Decision time has come once again, this time between the cuisines of Trinidad and Tobago and Colombia. We got to experience Trinidadian cooking and its Caribbean ingredients prepared according to west African and Indian methods. We made our own version of Trinidadian callaloo, a creamy dish of greens simmered with okra and coconut milk with obvious African roots that was somehow rich, decadent, and healthy at the same time. It’s best not to question good fortune sometimes.
As you might expect from a country that has two seacoasts, several mountain ranges and valleys, and the Amazon River system within it borders, Colombian food is highly regionalized, making selection of a national dish difficult if not impossible. The signature of the Paisa region, the bandeja paisa (“Ron Swanson special” in English), to use one example, features almost entree-sized portions of red beans with pork, white rice, ground meat, fried pork skins, fried egg, fried plantains, chorizo, black pudding, arepa (a cheese-stuffed flatbread), and avocado, and is shockingly intended to serve just one single adult human. Since this isn’t Man Vs. Food, we passed on bandeja paisa for the time being (Chris is becoming more and more convinced this is a good idea with each passing second, though). Another dish, popular in the capital Bogota and its surrounds, is ajiaco (recipe follows). It’s relatively simple — a stew of three kinds of potatoes, chicken, corn, and a local herb called guascas, and garnished with sour cream, avocado, capers, and/or any of a variety of local hot sauces. We couldn’t get guascas locally so we used a bit of oregano (endorsed in various sources as a substitute), accepting that our result would be lacking some of the original Colombian flavor but confident that the stew would be nonetheless delicious.
The people of Trinidad and Tobago love their hot peppers. Most Trinis are descended from either west African or Indian immigrants, and their ancestors’ spicy native cuisines have evolved into the modern Trini diet. The chili of choice is the Scotch bonnet (nearly identical to the habañero familiar to American readers), and it gets used in everything. Even callaloo (recipe follows), a dish of slow-cooked greens in coconut milk, gets the Scotch bonnet treatment.
Just about every matchup we create here on The World Cup of Food has been interesting and exciting for us, teaching us things about the cuisines and cultures of the world that we probably would never have stumbled upon on our own. In no region is this more true than in Africa. We are coming to realize that we enjoy African food a great deal, and choosing African nations for elimination has been a tough process. The case of Egypt versus South Africa is no exception. On the one hand, there is probably no greater melting pot cuisine on the continent than that of South Africa, where influences from what seems like about fifty different cultures have melded together to form what we see today on the South African table. Egypt, on the other hand, with its early advances in agriculture and technology, has laid much of the groundwork in ancient times for the modern cuisines of the Middle East and North Africa.
South African food is the result of the influences of its indigenous cultures, like the Sotho and the Nguni, and of the many waves of colonization and immigration from Europe and Asia that have come in over the last few hundred years. The Dutch, Germans, French, Indonesians, Malays, Indians, Afrikaaners, and British have all come to South Africa throughout its history and have all had significant impacts on the national table. Many dishes, like Potjiekos (a meat and vegetable stew of Afrikaaner origin) or bunny chow (hollowed-out bread filled with curry of Indian origin) are mainly descended from a single influencing cuisine. Others, like bobotie (recipe follows) borrow a little bit of everything.
Every great falafel needs a great sauce. Tahine is a thin sauce made from tahini, water, and a little oil that is drizzled on a pita with falafel or a variety of meat fillings.
Egypt has one of the longest recorded histories of any culture on our planet, and as a result much is known about the evolution over time of its cuisine. Food has always played a paramount role in Egyptian life. Crops grown in the fertile Nile Valley help ancient Egypt become the famous empire we all know. Such a narrow band of available arable land meant that grazing lands for livestock were hard to come by, and as a result much of the Egyptian diet is vegetarian, based on legumes, breads, and vegetables, with the exception of a few fish and game dishes. Egypt’s national dish, ful medames, is an almost perfect representation of the cuisine: fava beans stewed and mashed with onions served with vegetables and greens.
We cooked meat over a wood fire, made another (though certainly not our last) pilaf, played with new ingredients like fresh, whole bamboo shoots and quail eggs, and put ground beef on a salad. Armenia and Laos are probably as geographically separated as any two potential qualifiers in this competition, and that distance is reflected in the differences between the cuisines. Armenian food is a showcase of one or two key ingredients with minimal use of spices. Lao cooks throw as many spices and (to our Western sensibilities, at least) unusual flavor combinations at the eater as possible. The pressing question is: which approach do we prefer?
In Armenian cuisine, the use of fruits like pomegranate and apricot to compliment grilled meat was seemingly unorthodox at first, but having prepared and eaten the food now seems obvious. Tart, sweet fruits and charred, rich pork were a natural fit together, and the rice pilaf on the side was, in spite of its simplicity, surprisingly rich and complex. The tradition of outdoor cooking was an added bonus, especially here and now in our beautiful Puget Sound summer.
Lao food was very different than that of its neighbors with which we are more familiar, Thailand and Vietnam. Amanda Hesser, writing about Lao cuisine for the New York Times in 1985, said “…nothing we tasted reminded us of Thailand or of Vietnam. Every flavor vindicated the distance we had traveled; every sip of that rice wine told us we were in Laos.” Before this meal, we hopefully expected Lao food to take the best aspects of Thai and Vietnamese and meld them into some kind of supercuisine; what we found was something different entirely, flavors unfamiliar and even a little weird but ultimately good.
In the end, we felt that despite the strengths of either cuisine, one stood out more than the other. This time, the simple, easy to prepare, but ultimately rich and flavorful food of Armenia won out.
Armenia will next be featured in its match in the last qualifying round against Malaysia.
Coming next is Trinidad & Tobago versus Colombia.
Have you ever noticed a very distinct, earthy smell as you walk into as Asian grocery? Chances are it’s the fresh bamboo shoots. We have always noticed a signature odor common to most Asian groceries for some time, but it wasn’t until we bought some bamboo for our Lao bamboo soup with quail eggs (recipe follows) that we could pinpoint its source. Continue reading Lao Cuisine — Bamboo Soup with Quail Eggs
The Lao people originally came from the region that is now southeast China, and in the time since have spread throughout southeast Asia, introducing their culinary traditions along the way. In that sense, it can be said that the cuisine of Laos is the mother cuisine of the entire region. The food that most defines the Lao is clearly sticky rice. So important is sticky rice to the national diet that many Lao call themselves “Luk Khao Niaow,” “children of sticky rice.”