Monthly Archives: January 2010

Ouzo Octopus

Today, I had an amusing little intercultural and culinary experience. About five months ago, give or take a few, a Greek delicatessen called “Nostos,” opened up in the center of Prague. It is located about a block away from my physiotherapist’s office, which due to unfortunate circumstances I must visit on a weekly basis. Usually before or after my appointment, I stop by the shop to pick up some tangy tasty taramosalata, creamy Greek yogurt or deliciously sweet chalva.

This afternoon, when I entered the shop I was greeted like always, in a warm and friendly Mediterranean manner. Living in Prague, this is something one doesn’t take for granted. Smiling, the shop owners, a husband and wife team from Greece, asked me how I was doing. After a few more exchanges of kind words, I turned to the counter and happily pointed at the taramasalata. On a recent stop, they were disappointingly sold out of the good stuff. She pulled out a few plastic containers and asked me to choose a size. I went with the usual 100 grams.

As I was waiting, I noticed they also had some octopus as well. Yum, I thought to myself. Then in a flash, memories of enjoying one of these freshly grilled and chewy tentacles on the Greek island of Simi began to intercept my thoughts. I, of course had to purchase some. As it was a bit pricey, I asked for less than 100 As she pulled the container out, she mentioned how fresh the octopus was and offered me a sample on a toothpick. Yum, what a treat this would be!

Suddenly, her husband broke my dreamy escape by telling me that I could go home and “geill it.”
“Huh?” I answered.
“Geill it,” he repeated.

“Oh yes, show her the book, show her,” his wife commanded pointing at a book sitting by the register on the counter. My eyes followed the direction of her hand. I was hoping that somehow I would finally understand what “geill it” would mean.

He began flipping through the pages of what appeared to be a Greek cookbook. When he finally found the page he was looking for, he turned the book towards my direction. There was a picture of a plate of octopus intermixed with onions, black olives, red and yellow pepper with dashes of parsley surrounding it. Ah, now I got it. I could grill it! I attempted to read the recipe and when my thoughts finally processed what my eyes were looking at, it was clear that I would not be able to decode this one. The book is Greek, therefore printed in Greek.

“So, you need some peppers, olives and parsley?” I asked. Looking down at the book, he started to translate the list of ingredients.

“First, some onions,” he read and pretended to be frying them in a pan. Then with both his thumb and index finger sticking out like a gun, he said “Red.. yellow pepper. Octopus, black olives…”

“Sliced!” his wife excitedly interjected. All the while, I stood, listened and nodded my head after each ingredient was announced.

“Parsley, oregano and hmmm…,” he continues and then pauses. Suddenly a frown came upon his face. He looked up at me and disappointingly said, “Aww, you need two shots of Ouzo.”

“Aww…,” his wife echoed in the background.

Without the ouzo, it seemed like this recipe was not going to be consumed for dinner tonight.

Until… I nonchalantly replied, “Oh, I have Ouzo,” and nodded my head in a matter of fact manner.
“REALLY?” they both responded in awe and surprise.
“Yes. My husband likes to have a shot before he goes to bed each night,” I abruptly, yet innocently had disclosed.
“Is he Greek?” the wife asked.

“No, Spanish.”
“Ah! Tapas, it is like Greek.” she said.

“Uh huh,” I replied, agreeing unknowingly why. It could have just been the excitement of discovering that we did in fact have a bottle of ouzo at home. We would devour this dish after all! A feeling of relief fell upon the three of us.

While they were wrapping up my purchases, we continued to exchange a few more words about Prague, the neighborhoods, how business was going and such. I gave my thanks and said that I would see them soon to let them know how the recipe turned out. As soon as I got home, I started prepping the ingredients.&nbsp;</span>

Standing in our red kitchen, chopping away at the parsley, I began to tell my husband all about the day’s intercultural and culinary experience. It was absolutely priceless. Soon after recalling the episode, he said I should “blog it” and couldn’t believe that I had even told them that he takes a shot of ouzo every night. Aside from the time it took to roast the peppers in the oven, the dish was simple enough to make, especially if one has a ready bottle of ouzo on hand. Sitting at our dinner table, a few bites into the “Ouzo Octopus,” (I didn’t realize until I got home that they didn’t give me a name for the dish, so I made this one up) I was surprised to hear my husband say “It’s agradable (pleasant), reminds me of Spain!” Maybe Greece and Spain are more similar than I had thought …after all?

Ouzo Octopus

1 octopus, cleaned, cooked and cut into small pieces

1 cup oil

1 cup red vinegar

2 shots of ouzo

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 of each: red, yellow and green pepper seeded and chopped

1 onion peeled and chopped

1/4 black olives, pitted and sliced

1-2 handfuls of freshly chopped parsley

1 teaspoon dried thyme

salt and pepper to taste

Combine oil, vinegar, ouzo and oregano in a large bowl.

Add octopus and marinate for 2-3 hours.

Prepare vegetables.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan or grill pan

When warm, add the onion and fry until soft.

Then add peppers, olives and remaining seasoning.

When tender, add the octopus.

Cook for a few minutes, stirring all the ingredients well.

Add the leftover marinade, parsley and season with salt/pepper.

Toss and make sure all the ingredients are well coated.

Serve with slices of good bread!

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Nanay’s Lumpia

lumpia

Grandma’s egg rolls. Nanay’s lumpia. One of the biggest things I miss about the holidays is reaching for a fried egg roll at my Grandmother’s table. These were always served at parties or at holiday gatherings, but we also got to sneak them in as a snack during the week. My brothers and I would head straight for the large separate freezer in my Granny’s kitchen. She was a mighty cook and she always had something on reserve. Her freezer was always well stocked with egg rolls that could be easily fried up even if it was just frozen a few minutes ago. Just sitting and waiting on those cold shelves were trays of 50 or more egg rolls for us all to enjoy.

The first time I tried to make them was when I was living in Milano, Italia far from my family. Luckily, there was a Filipino grocery store in town and I was able to purchase the egg roll wrappers. Sadly enough, to fix my craving I had to rely on a cookbook to figure out how to make them. I remembered how they didn’t quite taste just like Nanay’s (tagalog for Grandmother), something was missing. However, everything in the recipe appeared to include all the ingredients that I recall having to chop up along with my aunts and mother in my Grandmother’s kitchen. What was the difference? The Italian vegetables? The oil? Me?

A few years later, when I moved to Prague, my Grandmother along with my three aunts came for a visit. My three titas’ had planned to also explore other cities outside of Prague and so I was going to have Grandma all to myself. Her visit was in the Spring and this city is amazingly golden with sunshine and spectacular to the eye. I decided to take a few days off from work and rented a wheelchair to make sightseeing more comfortable for my Grandmother.

I managed to navigate the wheelchair through the uneven cobbles toned streets of Prague. We saw many sights, but the best part of this Grandmother/Grandaughter quality time was finally learning how to make lumpia (fried egg rolls) from my Grandma. Crossing one of the many bridges across the Vlatva River, I brought up making egg rolls with my grandmother. Preparing this simple snack food is not an easy task. It requires great amounts of chopping and slicing, followed by sautéing, furthermore followed by wrapping and finally frying them up. When my Grandmother would make them, she and my aunts would gather together to make hundreds. It was a project that required a tremendous amount of patience and energy, but it also allowed for quality bonding time.

Making egg rolls on my own has never been an enjoyable task. A- I don’t have a food processor. B- It would be sacrilegious to use a food processor, therefore it takes a long time to cut the vegetables and C- It’s lonely chopping, sautéing, wrapping and frying them up by myself. Therefore, I have only made them a few times and the most I have ever done on my own were about 20 rolls. Besides, I don’t own a freezer large enough to keep a large number on hand.

Grandma was game to help me create a supply of egg rolls in my freezer. Luckily, well maybe I had actually had this pre meditated, I happen to have egg roll wrappers waiting in the freezer. All we needed was to buy the vegetables. At the local potraviny (Czech for fruit/vegetable stand), Grandma was sitting in her wheelchair and instructing me on what to buy if I didn’t already have them at home. Cabbage, sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, onions and green beans is what we needed. Her ingredients didn’t seem any different from the vegetables I used to prepare egg rolls.

Hmmm…Why weren’t mine not like Grandma’s?

As I was paying, Grandma suddenly asked if we had any garlic at home. “Yes,” I answered. Then immediately asked her “Why?”

“You need to pry the garlic pirst,” she said pressing her fingers together and moving her hand in the air.

“Huh? Really? I didn’t know you used garlic.”

“But, ov courst! Don’t you know dat??!!!” she said chuckling away.

AHA! This was it! This was the secret ingredient that I had missed all this time. GARLIC! GARLIC? GARLIC?!! I had never really noticed it’s flavor in the roll, but I guess a little chopped garlic went a long way.

When we returned to my apartment, we prepped all the vegetables up for the lumpia. Grandma’s weary hands were not up for all the chopping that was involved. However, on this occasion, I hardly minded the task of cutting the vegetables, as having my Grandmother’s company nearby made up for the laborious task. After getting our ingredients finally ready, I lit the stove and placed a large kawali (filipino frying pan similar to a wok)on top of the flame. With Grandma by my side and under her watchful eye, I followed her every word as she continued to guide me along. First: fry the garlic in hot oil until golden brown. Then add all the vegetables except for the cabbage. Use a little bit of soy sauce and a pinch or two or salt. (Wow! Another new revelation, all this time I had drowned the veggies in soy sauce! Such a foreigner’s thing to do. Shame on me!)When the vegetables are tender crisp, add the cabbage. When it cools down, you can wrap them. (Ha! So simple, right? Not if you don’t use garlic!!! tsk, tsk!)

On that sunny afternoon, we assembled about about 45 lumpias. We consumed a few for lunch and saved the rest in the freezer to be enjoyed at a later date. Consequently, the egg rolls finally turned out to be just like Grandma’s. And no, they didn’t last long in the freezer.

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Plantains and Okra

This morning, a student’s father came to my Kindergarten class to tell a story about what school was like when he was a child. “School Stories,” is a way for me to invite parents to be a part of the Kindergarten curriculum.  Through this activity children are exposed to the genre of storytelling, the concept of history (long ago and far away) and develop an awareness for the diversity of our world (comparing and contrasting the experiences they have heard and that of their own lives.)

The father is originally from Sierra Leone and one of the stories he told was about eating plantain chips at school for snack. At the end of each of our “School Stories,” families share a snack that has some particular meaning to them. In this case, it also connected to his school story. He also brought along with him pictures of plantain trees taken from a recent family trip to his village. Some of my students had never seen or even known that bananas grew on trees (poor kids!) Plantains- members of the banana family, but greener, longer, thicker skinned and are used in plentiful delicious ways.

When he pulled out 6 small plastic bags full of plantain chips, I immediately wondered where in Prague did he find them? Interestingly enough, I had packed several of these snack size bags of chips, along with 10 ripe plantain to bring back from my summer trip home from NYC. For many of my students, as well as my Czech teaching assistant, it was their first time trying them. The taste of these crisp, salty and thin chips was a surprising return back to memories of being a child and being forced to share with my two brothers. It also reminded me of Turon, Fried Plantains, Ginataang and many more other plantain dishes that I have enjoyed.

The chip satisfied some of my students’ taste buds, but overall most of the 5 and 6 year olds were expecting it to be sweet, similar to banana chips which they were already familiar with. Both my teaching assistant and I were curious to find out where he purchased the chips, so of course we asked. He told us that right in the heart of downtown Prague, there is a store that carries West African goods and that he would be sure to send us the address. My assistant, who was born and raised in Prague was surprised to hear that such a place existed. In her almost 40 years of living in this city, this was completely unknown to her.

The basket of chips eventually disappeared between our lips and some of the students. Then it was back to the regular routines of our school day- Recess, Reading, Writing, Storytime and Lunch. On this particular day, I had planned to leave school earlier as I had an appointment downtown.

Upon exiting the Mustek train station,  located in the heart of downtown Prague, turning the corner, I bumped into my student’s father. The same father who visited my classroom early this morning and who brought the plantain chips! We were so surprised to see each other and he immediately asked me if I had a few minutes because he could easily show me the shop in which he bought the chips. It was very close!

I had 15 minutes to spare and so he grabbed my hand and led me up the street. Awkward as it might seem, it didn’t feel awkward at all for him to hold my hand. It was as if he was holding the hand of his daughter’s and was so excited to show her something new. Something that validated him, his past, his roots. A feeling I could truly understand and I was very excited to learn about this shop. After walking past a block of busy retail shops, we turned the corner and walked pass a few more shops and restaurants. Prague is full of what they call “pasáz” many tunnels of indoor passages, where one may find cafes, bars, shops and offices. As we crossed the street, we entered a “pasáz,” where we walked a few more meters and up the steps to an African shop.

As we entered the store, I noticed many African sculptures and masks made from wood and textiles hanging from the window. A bit further back, were two African men, one sitting in front of a mirror, in a barber’s chair draped in a protective vinyl cloak. The other figure was behind him, closely monitoring the electric razor he used to trim the man’s hair. Alongside of them, was a busy shelf housing hair products, weaves, hair extensions and to my delight, bottles of marked up Palmer’s Cocoa Butter. Another one of the many products I usually buy in bulk to bring back. Not only because I like it’s creamy texture, but also because I have bought into the fact that maybe it does help with stretch marks. Back by the cash register, sat a huge carton, where I was told the plantain chips could be found. However, they happened to be sold out as he had purchased the last of them the day before. In the box, was also some bags of other popular West African snacks.

He led me to another level of the shop and there I found more goodies. Along one of the walls, there was a shelf with four open boxes. He pointed out that there were yams and the two empty ones besides them usually held cassava. One day, I silently vowed, to return in order to make cassava cake. On the opposite side, there was a row of shelves which housed cans of sardines, corned beef, bags of jasmine rice, cartons of custard powder and fufu flour. Fufu is flour made from plantains. To the left sat two freezers loaded with frozen bags of vacuum sealed smoked fish, meats, and packages of frozen okra. Sitting on top of one of the freezers there were fresh vegetables wrapped in plastic. Among them, laying and waiting for me, was one of my most favorite green vegetables…OKRA!
Now, I know that some of you can’t imagine why okra could be a favorite, and to those of you I wonder why you can’t appreciate the diverse qualities of this tender vegetable. It can be cooked to a crisp, boiled, steamed or eaten just plain raw. I am aware, that if cooked a certain way it has a bit of a slimy texture to it, but I like that in a food, think custard, think jello, think pudding! They too are slimy but delicious, well, maybe not jello.

The last time I purchased okra was just this past summer, at The Golden Mango, a grocery store in my parents neighborhood in Queens. The package of about 30 pieces of okra costs only $.99. In my hand, I was holding a pack of okra that weighed less than the one I just described and the price tag read 80 Czech crowns. The equivalent to dollars at the current exchange rate made that $4.70 for about 15 pieces of okra. Could I really spend almost $5.00 on a small parcel of okra?

Well, yes. It’s one of my favorite vegetables and I can still remember the first time I saw okra growing in the backyard of my aunt’s home in the Philippines. I was 13 and right behind her porch she pointed to a field of plants as tall as me. Then she walked me over and showed me how the pods were still attached to their stems and how to carefully remove them. All this she highlighted for me, after watching me collect and devour all of the okra in the dish she had prepared.

In the end, I bought two packs, yes I know there is a current economic crisis, but these precious pods of okra would definitely not be a wasted purchase. In fact, I had created a new and exciting challenge for myself.  Now, I needed to decide which dishes I would plan to use them for… sinigang, a tangy tamirind stew or ginataang ng hipon, okra boiled in coconut sauce with orange squash and shrimp or stir fried okra in tomato sauce or….well, the list is endless.

Strangely enough, I started out this morning hoping to expand my students’ understanding for the vast diversity of our world through their own family stories. The adventure I planned to take my students on actually led ME to a new learning experience. Today, I had discovered one more shop to add to my list of places to purchase obscure ingredients, but that is not all I received. Although the price of the okra seems a bit exaggerated, it was also a small reminder to never take the little things for granted.

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