ECUADOR: Mango ceviche

South American ceviche was introduced widely to Canada a few years back, but we’ve really only been exposed here to the kind made with whitefish (which is delicious). Using lime juice or other acids to cook food is much more common in Ecuador and Peru than just with fish dishes:

“There’s a general misconception that ceviche should always have fish or seafood. Yes, the most popular ones do include those ingredients. However, growing up in Ecuador we had ceviches made with chochos (a lupini bean), with hearts of palm, with mushrooms, chicken (fully cooked of course), broccoli / cauliflower. In the southern city of Macara, there’s even a ceviche de carne made with beef.”

Laylita’s Recipes: Mango ceviche

With that in mind, I’m making a mango ceviche! Recipe is from Laylita’s Recipes, which has been a really useful English-language collection of Ecuadorian recipes. It’s straightforward, though a bit messy, between peeling and dicing all those mangos, and juicing all that citrus.

It’s really tasty and refreshing – the acidity of the lime juice meets the mango sweetness, and the red onion, cilantro, and hot pepper make it into a very fresh, savoury salad. It’s a similar flavour profile to the sweet-and-tart aji de tomate de arbol on chocos I tried earlier; I really like it.

ECUADOR: Chaulafan de pollo

Ecuador has a large and long-established Chinese community, and there are several Ecuadorian dishes that have a distinct Chinese influence or origin. Most notable is chaulafan de pollo.

The name “chaulafan” comes from the Chinese word for fried rice – chao fan (chǎofàn in Mandarin, and caau faan in Cantonese). This is total speculation, but I bet the “la” comes from the Chinese word for “spicy”, since this dish is normally served with hot sauce.

I’m using this recipe from Laylita’s Recipes – she’s become my go-to for Ecuadorian recipes. Chaulafan is generally pretty similar to other fried rice recipes you might find, though there’s a few distinctly Latin American ingredients – especially Worcestershire sauce and adding raisins. I’m a little skeptical on the raisins, but they’re a common addition for savoury meat dishes (see Chilean empanadas), so I’ll roll with it.

First of all, this recipe makes a HUGE amount of food – your meal prep for the week is taken care of. Cooking the rice in broth adds a lot of flavour, as well as using pancetta, Worcestershire, and soy sauce (if you’re on a low-sodium diet, try something else). The raisins actually work pretty well – they add a bit of sweetness that actually blends in nicely.

I later tried it with a bit of the tamarillo aji as suggested. I was expecting it to be too many competing flavours at the same time, but it was a nice balance – savoury and meaty rice with a sour and sweet sauce, and everything mildly spicy.

The spread of Chinese cuisine around the world with the Chinese diaspora is an interesting story in its own right – a dish as simple as fried rice has many local twists. If you’d like another local twist on Chinese fried rice, check out the Nauruan spam fried rice from last year.

ECUADOR: Aji de tomate de arbol

Freshly made aji is a staple on Ecuadorian tables – it’s fresh hot sauce, often made with tart fruit. There’s a lot of variations, like a straighforward aji criollo with green hot peppers and garlic, aji de maracuya with passion fruit, and aji de tomate de arbol – made with tamarillos.

Tamarillos are a South American fruit sometimes called a tree tomato, though they don’t really taste like one – they have a fresh tartness that’s more like passionfruit or citrus. They’re sweet enough to eat straight, but also refreshingly sour. There are two varieties, yellow and red – mainly from the colour of the inside pulp, though I’m not sure if they have different flavours.

The recipe is from Laylita’s Recipes – a great Ecuadorian food site. She uses yellow tamarillos, I could only find red ones. While the recipe suggests less-spicy peppers, why make a hot sauce without any heat? I blended in an un-seeded yellow habanero. I did also find chochos (lupini beans) to add to this sauce – the recipe site suggests adding them is a regional favourite in Quito.

The red tamarillos pulped up to a beautiful burgundy – my phone captures it a bit more red. It’s wonderfully tart and fresh, sweet and acidic and punchy, with a nice background noise of heat. This could really go with all kinds of dishes, basically anything that would go with citrus. I’m going to serve this alongside a few other Ecuadorian dishes I’m planning to make, but I had a bit over the remaining beans and it was fantastic.

I did have to go back and correct “tomatillos” to “tamarillos” about three times while writing this, however.

GABON: Chicken nyembwé with chikwangue

Chicken nyembwé is the classic Gabonese dish – there’s a million variations, but at it’s base it’s smoked chicken in sauce graine, a thick palm nut sauce. I’m building off this recipe from Popo Loves Cooking; she brings together everything I saw in other recipes (and the recipe is bilingual!)

Whole smoked chicken was surprisingly hard to find, but my local African grocery had them – they’re easy to defrost and work with because the smoking means they’re partially cooked already. This recipe also includes garlic and onion, hot pepper, sorrel leaves (similar to spinach), bay leaves, and a couple rondelles chucked in whole. Rondelles are also called olum, bobimbi, or country onions/garlic – they look like a hazelnut but have a pungent garlic and onion aroma that really oomphs up a dish.

I also picked up chikwangue for a side dish – these are batons of grated fermented cassava, wrapped in banana leaves. You can buy them frozen and steam them – they’re a versatile accompaniment to Central African dishes, or you could swap for fufu or rice.

There was a fair bit of splatter as the sauce cooked down, but it turned out really tasty. The smokiness of the chicken comes through the strongest, and goes really well with the earthiness from the palm nuts. It’s got the richness and consistency of a thick curry (and stains like one too – don’t wear a light shirt!). There’s a bit of heat from the pepper, and all the onion, garlic, and rondelles add lots of flavour. The tang from the fermented cassava balances the creaminess of the sauce. Yum!

I’m also totally sold on smoked chicken itself, it’s absolutely delicious. I’m saving the carcass to use for broth – I’m thinking a smoked chicken noodle soup. I’m also glad I had much more success than my other Gabonese chicken dish.

GABON: Crispy baked banana

While desserts aren’t too common in most traditional African cuisines, there’s some really tasty modern creations. I figured I’d give crispy baked banana from this Gabonese recipe at Toi Moi et Cuisine a go (recipe in French, but the video makes the steps clear). It’s a really fast and easy recipe; dredge sliced banana in orange juice and egg, then breadcrumbs. Get it a little gold and crispy in a pan with butter, then give it a quick heat in the oven. Boom.

The banana slices come out sweet and hot and tender with a crispy shell and a little hint of citrus. They’re fantastic. The recipe suggested vanilla ice cream on the side, which would be a beautiful contrast, and you could get really creative with toppings for these.

GABON: Iporo

Iporo is a Gabonese dish of cassava leaves cooked with fish. Like many recipes, there’s a million variations, and no one “true” recipe. I’m going to be basing my recipe off Africa Up’s En Cuisine (in French), but I’ll be using some red palm oil when I fry the onion, upping the garlic, and adding a hot pepper, as in this recipe from the town of Port-Gentil (also in French). Other recipes add dried shrimp, use smoked or salted fish, or use sauce graine – a premade sauce from palm nuts.

This is a lovely blend of flavours – the long cooking time softens the cassava leaves, but adding in the the fried fish and onions at the end keeps them crisp and flavourful. The peanut butter melds really well with the red palm oil and adds richness. Most recipes I looked at use either one or the other (I think it’s regional), but they’re pretty tasty together. The cassava leaves are nice and spicy, as I used a ghost pepper, and I’m serving them with another part of the plant – a side of mashed cassava root.

If you’d like another African cassava leaf recipe, check out matapa from Mozambique.

GABON: (A failed attempt at) odika chicken with fufu

This recipe looked so good, and yet, I totally messed it up – I didn’t check the quality of my ingredients. I was looking to make odika chicken from this great looking recipe at Madd Cooking (in French). Odika, also called wild mango, African mango, or ogbono, is the kernel of a plant that only grows in Central Africa – it’s used in Nigerian, Cameroonian, and Gabonese cuisine. It’s supposed to give a rich, cocoa flavour and thickens stews. However, if it’s been stored too long, it spoils and takes on a strong soapy flavour.

I probably should have looked that up first.

Instead, I bought a package of ground odika that had been shipped to Canada from Nigeria and then placed on the back shelf of a grocery store for enough time to gather dust. When they say spoiled odika smells soapy when cooked, they don’t mean just a little bit soapy. They mean powerful, chemical, “back of a laundromat” scent, almost like lye (it reminded me of lutfisk, and that’s not good). I should have pulled back and saved the remaining ingredients once the smell filled up my kitchen, but I thought that maybe the soapy smell would cook off if I saw the whole recipe through.

It did not. I had all my windows open (even though it was -10C), all fans going, and a heavy hand with the air freshener. Even then, I still gave it a taste test – the soapy flavour is still there, though not as strong as the smell. It’s a shame, because otherwise this recipe would be tasty, everything else seems like it works great.

I did make some instant plantain fufu to accompany it, and that turned out not bad. It’s a good arm workout, making sure it’s well beaten, but it’s a great texture. It’s stickier and stretchier than pap/xima, with a satisfying carb-y taste like whipped potatoes (you use fufu to scoop up some of the main dish with your fingers). So there’s that at least!

I want to take another kick at this, but don’t know if I’d be able to find fresh enough odika. In Gabon they often process and preserve odika into dika bread, which can be grated and has a longer shelf life. I haven’t been able to find any in my local African grocery stores – it may be available in Montreal, where there’s a large French African community, if it’s available in Canada at all.

Dika bread – Source

NEW ZEALAND: Anzac biscuits

I tried to follow authentic recipes as often as possible, but this is the first one where following the recipe is required by law! Anzac biscuits are shared by Australia and New Zealand (who are in friendly competition over having the oldest recipe), and were sold in fundraisers for troops fighting in the First World War. They’re often still sold to fundraise for veterans’ associations around Anzac Day.

That military connection is where the law comes in. Both New Zealand and Australia regulate the use of “ANZAC” – government permission is specifically needed to sell anything commercially with the name. There’s an exemption for needing to file for permission to sell Anzac biscuits, but they must be made with the traditional recipe, with no modifications like chocolate chips or nuts. (Gluten- or dairy-free modifications are allowed.) They must also be marketed exactly as “Anzac biscuits” – not as cookies or other names.

The two countries take it quite seriously and enforce these rules with the threat of fines. An ice cream company using the cookies had to change their marketing from “Anzac bikkies” to “biscuits”, and Subway was forced to stop selling the biscuits in Australia in 2008 when it was found they were using their regular cookie dough (which was American-made to boot, which seemed to be a further bone of contention).

So, how to make Anzac biscuits the right way? The recipe is actually pretty straightforward – sugar, flour, rolled oats, and coconut, with butter, golden syrup, and some baking soda dissolved in boiling water. I used this recipe from the Edmonds Cookbook, a New Zealand cooking staple in its own right.

I found real golden syrup in the international aisle at the grocery (no substitutions!) The recipe was really easy and baked up quickly – the biscuits were soft and chewy, sweet but not excessively so, and nice and toothsome with the coconut and oats.

NEW ZEALAND: Giving Marmite a fair go

When I was a kid on vacation in New Zealand, I had an encounter with these infamous yeast spreads – I can’t remember if it was Vegemite or Marmite, but between having a kid’s palate and spreading it thick like jam on toast, it didn’t go well. That being said, I grew up to like other “acquired tastes”, like black licorice, pickled herring, or extremely spicy food, so this is a perfect opportunity to give Marmite a fair go and see how I like it as an adult.

There’s two main yeast spreads out there – Vegemite, which is Australian and different in flavour from Marmite, from the UK. However, there is a lesser-exported third – New Zealand Marmite. While UK Marmite is more common globally (it’s now owned by Unilever and I can find it in my local grocery store), NZ Marmite is made by a company called Sanitarium, and has been for about a century. It’s claimed the NZ Marmite is the “gentlest” of the three, so this will be a good on-ramp for me.

My packet of Marmite came with the snacks I ordered from Kiwi Grub Box. I’m going to make it properly this time – spread very thinly on buttered toast.

At first, it’s just intensely salty. But then, there’s a complex, deeply savoury flavour. Something vegetal and earthy, but also reminds me of a really dark soy sauce or black bean paste. However, there’s absolutely nothing even remotely sweet about it. I don’t hate it – it’s actually a really interesting taste, I bet it could add some nice savoury complexity to food. I think I’m going to experiment and try adding a little dollop to gravy or stew, or I could be a complete heathen and try using it instead of Worcestershire in a Caesar.

NEW ZEALAND: Kiwi onion dip and cheese rolls

I ordered a box of snacks from Kiwi Grub Box, which included was a package of Maggi bacon onion soup mix. I could have just made myself a nice warm bowl of soup, but turns out this brand of onion soup mix is worth its weight in gold for Kiwi ex-pats – it’s one half of Kiwi onion dip. Using onion soup mix to make a dip isn’t unique to New Zealand, but this is so beloved that the ingredients are often shipped out to Kiwis abroad.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the other ingredient – a can of reduced cream. In fact, I have no idea what reduced cream is – it’s only sold in NZ. A bit of searching comes up with some options – table cream or would have the same butterfat amount and looks like a similar consistency. However, Kiwi sources recommend using sour cream. Almost all say nothing tastes the same as reduced cream, but I’ll have to make do.

I’m going to split the package in half and do a little experiment – one dip made with table cream, the other with sour cream. Each then gets a dash of lemon juice (vinegar is alternately used in recipes) and then into the fridge for half an hour.

Okay, sour cream wins hands down, no question. It’s delicious – flavourful and tangy, went perfect with some carrots. The table cream one was far too thin and less tangy. The good news is I’m not going to let it go to waste – I’ll simmer it down into a pasta sauce.

I set some of the dip aside so I can use it to make another Kiwi recipe: cheese rolls. It’s a South Island snack – you grate some cheese into the onion dip, spread it on the verso of buttered bread, roll it up and toast it in the oven! I used brown bread, so a bit less authentic, but yum, these are good – and messy!