Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Asia is Big

When friends say they are in the mood for “Asian,” I get a bit perplexed. I mean, Asia is a pretty darned big place. Wiki tells me it’s the largest and most populous continent and contains more than 60% of the world’s human population. So that means it has a heck of a lot of diversity in its food options. To prove just how diverse, I’m gonna take you on a culinary tour of Asia through the food I’ve enjoyed here in Adelaide over the past few weeks.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I happen to live in Chinatown, and Chinatown restaurants happen to offer much more than the cuisine of China. I eat in Chinatown a lot; I eat Chinese a little. So in the interest of organization, let’s travel and eat as the Japanese and Chinese read and write; by moving East to West, right to left through the Asian continent.

Thus we begin our journey in Japan. Are you sick of hearing about all the Japanese food I eat? Yeah, me too. But I returned to Wasai, a restaurant in an alleyway just behind my place, and was once again impressed and find it worthwhile to tell you about. The menu of course has a large selection of sushi and sashimi. The spider roll, with a crunchy fried soft-shelled crab bursting from its seaweed confines, is more than a mouthful and provides crisp and creamy textures in one overflowing bite.

Wasai Japanese Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Don’t order a spider roll when you’re on a date. You don’t look very sexy when you eat it and if you eat it properly, in one massive bite, it proves you’re a big mouth.

The girls and I also ordered takoyaki, light spheres of fried batter with a morsel of octopus nestled inside. I used to eat these all the time when I lived in Japan, as they’re served as street food in Kobe, but hadn’t seen them at Japanese restaurants in the States. At Wasai they were served atop a bed of crispy fried onions and sprinkled with paper-thin bonito flakes that did a whimsical jive as they arrived at our table. They’re a little more subtle than the spider roll.

The Wasai gozen, a medley of starters and sushi such as prawn and vegetable tempura, tamagoyaki (sweet rolled egg omelette), shaved beef and onions in a sweet sauce, fried pork dumplings, and a smooth potato salad arrived in a lacquered bowl and delighted us with surprises and sauces in every hidden corner. We are easily amused when it comes to food.

The ishiyaki una-don gratified all our senses, with tender grilled eel served over rice in a sizzling stone bowl. As a delicate sesame sauce was poured over the eel tableside, the dish snapped crackled and popped and a nutty aroma filled the air. We all fought over the crisp layer of toasted rice that formed at the bottom of the bowl. I won. I can be pretty ruthless when it comes to toasted layers of rice. As you shall soon learn more about.

If eel seems a bit too adventurous, there are many mains that appeal to more timid palates, while still being traditionally Japanese. Katsudon is a sliced pork cutlet simmered with a sweet soy-based sauce and served with egg on a bed of rice. Oishiiiiiiiiii!

I took a trip to the Korean Han Kuk Kwan in Chinatown with a friend and we indulged in a hot pot on a cold day. The hot pot overflowed with thin slices of beef, pork dumplings, Napa cabbage, Chinese cabbage, enotaki mushrooms, and tofu skin all in a flavorful broth that got progressively richer as we added more and more ingredients.

Scooting over and down to Malaysia, a quick lunch break turned into a gastronomic delight at Penang Hawker’s Corner. I ordered stir fried noodles in a thick sauce with roasted duck, chicken and pork with crispy cracklin’ skin. The meats were tender and the sauce complex – certainly worth my $8.50.

Jackie’s noodle soup with roasted duck was also a hit.

As you may have read in a previous post, I have become mildly obsessed with Indian cuisine since I’ve been in Adelaide. I suppose I am mildly (I guess some would say absurdly) obsessed with all cuisines but recently a lot of my time has been spent attempting to perfectly toast spices, discovering the veg joys of lentils paneer and cauli, and picking the brains of my Indian girlfriends. Jackie has fed my habit both by purchasing me an Indian cookbook and by working her magic in the kitchen so I can experience firsthand what REAL Indian food is supposed to taste like!

She recently cooked up a feast for the gastro girls…

including a lamb biryani that she allowed to cook in a rice cooker.

Fluffy and spiced rice layered with a lamb curry – perfect!

And once again I fought and won a battle for the crispy rice layer at the bottom of the casserole.

She also served a spicy vegetable curry with eggplant, mushrooms & potatoes in a creamy yogurt sauce (my fave of the evening)…

And tender tandoori chicken.

All served with rajma, (red kidney beans in a tomato-based sauce that reminded me of American baked beans, a major plus since baked beans are one of my top fave foods), fried pappadums (crispy lentil wafers), and a raita whipped up by chef Amy (yogurt with diced cucumber, cilantro, and cumin)…

Yes. Bravo Jackie. Thank you for spoiling us:)

Finally, let’s make a stop in the Middle East. Through an essay I wrote for one of my gastronomy courses on gastronomic tourism in the kingdom of Jordan I was able to learn more about the food of the Middle East in two weeks than I’d learned in the previous 27 years of my life. It is interesting that many foods we eat in the USA on an almost daily basis come from this region. Who doesn’t love a falafel wrap, with ripe tomatoes, hummus, Lebanese cucumbers and yogurt?

Or how about a mezze with infinite varieties of colorful small dishes such as babba ghanoush (roasted eggplant dip), dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with lemony rice), garlicky hummus, spanokopita, sautéed zucchini with a sprinkling of mint and a squeeze of lemon, pickled red onions, falafel, yogurt, and Lebanese bread. I wish I could have invited you over to share with me!!

One of the many Middle Eastern cookbooks I picked up at the public library during my research contained a recipe I couldn’t resist for braised lamb shanks sprinkled with pistachios and pomegranate seeds, served over a bed of couscous.

So what kind of Asian are you having tonight?

Friday, September 5, 2008

International Steez – Part 4: Hakuna Matata

Much like the continent itself, the cuisines of Africa are mysterious, alluring, and exotic. Apart from the occasional Moroccan meal, I have never cooked African food at home, and have only eaten Ethiopian/Eritrean and Moroccan food in restaurants. How can it be that I am neglecting to eat the food of an entire gigundous continent? Something’s gotta give, and that’s why the girls and I decided to head to the ‘burbs to eat at Babanusa, the only Sudanese restaurant in Australia.
Before heading to Babanusa I did some research on the cuisine of Sudan, partly because I love learning about cultures through their food, and partly because I’m a big dork. I learned that Sudanese cuisine has evolved and developed over generations through word of mouth without the aid of cookbooks or written recipes, and since I haven’t been to Sudan, that partly explains why I’ve never come across any of its recipes. Indeed, in the cookbooks on African food I found in the public library, Sudanese cuisine is little mentioned. I’ve eaten Ethiopian food in Boston and also here in Adelaide and because Sudan and Ethiopia share a border in northeast Africa, I thought Babanusa and its Sudanese cuisine would somewhat resemble my experiences at these Ethiopian restaurants.

I was able to gather through my research that the Sudanese are a notoriously hospitable people whose cuisine draws from its diverse geography of sandy deserts and tropical forests. A multitude of external influences have colored Sudan’s history and the cuisine reflects British, French, and Italian influences as well as borrowing elements from Egyptian, Ethiopian and Turkish cuisines. Much like the Ethiopian cuisine with which I am familiar, the Sudanese eat their meals from a communal tray with no utensils other than the occasional spoon, scooping the many dishes on offer with the aid of flatbreads and fingers. Ingredients such as onions, garlic, eggplant, pumpkins, chickpeas, and tamarind were familiar and appealed to me, but I must admit I was a bit reluctant when I saw sheep lungs and cattle hooves mentioned as popular appetizers in Sudan, where they are eaten raw. I’m open-minded, but that just might make me run in the opposite direction. Okra is indigenous to the African continent and is used both fresh and dried to thicken soups and sauces. Black-eyed peas, one of my ultimate favorite foods, are popular and native to the area as well. Along with dates and figs and an alcoholic drink prepared from the flowers of a hibiscus tree, I was excited to see how many of these ancient and alluring ingredients I could try at Babanusa.

Well, you can imagine my delight when all of the goodies were on the menu and none of the baddies, ie sheep lungs, were to be found!

We started with a selection of four dips in a variety of colors, flavors, and spices, with clear and distinct flavors coming from the yogurt and cucumber, pureed pumpkin and peanuts (the table favorite), eggplant with garlic and lemon, and a chickpea dip dominated by cumin. The ensemble of dips resembled a selection you would get at a Lebanese or Middle Eastern restaurant, but with more vivid and bold spices.

The dips were accompanied by kisra, a traditional thin bread that’s the main staple of Sudanese cuisine and has a fermented, sour flavor and chewy, elastic texture. If you’ve eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant, you can compare kisra to injera bread, only thinner. It’s fun to play with. And to eat.

While we would have happily sopped up the dips and forthcoming mains with the kisra in the traditional Sudanese manner, forks and knives were provided for those who were uneasy about communal dining. This carried over to the huge variety of mains we ordered, which were not served simultaneously on a traditional tray but brought out in stages in separate bowls for passing and spooning onto individual diner’s plates.

There are many unfamiliar, exotic-sounding drinks on offer, such as hibiscus and tamarind cordials and an African beer called Windhoek. When questioned for advice, owner Eltahir Malik demonstrated Sudanese hospitality by offering a complimentary sample of sharpat to enjoy with our dips. We learned that Eltahir and chef Eddie Ahmed make a variety of cordials (sweet liqueurs) in-house, including sharpat which is made of fermented dates and sprouts and had a faint lemony flavor. The wine was good too. Score.

Mains provided astonishing value for quality and quantity, ranging from $10.50 to $20, and were perfectly and intricately seasoned. The meat dishes yielded to our forks with incredible ease. The goat (maeez) was standout and the best preparation I have ever tried of this meat, bathed in a sauce of malokhia and perfect quantities of clove and cinnamon. Malokhia is a green leaf native to Africa, similar in texture and flavor to spinach yet lending body to the sauce in much the same way the Sudanese use okra.

Jagadig, a spicy beef stew served with spinach and black-eyed peas, was as much fun to eat as its name is to pronounce. Jagadigjagadigjagadigjagadig – try saying that five times fast! Sounds like a train taking you to funky town. Meltingly tender and spicy, while not being overly so, the dish was accented by cumin and garlic.

A vegetarian would be well catered for here with many interesting (and filling) combinations and flavors using lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, nuts and eggplant as foundations. We chose sudi, grilled eggplant stacked with roasted red peppers, peanut sauce, and arugula served on a bed of couscous. The eggplant and red bell peppers were nicely charred, lending a smoky flavor to the dish that nicely complemented the richness of the peanut sauce. The flavors were complex and the dish offered the best presentation of the meal and was surprisingly Meagan’s, the extreme carnivore of the group, favorite dish.

Overall, presentations were simple, mains were filling without being greasy, meats were well-seasoned and well-cooked, and the many distinct flavors kept us interested and engaged. The meal was rounded out with couscous, brown rice, and a thick, golden corn porridge called assida that resembled thick polenta in appearance and taste.

Because we lingered for over two hours on our entrees and mains, the kitchen was closed by dessert time. We would have liked to have tried zalabia, honey balls dusted with roasted spices and served with ice cream, or fenugreek dumplings served with a date sauce. The spiced or fruit tea or strong spiced coffee, for which the Sudanese are famous, were also appealing. After two bottles of wine for four people and more food than we could eat, the tab came to a mere $35 per head. And that made us very happy!

Owner Eltahir Malik motivated us to join him on the African xylophone and drums and to dance to the rhythms he helped us create. A charismatic man who is clearly proud and passionate about his country and cuisine, Malik has done a good job of making Sudanese food accessible and interesting to Australians. The flavors were different without being intimidating. He has fashioned a relaxed, approachable atmosphere in the spirit of his homeland and is eager to share enchanting stories of Sudan’s history, cuisine, customs, music and even religion to diners who are in no rush to break Babanusa’s enticing spell. He chatted us up for a good 45 minutes after dinner, and after all that wine and sharpat, it wasn’t difficult to convince us to kick up our heels to his African beats. I tried my hand at the drums and was so amazing I’m expecting a call this week from Eltahir asking me to be a special guest drummer on busy Saturday nights. Recording contract forthcoming.

We will certainly be back, thanks for sharing your cuisine with us, Eltahir!

Babanusa Sudanese Restaurant

86 Prospect Road, Prospect. Ph: (08) 8342 1222.

Babanusa on Urbanspoon