CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Yabanda with caterpillars

Going to try a dish that uses two ingredients that are totally new to me. Yabanda is a Central African dish that’s simple, rustic, and uses local ingredients – specifically koko leaves. Koko is a vine leaf that’s also called ukazi or afang, especially in Nigeria. The leaves are shredded and used for soups and stews.

Oh, and yabanda also uses caterpillars.

I know a lot of people, especially in the West, get really squeamish about eating insects – it’s a cultural thing. However, insects are eaten all over the world – they’re quick protein and easy to either raise or forage (they’re also much more environmentally friendly than livestock). This isn’t my first time eating bugs – I’ve had some really good roast cicadas when I was working in China, and the cheesy mealworms at gift shops are actually kinda nice!

Caterpillars are a common meat across equatorial Africa, but these aren’t tiny inchworms. These are great big suckers – I think they’re shea caterpillars, and they’re 2-3 inches long. These ones are dried, so they need a good boil to get them tender – so do the koko leaves.

I’m using this recipe from DW (in French), which uses meat, but you can basically pick your protein. The recipe itself is very simple – sautée up some onions in red palm oil, add a hot pepper, Maggi cube, the koko and caterpillars and a bit of water and cook it up together, serve with a side of fufu. You could also use with a side of chikwangue, or gozo (either another term for ugali/pap or closely related). And if you’re not feeling caterpillars, the recipe is just as easily made with meat or smoked fish.

So how does it taste? The caterpillars have a lovely smokey scent, though not much flavour, since they’re been hollowed out and dried to safely ship around the world. The Maggi and the onions infused some flavour back into them, as do the hot peppers. The koko leaves are slightly bitter, and take a bit of time to soften (kind of like cassava leaves) but also soak up the flavour.

BANGLADESH: Shemai

Shemai (or lachcha semai) is a Bengali dessert of vermicelli in warm milk with spices, topped with fruits, nuts, or other treats. It’s popular during Eid, and there’s a lot of flexibility on preparation and toppings. I got a packet of imported shemai vermicelli from Bangladesh – they’re supposed to be divided into nice little nests, but these were well pulverized in the bag by the time they got to Canada. Doesn’t affect the taste, though!

The package gives instructions to cover with warm sweetened milk and served topped with nuts or fruit. Other recipes online are a bit more elaborate – I went for a middle ground and warmed the milk with spices in it as well – bay leaves, cardamom pods, cinnamon, and cloves (same spice mix as dudh cha). I didn’t bring the milk to a full boil however, just a gentle scald.

I was out of almonds, my favourite nut for desserts, but I topped my bowl with some fresh apricot slices and a dash of rosewater. The semai soaked up the hot milk really quickly, and had a nice soft texture. The spices infused well into the milk, and really worked with the fruit. It made a lovely quick breakfast, and you could get really creative or fancy if you wanted with your toppings and spices.

BANGLADESH: Chittagong Chicken

I was hoping for some good spicy recipes this month, and I’ve already got my wish. I’m trying Chittagong chicken, a hot curry with great spice mixes and a liberal use of mustard oil. I’m using this recipe by Antara Navin on Better Butter.

In North America, mustard oil is sold “for external use only”, though it’s demurely placed alongside the other cooking oils in South Asian groceries. Canada and the US have banned it for cooking because of high erucic acid content – a fat that may cause heart issues if consumed over a long time (though the science is still out on that). It’s also found in rapeseed oil, which is why we engineered canola in Canada. I figure people aren’t keeling over from mustard oil in other parts of the world, and using it once in a while can’t hurt – plus, I already survived cyanide apricot kernels (albeit with some hysterics on my part).

I did have to make one change in the recipe for health reasons, though – I’m allergic to cashews, so I swapped in peanuts instead. They worked just as well for soaking and thickening.

Most of the time spent on this recipe was spice preparation. I could have just used pre-ground spices, but I wanted to really get the good authentic roasted flavour from the chilies and coriander seeds. I also ground my own Bengali garam masala. Unlike the multi-ingredient Punjabi garam masala we normally get in Canada, it’s only three spices: cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom (and sometimes bay leaves, as in this recipe).

This chicken turned out fantastic – the mustard oil gave it a wonderful pungent sharp kick that went well with the heat from the chilies and the complex spice mixes. Coriander seeds usually fall to the background in a lot of recipes, but here it added a fresh, almost citrusy flavour. Marinating the chicken makes it incredibly tender, and it goes great with basmati rice. I doubled up the recipe, so I’ve happily got enough for several days.

BANGLADESH: Masala dudh cha

Spiced milk tea is a staple across the Indian subcontinent – it goes by many names but a common Bengali one is masala dudh cha – “dudh” is Bengali for milk. I found a big bag of Mirzapore black tea from Bangladesh (it’s one of the largest tea producers in the world) – it’s fannings – small pieces, nearly ground up in terms of texture.

I normally take my tea black, so this is a little bit more complicated than filling a mug from the kettle, but it’s still easy. I used this recipe from Bangladeshi Food Recipe – it’s a really lovely spice mix of cardamom, ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, bay leaf, and cloves. It calls for cow milk (as opposed to water buffalo milk – hard to get in Ottawa anyways), and I used about half the sugar.

It turned out quite tasty – I was afraid boiling the tea that long would make it tannic, but there’s no bitterness, just a blend of milk tea and gentle spices in the background. A nice way to start the day!

Of course, while the preparation is different, this drink is basically the same as what we call “chai” or “chai tea” in North America. However, chai/cha is just the word for tea itself in South Asian languages – so there’s always someone who will be pedantic and point out that “chai tea” means “tea tea”. I’d argue that cultural context makes a difference, since if you order a chai here in Canada, you’ll get something very different than ordering a cup of tea.

Almost every language today calls tea some variation of either “tea” or “cha” – there’s a lot of history behind the two words and why each language uses it:

UKRAINE: Vodka vs horilka

When the Russian invasion started, people here in Canada flocked to buy Ukrainian vodka as a sign of support (and because, well, it’s good). Liquor stores also pulled Russian vodka from their shelves. I’m not sure if Ukrainian vodka is still being produced and exported here – active warzone and all – but it’s still available on shelves.

There is an interesting semantic difference between “vodka” and the Ukrainian word “horilka” – they’re often used interchangeably. Some sources say that vodka was originally made from mixed grains, while horilka is made from just wheat, but since most are all made from various grains / potatoes these days, that difference isn’t really relevant anymore. Realistically, horilka is the Ukrainian name for 40%-ish clear spirits. Most bottles exported to Canada are labelled vodka, since that’s the term people are familiar with.

These are the two main brands of Ukrainian vodka available in Ontario – Nemiroff and Zirkova. Nemiroff has a historical connection going back to 1872, originally founded by a Count during the Russian Empire, then nationalized by the Soviets, and restarting as a private company in 1992. It’s unclear if it’s really a continuation of the company or a new company using the old one’s branding and distillery, but that feels like I’m putting too fine a point on it.

Zirkova has it’s own interesting history – the company was founded in Canada by Katherine Vellinga, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, but the vodka is entirely distilled and packaged in Ukraine, then the whole production run is shipped for sale in Canada. When the war started, she began to donate 100% of profits to humanitarian aid, turned the distillery over to medical sanitizer production, and worked to use it as a hub to help employees and their families to safety. It’s understandably unlikely that any more bottles will come to Canada, but there’s still over 7000 bottles in stock at the LCBO across Ontario right now.

As for flavour comparision – vodka tends to be hard really tell apart, especially with good quality brands since the better a vodka is, the purer and less flavoured it is. Side by side, I would say Zirkova is more neutral, while Nemioff is a bit sharper and grassier.

A really distinctively Ukrainian angle is the love of infusing flavours into vodka – chili peppers or horseradish are common, as well as berries or spices. There’s also a hot spiced version that’s kind of like a mulled wine. I’m going to make a few from the vodka, the recipes tend to be simple: put the flavouring in, let it sit for a few days or weeks, shake occasionally, strain, drink.

I’m trying spotykach (“stumbling”) with a recipe from Authentic Ukraine – vodka infused with spices like cinnamon, cloves, saffron (what I call “Christmas spices”), then boiled with some sugar and served cold. The straight vodka itself tasted wonderful after steeping for a week – cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg come out strongest, though the saffron isn’t too present. Boiling in some sugar makes it wickedly easy to drink, hence the name, and feels like it could be used in a lot of mixed drinks – instead of rum in a rum punch, or mixed with black tea would work great.

I’m also making a flavoured lemon horilka with a recipe from Ukrainian Diaspora. It’s very simple – take off some lemon peel with a vegetable peeler (the peeling is important so you don’t get bitter pith) and let it steep in vodka for a few days. It is also absolutely delicious – it’s got a strong, fresh lemon flavour that is beautiful. This is a total winner – it’s good on its own right out of the freezer, but mixing it with a bit of sparkling water knocks it out of the park for a summer drink. This also keeps in the freezer for a long time.

UKRAINE: Salo

We’re suddenly into hot summer weather here in Ottawa, so perfect for a little Ukrainian dinner al fresco out on the deck. I’m going to try something really Ukrainian: salo.

Salo is cured fatback (like pork belly but mainly fat rather than meat). There’s lots of ways to serve it – cooked into cracklings, mashed with raw garlic, or even included in chocolate (kind of like the bacon chocolate craze a few years back). I’m going to try it the truly classic way: cold of out of the freezer, sliced thin on bread or crackers, and accompanied with vodka, pickles, and other punchy things.

I picked up from Lakomka Deli both plain and smoked salo, as well as several jars of imported Ukrainian goodies from the brand Veres (Верес is Cyrillic, but I still want to call them “bepec pickles”). I’ve got:

  • Beans with mushrooms in tomato sauce
  • Garlic pickles with dill and horseradish
  • Adjika hot sauce
  • Roasted zucchini and tomato sauce with hot peppers

And of course, I served the whole thing with an ice cold glass of Ukrainian vodka, Zirkova One, plus some cherry tomatoes. The salo literally melts in your mouth, and vodka and pickles help cut the richness of the fat. I really love the smoked salo in particular, it’s got a beautiful flavour.

Adjika is actually a Caucasian hot sauce from Georgia, but it’s not surprising that these flavours migrated, probably through the Soviet era. It’s dark and thick, salty and smokey, kind of like a more spreadable gochujang. I ended stirring it together with the zucchini sauce (itself a lot like Balkan ajvar) to spread on top of the salo and that worked wonderfully.

UKRAINE: Pampushky

I had never made bread successfully from scratch before starting Locally Foreign. I had my first real success with Uzbek non, but I think this one is my biggest bread triumph so far: Ukrainian garlic buns called pampushky. I used this recipe from Leite’s Culinaria. It was surprisingly easy, though the first proofing is overnight, so you need to plan ahead. I went on the absolute minimum of proofing time – 8 hours for the first, and 1 hour for the second, and they still turned out fluffy and soft. Basting the garlic oil onto the hot buns right out of the oven had a satisfying sizzle, and using the remaining oil for a dip was a galaxy brain move – I still have garlic coming out of my pores the next day. Totally worth it.

UKRAINE: Hrechanyky / baked kasha

This was one of those culinary failures that had a successful salvage. Buckwheat is a hearty countryside staple of Ukrainian cuisine, and it’s often cooked as kasha – cooking the grain with veggies and meat and other good things. However, I had scored a bag of toasted Ukrainian buckwheat, and I was feeling clever. I was aiming to make hrechanyky – cutlets made out of boiled buckwheat and meat, browned in a pan, then baked in the oven using the recipe from Authentic Ukraine.

I know where I messed up, and the fault was totally mine for not reading the recipe thoroughly. I measured out the uncooked weight of buckwheat instead of cooked – and kasha is kind of like rice for expansion of volume and weight, so I ended up with WAY more kasha than meat….or anything else. While I did increase the eggs, the patties just weren’t really holding together, and I got maybe one or two to make it through the bowl to the dredge to the pan to the oven. They did come out delicious, though.

Not good, but tasty

So instead, I put the rest of the buckwheat / meat / egg / onion mix into a baking pan and threw it into the oven. Boom! Baked kasha – I had improvised myself into a version of a different Ukrainian dish, and it worked well enough. I originally boiled the buckwheat in broth to increase the flavour, and I had a homemade smoked chicken broth in my freezer that really added to the toasty flavour already there.

ECUADOR: Snacks and maiz tostado

I really struggled finding exported snacks from Ecuador – I checked multiple Latin and South American groceries in Ottawa and Calgary, plus online. Ecuador is a major food exporter, however, and trip down my local grocery aisle had bananas, mangos, yellow dragonfruit, melons, and more all from there. However, these are generally grown as cash crops for export – about 25% of the world’s banana crop comes from Ecuador. I was hoping instead to find some snacks that were more genuinely “Ecuadorian”.

Ecuadorian cacao – This isn’t an Ecuadorian company, rather it’s a British one that sources high-end cacao from single origins like Ecuador. Cacao used to be Ecuador’s major cash crop (and is an indigenous plant to the region). The country was the main world producer until the market crashed in the early 20th century. Cacao is still grown there, but the focus is on smaller amounts at higher quality. However, Ecuador mainly exports the cacao, it’s turned into chocolate elsewhere. As for this bar itself, it’s just a really nice dark chocolate, with a nice bit of depth from the sea salt.

GuayusaGuayusa is a herbal tea that’s related to yerba mate, and almost the entire world’s guayusa crop is grown in Ecuador. The dried leaves smell very green and herbal. Mild tasting tea, kind of like an earthier green tea, and feels like it should be bitter but isn’t. It’s hard to get an exact comparison for how caffeinated it is, but most sources average it around the strength of black tea, with the upside that unlike tea, it can be steeped for a long time without going tannic and bitter.

Tome Tropical Fresa – I am not 100% certain if this pop is truly Ecuadorian or if it’s something made for the export / ex-pat market – kind of like Brio not actually being from Italy. If you do know, please let me know in the comments! It’s an intensely sweet strawberry-flavoured pop, but with enough acidity to keep it from being too cloying.

And now a snack that’s really Ecuadorian, instead of just an export good (admittedly the corn itself is from a Peruvian brand).

Maiz tostado is a type of Andean popcorn, made with cancha corn (a wide kernel corn variety). It’s also made with chulpe, a slightly thinner variety of corn – they may just be two different sizes for the same thing, since cancha and chulpe seem to get used interchangeably.

Regardless, this is a really fun and easy recipe (from Laylita’s Recipes) – just have a lid handy for when they start to pop! It’s kind of like inside-out popcorn, fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.

ECUADOR: Colada de avena con naranjilla

I know Ecuador has a really varied flavour profile to their cuisine, but I keep on gravitating to the tart fruit recipes – there’s so many great choices! I’m making colada de avena, a strained oat drink, drunk hot or cold, often made with fruit. There’s a whole bunch of different ways to make it across South America; I’m trying one with naranjilla fruit.

Naranjillas (also called lulo) are sour fruit that has a flavour somewhere between lime and rhubarb (they’re related to tamarillos). I can’t get any fresh in my part of Canada, but frozen pulp works fine for this recipe. Recipe from Laylita’s Recipes. I went for a bit less panela, but it’s still needed as it’s a very tart fruit.

The long simmer with the cinnamon sticks made my kitchen smell heavenly. I tried the colada hot off the stove – it’s very thick, sweet and sour, with a good cinnamon aftertaste. It sticks to your ribs and is very warming (and warm! the consistency keeps it hot for a long time, so be careful sipping).

I also tried it cold the next day for breakfast, it’s like a nice smoothie. I think I’m going to make some more variations on this recipe. There’s a lot of delicious tropical fruits that are native to Ecuador, so I picked up a few other packs of frozen pulp to try in coladas: sapote (mamey), banana passionfruit (curuba / taxo), and guava (which is called guayaba in Ecuador, because confusingly a totally different fruit is called guava there).