Posts tagged ‘culture’
Well, time sure flies! I would apologize for being a negligent blogger, but sometimes life is full and takes up more time than expected, and I am not one to regret living it. Between running home to visit my new nephew, getting fancied up for the school formal, going to New Hampshire with my Christian Medical Dental Association for a weekend, and catching up with old friends who are now in different cities for medical school, I would say I have had my fair share of fun over the past few weeks! This also meant that I had to buckle down last week to study for my neurology exam, and so blogging took a necessary hiatis. It was somewhat freeing to spend a little less time in front of my computer screen, but that doesn’t mean I still wasn’t in the kitchen! I have a few fun recipes backlogged from the last few weeks to share, kicking it off with an awesome Vegan Groundnut Stew.
One of my good friends in college, who is now in med school in the midwest, was visiting last weekend for her Spring Break. During our sophomore year of college, she came home and stayed with my family for Thanksgiving. After indulging in all of our American traditions, my mom and I wanted to try something from my friend’s culture. She is originally from Nigeria, so we decided to try out Groundnut Stew. We made the traditional version, to which my friend deemed worthy by stating, “It smells authentic.” A huge compliment coming from Joy! And it tasted pretty good, too! I haven’t thought much about that stew since then, but wanted to try a vegetarian version for my friend’s latest visit. Groundnuts are another term for peanuts, so this soup is pantry-item friendly if you are a peanut butter lover and always have some on hand. It has a good amount of heat to it, and a lot of creaminess, giving it a unique depth and richness. Instead of the traditional meat, I found a recipe from Fat Free Vegan Kitchen that uses sweet potatoes and chickpeas. My friends loved it, even with the modifications. Try this soup out – it is fun, easy, and cheap!
Question: What is one exciting thing you have done in the last week?
Adapted from Fat Free Vegan Kitchen, serves 6-8
1 onion, chopped
2 jalapenos, seeded and finely chopped
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
2 14.5 ounce cans chopped tomatoes
2 14.5 ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 large bunch kale, stemmed and chopped
1 ½ cups vegetable broth
½ cup natural peanut butter
Saute onion, jalapenos, ginger and garlic in a splash of water. After 5 minutes or until onions soften, add spices and stir to combine. Add cubed sweet potatoes, tomatoes and chickpeas. Cover with vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to simmer for thirty minutes. When potatoes are tender, stir in the peanut butter. When well combined, add the chopped kale and allow to wilt. Serve.
Happy World Food Day! This is a worldwide event that is designed to stimulate awareness and action against hunger and malnutrition. Check out their website for more information and a calendar of events, but more importantly, take some time to think about what you are eating. As a food blogger and future health professional, I highly value healthy food. Every bite we take keeps our bodies running. I am fortunate enough to not go to bed hungry, and to be able to purchase and cook with great, fresh, healthy ingredients. However, this is not everyone’s reality. Take some time to educate yourself on the myriad of issues that surround food – access, equality, globalization, sustainability. The list is endless, but fascinating. And important!
To celebrate this event, the topic for this year’s Blog Action Day is food! I learned about this through my friend – an excellent and thoughtful writer who I hope is participating in this community act, “designed to stimulate global discussion around an important issue that impacts us all.” If you are reading this and want to add your own thoughts to the blogosphere, head to the website and register your blog. It will give you a list of topics to choose from, and then let your writing and thoughts flow from there! Check out other bloggers talking about this as well, and leave comments and questions to stimulate discussion. As we share and learn from each other, we can grow in awareness and be better advocates for food security for all.
It was really hard to choose a topic, as there are so many nuances to issues surrounding food. I chose this stem because it is a burgeoning passion of mine, thinking about the intersection of food cultures and healthy eating. I have addressed some of the other issues in past posts ( see here for thoughts on organic food, a bit about my food philosophy as a vegetarian, some thoughts and more thoughts on affordability and access to food) Food, while of utmost importance is a means to health, is also a way of creating and sharing culture. Meals are steeped in family tradition, and memories are often created around the table. Foods can be very specific to the culture in which you were raised, and your food choices will likely be shaped by your family and culture for the rest of your life.
My food culture: American. My great grandparents were farmers, and home cooked food is highly valued in my family. (Explains a lot about my blog title, huh?) My mom always cooked rather than catered for big birthday parties, made homemade cake or cupcakes, and astounded my friends with her homemade mac’ and cheese. Thanksgiving was and is more about the food preparation than about the meal itself, and Christmas is as much about the cookie exchange as it is about the gifts. However, the specific foods are not as important in my family. We are adventurous in our cooking – my Grandma has fallen in love with quinoa (which I’d say is pretty adventurous for a 76 year old!), and my mom regularly introduces me to new grains and vegetables. Although there are some traditional family recipes rooted in farming days, we also love to explore other food cultures from around the world. Our homemade interpretations were always very Americanized, but they were baby steps at understanding how food is seen in other cultures.
My horizons were expanded even more broadly this summer while I was traveling. Food and drink are essential to understanding the core of a culture, and food traditions vary broadly depending on where you are. Some of these are beautiful, like the focus on high quality, fresh ingredients in Italy. Some of these less readily appeal to my view of food as a means for health, like the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in many traditional Czech and Bosnian dishes. However, they are both equally important in their respective food cultures.
The reason I have been thinking so much about the intersection of food and culture lately is because it seems like the whole foods/health conscious food movement has been taking off in a very white-centric manner. Many “healthy cookbooks” or “dieting recipes” are very comfortable in the framework within which I grew up: pretty standard American fare with the occasional forray into “cultural” meals. However, this food culture is not shared by most of the rest of the world. A Nigerian friend, for example, doesn’t understand the American obsession with pasta. A Korean friend didn’t know that a rice cooker wasn’t a standard household appliance, and didn’t know you could cook brown rice in it. Everyone brings their own lens to what a healthy meal looked like in their family. Healthy cooking should be able to fit into any cultural framework, and yet cultural food often seems to be excused from the health standards we judge other dishes. How do we make traditional foods lower in fat and salt and higher in nutrients without losing the soul of the dish? How do we marry these two concepts? This is a big question that I have only begun to thought about. I would love to hear your thoughts on the issue!
Question: What does food mean to your culture?
I loved my time in Prague, but let’s just say the food there was not the highlight of my experience. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the architecture, had fun exploring the city, and really enjoyed experiencing all that Prague had to offer. Oh, and I loved the Czech pilsners. Why let food take the main stage, then, when the beer is so good?
A lot of our meals in Prague were not the healthiest. But they were good, and went really well with the beer. Some highlights: fried cheese, schnitzel, and Barvarian sausage. Fried cheese, or smažený sýr, is esentially a glorified mozzarella stick, but with a different cheese in the shape of a patty. You can enjoy it as an appetizer, a snack, or make it into a meal with the choice of American potatoes or French fries (can anyone guess the difference here?) Azra and I got this with an order of chicken schnitzel, a thin chicken breast dipped in egg and then coated in flour and lightly pan fried. Our schnitzel came with a mushroom sauce, and our choice of potato side. We got an order of American potatoes with one, essentially seasoned potato wedges, and fries with the other, and shared everything that was on the table. The American potatoes were so much better, or maybe I was just really missing home and extra-patriotic at this point! ;) Of course, we each had a big beer to help everything go down.
highlight delicacy street meal was a Barvarian sausage. It was our final night in Prague, and we were short on cash and full from our earlier heavier meal of svíčková. We stopped by a street vendor in Wenceslas Square, where Azra got a chicken burger and I, going all out for one of my last days as an omnivore, got a sausage. It was my first time in three years (the last time was an Italian sausage at Fenway Park). It was tasty greasy, and filling, like any good street dog should be. Not a decision I would repeat, but a fun way to spend our last beautiful night – sitting outside, enjoying the food, tourist watching, and soaking up the scenery.
How does one have enough hours in a day to enjoy both leisurely meals and coffee? In America, we decide not to choose and rush through both. In Bosnia, however, day time meals tend to be slightly more rushed to ensure a lengthy coffee break in the afternoon. I have shared a little bit about my experience with Bosnian coffee and the way Bosnians celebrate with special meals, so now here is a glimpse into the daily food life in Sarajevo.
Fast food is definitely not an American concept. Just watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and you’ll see that fast, street food is ubiquitous. What is unique is that fast food actually tastes good in other countries, and is something people are proud of! A common sight on the streets of Sarajevo is a vendor selling roasted corn, leading to funny glimpses of people walking down the street just nibbling off the cob. Ice cream stands are everywhere, and they sure are marketed well! The pans are filled to the brim with volumes of fluffy flavors, and night they are back-lit so that they really stand out.
Not hard to sell ice cream on a hot day in the first place, but these were truly irresistible. The rest of the stands are filled with national favorites like cevapi, pita, and hamburger (not just any hamburger, but a pressed sandwich closer to the size of your face than your hand. My friend’s theory as to why the first McDonald’s being built in Sarajevo will be unpopular – the burgers are too small!). These are eaten quickly or taken to go, and for really cheap! Each meal on the street cost $5 – to feed three of us!
Ćevapi is actually the name of the meat served in the dish, but also refers to the platter that you order. They are like sausage links, but are made of ground beef and lamb, since most Bosnians are Muslim and there are no pork products to be found anywhere in Sarajevo (as far as I could tell). They come stuffed inside a giant piece of bread called somun, almost like pita since it forms a pocket but much fluffier and softer. This is served with raw chopped onion on the side, which sounds intense but actually really complements the sweet flavors of the meat and softness of the bread well. Alongside, it is customary to have a plain yogurt drink, which tastes like yogurt but is much thinner in consistency. That is nice to dampen any spice and onion flavor left on your tongue!
Pita is the general term for the pies that are found in most cafes and bakeries. They are made of layers of phyllo dough, stuffed with different fillings, and then rolled. Homemade versions lead to personal sized rolls, but the bakery makes gigantic pita that they then cut and serve. Pita filled with ground beef is called burek; with spinach and cheese, zeljanica; and with potato, krompiruša. They are greasy, but delicious and packed with flavor. We got a piece of each to try on our picnic to the Vrelo Bosne, the beautiful springs at the start of the River Bosna. I think the spinach and cheese was my favorite, but they were all so good it was hard to choose! The water at Vrelo Bosne is ice cold and crystal clear, and the park is naturally divided into perfect picnic spots by all of these little springs. A nice change of scenery from the usual people watching along busy streets in Sarajevo!
Question: How do you like the new look for my blog?
Confession time: I am a coffee addict. I am not so bad that I get a headache if I don’t have it, and I am not impossible to talk to in the morning before I have a cup, but I am definitely a much happier person when I do. I take my coffee black and like it to be strong and flavorful. I don’t like flavored lattes, and will stick with a plain cappuccino if I am in the mood for a coffee shop drink. Most of the time, however, I keep it simple with a plain old cup of American coffee.Little did I know that my affinity for strong, black coffee would prepare me perfectly for my time in Bosnia! The thing that struck me most about their culture was how much it revolved around coffee. They will sit in the afternoon for hours at a cafe, their spot reserved by their tiny cup of coffee that was finished long ago. This allows for good conversation and excellent people watching, two of my favorite leisure activities. I wondered aloud at how many people were out for coffee so early in the afternoon, but my friend pointed out the high unemployment rate in the city. With almost half of the adult population out of work, what better to do with your time than sit and discuss current events over coffee?
Bosnian coffee is made and enjoyed in a very particular way. It is often said that a girl is ready for marriage when she can make her own pita and perfect Bosnian coffee (too bad I am not Bosnian because Azra and her mom have taught me both!). To begin, a tiny cup of water is measured out into the pot and put onto the stove top. When the water comes to a boil, a small spoonful of finely ground coffee is added. When the coffee grounds rise to the top of the pot, it is immediately removed from the heat and allowed to settle. Like good espresso, perfect coffee is marked by a creamy layer on the top of the coffee. That layer is scooped into the cup, followed by the coffee. The cup is allowed to sit for a few minutes to allow the grounds to resettle. Some add sugar cubes as well, but I didn’t need the extra sweetness because, before taking a small sip, you take a small bite of sweet dessert. At home, we enjoyed sweet coffee cookies, and at the restaurant I got to try lokum, a super sweet jelly cube with bits of walnut that is traditionally served with the coffee. At the end of the cup, you have to be careful not to swallow the grounds. They are really bitter and not a pleasant ending, but can also be used to tell your fortune! I loved the ritual and tradition that is involved in a cup of coffee, and love the time that is devoted to the making, drinking, and talking afterwards.
PS: Forgive the red hue that dominates the pictures! We were sitting at a cafe that must be sponsored by Coca-cola, because everything was Coke red! Everything from tables and chairs to umbrellas were red, casting a red hue over everything. Not the best for pictures, but it was all I had!
Czech food can be summed up in two words: meat and potatoes. Almost every dish is centered around beef or pork topped in some sort of heavy sauce and served with potato dumpling. Definitely not what I am used to! I was determined to really experience the culture and cuisine of Prague, though, so I tried garlic soup, beef goulash, and svíčková, three hallmark dishes of Czech cuisine.
Many Czech meals start with a hearty soup, the most notable being their garlic soup. I made a big bowl of this soup dinner one evening, and it was a good thing I did! The garlic flavor was really intense, but not unpleasant or overwhelming. The croutons added a nice crunch and helped soften the garlic flavor as did the cheese, which also unfortunately added extra oil. Even so, I enjoyed trying this soup. My friend explained to me that garlic’s prevalence in Czech cuisine is a remnant of communist rule, a period in which import laws were really strict and vegetables and herbs were incredibly difficult to find. Garlic was one of the few ingredients available, so many traditional foods tend to be centered around this flavor.
Beef goulash is actually Hungarian, although it is well-known in most central European countries. To me, it is like a thicker beef stew that is served with dumplings, great for soaking up the sauce. When my meal first came out, I was so surprised by the dumplings and actually thought they had mistakenly given me bread instead. Later I found out that they were in fact dumplings, but they are made by boiling a large loaf made of potato flour that is later sliced into dumplings. They were the highlight of the meal for me, especially soaked in the sauce from the goulash!
Svíčková was the highlight of what I ate in Prague. It was made even better by great company – my friend from college, who is back in Prague for work, got in touch with me after seeing my post about where my travels had brought me and invited me out for lunch. Small world with crazy ways of making connections, huh? She took us to Cafe Louvre, a popular hang out spot for the likes of Einstein and Kafka. Located near the National Theater, the ambience in the restaurant was incredible. The sunlight was pouring in, the wallpaper was bright but classic, and the atmosphere was relaxed. They even left notepaper and little pencils on the table, in case lunch conversation was stimulating enough to necessitate more than a mental note! My friend recommended ordering svíčková, her favorite dish that she craved in college when away from home for a long time. It is a small portion of tender roast beef topped with cranberry sauce and served with the classic sliced dumplings, all topped with the most wonderful, creamy sauce. The sauce is actually blended vegetables (carrots, parsley root, celeriac and onion), which are roasted with the beef and then blended with heavy cream and spices to make the sauce. Everything was incredible - the beef was tender, the sauce was rich and flavorful, and the cranberries were a unique counterpoint. Finally, a traditional Czech food that I loved!
An interesting lunch time conversation was centered around the meat and potatoes cuisine of the Czech Republic. My friend recounted that the previous communist regime led to the formation of a limited ingredient list in traditional Czech dishes, since you could only cook with what was available. The terrain surrounding Prague is not great for agriculture, and so vegetables fell out of favor and were substituted with more easily accessible meat and root vegetables. While this doesn’t immediately seem problematic, my friend pointed out that the rates of colon cancer in the Czech Republic are amongst the highest in the world. She said that younger generations are open to a more balanced diet, but tradition has strong roots and change is slow. Her remarks reminded me of claims made in the documentary Forks Over Knives that I saw a few months ago, which claims that a plant-based diet is the best preventative measure against heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, and a myriad of other diseases. However, culture and tradition are important and it is difficult to convince people that lifestyle changes are worth it. Definitely interesting lunch conversation inspired by the intellectual atmosphere of Cafe Louvre!
Question: What are your thoughts on diet and culture? Do you think the way you eat is more influenced by your family or the region you grew up in? Do you think making changes towards a more balanced diet is important, regardless of cultural traditions? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Bosnian cuisine can be summed up in one word: stuffed. As my friend jokes, a Bosnian will try to stuff anything with rice, meat or cheese at least once. They certainly are good at it! From the ubiquitous pita (more to come on this!) to the stuffed cabbage leaves to sogan dolme (stuffed onions), many of their nationally treasured dishes are meat-filled delights. During our stay in Sarajevo, Azra took us to a beautiful restaurant in the hills where her brother held his wedding reception. While considered upscale in Sarajevo, the price of the food was still reasonable – comparable to The Cheesecake Factory pricing. More so, food is generally cheap at the market, so dinner is typically eaten at home. Like I have said, any visit to Azra’s parents house will yield a multi-course dinner made with love. Restaurant dinners are reserved mainly for special occasions, and for this reason, Park Princeva was populated more by foreign tourists (it was pretty much the only place in Sarajevo where we didn’t stand out while speaking English!) than Bosnian natives.
The restaurant was known not just for its food, but also for its breathtaking panoramic views of the whole city. We sat and soaked in the atmosphere while waiting for our food. Of course I had to try sogan dolme!
On my plate was a small green pepper, tomato, and onion, all stuffed with meat and rice. I was so impressed by this dish. Not only was the filling really flavorful, but also both the meat and the veggies were soft and tender while still being artfully stuffed. They sat in a delicious broth that I mopped up with some bread – couldn’t find a drop on my plate!
Although a bit stuffed already, we ordered dessert so we could extend our stay and watch the sparkling lights of the city. To our surprise, we got to see a thunderstorm roll in as well! We enjoyed palatschinke, a crepe (slightly fluffier than the French version) filled with Nutella and some homemade raspberry ice cream – the perfect end to a perfect evening.
Since returning, I have been inspired again to stuff veggies! My mom, sister and I trekked to the West Cape May Farmer’s Market on Tuesday evening to see what produce we could find to inspire dinner. We got some heirloom tomatoes and local cucumbers so I could show them an Eastern European salad, and we got a few huge green peppers and a sicilian eggplant to stuff. I will definitely be on the lookout for another one of these eggplants – they are a lighter purple and more round than your usual eggplant, and have a much thinner skin and delicate flavor. The inside is surprisingly easy to scoop out and stuff, but I forgot to take pictures of my eggplant exploits! Oh well, just excuse to make it again ;)