Recipes from Kyrgyzstan

Disappointingly, I came up short on my search for recipes for the second week in a row. This surprised me a little because this week we're in Kyrgyzstan, which is much father east than the other "-stan" nations, so I guess I expected the cuisine to be a little more unique. It must be because delicious food becomes sort of pandemic, like pizza. It jumps cultures.

Anyway this week's rice dish and the bread dish I chose are both hauntingly familiar. Think way, way back to the Kabuli Pulao in Afghanistan and not so very long ago to the baursak in Kazakhstan--both recipes are pretty similar to the ones I did this week both in ingredients and in name. But the main dish not as much. More on that in a sec.

 Lake Toktogul, Tien Shan Mountains, Kyrgyzstan.
Photo by NMK Photography.

Kyrgyzstan is actually closer to China than it is to either Afghanistan or Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan is one of those former Soviet Republics, and it actually did quite well as such–especially during the 1920s, when the region made great strides both culturally and socially. Literacy was improved, too, and so was education overall. After its split from the Soviet Union in 1991, some poop started to go down–organized crime groups started vying for power, a bunch of people were assassinated and there was civil unrest that persisted for a long time, even as late as 2010, when at least 75 people were killed in “bloody clashes” with the police. A bunch of religious and community members were subsequently arrested, and then the country passed a law prohibiting women under the age of 23 from traveling internationally without a “parent or guardian,” get this–in order to support “…increased morality and preservation of the gene pool.” Yeah, this was recently. So I would not really want to live there, even though they do a lot of cool stuff on horseback, like picking up a coin at a full gallop, mounted wrestling and running super long-distance horse races, though maybe not that thing where they have to do battle over the headless carcass of a goat.

Anyway, they eat fruity rice dishes and fried bread, which are both delicious. And this thing that they also eat was traditionally made with organ meat, but thank goodness can now be made with other things, because I don’t do organ meat. So that said, here are the recipes:

Kuurdak (Chyz-Byz)
  • 2 lbs beef or lamb or mutton, cut into small chunks
  • 4 onions, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil 
  • 3 green bell peppers, seeded and julienned
  • 1 cup cabbage, julienned
  • 1/2 tsp ground red pepper
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • About 2 cups water
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
A rice dish:

Shirin Paloo
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

  • 4 to 5 carrots, peeled and cut into thin strips

  • 3 onions, sliced
  • 1 cup dried apricots

  • 1 cup golden raisins
1 cup prunes
  • 1 tsp salt

  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 5 to 6 cups water

  • 2 cups basmati rice
Some fried bread (yum!):

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp yeast
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
Let's do the meat first. Start by browning the meat in the oil ...

... then add the rest of the ingredients.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until the water is absorbed and the vegetables are tender (30 to 45 minutes). Remove the bay leaves and serve immediately.

Now for the rice:

First heat the vegetable oil over a medium flame and fry the onions and carrots until soft (10 to 15 minutes). Now add the water and bring to a boil.

Add the rice and and continue to boil until the water has been almost completely absorbed.  Add the dried fruits and mix well. Turn the heat down to low and cover the pan. Let cook for another 15 to 20 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed (note you can add a little more water if the rice dries out too soon).

Finally, the bread:

First mix the flour with the sugar, yeast and salt. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the milk. Add the egg and milk mixture to the flour and stir, adding enough water to make a firm dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place for two hours. Roll the dough to 1/4 inch thickness and cut into rectangles of 1 inch by 2 inches.

Now pour 1/4 cup of oil into a pan and heat over a medium-high flame.

Fry the dough pieces on both sides until they puff up and turn a golden brown color.

So I will bet you can guess what my kids thought of the bread. Do you see that giant pile of bread in the photo? It was gone in about 15 minutes. That was by far the favorite part of the meal, though it really was not unique compared to the many other versions of fried bread I've made over the course of this endeavor. The rice: also not that unique, but still pretty tasty. The beef, which was the only unique thing on the table, was a little meh. It was a little too vegetable-heavy for my tastes, and also it wasn't as tender as I like beef to be in a stew. For that, I think it should have been cooked a lot longer.

Anyway, moving on. Next week: Laos.
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Recipes from Kuwait

Part of the reason I moved away from the Bay Area was because of the crappy air quality. I'm pretty sure in this week alone, though, I've actually breathed more crappy air than I did in the sum total of an entire decade in San Jose.

We are about 60 miles west of the King Fire, which has burned close to 100,000 acres of forest land in the past two weeks. We're not really in any danger from the fire, but up until a couple of days ago we were getting a lot of the smoke. The air quality was so bad that my kids coughed whenever they went outside, my eyes were pretty much constantly burning and you really couldn't see much further out than maybe a half mile. After that it was just faint silhouettes muted by all that yucky brown smoke.

Anyway, my kids were home for part of the week because the air quality was deemed too poor for them to go to school, like it was any better anywhere else in town. Have you ever tried to write with four kids in the room? You can get two or three words down and then "Mom! Mom!" I got some cleaning done, but not much work.
Kuwait Parliament, Qibla, Kuwait City, Al `Asimah. Photo by N.M.

So here I am trying once again to catch up, and this week it's Kuwait. Now, I'll bet if the first gulf war had never happened you probably wouldn't have heard much about Kuwait. Those of us who came of age in the 90s (not that I'm that old or anything') remember the invasion of Kuwait as the supposed reason why we ended up over there, though most people thought it was more about the oil than the freedom of Kuwait. Whichever version you believe, Kuwait did need our protection. It's a constitutional monarchy, which means that it has a monarch but also an elected parliament, not unlike the United Kingdom. As far as liberties go, it ranks among the highest in the Arab world, with a free press, judicial liberties and constitutional protection of civil liberties.

So when I got to Kuwait, I had an epiphany about this Travel by Stove venture of mine, and here it is. Lots of nations have very specific culinary traditions, and many of those nations have regions with very specific culinary traditions. But some countries don't have those distinctions, and the lines between the culinary traditions of one nation blends with those of another. So you get entire regions comprising of many different nations that eat pretty much the same dishes, with only very subtle variations. This became very plain to me when I was researching Kuwaiti food and discovered that I'd already cooked pretty much every recipe I could find. I've made harees and khubz and biriyani and machbous already, and it just seems like cheating to repeat recipes I've already made, even though it wouldn't be the first time. So I dug around a lot, and I found a couple of recipes that were different, but I'm afraid I had to do a variation of machbous as my main meal because I really didn't find a lot of alternatives. I'm sure they were out there, but I didn't stumble upon them. So here's what I decided to make:

Chicken Mechbous 
(from A Mideast Feast

For the chicken:
  • 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 2 or 3 whole cloves
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • Flour as needed
  • 3 cups basmati rice
For the onion-spice topping (hashu):
  • 2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins, soaked in water
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp dried black lime (loomi), or ½ tsp lime zest
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
For the tomato sauce (duqqus):
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
With some bread:

Za’atar Bread
(from Veggie Zest and Globe Trotter Diaries)
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup water, lukewarm
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of dried thyme
  • 1/2 cup of sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp of sumac
And for dessert:

Kuwaiti Honey Cake
(also from A Mideast Feast)

For the cake:
  • 1/2 cup + 1 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
For the topping:
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup almonds, slivered
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 3/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
Alight, so here's how it's done: First, make the bread. Mix the yeast with 1/4 cup of water and let stand until frothy. Meanwhile, mix the flour with the salt, then add the proofed yeast and knead. Add the water, 1 tbsp at a time until you get a smooth dough. Transfer to an oiled bowl, cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for two hours or until doubled in bulk.

Meanwhile, make the za'atar. Toast the sesame seeds in a pan and then mix with the thyme. Now add the sumac and stir. Mix with the olive oil and set aside.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Punch down the dough and fold it over a few times, pressing down with your hands. Divide into 8 parts and roll into circles. Divide the za'atar between them, spreading out over the surface of the dough with about a half inch border all around. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes.

Now for the mechbous. Rinse chicken and put in a large pot. Add enough water to cover, then add the cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, cloves and peppercorns (I always put whole spices in a tea ball, that way they're easier to remove from the pot later). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and let cook until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 175 degrees. Remove the chicken and reserve the broth.

Now strain the fat off the broth and transfer to a pot. You should have six cups--if not, add some water. Add the rice to the broth and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat. Let cook for 20 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed. Add salt to taste.

Meanwhile, cook the onions over medium heat until translucent. Add some water and keep stirring until the onions start to brown. Add the oil, raisins and spices and cook for another minute, then remove from the heat and set aside.

Now place the water in a small pot with the tomatoes, garlic and tomato paste. Cook until the tomatoes are soft.

Dust the chicken with flour and transfer to a skillet. Cook over medium high heat until the skin is brown and crispy.

To serve, spread the rice out on a platter.  Sprinkle the onion mixture on top, then top with the chicken pieces. Serve the tomato sauce in a separate bowl.

Now for the cake. First preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 10 inch pan with butter and set aside.

Now melt the butter in a saucepan or your microwave. With an electric mixer, beat the sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth and then add the butter.

Sift the flour and baking powder over the mix and stir until blended.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 10 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Meanwhile, melt the butter for the topping in a pan. Add the sugar, honey, cinnamon and almonds.
Bring to a boil, stirring. Pour over the cake and return to the oven for 15 minutes.

Let cool and serve.

Alright, so the mechbous was good. You can't really go wrong with chicken and rice, and I always like caramelized onions on rice. The bread was quite possibly the worst thing I've ever eaten. We had a friend over, and he and Martin were both OK with just scraping off the za'atar, but I didn't think it was edible even after I scraped it off. I don't really like thyme, I guess, so in large quantities I thought it was really awful. I don't usually mind sumac or sesame oil, so I really can't explain it in any other way. But all that spice was just way too much. The bread, however, was redeemed by the honey cake, which was fabulous. It was a little bit like a baklava but with cake instead of phyllo dough. The topping was really chewy and yummy and the cake was moist and delicious. My eight-year-old liked it so much that she told me she wants it for a birthday cake. Wow! Anything that can outshine a Safeway birthday cake for that girl must be pretty good, haha.

So the honey cake was pretty original, the za'atar bread was also extremely original, though horrifying, and the mechbous was pretty much just like the mechbous I made in Bahrain, but I'd say overall the meal came out a success. I'm sure the za'atar bread would have been delicious without the za'atar.

Next week: Kyrgyzstan
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Recipes from Kurdistan

OK, so last week was kind of disastrous, but at least it makes for fun reading, right? This week was not nearly so bad. Kurdistan is located in a land of deliciousness. It may have a few other problems, but lack of delicious food is not one of them.

By the way, I'm switching my updates to Sundays. OK, yes, I'm aware that it's Monday. But for the most part, I feel like I should be able to post on Sundays. Between school and work (the paying kind), it's just getting a little too challenging to hit Thursdays with any real consistency.

I generally enjoy food from this part of the world, so I was happy to see Kurdistan especially following my tragic visit to Kosovo. Kurdistan, as you may know, is not actually a country. Rather, it is a "geo-cultural region," which means that it is the home of a specific ethnic group of people who are spread between several different nations. These are the Kurds, who live in parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. So not exactly a land of stability, but yes, a land of deliciousness.

Akre, Kurdistan, Ninawa, Iraq. Photo by Jan Sefti.

Regionally, Kurdistan occupies about 74,000 square miles. There are between 25 and 30 million Kurds, most of whom live in one of those four Kurdish regions, though some do reside in other regions.

It is pretty remarkable that an ethnic group of that size doesn't have its own state, in fact, the Kurds are commonly thought of as one of the world's largest nationless ethnic groups. The only country where they've really come close to independence is Iraq--they actually govern themselves semi-autonomously there.

The Kurds are known to be fierce soldiers--they're called Peshmerga, which means "those who face death." They have a reputation as being particularly effective compared to the Iraqi military, though not quite effective enough (so far) to deal with some of the recent violence that's been happening over there.

Until pretty recently, the Kurds were a nomadic people, so traditional Kurdish cuisine is what you would probably expect to find in a culture that once depended economically on animal husbandry. Modern Kurdish cuisine has also taken influence from neighboring cultures: there are Arab, Turkish and Persian influences in the food, too. Here are the three dishes I decided to make:

Xorsht Fesenjan (chicken with pomegranate molasses and walnut)
(from Faranak's Kurdish Kitchen)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 whole chicken, cut up
  • 4 cups water
  • 4 cups ground walnut
  • 1 cup pomegranate molasses
  • 1 to 2 tbsp sugar
  • Salt to taste
  • Pinch of saffron
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
Purgach (Shepherd's Bread)
(from Kurdish Cuisine)
  • 8 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 3/4 cups Greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 1/2 sticks margarine
Brinji Sor (Kurdish Red Rice)
(from My Awesome Things)
  • 1 1/2 cups Basmati rice
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
Let's start with the bread. First, mix together the yogurt, egg and salt. Place the flour in a separate bowl and pour the egg and yogurt mixture over it.

Knead until you get a soft dough. Now melt the butter and pour it over the dough.

Keep kneading. When the dough starts to become firm, spread it out in a metal cookie sheet.

Poke holes in it with your finger at intervals of about two inches.

Bake at 400 degrees for 50 minutes, then turn off the oven and let rest inside for another 10 minutes. (Note: mine took less time than that, so keep checking it. It's done when it's a golden color.)

Next, the chicken. First heat up the oil in a large pot and add the onion. Saute until translucent. Add the chicken pieces and let cook on both sides until brown. Add the water and ground walnut.

Now add the pomegranate molasses (regular molasses isn't really a substitute) and the sugar. Finally add the salt, saffron and cayenne (if using). Bring to a boil and then let simmer for one hour or until a meat thermometer registers 175 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (note that 165 is actually a safe temperature, but I find that the texture of dark meat is still a little bit unpleasant at 165). The sauce should be pretty rich and thick by the time it's ready to serve.

Yeah, it looks kind of like a train wreck. But oh, so good.

Now for the rice. First rinse it until the water runs clear, then toss it into boiling water for 7 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium-sized pan and lightly saute the onion.

Drain the rice and transfer to a casserole dish and stir in the onions. Mix the tomato paste with the oil and then pour over the rice. Mix well and cover the dish. Place in the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

Martin raved and raved about the chicken. It was pretty delicious. The sauce actually reminded me of a totally unrelated dish I make with oil-packed sundried tomatoes--it had that really sharp, rich flavor that was similar in a weird way to that sundried tomato sauce. The rice was good too, a nice texture if not really terribly unusual. And we all liked the bread. It was crispy and soft at the same time and was really great for soaking up all that extra yummy sauce.

Yes, I will be making chicken in pomegranate molasses again, provided I can find a good source of pomegranate molasses. It's funny, I actually had some in my pantry already, left over from another Travel by Stove recipe. Martin thinks I'm probably one of only a few people in US who can look at most recipes that use unusual ingredients and go, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure I already have some of that." Although, I have to say I'm constantly amazed by how many strange and wonderful ingredients there actually are in the world.

Next week: Kuwait
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Recipes from Kosovo

So, the cooking part of this blog is currently about three weeks ahead of the blog posts. Which is usually not a problem, but a few minutes ago when I went to start writing this entry and I looked back at the list I went, "Wait, did I do Kosovo?"

I had to rack my brain and I still couldn't remember doing Kosovo. Which is really telling because I spend literally hours in the kitchen every week doing these meals, so for me to completely forget one either means that A) I am losing it or B) it was really, really, not very memorable.

I am going with B, even though you're all out there nodding your heads going, "Yeah, it's totally A."

Photo by Jarek Jarosz.

Kosovo. Land of mountains and some other stuff. Damn, I just pissed off a bunch of people in Kosovo. Forgive me, for I am an American, and I get all of my information from the Internet. Kosovo is not one of those countries that makes the news, at least not since 1999 when its Albanian and Serbian populations decided to start killing each other. Fortunately NATO put an end to all of that before the end of that same year, after which they put the whole region under transitional UN administration. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, much to Serbia's chagrin (Serbia still doesn't recognize Kosovo as an independent state). So now Kosovo is a very tiny, very independent country all of its own, complete with food so unmemorable that no one ever talks about it on the internet.

It's Eastern European food, which, I don't know. I like some Eastern European food. Who doesn't enjoy a good goulash? But in my (limited) experience, Eastern European food is very heavy and very simple, both qualities I don't really love in a meal. So everything I could find was simple and, yes, dull, and I guess I must have been cooking it in my sleep or something.

Anyway here is the menu:

Mantia Dibrane

Oh yeah, now I remember.
(from Kosova Sot)
  • 8 cups flour
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 1/3 lbs minced meat
  • 3 large onions
  • Salt, oil and black pepper
Pastiço (spicy potato oven)
  • 1 pound of boiled potatoes
  • Juice of two lemons
  • 2 tbsp parsley, minced
  • salt and olive oil
  • cayenne pepper
  • 1 onion
  • 7 oz tuna
  • a spoonful of mayonnaise
(from The Apricity)
  • 3 eggs
  • Sunflower oil
  • 2 tbsp of brandy
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 1/2 cups plain flour
  • 2 oz dried fruit, chopped fine
  • 1 cup ground almonds
  • 1 1/2 cups honey
OK, let's do the Mantia Dibrane and get that out of the way, because it's the most traumatic part of the meal. So here's what's going to happen. I am going to post about my experience with this recipe. And then someone from Kosovo is going to come along and say, "You've ruined the good name of Kosovan food! And you didn't even spell "Kosovar" right! You should learn to speak the language, and also I would never serve Mantia Dibrane and Pastiço in the same meal!" That's what will happen. That's what always happens when I get something wrong. And I got this terribly, terribly wrong. But I'm blaming it on Google Translate and also the fact that, seriously, that's the recipe?

Because look at the recipe: flour, water, oil and a little bit of salt. There's nothing in that dough recipe to actually make the dough rise or even just puff up a little. It's a recipe for effing Play Dough. Have you ever tried to bake Play Dough? Then you know what happens.

And it just gets worse from there. I know I am always complaining about Google Translate, but just for kicks I'm going to tell you exactly what Google translate told me to do with this recipe. Are you ready? Here it is:

"In the tray table or thrown flour, lukewarm water, oil, salt and mix, made from pulp forming 30 small cakes. Each cake augmented by depleting as licking the hand. Kuleçtë coated with butter and join tenner. Each tëhollohet tenner in a huge lump and the three layers together in a single lump. PETA divided into squares chess. For fillings squares needed mince, onion, chopped fine, salt and black pepper. Measures prepared in oil and fry the bottom of the rash of little red pepper thrown for color. Measures should be left to cool and then fill the boxes with previously prepared. Each square is rolled diagonally from the four sides (such as envelopes) and put into baking pan to be baked. Mantia baked half an hour. Once ripe covered with a napkin for 10 minutes. Served with yogurt."

OK so first of all, "augmented by depleting as licking the hand." No matter how many times I turned that one over in my head I did not come out any wiser. I sure as hell wasn't going to be licking my hand, I can tell you that much. "Kuleçtë," and "tëhollohet" are typical missed words like you would see in any Google translation, though I don't know what the hell "join tenner" is supposed to mean. And where the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals comes into this, I have no idea.

So armed with these explicit details I set out to make Mantia Dibrane. First, I mixed together the Play Dough ingredients. Then I fried up the mincemeat with onions, salt and pepper and nothing else, because god forbid there should be any actual flavor in there or anything.

Then I rolled out the dough and cut it into squares about the size of chess pieces, which is one of the few instructions I actually gleaned from that mess Google Translate gave me. I also saw that bit about red pepper "for color" and figured I could add a little paprika. At this point I stopped caring because I could see all the way to the end of this terrible road, so instead of trying to bundle up the meat in little packets I just put half the squares down in a greased casserole and then spread the meat over that, then I put down the rest of the squares.

Then I baked the whole mess for 30 minutes.

So there's your answer. I couldn't remember Kosovo because I actually blocked it out of my traumatized brain. 

So meanwhile make the potatoes, which weren't actually so bad. First parboil them until they are just tender, then let them cool down. Slice them and mix with lemon juice, parsley salt and a minced chili pepper (I read that as ground cayenne, which is the only sort of cayenne we get here, so instead of a minced chili I just used powder).

Now transfer half of the potatoes to a glass serving dish, and then spread the tuna over the top of that.

Now add the rest of the potatoes and transfer to the fridge to chill.

Did you notice the part where there wasn't any oven involved, even though "oven" is in the (translated) name? Me too.

Now for the dessert. First beat the eggs with the oil, brandy and lemon rind. Now add the flour bit by bit until you get a soft dough. Divide into 32 pieces and roll each piece into a small ball.

Heat about two inches of oil in a pan until bubbles rise around the non-stirring end of a wooden spoon. Drop the balls in and let them fry until golden on all sides. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Now mix the fruit with the almonds and honey. Cook over medium heat until the mixture thickens a little, then drop in the fried balls. Roll them around so that they are completely covered with the honey mixture, then remove and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

So what do you think happened to the Play Dough? You're right! Solid rock. It was completely inedible, at least I thought so. Martin ate it. He said the biscuit type stuff was like dumplings. Yeah, like petrified, 100 year old dumplings. Awesome. Oh and the meat had no flavor, like I didn't know that was going to happen.

This was clearly a translation failure combined with a recipe that probably had missing ingredients. My suspicion is confirmed when you look at the photo that went with the original recipe: that's clearly a yeast bread. With a few more seasonings and a bread that actually had some sort of leavening agent, this would have been a completely different experience. But I can only critique the recipe I actually made, and I was faithful to it. In all its awfulness.

I did like that potato salad though. I have no idea why it was an "oven" anything, but it was pretty good. I ate the leftovers for a couple of days, and that's always an indication.

The dessert was OK. It smelled divine, but the balls themselves were kind of chewy and not very nice in texture. Again, nothing went into the dough to stop them from being stodgy, and I don't really like stodgy. But it was OK. It's not like we threw any of them out.

So yeah, that's Kosovo. If you are from there, I welcome your comments. But please, don't just drop in here and curse my name and then fly off again. I want to know what the right recipe is, or I want a better one. I am always happy to do over, and if there was ever a better candidate ... well ...

Next week: Kurdistan
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Recipes from South Korea

So, I'm sure that North Korea is a lovely place to live and work, but I have to say, I really found the differences between North Korean food and the stuff served just to the south to be quite telling. North Korean food: a little bland, and, dare I say, sort of, um, oppressed. South Korean food, on the other hand ... huge difference.

Of course, it was only one meal. Maybe I got the most flavorful thing on South Korea's menu, and the least flavorful thing on North Korea's. Maybe it was just bad luck. But I sure did like my South Korean meal.

Gyeonghoeru Pavillion, Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, South Korea.
Photo by Scott Rotzoll.
Let's start, as usual, with a little bit of background about South Korea. First and foremost, it is not North Korea. As you know--because you memorized the facts from my post about North Korea, right?--North and South Korea were once a part of the same nation, right up until the end of World War II when it was divided into Soviet and US occupied regions. This eventually led to the Korean War in 1950. After that ended in 1953, the two nations sort of went their separate ways, with South Korea prospering and North Korea, not really. In fact South Korea became so prosperous that despite its relatively small size it is the eighth largest country in the world for international trade, has the highest human development index in East Asia and in terms of wages also has Asia's highest income. In fact, pick an index--education, healthcare, job security, tolerance and inclusion--and South Korea is always close to the top. And also, the food is awesome.

I used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I've eaten at some Korean places but don't recall what I really thought of it. The stuff I made was fabulous. I am told that South Korean cuisine is actually quite diverse from province to province, so my generalizations are probably not fair. On paper, South Korean ingredients are similar to what you might find anywhere else in Asia--noodles, rice, vegetables, meat and tofu. On the plate, well, yum. Here's what I made (all these recipes came from Easy Korean Food):

Korean fried chicken
  • 2 lbs chicken drumsticks
  • 5 tbsp of soy sauce
For the batter:
  • 1/2 cup plain flour
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup water
For the sauce:
  • 3 tbsp catsup
  • 1 tbsp Gochujang*
  • 1 tbsp sugar
Bokkeum bap
  • 3 1/2 oz spam, cubed**
  • 3 cups Jasmine rice
  • 1/2 carrot, cubed
  • 1/2 zucchini, cubed
  • 1 mushroom, cubed
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 large Napa cabbages, cut into chunks
  • 8 oz rock salt
  • Water
For the sauce:
  • 10 tbsp fish sauce
  • 10 tbsp ground red pepper***
  • 1 onion
  • 4 to 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 Asian pear
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1/2 tbsp sugar
  • small piece of ginger
  • 4 green onions, sliced fine
Spicy Cucumber
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground red pepper
* Gochujang is a Korean hot sauce. It's yummy. Buy some.

** Sorry food purists, spam is indeed a popular ingredient in South Korea. In fact, South Korean spam is actually made with better quality ingredients than American spam, so I guess you could call it "gourmet spam." Its presence in this recipe didn't actually surprise me because I've seen a lot of fried rice recipes that include it.

*** 10 tbsp red pepper is a TON. You don't have to use this much, I didn't. I used maybe half and it was still almost inedibly spicy.

Do the kimchi first, because that takes a few hours. If you're really ambitious, you could do it a few days or a week in advance to give it time to start fermenting. I did mine on meal day. Here's how:

Combine the cabbage and the salt and cover with water. Let soak for four to five hours (one recipe said one to two hours, if you're in a time crunch).

Meanwhile, put all the ingredients for the sauce except for the green onions into a blender. Pulse until fine, then remove from the blender and add the green onions.

 At the end of the soaking time, drain the water. Rinse the cabbage in a sieve, then mix with the sauce. You can serve kimchi fresh or you can let it ferment in the fridge for six to 12 months. There's so much salt and spice in this stuff that trust me, no harmful bacteria is going to touch it.

Now let's do the chicken. First lightly spray a roasting pan, and put the drumsticks into it. Pour the soy sauce over them and roast at 425 degrees for 45 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the drumstick reads 175 degrees. Remove and let cool for five or 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix the flour with the cornstarch, baking powder and salt and pepper. Add about a half cup of water to the mix, then add more as necessary to make your batter a bit thicker than a pancake batter.

In a separate bowl, mix together the sauce ingredients.

This is Gochujang. Put it on everything.
Heat about an inch of oil in a large pan (you can use more, I just don't like to throw out oil) until bubbles rise around the non-stirring end of a wooden spoon. Pat the chicken with a paper towel to help absorb some of the excess oil. Dip each drumstick into the batter. Drop the chicken into the oil and deep fry on both sides until golden brown. Just do a few at a time and take care not to let them stick to each other. Drain on paper towels and serve with the sauce.

Now for the rice. This recipe calls for boiling, which is easy. When it's al dente, drain and set aside.

Simple ingredients, yay!

Meanwhile, heat some oil in a wok or other large pan and add the vegetables and spam. Add a pinch of salt and let cook until the vegetables and spam are just starting to brown.

Now add the cooked rice and stir in the soy sauce. Let cook for another three to five minutes and serve.

So while the chicken is roasting and/or the rice is cooking, you can make the cucumbers because they are ridiculously easy. Just put everything in a bowl and mix. Done!

Here's what we thought: Martin said, "These are the best drumsticks I've ever had!" Which coming from him is huge, because he really dislikes meat on the bone. But I had to agree that they were pretty I danged tasty drumsticks. They came out really crispy and the sauce, oh my. It was a little fruity and just spicy enough without being overwhelming.

Now the kimchi was actually a bit overwhelming. This was the first time I've had it but Martin has eaten it a few times, and didn't like it this time, either. It was kind if over the top spicy, even though I didn't use as much red pepper as it called for. It was also really salty. I think I would have liked to let it ferment for a while to see what that did to the flavors, but Martin was pretty adamant that we wouldn't ever eat it, so it got tossed. The cucumbers were also quite spicy but the fire was a really good combo with the mellow cucumbers. And I liked the rice, spam and all. With all that spicy food the salt in the spam was kind of needed to help cool things down.

If you're a fan of spicy foods, make this meal. Maybe skip the kimchi, unless you've already got a taste for it (I hear it's an acquired one). It's a lot if work for something you might end up not liking. But that chicken, yum. Already looking forward to making it again.

Oh and you know, you could substitute diced ham for the spam. I won't tell.
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