Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Week 34: A Journey to Kenya

Within a few minutes of beginning my Kenyan cuisine research, I knew my biggest challenge would be finding unique Kenyan attributes to familiar East African dishes.  Kenyan cuisine primarily includes readily available, local, inexpensive ingredients.  For the most part, these dishes date back thousands of centuries, but through the influences of other cultures arriving in East Africa, their flavor profiles have evolved.  The Portuguese colonized large areas there during the fifteenth century and taught East Africans the techniques of marinating and roasting meats.  In addition, they introduced foods from their other colonies, such as citrus fruits from Asia and peppers, corn, potatoes, and tomatoes from the Americas.  In the nineteenth century, the British assumed rule over the region and brought workers from British India to build a railroad.  When the railway construction was complete, many of the Indian workers stayed in the region as they saw opportunity for financial success there.  Curries, chapatis, and chutneys were incorporated into East African cuisine as a result of their presence.  Today, most Kenyan meals include a stew or grilled meat served with staple fillers, such as corn, millet, sorghum, or, on occasion, rice.  For this week’s menus, I selected dishes that represent common, everyday meals for families in Kenya while also highlighting Portuguese and Indian influences.

Thursday Dinner:  Chapati (Flatbread) and Kuku na Nazi (Chicken with Coconut)
Always a fan of curries, I wondered if choosing to make one might be “cheating” on the project as they are clearly more than Indian-influenced; however, I discovered that they play a role beyond sideline within today’s Kenyan cuisine.  I found numerous references to these dishes, specifically Kuku na Nazi.

kuku na nazi

The Kuku na Nazi is really just a basic chicken curry.  Its list of ingredients includes ginger, garlic, chiles, onion, curry powder, fresh cilantro, cumin, and coconut milk…none of which represent a twist or unusual addition to a traditional chicken curry.  Not surprisingly, it tasted great, and while it may not have presented a new flavor profile for me, it successfully imprinted the significance and influence of Indian culture within Kenya’s modern day cuisine.

Chapati is an unleavened flatbread.  In my research for Kenyan Chapati recipes, I found versions using only all purpose flour and other versions using combinations of all purpose, whole wheat, and/or teff flour.  Since Indians traditionally use whole wheat flour to make chapati, I opted to use half all purpose and half whole wheat.  It’s a very simple dough of flour, water, ghee (or oil), and salt.  The key is kneading and folding it properly so that the final product has the characteristic bubbles in it, and I followed the precise directions for doing so included on  I cooked them in a cast iron skillet, and overall, they turned out well.  The first one I made was heavy and oily, but after a few practice runs, I figured out the technique and the necessary amount of oil needed in the skillet to keep them lighter.

Friday Dinner:  Nyama na Irio (Roasted Meat and a Mixture of Mashed Potatoes and Vegetables)

nyama na irio
Nyama Choma, which literally means roasted meat, is usually an outdoor bbq of goat, although beef is also often used in this dish.  Interestingly, I found definitions for this dish stating vehemently that this roasted meat is never seasoned with more than a baste of salt water while other definitions stated that the meat is fully marinated in citrus juices and curry spices.  I opted to use Beef Short Ribs for my version, and I marinated them in a mixture of fresh garlic, lemon juice, curry powder, turmeric, coriander, paprika, salt, and pepper.  My plan to grill the meat over charcoal was spoiled by Tropical Storm Isaac’s impending rainstorms, so I simply roasted the short ribs in the oven until they reached a medium rare temperature. 

Irio is a dish often served as an accompaniment to roasted meats.  The dish is basically mashed potatoes with other vegetables mashed into the mixture….a sort of mashed vegetable medley.  I mixed peas, fresh corn, and fried onions into my version.  Spinach or other greens are often added, as well, for nutritional value.  I didn’t expect to like this dish very much as it seemed a bit like baby food, but I must say it was really delicious.  The combination of the creamy mashed potatoes with the crisp bursts of fresh corn, buttery fried onions, and sweet peas creates an interesting counterpoint to the rich, charred beef with its curry seasonings.

Saturday Lunch:  Sukuma Wiki (Stewed Greens) and Ugali (Cornmeal Mush)
sukuma wiki and ugali
As I’ve mentioned in this blog previously, I just can’t pass up an opportunity to cook down a big pot of collard greens.  Sukuma Wiki is a Swahili phrase that literally means “push the week”.  This dish offers an inexpensive meal for a family stretching its dollar over a week.  For this dish, greens are stewed with onions and tomatoes.  To me, the inclusion of tomatoes is the most intriguing part of the dish, because it exemplifies the influence of the Portuguese bringing tomatoes from the Americas to East Africa and because it differentiates the dish from the better known Gomen in Ethiopia.  I read that leftover meat from Nyama Choma is often added to the dish, so I saved some of the short ribs from Friday night’s dinner to include in the stewed greens.  Surprisingly, the meat did not add any significant flavor or texture to the dish.  The most interesting and satisfying flavor addition in this dish is fresh lemon juice for brightness.  All in all, I found sukuma wiki to be a delicious take on one of my favorite comfort foods.

Simply put, Ugali is cornmeal and water…East Africa’s equivalent to polenta, grits, and fufu.  The dish can be made in a thinner format similar to the texture of porridge, but more often, it is made with just enough water to bind the cornmeal so that a thick mixture can be poured out, cooled, and broken off into pieces used as “utensils” to scoop up stews.  Honestly, this dish is just heavy and flavorless.  I tried a bite or two with the collard greens, but I didn’t really care for it.  I’ll stick with the collard greens!

Admittedly, I anticipated this week’s Kenyan menus to feel like “going through the motions” as I was not overly excited about any of the dishes.  Perhaps that explains my delight in discovering several dishes that I really enjoyed.  I could feast on Irio and Sukuma Wiki any night of the week and be completely satisfied.  Another joy of this project…finding pleasure in the unexpected.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Week 33: A Journey to Puerto Rico

My plans for a week of Puerto Rican food evolved from more than a desire to learn more about this cuisine.  I’ve traveled there several times since moving to south Florida, and thanks to my friend, Carlos Quinones, every trip has been filled with incredible culinary journeys.  Carlos grew up in Puerto Rico, and when I planned my first vacation there, he sent me a full travel itinerary for exploring the island.  He and I have shared recipes and experiences for years, so I knew that my plans for cooking Puerto Rican cuisine would be fully influenced by his recommendations and family traditions.  Instead of turning to the internet or my vast collection of cookbooks, I scheduled a date with Carlos for a lesson in Puerto Rican cuisine.

He arrived for our date with cookbooks in tow.  On his last trip to Puerto Rico, he purchased a cookbook for me called Puerto Rico True Flavors by Wilo Benet.  Over drinks at the bar, we leafed through every page of this cookbook discussing each dish…what made it special, its origins, when his family served it, how his mother made it.  For instance, he explained how his grandmother and all of the tias would get together during the holidays and form an assembly line to make pasteles, a dish similar to tamales but made with green bananas or tubers, instead of cornmeal, and steamed in banana leaves, instead of corn husks.  He described ingredients that are uncommon in the US, but specific to Puerto Rican cuisine, such as breadfruit, chayote, and aji dulce.  (He also brought me an aji dulce plant that is now growing in my yard.  He said that it will produce prolifically and that the peppers can be preserved in vinegar for months.  I can’t wait for our first fruit.)  Carlos loaned me his copy of an out of print cookbook by Dora Romano, Rice and Beans and Tasty Things.  He shared with me that his dad sent it to him many years ago, and although this book may not have glossy photos, the text presents a full interpretation of Puerto Rican cuisine.  To say the least, he provided me with more information, recipes, and ideas than I could ever tackle in one week, but I did my best to celebrate the highlights.

mallorcas fresh
from the oven
On my first trip to Puerto Rico, Carlos insisted that I visit La Bombonera in old San Juan to try their mallorcas for breakfast, and we loved it so much that we never missed an opportunity to eat there on any future trips.  Unfortunately, after more than one hundred years in business, this wonderful little café closed its doors in April.  I decided to take on the challenge of recreating our breakfasts there and selected a recipe posted on the Always Order Dessert blog.   Pan de mallorca is an eggy, flaky pastry that is slightly sweetened.  My biggest concern was not overworking the dough, because the key to a beautiful mallorca is to keep it light and fluffy, similar to a brioche.  I knew as I slipped the first sheet of pastries into the oven that I had successfully conquered this dish, and I was right!  When the first batch came out of the oven, I couldn’t wait to stuff and griddle them. 
mallorca stuffed with
egg, ham, and cheese
Mallorcas are usually served with a dusting of powdered sugar, and sometimes they are stuffed with eggs, cheese, and/or meat.  At La Bombonera, they split them in half, slathered them in butter, pressed them on a griddle, and dusted them with powdered sugar.  I followed suit and prepared them the same way….pure unadulterated heaven!  Just as we would order at La Bombonera, we started with the stuffed version:  egg, ham, and cheese.  Then, we followed it with a basic mallorca buttered, griddled, and dusted in powdered sugar for dessert.  I am so proud of myself for recreating this dish.  We are already making plans for the next weekend we will splurge and enjoy homemade mallorcas.

Fritters are such an essential part of Puerto Rican cuisine that Wilo Benet’s cookbook includes an entire chapter dedicated to them.  One of my favorite places to visit in Puerto Rico is an area near Luquillo Beach referred to as “the huts” which is a long row of over fifty kiosks, each known by its number, lined up down the highway for what seems like over a mile.  For me, a trip to the huts means starting on one end and working my way down the line ordering a different fritter and an ice cold 8 oz can of beer at each kiosk until I can’t eat or drink anymore.  Such fun!

I chose to make two fritters for this week’s project:  almojabanas and alcapurrios de jueyes.

alcapurrios de jueyes
Before my first trip to the huts, Carlos gave me a cheat sheet list of his favorite fritters there, and one that he recommended, much to my delight, was a crab filled fritter called alcapurrios de jueyes.  The dough is generally made with yautia (taro) and the filling includes crab meat, olives, capers, and a touch of tomato paste.  I could not find yautia, so I substituted malanga for it in my fritters, and they still tasted great.  We topped them with hot sauce, which made them even better.

Carlos mentioned to me that his grandmother often made almojabanas as a special treat for him when he was growing up.  This fritter is a simple combination of rice flour, milk, egg, and crumbled queso fresco. The texture reminded me of mashed potatoes, and the cheese provided a subtle, saltiness.  It is common to drizzle these fritters in honey or dip them in chocolate, and I can see how that would be a great combination because their flavor profile is neutral enough that they could easily be complemented by savory or sweet elements.  We simply ate them warm from the fryer and found them delicious.

Roasted Pork, Stewed Pigeon Peas with Plantain Dumplings, Rice, and Tembleque
One of these days, I am going to make it over to the lechoneras of the infamous “pork highway” for a day of gluttony.  Until I do, I will dream of the Roast Pork we made at home for our weekend of Puerto Rican fare, because it was awesome!

From time to time during the project, I specifically select dishes that the hubs will enjoy, because he is always such a great sport about my transitioning weekly menus.  For sure, any smoked and/or roasted pork dish is always at the top of his favorites list, and I knew he would be excited to try out a new variation.  In Steven Raichlen’s Planet BBQ, he only features one Puerto Rican recipe, Lechon Asado, and really, that’s all he needed to include…it’s amazing!  The technique he offers for treating the skin produces the most incredible chicharron with a smoky flavor and crispy skin atop a thin layer of unctuous fat.  Here’s to make it:
    Start with a bone-in, skin-on pork shoulder.
  • Slice the skin off the shoulder in one large piece and set aside.
  • Poke holes in the roast and fill them with garlic cloves and fresh sprigs of oregano.
  • Rub the shoulder with an adobo spice blend (salt, dried oregano, dried sage, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper).
  • Drizzle the pork with two tbsp of olive oil and rub it into the spices and the shoulder.
  • Tie the skin back onto the pork with butcher’s string.
  • Roast the pork (skin facing up) using indirect heat on a charcoal grill.  We added applewood chunks to the coals every hour.  Every thirty minutes, baste the pork with annatto oil, and roast until it reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees F.  (For our nine pound shoulder, the roasting time was about four hours.)
pork shoulder
& chicharrons
The flavor imparted from these seasonings and the technique of cutting off the skin and tying it back onto the pork elevated this pork to BEST EVER status for pork we have cooked at home on the grill.  After it rested for about fifteen minutes, we untied the skin from the shoulder and cut it into squares.  We served the chicharron alongside the shoulder.  No sauce.  Who needs sauce with such an amazing pork shoulder?  Seriously, it was so good!  There were at least three times during dinner that the hubs pulled a big hunk off the shoulder and said, “You want a really good bite?  I can tell this one is going to be great.  Look how moist it is, and the bark on the outside has so much flavor.”  I responded each time with, “No honey.  You can have it.  They are all great bites, and I’m going to eat all of this chicharron if you don’t hurry up and eat some yourself.”

gandules con
bolitas de platano
As if the pork wasn’t already amazing, we also had some delicious stewed pigeon peas to accompany it.  When Carlos and I were discussing the dishes in Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors, he pointed to the recipe for Gandules con Bolitas de Platano (Stewed Pigeon Peas with Plantain Dumplings) and told me it was a must.  He shared with me that while his family had “rice and beans” for almost every meal, as is customary, his mom transitioned between brown beans, pink beans, and pigeon peas so that it never felt like the same thing for dinner every night.  Benet’s recipe for stewed pigeon peas turned out to be another gem of a dish.  The stew’s flavors came from onion, diced ham, sofrito (homemade with onion, garlic, cubanelle peppers, sweet peppers, cilantro, culantro, oregano), tomato sauce, and pumpkin.  The plantain fritters had an interesting flavor, but I found them to be a bit heavy.  Overall, the dish was a great addition to a dinner of roast pork and rice.

Carlos told me that tembleque was a dessert that I absolutely had to make.  Most simply, it is defined as coconut pudding, but its texture was actually a little firmer than flan, so I’m not sure “pudding” is the best description.  The dish surprised me.  It’s simply sweetened coconut milk thickened with a cornstarch slurry, but the end result is delectable.  In my research, I found that some people pour it into special molds or dishes to present it, but I found the straightforward presentation of squares dusted with ground cinnamon to be quite elegant.  The dusting of cinnamon is a must for presentation, as well as for flavor.  It brings out the sweetness of the coconut. 

mofongo and
stewed pigeon peas
I would be remiss if I did not include mofongo in a week of Puerto Rican cuisine.  Mofongo is fried green plantains mashed with garlic, salt, pork cracklings, olive oil, and broth.  Sometimes, the dish is made with either ripe plantains or yucca, instead of the green plantains.  In an interesting twist, a friend who was recently in Puerto Rico for vacation told me he had a dish called trifongo which incorporated all three ingredients (green plantains, ripe plantains, and yucca).  In previous trips to Puerto Rico, I have ordered mofongo and while I never disliked, I generally found it to be very heavy and flavorless.  However, when I made it for this week’s project, I suddenly understood why people love it so much.  As with everything, the key difference in my mofongo and what I had tasted during my travels was nothing more than simple seasoning.  I followed Wilo Benet’s recipe, and I have never enjoyed mofongo so much.  I am confident that the difference was the fresh garlic.  The dish had such a brightness to it, and when I paired it with leftover stewed pigeon peas from the night before, it was the perfect combination for a Monday night “comfort food” dinner.

To say the least, we ate well during Project Puerto Rico, even better than I expected.  In addition to fabulous food, I enjoyed spending time with Carlos and listening to his stories about growing up in Puerto Rico.  All in all, a week that I will cherish and remember fondly.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Week 32: A Journey to Malayasia

As I began researching Malaysian cuisine for this week’s dishes, I quickly discovered how much the Chinese and Indian cultures have influenced Malaysia’s flavors and combination of ingredients.  The history of this region’s connection to China and India dates back to the first century BC when trade routes were established between the countries.  Most uniquely “Malaysian” dishes would be more appropriately deemed as Nyonya or Peranakan cuisine.  Nyonya dishes developed as a result of early Chinese migrants settling in Malaysia and marrying local women.  This cuisine blends the ingredients and cooking techniques of the Chinese with the flavors of the Malaysian/Indonesian community, such as coconut milk, peanuts, coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, star anise, chiles, galangal, candlenuts, pandan leaves, tamarind, lemongrass, ginger, jicama, and kaffir lime leaves.  I set out to explore Malaysian cuisine’s blends of flavors and ingredients in order to better understand its unique flavor profile.

Making Tamarind Paste
Tamarind Pods
Tamarind is a popular fruit often used in Malaysian cuisine as a sour component.  When I began reading recipes for Malaysian dishes to prepare, I quickly recognized that Tamarind Paste would be an essential ingredient for this week’s project.  Living in South Florida, I am fortunate to have access to many tropical fruits like tamarind, and I’ve often considered picking up some fresh tamarind pods at the grocery store just to see what I could do with them.  This week, I took on the challenge.

I purchased a pound of fresh tamarind and set out to make tamarind paste.  I began by shelling the pulp from the pods.  I tasted a bite from the end of the pod and found the raw flavor quite lovely actually.  I added the pulp and one cup of water to a sauce pan and began warming it over medium heat.  I stood over the pot smashing and mashing the pulp until the seeds started popping out.  Eventually, I had a mixture that looked similar to apple butter with large seeds in it.  I pushed the mixture through a strainer and returned it to the saucepan to cook down into a paste.  It was actually very simple.

As a side note, I saved some of the mixture that looked like apple butter before I reduced it into a paste.  I added a touch of honey to it and, voila….tamarind butter!  I spread it on toast, and I must say it was quite delicious.

Saturday Night Dinner:  Laksa, Nasi Lemak, and Rendang

Curry Laksa
Laksa is a quintessential example of Nyonya cuisine as it closely resembles a Chinese brothy noodle soup, but its ingredients and garnishes reflect the flavors of Malaysian cuisine.  Although an appropriate definition of Laksa may be simply “spicy noodle soup,” the number of variations on this dish is extensive.  Wikipedia alone sites eighteen fully defined versions.  In general, laksa falls into two categories:  Curry Laksa, based with a coconut milk and curry broth, and Asam Laksa, based with a tamarind and fish broth.  I chose to follow a Curry Laksa recipe in Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World.  The broth begins with a curry paste of garlic, shallots, ginger, fresh chili peppers, tamarind paste, turmeric, and coriander.  This paste is fried until fragrant, and then lemongrass and stock are added to simmer. (Based on other recipes I read, I think that use of a fish broth here would be most authentic.  I used a vegetable stock because that’s what I had on hand, and I didn’t want to muddle the fresh flavors from the curry paste and lemongrass by adding a heavier chicken or beef broth.)  After the broth simmers for fifteen minutes, coconut milk is added, and the soup simmers for just a few more minutes.  To serve, I place cooked Chinese egg noodles and bean sprouts in the bottom of a bowl, ladled the curry broth over them, and garnished with hard-boiled eggs, cucumber, and tofu.  Without a doubt, the freshly-made curry paste enhanced the complex flavors of this dish and was highlighted by the heat of the chiles and creaminess of the coconut milk.  The only change I will make next time is to add a little more heat.  The chiles I used were not very spicy, and I know that to be authentically Malaysian, my dish needed more kick. 

Beef Rendang and Nasi Lemak
Nasi Lemak holds the rank of Malaysia’s National Dish.  Although, its name appears to simply refer to rice cooked in coconut milk, the actual “National Dish” is more likely the name of the common breakfast platter of the coconut milk-infused rice, fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, hard-boiled egg, and sambal (a spicy chile sauce).  Street vendors also serve this combination of ingredients wrapped in a banana leaf as a “fast food” option.  It is traditionally a breakfast dish, but restaurants and street vendors alike serve it for lunch and dinner.  For dinner in a more formal environment, restaurants often transform the dish into a more elaborate presentation by including a meat curry or rendang with the coconut milk-infused rice.  I opted to serve it with rendang.

From the moment I read the description of beef rendang, I knew it was a dish that must be included in the project.  Rendang refers to a spicy meat dish that is dry-braised in a chile paste and coconut milk until it is dark and tender.  Again, I chose Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World as a guideline for preparing this dish.  I made a paste of ginger, scallions, garlic, turmeric, lemongrass, coriander, chiles, and tamarind paste.  I slathered chunks of beef chuck with this paste and let it marinate for about an hour.  Then, I browned it in a skillet, added coconut milk, and sautéed it until most of the sauce had dried up.  I covered the dish and let it simmer over low heat for another thirty minutes.  The result is a rich, tender beef dish perfectly complemented by the creamy, coconut milk-infused rice.

Sunday’s Malaysian Grill:  Otak Otak and Tauhu Bakar

Otak Otak
Otak-Otak is a fish mousse steamed inside a grilled banana leaf.  The most commonly used fish in this dish is mackerel, but I substituted halibut as it was more accessible.  I followed Steven Raichlen’s recipe from Planet BBQ to make the fish mousse.  I began by blending a paste of shallots, garlic, ginger, macadamia nuts (for texture, because I did not have candlenuts available), lemongrass, turmeric, tapioca flour, and coconut milk in a food processor.  Then, per Raichlen’s instructions, I added chunks of the fish and pulsed just until the entire mixture combined.  He notes that a proper otak-otak should not be completely smooth.  Instead, there should be small, soft pieces of fish within the cake.  To prepare the cakes for the grill, I put about ¼ cup of paste in a small oval on a banana leaf and folded two sides of the leaf over the paste securing them with toothpicks.  The leaves are then grilled over high heat for about three minutes per side.  The final result is a moist, flavorful fish cake.

Malaysian Grill:  Otak Otak in
Banana Leaves & Tofu brushed
with chile peanut sauce

Tauhu Bakar
Tauhu Bakar, Malaysian-style Grilled Tofu with Chile Peanut Sauce, is another Malaysian dish that caught my attention in Planet BBQ.  After reading so many accounts of the spiciness of Malaysian dishes, I wanted to make something that really highlighted that aspect of the cuisine.  This was actually my favorite dish of the week!  The sauce is delicious, and it would be good with shrimp, chicken, beef, lamb….pretty much anything.  The sauce is made with garlic, shallots, ginger, chile paste, sugar, hoisin, chopped roasted peanuts, and sesame seeds.  It is lightly brushed on the tofu, and then the tofu is grilled for a few minutes per side.  When served, more sauce is spooned over the tofu, and the plate is garnished with cucumber, fresh pineapple, and bean sprouts to add a fresh, light element.  Delicious!  I loved it so much that traded the hubs some of my otak otak for half of his tofu.

This week’s Malaysian dishes offered an interesting twist on familiar preparations and ingredients.  The highlights of the week were definitely the beef rendang and the grilled tofu with chile peanut sauce.  The combination of influences from China, India, and Indonesia came together in a pleasing manner and definitely gave me a better idea of what Malaysia’s dishes offer.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Week 31: A Journey to Palestine

For months, I’ve looked forward to my Palestinian culinary journey. My friend Lana grew up in New Orleans, but her family hails from the West Bank region of Palestine. Last year, I was privileged to share an evening with her family and friends during Ramadan. Watching Lana in the kitchen is an incredible site. No lists, no recipes...just a complete understanding of the dishes she learned from her mother. Last week, she and I spent two nights creating authentic Palestinian dishes and breaking fast at sundown. By that, I mean she showed me how to make these dishes while I took dubious notes. My most important role was that of “taster” as I was not fasting, and she was.

Palestinian Cuisine is similar to other Middle-Eastern cuisines, such as Lebanese and Syrian. They even share many dishes like Baba Ghanoush, Falafel, and Hummus. Before we developed the menus for our two-night stint, I researched dishes that are uniquely Palestinian and focused on dishes native to the West Bank. Lana and I discussed these dishes and developed our game plan. Then, she gave me a grocery list off the top of her head for each one. Interestingly, as we cooked these dishes, she would take a moment to explain that we could make a dish this way or that way and ask my opinion. Without fail, my response remained, “whatever your family does.” So, with that, I share with you Lana’s family recipes as she has learned from generations of amazing Palestinian women.

Wednesday Night: Shorbot Adas, Maqluba, and Kunafeh
I began my Wednesday night with a quick stop at Oriental Bakery for Kataifi (shredded phyllo dough) and Nablus Cheese (an Armenian sweet cheese). Lana had told me about this spot, and I just hadn’t gotten by there. Very cool. I’ll definitely go back there for falafel sometime because it looks great.

Shortbot Adas
I began my Wednesday night dinner with a bowl of Shorbot Adas that Lana saved for me from her previous night’s dinner. Adas is a lentil soup common in Middle Eastern cuisine. Whereas most parts of the Middle East incorporate yogurt into the dish, a traditional Palestinian presentation is made with chicken broth and seasoned with onion, garlic, and parsley. Pita bread is served on the side to be dipped in the soup, or it may be torn into pieces and added to the soup. Lemon or lime wedges are also squeezed into the soup to brighten its flavor. I loved this soup. Its flavor immediately reminded me of Greek avgolemono soup, which makes sense because both soups have a thickened chicken broth base (adas thickened with lentils, avgolemono thickened with egg) enhanced with fresh lemon juice. I could make a meal out of this dish alone. fresh
you can see the steam
Last year, when I joined Lana for Ramadan, she introduced me to maqluba. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I sometimes tire of “chicken and rice” dishes, because they generally taste bland to me; however, what I remember most about this dish is just how much flavor is imparted into the rice. Clearly, I am not alone in my sentiment, because when I took the leftovers to work on Thursday, everyone raved about it. Maqluba literally translates to “upside down” referencing the process for preparing and serving the dish.

The following notes detail how to make this dish like Lana:

Begin soaking a mixture of long grain and short grain rice (about 1 ½ cups of each size).

Cut a whole chicken into parts. Slice a few onions.

Boil the chicken in with the onion, season salt, garlic powder, and allspice. (We probably used about 2 quarts of water.

Fry cauliflower florets, eggplant slices, and potato chunks in a neutral oil until they are cooked completely.

Break strands of dried angel hair or vermicelli pasta into small pieces (similar to the length of long grain rice). You need about ½ cup. Cook the dry pasta in a microwave for about two minutes to “brown” it.

Drain the rice after it has soaked for around thirty minutes. Add the broken noodles to the rice. Season the mixture with the same spices used to flavor the chicken: season salt, garlic powder, and allspice. (Lana also adds a packet of Goya Sazon Azafran when she has it on hand for both flavor and color.)

Vegetables Layered
for Maqluba

When the chicken and vegetables finish cooking, begin layering ingredients into a soup pot. Begin by layering in slices of fresh tomato and garlic cloves on the bottom of the pot. Then, add the chicken and onions from the pressure cooker. (Make sure you keep the broth. You will need it for another step in this dish.)  Place the fried vegetables on top of the chicken and push them down in the nooks and crannies to fill in as many holes as possible. Pour the seasoned rice and pasta mixture on top of the vegetables and level it off on top. The last step is to pour the broth used to boil the chicken over the layered dish just until it covers the top layer.

Cook with the lid off until the liquid boils. Then, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook until the rice is done.

While the layered dish is cooking, fry slivered almonds and drain them on a paper towel.

Maqluba before the flip

When the rice is done, invert the pot onto a large platter and top the dish with the fried almonds.

Vegetable Salad

Traditionally, this is served with a simple salad and plain yogurt. For our dinner, we had a salad of tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, lime juice, mint, and black pepper.

Most Palestinian desserts involve variations on nuts, cheeses, phyllo dough, and dates. Lana insisted that we must make kunafeh (also spelled kenafeh, knafeh, kunafa, or kunafah). This dessert originated in Nablus, a city in the northern West Bank region, and dates back to the early fifteenth century. The dish is served for special occasions and at large gatherings. Here’s how to make it:

Thaw the Kataifi and Nablus Cheese if they are frozen. (The ones I picked up at Oriental Bakery were frozen. We set them both on the counter to thaw while we prepared the maqluba and salad, and they were fine by the time we were ready to work with them.)

Shredded Kataifi by hand
Shred the Kataifi into small pieces and spreading it onto a large ovenproof platter.

Melt one stick of butter and mix in about a teaspoon of powdered orange food dye called Kunafa Pastry Coloring. (This can also be purchased at Oriental Bakery. From a flavor perspective, the dye is unnecessary. From a traditional perspective, it is always used. When I asked why, Lana said it is just the way a kunafeh is supposed to be.)

Pour the orange butter over the dough and rub the dough with your hands until the color is evenly distributed. Place the platter in a warm oven (around 300 degrees F) for about two minutes. This step is simply to set the orange dye into the dough.

While the dough is in the oven, break up the Nablus cheese into small pieces. Mix together 1 cup of Nablus cheese, ¼ cup Ricotta cheese, and ¼ cup of shredded mozzarella cheese.

Remove the dough from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes. Turn the oven up to 450 deg F.

Make simple syrup by combining 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water in a saucepan. Then, warm them over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.

Remove about 1/3 of the dough (taking from the top) and set it aside. Then, push the bottom layer into the pan firmly.

Kunafeh before baking

Very carefully cover the layer of dough in the pan with the cheese mixture. The easiest way to do this is to drop little bits all over it, and then spread it out with wet hands (wet hands keep it from sticking to you).  Spread the remaining dough evenly over the cheese mixture.

Place the kunafeh in the pre-heated oven and bake until the edges just start to brown.

When you remove the kunafeh from the oven, drizzle the simple syrup over the top layer and let it rest for a few minutes. This gives the dough time to soak up the syrup.


Invert the pan onto a larger platter. Cut the kunafeh into squares and serve. (Most people garnish it with chopped pistachios, but we forgot to buy pistachios.)

Cheesy Goodness of Kunafeh
fresh from the oven

The result is an interesting dessert that is not too sweet. The best part is the stringy cheese filling. I would highly recommend trying this out. It is actually very simple to make.

Thursday Night: Musakhan and Qatayef
When I read about traditional dishes from the West Bank, I was intrigued by the description of a dish called musakhanthat originated in the northern West Bank region. This dish includes roasted chicken served over a flatbread that has been soaked and crisped in sumac-infused oil with onions. When I asked Lana about it, she told me that it is a delicious dish and that we should definitely make it. She explained that taboon bread is a large flatbread traditionally made in a special clay oven. She said that her mother emulates the process by baking the bread on the bottom of a cast iron skillet, but then she told me that it is completely acceptable to call Oriental Bakery and order large pitas to pick up the next day...which is what we did. One of the most interesting aspects of this dish is that the bread serves as a main component, instead of a side item. Here’s how we made the dish:

Cut a whole chicken into pieces. Season it with salt and pepper. Simply bake it in the oven.

Dice about two pounds of yellow onions.

In a saucepan, mix together the diced onions, ¼ cup of sumac, and freshly ground black pepper. Add about 2 cups of olive oil. Cook the mixture over medium heat until the onions are completely caramelized.

Musakhan Topped with
Onions and Sumac-Infused
Oil before baking
When the onions are caramelized, remove the saucepan from heat. Coat the tops of 3 large pitas (or taboon bread if you have it) with the sumac-infused oil that the onions cooked in. Arrange them on an ovenproof platter and top them with the onions. Bake this until the edges of the bread crisp.

While the bread is in the oven, fry some almonds or pine nuts and drain them on paper towels. Set them aside to be used as a garnish.

When the edges of the bread are crispy, remove it from the oven. Top it with the baked chicken and garnish with the fried nuts. Serve it family-style at the table.

The dish is generally served with a yogurt salad and a vegetable salad. We mixed some plain yogurt, sour cream, diced cucumber, minced garlic, mint and salt to make a yogurt salad. For the vegetable salad, we served the same salad as the previous night.
Musakhan with vegetable
and yogurt salads

The flavor of this dish really surprised me, because I hadn’t expected the sumac to impart such a bright citrusy flavor. My favorite part was an end piece of the bread with the crispy edges and the soft centers soaked with the sumac-infused oil and onions. I could easily make a meal of just the bread and onions.

Qatayef is a dessert commonly served during the month of Ramadan. (Incidentally, it is often referred to as Ramandan Pancakes.) The semolina pancakes can be filled with sweet cheese or nuts. Lana prefers them stuffed with a mixture of cheese and flavored with ground cinnamon. Here’s how to make them:

For the batter, mix the following ingredients until just combined: 3 cups semolina flour, 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 tbsp active dry yeast, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tsp baking powder and 3 cups water. Let the mixture rest for 35-40 minutes.
While the batter rests, make a batch of simple syrup using 2 cups sugar and water.

When ready to make the pancakes, pour out rounds (about six inches in diameter) onto a warm griddle. When the pancakes are cooked through (they will be bubbly all over), remove them from the griddle and set them aside to cool. Do NOT flip them.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

While the pancakes cool, tear Nablus cheese (the same cheese used to make the Kanufe) into small pieces and mix it with sugar and cinnamon to taste.

To stuff the pancakes, place a small amount of the cheese mixture in the middle of a pancake (the bubbly side) and fold over the pancake to make a turnover.
Pinch the edges around the pancake so that it holds together.

Place the turnovers on a sheet pan, and bake for ten minutes.
When you remove them from the oven, immediately drizzle simple syrup over them. Like breakfast pancakes, they will soak up the syrup quickly.


Lana serves this dish with mint tea, and I must say that the mint tea is an absolute must. Because the pancakes are so sweet from the simple syrup, the mint tea provides a much needed fresh, acidic balance. Together, these stuffed pancakes and a cup of hot mint tea serve as a perfect ending to a meal.

My week of Palestinian cuisine introduced me to some wonderful new dishes. In addition, I felt so privileged to have Lana invite me into her home for personal lessons with her family’s favorite dishes. Now, the real key will be making these dishes on my own, but I think she has given me a great compass for success.