So What's This All About?

My family is traveling the world one forkful, or kuĂ izi ful, or handful at a time. Follow our blog to see what interesting facts we learn, which country's food becomes our favorite, and which cuisine makes us feel healthiest. There will also be postings of some projects/arts and crafts/activities for preschoolers that we do in our home preschool. Grab your appetite and let's go!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

On Tuesday, I finally got to my Middle East shopping! I arrived at Afghan World Market and scoped it out with a bit of apprehension. Why? It was a bit difficult to tell what it was like inside; I wasn't really sure what I would be getting and if they'd have it; we all fear the unknown to some degree. Does the store owner like Americans? Would I do something offensive to his/her culture?

Such silliness, I'm sure you are saying. And you would be right! My little shopping excursion turned out to be one of those unique and impressing moments where you truly feel that the world is small and must be intertwined by one Being. The simple JOY of food can chisel away effortlessly at barriers of religion or culture or misunderstanding that seems to plague us all too often.

I entered the store to find an older Afghani man standing to the side sipping tea, and he gazed at me with the same uncertainty and apprehension I had upon entering the store. I quickly grabbed a basket and scanned the store for a safe place to locate myself while I figured out what to buy from my list. Sidling up near the "bulk" section, I noticed a common middle eastern snack that I was pleasantly surprised to find: toasted chickpeas. It seemed like a perfect, healthy snack to give the kids, and I was very curious of it's flavor. So I grabbed a plastic baggy and began filling.
A man behind the counter, who appeared to be in charge, asked if he could help me find something. "Well, I have a long list," I replied.

"You tell me what on your list. I find," he replied abruptly. So I quickly scanned for something I was committed to buying and asked for Bulgur. "Many kinds of this we have. What kind you need?"

"I don't know. Maybe some fine and some coarse." (In the mideast, there are various dishes that use different coarseness of bulgur wheat ranging from very fine to very coarse.)

"What do you mean, you don't know? Do you cook our food?"

"I'm learning!"

"Who teaches you?"

"Me. A cookbook I have..." I stumble.

"Your husband. He is middle eastern?"

"No..." I say, feeling almost guilty about it.

"Do you move there?"


"I don't understand. Why do you want to cook this way?"

"I'm just, I've really liked the middle eastern food I've had, and so I want to cook it and learn about it. Maybe you can help me pick out good things?"

And then, a smile, an almost full-out grin actually. The owner, who I later found out was named Rahim, was absolutely delighted that I liked the food and wanted to know more. He shared one of his favorite recipes: lamb over rice with carrots, raisins, almonds, and pistachios. He couldn't remember the name, but he told me to look up Afghani food on the internet!
Another one of his favorites, which after he said it's name, I wrote down as "branhi", was eggplant sauteed and then topped with kashk (or kishk) mixed with garlic and salt. I searched this term after I got home, and he may have been saying "borani", which is an extremely common appetizer in the mideast. Basically it's a blend of yogurt and vegetables, and you can honestly use whatever veggie you like. The most typical ones to pair with yogurt are eggplant, beets, and spinach. The yogurt is drained for a few hours so that it will be thick. Rahim pointed me to kashk, which is a dried whey used to thicken and enliven the flavor of soups and stews. He may have been referring to the same concept.

He helped me pick out spices, and instead of buying individual ones, he handed me garam masala - an Indian spice - and said this would work. He told me that he sprinkles a little of this on almost everything, that everyone in Afghanistan uses this. The ingredients are very similar to mideast Seven Spice, which I'll blog about later.

Rahim was conservative, too, telling me not to rush into buying too much. He advised that I try a little of some things first, and then I can come back for more. "Don't spend too much," he urged.

While his son was freshly grinding some beef for me and slicing some chicken breast, he gave me a cup of green tea fused with crushed cardamom pods. It was lovely. Earlier, while Rahim was with another customer, the intimidating older gentleman from when I first arrived watched me as I tried figuring out what a bag with little dried, pruned-up like, green pods was. His apprehensive demeanor quickly changed to a knowing and pleased look as he ripped the bag open and urged me to eat. After a few guesses, I was able to figure it out: cardamom.
This gentleman, who seemed to know very little English, was please that I had recognized the spice. He proceeded to help me fill other bags from the bulk section, urging me to try each one first, then holding the top open for the ones I chose. It was the extent of our exchange, and he left shortly after, but I wondered where he went. What does he do in our town? Does he have family here?

Another man came in at one point, said "Shalom", and enjoyed a cup of tea with Rahim. They discussed a recipe, going through all the ingredients they would use and how to cook it. When his cup was finished, they said their goodbyes and he left. He didn't buy anything.

As I checked out my overflowing basket of foods, Rahim kept advising his son to "discount, discount." I believe he probably gave me many things at 25 to 50% off. While I was picking things out, he would encourage me to choose the one I want, and he'd give me the same price even if I chose the more expensive one.

And so we've been cooking and eating all week with these scrumptious treasures found at the Afghan World Market, and I'll be posting those up for you shortly. The food is scrumptious, and from what I experienced, the people are sincere.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

And we're off...

I don't have my complete ME menu or shopping list because I'm still waiting for one more book from the library that I have a hold on, and I spent some of this morning figuring out where to shop for the more unique ingredients I will need - mainly fava beans, lavash, rose and orange-blossom water, pomegranate paste, and such. (If you live near me and know where, please enlighten me!)
But I couldn't resist the recipes any longer, and yesterday I made Chicken Breast Saute with Curry Spices (feerakh bel curry) and an improvised Pilaf of my creation that stemmed from a couple recipes in Feast From the Mideast.
Here I have ground the cumin seeds, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cayenne, turmeric, cinnamon, and black peppercorn. Mmmm... and look at that color!

Instead of chicken breasts, I used bl/sl chicken thighs, and it was so tasty.
The improv consisted of millet (which I was trying to use up) sauteed with onions, garlic, pinenuts, and chopped dried apricots then simmered in chicken broth till softened. I tossed some scallions in at the end.

We topped both dishes with a drizzle of plain yogurt, and then we savored. Ohhh, so good! The picture shows the food in such a small portion because we were chowing away before I remembered to get a shot! But I think you get the idea. :)

Eating Habits of the Middle East

I've been reading this great book and resource, Feast From the Mideast by Faye Levy. Here are just a few of the many eating variances of the Middle East:

"A popular practice is beginning the meal with a bite of freshness - whether it's an Israeli-Lebanese diced salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions; a profusion of herbs rolled up in lavash flatbread with a little feta cheese in the Persian manner; or a selection of fresh and grilled vegetable meze."

"Food fusion, a modern concept to many of us, has been happening here for millennia as a result of commerce, conquests, and the movements of tribes and ethnic groups."

"Locals love grapes but do not usually cook with wine. Instead, they use pomegranate, citrus, and other fruit juices, as well as dried fruit like raisins and dried apricots, to give a tangy sweetness to their entrees. They also use treasured fruits, such as dates and figs, to sweeten the daily diet and make desserts."

"Certain key ingredients, such as fava beans, pomegranate paste, baharat spice mix, halloumi cheese, and lavash flatbread , give dishes their Mideast identity." [My note: Lavash is so, so, so good! Trader Joe's sells a really tasty version. I will attempt to make it, but I've read it's quite difficult to do well.]

"The Middle Eastern menu has the same nutritious characteristics as the Mediterranean diet... The research found less chronic disease and the highest life-expectancy rates in southern Italy, Greece, and notably, the island of Crete, which had the lowest heart disease rates of all... Crete is the gateway to the Middle East and its people share many of the eating patterns of the other eastern Mediterranean countries."

By the way, the countries I'm including in "Middle East" is Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Iran.

Food and Romans 1:20 and Psalms 19:1-4

As you follow along on this project that may seem silly or "just for kicks", I do want to stop and ponder how food shows the glory of God. Okay, stop laughing. Really. Think about it for a moment. Why did He bother with all this detail? Why did He create spices, for example? You know, we could all just eat manna day in and day out, just getting the nutrients and not the flavors.

There are over 100 fruits, a hundred! and I'm sure that's on the small side. Check out just the list of tropical fruits here:

There are over 200 culinary herbs and spices! That doesn't include any medicinal herbs that He created. When I finish making my latte in the mornings, I take that first warm, comforting sip and think, "What a wonderful thing, the coffee bean!" - or 'seed of life' as the Indians called it. I'm awfully glad God made the coffee plant!

Maybe you are still laughing, but I think even the small fact that God has given us a gift in food, is an incredible truth of His love for us and His creativity. Evolution couldn't have come up with such a master plan!

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:20

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun... Psalms 19:1-4

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Menu a.k.a. An Introduction to My Project

I have had this idea for a while now to dive into one culture of food for at least a month, such as only Japanese or Mexican or Scandinavian! And by dive in, I really mean it. My grocery list will be almost exclusively as a native family would shop. To fully experience the cuisine, I will try to imitate breakfast, lunch, and snacks, as well as dinner meals, though I may need to have some alternates based on availability and possible disdain of food choice by my family. (They do have rather adventurous palettes, though, so I think they'll be game.)
Since I also have three children under 5 and nanny part-time for three children under 5, I run a sort of home school preschool to keep things sane and safe! This project will merge with my teaching plans. There will be geography lessons, cultural music (and perhaps dance if my husband will oblige - rhythm have I none!), basic greetings, typical dress, and of course, cooking, all on a preschool level anyway.

My reasons?

1. My family could really learn about different people groups and the food they enjoy - and hopefully some of their techniques and inspirations as well. Knowledge breaks down many barriers.

2. It'd be more economical this way verses cooking a different region of food each night. I'll be able to buy more of certain ingredients, and I'll be able to make from scratch some of the core sauces or condiments of that culture. This will taste better and be cheaper.
3. I've always been curious about the health impacts of different ethnic foods, especially after skimming through a book on my shelf, 30 Secrets of the World's Healthiest Cuisines. I plan to keep track of my family's health during each segment, and I also plan to keep track of their preferences toward or against certain foods.
4, I love to cook and people generally like (and sometimes rave!) about it. (Thank you!) But I honestly have only had my own experience and my few recipe books as teachers. Since I can neither afford the money or the time right now to attend a culinary institute, I truly hope the books I read and the youtube videos I watch and any advice from the few of you I think will read this will be my teachers. I hope to emerge from this actually understanding things like samosa, sopapillas, pate, saffron, la choucroute, sukiyaki, tagine, etc., and find out some answers to questions like, "Are the French really the best cooks? Why does Crete have the lowest rate of heart disease? What do they eat in Siberia? Is the U.S.D.A. food pyramid really accurate?

Regions/countries that are on my list:
Indian, Japanese, Scandinavian, Middle Eastern, Italian, French, Mexican, South American (I'll have to research how this continent will best divide), Balkan, South African, Thai.
This project could have no end! But it must have a beginning, and so I am beginning with Middle Eastern Cooking. I will begin my notes on that in a new post! :) I don't know how long each region will take, but I'm currently assuming it will be about a month to cook the main and most popular dishes and learn a few key things for each place. Perhaps it will take more like 3 months... we shall see.

Feel free to teach me anything you have learned or steer me toward a book or website or blog. I'm ready to absorb the flavors I've been missing out on, and embrace the ones I've come to love!