Monday, 25 February 2013

Food, Creativity and Courage: The 2013 International Food and Culture Festival at Denison University

This year's IFCF logo was created by Freda Okundaye '14 and digitised by Bryan LeBlanc '15. Bryan also compiled images of international sites, as well as food and items from our Center, to create this year's IFCF banner. The quotation (by Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger) written on the orange peel of our above logo reads "The mind without culture can never produce good fruit."
Yesterday, more than 525 students, faculty, staff and community members from and outside of Granville found their way into Curtis Dining Hall, bringing with them not only a satiable appetite for food (and I hope a bit of culture), but also metaphorical suitcases of history, heritages, family recipes and memories that filled the space which for me yielded an emotional state of success and a validation of the hard work put into our second annual International Food and Culture Festival. Feeding off this year's campus wide theme of Creativity and Courage, creativity was key in executing the global, gastronomic representation of this year's menu: a purposefully diverse collection of ingredients and techniques in the form of 26 dishes (arguably, 29) spanning six continents, the menu of which was developed over the past three months and refined over the past few weeks. But perhaps even more importantly, everyone brought with them their own amounts of courage-- the courage not only to cook dishes that ranged from recognisable and extremely familiar and personal to completely "foreign" and arguably unpronounceable, but to in some (if not many) cases step outside of one's comfort zone and eat whatever happened to be presented on the plate. [Note on the aforementioned link: instead of individual country dish videos, this year I asked faculty, staff and students to do their best in trying to pronounce this year's menu offerings. Throughout this post, I have linked each pronunciation along with the suggested recipe (if available) for each dish.] On one hand, this second IFCF was a matter of relative redemption and a challenge to one up last year; on another, it's truly an opportunity to bring people together. But aside from meeting folks I would otherwise never have the opportunity to meet, and introducing folks to new dishes and techniques, engaging in conversations about how folks had grown up eating one of many variations of the same dish, receiving the outright approval of properly executed dishes and hearing comments such as "wow, this brought me back to my childhood and being in my grandmother's kitchen" make the work put into the festival that much more meaningful.

The above map was rendered by Matt DeMotts '15 and, using this year's logo, represents the origins (or the most typically attributed sites) of each of our 26 dishes.
For anyone who read my blog post on last year’s International Food and Culture Festival, you may have picked up on some lessons we learned after our first iteration. For this second go-around, I would claim that much of our relatively greater success was a result of using what we learned to better improve the overall experience for everyone, inclusive of the Dining Services staff and the diners. Three clear changes to this year’s festival included the addition of a pre-festival tasting which provided a space to provide critical feedback on about a third of the dishes (and subsequently yielded more “authentic flavours”); additional student support (both in terms of Cross-Cultural Community involvements and kitchen prep this past weekend); and visibly reduced lines which I’m attributing in part to the dining staff’s better familiarity with the menu and the addition of a dietary consideration layout guide (which I will use as a reference point below). And so, having said all of this, allow me to take you on a bit of a whirlwind journey. [As an important note to point out, and for those who just didn't believe me when I said last year we wouldn't be repeating any countries (I mean, there are nearly 200 in total), only two were repeated, the reasons for which I'll include in my review.]

NEW ZEALAND, PERU, POLAND, RUSSIA. Due to the long lines quickly forming for stations A-D of our layout guide, and because it was honestly one of the stations nearest to me, I began my food tour with what I'm calling the group of cold main items. Representing Oceania / Polynesia / Australasia (take your pick), one of the first dishes I tried was the Kerikeri Corn Salad which followed this recipe and was wonderfully refreshing and contrasted texturally against our take on the Peruvian dish of Mushroom Ceviche suggested by Varuni and based off this recipe. I'm personally not a huge fan of mushrooms in as raw a form as this (citrus is typically utilised to "cook" raw preparations), but it worked rather well, especially with the bright kick from the lime juice. Indeed, brightness as I'm using it here--in terms of flavour, colour and texture--worked very well together yet remained quite distinct from the others. However, one point of contention unintentionally arose in the food fusion taking place between the ceviche and our take on Sałatka z Porów (recipe), a salad of leeks. Alongside raw mushrooms, I'm not a huge fan of raw red onion which in this case overpowered the great flavour and crispness from the Polish dish. Technique-wise, I should also note the one thing that threw me off here was seeing the leeks diced (though you'll note in the aforementioned recipe link that it clearly instructs us to dice them), rather than in rings as presented in this version. In its own cup, I also tried Borscht (the combination of beets and beef stock never really seemed all that appealing) for the first time; contrary to my initial hesitancy, I loved the take on this version (so much so that it made my top five list) and found it to be oddly as refreshing as the salads while getting a richness that countered the typical earthiness of the beets. In concluding this section, I'd like to acknowledge and emphasise the fact that I'm very much aware and sensitive (perhaps too sensitive?) of (in)authenticity when it comes to food and getting the food prepared correctly and as authentically as possible. (Thankfully, Denison's Dining Services staff is just as empathetic.) In writing this, last night's borscht turned out to be particularly successful in bringing about the dialogue I have enjoyed between this and last year's festivals, as we learned that borscht goes by different names, each recipe of which may contain different ingredients and the end product of which may be served differently depending on region (e.g., hot vs cold, as we served it).

IRELAND, UNITED STATES of AMERICA. Speaking of hot vs cold, our one hot soup came from one of two repeated countries (due to the sheer size and regional gastronomic diversity of the U.S.) in the form of New England Clam Chowder which Chef Nellie specifically requested she make herself, and as such I don't have a recipe here to share. The whole clams that were used in this recipe were wonderfully cooked and the chowder itself was rich and warming, pairing beautifully and soaking into Ireland's Soda Bread based off this recipe, a recipe of which I've previously used and blogged about.

BRAZIL, CANADA, DENMARK, NETHERLANDS. Arguably the poorest execution of all the dishes we tasted during the pre-festival tasting I noted above, the Tire d'Érable (sur la Glace, as opposed to sur la Neige) from Canada (more specifically, Québec) was one of my favourites, perhaps because of all of the subsequent discussion that ensued after the initial trial run. In its simplest form, tire d'érable is a maple syrup taffy, heated and then immediately cooled over a bed of snow. The quick drop in temperature hardens it and makes it pliable enough to be wrapped around a stick to form a maple syrup lollipop. Now, that's the simple description. To get this just right, though, and as explained here and shown here, there's quite a bit of technique (as well as a safety hazard) that's important to be aware of: first, the maple syrup needs to be heated up to 115°C (about 240°F) in order for the sugars to cook correctly and eventually yield the proper candy stage (known in the  confectionary realm as the "soft-ball stage"). Anything less than that, and especially for fresh (i.e., real) maple syrup, the sugars won't be able to join together and the maple syrup will remain too syrupy and fall through the snow (we used a shaved ice machine); any hotter and the sugars will cool to a tougher consistency making it much more difficult to gather onto the stick. (In retrospect, my own knowledge of this dish and the emotional attachment to it goes back to a class seminar trip to Québec over five years ago.) To the right of the tire d'érable in the above photo was, in my opinion, one of the best dishes and definitely made my top five: Rødgrød med Fløde, suggested by Erik. (By the way, this video alone inspired our menu reading project.) Essentially berries and cream (only much, much better), the important ingredient was undeniably the rhubarb which added a great tart flavour that was toned down a bit by the freshly whipped cream. Towards the end of the festival, I remember verbalising that I would be very happy with a pool of the red fruit coulis. After last year's debacle with our Brazilian dessert, Brazil was the second country to be represented again; simply put, while our adapted version of Doce de Abóbora com Coco wasn't the prettiest to look at, I was thankful that we were at least able to serve it. At the same time, I thought it was tasty and given that we used pumpkin purée rather than fresh pumpkin as suggested in the original recipe I enjoyed the texture of the shredded coconut. Moriana, who suggested this dessert, did note that she thought it needed a lot more sugar than what was presented. The fourth dish to note here--Speculaas--was suggested by Bruno and was the clear favourite of all of the dishes that were a part of pre-festival tasting; it also made my top five. At the time of the tasting, I should note, we all loved the dish and its clear layers of flavours as it had been prepared but without Bruno there to authenticate it for us it was difficult to tell whether or not we were enjoying the "authentic" flavour. And it didn't help that "speculaas" is typically used to describe other dishes. Earlier today, though, I spoke with another one of our Dutch exchange students, Victor, who confirmed that the speculaas was executed near perfectly.

BENIN, BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA, INDONESIA, ISRAEL, SOMALIA, ZAMBIA. Beginning with the yellow, polenta-looking mash on the left side of the above photo, the Nshima (a choice inspired by our Food and Culture Colloquium module focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa) surprised me not because it tasted badly but because it was actually tastier than I expected it to be. (I had initially likened it to the millie meal of South Africa I've previously eaten.) Going clockwise from the nshima were Frites d'Igname from Benin and suggested by Lorraine. On Saturday, Lorraine had worked on the sauce accompaniments generically referred to as sauces pimentées (variation): hot peppers puréed until smooth and thinned out with a touch of water. And just prior to the festival, she added some olive oil to balance some of the heat. Or rather to try and balance it; Lorraine made two different sauces: a green, jalapeño-based hot sauce, and an even hotter electric orange, Scotch Bonnet-based one. As you can see on my plate above, I went for the less "REAL African" one as Lorraine put it (on Saturday, my eyes began to water as I caught a whiff of the chopped up Scotch Bonnets). Oh, and for those who don't know what an igname is, frites d'igname are Benin Fries (get it?.. . ..); actually, they're yam fries. Next up is the Telur Balado (telur meaning egg, and not mozzarella as many mistakenly thought; recipe) from Indonesia and suggested by Putri. One of the more peculiar dishes of our menu, the telur balado took on a very special smell caused by the shrimp paste that was incorporated into the sauce (there was no actual fish in the dish as some were expecting); for some (and especially for those unfamiliar with shrimp paste, I suggest you read this) the egg may have smelled rotten when in fact that's how the dish was supposed to smell. While this dish may not have been executed perfectly, I do think the eggs were cooked quite well and weren't as dried out/rubbery as I would have expected hard boiled eggs for as large a crowd as we had would be. At about 2 o'clock now on my plate was the Bosnia and Herzovinian dish Bosanski Lonac, a beef stew that relies on time and the layering of ingredients to bring everything together. Of all the dishes I tried (and there were only two I didn't get to), there was something about the recipe for this dish that just didn't seem to bring any sense of flavour or emotion to me. In reviewing the recipe, I'm beginning to think it was just too plain and in need of a bit more salt; I will say the potatoes were cooked very well. The next closest thing to being borderline "meh" was the Somali rice--Bariis--suggested by Abdi. Perhaps I was expecting a bigger punch of flavour, but I just couldn't taste any of the seasonings that were supposedly put into it nor the richness of chicken broth and bouillon cubes (but perhaps I accidentally had the vegetarian version?). I did, however, like the sweetness from the raisins, which a few students I spoke with also mentioned. Thankfully, I finished off this plate with one of the crowd favourites (another one which made it to my top five): the Israeli Bourekas. Imagine the crispy layers of delicate puff pastry filled with a slightly salty and creamy cheese filling. Oh my yum, my mouth is watering. And the recipe is so simple, too.

MONGOLIA, PAKISTAN, PHILIPPINES, SÃO TOMÉ and PRÍNCIPE, VIETNAM. Oof, onto plate five (thank goodness was overly emphasised the importance of sample sizes, another lesson learned from last year's festival). Beginning with the right-most item halfway cut out of the picture, the Buuz (written as Бууз, and unlike the way it's pronounced by many if not most in the aforementioned link is pronounced "boze") from Mongolia rounds up my top five dishes for this year's festival. On Saturday, as Hannah, Wizzy and I took turns at helping to hand make at least 400 dumplings, Chef Meg had mentioned that Nellie would be happy just eating a tray of these, I began to question just how good this could actually be. As I made my rounds throughout the festival, the buuz was the first of all the dishes I tried (thanks, Hannah!) and wow. Instant classic. (There is a saying out there that suggests food tastes even better after you've poured your energy into making it, no?) I'd like to note here three buuz-specific things: 1. the local beef used in this dish was freshly ground and comes from Findlayson Farms; 2. there are different ways of shaping the buuz but we went with the most traditional (and naturally, time-consumung) version; and 3. instead of making our own dough we cut out rounds from wonton wrappers (the only time-saving choice of this dish). Moving clockwise, the Thịt Kho tộ (braised pork) was one of the dishes that benefited from the pre-festival tasting, the final preparation of this recipe of which was enthusiastically well received by our dish suggester and authenticator Giang. The pork which equally well received by diners also had a specific taste and flavour to it (though nowhere nearly as aggressive as shrimp paste), in the form of fish sauce. Earlier this afternoon, I received a response from Usman, who suggested the Boneless Chicken Handi (recipe) from Pakistan, and shared that he thought it was great and that he loved it. (This was also a part of our pre-festival tasting and was also well-received then.) More as an aside, but in retrospect, I'm realising a culinary difficulty with using boneless chicken in that while it may cook more quickly (and you can make the most out of any leftover chicken), you can't rely on the flavour that would develop if using a bone-in chicken; as such the flavours have to come together through the other ingredients as was the case here. Personally, though, I would have preferred the chicken to a bit moister than it was. On a similar note, while I thought the shrimp of the Calulu (recipe) from the Portuguese-speaking pair of island nations São Tomé and Príncipe, I thought the sustainable cod of this dish also turned out to be a bit too dry (in this case being rather stringy than more so flaky). Finishing up this plate, I end with the one dish I had been looking forward to adding to the menu since last year's festival: Chicken Adobo. Knowing full well that it would be risky to add this extremely personal dish to the menu, I entered the festival particularly conscious of the fact that every Filipino family has their own recipe for adobo. (As I found all of the Filipino students who were at the festival, I made sure to explain that I suggested we go with this recipe rather than toying with a family treasured recipe; in the end, I'm comfortable with saying that I whole-heartedly appreciate the attempt.) Overall, the chicken was good and I'd say as chicken (versus as chicken adobo), it was appreciated by everyone I talked to. It was certainly moist from the marinade, but something in the flavour profile was missing, as I tasted something closer to the Virginia style preparation (minus the crispy skin of that preparation) rather than the rich je ne sais quoi flavour and hominess I immediately associate with adobo. Never having made adobo (it'll take me a while before I find the courage to do that), and with all due respect, this version almost tasted as if I had prepared it: strictly off the recipe but lacking some of the love and more importantly experience of decades (or even years) having previously prepared it.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, EGYPT, EL SALVADOR. And finally, my last plate (before seconds and recapping my top five favourites). Given my personal attachment to chicken adobo as professed above, in retrospect I'm recognising that the above plate unintentionally represents three of the most personal dishes suggested by our students, and three of the dishes that greatly benefited from being part of the pre-festival tasting. Ironically, whereas last year we used unripened plantains for a dessert that called for ripened plantains, we actually needed ripened plantains to pull off this recipe for Mangu (right side of the plate). Suggested by Sindy, the mangu seemed to be one of the most polarising dishes with just as many declaring how inauthentic it was (one note that seemed a bit out of our control once purchased was that we had the wrong type of salami) as there were those who proclaimed and adhered to its authenticity (or really, as close as we could get without being their grandmothers). Going counter-clockwise this time, we went Saliba's suggestion for Falafel and paired this with Jessica's notes of pita bread and tahini sauce (ground sesame seeds). Again, depending on taste preferences and familiarity with falafel, this recipe yielded a delicate, crispy exterior into a smooth and creamy center, a texture combination (as well as a flavour profile) that all of the tasters of our pre-festival tasting (and many throughout the festival itself) enjoyed. Finally, next to the tire d'érable, I think Diana's suggestion of Pupusas (which I've also made before, but am far from being an expert; at this point in my El Salvadorian "training," I was able to shape six dozen in about an hour and a half, at which point Shelley took over the pupusas filling and shaping) benefited from and changed the most post pre-festival taste test (in saying this, most of the dishes we tried were quite good after the first run through). Aside from an ingredient switch in terms of the cheese we used, the techniques involved with the shaping and execution of the pupusas' ended up being simple but important to the general success of this dish. Also suggested by Diana, Chef Dan was able to whip up one of the last additions to our menu, curtido, which added a brightness and bite to the green chili and cheese-filled crispy pupusas. In retrospect, it seems as though the pupusas had been pan fried in oil rather than on a greased (i.e., nearly dry) pan as suggested in this recipe.

KOREA, HONG KONG/TAIWAIN(/MAINLAND CHINA). Of all of the dishes we had at this year's festival, the two I never got to were the transnational dishes of Japchae suggested by Sarah and Bubble Tea (or perhaps more accurately the  珍珠奶茶 (zhen zhu nai cha)) suggested by Janet. Of all of the dishes of our pre-festival tasting, I would argue the japchae received the best and most critical feedback and yet, despite any changes to its preparation and the recipe we used (take note we used sirloin/thin cut steak and a mix of shiitake and oyster mushrooms), it either suffered or was praised based on cooked-to-order execution and/or personal taste/preferences. As an aside, of all of the ingredients used as part of the festival, I continue to be fascinated by wheat noodle alternatives, in this case the glass/potato starch noodles used last night. As far as the bubble tea is concerned, we used black tea and had available milk and sugar to adjust for preferences. Given everything else going on concurrently, the one thing I didn't think about until yesterday morning was the fact we'd need wide straws in order to actually get at the bubbles; thankfully we were able to remedy this for those who were able to get to the tapioca pearls (they were the first things--cooked by Shelley, by the way--to run out at which point we served black tea) by setting up wide-mouthed plastic cups.

And with that 26 (more or less) gastronomic tastes with countless variations in between wrap up this year's festival. Before I completely end, I noted above that I'd recap my top five dishes, in alphabetical order: Borscht (Russia), Bourekas (Israel), Buuz (Mongolia), Rødgrød med Fløde (Denmark) and Speculaas (Netherlands). As for my runners up, I'd go with the Falafel (Egypt), Mangu (Dominican Republic), New England Clam Chowder (USA), Tire d'Érable (Canada) and nearly everything else tied for 10th place.

Of course, this year's festival would not have been as successful as it was without the commitment, generosity and empathy displayed by everyone on Denison's Dining Services team, as well as all of the staff and students I directly worked with on the festival and everyone who physically participated by attending, tasting and experiencing this year's festival firsthand. Of final note, I would like to emphasise and acknowledge very specifically the courage I felt at one of our first Cross-Cultural Community meetings toward the start of the academic year when three of our multi-cultural student groups voiced that they were hoping for and willing to work toward clearly opportunities for the group's to be more engaged and involved in this year's festival. To their point, and working with each of the groups, one final set of changes to this year's festival included our attempt to create a space for members of the Deaf Culture Awareness Club to lead a non-verbal dining experience, as well as a space for members of Sustained Dialogue to lead discussions on food identity. Working with members of Outlook, we also identified articles and eventually narrowed down a list of LGBT chefs to feature on the napkin holders at each of the tables (the other side highlighted one of this year's represented countries): Adam Jones, Anne Burrell, Art Smith, Cat Cora, Elizabeth Falkner, Susan Feniger and Yigit Pura. Indeed, and as was noted on each of the napkin holders, we were "proud to highlight the biographies of [these] LGBT chefs who challenge the status quo and who do not allow adversity and inequality to get in the way of the quality and high standards that are demanded by their professions." Surely these chefs and the countless others who are (or may have at one point or another been) mistreated or misjudged along any line of difference reflects what it means to be courageous in a field that should instead allow creativity as expressed through food to be the mark and focus of this craft.

This year's festival was co-sponsored by the Office of Multi-Cultural Student Affairs, the Cross-Cultural Community, the 2012-2013 Spectrum Series: Creativity & Courage, International Student Services & Denison Dining Services. For this year's menu, click here. For the complete 2013 IFCF album, click here. And finally, to check out this year's IFCF video playlist all in one spot, click here.

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