It just dawned on me: The very first thing I consult when I think about the cuisine of a country other than the one I’m from isn’t a cookbook – it’s a map! The country of origin of this month’s featured grantee is Tanzania. One brief peek at the tattered world atlas that’s taped to the back of a door in my home office is all it took to set my culinary imagination about this East African country on fire. The mouthwatering geographical cues? The mainland of Tanzania has miles of coastline along the Indian Ocean and is home to Zanzibar – the entry point to East Africa used by spice traders and merchants as early as the 8th century. Not surprisingly, the flavors of India and the Arabian Peninsula are especially prominent in the dishes of this part of Africa.
So, I immediately began dreaming about stewed fish curries that are fragrant and warm with cloves and cardamom and coriander. I definitely wanted to include something green and leafy in order to honor some of the vegetables that are indigenous to and commonly eaten in East Africa: pumpkin leaves, cassava leaves, potato leaves. I decided to use turnip greens in the dish I came up with. Any hearty green would work.
There could be no other accompaniment to a fish curry in Tanzania than ugali, the ubiquitous and beloved cornmeal porridge. Ugali is typically eaten by cooking it to a fairly stiff paste, rolling up small handfuls into ball-shaped blobs, indenting them with your thumb, and then scooping up, say, a saucy stew or curry with your now-edible utensil. I’ve taken liberties with traditional ugali in my recipe by just spooning it into bowls and then ladling over the spicy fish curry.
It all makes for quintessential, soulful comfort food. And with every bite, I try my level best to think about the impossibly difficult consequences of how the spices I am privileged to enjoy in a bowl of curry were once exchanged for human souls by colonists and conquerors.
When I learned the country of origin for this month’s sustained grantee was Vietnam, I thought, “Yum! I’m excited about being able to snap my tired, saturated, post-holiday taste buds out of their tired, saturated, post-holiday stupor.”
It can be challenging to think about making salads in the middle of winter, but a classic Vietnamese chicken salad – Gọi Bắp Cải Gà – is easy to do: carrots and cabbage and onions, plus herbs like cilantro and mint, are season-less. Variations of this salad are on the menus of most Vietnamese restaurants. The version I’ve come up with is my best effort to capture all of those bracingly wonderful contrasts in flavor and texture. Funny how a salad, of all things, can shout, “Wake up!”
I hope you enjoy cooking these recipes – and, maybe even more importantly, sharing them with people you care about.
Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have questions about any recipe ingredient, method, etc. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Traci Barr