Why Nationalism is Silly

the-great-dictator-charlie-chaplin-paulette-goddardLike most people, I get great ideas during bouts of insomnia, which, when my feverish jottings are reassessed in the cold, cold light of day, turn out not to be so much ‘great’ as ‘stupid.’ Like the idea I had the other night to cook every national dish and post about it on cookrookery.

Yeah, really, daylight? Every national dish? That’s like, a lot of cooking. Also, and more importantly, national dishes become national dishes for cultural reasons, and not necessarily for culinary ones. The national dish of Wales is the leek. No recipe or anything, just the leek. What am I going to do, throw a Welsh-themed dinner party and serve a raw leek on a plate? Not funny.

The opposite problem is many national dishes tend not to be very specific. The national dish of Italy is pasta. There are hundreds of different types of pasta alone, and that’s not counting the sauces. The national dish of Indonesia is satay. Yes, but satay what? Chicken, mutton, beef, pork, fish, goat, tofu?

And some national dishes are just plain wrong. Most Australians would confidently state that their national dish is pavlova, and when you asked them why, would scratch their heads and reply “gee, I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it before.” My New York Times International Cook Book lists pavlova as their sole entry under ‘Australia.’ Yet I doubt you would meet many Australians who have eaten pavlova in the last ten years, who know how to make it, or are able to accurately describe what it is. The reason it is the national dish, of course,  is because it is the one recipe Australians are certain they invented (they’re wrong. It was invented in New Zealand). Australians need a new national dish. For what it’s worth, my vote is the dim sim.

And of course there is the problem of consensus. Both Peru and Ecuador lay claim to cerviche. Costa Rica and Nicaragua both want to own gallo pinto. The problem is that cuisine does not respect national boundaries, which is as it should be. And some countries are so vast and diverse (such as the USA) it would be ridiculous to propose any one dish to represent it. So for all these reasons my 3AM grand plan to cook my way around world patriotism turned out to be as clever as my 3AM novel idea which was ‘someone convinced they can see five seconds into the future.’

Hmm. Actually, that one has possibilities.

Anyway, I was reluctant to relinquish my idea entirely, because I have so few of them. So here is a recipe for the dish of just one nation: Uzbekistan! Make this recipe and you will have a delicious meal and a fun fact for parties all in one. I have adapted this recipe from the Swiss website fxcuisine.com. No, it’s not ‘fx’ as in ‘special effects’ – it’s a reference to the author’s name, Francois Xavier. Xavier’s food obsession makes mine look like a casual interest. His food photography is stunning, bordering on the forensic (in fact, some of it does resemble the title sequence from Dexter), and I highly recommend you check out his website:

http://fxcuisine.com/

As a rule, I am not interested in complete authenticity. As one music critic put it, “if we really wanted to listen to Mozart the way Mozart would have heard it, we’d have to make sure every instrument was slightly out of tune.” So my adaptation is geared toward practicality, and less towards pleasing any Uzbeks you might have around for dinner.

Plov, Pilaf, Polo, Pilau, Polao, Palov

(serves two)

1 head of garlic per diner

1 tsp peppercorns

1 Tb coriander seeds

1 Tb cumin seeds

1 cup long grain rice, parboiled for 5 minutes and drained

2 large carrots

1 onion

¾ lb lamb leg sirloin chops, cubed, fat trimmed and retained

Vegetable or lamb stock

ingredients

Cut the top off each garlic head, just enough to expose the tips of the cloves, and dribble in a little olive oil. Wrap the heads in foil and roast in a 350ºF oven for an hour. Set aside.

Grind the spices in a mortar and pestle or an electric grinder. I suppose you could use pre-ground spices, but they lack zing. Coarsely grate the carrot and thinly slice the onion.

grinding

Heat up the lamb fat (from the chops) in a cast iron pot or Dutch oven. At a steady low heat they should render quite a bit of fat; fish out and discard the cracklings that remain. Jack up the heat and toss in the lamb. When it is nicely browned, take it out with a slotted spoon, and add the onions to the pot. Cook them until they are soft and brown, about 8 minutes.

Add all the ground spices and cook for a minute more. Add the grated carrots and cook for 3 more minutes.

Return the lamb to the pot, along with any juices that leaked out, and the rice which you thoughtfully parboiled ahead of time. You can then add your stock. The stock should be hot, so as not to quench the entire cooking process. About two cups should do it, but this is not a precise measurement, any more than it is in those annoying risotto recipes that always get it wrong. Just make sure that the rice is cooking, but not drowned, and add more stock as needed for the fifteen minutes or so it will take.

Add salt if needed. I didn’t list any in the ingredients because I don’t know if you are using salted stock or not. Just add enough to make it tasty.

Serve with a whole roasted head of garlic on each plate. The guest peels the cloves and mixes them in, which is lots of fun. I also added a little cilantro garnish, and I hope the Uzbeks forgive me.

plov

2 comments to Why Nationalism is Silly

  • Sarah

    I’ve been awake a good 6 hrs, and thanks to your photographic skills, still fighting the urge to lick the screen! I also think you have a great idea for a book. Culture, food, music, and language, like all natural things, bleed across those ink and barbed wire boundaries just as they should.

    In the late 60’s/early 70’s, Time (Time/Life?) published an enormous series of “Foods of the World” books. The large-picture hardback books are all about the people and their food cultures

    They had a similar challenge to what daylight revealed to your ambitions, but they grouped people by larger regions (”the Viennese Empire”, “The Mediterranean”), except in the US where they split it into 4 or 5 groups.

    The hardback books had some recipes, but mostly the recipes were in these tiny spiral-bound books – one for the kitchen, one for the coffee table. Highly recommend them, I discovered a few at the town library.

    With how the world’s changed in the last 40 yrs, an update might be in order.

  • Actually my wife is responsible for most of the photos on my posts. Writing a book about food across cultural boundaries is a great idea… now all I need is an agent…