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.

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: 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

UZBEKISTAN: Koryo Saram / Koreyscha sabzili salat

There are about 500,000 ethnic Koreans living in the countries of the former Soviet Union, with the largest community in Uzbekistan, as well as Kazakhstan and Russia. This community is called Koryo Saram, and it is different from the Sakhalin Korean community on the Russian east coast.

The Koryo Saram are the descendants of Koreans who had fled to Russia during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Most had initially settled the the Russian Far East, but in 1937, as tensions worsened between the USSR and Japan with the start of the Sino-Japanese War, Stalin ordered ethnic Koreans to be forcibly relocated to Central Asia. The survivors (about 1/3 died in the deportation) settled in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and eventually built new lives.

Here’s a great interview with Victoria Kim, who grew up in Uzbekistan, on her studies into the Korean diaspora in Central Asia and her own family’s history – her grandfather survived the 1937 deportation as a little boy. She covers both the experience in Uzbekistan, and the further history of Koreans in the Soviet Union – including the Korean War.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Koryo Saram returned to Korea. Below is an interesting interview with a young man who is 4th generation Koryo Saram – he was born in Uzbekistan and Russian is his first language, but his family moved to South Korea when he was 14 and he’s caught in both a cultural and legal limbo. Koryo Saram who wish to return to Korea are only considered Korean to the 3rd generation, meaning his parents count as Korean, but legally he is a foreigner.

While many Koryo Saram don’t speak Korean and are largely integrated into Uzbek society, one of their very notable influences on Uzbekistan is the big culinary influence. Kimchi is immensely popular in Uzbekistan, and many Korean dishes are on the menu – often adapted to the ingredients and spices available in Central Asia.

I figured I’d make a Koryo Saram recipe – called koreyscha sabzili salat (Korean carrot salad) in Uzbek. It’s also called morkovcha (“morkov” is Russian for carrot and “cha” from a Korean suffix for salads). It’s eaten all through the former Soviet Union, but this recipe at Zen Kimchi comes from Uzbekistan.

This recipe uses some typically Korean ingredients – hot peppers, sesame seeds, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar – but the base of carrots and the leading place of coriander as the main seasoning makes it much more more Central Asian. Letting it sit overnight really brings the flavours together. It’s spicy and garlicky – it’s a nice side dish and a good way to dress carrots.

UZBEKISTAN: Plov with wild black cumin

Plov (also known as osh) is Uzbekistan’s national dish and eaten all around Central Asia – it’s a great big rice pilaf with meat and onion and carrots. There are countless varieties – I saw a really tasty looking one with quince I may try if I can find the fruit – but right now I just wanted to make a “default plov”.

I checked several Uzbek plov recipes and they had many elements in common – browned beef or lamb, onion, julienned carrots, chickpeas, cumin and coriander, using intact whole heads of garlic, and layering the rice on top of broth to let it cook. I based mine off this recipe from Video Culinary (text version here) – though they didn’t include chickpeas, so I added a drained can at the same step as the garlic, before layering on the rice. I followed the rest of her technique to the letter, including the mound of rice with steam holes at the end.

Every recipe I found also has HUGE quantities – I cut the recipe down to 1/3 of the quantities called for (I only cut down the spices and garlic by a half) and it still filled a big dutch oven. That makes sense, as plov is a very social dish – it’s common at special events and is meant to feed crowds.

I also added a special ingredient – whole wild black cumin seeds from Uzbekistan! Épices de Cru / Spice Trekkers sources it – they’re great for high end spices; I also got my Chilean merquén from them. I had already used regular ground cumin with the other spices at the start of the dish, but I wanted to really get that lovely cumin flavour, so after making the rice layer, I gave it a generous sprinkle of cumin seeds before I let it cook.

This plov turned out AMAZING. It was a lot of work but WOW, it is worth it! The rice was perfectly fluffy and had absorbed all the good flavours, the meat was tender, and the chickpeas weren’t mushy. The carrot added extra flavour and colour and the cumin seeds made it feel like restaurant pilaf.

The best part was the garlic. I was worried the whole bulb technique wouldn’t be effective, especially that late in the recipe, but I was wrong, you could absolutely taste lots of good garlic flavour. The cloves had cooked inside their skins, and I could gently squeeze them out and use them as a topping to make it extra garlicky!

This is recipe is going in my win column (I needed a win after the navat failure) and I should use it for dinner parties – this is like a week’s worth of meals!

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Curry goat roti

Curry goat roti is originally from the Indo-Trinidadian community, but the pan-Caribbean nature of these dishes is really evident in how widespread they are, both in the Caribbean and among ex-pat communities.

I’ve noticed that here in Ottawa, there’s very few Caribbean restaurants that are dedicated to only one country’s cuisine – they usually focus either on the English or the French Caribbean, or even mix the two. I went to Island Flava, which was definitely English Caribbean – the menu is a mix of Jamaican and Trinidadian dishes, and the lady at the counter had a St. Lucian flag mask.

For the curry goat, I had the option of bone-in or boneless – definitely went bone-in, that’s where the flavour is. They also give the option of making it extra spicy, went for that too!

The roti is HUGE – this will definitely be both lunch and dinner. The goat is tender and falling apart, mixed with curried potatoes, and it’s lovely and spicy – made me break a sweat. This is DELICIOUS, I’m going back to try their other dishes.