Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ashmore and Cartier Islands: A brick wall in the middle of the ocean

I have hit a brick wall. I've finally found a nation that has no culinary tradition, not even a modern one (like Antarctica).

This nation is number 15 on my list: "Ashmore and Cartier Islands."

So why is this a problem? Well, quite simply, no one lives on Ashmore and Cartier Islands, and as far as I can tell, no one ever has. These two islands are part of a larger marine reserve that is governed by Australia. It is populated only by non-human species, and unless I am mistaken, none of them know how to cook.

So I could skip Ashmore and Cartier. But I'm not gonna.

Yes, I know, there's really nothing I can do to create an authentic culinary experience for Ashmore and Cartier, because you can't have an authentic version of something that doesn't even exist. But based on what I've read about this area and its history, I feel like I can at least come up with a fantasy meal.

These two dishes are from Indonesia, which has fishing rights on Ashmore and Cartier.

Ashmore and Cartier Islands, as it turns out, are traditional fishing grounds for Indonesian fishermen, who have been using the waters there for centuries to harvest sea cucumber, trochus (a mollusk valued for its shell), shark fin, abalone, green snail, sponges (poor SpongeBob) and clams. Because most of these species were threatened by overfishing, in 1974 Australia and Indonesia drafted a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that allowed "traditional" Indonesian fisherman to continue to use the waters surrounding the two islands, subject to limitations.

Ashmore and Cartier Islands is an external territory of Australia.

So based on this information, I am going to make the huge leap to the following recipe:

Mock Clam Satay

I'm basing this decision on the following:
  1. I can't get sea cucumber or green snail at Safeway
  2. I wouldn't know what the hell to do with a sponge, but I'm guessing they aren't harvested as a food item
  3. Trochus is mainly used to make jewelry and buttons, not food
  4. Shark fin is illegal
  5. I couldn't find any Indonesian recipes for abalone
So by process of elimination, I chose an Indonesian clam recipe. I figured that traditional Indonesian fishermen probably used clam at home ('cause you know, I have great knowledge of the subject, haha), and although the species doesn't match what we can get here in the US I figured I didn't need to be 100% accurate when deciding on a recipe that is 100% inaccurate.

So here we go, the world's only known recipe from Ashmore and Cartier, that I just personally attributed to Ashmore and Cartier even though I lack even a shred of credibility.

Mock Clam Satay (why this is a "mock" satay will become clear)
(from Indonesian Cakes)
  • 1 lb clams
  • 5 shallots, sliced
  • 2 tsp sweet soy sauce
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • salt and pepper to taste

Of course I also have to have a side dish, so I just picked a basic Indonesian fried rice (from Tasty Indonesian Food):

For the rice:

  • 3 cups cold cooked rice
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 3 1/2 oz cabbage, shredded
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 shallots, chopped

For the spice paste:

  • 3 shallots, roughly chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2 red chillies, seeded
  • 1/2 medium tomato
  • 2 tbsps sweet soy sauce
  • Salt to taste

One more thing: Sweet Soy Sauce, otherwise known as ...

Kecap Manis
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp water
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 star anise pod
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed

First a couple of interesting notes about kecap manis: 1. It seems to be in just about every Indonesian recipe and 2. "Kecap" is pronounced "ketchup." I am told that this is where our word for "ketchup" actually originated, though I find this claim a little puzzling since Indonesian food just isn't that popular in the west, and since there aren't any tomatoes in kecap manis.

But anyway, I did try to find kecap manis in the Asian market down in Sacramento, though I came up empty handed. I found a few bottles labeled "sweet soy sauce" but they didn't appear to be Indonesian, and the ingredients weren't really any more interesting than those in the homemade version (with the exception of some additives like MSG and high fructose corn syrup). So I didn't think that the homemade version would be any less authentic. And since this whole endeavor is basically a fantasy anyway, who really cares about authenticity.

So to make the kecap manis, melt the sugar together with the water over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer until the mixture becomes a thick syrup.

Simmer the sugar and water until it becomes a syrup.

Remove from heat and cool by setting the whole pot in a larger pot full of ice water.

When the syrup has cooled, add the soy sauce, the star anise and the garlic. Bring back to a simmer and let cool, discarding the garlic and the star anise.

(In case you aren't familiar with star anise, you can find it in most major grocery stores with the ethnic spices, usually packaged in a small plastic bag. I just happened to have some on hand since I occasionally make Vietnamese Pho Bo.)

This is star anise. Each one is about the width of a dime.

When the kecap manis is done, move on to the clams. Now, this is where my world fell apart.

Henry was in a bad mood. He kept clinging to the kitchen gate and crying. Meanwhile, I rediscovered something I learned the first time I tried to make clam chowder: Baby clams are gross.

Yes, I just bought a couple of cans of baby clams for this recipe, because I really couldn't be bothered to cook live clams and take them apart. But when I opened the cans of baby clams I realized what a mistake this was, at least for me. Because baby clams are mostly stomach, and their stomachs are filled with this nasty, pasty, gritty stuff that makes me gag when I eat it. So what did I do? I pulled the guts out of each and every one of those baby clams. It took me about an hour. When I was done I had maybe 3/4 cup of gutted baby clams.

Gutted clams. I won't tell you how I did this, because only a crazy person would try it.

The second problem with the baby clams approach, of course, was size. Satays are supposed to be cooked on a skewer. There's no way you can skewer a gutted baby clam. So I just mixed my clams up with the shallots, kecap manis, lime and salt and pepper.

The basic ingredients for the mock clam satay.

I let this mixture marinade for about 30 minutes, then I sauteed it. So this really wasn't a satay, but all the flavors were there so I consider it only cheating by a little bit.

Sauteing the clams.

So while my mock satay was marinading, I threw the fried rice together. Here's how:

Put all the spice paste ingredients into a blender and pulse until you get a paste. Then shred the cabbage.

The spice paste.

Put the spice paste into a medium hot pan and stir until fragrant. Then add the cabbage and cook for a few minutes.

Stir fry the shredded cabbage with the spice paste.

Dump in the rice and add the kecap manis, and stir until blended.

One last step: add the rice and kecap manis.

Finally, while Chinese fried rice is usually made with a scrambled egg, Indonesian fried rice is typically served with a fried egg on top. So fry up a few eggs until the yolks are just firm, and top each serving of rice with a fried egg.

So how did my fantasy meal go over? Not well. I thought it was OK, but almost certainly not worth the effort of all the research I did. I guess I don't really like clams, not even gutted ones.

I didn't give the kids any of the mock satay because there just wasn't enough of it, and I was pretty sure they wouldn't eat it anyway. Predictably, Hailey ate nothing. Natalie had a screaming fit because her egg wasn't hard boiled. Dylan ate both his egg and Natalie's, and nothing else. Henry ate everything. Martin was completely unimpressed.

This would have actually been a do-over if Ashmore and Cartier Islands was a populated nation with a culinary tradition of any kind, but I am excusing my failure this time since I really don't know what I could do differently. Instead I'm looking forward to my next stop, a country that is most definitely populated and most definitely the source of some interesting foods.

Next week: Australia.


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