Sunday, April 03, 2011

Kiribati, April 2nd 2011

Everyone, repeat after me: Ki-ri-bass.  That's how you pronounce this country located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean.  It's composed by 32 atolls (not even islands...) and 1 coral island and apparently it used to be called "Gilbert Islands.  I have never heard of either, and any information about the country is courtesy of Wikipedia, however Eric had at least heard of the Gilbert Islands, but then again he has a degree in geography and I'm an accountant who likes to eat.  The rest of my guests (Kako, Kiyomi and Floyd) had not heard about it either. 

Being this a not very notorious country and fairly new having won independence from the UK in 1979, finding traditional local dishes was not an easy accomplishments.  I had to resort to a lot of tricks that I have learned in the last 8 years of preparing alphabetical dinners:
  1. Find at least one article that talks about the local culture and hopefully you'll find some hints as to what some of the local cuisine consists of
  2. Google the names of any dishes mentioned in the above mentioned article
  3. If step 2 doesn't yield the desire result, Google 2 or 3 of the main ingredients mentioned in the dishes  and hope for the best (very often the spelling of the dishes in the above mentioned article is either incorrect or some local spelling so despite Google mighty power of suggestions and alternatives, it is not always possible to get a hit)
I manage to find a few promising dishes and this time I decided to keep it simple so I wouldn't have to spend the entire day cooking and the following 2 weeks eating leftovers and so the menu consisted of 2 appetizers, 1 main course and 1 semi vegetable dish and 1 dessert.  The goody bag was to contain 1 batch of homemade candies but I had made too much (the recipe never said how many candies it would make but the fact that it called for 4 cans of condensed milk should have been a giveaway) and the leftover seemed to me that it would make a decent spread for bagels or toast so I put it in a couple of jars and gave it to my friends (even had enough left for one more jar that I kept).  Since I'm on the subject, the candies were supposed to be "macapuno balls".  Macapuno, I discovered, is a variety of coconut which I couldn't find at the farmers market.  They did have macapuno strings in jar but no macapuno preserve which was needed for my recipe so I settled for coconut jam.  This recipe took the longest to prepare:  you have to mix the jam with the condensed milk and then add corn starch and stir until it thickens, which can be a very long time... and after that I still left it to stand about 4 hours before it was thick enough to shape it into anything.  And here I had to resort to my imagination as the mixture was so sticky that there was no way of making anything resembling a ball so I rolled a spoonful of mixture in coconut flakes so I could handle and shape the balls.  The final result was not what I would call palatable.  Way too sweet.  I don't think I could eat a full ball, but Kako said it went really well with the espresso I made for her after dinner so perhaps they do have a purpose. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I'd like ot point out that all photos included in this post are care of Kiyomi (you can probably tell from the quality that they're not mine).   I am expecting to get excellent shots starting from my next post as I've bought a point-and-shoot class for Eric and he'll take it next week so he'll be my official photographer (assuming he's any good...).

We're in the middle of spring and the weather in Atlanta is really beautiful.  Also all the trees are in bloom and it's a joy to just walk on my street and admire all the colors of the trees.  Of course, if you suffer from allergies (I do not) or if you struggle to keep the yellow patina off your black car (I do) you probably struggle to appreciate all of this in full. However, I wanted my table to capture some of the spring essence so I sent Eric to pick a branch off the dogwood tree that is hanging over the driveway (it belongs to the neighbor but I'm sure he won't notice).  I used it as a centerpiece and Kiyomi liked it enough to immortalize it in a picture.  See below:

The reason why the water is a bit cloudy is because yours truly got a bit too much into the Spring/Easter spirit and dunk a few egg shaped jelly belly in the bowl... why didn't I think they would melt is even beyond me...  moving on.

After a nice cold glass of prosecco to open up the evening, we sat around the table and started our culinary journey to Kiribati.  Let's face it, it's not like this place has ever been on any of ours dream destination list so it's unlikely we'll make it there in person.  At least we can keep our head high next time we meet someone from there (unlikely) and say with a certain degree of confidence that we could find it on a map! 

As a first course I served crabmeat and shrimps in mayonnaise sauce.  I can't quite remember how I found this recipe but it was some fair-trade website and while it's probably not a typical dish from Kiribati it was delicious!  Everyone liked it and some even asked for second.  This is really exactly what the name says: the mayonnaise sauce is nothing but mayo, lemons, scallions and celery.  Probably because it's so simple, it went really well with the current warm weather.  Most said it was "refreshing".  Eric had leftovers with a baguette this morning for breakfast. 

Notice the lemon on the side of the dish? Here's an idea for your next dinner party.  If you serve lemon with any of your dishes, rather than just cut it up and put it on a side of the plate, cut a lemon in half and then wrap it in cheese cloth and tie a little ribbon around the top.  Doesn't it look really stylish? And your guests will be grateful as when they squeeze it, the juice won't sting their neighbor eye and the seeds won't fall on the meal.  It's a trick I learned when I was a waitress at the restaurant of the Sheraton Belgravia in London about... well... 20 years ago!  Where did time go?

The second course was Guava Sinigang: I didn't actually realize it until I cooked it, but this is actually a soup.  It has lots of interesting ingredients accompanying the pork pieces (aside from guava juice it has daikon radishes, green chilies, taro root, lime leaves).  Maybe it was too hearty for this season but this wasn't a favorite.  Floyd really liked it but the others thought that some ingredients were too overpowering... although... Kiyomi thought there was too much coconut but there really was none in it. I wonder which one of the other ingredients made her think of coconut? The broth or the guava juice? I cooked it for quite a long time so the pork was nice and tender.  Also, since I've had scary experiences with Thai chilies before, I only cut 2 up and put the other 8 in whole.  It still had a bite to it but it was not inedible. 

The main course was Bistek.  This is really a Philipine dish but I found quite a few references to it in relation to Kiribati and since I've not made it before and it sounded interested, I decided to go for it.  This is very simple to make starting from the marinade of lemon (the recipe calls for kalamansi but I couldn't find them so I used regular) garlic and soy sauce to the cooking and assembly of the dish.  Unfortunately I forgot to cover the meat after I cooked it and put it in a warm oven so it got a little dry... I saved it by cooking it in the sauce just a few minutes before serving.  Everyone liked it.  Interestingly, Eric commented that it needed a bit of sweetness and I felt the same way so I added a couple teaspoons of sugar to offset the saltiness of the soy sauce but I guess it was not enough.  Kiyomi commented that it reminded her of Japanese taste and I have to say that when I was preparing it I could only think of teriyaki so I can see why she'd think that.  And nobody thought the meat was dry so I guess I manage to salvage it.  What you see in the foreground in the photo, are onion rings. 

With the bistek, I served what was probably the only authentic dish of Kiribati.  Palu sami: this is a dish made of 3 ingredients, spinach, canned corn beef and coconut milk.  It's very common for Pacific islands to have a lot of canned meat as there isn't a lot of room for pastures and so it's much easier to import cans than to raise a cow on the back yard.  I liked it but it wasn't the best dish on the menu.  I think that without the corn beef it would make a great spinach dish.  I like the flavor of the spinach mixed with the coconut milk.  All this said both Kako and Kiyomi really liked it but Eric found it a bit too runny and Floyd a bit too "spinachy". 

Finally dessert.  This was a hit (except for Eric who said YUK and refused to try it... then again he hates coconut and this had lots of it).  It was bibingkang galapong and it was really really good.  It was soft but dense at the same time, sweet but not too much.  Just the kind of dessert you want to much on forever.  And to avoid more temptation I cut up the leftovers and gave them to Kako and Kiyomi.  I suppose I could have taken it to work but that would have meant having it in my refrigerator for the whole Sunday and it's very likely that none would have made it to work on Monday.... It was made with rice flour and I love the consistency this gives the cake.  It's almost but not quite gooey.  It was a bit like a sweet and dense custard with coconut flavor.  And it also looked nice to look at: 

Despite Kiribati being a country we never heard of, Kako said this was probably one of the best dinners she had at my house.  Surely she was not including the Japanese dinner that she cooked.... Floyd thought that it's unlikely you'd get such a good meal in Kiribati but then again, who knows.  Maybe I should go try it for myself before I can judge.  And let's face it, something that is in the tropical Pacific Ocean (somewhere in between Fiji, Samoa and Hawaii) cannot be difficult to like, right?  See what I mean?

Finally here is the menu with the scores:

Guava Sinigang                                             7.5
Bistek                                                           8.5
Palu sami                                                      7.9
Bibingkang galapong                                     9.0

Overall Dinner                                           8.6

As usual, I truly had fun through the whole experience, starting from looking for recipes all the way to cooking, arranging the dishes, entertaining my friends and documenting it all in the blog.   Now I can start thinking about the next dinner.  L as in Lebanon.

Stay tuned.... 


Susan said...

A great description, as usual, Rossana! And educational!

Where did you buy the floating candles?

I didn't know Eric majored in geography. How appropriate!

And speaking of far away places, Tim may be sent to the Philippines on his next assignment, but we won't know, of course, until the last minute.


Anonymous said...

The blog made me remember the taste of each dish again! I truly enjoyed the Kiribati dishes. FJ and I enjoyed the both sweets today. Yummy!

Thanks very much indeed for your hospitality!
KIyomi & Floyd

SalMonela said...

"...refused to try it" sounds rather harsh. Let's just say that I respectfully declined the opportunity to taste it. Coconut - YUK!

Anonymous said...

I'll eat Eric's share of the coconut! And your floral masterpiece with the dogwood was exquisite...I thought the milky water was part of the design. Nice. -Laurel