five times, soaked in salt-water, vigorously par-boiled in more salt-water, drained, and then formed into a pyramid on top of a crust-base, then steamed in the residual moisture for a good long while. Let's back up to that crust-base, known as a tahdig: Persians expect that the bottom of their rice will be crispy and caramelized, so it's common practice to make a layer of oil plus something to crisp up (lavash, potatoes, yogurt) at the bottom of the pan. A gracious host will give the best crispy pieces to honored guests. The sabzi polo, or herbed pilaf (polo, pilaf, same thing!), takes this concept and layers in lots of herbs plus saffron water. I accidentally put all the saffron water on the rice, rather than reserving most for the fish as the recipe says, but I rather like the way the heavily saffron'd rice turned out!

The fried fish is simply pan-fried, though optionally dusted with some intriguing flavors, such as the turmeric and cinnamon the book calls for. I went with striped bass in filets, though you could do any white-fleshed fish and having it cut into steaks is perhaps more traditional. Either way, it's a tasty dish with crispiness all around between the fish and the tahdig!

Kuku sabzi | Frittata with herbs and walnuts | Recipe

Here eggs, that incomparable symbol of the circle of life, make a bold appearance, accompanied by two other favorite Persian ingredients, walnuts and barberries. The berries, known as zereshk, are so tart you don't really want to eat them straight, but once soaked and sautéed they're ready to balance the eggs and the herbs. Those walnuts add some crunch to what we'd expect to be a thoroughly soft dish. This is also the only dish with essentially zero flour I've ever seen that uses baking powder, which indeed serves to leaven the frittata all the more.

Samanu | Sprouted wheat pudding

Unlike a Passover seder, most of the items on the haft seen spread aren't eaten, but this pudding made of sprouted wheat is the exception. Yes, it's yet another manifestation of growth and rebirth — but also transformation. Samanu takes days, and a lot of labor, to make: you need to sprout whole wheat kernels for a few days until it gets a bit sweet thanks to malting, grind them up with water, extract every little bit of flavored you can by pressing through a sieve, and then comes the really tedious part of stirring this malt-water with flour over a super-low flame for several hours until it thickens and caramelizes. I wouldn't say the flavor is amazing, but considering the only ingredients are wheat and water it's sweeter and more complex than I'd have imagined.

Sholeh zard | Saffron pudding | Recipe

This ancient dessert is so important to Perisan culture that it's the first of many dozens in the Food of Life cookbook — continuing our metaphor, maybe it's like the apple pie of Iran. It's a fascinating blend of a classic peasant technique for stretching food — simple rice cooked in a lot of water to make it more filling — with some of the most expensive ingredients like saffron and cardamom, making it at once comforting and exotic. A healthy dose of rosewater helps make it special for ceremonies and holidays, the butter makes it stick to your ribs and banish any possibly remaining hunger, and the cinnamon and nut decoration makes a feast for the eyes, too. This dish was super tasty and just about all of the enormous batch was eaten, but keep in mind it takes a long time to cool so make it well in advance of serving.

Bereshtook-e nokhodchi | Chickpea cookies | Recipes (though I'd use butter/ghee rather than oil)

This turned out to be really similar to the burfi I made for the India meal, shortbread-like, semi-sweet, lightly oily squares. Whereas with the Indian version the butteriness came from ground cashews so the dairy was dry milk, in the Persian version it's the chickpea flour that's dry, and ghee brings the moist fat. In both cases it's little more than mixing with powdered sugar (with a splash of rosewater to make it indelibly Iranian), rolling it out, and cutting it up. Easy, and tasty.

Meal 78: Indonesia

Indonesia's all about the islands. It's got over 17,000 of them, including large parts second- (New Guinea) and third-largest (Borneo) islands in the world. It also has the most populous island — at 141 million people, Java's population is about the same as Russia's, in 133 times less area! While it's generally not much on our radar from a geopolitical or cultural standpoint, it's played an important role in world, and culinary, history. For millennia traders from the West have sought its spices, and who knows how long it would have taken a European to make it to the New World had there not been the urge to find an easier route to the pepper, nutmeg, and cloves of Molucca, the Spice Islands? Curiously, spices don't have a particularly bold role in Indonesian cuisine today, which instead leans more on roots like ginger and galangal, and chili peppers, which ironically were first brought out of the New World by Columbus as a next-best-thing for not having found black pepper and found their way to Indonesia via the Portuguese. (They brought peanuts, too.)

Joining us for the meal were Erika, Claire, Iris, Ben, and Michelle.

Arrack punch | Recipe

Indonesia's best-known liquor was actually a lot better known a century ago. In that pre-Prohibition age of punches, this sugarcane-and-rice firewater clocking in at 50% alcohol was a mainstay, a touch of the colonial and exotic. As a predominantly Muslim country, Indonesia has little drinking culture (Bali is a notable exclusion!), but this recipe, with limes and freshly grated nutmeg (which is native to Indonesia), seemed appropriate. Laura made them cold and strong — there's nothing but ice, simple syrup, and lime juice to cut the alcohol!

Tumpeng nasi kuning | Yellow rice mountain | Recipe

The tumpeng is more than a cone of rice representing the country's mountainous terrain. It's the sign of a celebration, as important to many Indonesian families as a cake is to a Western birthday. It's also more than just the rice itself, because it always comes with an assortment of foods that make up a feast, at the whim of the host. It's this intersection of tradition, symbolism and flexibility that's led it to recently be named the primary national dish by a government agency.

This recipe looked great, but turned out not so good. Soaking with fresh turmeric overnight didn't make it as richly yellow as a quick douse of the powdered version would have, and the instructions to boil, covered, on high for 20 minutes led to burnt rice sticking to the sides so hard it took a week of soaking to get off. Fortunately, though, most of the rice turned out well, and as you can see, made for a pretty cone — which I formed with a chinois, a pointy strainer.

Krupuk | Fried crackers

These things start out as these little wafers of sun-dried tapioca starch with flavoring, but as soon as they hit oil, they puff up, with a texture somewhere between a Cheeto and meringue. You can buy them pre-fried in a bag just like chips, but it's so fun and easy to make them. You can even make them completely from scratch, but alas, without much sunshine to speak of, I resorted for store-bought. I made two versions: garlic, and fish, the latter being not a wafer but more like a nest of noodles.  The savory-fatty-crispy contrasted the strong, sweet punch quite nicely.

Satay ayam madura | Chicken skewers with peanut sauce | Recipe

I couldn't have been happier to fire up the grill for the first time this year for this tasty treat, popular throughout Indonesia and Southeast Asia. You start by making a peanut sauce, a complex thing of beauty, with peanuts fresh roasted on the stove, blended with intense flavors like shrimp paste and cayenne peppers. Then skewered chicken goes through two marinades: first a bath in sweet soy sauce and chicken fat rendered with garlic and ginger (YUM), then halfway through cooking a basting with peanut sauce, more sweet soy sauce, and lime — all that fat and sugar make for some flare-ups, and it was dark and cold out so it was hard to test for doneness, so I just cooked it low and slow until crispy. My only regret through the whole thing is that I didn't buy more chicken; the tasty, mildly sweet, caramelized morsels disappeared in seconds.

Urap sayur | Blanched vegetables with coconut dressing | Recipe

For whatever reason (sanitation?), Indonesian cuisine has many cooked salads. Vegetables I'd be happy to eat raw, like bean sprouts, are blanched or steamed before being dressed. While gado-gado, with a peanut dressing, is probably the most famous, we have plenty of peanuts going on in other dishes. An urap, with a sweet-sour-spicy flavored coconut dressing, is more common on a tumpeng platter.While I enjoyed the flavors dressing, the blanched veggies weren't quite my thing, though some others at the table said they liked the whole thing quite a bit.

By the way, this was by far my easiest coconut-extracting experience. I did my usual thing of whacking on the equator a few times with the back of a cleaver, and not only did it crack nicely and easily to open, but the flesh also separated almost effortlessly from the shell. Usually it takes a good ten to twenty minutes to pry it off. Did I do something right? Did I get lucky with this coconut? I'd love to understand what happened so I can repeat the success.

Rendang daging minang | Caramelized beef coconut curry |Recipe

Rendang is a strange and clever technique for making meat last at room temperature for weeks. You start with enough coconut milk that it looks like you're making a soup, but you keep it on a low boil for hours until all the liquid evaporates, and you end up with a sort of fried meat. (This isn't the first time I've seen this technique — the oil down from Grenada, in particular, also cooks a stew down in coconut milk until it's nice and thick.)

 The Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, who have a centuries-long tradition of travel and trade, invented the dish for their journeys, and then spread the love wherever they landed, so now it's a popular dish throughout the region. Today, with decent refrigeration, packaging, and supply chains, there's no need to spend long hours making this complex dish, except that it happens to be extremely tasty — kaffir lime leaves, star anise, lemongrass, and a host of chilies and aromatic roots combine for a really luscious dish. The beef, which starts out as an extremely tough cut like shank, melts into nothing until it's the texture of tuna fish. And all that coconut milk — the fat makes the dish rich, and the residual sugars caramelize! Yum.


Tempe orek | Stir-fried tempeh |Recipe

Tempeh is Indonesia's homegrown soy product, based on fermentation with a particular fungal spore whose white vegetation forms a white mass that holds the beans together. (If that sounds gross to you, I recommend you not research how cheese is made.) While in the West we tend to use it as a vegan substitute for ground beef, Indonesians tend to treat it as the Chinese often do tofu, cut into cubes and stir-fried until crispy. This recipe uses a straightforward sambal of quick-cooked garlic, shallots, chilies and galangal, made into a thick sauce with palm sugar and kecap manis, a sweet soy sauce. (Kecap is pronounced pretty much like "ketchup," and that's no coincidence — it's a long history, but our tangy, thick tomato condiment can trace its history back to Southeast Asia.) The result is quite tasty, with moderate spice, and very healthy for vegetarians and vegans as it's loaded with B vitamins.

Sambal teri kacang | Fried dried anchovies with peanuts | Recipe

This dish is about as intense as it sounds: super-fishy, crunchy, and with that sweet-sour-spicy base we've seen repeated a lot throughout the meal. It was a bit of work to soak and then dry the anchovies, but I'm glad I did because otherwise they'd have been way too salty. Fun to munch on, but you don't need to make much per person unless you need something to snack on with beer.

Setokeng | Warm ginger broth with floating treats |Recipe

Whether warm or icy, most Indonesian desserts are a sort of half-drink, half-soup full of assorted nuggets. This one is a wintertime comfort, a sweet ginger broth playing host to a grab bag of delights both floating (bread, peanuts) and sinking (tapioca pearls, palm fruit), topped off with a drizzle of condensed milk because why not. It's a bizarre texture combo, ranging from fall-apart mushy to chewy to crunchy, but I found it surprisingly nice and comforting on a cold evening.