TL;DR Honestly, just save yourself the time and start making this recipe right now. I will got through the ins and outs of creating these delicious, soft, semi-sweet coconut buns, but there are times when it just makes sense to experience something for yourself and what I’m about to write is really just various different ways of telling you how good these were.
A friend sent me this recipe, for which I am hugely appreciative because researching 195 countries is a lot of work, and also my friends have excellent taste. I hadn’t started looking into Samoa yet, and I guess I don’t think about baked goods when I think about pacific nations (yet another one of my preconceptions which has proven to be wrong), but pani popo is considered one of Samoa’s national dishes, and now I understand why.
These were very simple to make. You make some dough, knead it, and let it rise for a while. Then you punch the dough down (this is always so satisfying), divide into 12 parts, roll them into balls and then gentle snuggle them together in a oven-proof pan and let them rise together again. Cover with a sugar and coconut milk syrup and whack them in the oven. When they come out all golden and delicious you pour the remaining syrup over the still hot buns, and then try to let them cook a bit before eating them.
I am not much of a sweet tooth. In my world, savoury will win 99 times out of 100. But golly gee these were DELICIOUS. They’re soft and a little bit sticky and sweet without being too sweet. I ate three straight out of the pan, which is why I don’t have very many good photos of individual buns.
One thing to note is that they do not keep very well. They were OK the following day with a 10 second blast in the microwave, but by day three they were hard and a bit chalky inside. I’d recommend making these an hour before you need them and ensure you have a gathering large enough that they will all be devoured. They really are that delicious when they’re freshly made that you won’t want to lose them to the degradation of time.
Also, for one of my favourite recipes so far I failed to get any really good photos because my desire to eat them superseded my plan to document them. And if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.
In the early 2010’s, if you were lucky enough to know my friend, Ping, and were then lucky enough to ever be invited to her Lunar New Year dinner, you lived a very blessed life.
Ping is a trained chef with the heart of an artist, and the spread she would make would take her days to prepare. I’m talking handmade dumplings, broths which bubbled away on her stove until they reached peak flavour, dipping sauces made from scratch, and plate after plate of delicious morsels which could cooked either by submerging them in the bubbling hot pot or sizzled on the surrounding grill plate.
I remember lying on the floor of her and Kevin’s living room after one such meal, in agonising pain due to the sheer volume of food I’d eaten, idly wondering if I could make room for some more. Her food is that good.
For this meal I didn’t set my sights even close to that high – I’m nowhere near as skilled as her, and we only have two bellies to feed in our house – but I did want to make something to mark the Lunar New Year.
Longevity noodles represent a long life and are meant to be served as one single strand. The kind of noodle (wheat, egg, etc) appears to be determined regionally, but is less important than the symbolism of a very long noodle bestowing a long life on the person eating them.
Being a voracious noodle eater, it’s wild that I’ve never attempted to make my own. I have watched in awe as chefs in the front window of Din Tai Fung make noodles and dumplings, and never made the leap to try it in my own home.
The process of making these noodles was a revelation. They need to rest a number of times (something we could all potentially learn from), and the way the dough transforms between each rest was a real surprise.
The dough is just water, flour, and salt. You do all the usual (knead, rest, knead again, rest again) and after this second rest you divide it in two, then roll each piece into long snakes. At this stage the dough was so silky – I kept exclaiming to Derek how nice it was to touch! It was soft and springy and fun to roll out.
After winding the snakes into a big spiral, coating them with oil, and placing in the fridge for another little rest, you take them out for a final rest at room temperature. And this is where the fun comes in.
I was not sure whether I’d be able to stretch the noodles in the same way I saw in the video. You loop the noodle between your fingers and then stretch your arms outwards, while swinging the strands up and down, helping them to stretch thinner while also being very careful that they don’t break (or get tangled, as you can see in the video in my Instagram post). Obviously it takes many years to perfect this method, so my biggest goal was to end up with something edible. And by all accounts, it was.
I managed to keep two very long strands, and two slightly shorter ones. I made a fairly simple veggie stir-fry to go with it, loosely based on this recipe. The noodles had a good bite and the sauce really clung to them. They were fun to eat – a little bit messy, a little bit slippery, but very, very tasty.
I was not feeling great today and didn’t have much interest in cooking at all. Additionally, an attempt at a different recipe was thwarted by my own failure to buy the correct ingredient, so I wasn’t less than my normally positive self towards cooking and trying something new.
While I was on the couch doing some lazy research to see what recipes I’d make next week to catch up after this week’s deficit, when I decided to learn more about Bhutan. It’s a small (under 800K population), landlocked nation between China and India with a 1000% more awesome local name which translates to ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’.
Most sites I read emphasized how important cheese is to the Bhutanese – mostly from yaks or cows. Meat is also center stage of most meals, meaning that I was not feeling all that optimistic about finding something appropriate to veganise.
Enter Jaju – which basically means ‘vegetable’ in Dzongkha, and is a catch all for a kind of vegetable and milk soup in Bhutan. There are varying accounts of what this would have originally been made from including dried turnip leaves, local spinach, or seaweed. The ingredients (which I have written out below because they aren’t easy to grab from the video I linked to above) are really simple and while I did expect it would taste fine, I didn’t expect how phenomenal it would end up being. It was light but had a depth of flavour I wasn’t expecting – I think the milk brings out elements of the tomato and garlic in a way I’m not used to. I had to stop myself from eating the entire pot, and after my partner tried it he requested it to be added to our normal food rotation immediately.
I highly recommend you make this – especially if you’re feeling a bit blurgh. It took 15 minutes from start to finish and the only change I’d make is doubling the quantities so you have leftovers (or seconds and thirds).
1/2 white onion – diced
4 cloves garlic – crushed or finely chopped
1/2 tomato – diced
Green chilies to taste
1 1/2 cups water/stock
1/2 cup milk (I used oat milk)
150g spinach, cut into bite sized pieces (I used baby spinach)
Heat oil in a large saucepan or wok. When hot add onion and fry for 2 minutes.
Add garlic and chilies and fry for an additional minute.
Add tomato and fry while stirring occasionally for 3 minutes.
Add water/stock and bring to boil. Replace lid and let simmer for 2-3 minutes.
Remove lid and add milk and bring back up to the boil. Replace lid and let simmer for 2 minutes.
Remove lid and add spinach and replace lid for a minute. Remove lid and stir wilted spinach into the liquid, then replace and let simmer for 3 minutes.
Note: I did not have any chilies in the house so I added sriracha at the end. Chili crisp was good on it too.
What I made here was really quite awful. My partner* did eat the two he served himself, but when I broke the ice by saying how bad I thought they were he said (and I quote) “I definitely do not want to eat any more of those”.
This recipe has everything you could hope for. Pancakes. Frying. TWO types of potatoes (both mashed and grated). This should have been epic, but instead what I made was a gluey, gummy mess.
My expectation, as described by NYT Cooking, was a “bread-like potato pancake”. Somewhere else I read that the mashed potato gives a pillowy softness, and the grated potato adds a bit of bite. Whatever abomination I made failed on all both fronts.
I cannot believe that a nation so enamoured with potatoes would recognise the monstrosity I created, so I have to take this as a personal failure. In my sleuthing since throwing out all remaining ‘boxtys’ (something which pains me greatly as I hate food waste, but was a better alternative than leaving them on the counter for three days before eventually, sadly, sliding them into the bin) I’ve identified five potential culprits.
Too much flour. This recipe required a whole cup, but others recommend just enough to bind the potatoes and milk together.
Too much milk. This recipe also asked for a whole cup of milk, yet others suggest adding the milk and flour slowly because the mashed and grated potatoes will have different moisture levels each time you make it, and you don’t want it too runny. This batter was runny.
Not squeezing the moisture out of the grated potatoes. It’s 50/50 whether a recipe recommends doing this or not, however the one I used explicitly said “I’ve never seen it make much of a difference and the extra starch actually helps bind vegan boxty.” Literally every other potato cake-type dish I’ve ever made has required this step so I feel like this may be the main culprit.
No egg/binding ingredient. You don’t need eggs in everything, and the flour and mashed potato should have enough structure to hold the pancakes together, but eggs do have magical powers in recipes like this. I could try flax seeds next time, but I think tweaking the above three details is the most sensible next step.
Overmixing. I didn’t think I overmixed this recipe, but overmixing anything containing flour can make the texture substandard.
The comments section on the NYT Cooking recipe (my favourite melodramatic corner of the internet) also complained about textural issues, with the same words ‘gluey’ and ‘gummy’ showing up frequently. At least I’m not alone in this.
My apologies Ireland, I have failed you. If someone knows how to make these or can confirm what the texture should be like, I’d love to know. I am positive that whatever I made was not representative of what sounds like a truly delectable snack, and at some stage I’d love to try again. But I need to let the scars of this experience heal first.
*Boyfriend? Perma-boyfriend? I still don’t think there’s a good naming word for a romantic partner that you’re not married to, don’t plan on marrying, but expect to be with for a long time. Someone please sort this out.
Have you heard of the Republic of Kiribati? Do you know how to pronounce Kiribati? Had I not met a really interesting couple a number of years back who had spent some time living in there, I wouldn’t have known that this country existed. One of them was teaching at the local university and they told stories about Kiribati culture and sadly how our refusal to deal with climate change will ultimately lead to Kiribati being reclaimed by the oceans as they rise.
On that positive note, it’s pronounce ki-ree-bas, and it’s an island nation comprised of 32 atolls and one raised coral island, with a population of roughly 120,000 people. It only has 818 square kms landmass making it the 24th smallest country in the world, but is spread across 3.5 million square kms of ocean which straddle the equator.
Finding a vegan recipe for Kiribati was a bit of a struggle. It doesn’t have much arable land so there isn’t a lot of local agriculture, and given its proximity to the ocean, seafood makes up a lot of the diet. However, sweet potatoes and pumpkins are known to grow on some of the northern islands and a pumpkin or sweet potato and coconut soup is one of their traditional dishes.
I will admit I wasn’t that excited about this recipe. I make soup all the time, and I make pumpkin or sweet potato soup regularly enough that I didn’t expect this to really stand out. However this recipe used a lot more coconut milk than I normally would, and a lot, lot more ginger. It was visually beautiful pastel tangerine, and the flavour was creamy with a bit of a kick – and tasted even better the following day. The recipe was straight forward, which goes to show you don’t always need complicated for delicious. I’ll definitely make this again!
I love a noodle soup. LOVE a noodle soup. So much so that if you ask most people who know me at least semi-well, they know that my greatest love and obsession is laksa and that it’s become a major pillar of my personality. I’d link here to the many Instagram posts on my personal account extolling my love for the meal, except that account is private so I’ll spared us all the indignity.
Having said that, I’m always excited to discover a new noodle soup. Myanmar (formerly Burma) borders Thailand, Laos, China, India, and Bangladesh and is home to over 100 ethnic groups and its cuisine reflects these influences and diversity. The first time I tried Burmese food was at Cafe Mandalay in London. The menu was so exciting and overwhelming that we asked the waiter to just surprise us with his favourite dishes and the meal was did not disappoint. This was over 15 years ago so I can’t remember exactly what we ate, but the memory of the meal remains.
As such, I was excited to get to Myanmar in this project. What drew me to this particular dish was a) that it was a noodle soup and b) it featured chickpea tofu. I’ve already expressed my love of chickpea flour in the panelle post, and I was excited to try it in a different setting.
Besides making the chickpea tofu – which is not hard but does require some setting time – this meal was quick to come together. Boil some noodles, fry off some onions, add blended aromatics and fry off a little longer, then spices, stock, and coconut milk and you’re ready to go!
I will admit that the version I made was a bit too subtle for me. I like bold flavours and ended up adding some chilli crisp to spice it up. I also added bok choy and broccoli because your girl loves a vegetable. However, the real star of the show was the chickpea tofu, and I’m not the only one who thought it. My partner said, unprompted “This chickpea tofu is dope” which isn’t a sentence I ever expected to hear anyone utter.
I’m not sure I chose the right recipe for Myanmar, but this meal was filling yet light, fresh, and something I would like to do more research to discover more recipes and recreate that feeling from Cafe Mandalay circa 2005.
I was first introduced to bialys at the Macrina Bakery that was underneath my first apartment in Seattle. They did (and probably still do) a killer breakfast sandwich on one, which is most definitely not at all vegan.
The bialy originates from the Polish city of Bialistok, and migrated to NYC with Polish immigrants sometime in the early 1900’s. A bialy is often referred to as a kind of bagel, except it’s not boiled before it’s baked, and there is no hole in the center, so the comparisons probably have more to do with the fact that if you can find them, they’re probably going to be in a bagel shop.
Bialys have a depression in the center which is meant to lead to a thin, crusty middle, which is filled with caramelised onions and poppy seeds. The ‘proper’ way to eat a bialy is not to slice it open (like a bagel) but to fill the center with butter or cream cheese and eat it like a savory, bread danish.
As you will see, what I made in no way conforms to traditional bialy beauty standards, and probably doesn’t count as one at all.
Whereas your historically accurate (read: made by someone with baking skills and talent) bialy has a pronounced innie, my ‘bialys’ had something closer to an outie. These domed little pillows of bread were objectively tasty, but if you put them in a police line up for some kind of strange bakery-related crime, it’s not going to fit the witness’ description.
I have limited experience baking – and even less experience shaping bread – generally relying on an old faithful ‘no knead’ recipe which is kind of gloopy and impossible to manhandle into the shape of a loaf, but also impossible to mess up? So while the texture of these ‘bialys’ was great – soft, good spring, yet satisfyingly resistant when you bite into them – their little spiky haired domes were not what I set out to make.
And then I broke the cardinal rule and sliced one in half to make the most structurally unsound sandwich possible. There was so much height and so many slippery ingredients (avocado, tomato, pickles, Chao cheese, sprouts, tofurky slices, mayo!) that they all made a quick exit through the back of the buns when I tried to bite into it. I was going to say ‘You live, you learn’ but I knew this was going to happen, and I did it anyway.
Bialys can be hard to come by (apparently you can’t even buy them in Bialistok anymore!) so if you see them in the wild, I suggest you grab one because if these monstrosities I made are this delicious, the real thing has to be transcendent.
TL;DR. This recipe was DELICIOUS and gets a solid A+, while I get an F for research and accuracy. Will do better in future. Scroll down to the second last paragraph (just after the photos) if you’d like a review of the actual recipe and not paragraphs of introspection about my own ineptitude!
This dish taught me just how much I have to learn.
The cooking technique isn’t difficult, and the instructions were easy to follow. The final product was totally bomb, so it’s not like this was a failed recipe either. However, I completely misattributed this particular recipe to the wrong country which has opened a whole can of worms and made me realise that I’m not ‘simply’ making one recipe from each country.
The origins of some dishes are complicated due to shifting political borders, colonialism, wars, and in many cases lost or murky history. Also, many countries lay claim to dishes which have the same name, but different preparations.
Enter jollof rice.
My ‘research’ style thus far has been following where my curiosity takes me. While looking up national dishes for one country, recipes from neighboring countries will often pop up. Or in the case of jollof rice, some websites use the very broad brush of ‘West Africa’, a term which covers 15 countries and almost half a billion people.
The history of jollof dates back to the 14th century in the Wolof Empire, a kingdom which covered what is now Senegal, The Gambia, and Mauritiana. The wikipedia page is much better at outlining the complicated history of this dish, and this interview from NPR gives a delightful overview into the competitive rivalry between West African nations for the title of ‘best’ jollof rice.
While there are many differing opinions, it does seem to be generally accepted that an area in northern Senegal was the birthplace of jollof rice. In my unstructured, flitting about research I put the name of the dish next to Senegal in my nerdy little Google Sheets tracker. Later in my internet travels I came across this recipe and put the link into my little spreadsheet and kept going on with my day.
After going to Vancouver International Market to gather ingredients for this and many other recipes (it’s unlikely anyone reading this lives in SW Washington, but if you do, this market is great!), including egusi seeds for the egusi stew I plan to make for the Nigerian installment of this project.
You can probably see where this is going.
Most west African nations have their own version of jollof rice and they all feature rice, tomatoes, capsicum, scotch bonnets (I had to use habeneros as scotch bonnets aren’t readily available where I live), garlic, onions, and spices. While this provides a common thread, the kind of rice used, the preparation steps, the included meat etc all differ from country to country.
The recipe I landed on was not, as intended, Senegalese. Also known as ceebu jen/thieboudienne, Senegalese jollof traditionally contains fish and large chunks of vegetables like eggplant and sweet potato (I will be making a vegan version at a later date). Importantly it is also made with jasmine rice.
Nigerian jollof on the other hand is made with parboiled basmati rice known as golden sella. While some other countries would cook meat with the rice, Nigerian jollof seems to pair the rice with a meat dish instead (although I am obviously the furthest from an expert on this, so I’m sure there are Nigerian recipes which include meat as part of the cooking). And there aren’t any big chunks of veggies.
This is a very long-winded way of saying that I had intended to make Senegalese jollof rice, ended up making Nigerian jollof rice, and now will be making a sub-series in this blog of all the different jollof recipes, because this recipe was freaking delicious and now I’m very curious about how they all differ. Also, Nigeria will end up with two recipes this year because try as I may I cannot find any other recipes which use egusi seeds, and I’m personally really excited to try egusi stew.
In terms of the recipe itself, it was time, but not labour, intensive and took close to three hours from start to finish (although much of that time is fairly hands off – not ‘leave the house and go for a walk’ kind of hands off, but you can go do other things while different elements are roasting or reducing or steaming). It was devine! Incredibly flavourful, with just the right amount of spice for me, although if you are sensitive to heat it would probably be quite hot. I found a ripe plantain at our local supermarket, so I fried that up to serve alongside, and made a simple coleslaw which is a common side dish for jollof in Nigeria. We loved it so much we ate it the next day for breakfast, with a runny fried egg on top (Note: while I’m making these recipes vegan, I am not vegan and do eat eggs).
If you made it this far, I’m sorry? It felt important to call out my own ignorance and highlight the importance of doing thorough research for each recipe. I’m also sure some of the information above is not quite accurate or could use clarification, so I expect to make edits as I learn more from researching other countries’ versions. I plan on these blogs being a bit less lengthy in future – no one wants to read this much – but while I’m finding my feet (and discovering what I don’t yet know) there might be a bit more of the sausage making in these missives.
When I started this project I didn’t realise I’d be exposing my unabashed love for chickpea flour, but here is the romantic subplot no one asked for. In the first week.
I’ve been using chickpea flour (also known as gram, besan, or garbanzo bean flour) to make a savoury breakfast pancake for a few years now. In what can only be described as very preliminary recipe research, I’ve already identified three different countries on three different continents which have a chickpea flour forward snack, and you know I’ll be making all three (plus any additional ones I find along the way).
Pane e Panelle is a Sicilian street food found predominantly in Palermo (insert supercut of every time Quentin from White Lotus said ‘Palerrrmo’), and the first panelle were thought to have been made between the 9th and 11th century, so this is a recipe with history.
Preparation of the chickpea fritters requires three steps. Heat and mix. Set. Fry.
The only step which requires much effort is the first – you have to continuously whisk the water, chickpea flour, and salt mixture over a medium heat until it starts to solidify and come away from the sides of the pan. It gets quite viscous all of a sudden and requires a bit of elbow grease to keep mixing it until you’re at the right consistency.
After this stage it’s pretty low maintenance, allowing it to cool and set (I did it in the fridge overnight, but you can just leave it on the counter for an hour or so) and then slice into squares and fry on either side for 2-3 minutes.
They can be eaten straight from the pan as a snack or appetizer, however, if you’re looking for something heartier you can whack a few fritters onto a fresh bread roll. I had some ciabatta rolls in the house and used those, but I read somewhere that if you were to get one of these on the streets of Palermo it would be on a soft, fresh roll with a blush of sesame seeds on top.
The salty, crispy, fried outside of the panelle gives way to a soft and delicate center. Combined with the bread it’s a meal which sticks to your ribs and I – a very big grazer throughout the day – didn’t think about eating again until lunchtime after making this for breakfast.
I will make these again. While simple on the surface, the final product is more delicious and complex than expected, and the fritters alone would easily lend themselves to a number of other dishes eg: add fried eggplant, tahini, and amba and make a vegan sabich. There are also numerous condiments which would take this sandwich into another direction – think a spicy muhamarra, or caramelised onions, or even a picante fresh salsa. However, given how the original recipe has lasted through the centuries it clearly doesn’t need innovation and I recommend giving it a try as is.
Honestly, I don’t know how to rate this meal. And it’s really making me interrogate how I use the star rating system. One part of this meal (the polpette) was excellent and I will definitely make them again. However, the other part (the sauce) was just strange. I would not make it again, nor would I recommend anyone else does.
So let’s unpack these separately.
I’m always skeptical about meat-free replicas of meat recipes. They seem to offer a promise they can’t deliver, and I’d prefer to either have the real thing or nothing at all.
However, these ‘meatballs’ have all the characteristics of a good meatball. They have a resistance when you bite into them, they are really flavourful, and have a salty sharpness from the pecorino. They’re pretty easy to make, wilting spinach in a dry frying pan and smushing up the rest of the ingredients in a blender. Roll them into balls and cook in the oven for 20 minutes and their done.
The sauce, while just as easy, was kind of a strange, sloppy mess. Full disclosure, I do not have a proper blender or food processor so the almonds didn’t break down as finely as the recipe probably intended, so part of the textural problem could be equipment based (although you do know what they say about workmen blaming their tools…) The flavour was… fine? It was just kind of sharp, and sour, and watery all at once and made the meatballs soggy which detracted from them entirely.
So the meatballs get four stars, and I will make them again as an appetizer, hors d’oeuvres, or to add to salads. The sauce was a solid one star and I will not make it again. If I gave an average that would make this a 2.5 start attempt, but that would be burying the lede. Sigh.