The more I eat, the more adventurous my palate becomes, and as I grow more daring as an eater, I find myself becoming bolder as a cook. Trying exotic fare at restaurants, exploring the exciting culinary creations crafted by others, makes me increasingly hungry for more tempting tastes at home.
Although I’m no proponent of re-creating restaurant dishes – I’m no Nigella Lawson, after all – the flavors I’ve experienced at ethnic eateries without doubt influence my everyday culinary choices. From recipes writ large to ingredients more specifically, mine and my wife’s kitchen repertoire has expanded immensely throughout the years as we have eaten our way around the world at local restaurants.
Indulging in authentic Indian and East African flavors at Dushmesh and Elephant Walk have given us a more discerning palate for curries, basmati, flatbreads and lentils. The hearty and succulent Chinese fare at Szechuan Bistro has honed our taste for chilies, eggplant, ginger and tofu. Forays into Andean and Argentinian eats at Lima Limon and Ché have taught us a greater appreciation for potato varieties, chimichurri, grilled meats and fresh seafood. And, the aromatic Arabic fare of Marrakech and Phoenician Taverna have initiated us into the wonders of tagines, rotisseries, sumac and olives.
With these flavors fresh in our mouths and on our minds, my wife and I never fail to imbue our weekly grocery lists with dishes bursting with similar tastes. Never settling for the doldrums of a typical American diet, we are always experimenting with new cuisines, spices and ingredients. Over the years, although we have certainly attempted many less-than-ideal dishes, we have also developed a working catalogue of numerous world eats that we come back to time and again.
While I encourage you all to experiment with unique and exotic flavors in your own home kitchens, I want to share a few of mine and my wife’s favorite world cuisine dishes as well. Hopefully, these five meals will spark in you the desire to eat and cook the world as they have done for us.
Feijoada – Beef & Black Bean Stew
8 Servings – $42 Total – $5.25 Per Serving
This national dish of Brazil and all-around South American favorite traces its ancestry back to Portugal. As Eric Ripert so perfectly said, Feijoada is to Brazil what Paella is to Spain. And, like its Spanish cousin, Feijoada leaves plenty of room for variation. What’s absolutely critical, though, is a hearty protein, black beans and a gravy-like stew. The version my wife and I prepare is similar to a variation that her great aunt brought back from her family’s time living in Sao Paulo.
To begin, caramelize two onions in a Dutch oven or a large heavy pot. As they cook, season the onions with olive oil, salt, pepper and a splash of lemon juice. Depending on your taste, you can add green bell pepper, tomatoes or mild chilies to the mix as well, though my wife and I usually prefer to stick with the former.
Although Feijoada can include proteins ranging from blood sausage to salted pork, my wife and I opt for a two-pound chuck roast of grass-fed beef, going for a more Argentinian style. When using a stew cut like chuck, it is extremely important to butcher it well before cooking. I recommend cutting the beef into small, rather thin strips roughly half an inch wide and four to five inches long. Additionally, make sure you cut against the grain, as this will result in a delicately tender end result.
When the onions are well cooked, add in the beef and season heavily with South American spices, garlic and fresh cilantro. To save time, we purchase a small spice blend from the bulk section of Whole Foods, but you can always make your own with the following ingredients: cumin, oregano, orange zest, red pepper and cinnamon. At this point, simply turn the heat down to low, and let everything stew for a couple of hours or until the meat is fork tender.
Since my wife and I always reheat large meals throughout the week and since we always buy canned beans, I prefer the not-so-authentic route of adding black beans to the cooked rice rather than to the stew mixture. This ensures the beans don’t turn to mush as the days go by, and it also imparts a better flavor to the rice base, bringing cohesion to the dish.
For the rice, cook four to five cups of brown rice and season with vegetable stock and the same spice mixture as the beef. When the rice is fully cooked, add in a drained can of high-quality organic black beans and mix well. Turn off the heat and leave the rice and beans covered until time to serve.
As a fitting accompaniment to this Brazilian dish, I can never pass up a side of sautéed plantains. To prepare, simply slice four to five ripe plantains – soft-textured and black-skinned – and sauté them until golden brown in a skillet with grapeseed oil, salt, pepper and nutmeg. If the plantains are under-ripe, they will have too much starch, so be sure to avoid any with green skin.
To serve, spoon the beef stew over the rice and bean mixture and top with a pinch of fresh cilantro. To fuel your inner gaucho, you can also add a fried egg to the pile. Add a small side of plantains and enjoy!
Vegetarian Greek Orzo
7 Servings – $33 Total – $4.71 Per Serving
Every year in June, the St. Nicholas-Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church hosts the Cincinnati Greek Festival. My wife and I have gone a couple of times since moving to the Queen City, and we love experiencing the authentic and delicious eats of the old country. This year, beyond simply chowing down, we decided to attend a cooking class to learn more about the culture and the cuisine.
One of the dishes the facilitator prepared was a simple orzo and brown butter pasta, and during the demonstration, she explained that orzo is extremely popular throughout Greece, even more than in Italy. After watching the demonstration and learning more about orzo and Greek cooking in general, my wife and I headed home and began experimenting with our own Greek orzo dish.
Since orzo is a thin pasta that happens to escape from a colander, I prepare it with just enough water so that straining isn’t necessary. To accomplish this, I put a little less than equal parts water to orzo. So, if I’m cooking seven cups of orzo – as I do for this dish – I add about six and a half cups of water. Leaving uncovered, I bring the water and orzo to a boil and reduce to simmer, stirring frequently with a fork, until all the water is absorbed into the pasta. Additionally, I add plenty of olive oil, as well as salt to taste, to the orzo to ensure a rich flavor and to prevent clumping.
While the pasta simmers, I prepare the rest of my ingredients. I slice roughly two cups total of tomatoes and olives, dice a small bag of roasted artichoke hearts, finely chop a handful of mint and crumble a block of feta cheese. I then add all of these ingredients to a bowl along with a splash of balsamic vinegar, oregano, olive oil, salt and pepper, and let the mixture sit and marinate while the pasta finishes cooking.
When the pasta is cooked to al dente perfection, let it cool down for about ten minutes, and add the remaining ingredients. Thoroughly mix everything together, and enjoy with a side of dolmades. While the dish might seem plain, the combination of flavors is classically Greek and perfect for a summertime lunch worthy of the azure Mediterranean coast.
Coconut & Tomato Chicken Curry
8 Servings – $43 Total – $5.38 Per Serving
As a novice outsider to Indian culture and cuisine, I must confess only a basic understanding of the key components of a great curry. The primary difficulty I have faced, and continue to face, is the sheer variety of curries throughout the country. While this makes eating out at an authentic Indian restaurant an amazing experience, it often causes confusion in the home kitchen.
To make sense of the complex world of curries, my wife and I often turn to pre-made sauces for Korma, Rogan Josh, Butter Chicken and Tikka Masala. However, after a few years of experimenting, reading and eating more, I now have a few relatively simple yet extremely delicious and, I hope, fairly authentic curry recipes to turn to when I’m in the mood for an exotic meal.
To begin, sweat an onion in about a tablespoon of grapeseed oil inside a large pot. As the onion cooks, incorporate a couple of finely chopped mild chilies, as well as salt and pepper. Next, it’s time to add the remaining ingredients and begin building more complex flavors. Begin by adding about one to one and a half pounds of bone-in chicken – I recommend split breasts because they are easier to shred later on – along with a jar of drained chickpeas.
Next, combine a small container of halved cherry tomatoes and a can of coconut milk to the pot. Finally, generously season everything with garam masala, salt, pepper and turmeric, crumble in about ten to twelve dried curry leaves and add the juice of two small limes. Once everything is combined, let the mixture cook on medium-low heat for about one and a half hours, or until the chicken falls off the bone.
While the curry simmers, cook a pot of brown basmati rice to accompany the dish. Additionally, since preparing the curry takes some time, I recommend serving the dish with a side of pre-made madras sambar or Punjabi chole to add a further depth of flavor and variety to the meal.
When the chicken begins to fall off the bone, it’s time to shred it with a fork and discard the bones. While you don’t want to shred it too finely, pulling the chicken apart – similar to pulled pork barbeque – allows the meat to soak up more flavor and become more evenly distributed throughout the curry. Serve over rice, along with a side and a toasted piece of naan.
6 Servings – $37 Total – $6.17 Per Serving
While tacos come in myriad forms and change depending upon the region throughout Central America, I prefer the hearty varieties native to central Mexico. These flavors were taught to me by my longtime high school friend whose family immigrated from the region. Many evenings as a teenager, I could be found hanging out at the local tienda and taquería where he worked as a cook, chowing down on ceviche, carne asada and simple, succulent tacos.
Over the years, I’ve used these experiences to inspire my own taco dishes, most of which incorporate central Mexican favorites like chorizo and slow-roasted pork. Unlike most of the dishes above, a classic chorizo taco is the perfect weeknight world eat because of its quick and easy preparation.
Start by sautéing an onion in olive oil using a large pot. While the onion cooks, add in two jalapeños and three red bell peppers, both diced. Next, douse the vegetables with a splash of lemon juice, and season well with salt, pepper and oregano. Finally, add in five to six Mexican – the Spanish variety will have wine and more paprika and less spices – pork chorizo sausages, either chopped into small pieces or removed from the casing.
When the chorizo are tender and fully cooked, turn the heat down to low and add in a handful of finely chopped fresh cilantro. To finish rounding out the meal, heat a couple of cans of high-quality refrítos and warm a few blue corn tortillas. Lastly, spoon the chorizo mixture inside the tacos, top with a sprinkling of cilantro and chopped tomatoes and serve alongside a generous dollop of roasted and mashed legumes.
For an easy variation, top the tacos with pickled red onion and avocado or substitute the refried beans for a tomato, onion and avocado salad. What’s most important in an authentic taco is the balance between heavy and light, cooked and fresh. Therefore, always make sure to have a refreshing topping if your filling is hearty.
Shrimp Pad Thai
6 Servings – $50 Total – $8.33 Per Serving
Although there are plenty of other ethnic dishes that my wife and I love – including tagine, ramen, kimchi stew and various pastas – I have decided to close this post with a classic: pad thai Pad thai is such a ubiquitous Southeast Asian dish that all home chefs should add it to their meal-planning arsenal. It is quick and simple, yet has perfectly balanced and subtle flavors that make at-home dining a thing of beauty.
The first step is to peel and devein the shrimp, about a pound and a half. I always recommend purchasing domestic – whether farm-raised or wild caught – shell-on shrimp, as they usually come fresher and more flavorful. Although it takes time, the end results are more than worth it. Simply peel the shell off each crustacean, and then run a paring knife down the back to remove the vein. Lastly, rinse under cool water and place in a bowl.
When the shrimp are prepped, make a quick marinade of lemon juice, soy, salt, pepper, garlic, ginger and fresh cilantro. Shrimp only need to marinate for 10-30 minutes, so it works perfectly to set them aside while you prepare the rest of the dish.
In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil and sauté an onion, along with a couple of finely chopped jalapenos. When these become tender and translucent, throw in three coarsely chopped red bell peppers and cook for just a couple of minutes until they turn bright red. Next, add the marinated shrimp and a handful of roasted peanuts.
At this point, it’s time to build the beautiful flavors for which pad thai is famous. First, squeeze in the juice of lime, along with a touch of soy sauce and a generous spoonful of garlic and ginger. I prefer to use pureed ginger and garlic because they keep their robust flavors and evenly distribute throughout the dish. Next, sprinkle in a large handful of finely chopped cilantro leaves, as well as a small bag of bean sprouts.
Lastly, and most importantly, add roughly two teaspoons of fish sauce depending on taste. While fish sauce can be rather difficult to find in the supermarket – even in stores with relatively sizable ethnic sections – it is absolutely critical to the dish and definitely worth the investment. It’s also a culinary staple throughout much of Asia and can be incorporated into many different dishes.
When everything is well mixed, turn the heat down to low and add in three small eggs. Incorporate these evenly throughout the mixture, put a lid on the pan and turn your attention to the noodles. Although you want the eggs to cook fully and meld into the other ingredients, it is important to cook them on low to avoid scrambling.
In another skillet – if you have a second one – or in a small pot, bring water to a low boil. I recommend using a skillet to cook Asian noodles because the large surface area helps to control the heat distribution and allows you to better prevent the noodles from clumping.
In the photos above, my wife and I used organic brown rice noodles, but any good quality pad thai noodle will work. Just avoid substituting Chinese or Japanese noodles as these won’t have the texture and size you need. Additionally, since noodles dry out and become overly starchy when reheated, I highly recommend only cooking the noodles you need for each meal.
When the noodles are fully cooked – which usually takes only a minute or two – strain them in a colander. At this point, turn the heat off the pad thai mixture and prepare the meal. While you can always place the noodles on a plate and simply spoon over your sauce, for a more authentic taste, heat the noodles and the sauce you’ll need for one meal in the pan used for cooking the noodles. This will help bring all the flavors together and impart a depth of richness to the noodles.