Join us for Four Corners of Africa Lunch, March 11

Want to munch dishes from five African countries, while helping a mother who just lost her only child? Then come join us for an epic African lunch on March 11!

Here’s the story: I met Aline, an immigrant from the Central African Republic, when she took an entire day off from work to prepare a home-cooked meal for an American food blogger she’d never met (me) and 20 of our friends. It was an unbelievably kind thing for her to do — especially since I’m not sure that she could easily afford to take a day off from her job as a home health aide.

A week or so later, Aline’s only daughter died back in CAR. Obviously, we can’t do much to ease that sort of pain, but I know that paying for the last-second plane ticket and funeral really stung. (Unfortunately, home health aides aren’t terribly well-paid.)

To make things worse, Aline lost her job soon after returning from the trip. So she’s in rough shape, both financially and emotionally.

Aline, graciously feeding a group of strangers; photo by Andrew Guidone

 

So were trying to raise $2000 to help cover her travel expenses back to CAR for the funeral. It’s the least we can do to repay her generosity toward us, and let her know that she has some love and support here in NYC. Our plan is to surprise her with the funds — and a long list of the donors — at the lunch on March 11.

We’ll happily accept donations to the memorial fund here, or come join us for an informal African buffet lunch — prepared by Chef Grace Acheampong — featuring dishes from five countries, including…

South African peri peri chicken:

Kenyan sukuma wiki (stewed greens; we’ll offer one vegetarian version, and one with chicken):

Tanzanian beef pilau:

Ghanaian kelewele (spicy plantains with roasted peanuts):

Nigerian moi-moi (spiced black-eyed pea cakes):

 

And here are the details:

 

Four Corners of Africa Fundraiser for Aline
Featuring Chef Grace Acheampong
Saturday, March 11
12:00-3:00
Trinity Lutheran Church
164 W. 100th Street, Manhattan
Purchase tickets here
or donate here

 

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me personally: Charles Bibilos, unitednationsoffood@gmail.com.

 

#153 Central African Republic: bring on the home-cooked grub(s)

 

Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, I ate four plates of caterpillars. Yes, I very much enjoyed them. And caterpillars contain four times as much protein per ounce as unadorned chicken breasts, so I could even make horrible puns about eating healthy grub(s).

Hey, stop squirming! I mean you — not the caterpillars.

 

Now you might be wondering: how, exactly, does an American end up eating home-cooked caterpillars, imported from the Central African Republic?

Well… I was at a Super Bowl party a year ago, watching my beloved Denver Broncos kick some butt, and I started talking about food. (Surprise!) Suddenly, some American guy I had never met stood up, and said that he knows some guy, and that guy knows a guy from Central African Republic (CAR).

A few months later, I finally managed to meet that guy from CAR – a fascinating fellow named Erick.

Erick has done all sorts of incredible things in his life. He works as a Sangho-French-English translator, runs a small import-export business, and did some incredible charitable work back in CAR. He has lived and traveled all over his home country, and knows more about CAR’s regional languages, cultures, and culinary traditions than anybody you could possibly meet.

Erick graciously arranged a one-night culinary tour of CAR, prepared by a wonderful woman named Aline. Aline is Erick’s cousin, but they met only after Erick arrived in the U.S. six years ago. Nevertheless, Aline agreed to prepare food for 20 non-Central African strangers in Queens, including my favorite TV producer, the creator of an African educational platform called WeDream Africa, a classical violinist gone wrong, and an outstanding Croatian vocalist.

from left: Brian from We Dream Africa, Aline, and Erick

 

This struck me as an unbelievably generous thing for Aline to do. She’d never met any of us, and she took an entire day off from her job as a home health aide in New Jersey, just to cook for us in Queens. Amazing.

Aline’s cooking, of course, was just as amazing. Even if the picture of this one might make you squirm: yabanda, made from caterpillars, stewed in finely diced vine leaves (called koko in Sangho, gnetum in French), onions, and a scotch bonnet pepper…

 

If you’re thinking “ewwwwwww!”… well, you might be wrong. If I blindfolded you, fed you a spoonful of yabanda, and told you that you were eating some sort of delicious fried mushroom cooked in tasty greens, you’d probably believe me. The texture reminds me a bit of fried tofu – reasonably firm, and somewhat chewy – but with a slightly nutty flavor.

Incidentally, the CAR government conducted a marketing campaign to encourage residents to grind up the caterpillars and add them to baby food, since they’re such a great source of protein and other nutrients. Seriously: as far as I can tell, these little buggers are better for you than anything you can buy at Whole Foods.

Plus, what’s more fun than watching an American dude eat a bug?

 

Aline also brought a second type of caterpillar from CAR, but this batch had been smoked and stewed in onions, giving it a richer flavor. Again, if I told you that you were eating some sort of smoked mushroom – or a mushroom cooked with a tiny bit of smoked fish – you probably would have believed me. Well, with your eyes closed, anyway.

 

And just so you stop squirming: Aline’s cooking prowess went far beyond caterpillars. She also prepared a wonderful dish called kpokpongo, featuring gboudou leaves — which grow only in Central Africa — stewed with stockfish, onion, vegetable oil, and yellow peppers:

 

And since Central African Republic is located in the heart of Africa, our culinary tour also featured a full variety of starchy staples that you might see elsewhere on the continent, including rice, white cornmeal porridge (similar to Malawian nsima or Zimbabwean sadza), fried plantains, and steamed yucca:

photos by Andrew Guidone

 

But Aline wasn’t done. She also made an absolutely outstanding platter of broiled chicken, marinated in parsley, garlic, ginger, white and black pepper, and mustard. And there was a fantastic Yakoma dish called ngunza na gnama, featuring beef and cassava leaves, stewed in a peanut sauce.

So yes, Aline prepared five main dishes and four side dishes — for a group of complete strangers. She even made some amazing homemade hot sauce, featuring scotch bonnet peppers. Epic.

 

I could go on and on about everything we learned about CAR culture and cuisine from Erick and Aline. Erick regaled us with stories of his travels through the nation, and tales of legendary Central African hospitality. Your car breaks down on the roadside? Don’t worry, help is coming — probably along with an invitation to dinner.

So I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that Erick and Aline went so far out of their way for a herd of strangers, but it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the world when you spend a day with these two.

Aline, making us all feel optimistic about the world; photo by Andrew Guidone

 

This story has an unfortunate epilogue, though. Just a week after our meal, Aline’s only daughter – age 11 – passed away in the Central African Republic. Like many immigrants, Aline was scraping by in a low-paid job as a home health aide, and she sent what she could home to support her daughter. But she hadn’t actually seen her daughter in a few years. I can’t even imagine how awful that is.

Aline, of course, was generous enough to take a day off from work to cook for us, and as a tiny gesture, I’d love to return the favor and help her. After all, she had to buy a plane ticket to CAR on super-short notice, and take a couple of weeks off from work.

And to make things worse, she lost her job soon after returning from the trip — so she’s in rough shape, emotionally and financially.

So we’re hoping to raise $2000 to cover her travel costs for the funeral. I know that it won’t do much to ease the pain of losing her only child, but I just want to be able to say that we’re here for her. If you’d like to contribute, please visit the gofundme page we’ve set up in her honor.

Or… would you prefer to munch an African lunch in exchange for your donation? Maybe, like, an African lunch featuring dishes from four different countries? Then please join us at…

 

Four Corners of Africa Fundraiser for Aline
Featuring Chef Grace Acheampong
Saturday, March 11
12:00-3:00
Trinity Lutheran Church
164 W. 100th Street, Manhattan
Purchase tickets here
or donate here

 

And if a Saturday African lunch isn’t your cup of tea either, see if you can track down some caterpillars. Trust me, they’re tastier than you think.

Click here to donate, or click here to join us for an African lunch on March 11

 

 

The Food of Oman

 

 

Because my life is chewy awesome, I spend countless hours googling certain hard-to-find cuisines. I know: hour after hour with Google probably doesn’t sound like fun. But sometimes I accidentally run into some pretty incredible stuff, like an entire English-language cookbook devoted solely to the food of Oman.

photo by...

photo by Ariana Lindquist

 

Felicia Campbell, the author of The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Asia, has had one hell of a fascinating journey to becoming an expert on Omani cuisine. Campbell was raised by a pair of university professors, and she had just started college when 9/11 happened. Her reaction was exactly what you’d expect from a family of academics – or, um, not. She enlisted in the Army, and did a tour of duty as a combat soldier in Iraq.

Like most military personnel, Campbell fell in love with Middle Eastern food, culture, and hospitality, and realized that there was much more to Iraq than she’d been told. “All I knew was the American rhetoric about these people being our enemies,” she told me via phone from Oman. “And then I had the opportunity to go into villages and interact with people, and I was struck by their sense of hospitality. Even though we were uninvited guests in their country, they would invite us in for tea, and we would just start talking.”

More than a decade later, Campbell now lives in Muscat, Oman, and she recently released The Food of Oman, which is the only English-language Omani cookbook currently in print. I literally read the book from cover to cover, as if it were a really tasty novel: Campbell’s book doubles as a cultural memoir, with plenty of insight into Omani culinary life. So even if you’re not much of a recipe-hound, there’s plenty of reason to give it a read.

Here are a few of my favorite highlights from the book and my conversation with Campbell:

When Omani Food Almost Disappeared

When Campbell first proposed writing an article about Omani food for Saveur magazine in 2012, there was a huge problem: at the time, there weren’t actually any restaurants that served traditional Omani food. You could find legions of Levantine, Turkish, Indian, European, and East Asian restaurants in Oman, but Omani cuisine appeared to be dead – at least according to TripAdvisor.

Of course, plenty of Omanis still enjoyed traditional dishes at home, but with some curious twists. Beginning in the 1970s, as oil wealth began to slosh through the economy and women increasingly pursued their own careers, domestic tasks were handled by staff from Indonesia, South Asia, and the Philippines. But as Campbell puts it, this led to an interesting phenomenon of “cook-trading”: the household cooks were taught a few recipes, and whenever a family enjoyed a dish in another family’s home, they would send their cook to learn the recipe from the other household’s cook.

So Omani food hadn’t vanished – it was just hiding beyond the prying eyes of the internet, and had been kept alive primarily by non-Omanis.

photo by...

photo by Ariana Lindquist

 

Campbell’s Favorite Omani Recipes

Pretty much every recipe in The Food of Oman sounds amazing. Oman was a major crossroads in spice trading routes, and the cuisine is infused with ingredients from South Asia and East Africa, as well as flavors of the Middle East. Spicy calamari curry, chili-lime chickpeas, and frankincense ice cream? Sign me up.

When I spoke with her, I cruelly asked Campbell to pick a couple of favorites. She said that a Zanzibari version of creamed spinach – simmered in onions, chilies, cumin, and coconut milk powder – was the first Omani dish that she fell in love with.

photo by...

photo by Ariana Lindquist

 

Her other favorite sounds even more decadent: musanif djaj, or double-fried chicken dumplings. Basically, you fry something that resembles an Omani version of pancake batter, and then top it with spicy minced chicken, seasoned with ginger, lime juice, garlic, cilantro, and chilies. Then you drizzle it with more batter – and then fry it again. Sounds epic.

photo by...

looks epic, too (photo by Ariana Lindquist)

 

And in case you don’t have access to ethnic grocery stores, Campbell’s recipes can be prepared with ingredients from a nice, normal, American grocery store. As she wrote the book, Campbell said that she pictured “a passionate home cook in Middle America.” So even if you’re a long way from the wonders of, say, Kalustyan’s, you’ll be fine.

 

The Omani Food Renaissance

Interestingly, Omani food is making a resurgence in restaurants now. There are now at least 10 restaurants in Oman that serve the national cuisine, and there are rumors that Oman’s first celebrity chef, Issa Al-Lamki, might open an Omani restaurant overseas. (Please come to New York, Chef!)

Of course, dishes from Europe, the Levant, and Asia remain popular in Omani restaurants, especially in the cities. But international cuisine is primarily a dinnertime phenomenon in Oman. Lunch in Oman has always been centered around Omani rice dishes, which resemble Indian biryanis. “Omanis can eat 20 sandwiches for lunch, but if they haven’t had rice, they swear that they haven’t eaten,” Campbell explained.

So TripAdvisor wasn’t completely bonkers when it claimed that Omani food had been replaced by international cuisine. It’s just that TripAdvisor didn’t know much about lunch. 

Zanzibari biryani, featuring double-cooked chicken in rosewater (photo by...)

Zanzibari biryani, featuring double-cooked chicken in rosewater (photo by Ariana Lindquist)

 

“Everyone loves to eat in Oman, even the glamour girls.”

Perhaps the most interesting bits of the book were Campbell’s insights about Oman’s culture, its extraordinary culinary history, and its enthusiastic embrace of the joy of eating.

Here in America, we tend to have a guilty streak when we eat: it seems like whenever we finish a huge meal, somebody sheepishly mumbles something about needing to go to the gym tomorrow. Maybe that’s not a surprise: after all, we’re the cultural descendants of Puritan colonists, and we’re just a wee bit body-image obsessed.

But Omanis aren’t shy about eating at all, and they enthusiastically embrace food as “a gift from Allah,” as Campbell puts it. In my favorite scene of the book, Campbell dined with a group of fashionable Omani women, and she was worried about the meal: “I was starving, but I wondered if these perfectly coiffed ladies would just nibble daintily.”

Spoiler alert: the meal sounded amazing – and it wasn’t dainty at all.

I don’t know about you, but I think there’s something refreshing and beautiful about a culture that gets so deeply excited about food, without even a hint of shame or sheepishness. Pass the double-fried chicken dumplings, please.

(photo by Ariana Lindquist)

photo by Ariana Lindquist

 

Do you know anybody who might be willing to prepare Omani cuisine in New York City – or who might just enjoy having a good conversation about Omani food? Email me at unitednationsoffood@gmail.com, or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or InstagramAnd check out Campbell’s book – it’s a fascinating read, even if you’re not much of a chef.

 

#152: the world’s only Mauritanian restaurant!

 

Pretty much my entire life revolves around hard-to-find international foods, but this is one of my favorite finds ever: I just ate in the world’s only Mauritanian restaurant outside of Mauritania.

Here’s the story: I contacted absolutely everybody I could find from Mauritania. Unfortunately, that was only one guy: a fellow named Nasser Wedaddy, who is listed in Wikipedia as the only prominent Mauritanian-American who actually lives in the United States. His home is in Boston, but he agreed to speak with me after I tweeted at him a couple of times.

Nasser is pretty much a walking encyclopedia of Mauritanian history, politics, and culture, and I can’t possibly do our conversation justice here – after all, you probably just visited this food blog for pictures of couscous, right? But I was riveted by everything Nasser had to say about Mauritania. He described Mauritania as “the most African Arab country,” thanks to the country’s mix of Bedouin and other African cultures. West African standards like mafe and yassa and thiebu djen are popular in Mauritania, though they’ve been “Mauritanian-ized” to suit local tastes and ingredients.

And of course, Mauritania has plenty of fascinating native treats that probably merit their own book: sea turtle soup; a haagis-like dish called kouzo-nouzo, made with barbecued offal; a variety of beverages made from baobab (“monkey fruit”) that are known to cure diarrhea; bread that’s baked underground, in a particular type of hot sand; a regional delicacy made from camel hump and liver; and countless variations on couscous, which are made from a wide variety of grains, including fonio, cassava, and millet. Apparently, you can even get a camel milk latte in Mauritania if you know where to look.

It was distressing to hear Nasser discuss the changes in Mauritania over the past 40 or 50 years. The country – and its traditional foodways – have been throttled by climate change since the 1960s or 1970s, as a massive, long-term drought turned huge swaths of the country into desert. Sadly, only a tiny percentage of the country’s traditional nomads maintain any semblance of their traditional lifestyle. And Nasser always has plenty of fascinating things to say about Mauritanian and international politics – check out his always-interesting Twitter feed for more.

And my ears perked up when I heard a few magic words from him: there’s a Mauritanian restaurant in Montreal.

I’d just been invited to a magnificent East Timorese dinner in Canton, New York – two hours from Montreal. So, um… well, what a coincidence! I guess I’m going to Montreal.

La Khaïma, in Montreal’s legendary Mile End neighborhood, isn’t really a restaurant. I mean, sure: they bring you food, and you pay them money. But it’s more like a work of cultural art, channeling the spirit of Mauritanian nomads in the heart of Montreal. When you walk in, you remove your shoes, and take a seat on a cushion on the floor. The walls and ceilings are covered in tapestries that owner Atigh Ould brought back from his homeland. And there are no printed menus: it’s as if you’re eating in the home of a Bedouin nomad, and you’re offered whatever fresh food happens to be available that day.

On this particular day, we started with a bright, citrusy hummus, served with pita bread:

creamy

 

Round 2 consisted of an outstanding bowl of harira soup, featuring lentils, chickpeas, vermicelli, vegetables, and plenty of cumin:

soupy

 

For our main course, we shared a communal bowl with three different types of couscous: beef with okra; a vegetarian stew featuring carrots, squash, and potatoes; and chicken cooked with green olives:

beefy

 

There was something particularly magical about the chicken-olive couscous. Here, take a closer look:

mmm, olives

mmm, olives

 

For dessert, we enjoyed a treat that resembled a honey-soaked banana bread, served with a delicious, lightly sweetened mint tea:

desserty

 

All four courses were fantastic, but that’s not necessarily the point. La Khaïma is one of those unhurried, relaxed places where you instantly feel like a member of the family. We lingered for about two and a half hours; two neighboring tables of relaxed Francophones lasted even longer. It’s like we all just decided we lived there.

And our wonderful, warm, relaxed server pretty much acted like we were members of the family. We told him how much we loved the chicken and olive couscous in particular; when he packed our leftovers in a to-go box, he very generously added a pile of extra chicken.

And that was before he knew that the chicken would be making an international journey for a glamorous photo shoot in New York City’s Grand Central Station.

even the couscous is nomadic

and what’s more glamorous than a nomadic Tupperware in a train station?

 

As great as the dinner was, it wasn’t even the best part of our visit.

As we were leaving, the owner, Atigh, arrived after a night of Mauritanian music at the Montreal Jazz Festival. His reappearance was fortuitous, because I was under strict instructions from Nasser Wedaddy, the wonderful Boston-dwelling Mauritanian who had sent me to La Khaïma: call me when you arrive, and pass the phone to Atigh.

And damn, I wish I had taken a picture when I handed him the phone. Atigh and Nasser grew up together in Mauritania, and the Wedaddy family is legendary in their homeland: Nasser’s father had brought radio broadcasting equipment via camel from Senegal, and introduced a nightly broadcast for the nation’s nomads. He’s credited as one of the men who helped unify modern Mauritania, and he later served as a diplomat, among other things.

And when he heard Nasser’s voice on a random visitor’s cell phone, the look on Atigh’s face was absolutely priceless.

priceless tea

Atigh, after recovering from Wedaddy-induced shock

 

Even more priceless: a long evening with Atigh, drinking tea and learning about Mauritania and Montreal. I can’t even begin to describe everything we learned about Mauritania that night. Nasser and Atigh need to co-author a book, and you probably need to read it.

Atigh fascinated us with descriptions of the traditional nomadic lifestyle: Atigh’s forebears would move from location to location based on cues from the shifting winds, which would tell them when to migrate to the date groves or to the coast for a seasonal bounty of fish. Even more amazing: apparently, patches of the Atlantic ocean actually contain fresh water, desalinated by a particular aquatic plant that the nomads had learned to identify.

In his restaurant, Atigh seems determined to embody the spirit of Mauritanian nomad hospitality in everything he does. The meals are seasonal, and based on local ingredients wherever possible. He has developed relationships with local producers, including a bunch of students who produce some remarkably tasty blue kale on a decidedly non-commercial scale. And many of the spices used in the cuisine are grown on Atigh’s own land in Mauritania, which he visits once or twice a year.

Atigh also insists that he’s a terrible salsa dancer; so bad, in fact, that the salsa school he attended for nearly a year refunded his tuition. I am not making this up.

Despite his lack of salsa skills, the man is a ton of fun. He loves to mess with stressed-out customers, telling them rambling stories about how there isn’t any food today because his brother back in Africa can’t find his camels, just to see the look on their faces. Of course, there’s always food at La Khaïma – but sometimes, eat-and-run Westerners deserve to be messed with.

And there’s always tea at La Khaïma. Atigh generously prepared a special pot of tea for us — at nearly midnight, after the restaurant had closed — made from a mix of mint and jasmine tea leaves. He energetically poured the tea from a dizzying height, then quickly poured it from glass to glass, then back into the pot. He did this repeatedly, until the tops of our glasses were frothy:

tea getting poured and stuff

getting frothier…

 

As it turns out, aerating the tea improves the flavor, and the oxygenated tea is also thought to cure headaches. This was among the most delicious teas I’d ever tasted; I’m not sure whether it was the high-altitude pour, or just Atigh’s artful blend of fresh tea leaves.

Once we finished our tea, Atigh took us on a tour of his beloved Mile End neighborhood, home to Wilensky’s legendary sandwich shop, where mustard is not optional. Atigh also took us to visit his friends at Fairmount Bagels, an infamous 24-hour bakery that makes bagels in a wood-fired oven – with honey, sesame seeds, and egg – literally all night long.

So yeah: I was eating Montreal bagels – straight from a wood-fired oven – at 1:30 in the morning with the western world’s only Mauritanian restaurateur, in front of an eccentric 80-something-year-old sandwich shop. I was in heaven.

yup, I was here

legends of Mile End

 

There was only one problem: Montreal is not New York City, and… well, you know, I have rules or something. So I smuggled some leftover couscous with chicken and olives across the border, took a few photos of the meal in Grand Central, and then ate it in front of a Tim Horton’s in Midtown. Somehow, that felt appropriately Canadian – and appropriately nomadic.

nomadic

 

La Khaïma
142 Avenue Fairmount Ouest
Montreal, Canada

 

I know: I get an asterisk for this. Know anybody in NYC who might be willing to prepare Mauritanian dishes or other hard-to-find cuisines? Please email me at unitednationsoffood@gmail.com, or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

#151 East Timor: people are still amazing

 

I seem to say the same thing after every single meal these days: people are amazing.

In my search for Timorese food, I emailed some complete strangers in East Timor – alumni of my high school’s “sister school” – and asked if they knew any Timorese people who live in New York. Within a few hours, the friendly Timorese strangers had contacted a thoroughly lovable St. Lawrence University student named Debby, who emailed me immediately. As luck would have it, two of Debby’s Timorese friends were visiting her for a night of Timorese cuisine – and Debby very generously invited me to join the fun.

In case you’re not familiar with it, St. Lawrence University is in the charming little town of Canton, New York – about 350 miles from New York City. I know: I deserve an asterisk for leaving the five boroughs. But the capital of East Timor is 9,900 miles from here. A 350-mile drive is a drop in the bucket, right?

Plus, I absolutely loved my hosts, and would drive 350 miles anytime just to hang out with any of them again. The threesome consisted of Jacky, a student of food processing in upstate New York; Miguel, a rising senior (and soccer star!) at Methodist University in North Carolina; and Debby, our beloved ringleader, working on a degree in economics and politics at Saint Lawrence.

East Timorese dream team of upstate New York

East Timorese dream team of upstate New York

 

East Timor is pretty literally on the opposite end of the planet, but the world is small sometimes: Jacky and Debby attended the same high school in Dili, then ended up in the same region of New York as university students. Miguel and Debby met at an international school in Singapore – where they discovered that they were actually related, even though they’d never met before.

Anyway, we spent a solid five hours in the shared kitchen of St. Lawrence’s International House, eating an amazing meal and chatting about East Timor. My three hosts are fantastic conversationalists who taught me TONS about their country in just one evening. And of course, they fed me a wonderful, wonderful meal.

Let’s start with the ludicrously delicious fish – tilapia, I think – brushed with garlic and chile oil, and grilled on one of those slick little plug-in grills. It’s amazing what you can do in a dormitory kitchen these days, no?

Timorese fish in New York

Timorese fish in New York

East Timorese grilled fish in New York

 

The other main course was my very favorite dish of the night: a work of slow-cooked genius called koto. There’s a lot going on here: stewed sausage, pork, kidney beans, carrots, potatoes and pasta, seasoned with ginger and molho – a sauce made from garlic, onion, and tomato, stir-fried in chile oil. It was one of those fantastically flavorful stews that you can’t help but love.

East Timorese koto in New York

East Timorese koto in New York

East Timorese koto in New York

East Timorese food in New York

East Timorese molho sauce in New York

East Timorese koto and molho in New York

East Timor cuisine koto in New York

 

And yeah, I know: this is “just” rice, but it was cooked in coconut water, and then finished in a steamer placed atop the water used to cook some of the koto ingredients. If it was possible to make the koto even tastier, coconut-infused rice will do the trick:

East Timorese rice with coconut water in New York

 

Incidentally, it sounds like amazing things routinely happen to rice in East Timor. Miguel told me about a dish made from lightly fermented rice, wrapped in a banana leaf and char-grilled. It sounds amazing.

Desert was pretty amazing, too. We ate something called pudim, and I’m not sure whether you’d describe it as an incredibly moist, pudding-like cake, or a wonderfully cake-y pudding. Either way, it was delicious – vaguely reminiscent of a top-notch flan, but less jiggly:

East Timorese pudim in New York

East Timorese dessert in New York

 

As is often the case these days, the food was great, but the conversation with Jacky, Miguel, and Debby was even more amazing. If you’re an American of a certain age, you might remember hearing about the country’s long struggle for independence from Indonesia, which lasted from the early 1970s – when Portugal, the previous colonial ruler, stepped aside – until East Timor formally won its independence in 2002.

But I can’t remember seeing any mention of East Timor in the American media since then, unfortunately.

And that’s a shame, because the place sounds fascinating: it’s a country with incredible natural biodiversity – and food and cultural diversity – despite being roughly 1/10 the size of North Carolina. More than 30 different languages are spoken in the country, and this is the source of some fascinating twists in Timorese life: when Debby and Jacky were in high school, the national exams suddenly shifted from Indonesian (spoken by most of the teachers) to Portuguese (the new language of national unity, spoken as a mother tongue by virtually nobody in the country). I’m sure that the students were not terribly thrilled to take those tests, particularly considering that relatively few Timorese speak either of those two languages at home.

This is unimaginable to Americans. Sure, some people in the United States struggle to learn English, but there’s no question about what the lingua franca is. In East Timor? It depends on what part of the country you’re in and who you’re talking to.

Even more fascinating: Miguel and his father have been documenting several of East Timor’s regional languages, in an effort to preserve them. Again, this is unimaginable to most Americans, though New York is – quietly – a reservoir of endangered world languages.

But you probably came here for food pictures. So here, have one more:

East Timorese food in New York

 

Before I left Canton, I asked Debby if she had any favorite spots in New York City; she replied that she particularly loves the Brooklyn Bridge. So I brought the leftover koto for a glamorous photo shoot on the Brooklyn Bridge.

East Timor cuisine in New York City Brooklyn Bridge

 

And the koto looked even more dazzling next to the New York City skyline on the south side of the bridge:

East Timor cuisine in New York City skyline Brooklyn Bridge

 

So now you know a small international secret: East Timorese food – in any language – is so good that it doubles as a supermodel.

 

Huge thanks to Debby, Jacky, and Miguel for the amazing meal and conversation. Got questions, complaints, or feedback — or do you just feel like having a conversation about other hard-to-find cuisines? Email me at unitednationsoffood@gmail.com, or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.