“Are you more Chinese or American?”
My American friends in Beijing and I laughed as we reminisced about this all-too-familiar phrase my dad loved to ask while we were growing up. Every time he stumbled upon an “ABC” (American-born Chinese), that question would invariably emerge in some form or another.
I never knew exactly how to answer. I grew up with immigrant Taiwanese parents who cooked Asian food, held Asian values, and spoke Chinese at home. On the other hand, I went to American schools my entire life and I’ve never lived outside the U.S.
I’m in China right now on a whirlwind two week trip that Bryan and I had planned months and months ago. It’s my first time here, and the experience has been nothing short of fascinating.
People look at us and assume we speak perfect Chinese (we don’t) and then they are tickled when they find out that we are actually Americans. One taxi driver was impressed that I spoke decent Chinese yet thought it was funny that Bryan was basically mute in China. The woman at the spa even dared ask me who I would support if the two countries went to war (I quickly steered the conversation away from that topic!!)
Not only am I culturally Chinese/Taiwanese and American, I also studied French and Japanese in school, spending time in both countries as part of school exchange programs. Furthermore, my sister married a Korean, and I had many Indian friends in high school.
Having been exposed to such a wide variety of cultures, I found this next Project Food Blog challenge (create a classic dish outside your comfort zone) a bit more challenging.
I know absolutely nothing about Afghanistan.
Well, there is that one restaurant in Cambridge that I love. A wonderful Afghan restaurant that churns of absolutely fantastic food. My all-time favorite dish there is kaddo bourani (also kadu bouranee), a baked pumpkin dish with transcendent flavor combinations that are truly out of this world.
Sheepishly, I realized that even though I loved the food at The Helmand, I knew absolutely nothing about Afghanistan or its cuisine.
As I began doing research on this fascinating country's cuisine, I realized that kaddo bourani embodies many classic aspects of Afghan cooking.
First, kaddo bourani uses many classic Afghan spices. Afghan cuisine incorporates ideas from Persia, India, and Mongolia. Why such a wide influence? Afghan kings in Kabul commissioned chefs from all over the empire to create dishes for the royal kingdom. Afghan dishes often use Indian spices in particular, such as garam masala, coriander, cloves, cardamon, mint, and tumeric. Here for kaddo bourani, we use coriander, mint, and tumeric.
Second, kaddo bourani incorporates several other classic Afghan ingredients such as yogurt, onions, and tomatoes, all of which are very important in Afghan cooking. Yogurt sauces are ubiquitous in Afghan cuisine. This fragrant yet simple yogurt sauce consists of plain yogurt, minced garlic, salt, and mint.
Finally, kaddo bourani embodies what I think is one Afghan cuisines' greatest strengths: well balanced but wonderfully contrasting flavors. Kaddo bourani is an absolutely beautiful dish because its three contrasting components (candied sugar pumpkin, savory meat sauce, and a garlic mint yogurt sauce) come together so perfectly. The pumpkin is too sweet on its own. Similarly, the yogurt is sort of sour and garlicky but not that tasty by itself. Yet, when you pair the sweet pumpkin with the savory meat sauce and the cool, refreshing yogurt, you create a simply extraordinary dish.
I tackled this dish the evening before I left for China. Between packing my suitcase and tying up loose ends at home, I prepared the meat and yogurt sauces while caramelizing the sugar pumpkins in the oven.
And right before I hopped on that plane to China, I enjoyed this as my last meal before heading to the airport.
Seriously, heaven on a plate.
The magical combination of flavors was totally there - sweet & savory & cool and minty all at the same time. Absolutely amazing.
I've come to appreciate Afghan cuisine so much more as a result of this mini-food journey. This is probably my first time tackling a dish from
the Middle East this region and it's been an enriching experience. In general, I still feel like I know so little about Afghanistan. Its culture is so rich and diverse, and I have really only tapped the surface by recreating one of their dishes.
At the end of the day, I'm still mostly American and Chinese/Taiwanese, with bits of European culture thrown in there for good measure. I'm still woefully ignorant when it comes to really understanding the cuisine and culture of Afghanistan. However, this little project has given me a greater appreciation for this amazing country, its rich history, and its fantastic food.
Thank you so much for those of you who voted for me last round. This blog entry is my submission for The Next Food Blog Star’s second challenge: The Classics.
If you are so inclined, please vote for this blog . Round 2 is over, but you can still vote in Round 4. I figured out how to access Blogger through VPN in China (yay!) so I am still able to participate. Thanks so much for your support!
adapted from The Helmand as published in SF Gate
For the pumpkin
2 Sugar Pie pumpkins, each about 3 pounds
¼ cup + 2 T corn oil
3 C sugar
For the Yogurt Sauce
2 C plain yogurt
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried mint
For the Meat Sauce
¼ C corn oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 ½ lbs. ground beef
1 large tomato, seeded and finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 ¼tsp ground coriander
1 ½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoon tomato paste
1 ⅓ C water
Preheat oven to 300ºF. Cut pumpkins in half and scrape out the insides (seeds + stringy bits). Cut each half into 3-4 inch pieces. Using a peeler, remove the rind. Place the pumpkin slices hollow side up in a single layer in a baking dish and cover with the oil. Pour the sugar on top (yes, all three cups!). Cover the pan with foil and bake for about 3 hours and 15 minutes (or until the pumpkin has caramelized into a deep, orange color). Note: after 2 ½ hours into baking, baste the pumpkin pieces with the juices below and then continue baking for another 45 minutes or so.
While the pumpkin is baking, prepare the yogurt and meat sauce. For the yogurt sauce, combine all the ingredients and keep refrigerated until ready to use.
For the meat sauce, saute onions over medium high heat in a heavy bottomed skillet until golden brown (about 18 minutes). Add beef and saute, breaking up the pieces until the meat is no longer pink (5 minutes). Add remaining ingredients (except tomato paste and water). Blend in tomato paste. Add water and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, reduce, and simmer for 15 minutes.
To serve, place the pumpkin on the bottom. Add yogurt sauce and then top with meat sauce. Serve!
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