Belgian and Romanian cuisines have put up impressive fights on The World Cup of Food, and choosing one over the other has been probably our most difficult final choice to date. We suppose that can be expected given that this is the first matchup of the second level of the qualifying competition and matches should only get more closely contested as we proceed.
Romanian cuisine is, if you were to guess solely based on our earlier features rosii umplute cu vinete (eggplant-stuffed tomatoes) and ardei umpluţi (stuffed bell peppers), centered entirely around stuffing things with other things. This, of course, could not be further from the truth, and while a Romanian cook does hold a certain love for stuffing, the cuisine is as varied as any. Countless roasted meats, stews, soups, salads, vegetable dishes, breads, and dumplings have made their way into Romania through the Italian, Central European, Russian, Greek, and Turkish influences on the culture. That said, when deciding what to feature next we could not look past sarmale, stuffed cabbage rolls (recipe follows).
One of Belgium’s most popular dishes is its fish soup waterzooi (recipe follows). Traditionally made from burbot taken from the Lys and Scheldt rivers in and around the city of Ghent, to where the dish’s origins can be traced, nowadays the soup is made from any firm-fleshed white fish, especially pike, carp, cod, or halibut. Variations exist that include mussels, clams, or shrimp, and the adaptation that replaces seafood entirely with white chicken meat is popular as well.
It is once again time to eliminate a contestant from the qualifying stages of The World Cup of Food and to promote another. This week’s cuisines, English and Polish, were, as usual, difficult to separate into a winner and loser, but that is exactly what we must do.
Polish cuisine as we know it today is the result of centuries of mixing of cultures, from Ukrainian and Lithuanian rule, the influence of the Polish royal court and its dealings with rival European powers, shortages experienced during the socialist Soviet influence of the twentieth century, and from a new era of multiculturalism. Poles of the Middle Ages got by on wild and domestic meats, cereal grains (it is from the Poles that we get kasha), and wild mushrooms and berries that thrive in the cold winters and hot summers.
Poles love their root vegetables. Celery root, parsnips, and especially beets are a cherished part of their cookery, but this was not always so. Chef Michael Baruch, a Chicagoan and champion of the merits of Polish cuisine, wrote in his The New Polish Cuisine that a Pole of old would scoff at the idea of ingesting any type of vegetable, and “would rather eat cold gruel as a healthy mainstay.” According to the 1985 HPBooks release (a publisher now focused on auto repair manuals, incidentally) Polish Cooking by Marianna Olszewska Heberle (Amazon affliliate link is to the revised 2005 edition), vegetables became an important part of the Polish royal court’s menu when their sixteenth century King Sigismund I the Old married the daughter of the Dutchess of Bari, who brought with her green vegetables and tomatoes from what is now Italy at her insistence. The vegetables were a hit and soon trickled down to the masses.
English cuisine is, by reputation, one of the worst in the world. Bland boiled meats, pies made from parts gathered off the slaughterhouse floor (Chris has had a steak and kidney pie; the idea of a second is a non-starter), and canned vegetables are what a lot of the outside world when it imagines a typical, say, Liverpool dinner. The reputation is an artifact of industrial revolution mass production of food and wartime shortages of the twentieth century; England is in dire need of a culinary re-branding.
Which did we prefer?
Malagasy Cuisine (from the African island nation of Madagascar) is an embodiment of the various peoples and their cultures who have settled on the island throughout its inhabited history. The first Malagasys, outrigger canoe-powered settlers from Southeast Asia, arrived sometime between CE 100 and CE 500, bringing with them rice, ginger, plantains, and root vegetables like taro and yams. Those plucky underdogs from Borneo cut down much of Madagascar’s forests and caused the extinction of loads of awesome-sounding animal life (like the Malagasy hippopotamus or the giant lemurs) before wising up and planting rice almost everywhere on the island. As a lasting legacy of the first Malagasys from Southeast Asia, it is a rare meal in Madagascar today that is not served with rice. East African immigrants came around the tenth or eleventh century, their boats stocked with zebu, a cattle relative. French meticulousness arrived with their colonization in 1896, and modern Malagasy cuisine was born. Continue reading Malagasy Cuisine — Varenga: Crispy Shredded Beef
Lasopy (recipe follows), a hearty vegetable soup from the heart of Madagascar, is a frequent fixture at the Malagasy dinner table. Meat bones and the local, seasonal crop of vegetables are simmered together until tender then pureed into a smooth, not-too-thick soup. If available, pieces of baguette (an artifact of the French colonial period of Madagascar) might be served alongside.