Meal 131: Panama

For the second year, we invited everyone on the block for a late-summer Nosh. Laura got a permit to close down the street, neighbors brought over tables and chairs, and everyone sat down…just in time for the very first rain of the season to arrive!

Since most of what people know about Panama is its role in transportation due to its canal, it felt appropriate to be eating this meal in a long line in the street! It was also a treat to have the Smiths over from the other side of town; we were happy to have them crash our otherwise neighbors-only event because they lived in Panama and shared stories of living in the American community there.

A big thanks to the two dozen or so neighbors who showed up, both physically as well as for fundraising. It was one of our biggest meals yet in terms of money raised.

Patacones | Twice-fried green plantains | Recipe

Green or ripe, thick or thin or even lengthwise or diced, there’s pretty much no bad way to fry a plantain. But there’s an even better way: to do it twice. Some Caribbean countries call them patacones, others tostones, and all of them start by a quick one or two minute fry, then a smash, then a longer fry to get them crispy. Unlike the other countries, the classic Panamanian way to eat them is with ketchup on the side, a habit attributed to the Americans who built and for a long time ran the Panama Canal.

I figured they’d be popular, so I made nearly one plantain’s worth per person. Even though they’re of course best straight from the fryer, I made them all a bit before dinner and kept them warm in the oven, and nobody complained. They just asked for more.

Chicheme | Sweet corn drink | Recipe

This was kinda like Caribbean bubble tea: a fairly refreshing, milky, cinnamon-y beverage, studded with toothsome kernels of dried then boiled corn. It was fine, but most guests understandably opted for beer or other more familiar refreshments.

Sancocho | Hen soup | Recipe

Most recipes for this mainstay of Panama call for gallina de patio, which pretty much means the post-menopausal hen that’s tottering around outside of the house. It turns out that at both Hispanic and Asian markets, you can find stewing hens in the freezer, for pretty cheap too. (Pretty sure they’re from an environment a tad less prosaic than a rural patio, but we make do with what we can.)

The predominant flavor of the soup is meant to be culantro, a close relative of cilantro with a sort of earthier flavor, but I couldn’t find it so I used plenty of cilantro instead. The soup was tasty, but I should have cooked it even longer, because old hens are really tough. Maybe this would be a good one for a pressure cooker.

Arroz con guandú | Rice with pigeon peas | Recipe

Even if you’ve never heard the name, you’ve possibly had pigeon peas in Indian food; one of the most common dishes in that cuisine is the stew-like, yellow toor dal made with the dried, hulled, split version of the legume. In the Caribbean, it’s typically eaten fresh, though up here you get it frozen when possible and otherwise canned, which we did here. All the same, it’s got a beany flavor for sure, but with a bit of almost smokiness to it. Which makes it perfect to mix with rich coconut rice, as a hearty way to fill your belly and get some nice flavor.

Flan | Custard | Recipe

Flan is a thing pretty much anywhere the Spanish colonized. Usually when a dish is that widespread, you see different varieties and regionalisms evolve, but as far as I can tell, everyone who cooks flan pretty much does it exactly the same way and hardly ever with any flavor variation: a lightly vanilla-scented egg custard with a sauce of caramelized sugar.  (The only variations I’ve seen involve differing amounts of fresh and/or canned milk products.)

I put the request out for a neighbor to help make flan, and there was some confusion and suddenly we ended up with way too much flan. (There was one or two out of the picture!) They were all made with different recipes, and all tasted pretty much the same. The only variation was Holly’s flan cake, which added some much appreciated variety.

Meal 126: Oman

Out of the 193 UN members, Oman's the only one that begins with O. It sort of stands alone geopolitically, too. It's a lot lower-key than its Middle East neighbors, with neither the flashiness of other sultanates, nor the strife of some neighbors. On the other hand, Oman has a rich history given its strategic position at the mouth of the Persian Gulf: its traders plied the Indian Ocean for centuries, and it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that it finally relinquished its claim to Zanzibar off the Tanzanian coast. In fact, limon omani, the dried lime with a hauntingly earthy tang, was the creation of Omani traders preserving fruit they bought in Malaysia on the decks of their ships. It was Laura's birthday weekend, so for the third year in a row we had the meal on the Oregon coast with friends.

Recipes from Oman are shockingly hard to find online. Everything I cooked came from the book Food of Oman. I link to websites that have adapted versions of the recipes from this book where I can find them.

Chips Oman

Chips Oman is a commercial product with a strong devotion, apparently popular as a flavor and crunch factor in sandwiches as well as a snack. It's potato chips covered in a spice blend which features that limon omani as well as chili, salt, and a few supporting actors. I forgot to bring potato chips to the coast, so instead we had them on Juanita's tortilla chips, which was pretty darn good.

Mchicha Wa Nazi | Coconut creamed spinach | Recipe

This dish tastes like it's straight from East Africa, with little to no mainland-Omani reinterpretation. Yet it's a good thing: the mild flavor and creaminess makes for a good contrast with the bold flavors of the rest of the meal.

Marak dal | Spiced red lentils | Recipe

I originally decided to make this as a consolation to the vegetarians, but everyone agreed that this was a winner, with the flavors of this dish far richer and more complex than expected from a big lump of lentils. I think the process of cooking lentils separately from the onions and potatoes, and then combining them, leads to more distinct textures and flavors. Of course, all those spices sure help too.

Zanzibari biryani

Biryani, a richly spiced rice-and-meat dish that probably originated in India, one of my favorite dishes to eat, and one of the most challenging to make. Everything's cooked separately, and then somehow at the end you're supposed to assemble it so the rice stays perfectly fluffy while intermingled with the sauces and chunks of meats and the rest.

In this case, the cooking is even more complicated than I'd experienced before: the chicken is boiled and then pan-fried before being mixed into the richly spiced sauce, while the rice goes through an extra scenting with saffron-infused rosewater. But somehow the assembly came together, and all those spices — the clove that makes it Zanzibari, plus with cardamom and much more — along with the fresh lime and cilantro and crispy onions, made this by far the best biryani I've made, and one of the best I've ever tasted. If you are eager to make a biryani, and can get your hands on the cookbook, by all means do.

Sticky date pudding

Sticky toffee pudding is a British treat made with dates and covered in a sinful sauce of brown sugar and butter. It only stands to reason that a place that grows dates would make its own variant. This one was a little more cake-like, as you can see it was baked as a solid cake and then doused in sauce. Certainly not a classic birthday cake, but really tasty and incredibly moist.

Meal 120: Nauru

If you've heard of Nauru, it's likely because of the refugee detention center that Australia operates there. It's just about the only thing going on economically there, since the decline of the phosphate mines that briefly made the country the richest in the world per capita in the 70s. It's a strange and sad story, in which a small population decides to turn over most of the island to mining bat guano, making everyone on the island instantly wealthy with no reason to work, but the whole artifice crashes within a few decades as the phosphate dries up and the sovereign fund is woefully mismanaged. If you can believe it, one of the things that brought them down was an investment in an unsuccessful musical in London about Leonardo. While Leonardo did a whole lot of just about everything, now just about nothing (save for the detention center) happens on the island. Virtually all of the workable land was destroyed through mining, and the population gets by on foreign aid and leveraging its UN membership to trade diplomatic recognition for cash. (It's proven adept at playing Taiwan and the People's Republic of China against each other.) Anyway, the present reality of no farming, combined with the recent history of a taste for imported goods, means that the island's diet is limited and, frankly, unhealthy, as manifested in Nauru's inglorious status as the world's most overweight country.

Given how small the country is (just about 10,000 people), and how it pretty much has no cuisine of its own nor a tourism industry that might at least make a few local menus show up on a website, this was a really darn hard one to research. I ended up spending a lot of time scrolling through the "Nauru Wanna Buy/Sell" Facebook list and reading several depressing articles about poor nutrition. I have no idea how well I did with replicating what you might expect to eat in Nauru, but I sure did give it a shot.

Bringing a sense of obscure adventure to the table were Jon, Nicole, Annie, Will, Amie, Vincent, and his guest.

Coconut fish | Recipe

Despite the doom and gloom in the intro, it's not like all of the island's food traditions have disappeared. There are still coconut trees, and the seas still have fish in them, so like many of its far-flung neighbors, Nauru also serves tuna in coconut milk. Either you like it or you don't — the author of the recipe is definitely in the latter category. I found it a fairly unexciting way to treat raw tuna, but hey, I like raw tuna so I still liked it. If you're making this, if at all possible don't use canned coconut milk, as it'll taste tinny. Instead, find a coconut, shred it, squeeze it with a bit of warm water and use that milk. Or, be semi-lazy like me: buy shredded coconut from the freezer section of an Asian grocery, and squeeze that with warm water.

Spam fried rice | Recipe

I have to admit, I'd been looking forward to cooking this for a good long while. I've been told many a time that canned meat is a popular thing throughout the Pacific islands, a taste acquired from the rations provided by Americans during and after WWII, and of that, Spam is king. We even had canned corned beef in a Fijian dish, but it wasn't until this, our 120th meal, that we finally got our taste of Hormel's finest.

And I have to admit, with a grin both sheepish and impish, that it was super tasty. Fried rice is a pretty undeniably tasty thing, and the addition of crispy cubes of unnaturally spongy meat squares just made it all the better.

Lemon chicken | Recipe

Several sources say that most of the food establishments in Nauru cook Chinese food, and this one site says he had some good lemon chicken there once. Given how little detailed info there is online about the specific foods that they eat on the daily there, that was enough for me to go on. I have no idea how close to authentic this recipe was, but it was just as awesome as you would expect breaded and fried chunks of chicken in a thick and tangy sauce to be. Yum!

Pandanus tea | Recipe

I have no idea if they actually drink this in Nauru, but this recipe on a random site claims they do (see the pattern?), so I made it. As I've described in a few other Pacific meals' writeups, pandan leaf has the same nutty scent as basmati rice.

I had no clue of what to make for dessert, so given the indications of cheap-and-cheerful western foods, I went for mid-low-grade vanilla ice cream.

Meal 111: Micronesia

At 1 million square miles with only 100,000-ish people, the Federated States of Micronesia is both huge and tiny. (Obviously, almost all of that square mileage is ocean.) As with much of the rest of the Pacific islands, the traditional bland starches and simply cooked fish aren't the most stimulating cuisine. Micronesians have swung the pendulum far to the other side, with some really intense and novel uses of imported flavors. (Read below for what they do with ramen and Kool-Aid.)

There's precious little about Micronesian cuisine online. The two most useful sources I found were a few posts from this teacher's blog for traditional foods, and this astonishing account of some of the uses of modern foods on the island of Chuuk.

Along for the adventure were Emily, Jens, Molly, Will, Caitlin, Trish, Amy, Jordana, David, Michele, Emily, and guests.

Ramen snack "Recipe"

When I first saw that a common snack in Micronesia is dry ramen with its seasoning packet plus Kool-Aid, I thought it might have just been one person's crazy idea. But I read plenty more about the abundance of Kool-Aid, especially consumed in dry form, well, we had to try it. We tried various combinations: pork ramen with cherry Kool-Aid was best, and shrimp with tropical fruit was definitely the worst.

Kosrae soup

The island of Kosrae, where our friend Nathan did Peace Corps, is famous, at least throughout Micronesia, for its Sunday Soup. Below is a recipe, as given by LeiviaChenisa Situl in response to a Facebook post of Nathan's. You'll note from the photo that I included crab, because I saw clarified elsewhere that shellfish would work, and the crab was fresh at the market. Despite the simplicity, it was really quite flavorful.

Simple recipe. Boil your h2o first,bring up to boil then add the fish more better with bone for flavor for about 10-15 minutes and take fish out,make sure no bones in the stock and add on your uncooked rice cook all the way till rice cook and add on onions and salt and pepper and the last thing is coconut milk.


Half pot Fill 3/4 of the pot Fish- half fish or any meat 2 can coconut milk 1 onion salt n pepper with taste

Yapese taro salad

Picture a mayonnaise-based potato salad, but instead of potatoes, it's chunks of boiled purple taro. Pretty tasty, and the taro has a fun texture.

Rohtamah and kon | Pounded taro and pounded breadfruit with coconut milk | Description

The pounded taro with sugar and coconut milk, not pictured, was fine. The pounded breadfruit, pictured before being covered with coconut milk, was not. Never having had fresh breadfruit, I don't know if the overwhelmind blandness and mouth-drying texture came from being deep-frozen and potentially mishandled en route, or if breadfruit really is that unappealing. In any event, no more frozen breadfruit for me.

Sukusuk | Pounded banana with coconut milk

Straightforward and tasty, though yes, it's yet another mushy thing covered in coconut milk. The banana leaf made for a little variety in presentation.

Meal 107: Marshall Islands

For centuries, the fate of this Micronesian island group has been entirely subject to the machinations of much greater powers. Its very name, after an English explorer, was consecrated in maps by French and Russian explorers. It's been a territory of Spain, Germany, Japan, and the US. It saw major battle and deprivation in World War II, and was the site of enormous nuclear tests with all the destruction and long-term consequences you'd expect, and many displaced Marshallese who haven't moved to Arkansas (true story!) now live crammed on an island nicknamed the "ghetto of the Pacific." The Republic of the Marshall Islands is now an independent nation in "free association" with the United States, yet its future is very much out of its hands, as climate change now threatens to wipe these low-lying nations off the map in a way that war and nuclear testing couldn't. As you might expect from all this outside influence, the cuisine has absorbed some ingredients from elsewhere, but there still is plenty of food there that's stayed true to the place. It proved quite a challenge to figure out what to cook, since there aren't any Marshallese cookbooks or food blogs I could find, which is why you will see some of these recipes on discussion sites and other random places. This was actually a really fun one to research, as I learned a lot about life on these islands along the way.

Guests included Stephanie, Anna, Julie, Amanda, Terry, Geo, Bonnie, Audrey, and friends.

Banana coconut balls

I couldn't find a recipe other than vague mentions that this was a thing, so I simply mashed up some bananas with some sugar and coconut, and sprinkled more coconut on top. As far as I can tell this was roughly how it's supposed to be, and it tastes like you'd imagine: sweet, mushy, with the coconut holding it together.


Raw tuna. With onions. In...mayonnaise. Sounds gross, but actually tastes pretty darn good. The soft, fatty, slightly sweet and tangy mayo, the buttery and crumbly tuna, and the crisp and lightly pungent onion is the sort of thing you can really snack on while drinking a beer.

Roast pork Recipe

Pork is a pre-colonial fixture in Polynesia, and the traditional way to cook it is in an earth oven: dig a hole, line it with rocks, build a fire to heat up the rocks, let it die down, put leaf-wrapped meat on it, and bury it for several hours to let it cook through slowly. Now, I couldn't exactly go digging such a hole in our backyard, so I did this on the grill, and used a soy sauce and brown sugar marinade since that seems like the sort of thing that would go on. Only challenge was I couldn't find charcoal at the store, so I used straight up mesquite chunks. I don't know if it was supposed to turn out so smoky, but my goodness this beautiful, "barked" hunk of flesh turned out tasty.

Grilled fish

While Polynesian markets are spare in Portland (I know of just one), in the vicinity of SFO there's a gaggle of them. I happened to be in the Bay Area for work a few days before the meal with a bit of time on my hands and a rental car before heading home, so I stuffed my backpack with taro leaves and some other ingredients. Those leaves ended up wrapping some fish (I think I used mahi mahi) which I also threw on the grill.


I'm done with breadfruit, or at least the frozen chunks. They're just bland, dry, and mealy, with an unappetizing bit of crust, when I roast them as suggested. I hope to get my hands on a fresh breadfruit at some point, to see if that's really what it's like, or if I'm just making a mockery of this common food.

Rice-banke | Pumpkin rice |Recipe

Rice isn't a traditional food of Polynesia, but thanks to Asian influence (in the Marshall Islands' case, most likely the time as a Japanese colony), it's become quite popular. This dish, with steamed pumpkin and coconut milk, is one gloopy concoction, with a real stick-to-your-ribs aspect.

Pandan coconut ice cream | Recipe

Readers of previous posts will be familiar with my description of pandan leaf as the "vanilla of Southeast Asia," and this nutty-green leaf also flavors dishes across Oceania. (They also use the fruit of the tree for food, but good luck finding that in the US.) I'm not sure how common pandan ice cream actually is, but it's sure tasty, especially when you avoid artificial pandan extract (sold in Asian markets) and take five minutes to make your own with the leaves (also sold in Asian markets). Anyone who knows a vegan knows that coconut milk is a successful dairy substitute for ice cream; mixed with dairy, it takes on a more complex mouthfeel. This was a tasty one that went so quickly we forgot to take a picture!