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: Mughlai paratha and sanar toast

More frozen Bangladeshi treats – so far I’ve tried green mango and wood apple bhortas, plus dal puri and shami kebabs. Now for a snack and a dessert!

The Mughal history of this dish is pretty clear – it’s in the name! Mughlai parathas are turnovers with fillings, usually meat, egg, veggies, and spices, and are likely related to Turkish golzeme.

This one is vegetarian, so just egg and veggies, with spices. You can pan-fry or bake, I went for baking the paratha. It’s mildly spicy, very flavourful, and has a really satisfying crunch to it.

I can’t find a lot of references for “sanar toast” apart from the company’s own website, so I’m not sure if this is a brand name for this dessert – is it the same as a malai sandwhich?

Regardless, it’s a soft, sweet dessert of fluffy cream of wheat and chhena – cheese curds that can be made into paneer. It’s very dainty and creamy, and these frozen desserts can be quickly microwaved.

BANGLADESH: Green mango bhorta and naga pickle

I’m trying another frozen bhorta, this one made with sour green mango. Bhortas (sauteed spiced veggies) are usually a simple comfort food served with rice. The green mango is wonderfully tart and just slightly spicy. It’s good warm but this would make a really nice savoury summer treat served semi-frozen.

I had with it with the hottest damn hot sauce I’ve had in a long time. Bangladeshi cuisine doesn’t go light on the heat to begin with, but these pickled chillies are hot even by Bengali standards. The first ingredient is naga peppers – likely the Naga Morich, which grows in northern Bangladesh. It’s the hottest naturally-growing chili pepper, at over 1 million Scoville units. As a comparison, jalapeno peppers are about 5000 Scoville. To get hotter than the Naga Morich, you need to start specially breeding the peppers or just using capsaicin extract.

Just a little bit on the plate and this is HOT – full face of fire, sweating, feel where it is in your digestive system hot. It’s also a bit smokey and citrusy (so it goes great with the bhorta) but also holy shit this is hot. Absolutely fantastic. I am in love.

BANGLADESH: More snacks

Another haul of Bangladeshi snacks – this time from the little grocery stores along Danforth in Toronto’s Bangladeshi neighbourhood.

Well Food Ovaltine cookies – Extremely crumbly little cookies made with Ovaltine. Ovaltine is a chocolate malt drink mix that’s really popular worldwide – except in North America, where it’s almost unknown. (Malt drinks are also really rare here.) Apart from leaving crumbs all over my desk, these are not too sweet, with a bit of malty bitterness in the aftertaste.

Frutika – Another thick mango nectar drink, like the Frutta one I tried earlier. Not too sweet, and I think this is from a bigger company, because they have a lot of ads, including this absolutely emotionally devastating one (with subtitles). Remember, this is for a tasty little bottle of mango juice:

Banoful Energy Biscuits – These cookies are advertised as giving you energy, but from the ingredients, I think that’s just because of the sugar. Very soft melt in your mouth butter cookies, quite tasty. I really like the texture of these Banoful cookies – the orange ones were my favourite.

Haque Mr. Cookie Butter Coconut – Really airy and flaky cookies, almost like a rice cookies meets a butter cookie. The coconut flavour is really mild, tastes more like vanilla. But a really lovely texture, even if it makes a lot of crumbs!

Pran Jhal MuriJhal muri is a Bengali street food of puffed rice, mixed with chanachur, nuts, and other little treats. This one has peanuts and fried noodles. They’re wasabi flavoured, kind of like wasabi peas, on top of the more classic Bengal spice mix of cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, chillies and mustard oil. Not the flavour combo I was expecting but pretty good, it’s really satisfying to eat by the handful.

BANGLADESH: Shami kebab, dal puri, and wood apple bhorta

Got some frozen Bengali food from MF Foodmart, a little grocery with a lot of imports from Bangladesh – I also picked up a bunch of Bangladeshi snacks from there.

Kothbel bhortaBhorta is a classic Bengali dish of lightly fried mashed vegetables that’s real comfort food – it’s used as a main dish, a side, or even as a topping. It’s usually really simple (as opposed to other Bangladeshi dishes) and this one is just wood apple, chillies, salt and oil. Wood apple (kothbel) is a totally new fruit to me – it’s native to the Bay of Bengal, and it’s been called an acquired taste (and uncharitably, “ugly“). It’s got a bit of a funky, meaty scent to it (no worse than durian), but the flavour is really wonderful. It’s smokey and savoury, but also tart and citrusy – almost like smoked tamarind. The bhorta is also nice and spicy, with lots of green chillies in it.

Chicken shami kebabShami kebabs are common across Pakistan, northern India, and Bangladesh – they’re likely originally Persian, and come from the cultural influence of the Mughal empire. They’re usually beef, but can be mutton and chicken. The meat is ground and mixed with chickpea or lentil flour and spices, then cooked. These ones say to bake them – they come out looking a bit like gingerbread cookies. The spice mix is nice, there’s lots of cumin and coriander, and I think a bit of mint. The texture isn’t great, though, it’s pretty mealy and dry. I think I’ll try frying the rest later and see if that improves the texture.

Dal puri – This is a snack that’s eaten not just across the subcontinent, but has also become a staple of Caribbean cuisine. It’s a crispy flatbread, somewhere between panipuri and naan in texture, with a filling of spiced lentils. These puff up huge when cooked, with a big air pocket (watch the steam!). The lentils have a pretty mild flavour, but it’s the hot crispy bread that’s the really satisfying part.

BANGLADESH: Chicken biryani and aam panna

I was down in Toronto for a work event, and got some time to poke around Toronto’s Bangladeshi neighbourhood out on the east end of Danforth. There’s a whole lot of Bangladeshi and Bengali restaurants there to choose from. I first went to Dhaka Kebab, a spot with a huge selection of Bengali food, including takeaway desserts.

I ordered the chicken biryani – a massively popular dish in Bangladesh. Recipes look incredibly complex, so I figured it’d take the easy way and get a dish made by the experts. Biryani is usually layered, and so was mine, with spiced rice on top, and a hard-boiled egg and two pieces of chicken underneath. The chicken was fantastically tender, and the rice was moderately spicy with all kinds of beautiful flavours – I could taste the warmth from the garam masala, especially the cardamom. It was also a huge plate, had to take extra home with me!

I followed that by heading down the street to Star Plus Kabab House – I was hoping to try their jolpai juice, but unfortunately they were out. Jolpai is an olive-like fruit grown in South Asia, and it’s supposed to be nice and tart – it’s also used for pickles and chutneys.

Instead, I got a different drink – aam panna (also called amm pora sharbat). It’s green unripe mango, blended with ice, mint, cumin, black pepper, and hot chillies. It’s a summer drink, meant to cool you down and give you back nutrients lost in the sweltering heat. While it wasn’t that hot a day in Toronto, it was very cool and refreshing, sour and sweet, with just a little bit of spice.

BANGLADESH: Snacks

There’s a nice little Bangladeshi grocery in Ottawa, MF Foodmart, that’s right next door to a great Salvadoran restaurant that I tried when covering El Salvador. At this rate, I’ll be working my way through every grocery and restaurant in town!

Kishwan Litchi Drink – A non-carbonated lychee drink. Given how sweet a lot of South Asian snacks and desserts can be, I was actually expecting this to be super sugary, but it’s not. It’s just the right level of sweetness, and tastes very much like lychee juice, though there’s a slightly artificial aftertaste.

Top Orange Biscuit – A light digestive cookie with a really lovely orange flavour, kind of like fresh orange juice. A bit crisp and crumbly, with a similar texture to arrowroot cookies. I really like these.

Frutta Mango Drink – It’s a mango drink, not a juice, but it’s thick like mango nectar. Sweet and with a really nice natural mango flavour.

Banoful Hot Chanachur – Chanachur is a savoury snack mix, usually sold as “Bombay Mix” in North America. The ingredients vary, but it’s usually nuts, roasted legumes and rice, dry cracker and noodles, and spices. There’s a lot of it in each bag, so you really get your money’s worth, and this brand has got good heat and lots of flavour from the spices – there’s lots of cumin, coriander, black pepper, and more.

Kishwan Twist Potato Snacks – These are spicy tomato flavour, though you can only taste a little bit of tomato. There’s a pleasant bit of heat – they won’t melt your face off but there is some genuine spice to them. A lot of time “spicy” chips don’t even have that! They also have a really satisfying light texture and aren’t greasy – kind of halfway between Israeli Bissli and Thai tapioca chips.

BANGLADESH: Borhani and chotpoti

I was in Montreal this past weekend, and poked around the Bangladeshi neighbourhood in Park Ex – there’s a whole bunch of Bengali grocers and halal restaurants. I got a snack to go from Appayon, a nice little restaurant specializing in Bangladesh cuisine (and big screen cricket tests – England beat the Kiwis).

It was mid-afternoon and I wasn’t hungry for a full meal, so I got a little appetizer of chotpoti. It’s in the same food family as papdi chaat: street food that’s a big mix of chickpeas and other legumes, spices, onions, and crunchy puri pieces. However, chotpoti is served hot, and instead of yogurt, is topped with hard-boiled egg (which is pretty common in Bengali cuisine). This was flavourful and spicy, with lots of coriander and cumin and black pepper as well as a good dose of chilies, and a little bit of tartness, I think from tamarind.

I washed it down with something equally spiced – borhani. Borhani is a savoury lassi, made with yogurt, green chilies, mustard seed, more coriander and black pepper, salt, and mint. There’s a little bit of sweetness naturally in the yogurt and from the mint, and it balances out the peppery punch to make it very sippable.

This month so far is really showing me how much we under-use coriander seed and black pepper in Western cooking – they can really add serious flavour if you’re willing to use a heavier hand.

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.

UKRAINE: Chebureki, sour cherry pyrizhky, and even more varenyky

I’m in Calgary right now, and with the huge Ukrainian population in Alberta, there’s a lot of good food options here. I went to get some meals to go at Kalinka, an Ukrainian deli and market just off Macleod Trail. I’ve had their chicken cutlets before (they do delivery) and they were really good, so I was looking to see what else was availble. Of course, they make it very clear that they are truly an Ukrainian deli.

For quick lunch snack on the go, I was feeling something sweet from their bakery section. I had tried a savoury pyrizhky earlier back in Ottawa, but here they had ones with sweet fillings too. There were several fruit options, including apple and poppyseed, but I went for sour cherry. It had a nice tart filling inside very thick eggy bread that reminded me of challah. I washed it down with some “Our Juice” cherry and blackcurrant juice from Ukraine.

For dinner with my dad, I picked up more cabbage rolls and beef chebureki. Chebureki are considered a national dish for Crimean Tartars, and I’m adding unofficial tally of “bureks” I’ve tried from different former Ottoman territories: Algerian boreks, Israeli bourekas, and Albanian byreks – all different, but all based on the same idea of pastries with meat fillings.

We reheated them in the oven with the cabbage rolls. The chebureki were really nice, flaky pastry with ground beef and onion inside, and went really well with sour cream and the cabbage rolls’ tomato sauce. My dad loves cabbage rolls, and these impressed him so much that he wrote down Kalinka’s address so he can get more.

Kalinka also had huge handmade varenyky / pierogi selection – they had all kinds of regional variations, Kyivan (beef and pork with garlic), Crimean (beef, pork, and chicken, with Georgian khmeli suneli spice mix), and Canadian (potato with cheddar and bacon).

I went for the Crimean, since that’s totally new to me. The spice mix sounds really interesting, with basil, fenugreek, coriander, mint, savoury, and marigold. I also got a tub of homemade sour cream to go with them (and the cabbage rolls).

I boiled some for breakfast and had them with sour cream and some cooked zucchini. They’re really lovely, I can taste the chicken, and there’s a nice hint of mint and savoury that really works. The homemade sour cream was fantastic, with a sharp tang like kefir.