Sunday, September 26, 2010

East Timor, September 25th 2010

The world isn't what it used to be.... Literally: when I first started cooking in alphabetical order, East Timor had just won its independence from Indonesia after a long and bloody war. I am not sure when it was finally recognized by the rest of the world as a sovereign country but it is only on my third round that I have finally realized I had to retrace my steps to the top of the E list and host a dinner based on edible finds from this "half" island. The island of Timor is in fact occupied by two countries: Indonesia on one side and on the (East, duh) side is East Timor. It comes as no surprise therefore that much of the culinary style in Timor Leste (as this country is also named) is similar or much the same as Indonesia. Had I properly accounted for this place when I first started the alphabetical dinners series, it would not have been a big deal if I had just cheated and cooked food from Indonesia since it would have been a good 8 years before getting to this side of the world again, but as luck would have it, Indonesia is my next "I" country (and at the rate I am going right now, that means dinner in January or February). Given the latest trend in readership, some smarty panty from some college or high school would have discovered my "mistake" and miserably exposed me, thus destroying my (virtually non-existent) reputation.

It would appear that whilst I still have not been discovered by someone from the Food Network or the Travel Channel (why, why??), my latest cooking notes have been of some use to students for their school/college assignments. One can assume that not everyone that reads a blog leaves a comment and so I am estimating that there's more that 2 students that have used this blog for their schoolwork (the 2 students being those that left comments on the Canada and Dominica posts). I guess I should call PBS and let them know that they should consider my show now before I become much too famous and therefore expensive.

But back to East Timor: I had to do lots of research to find recipes that would correctly represent the culinary style of this country but I finally managed to find enough recipes to make up a decent menu. Of course there are many times when I can't find a "starter" or a "side dish" and so I end up improvising and using what would normally be entire meals as one of the two. It is also true that in many countries a meal consists of one single dish but I don't think I would enjoy the experience as much if I was only cooking one thing.

You would also think that by now I would have learned to appropriately judge the number of portions that a recipe yields given that many recipes I find online don't have this information but for some dishes I just can't tell. For example, I haven't cooked pumpkin in forever (if you exclude the one that comes in a can) and so I just didn't know how much pumpkin there is in a ...well... a whole pumpkin. There's a lot of food I discovered. And I made two entire pumpkins for East Timor dinner. But I am jumping ahead.

As always it was very interesting to prepare the shopping list; typically preparing a list isn't a big deal on a day to day basis but I always find myself having to look up the ingredients on Wikipedia (since many aren't even listed on the Food Lovers Companion) and thankfully there are now many sites that offer suggestions for substitutions. See, I might not be able to judge if a pumpkin will serve 7 or 20 but I can safely assume that finding salam leaves and/or candlenuts in an Atlanta store isn't going to be easy (and yes, this is an acquired skill that comes with experience and it's even harder when your mother tongue isn't English).

My guests for the evening were right on time and after the obligatory first cocktail and exchange of latest gossip we sat down for dinner.... I do have a lovely shot of me and the other guinea pigs (from left: Robert, Katie, Kyiomi, me, Eric and Leonard - Floyd was there too but he was behind the camera).

I can't remember if it was Robert or Leonard that first picked up the menu and attempted to read the names of the dishes: I think it adds to the fun if the names are in the native tongue but often we have no idea how to pronounce them (Ikan Pepes Bumbu Merah... could very much be Latin and actually, since East Timor was for a long time a colony of Portugal, perhaps there is a Latin influence in the language...except I have no idea if this in Timorese). Whoever it was, it prompted a few raised eyebrows but they're always good sport and willing to try anything! They know I won't serve them snake blood - even if it was the national dish. A girl has to draw a line somewhere!
My first course was "Batar Nurak Daan" with "Budu Tomate" which is a dish made with pumpkin and boiled corn served with a tomato and onion salsa. I've got this recipe by following a gazillion of links and I think that it was meant to serve the entire Apistodookee United Methodist Fellowship (no relation, I just thought the name was catchy) because I ended up with a large dishfull and enough leftovers to last till Christmas. The recipe called for 20 corns on the cobs and an entire pumpkin... not sure how it was supposed to fit in a "medium sized pot". Maybe the medium size in a soup kitchen. The instructions said to "take the grains off the cobs" so I decided to save myself sometime and bought frozen corn. But not as much as 20 cobs. I don't have chickens in my backyard... although... I wonder if feeding corn to the squirrels would deter them from eating my tomatoes? An interesting fact about this dish: it was really healthy. Aside from the 1 cup of peanuts there was really no added fat. Most guests thought that it wasn't bad as a healthy option but it was a bit bland and needed either some hot sauce (which of course I provided) or salt and vinegar.
I put the leftovers in the blender (with hot sauce) and made a big pot of soup that I can eat for lunch until the end of the year...
The main course was Ikan Pepes Bumbu Merah which is spicy fish baked in banana leaves. I chickened out a little and did not add all the hot peppers that the recipe called for (50gr) as I was using Thai peppers and they're really hot. However, as a result the fish wasn't really spicy. It was impressive though: I had gone to the Farmers Market on Friday and purchased a 4lb whole snapper. I had to squeeze it in our fish roaster, it was a really big fish! It is smothered in a paste that requires a lot of various ingredients and so I learned to experiment cooking with tamarind and fresh turmeric (which looks a little like a big caterpillar and when you peel it it looks and smells like a carrot). I have never used tamarind before. It looks, well, interesting. As Robert put it: "it looks like my cat's poop". I gave all the guests a tamarind pod as I was only able to buy it in a 1lb box and I only needed a little bit. It has really big seeds inside each pod and they cannot be grounded in a food processor (they're really hard). So it looks like cat's poop and when you open it up it contains seeds that look like sheep's poop. Mmmm, I was going to try to eat some (it's a fruit) but it's no longer very appetizing... The fish was wrapped in banana leaves and steamed and then grilled. Unfortunately I think I left it on the grill a little too long and as a result it was a bit dry.
It was very handy to have Kyiomi at the dinner table: being Japanese she's very accustomed to handle whole fish and so she very proficiently cut it up and served everyone. This is the before picture:
And this is after Kyiomi was done with it:

I served the fish with Tau Koi Rana (smashed pumpkin cooked in coconut milk with corn meal) and Gado-Gado (which is a peanut sauce that I used to dress a salad). The first would have been lovely for breakfast with a banana or blueberries. The coconut milk gave it a really sweet taste. I loved it of course and so did my friends but they did say it should have been dessert and not a side dish. Oh well, I was looking for some carbs to accompany the fish so I went with this recipe. Naturally I have tons of leftovers since this recipe also called for a "medium sized" pumpkin (it was a medium, possibly even small by US standards!).
The Gado Gado was delicious (peanut sauce, what's not to like!). It scored really high with almost everyone. I think I'll make this again. Eric says he's always loved Gado-Gado (it's Indonesian but they also eat it in East Timor) but he would have liked some more proteins (but I also had the fish and a huge pot of smashed pumpkin!!)

Finally dessert: Bibingka. OK, here is a bit of background: this is a typical Philippino dessert but I have found some information about a restaurant in Darwins, Australia, ran by a couple from East Timor and they make something that have a very similar name and looks very alike the bibingka. They use coconut and so I substituted 2 of the 7 cups of cassava the recipe called for with grated coconut and hopefully I came close to the one they have in East Timor. This was really yummy. In Katie's and Floyd's words: there's a party in my mouth! If you like coconut and like custards, this is for you. I have leftovers - naturally - and kept on going back to the fridge today to have "just one more spoonful"!
The goody bag contained some chilli paste (recipe supposedly from a little old lady from East Timor), a jar of Pudim de Coco (coconut crème caramel?) and a tamarind pod (which prompted all the above mentioned comments). Hey all y'all that were here last night, if you find an appropriate use for the tamarind, please let me know.... Robert, if you can't find anything to do with it, you can always use it to deter the neighbors to barge in by putting it on your front steps!

Here is the full menu with the scores:
Batar Nurak Daan & Budu Tomate : 8
Ikan Pepes Bumbu Merah : 7.3
Tau Koi Rana : 7.3
Gado-Gado: 8.1
Bibingka: 9.2
Overall Score: 8.2 (this is the latest addition! it was Floyd idea and I liked it so I adopted it...)

So ended another lovely evening. I learned a bit about a new country and my next adventure takes me to a very old country: move over Julia Childs! I am going to France. I am looking forward to that one....
Stay Tuned!


Anonymous said...

Don't forget the 400 years of Portuguese occupation and their influence on Timorese cooking (eg. Timor pudding = creme caramel) and the special nature of local produce, both vegetative and livestock (unsullied by commercial hybrids)

Anonymous said...

You are aware that TL was occupied by Indonesians from 75 - 99 so it isn't too difficult to work out that the language used to name the dishes you cooked is actually Bahasa Indonesia. It's not one of the native TL languages. Maybe you'd work that out for yourself when you start looking into a meal based on West Timor

Anonymous said...

Great dinner! Great post! We really enjoyed it.
Thanks Rossana.

Kiyomi and Floyd

Robert said...

Wow! What a great night of food and fun! For the record, I actually broke the tamarind open yesterday and ate the meat inside...very tasty! It reminded me of something similar to plum marmalade or perhaps fig meat. And it's consistency was something similar to apple butter. Anyway, thanks again for a terrific evening and your gracious hospitality.


Anonymous said...

How many people one could feed with 20 cob corn?

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Anonymous said...

Just thought I'd point (sorry, I just saw this blog on your East Timor dinner) that you state that Gado Gado is peanut sauce which is not correct. Gado Gado is an Indonesian salad that uses peanut sauce Sambal Kacang (Peanut Sauce)which would literally be called Bumbu (sauce) kacang (peanut).
Sorry to be a pain but ... the words (and the food) mean a lot to me.
But, thanks for a good idea and an interesting idea.

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