Sunday, 25 March 2012

A Truly Epic Post: 25 Foods Just in Time for Post #150!

Plates galore!
Shortly following the success of our fall "Migrations"-themed event à la a domestic focus on farm to table cuisine, planning for an international focus went underway. Resulting in a celebration of 25 countries (or in some cases, inspirations or regions), 25 different foods made it onto a truly eclectic and highly ambitious menu. And operating within the framework of food fusion and in search for authenticity, I cannot be anything but enthusiastically grateful for the commitment of the Sodexo staff and Denison's Dining Services, as well as all of our sponsors, students and multi-cultural student group advisors who helped make Denison's first international food and culture festival the success that it was. I admit there were a few of the misfires, but would like to emphasise before continuing with this post just how monumental of a task I laid before the staff. Certainly we could have gone with fewer dishes (which arguably, though not guaranteed, could have turned out better), but the desire to celebrate many and test the limits resulted in humble lessons learned and the motivation to better everything that was accomplished. For this, my 150th blog post, I invite you to continue to read on for my takes on each dish that I tried, as well as the cultural connections behind each one.

The slight calm before the storm. At one point the line took about half an hour to complete.
METHODOLOGY & DESIGN: But first, I do want to share the process for selecting the final menu. I started off by asking each of our multi-cultural student groups to provide a dish or two that would be, in a sense, representative of the group. This proved to be a rather challenging situation as our groups are generally set up by race or region. To claim empanadas, for example, what type of empanada would be varied by not only country but by family. By December, the menu still wasn't finalised and so the mentality was switched to focus on a dish coming from a specific country (as opposed to being emblematic of that country). Making this switch also took the burden off the groups so that they didn't feel like they were purposefully trying to not/misrepresent an individual of that group. From there, I plotted each of the dishes by region and suggested to Dining Services Manager Niles additional dishes that would fit within the existing stations and dining hall layout. This menu was then turned over to Curtis Dining Hall Executive Chef Nellie and that's when the reality of the possible came to light. Surprisingly, most everything was quickly accepted and eventual concessions on what could and could not be feasibly made within budget, prep and serving constraints were made (Sunday dinner is typically one of the slowest meals thus resulting in the usual number of staff isn't present). The original idea for cultural performances were scrapped because of general miscommunication, as well as their close proximity to spring break, but a series of food and culture videos featuring Denison students talking about many of the dishes were put together just in time and will also be shared throughout this post. (A quick word on this: these dishes are, in many cases, extremely personal and so there is always the likelihood it just doesn't taste the way it "should." That said, the critiques that follow separate regional/clear variations from ingredient and cooking technique issues.) In addition, country profiles were presented on-line and included as part of the napkin holders on each table. Upon entry to the festival, each "traveler" was given an "itinerary card" that listed all of the dishes being offered and that also acted as an assessment tool in the form of a "disembarkment" card. Of the currently estimated 540 people in attendance, about 75 cards were turned in. With all of that said, let's begin our tour!

BRAZIL. And our first stop, quite naturally, is dessert. Of the entire menu, only one item had to be retracted at the last minute, due to its non-edibility: banana caramelada. The two main ingredients in banana caramelada are plantains and sugar. Ideally, the plantain should be ripe and in contrast to the way bananas are picked out, the darker the skin the better. Sliced on the bias and onto a baking tray, the plantain slices should be topped off with brown sugar and baked in the oven. However, when the plantains are green, they should technically be used as a starch preparation and would thus not be ideal for this dish, as was the case this evening. The sliced (unripe) plantains were put into the oven and the baking heat essentially dehydrated them. This being said, if the bananas had been cut thinner, perhaps they could have had a chance to be served as banana chips. Another way to think about banana caramelada is to think of it as an accompaniment to the more familiar bananas foster. The bananas in this case are prepared in a fry pan and then flambéed. African preparations of this fruit favour the fried variation (e.g., Ghana's kelewele; speaking of which, click this link for photos from this year's African Student Association Week featuring West African cuisine) over the more Brazilian baked version. As the aforementioned link indicates (and this is actually the one I submitted for use), sugar isn't even used at all, but this again requires that the plantains be ripe from the start (the heat would break down the high sugar content and bring forth the caramelisation.

GERMANY, INDIA and TURKEY. As for the other desserts, these were all more or less really great hits! Chief among them was the interpretation of Germany's Eis und Heiss. Typically, frozen fruit is cooked with juice and cornstarch into the form of a sauce; and usually served hot, this is served over the cold element which in this case would be ice cream. The version shared this evening was a berry compote served with vanilla ice cream and I was happy to hear an appreciation for its overall simplicity. A version of India's kheer made its return appearance; the recipe had been learned by the dining staff last October when Chef Sathish visited Denison to teach them. One of the aforementioned concessions was to purchase the baklava which has its roots in Turkey but has without question flourished throughout the Levantine and Mediterranean regions. Having made baklava by hand (and even still we used prepped phyllo dough) it was quickly clear how much of a time saver it was to purchase the baklava (which had been positively reviewed in the past) than to make it for the enormous scale for which we were planning. Click on this link for Jessica's video as she talks more about baklava.

FRANCE. Anyone who knows me knows that one of my most beloved French foods is the crêpe. Whether in the more traditional savoury, galette form, or the sweeter dessert crêpe, anything inside the American conception of the "thin pancake" always seems to taste better when wrapped up in the fairly neutral wrap. Many a time, I have blogged about variations on my crêpe recipe, the most recent version of which I used during a French-themed CCK event, but this time around I also conceded to pre-made crêpes, again knowing how much time making them on the spot can take. And had we had many more chefs, let alone pans or even fewer diners, we could have perhaps entertained that idea a little bit longer. Nevertheless, I thought it was good for what it was and at least the possibility for slight variation existed among cheese, ham and mushrooms (in my experience, they're some of the staples when you consider French street fare; and I specifically wanted only savoury crêpes for this menu as sweet ones would have bogged down the lines even more). Though I'm never a fan of yellow cheeses when it comes to crêpes (I goofed and forgot to specify Swiss, or even mozzarella), at least they didn't go with nacho cheese as I've unfortunately had in the past (I clarify, here in the States).

ITALY, MESOAMERICA and PORTUGAL. Also on my first plate of food was a slice of margherita pizza, one of the easiest pizzas to pull off, and I think they did (as expected) a great job with this one. I should note that margherita pizza is typically known for the fact that it does not have a sauce base and instead relies on a focus on the tomato (oftentimes crushed to create a pseudo-sauce), mozzarella and fresh basil (representing the colours of the Italian flag) to deliver its signature light taste flavour. It is a truly Italian dish, paving the way for the variety of pizzas as we know it today since 1889 and Queen Margherita's request in Naples for her "peasant food." Following the University Gala that took place this past fall (which included quinoa croquettes), I made my own batch with bacon and black beans. At the gala, it had been made evident that not only are people generally unfamiliar with this super grain and gluten free alternative, but general food histories are either misconstrued or misinformed. This time around, I made sure quinoa played an equal role among the other dishes as we sought more vegan alternatives. We decided to make this vegetarian as had been done at the gala, but added the black beans for protein. The croquettes, as they had been billed, turned out to be more like patties and so some sharing (at least at the table I was at) took place. Rounding of this plate was the second pizza and meat counterpart to the marguerita: the pizza portuguesa. Though I thought it was quite good as is--of Portuguese influence à la the olives--one thing it did seem to miss was some cheese.

BULGARIA.  At an informal gathering of our dialogue group, Ivan prepared one of Bulgaria's most common dishes, shopska salata. Primarily because it was the nearest station to the table at which I was sitting, I tried the evening's interpretation and was immediately concerned because it didn't look quite like the way Ivan had prepared it. That being said, the refreshing flavours were all there and the cheese calmed down the general sweetness and acidity coming from the other salads. Calming some of my anxiety, Ivan had confirmed that the preparation served tonight could also be found in parts of Bulgaria; indeed, this dish in itself proved that a single dish although sharing a name with others could be produced with complex diversity.

EAST AFRICA, LEBANON and SOUTH AFRICA. The other salads that had been served also made it to my test plate. As noted in a past post, my pseudo-failed version of Eastern Africa's (I attributed it to Kenya) katchumbali had garnered that title because I didn't connect fresh coriander to cilantro. Thankfully, it was a lesson that could be shared and it seemed to have been correctly interpreted this evening. I don't know why, but I at first was confused thinking that it was made predominantly of cilantro but then looking again at the recipe I submitted, there was no picture available. (And still, it even pseudo-resembled this recipe's preparation.) Also on the plate was tabouli which had also been previously prepared alongside the baklava. In contrast to what had been made in the past, this version had seemingly lacked olive oil and lemon, resulting in a tasty though somewhat dry preparation. To round of this plate was a surprising (for me) version of carrot salad. I had initially intended on having it as I and my Stellenbosch host family typically make it (with grated carrots, grated apples and orange juice); instead, the curried version made it to the party, though admittedly I had also given the curried recipe as a possibility should we be in need of more savoury dishes and the correction was lost in the shuffle of all the paperwork. In any case, this carrot salad preparation matched quite well the recipe the dining staff had been given and at least the listed ingredients presented to the diners matched what was in front of them.

CYPRUS. Originally, Leyla had suggested we have Cypriot meatballs, also known as keftedes, as part of the menu. However, this was yet another dish that needed to be reconceptualised, if not replaced, because of both placement and preparation constraints. As a result, we switched over to sis kebap (i.e., skewered kebob) and then just kebap (i.e., without the skewer) served in pita bread. Usually made with lamb, this evening's preparation used similar spices on chicken. Though not immediately Cyprus per se, this version at least let us get a glimpse at the Cypriot shoreline.

CUBA and THE UNITED KINGDOM. The change to kebap moved Cyprus to the more comfortably placed deli station. As acknowledged in the second photo of this post, the wait line had grown so large that it wrapped around the salad and deli stations (I should note that "regular" food fare, including the rest of the salad bar and burgers, were still being offered in the other dining hall across campus). The typical wait time for the bulk of the patient students ranged anywhere from 25-30 minutes, and in some cases a bit longer than that. Now, I write patient, but I can't hide the fact they were rightfully hungry. This said, both the salad and deli stations offered just enough sustenance to get to the bulk of the menu at the hot lines. Alongside the kebap, a take on the Cuban sandwich awaited folks at the panini press. Represented very well in my book alongside the presentations at the aforementioned link and this one, simplicity simply reigned. The Cuban sandwich as noted at the previous link is listed as number seven in an article of the top 10 most popular sandwiches. Back at number nine, the chip butty from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland made its appearance by the exhibition station where the crêpe salés were being prepared. Perhaps one of the simplest dishes available (not to put down any college student's cooking ability, but I wouldn't be surprised if this took hold on campus), one young diner upon clarifying what was in front of him (i.e., a chip butty) said that he thought he was just eating bread with French fries in it. And indeed, again simplicity reigns.

MEXICO and SPAIN. With the long lines and general moving about on my part, I didn't get a chance to try all of the dishes (unfortunately), but I was able to hear their varied opinions. The first of such dishes was the pico de gallo (again coming from Mexico and not epitomising Mexican cuisine, a fact which I feel is important to note; indeed, some countries played the role of accompaniment). Meant to go with the chicken seasoned with Goya, the pico de gallo was apparently great on its own and simply eaten by many as a salsa. As for the chicken seasoned with Goya, it was simply that. On my part, I had emphasised this fact, and didn't think to mention to also salt and pepper the chicken. To clarify this preparation of chicken to Spain, I went by the seasoning itself. The Goya company, as I had assumed and can now confirm here, is of Spanish origin. Though American-based, it was "founded in 1936 by Don Prudencio Unanue and his wife Carolina, both from Spain." Indeed, as Goya's website claims, "the Goya story is as much about the importance of family as it is about achieving the American dream." In retrospect, this is truly a migratory story!

SENEGAL. Unable to make it to my plate were the boulettes de poisson, prepared by Malick. Of mixed review (more so because of unfamiliarity as opposed to improper technique), these were essentially made of minced fish shaped into a ball along with seasonings of salt, black pepper and maggie, a Senegalese spice. In the photo above, Malick also prepared an onion sauce to go with the dish.

JAPAN. One of the clear dishes that seemed to miss the mark was the udon. Though it seemed to look the part, I was completely surprised when more than one person told me they could taste cinnamon in it. I'm no udon expert, and I also have no idea if cinnamon was actually thrown into the mix, but this rather involved preparation certainly doesn't include it. I have to categorise this one as a follow-up. In the meantime, check out Brandon's video above for more of udon's story.

SRI LANKA. Speaking of the very involved, the kothu [also spelled "kottu"] roti was one of the last menu items for which we were having the most trouble finding ingredients. And at one point, a trip to Cincinnati seemed to be the only solution. Thankfully, in talking with Ryan (a Sodexo employee who also happens to be Sri Lankan), he  suggested we could go without the fresh curry leaves (a suggestion confirmed here), but roti would either need to be made by hand or purchased from afar. Though roti in itself contains the same ingredients as tortillas and other flat breads, its actual preparation is what takes up prep time. And as it, as Ryan said, is pretty much 99% of the dish, we couldn't go without it. Luckily, Chef Nellie was able to find a bakery that could make fresh roti in Columbus. Though critiqued for perhaps not having any roti in it (though knowing the back story, I'm not entirely sure of the claim), this was one of the more clearly favoured dishes of the night, if only for the taste and other ingredients.

GHANA. Whew, and as if I hadn't eaten and seen enough food, as well as the piles of plates and bowls, I had to go for one more round. For my fourth and final plate, I was able to get one of the other clear misfires: the jollof. It didn't seem to be lacking in terms of flavour profile but more so than in execution. And after having had a good version of jollof yesterday, it was even easier to recognise. As someone who is known to have issues with rice, my typical issue is in yielding a sticky or soupy mess more so than something that's as dry as what was presented this evening. I don't know if it was because it had sat out too long under the heat lamps or not long enough in the tomato sauce (check out a version's recipe here), but something just wasn't right about this one.

CHINA, GREECE, ISRAEL and THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. As for the remaining tastes that I could fit onto a plate, another mixed response was given to the chow mein, with those of Chinese or Asian heritage serving up greater critique and those who were neither seeming to favour them. Despite its retrospectively questionable name, I found these noodles to be rather good (but then again, my palate is more familiar with European cuisine). For those more familiar with mein, I wonder what you might think of this? In the same vein as the baklava mentioned above, the spanakopita was the other dish that had been purchased (and is the same spanikopita served by Catering). You may be familiar with the spanakopita shells I made back in January; I particularly like this preparation and I wasn't about to beg to have them make this one by hand either. Another mixed response dish was the noodle kugel suggested by Hillel. Though I've never had it before, I quickly connected to this particular dish not only in that it was the first one suggested by a multi-cultural student group, but that it also happened to be one of few personal, family recipes that was shared for the festival. Indeed, in my book, it goes to show that working with the Dining Services team and specifically laying out what needs to be done (as opposed to assuming we all cook the same cuisines and styles on a daily basis) can yield great results. One clear thing that had garnered unfavoured responses was the surprise that the noodle kugel erred on the sweeter side (bordering a dessert taste), inclusive of apples and cinnamon. I suppose its an honest reaction when upon its appearance one might be psyched for something of a beef stroganoff than something reminiscent of (at least on my palate) a dish that could come from Normandy. To round out the plate and the entire meal for me, I also had a serving of collard greens. Now, I know one might question why in the world would I side with collard greens to represent America; and it's a fair question. In preparing for this meal, the U.S. was the last country to be placed as I needed to rely on its food fusion flexibility to fill in the missing gaps. Whether its through its role in lending soul to this festival of international tastes, or in providing more colour to the sea of yellows and reds, collard greens (as opposed to the other option of doing something with corn) is completely migratory while being rooted in American heritage (at least in the South anyway). Originally coming from the Mediterranean, Africans brought this crop onto American soil in 1600 (specifically in Jamestown, VA), and since then its become a staple in southern and soul food cooking. (An aside: In this article, true collard green lovers can actually be sighted based on what they think of its smell.)

And with that, dear Reader, I aim to call it quits for the night. Ah, but one last thing of interesting note: the dining room was so full that the adjoining dining space (typically closed on Sundays) had to be opened. Already, initial preparations are underway for next year's festival and I have already been approached with not only suggestions for dishes but for a desire to repeat some/all countries next year. In response to this, for I feel like there should be one as the campus now awaits the countries to be celebrated, I would say that there are many more countries out there than the ones we focused on tonight (clearly). The goal in all of this is not to necessarily focus on those dishes and cuisines we are familiar with (though it's great when this happens; and indeed, that's what other food and culture programming is for), but rather to challenge ourselves to be open and try new cultures through their foods. Thankfully, next year's campus-wide theme is "Community & Courage." Oh, Denison, you have no idea what we're going to cook up for that one! ;-) To check out the rest of the photo album from this year's festival, click here.
This year's festival was co-sponsored by the 2011-2012 Spectrum Series Campus Theme: "Migrations", Multi-Cultural Student Affairs, Cross-Cultural Community, International Student Services, Off-Campus Study, Sodexo and Campus Dining Services

No comments:

Post a Comment