Meal 128: Pakistan

Pakistan was, until 1947, part of India. While the intention was to create a new country for Muslims, the dividing line was in many ways arbitrary, ill-informed, or simply doomed, given that religious communities intermixed plenty. In particular, the huge state of Punjab was split in two. Then, millions of people moved across the lines in both directions (or died in the attempt) to the country that reflected their religion. Both of these factors explain why Pakistani food seems so similar to the North Indian food we know: they were once the same country — in fact, much of the Indian food in the US is Punjabi style — and many immigrants brought foods from other parts of what's now the Republic of India.

This meal fell during Ramadan, which posed both an opportunity and a challenge. I was excited to have a guiding principle, since the food after the fast is often ritualized. But the challenge was the risk of offense by indulging in all the post-fast treats without observing the fast itself. Several Muslims assured me not to worry, and in fact a Pakistani member of the US Embassy's staff in Islamabad graciously gave me plenty of advice on what to prepare. (Thank you Erin for the connection!) In addition to the below recipes, we began the meal with the traditional fast-breaking food: dates.

Our guest of honor was Kal, a previous Nosher, who was born in Afghanistan but spent a decade as a refugee in Pakistan before coming to the US. We also had Katherine, Carlo, Marsha, Robert, Chie, Lyall, Eileen, and friends.

Rooh Afza | Sweet drink

This is the fast-breaking drink of Pakistan. It's a commercial syrup that's mixed with water — what's known in British English as a squash — and much improved with lime. (Some mix it with milk.) It's was a completely unfamiliar flavor sensation, a blend of all sorts of fruits, herbs, and spices with the most recognizable note being rose. It wasn't really my thing but I can see this sugary drink being extremely quenching after a hot day with nothing touching your lips after sunrise.

Fruit chaat | Spiced fruit salad | Recipe

Some cultures have figured out that bold spices are a fantastic complement for fruit. A shake of Tajín, a Mexican blend of chili, dried lime juice and salt, perks up mango, pineapple, and just about any other fruit or raw vegetable. In Morocco, they often serve orange slices with cinnamon. And now we here have Pakistan's contribution to the genre. The blend is more complex than the others I've seen before, with elements of sour, salty, pungent, and minerally. It would certainly perk up less-than-perfect fruit, but when it's really good and in season like here, it's pretty tasty and addictive and a failsafe appetite stimulant. 

Dahi bhallay | Black gram fritters in yogurt sauce | Recipe

From a Western perspective, what's curious about this dish is how the fritters are soaked in water after frying. Why let all that great crisp go? So they can absorb the yogurt and tamarind dressing that makes them oh so tasty. This dish is quite a bit of effort with the frying, so it's not the sort of thing I'd just go about making on a weeknight, but it was a flavorsome treat.

Sai bhaji | Spinach and legume stew | Recipe

This straightforward curry is a staple of Sindh, the province of southeastern Pakistan. It's pretty straightforward to make, a stew of greens, tomatoes, a mild amount of spice, and lentils or split chickpeas. Unfortunately, I felt like what came out was kind of what went in: it was perfectly edible, but just not terribly exciting, and it's unclear to me if I did something wrong or it's simply meant to be that way. There's no doubt, however, that this is one of the most nutritious dishes I have cooked for a Nosh!

Karahi gosht | Goat simmered in tomato sauce | Recipe

This recipe calls for mutton, and in the Subcontinent, mutton means goat. (Not the meat of mature sheep, as in the UK.) I like goat, and good goat can be hard to find, so I ended up buying an entire goat from a small-scale butcher. I used two legs for this meal; the rest is in the chest freezer.

Now, to the dish. This one was a winner! A really straightforward, low effort technique — simmer the meat until it's cooked, then put in sauce stuff and let it cook until tasty. You don't even have to toast spices or do any other tedious prep, just dump and simmer. Even though it ended up more liquidy than pasty like it should have (was my yogurt too runny, or tomatoes too watery?), the flavors were excellent and bright and I oughtta make this one again.

Mutton nihari | Goat stew | Recipe

I couldn't decide which goat dish to cook, so I made both. If you're only cooking one, choose the other. The nihari was totally fine, but despite all the spices, turned out sorta plain, which was a disappointment after cooking for half a day. As with the saibhaji, I'm not sure if there was an error along the way, or that's just how it's meant to be.

Chicken sajji | Slow-roasted chicken with spiced rice | Recipe

This recipe represents Balochistan, a mostly arid province bordering Afghanistan and Iran. This dish is a whole lot more like what I know of Gulf cuisine, with the animal roasted rather than cooked in a sauce. What's more, the rice is parboiled, which is a technique I associate with Persian food. (A stickler will note that rice in biryani, a pinnacle of Indian cuisine, is similarly boiled hard until nearly done. I will rejoinder that, in fact. biryani is of Persian origin.) Anyway, I loved this. Cardamom, vinegar, dried pomegranate, and even dates all feature, and make for one scrumptious whole.

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 67: Ghana

When I asked for fermented cornflour at Owa Afrikan Market, the kindly shopkeeper replied, "Kenkey? Oh, that's from Ghana. We're a Nigerian store!" I didn't have much better luck at Diaby African Market, which is run by shopkeepers from Cote d'Ivoire who are equally friendly but equally devoid of kenkey. Just as I'd begun to grow a bit fatigued of what seem to be a limited range of very common African staples -- smoked fish, palm oil, cassava, yam, plantain, peanuts -- I was so happy to discover first-hand some real regional variation that I quickly overcame the disappointment of not finding what I was looking for. (Plus, as you'll see below, I got creative and found my way around it.)

Our guest of honor was Jessica, whose family is from Ghana and spent several years there. She cooked up some amazing spicy plantains! Also on hand were Anthony, Angad, Melanie, Christen, and Ignacio.

Shito | Dried shrimp pepper sauce | Recipe

In addition to being a word that makes any English speaker giggle, shito means hot pepper. It also refers, by synecdoche, to any spicy sauce, whether fresh or preserved. The fresh version, on the right, is so simple as to not require a recipe (onion, tomato, hot pepper, salt, pepper, food processor, done), while this one is both more complex and also not as spicy, as the bulk of the volume is actually pungent dried shrimp. As far as I can tell, this condiment, which can also go by the confusing name "black pepper," is like the ketchup of Ghana. It goes well with dishes made of red palm oil and other strong flavors, adding both depth and zing, but I made the mistake a few days later of adding it to a French-style braised chicken and that wasn't the beset combo.

Kenkey | Steamed fermented corn dumplings | Recipe

Since I couldn't find the pre-fermented cornflour, I had to figure out how to make it myself. The traditional method is to simply mix some cornflour and water, leave it for a few days, and let the naturally-occurring yeast and bacteria in the air land and multiply. Unfortunately, whenever I've done that in New York, whatever lands on the surface makes it smell like bad cheese and taste worse. But I had an idea! The recipe I used for injera suggested using a sourdough starter to give it the right microbes, beating the stuff in the air to the punch. So I mixed in a bit of my sourdough starter with the corn, and the next day, I had delightfully sour corn mush. After that, I followed the recipe to heat the mush and then steam it, though I might have cooked it too long because it came out rather firm. A nice, tangy starch that's different from the usual fufu!

Grilled Tilapia Recipe

Similar to what I made for the Cote d'Ivoire meal, I slashed up some tilapia, marinated it with an onion-chili-ginger mixture, and grilled it up. The flesh didn't turn out as well and kind of came off the bone as much rather than firm flesh. Maybe I didn't have the grill up high enough. But it was definitely tasty, and went well with the kenkey.

Palaver Sauce | Spinach stew | Recipe

Why this stew of greens, red palm oil and peanut butter is named for the Portuguese word for a discussion or a talk is the subject of much speculation and no conclusion. It's stranger still to me because the core ingredients show no influence of European or new world foods. In any event, I made this with spinach rather than trying to make a hard chunk of long-frostbitten greens work, and used the ubiquitous dry-smoked fish for flavoring. Happily, I also have an African basil plant growing in the back yard, which Jessica confirmed is the right seasoning for this dish. This strongly-flavored and -textured stew had a good foil in some grilled yam.

Kelewele | Spicy plantain bits

Ignore anything I said above and just concentrate on this part. I followed Jessica's instructions to get plantains with blackened skin, they were so ripe I had to keep them outside to avoid keeping the fruit flies inside! She showed up with a marinade of ginger, chili, and citrus, cut the plantains into little pieces, and marinated them. Then she fried them to within an inch of burning, so they were so amazingly sweet and caramelized yet still gingery and tangy and a bit spicy. This was by far the hit of the meal!

Jessica also brought a delicious ginger drink. Once again, thanks to her for making our meal so special and authentic!

Laura apologizes for the quality of the photos, the lens she normally uses for food photography needs repair.

Meal 22: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Upon stepping into the EuroMarket at 31st Street and 30th Road in Astoria — and residents of Queens wonder why we make fun of their street naming! — I was assaulted by the smell of smoke and meat, from bins labeled suho meso, which a quick search on my phone confirmed is Bosnian smoked, dried beef. I agonized for several minutes over whether to cram a kilo sack of Bosnian flour into my bag, and decided to go for it, since it was labeled at Type 400, which another search revealed is a soft pastry flour that would make for a better burek. A six-pack of Bosnian beer here, two bottles of Herzegovinan wine and some Croatian plum brandy there, ground meat, homemade clotted cream and sundry other ingredients later, I was laden like a pack mule for my three-train ride home.

We had quite a full table tonight. Many of our guests came from The Moth, Laura's workplace: Brandon brought his roommates Eric and Nicole, David brought his wife Anna (to whom he proposed in Bosnia!), and Aditi put in an appearance before finishing her internship. We also enjoyed the company of Jeff and Elly, as well as Mark who'd recently been to Bosnia's neighbor Macedonia and brought some potent liquor. Very present in absentia were Snezan and Neely, who helped a ton with the menu and shopping suggestions, but couldn't make it tonight.

Big thanks to everyone for schlepping over from Jersey, the Bronx, and Prospect Heights!

Ćevapi | Beef and lamb kabobs | Recipe

As far as I'm concerned, if you want to make a ground meat kebab (aka kefta), look no further than this recipe. The blend of two meats makes for rich flavor and lovely texture, the overnight wait lets the flavors permeate, and the soda water makes it fluffier or something. One modification I made, based on several sources I read, was to replace the salt and pepper with Vegeta, which seems to be the ubiquitous Balkan equivalent of Mrs. Dash.

Ajvar | Red pepper and eggplant sauce | Recipe

A delicious sauce/dip/spread of roasted pepper, eggplant, onion, and garlic, whose sweet and tang makes for a classic contrast with the meat. If you make this recipe, and I hope you do, two notes: it yields more than a half gallon so don't hesitate to shrink it if you don't need that much ajvar, and be generous with the roasting time since the extra time in the oven to get the veggies good and blistered will spare you at least that much when it comes to peeling the skins.

Kajmak | Clotted cream

This is apparently the result of slowly boiling unpasteurized milk, carefully collecting the cream that gently cooks and collects on the top, and then aging it. Several pages mentioned that homemade was far superior to storebought, so I was delighted to see a so-called homemade version at the store. (It was also double the price of the more commercial looking version so I'll believe them!) I'm not sure how close to authentic it was, but it was sure yummy, slightly tangy with a beautiful thickness.

Somun | Flatbread | Recipe

As you can see from the photo, this bread was not flat. I think I let it rise too long, and didn't start it on high enough heat. But whatever! It looks like an explosion from a manga in glutinous form, and it also tasted really good with the meat and spreads. Next time, if I'm starting the bread on the early side I'll try to remember to use a little less yeast.

Rakija and šljivovica | Brandies

Mark's rakija (grape brandy) and my slivovitz (plum brandy) made for several delicious rounds of shots. Živjeli!

Pita zeljanica | Spinach and feta pie | Recipe

One of the Ottoman Empire's enduring gifts to humanity is the borek, the great empanada of the sultans. A fun Balkan twist on this stuffed-dough genre is to spiral it up like a snail. In Bosnia, the term borek generally applies only to the meat-filled version, whereas the broader name is pita. I chose this version to add some greenery to the meal. I also made the dough from scratch, with that soft Bosnian flour, which was really smooth and rolled out super big. I thought it turned out really nicely: a crust with just enough flavor but neither too crispy or too chewy, and a filling that was fully cooked and tasty. Paired nicely with a big scoop of yogurt.

Tufahije | Stuffed baked apples | Recipe (in translation from Croatian)

Blessedly, the most distinctive Bosnian dessert doesn't involve pastry or bread. It's baked apples, but the technique is a bit of a twist: you boil the apples first in a light syrup, stuff the apples with egg whites and walnuts, bake them off, and simmer down and sweeten the syrup. Add a dollop of whipped cream, and you've got yourself a treat.

Thanks to our guests for their generous contributions to the World Food Program, which will make for a $220 donation, our biggest yet for a single meal. Next week we're heading 4,800 miles due south to Botswana, whose cuisine has at least one point in common: dry-preserved meat. More on that soon!

Week 4: Andorra

Andorra's cuisine is built around the sorts of things that go well in its high mountainous environment: meat and winter-hardy vegetables in stews. In other words, exactly the wrong thing for a humid New York summer. But the weather tried its best to comply: it's been raining sheets all day.

Precious little of neighboring France or Spain's spectacular culinary traditions rubbed off on mountain-ringed Andorra over the centuries. The food is, dare I say it, pretty bland: you won't find any seasoning beyond salt and pepper in these recipes. The stew didn't even have a bay leaf.

Not surprisingly, then, it's little wonder I had a tough time finding good recipes for real Andorran food. My journeys took me to two primary places: Andorra's tourism website, and the sites of others who felt compelled to cook Andorran food, including two others who are doing their own alphabetical gastronomical world joints. So, word up to My Hungry Tum and Global Table Adventure!

What the food lacked in pizzaz, the company made up for in preciousness: our dear friends Jens and Molly, who moved away to Portland last year, were back in town and came to dinner. We also enjoyed the company of Padraig, Sophie, Mike, Kate, and Gina.

Pa de Pagès amb Tomàquet | Rustic loaf rubbed with tomato and garlic | Recipe (in Spanish)

I wanted to learn what kind of bread they eat in Andorra, which took me nowhere. So I searched for "Catalan bread," since Andorra shares a language and a culture with Catalonia so I figured that'd be close enough. But, all you get when searching for that is Pa amb Tomàquet, the famous tomato-rubbed bread. Nice, and yummy, but what do they actually rub that tomato on? A search for [catalan bread -tomato] yielded the answer: Pa de Pagès. I was thrilled to learn that it's a sort of sourdough with a "mother dough" that can be made overnight, and doesn't rely on spontaneous environmental yeast. (Given our proximity to the Gowanus Canal and a major expressway, I shudder to think of what that would be.)

As you can see, the bread turned out quite beautifully, a shocker given that I used the recipe in Spanish and converted all the weights to volume. It didn't get as crunchy on the crust as I'd have liked, but that's probably because I didn't have the wooden banetón to bake it in and had to make do with what I had. But who really cares, because once rubbed with garlic and tomato and drizzled with olive oil, it made quite a nice appetizer.

Escudella | Stew | Recipe 1, Recipe 2

How lucky I am to be a few minutes' bike ride from a great butcher, because this recipe put them through their paces. Veal bones? Black pudding? Ham hocks? No problem! In terms of calorie-loading, it's a no-holds-barred stew, with at least four different animals (depending on what went into the sausages) and three grains (or four, if you include beans). But what a lost opportunity for flavor! How I wish I could have roasted the veal bones to bring out their flavor, or drop in a bouquet garni to freshen up the stock. Oh well. It still turned out ok, although all the meat was, strangely, the same color pink. Apparently every church in Andorra cooks up a huge pot of this on some saint's day in January, and gives it out to all comers, so keep that in mind if you're ever in the area.

Trinxat | Cabbage and potato pancake | Recipe

I definitely didn't do this one very well, but even still I wonder how much potential it has. Essentially, boil the cabbage and potato into submission, mash 'em up, fry up a bit of fatty pork, and make big ol' pancakes out of them. I've never been good at things that fill a whole pan and require flipping (all my attempts at omelets magically become scrambles toward the end), and as you can see by the mounding mess, this was no exception. I guess the dish was OK, since most of it got eaten, but it could have done with some more spices and maybe an egg.

Espinacs amb Panses i Pinyons | Spinach with raising and pine nuts | Recipe


I've enjoyed this dish ever since I first tasted it in Seville. Really easy, and you get a lot of flavor out of just three ingredients. Try it sometime soon, it's a fun alternative to yet another veggie sauteed with garlic.

Coques amb Pinyons | Pine nut pastry | Recipe

Sugar, butter, eggs, what's not to like? It even looks good! Eh. Maybe I messed it up, maybe I didn't cook it long enough, maybe I messed up the weight conversion on the sugar. I saw so many breathless articles of excitement over this Iberian take on pizza, which is done both sweet and savory, but in the end of the day it was fine but nothing great. Might have the last bit for breakfast.

Oh, it was sure nice to have a meal that goes with wine! Andorran wine is either non-existent or not available in the US, so we went for some nice Spanish reds instead. Bierzo is hundreds of miles away from Andorra, but their fruity and deep reds go nicely with a meaty stew. That went along a bit better than our attempt to find Catalan music on Spotify, which was pretty much either brass bands or covers of American/English pop tunes.

Thanks to the rain, this was our first indoor meal, which was a bit of a challenge, but thankfully our couch is sectional so we just moved the chaise part out of the way to expand the table. And now we know that for indoor meals, our limit is pretty solid at a total of nine.

Next is we head a bit under 4,000 miles south to Angola. Should be quite the contrast!