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Category Archives: African Cuisine

All Fired Up For Demera

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Hello and sorry everyone for the lull on Mastication Monologues, but I’m back with a fresh new post that is part of Restaurant Week that is now over in Chicago.  For those of you who don’t know, Restaurant Week in Chicago is a multiple week event where a multitude of eateries throughout Chicago open their doors to everyone with great deals.  In this post, I’d like to tell you a little bit about Demera, one of Chicago’s premier Ethiopian/Eritrean diner.IMG_5907

Janice and I went there for their lunch special, and the inside was brightly lit and bumping with some funky Ethiopian jamz. IMG_5888IMG_5889  We were quickly seated, and we had some trepidation with what to pick since everything sounded so delicious.  I started the meal off with a St. George Beer to drink.IMG_5891  Ethiopia is interesting enough since it is a mainly Christian society surrounded by Muslim nations, and some go on to even speculate that the Ethiopian people are descendants of one of the 12 lost tribes of Israel.   The name of the place, Demera, is the term in Amharic for the ceremonial bonfire used in the Ethiopian Christian version of Ash Wednesday, and we had a similar religious experience with the food.  However, the St. George Beer wasn’t very noteworthy since its neutral flavor and watery consistency left me hoping for the second coming of my food savior to resurrect my taste buds from the bland rapture. IMG_5890 Luckily, the beef sambussas and timatim selata did just that.  First, there were the beef sambussas that I could liken to a lighter version of empanadas.  IMG_5893The dough was less pie-like and more flaky and light like Greek philo dough.  The meat was spiced and amped up in terms of flavor with the spicy yet sweet yet dangerously addicting awaze sauce. IMG_5896IMG_5897 We also got an order of the timatim selata which I likened to an Ethiopian version of pico de gallo.IMG_5892  It consisted of tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno pepper slices all coated in a lime vinaigrette.  It was tangy and flavorful and was handily consumed (pun intended) with the ubiquitous Ethiopian flatbread known as injera.  While flatbreads can be found around the world in cultures that eat with their hands like naan in India or pita in Greece, injera is super unique in the sense that it is spongy with a slightly sour taste compared to its more doughy brethren.IMG_5900  Thankfully, it had plenty of nooks and crannies to soak up all of the lime juice but was also strong enough to enclose the large slices of tomato.  IMG_5894After polishing off that flavorful and refreshing appetizer, we got our main entree.  Traditional Ethiopian cuisine focuses on family style dining where everyone eats from the same plate.IMG_5901  On our plate, we got the ye-beg alicha  (mild lamb cubes), doro wat (chicken in a mild sauce with ayib cheese), ye-misir wot (split red lentils in spicy berbere sauce), and gomen (chopped collard greens).  With the spicy lamb, it was a great mix of spice and the slightly gamey taste that comes with lamb.  The doro wat chicken wasn’t as bold as the lamb, but the ayib cheese was like an African queso fresco that gave this savory part of the meal a cool and semi-salty twist.  IMG_5899I really enjoyed the split red lentils because they were super spicy, but I was mixed on the collard greens.  On the one hand, I enjoyed the earthy, spinach tones, but the ginger notes kind of left me cold on this hot entree.  Surprisingly, we had a bit of room for dessert, but we could only get the missionary delight, a basic vanilla sundae, because they apparently didn’t have enough ingredients for the dessert we wanted, the sambussa turnovers.  Super normal for a restaurant that serves food that isn’t on many peoples’ radars, but thankfully, our waitress told us that we could get the dessert we originally wanted, the turnovers.  What they consisted of were sweet versions of the savory sambussas we had earlier in the meal.IMG_5903  It was the same flaky dough, but instead of beef, there was a melange of walnuts, cardamom, walnuts, saffron, and rose water.  IMG_5904It reminded me of a honey-less baklava with an almost flowery aftertaste compliments of the rosewater.  The strawberry sauce was a bit too much of guilding the rose for me which made me prefer the savory version of these handheld treats.  At the end of the meal, we were absolutely stuffed but greatly pleased with Demera’s food selection.

So if you’re tired of the same old restaurants serving foods you’ve heard of before, check out a red-hot slice of Ethiopia at Demera.

Demera Ethiopian on Urbanspoon

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You’ll Love Olive This Food

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Welcome one and all to another mouth-watering entry on Mastication Monologues!  This is part three of my Restaurant Week series in Chicago where a plethora of eateries open their doors to the public with great deals for some of the best food in the city, country, and perhaps the world.  Fig and Olive in the fancy Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago manages to bring the best of the entire Mediterranean region to the Midwest.IMG_5838

It was a fancy eatery to begin with, so I highly suggest you get on your Sunday best as we did on a Friday night.  IMG_5847 IMG_5846This place was so fancy we had to take an elevator up to the main dining room.  IMG_5839Once we arrived, we were greeted to the strains of light jazz and sumptuous surroundings in the form of long cloth couches in a lounge area. IMG_5843 However, we were led to our seat in the mainly glass and metal lined dining room with the creative bar that had trees growing out of the middle of the drink shelves. IMG_5840 IMG_5841 Nothing like admiring a little greenery while spending some.  When we sat down, our friendly waiter greeted us with the drink menu.  I ordered a glass of cabernet sauvignon- tenuta mazzolino from Italy.  It was a bold wine that had hints of smoke and blackberries.  While we were sipping on our wines, we got a complimentary olive oil flight with small cubes of rosemary foccacia. IMG_5849 The three cups were filled with an Italian extra virgin representative, a buttery Spanish olive oil, and a bold Greek olive oil that was a bit spicy.  The Italian option was good but not great.  The Spanish oil was extremely rich when the warm nooks and crannies of the foccacia soaked up the golden nectar.  As for the Greek entry, it slowly grew on me as the most palate engaging of the trio.  After that little appetizer, we ordered off the Restaurant Week menu which was $33 plus $10 for our crostini tasting which was recommended by a ton of people on Yelp.  This was 10 bucks well spent.  We got six of the chef’s choice, and when they came out, they looked amazing. IMG_5854 The most interesting thing about them was that it wasn’t as crumbly and stiff as typical crostini, but rather crusty yet soft.  First, there was the burrata, tomato, pesto, and balsamic vinaigrette. IMG_5856 It was in my top three as it was like a caprese salad on a fresh piece of bread.  Burrata is a softer than normal fresh mozzarella that also is a bit softer than a buffalo mozzarella.  It might not be for everyone with its goopy texture, but I couldn’t help myself.  Then there was the grilled vegetable crostini with the ricotta olive tapenade. IMG_5861 This crostino didn’t leave me with any sort of positive or negative impression.  It just tasted like a lot of olives yet not really.  Thankfully, I followed it up with a lovely manchego cheese, fig spread, and topped with a marcona almond. IMG_5860 This was also in my top three crostini since it was the perfect mix of the buttery and slightly salty manchego, crunchy almond, and sweet fig jam.  The mushroom crostino was in the same category as the grilled vegetable crostino, i.e. a less flavorful mix of greens with a healthy dose of Parmesan cheese.IMG_5855  Next up were the two seafood entries with shrimp and crab.

Crab

Crab

and ze shrimp

and ze shrimp

If I had to pick one, I’d go with the shrimp as being the lesser of two evils since I’m not a huge fish/crustacean fan (sorry, Aquaman).  Both were served cold which didn’t help, but while the crab just tasted like sweet, cold, flaky meat with a hint of avocado, the shrimp had a bit more body to it and a nice cilantro zing.  While we couldn’t choose the crostini, the table next to us ended up getting a sample of the one crostini I was hoping to get but didn’t.  It was the pata negra, tomato, peach, Parmesan cheese, and ricotta cheese.  I couldn’t believe our waiter brought it out to them because I was just telling Janice why the pata negra was the best crostini on the menu.  First off, the name “pata negra” literally means “black hoof” in Spanish due to the color of the pigs from which this ham originates.  Then there is the price of this precious commodity is anywhere from $52 to $95 per pound.  Why is it so expensive?  The reason why is because they are a specific type of black pig that roams southern and southwestern Spain and is raised to roam throughout the oak forests between Spain and Portugal.  They then eat the acorns that fall which then produces a peppery flavor in the meat with a good ratio between the fat and deep red meat.  It took me back to my time living in Spain where I couldn’t turn around without being smacked in the face with one of the large slabs of pork hanging from the ceiling.  Fast forward to that night at Fig and Olive, and I asked our waiter if we could try one of the ham crostino for free.  He obliged and was amazed that someone actually knew what this ham was.  It was my number one crostino hooves down. IMG_5872 The crimson ham, salty cheese, and fresh tomato made it an appetizer I wouldn’t soon forget.  Then the appetizers came out off of the Restaurant Week menu.  Janice got the octopus a la gallega or Galician octopus which was the best I ever tasted.  Even though I’ve been to the emerald green, northwestern province of Spain to taste where this octopus comes from, the thinly sliced tentacles at Fig and Olive bested the Iberian version. IMG_5865 I loved the spicy and sour lemon vinaigrette combined with the melt in your mouth texture of the tentacle laden creature.  As for me, I got the fig and olive salad.  It was delicious but not as unique as the octopus dish.IMG_5862  It was a melange of almost every variety of taste around.  There were sweet elements like the fig vinaigrette and apple pieces, salty manchego pieces, earthy greens, and crunchy walnuts.  The food train didn’t stop there.  We still had our entrees to take down.  Janice ended up getting the Mediterranean branzino or European sea bass in English.  It looked good, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. IMG_5873 I’m sure fish lovers would be bowled over by it though.  The only downside was that Janice said the plate overall was a bit one dimensional with a bland mashed potato side.  In comparison, I got the Fig and Olive tajine.  Now, Fig and Olive labels itself as an eatery serving the best of Italy, Spain, and southern France.  However, what they didn’t mention was that they serve North African food since diners would most likely be a bit hesitant to try something from Africa, and might not be seen as sexy as the three aforementioned cuisines.  Two good reasons why I chose it over all of the other entrees.  Tajine (in Arabic طاجين‎) originates from Morocco but can be found also in Tunisia and Libya.  It is traditionally stewed in a clay pot that tapers at the top to promote the return of condensation to the bottom of the vessel.  This technique definitely came in handy in the hot and arid climate of the former Barbary States.  As for what tajine actually is, it’s basically a North African stew of figs, olives, carrots, tomatoes, and onions.  At Fig and Olive, they don’t serve it in a clay pot, just a regular bowl, but that didn’t take away from the amazing flavors.  IMG_5875On the side, I got a bowl of couscous to mix in with the stew along with a bit of cilantro sauce and harissa (هريسة‎), known as “the national condiment of Tunisia”, mixed with some Spanish Hojiblanca olive oil.

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

I found the couscous a negligible carb element in the stew since it didn’t stand a chance going up against the giant vegetables and chunks of spicy chicken (beware of the bones).  However, I did like the harissa since it was a mix of chili peppers, garlic and coriander and managed to nudge itself above the intense flavors found in the dish.  By the end of our main course, we were stuffed and couldn’t think we could eat anymore, but au contraire!  We got both of the Restaurant Week desserts.  The dessert crostini wasn’t like their more savory brethren.   It was basically a cookie topped with candied cherries and a smooth and sweet mascarpone cheese. IMG_5881 IMG_5882I preferred the chocolate pot de creme which was like a fancy chocolate and vanilla mousse cup with a crunchy praline cookie on the side. IMG_5880 It was even better when I crunched the cookie up and mixed it into the decadent cream.IMG_5885

We left the restaurant with some trepidation due to the crush of people by the elevator upstairs and door downstairs and because we were so stuffed with delicious food.  Although it might not be the cheapest place for Mediterranean food, you can get high quality dishes for half the price in a modern and classy environment.

Fig and Olive on Urbanspoon

Poppin’ Molly, I’m Sweatin’! (Portland, Finale)

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Well, I’ve finally managed to come to the end of my sojourn through the wilds of Portland’s culinary scene, and this final post is a fitting finale to the adventure.  Fitting in the sense that I manage to go out in a blaze of glory instead of just fading away a la Kurt Cobain minus the whole dubious suicide and artistic angst.  Instead, I grapple with another spicy food challenge at local eatery Salvador Molly’s.  It’s a bit outside of the city center, and you have to take a bus out to the hill country to get there.  However, it’s a unique dining experience that you can’t get anywhere else in Portland.

Now, I’ve survived my fair share of uber-spicy food that would make any normal human’s taste buds melt immediately.  The medium of fiery madness has ranged from soup, chicken wings, and even a deep fried pork cutlet, but Salvador Molly’s Great Balls of Fire challenge managed to switch it up once more pushing me to my culinary, physical, and mental limit.  The exterior of the restaurant gives off a hippie/Caribbean vibe with its tropical plants and vibrant color schemes, and the interior is even more fascinating.IMG_3881IMG_3880  Buddhist prayer flags were streaming overhead while the walls were adorned with African folk art murals along with Mexican artisanal crafts. IMG_3882 Upon sitting down and scanning the menu, I could see that they had food from all corners of the globe including the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Thailand, Vietnam, Hawaii to name a few.  I was initially drawn to the Jamaican Roti wraps, but I decided to go for Pele’s Volcano sandwich ($9.50) since it had some interesting ingredients.  Along with this, I asked to get the Great Balls of Fire challenge (7 balls, $7.95).  The waitress was hesitant, and asked me if I wanted to just try one to make sure I knew I was getting into.  The only thing I knew was that they were made out of habenero peppers, and I could eat those no problem.  So once I agreed to it, she wrote it down on her paper pad like a death sentence for a doomed prisoner.  While I was waiting, I saw that on the wall next to my table there was a couple of pictures on the wall chronicling the brave souls who pitted their wits against the flame-infused orbs and survived.

The few, the proud, the spiceheads.

The few, the proud, the spiceheads.

In my mind, I could see my picture going up there as well by the end of my meal.  That’s half the battle with food challenges, envisioning yourself triumphing over the massive obstacle placed in front of you.  Eventually both came out, and the sandwich looked more intimidating than the food challenge.IMG_2693  I knew I was in real trouble when they made me sign the waver saying that I couldn’t sue them if needed a colostomy compliments of their tortuous habanero appetizer.IMG_2692  They also pointed out the warning sign next to my table that was in other parts of the restaurant as well.IMG_2691  Not too scary at all, but I had a plan.  I wouldn’t be rushing headfirst into the gates of hell without a trusty thick coating to my stomach which was what the Pele sandwich was for.  It different than what I was expecting because it was more like a toaster oven pizza than a traditional sandwich.   As for its name, Pele is the goddess of volcanoes in Hawaiian culture, and I was expecting real fireworks to be happening on my palate.  Instead, it was more like a poorly made sparkler in the middle of a rainstorm.  Lots of fizzle and no sizzle.  A majority of the mediocrity derived from the toasted but cold and soggy, compliments of the toppings, bread.  The pork was average, but the only redeeming factor was the tamarindo bbq sauce that was tangy and sweet with a slightly herbal aftertaste compliments of the tamarind infusion in the sauce.  I was more partial to the hurricane garlic fries that took my taste buds by storm with their crispy exteriors and garlicky interiors.

My eyes then turned to my rotund morsels that threatened my existence as onlookers at another table bade me good luck before I dug in.IMG_2694  They even took out their camera phones to take a few snapshots before I possibly spontaneously combusted mid-meal.IMG_2696  They then got their food but always kept one eye on me as I began the challenge.  I gnawed on the first one as I put my figurative toe in the lava pool to make sure it was just right.  Inside the first fritter, it seemed to be filled with pieces of habanero and cheesy batter, and the spice was coming in hot and heavy waves over my tongue.  It was manageable though as I quickly popped balls 2-6 into my mouth with gusto.  The other diners’ jaws fell on their tables as they couldn’t believe that I devoured the fireballs just as quickly as they came to my table.  However, I was starting to feel a rumbling in my tummy as my mouth was more or less numb, sweat covered my face, and my heart was racing.  The final morsel slid down my gullet while leaving deep, spicy, smarting claw marks on my palate. I mopped up the sweet mango salsa as I gallantly destroyed the Great Balls of Fire Challenge.  The waitress was impressed as she took my picture for the “Great Wall of Flame”, and I got to write a memorable quote on it for everyone to see when they walk into the restaurant. IMG_2699 Once the fanfare ended, I sat there digesting the weapon-grade fritters that were smoldering in my stomach.  I asked for a cup of milk to quell the firebomb that was spreading throughout my gastro-intestinal tract.  I left that restaurant to walk through a monsoon, but I was more troubled with the sensation that felt like someone was disemboweling me.  I could see why they made me sign the waiver because they could have been in real legal trouble with people with less fortitude than I.  I struggled with the pain these little hellions brought for the rest of the afternoon/evening, so I warn everyone that the Great Balls of Fire Challenge will burn you if you don’t have the stomach for it.

So if you want a slightly overpriced menu that really highlights the diversity of Portland’s population or try your hand at consuming edible fireballs, check out Salvador Molly’s!
Salvador Molly's on Urbanspoon

London (Day 1 and 2)- Just a Couple Randos at Nando’s

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Well, it seems that my adventures in Asia have come to a close (for now), and I’m back in the USA writing about them from the comfort of my parents’ kitchen.  On the way back from the Far East, I stopped over in London to visit a few friends, so naturally I had to chronicle my culinary conquests as I made my way through the same streets of Jack the Ripper and Tiny Tempah.

The first day was relatively laid back in terms of food experimentation as I made my way to my friend Ravi’s flat in the notoriously rough but currently trendy East End of London around Bow Road.  This area was also known for its Cockney subculture and signature accent which has been made famous in popular culture through plays like Pygmalion, or through the award winning actor, Michael Caine.  Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s traditional pickled whelks and jellied eels were a bit hard to find, so I instead tried some of Ravi’s home cooking which was wonderful.  He made me a vegetarian shepherd’s pie that seemed to consist of tomato sauce, lentils, beans, carrots, peppers, potatoes, and cheese on top.  It was filling, spicy, and savory which made my taste buds happy since I normally don’t go for vegetarian fare.

Squash in the glass and the bottle in the upper left hand corner.

Squash in the glass and the bottle in the upper left hand corner.

However, the funnier part of the meal was the drink I had.  When I first arrived at his apartment, he asked me if I wanted something to drink like water, tea, or squash…squash?  I assumed he meant that he would take out some butternut squash and turn them into juice, so I opted for water.  Dinnertime rolled around, and he offered me this mystery squash to drink again.  So, I decided to give it a go.  He proceeded to bring out what looked like a big bottle of fruit juice.  He then poured a small amount into my glass and filled the rest up with water.  It tasted just like it advertised as a soft blend of strawberry and kiwi.  Turns out the actual squash is just a fruit concentrate with no gourds involved.  Hooray for regional dialects!  Then for dessert, I had another cultural clash as Ravi’s roommate, Jaime, offered me a Milky Way bar.  I love Milky Way bars in the US, so I gratefully accepted it.

Same, same, but different.

Same, same, but different.

After I bit into it, I was a bit taken aback by the contents since it lacked the caramel present in American Milky Way bars.  Instead, it was like a 3 Musketeers bar since there was only chewy nougat enveloped in chocolate.  Either way, it was a fitting end to a delicious meal.

The following day, I was out and about seeing the sights London had to offer.  For lunch, I did stop at Pizza Express, one of London’s most ubiquitous restaurant chains serving pizza and other Italian dishes, I didn’t feel like it really warranted an in-depth review.  Instead, I’ll bring you an even better chain that was introduced to me back in 2006 compliments of my friend Rav.  We were talking about fried chicken in America, and he told me of this place called “Nando’s” in London which he described as, “KFC but they don’t ba’a (batter in East London-ese) it” and had “peri-peri sauce”.  Given these random descriptions and my friend’s clear passion for this mysterious eatery, I vowed one day to try it.  Fast forward to 2008, and I finally made my pilgrimage with my friends to Nando’s.nandos-clink-street-london  Needless to say, I could see why Rav was bonkers about it as Nando’s serves roasted Portuguese/Mozambican chicken.  You have the option of choosing a quarter chicken,  half chicken, or wings with optional sides.  They also have salads, burgers, pittas, and wraps.  On this occasion I went for the half chicken, a side of chips (fries for Amurika), and some macho peas.  Once I ordered my food, I went to the sauce bar which has bottles that range from a pleasant lemon and herb to a mouth-scorching extra-spicy in an ominous black bottle.   The “peri-peri” Rav mentioned back in our college days means “bird’s eye pepper”, and there is a whole lot of it in said extra-spicy sauce.

No fowl play here.  Just good food.

No fowl play here. Just good food.

As for the actual food, the chicken is excellently prepared with plenty of semi-spicy marinade coating the juicy and pure white meat that just barely clings to the bone.  The macho peas were an interesting choice since they were peas seasoned with parsley, mint, and chili which unfortunately tasted like I was consuming minty peas sans chili.  While I like both elements separately, I think they should tinker with the ratio of spices to make this pedestrian side something special.  I’m more partial to their garlic bread side that not only is very garlicky but crunchy and pliable at the same time.  Their chips are good but nothing that will knock your socks off.  Come for the chicken and stay for the sauce, that’s what I’d recommend.  We ended our night with a couple of pints at the Horniman Pub on the Thames River as we watched Tottenham Hotspur cruise to victory, and I went to bed a very satisfied Yank.

Nando's on Urbanspoon

The Cape of Great Food

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Hello and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be bringing you a bit of the Rainbow Nation, a.k.a. South Africa,in the form of the restaurant  Braai Republic.  Here’s how to get there:  Come out of exit 4 of Itaewon Stn. (line 6), walk straight and turn left at the alley just before the McDonald’s. Go through the intersection, past the Juliette clothing store, and Braai Republic is on your left on the second floor.IMG_0543

When we first arrived on a Saturday evening around 6:30 pm, we were greeted with a wall of people in the establishment.  Little did we know that Saturday evenings was the worst time to come and eat.  So instead of my entire group of friends coming to eat with me, it just ended up being my one friend, Aaron, and I sharing a table with another American couple since it was so crowded.

Where the magic happens

Where the magic happens

I personally enjoyed this aspect of the restaurant because it encouraged more socialization over the meal.  A welcomed change from most restaurants where diners are more engrossed in Instagramming their food and ignoring the person they’re sitting with.  I definitely had my cell phone away as I was soaking in the South African inspired decor like the zebra skins on the wall, a rugby match on the tv, and the extremely enthusiastic South African owner who was called everyone, “Bru” while making sure they were having a good time.

Is it black with white stripes or white with black stripes?

Is it black with white stripes or white with black stripes?

I felt like I was in Blood Diamond with Danny Archer.  Leo references aside, I scanned the menu and decided to get the Hunter’s Gold cider (5,000 Won) along with the oxtail potjiekos (11,000 Won) (pronounced “poy-kos”).  A lot of the other options were meat centered like lamb chops and meat pies and for good reason.  The name of the restaurant, “Braai Republic” references the South African tradition of grilling meat.  The word “Braai” in Afrikaans means “grill”.  However, there still are some veggie options like various types of mashed potatoes, cole slaw, and pap which is like polenta.  I didn’t know what to expect from the meal, so I was quite intrigued when my plate came out.

On it was a pile of plain mashed potatoes, orange and white cole slaw, and a small black pot which I naturally concluded was my potjiekos (in Afrikaans, it means “small pot food”).IMG_0548  When I opened it up, I was face to face with a whole lot of meat. IMG_0549 A potjikos is a remnant from the Afrikaaner frontier culture where they would stew different vegetables, cuts of meat, and bones together in a pot at the end of each day after exploring the South African wilderness.  I could definitely taste the rustic origins when I finally tucked into it as I was greeted with extremely tender pieces of ox tail mixed in with bone shards.  Take your time when eating this dish because you might swallow a bone if you’re not careful.  I also stumbled upon the occasional potato lurking below the savory broth like some sort of delicious starchy manatee.  If you’re a traditional meat and potatoes kind of person, this restaurant would be your Valhalla (a viking heaven but with funnier accents and more barbecue).  Even though I was going to town on my pot of ox, I tried a bit of my table mate’s lamb pie.  I would get that in a heartbeat next time I came to Braai Republic.  Then I tried my sides.  The mashed potatoes were severely disappointing.  True, the texture was just short of creamy, but they were extremely bland.  I can’t stress this enough even when I put salt and pepper on it.  The cole slaw was also quite pedestrian, but then again, I’m not the biggest proponent of cole slaw.  Thankfully, the potjiekos was quite filling and made up for the side order of mediocrity.  The Hunter’s cider was alright as a beverage to the meal, but it was a bit too sweet for my liking.  However, I wasn’t prepared for the greatness for dessert.IMG_0547

My friend Aaron had been raving for the longest time about their cheesecake, so I was naturally obliged to try it.  With my pie-in-the-sky expectations, this cake didn’t disappoint.IMG_0550  It was topped with caramel that was sweet yet slowly developed a more intense flavor with an almost coffee-esque flourish with every bite.  Then there was the actual cake which was light and fluffy.  It wasn’t dense like traditional cheesecake but rather had a whipped consistency that didn’t leave me feeling stuffed at the end of the meal.  The crust was a bit more straight forward forming a solid crumb base for the amazing flavor dance party going on above it.

In the end, if you love meat dishes or are just looking to try some of the best cheesecake around, I highly recommend Braai Republic.

Happy trails, Voortrekkers!

Happy trails, Voortrekkers!

Around the World In 80 Flavors

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Annyeong hasayo and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  So this past weekend was quite action packed, and I thought it was going to be a restful day on Cinco de Mayo.  Korea had other thoughts.  Instead, I found myself outside in the middle of Seoul on a beautiful day at an international food festival.  There were tents all over the streets surrounding the Seoul city hall where people from all over the globe were offering opportunities for visitors to learn something new about a different culture through music, clothes, and my favorite, food.  It was extremely crowded for some interesting  countries that I wouldn’t have expected like Kyrgyzstan with their shish kebabs or Iraq with their own version of doner kebab.  I guess people can’t get enough of roasting meat over open flames on sticks.  Perhaps it hits some sort of primal chord within us that hearkens all the way back to our prehistoric ancestors when they felled their first woolly mammoth and had history’s first barbecue.  I wasn’t swayed by the Central Asian sensation and instead went for the funkiest things I could find from countries’ cuisines that I have never sampled before.  First up, Kenya.

After breezing through Asia, Europe, and Latin America, we went to the African stalls.  Once we got to the Kenya tent, there was a delicious aroma wafting through the air, and we quickly found the source.

Now that's fresh

Now that’s fresh

It was the smell of fried mandazi.  They looked like gigantic samosas which are fried dumplings that contain vegetables and meat, but I was greatly mistaken when I was handed a freshly fried one and took a bite.

Needs more Amurcan fattening ingredients

Needs more Amurcan fattening ingredients

It was piping hot and perfectly fried to a golden-yellow similar to the sun that was shining that day, but it was a sweet, not savory, treat.  It was kind of like a freshly fried American donut but not as sweet.  My friend Ben said that it could use some powdered sugar, and I wholeheartedly agreed.  Either that or maybe some sort of dipping sauce.  Still, mandazi was a solid first choice out of many at the fair.  Next up, Iran.

I have had Persian food before, but I never saw these two types of food they were serving:  geimeh and zereshk polo.IMG_0158  I decided to only pick geimeh because the zereshk polo was pricier.  Geimeh has roots all the way back to Mesopotamia and is a stew containing lamb, tomatoes, peas, and onions while being garnished with potato fries and jalapeno peppers.  I also got some seasoned rice and a mini salad on the side.  Overall, it was a solid choice.IMG_0161  The stew was quite hearty with large pieces of lamb that were very tender and the vegetables added extra body to the stew.  It went very well with the rice that was seasoned with tomato paste, cumin, and tumeric and contained more peas and some carrots.  The salad was fresh but was not very impressive.  However, the potato fries were a unique element to the meal because they weren’t exactly like typical French fries because they were in some sort of spice that I couldn’t quite identify.  The last two snacks came from Asiatic countries:  Singapore and Malaysia.

I already knew the Singaporian cuisine is a reflection of all of the different ethnic enclaves that occupy the tiny but rich southeast Asian nation.  So when I saw small fried vegetable fritters, I could immediately see influences from both the Indian community with their love for fried treats like samosas while the cooks were using Chinese vegetables like bean sprouts, Chinese celery, carrots, bok choi, and spring onions. IMG_0162 It was about as big as my hand, but it was kind of a let down.  While it was expertly fried, the vegetables were drowned out by the greasy aftertaste of the dough.  There in lies the fine line one treads when frying food.  Harmony has to be struck between using enough batter while allowing the internal ingredients to shine.  While the Singaporean food let me down, my final choice from Malaysia ended up being the most bizarre and my favorite food out of all of them.

I saw no one was going to the Malaysia tent, so I walked up to see they were offering sago gula melaka a.k.a. “best seller” according to their sign that had the price slashed.  It was somewhat worrisome, but I asked them what it was.  They said it was, “Sweet dessert coconut”.  Those three words together sounded great to me, so I got one cup of it.  After about ten minutes of breaking into the Fort Knox of dessert cups, I opened the container to find something that looked absolutely disgusting.

A beast and a beauty in one

A beast and a beauty in one

It looked like someone puked in the cup and then threw in some pale yellow fish eggs that had congealed into a small sponge.  I was wondering to myself how could something so terrible looking actually be delicious?  I was quickly proven wrong when I took a spoonful of the brownish-white goop.  A perfect example of never judging a book by its cover.  It literally tasted like a vanilla pastry sprinkled with coconut.  Texture wise it was different too because it was semi-gummi but quickly disintegrated after a couple good chews.  This is because sago is derived from a plant similar to the tapioca root which is used in Asian cuisine to make gelatin.  The brownish white soup was palm sugar syrup which supplied the vanilla-esque sweetness.  Sago gula melaka is the prototypical ugly duckling of desserts in my experiences, but I would recommend anyone who has a sweet tooth to try it.

Overall I had a fun time at the food festival, and it just goes to show that if you try things that may seem scary, there really isn’t anything bad about them.  So follow your stomach and go explore the culinary wilderness!

Saved By The Bell

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Hello to everyone out there and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be telling you about a little birthday celebration I went to last night in Itaewon that could have ended in gastronomic tragedy, but I managed to tame my own hunger with a little piece of home.  One of the girls in my orientation group invited us out to a Moroccan food in Itaewon, the foreigner quarter of Seoul, and naturally I jumped at the chance to eat food I’ve never had before.  However, upon arrival, we found out that the restaurant was under renovation, so eventually we found an Egyptian restaurant down the main drag of the area.  It was called Ali Baba’s, and I didn’t know really what to expect from Egyptian food since I never tried this type of food either.

Upon walking into the establishment, we were greeted with a mostly empty dining room aside from one couple.  There were various tchotkes on the walls representing Egypt from plates sporting the iconic King Tut death mask to images of the pyramids at Giza.  I was more enjoying the vivacious italo-dance techno beats that were mixed with Middle Eastern rhythms and pumping out the speakers all throughout our dining experience.  Upon sitting down, we were served with unleavened flatbread which was not complimentary (1,000 W each piece) and partially undercooked.  One of my fellow diners asked our waiter/owner if they could grill the bread to at least make it less soggy, and the waiter said, “It’s fresh.  We have an oven”.  We took this as, “I have a microwave, so that’s how it is”.  This was just the beginning of the terrible service.  I ordered the shish taouk (17,000 Won) since I wasn’t quite sure what the meat was going to be roasted on a skewer.  We quickly saw that the waiter didn’t know who ordered what, and some people didn’t get their food until everyone else was done eating.  Ineptitude aside, my food was served to me in a semi-attractive arrangement with fresh greens, two tomato slices, and two cucumber slices.

Close but no cigar

Close but no shisha

However, upon tucking into the dish, I was quite disappointed.  The pieces of chicken were succulent but not very flavorful.  I feel that I could have had the same thing if I stayed at home and cooked boneless chicken breasts in my oven-less kitchen.  Shish taouk is traditionally served with rice, tabbouleh, garlic sauce, tomato sauce, or fries.  None of this was present.  Hence I felt the price did not reflect the quality of the meal.  The worst part was the fact that the waiter/owner took pictures of us while eating.  It was not only intrusive, but a terrible PR trick to make it seem like his restaurant is better than it really is.  If you want good Middle Eastern food in Itaewon, look elsewhere because Ali Baba’s is run by one thief.  High prices for mediocre food?  No thank you.

After that meal, a couple of my friends and I decided to go to Taco Bell.  Why?  1.  Taco Bell is amazing back home, and 2.  I want to see how it’s different in Korea.

Even though it's by a mosque, this is my mecca.

Even though it’s by a mosque, this is my mecca.

Even thought the menu is a bit smaller in terms of choices in comparison to back home, I ordered a grilled bulgogi burrito (3,500 w) and a fiesta bulgogi taco (2,700 w).  It was totally worth it.  I just find it funny how Korea adapts almost every Western chain by just stuffing bulgogi in everything.  Not that I’m complaining though.  The grilled bulgogi burrito was moderately sized and was piping hot.

Like a newborn in swaddling clothes.

Like a newborn in swaddling clothes.

The tortilla was very strong and held in all of the contents from the first bite to the meat juice-filled end.  It was an interesting mix of delicious cheddar cheese, spicy Korean rice, onions, tomatoes, and sweet marinated beef.  It was even better with a liberal spritzing of my favorite Fire sauce that seemed a bit spicier than its American counterpart.

Layers of deliciousness

Layers of deliciousness

As for the fiesta bulgogi taco, it wasn’t that spectacular.  It was like eating a taco supreme without sour cream (beef, lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes).  That Korean twist of flavor was seemingly absent in the taco regardless of the bulgogi.  This latter meal was not only more satisfying in terms of flavor and quantity, but the sad thing is that the total bill for my four friends and I at Taco Bell was equal to the price of one entree at Ali Baba’s.  Moral of the story:  Don’t trust places named after famous thieves and just go to Taco Bell.

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