Countries by cuisine: How we turned our dinner parties into a passport

Just before lockdown, Ilse Zietsman and her friends started a world tour through food - a clever way to keep globetrotting when no-one else could

25 April 2021 - 00:02 By Ilse Zietsman
Mahshi (stuffed eggplant, bell peppers and zucchini) is a traditional Sudanese dish.
Mahshi (stuffed eggplant, bell peppers and zucchini) is a traditional Sudanese dish.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

American writer Kurt Vonnegut once said: “You can't just eat good food. You've got to talk about it too — to somebody who understands that kind of food.”

It was our love of talking about food and travel that led me and two friends, Jolanda Prinsloo and Melani Macici, to start a project just over a year ago: we would cook our way around the world.

We tossed the names of 196 countries — minus a few islands, as we reckoned we'd tire of fishy dishes after a while — into a box and agreed on the following rules:

  1. One person draws a country once a month (or thereabouts, depending on our schedules) and must host an evening in which they cook the cuisine of that country.
  2. The menu must include a drink, starter, a main course with side dishes, and dessert.
  3. No tweaking of recipes — the food must be as authentic as possible.
  4. The host must enlighten the guests (we invite friends randomly) about the country.

Here are some of the places we've “been”.

SUDAN, NORTH AFRICA

Jolanda graciously offered to kick-start our cooking project in December 2019 and drew Sudan.

A few weeks later, when we shared our experiences, we realised that each of us was planning our menus and evenings in quite different ways. Jolanda starts off by reading up on the destination — Wikipedia provides a ready reference on the country and its food. Next comes cross-referencing and myriad YouTube videos demonstrating the preparation of traditional foods.

She explains: “YouTube shows you things that a recipe doesn't divulge. I like watching ordinary people, not chefs, as this is what traditional cooking is about.”

Her final step is to settle on her favourite recipes and compile the menu.

Jolanda forewarned us that alcohol had been illegal in Sudan since 1983 (this was amended in 2020 so that non-Muslims are now permitted to drink alcohol in private). I packed a hip flask in my handbag just in case, though I needn't have worried.

A traditional drink in Sudan is date wine — when fermented for 48 hours or less it is nonalcoholic and halaal. Jolanda, however, made hers potent by letting it bubble for over a week.

A sumptuous Sudanese spread.
A sumptuous Sudanese spread.
Image: Supplied

Our enlightenment on the country included learning that Sudan, not Egypt, has the world's largest collection of pyramids. Sudan has between 200 to 255 known pyramids, compared with Egypt's 138. Sudan's were built by members of the Kush kingdom, which ruled areas along the Nile from 1070BC to 350AD.

We were relieved that Jolanda did not “surprise” us with umfitit (sheep's offal with peanut butter, eaten raw) as she had threatened to do. Instead, she outdid herself with a spread of goraasa (flatbread), al aswad (aubergine dip), mish (spicy yoghurt with feta), mahshi (stuffed eggplant, bell peppers and zucchini), shaiyah (pan-fried mutton) and basbousa (semolina cake).

ALGERIA, NORTHEAST AFRICA

Our second round, in January 2020, took us to North Africa again. Did you know Algeria is the largest country on the continent and that the Sahara desert makes up more than four-fifths of the country?

I was the cook this time, and for my research I tend to google traditional foods right away. I then compile a menu based on the ingredients that I can find — and I shun any recipes that require baking.

Guests got into the national spirit by donning fezzes at Ilse Zietsman's Algerian-themed dinner.
Guests got into the national spirit by donning fezzes at Ilse Zietsman's Algerian-themed dinner.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

That evening, the guests got into the national spirit, showing up in burgundy fezzes.

The menu comprised limonaada (lemon beverage), cucumber and yoghurt soup, humra (a chicken and quince dish with nutmeg, typically eaten on Rosh Hashana by the Jews of Algiers) and veggie couscous. Dessert was sweet couscous with rose petals and stuffed dates.

MALDIVES, INDIAN OCEAN

February 2020 was Melani's turn. Seeing that the Maldives is almost 99% sea and that tuna is their most important staple, fish was naturally on the menu.

Melani's system is to google street food and vendors, food markets and supermarkets. She also taps into numerous Facebook foodie groups and sources ideas from Pinterest and her large recipe book collection.

Maldivian starters included tuna and egg pastries and chilli salad.
Maldivian starters included tuna and egg pastries and chilli salad.
Image: Supplied

Melani created a Maldivian feel by laying her table under a palm tree with a view over the pool — Maldives in the Boland ek sê — and set the island scene with piña coladas decorated with cocktail umbrellas.

She served bis keemiyaa (tuna and egg pastries), kulhi boakibaa (fish cakes), mas huni (tuna, coconut and chilli salad), dhon riha (tuna curry), kukulhu riha (chicken curry), fihunu mas (grilled sea bass, obtained from a fish monger), and handulu bondibai (sweet sticky rice with mango) to finish off the meal.

This concluded the first round, which made us realise that, although we regard ourselves as good cooks, this was by no way a means to showcase individual skills. A different playing field meant that we would be out of our comfort zone each and every time.

VENEZUELA, SOUTH AMERICA

In March 2020, Jolanda had a turn to take us to a new continent, South America.

It's unlikely that we will ever visit for real as Venezuela is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Crime is widespread, with violent crimes such as murder and kidnapping increasing annually. The US state department, for instance, advises against travel to the country “due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, kidnapping, arbitrary arrest and detention of US citizens”.

It is, however, also home to more than 2,500 species of orchids and many interesting animals, including manatees, giant anteaters, sloths, jaguars and the world's largest rodent, the capybara.

Pabellon criollo is a staple dish of beans, rice and meat in Venezuela.
Pabellon criollo is a staple dish of beans, rice and meat in Venezuela.
Image: Supplied

A menu printed in the colours of the Venezuelan flag greeted us upon arrival.

Before filling our wine glasses — wine is always part of the evening as we live in the Boland after all — we had chicha (rice milk with cinnamon).

Jolanda confessed that she'd been excited to draw Venezuela for her second round. Though Sudan had been interesting, she suspected Venezuela might have more to offer in terms of cuisine.

And so it did. We feasted on tequeños (fried pastries with cheese filling) and guasacaca (avocado salsa), arepa (maize patties), pabellon criollo (beans, rice and meat), papitas de leche (milk potatoes) and quesillo (Venezuelan flan).

Alas, lockdown ensued, putting our evenings on hold for a while .

PARAGUAY, SOUTH AMERICA

In August, we decided to resume the project. Like Venezuela, Paraguay has wonderful exotic wildlife, including the opossum, chinchilla, armadillo, panther and bear.

As the host, I issued a “No firearms allowed” warning after reading that pistol duelling is legal in Paraguay provided both parties are registered blood donors.*

Once I'd checked everyone for contraband weapons, guests were issued with Paraguay Passion cocktails.

I also challenged myself this time around and baked, managing to pull off a cheesy cornbread starter called chipa guazú.

The Paraguay evening included caramel and herbal tea sipped through bombilla straws.
The Paraguay evening included caramel and herbal tea sipped through bombilla straws.
Image: Supplied

The main course was bife koygua (beef cheeks — the cut revealed, again, only once everyone had tucked in) simmered for hours with onions, roasted garlic, oregano and tomatoes. Though few at the table had had beef cheeks before, specialist butchers usually have them in stock.

The beef cheeks were served with mescla (rice salad, reminiscent of local recipes from the 1970s) and kiveve (pumpkin mash with cheese and sugar).

We ended with caramelised papaya served with more caramel and herbal tea sipped through silver bombilla straws.

*Later research revealed that duelling is not, in fact, legal in Paraguay, according to the Mississippi Library Commission, although the myth mysteriously persists online.

BAHRAIN, MIDDLE EAST

In Bahrain, there are nearly twice as many men as women; ironically, the guests around Melani's Bahraini table in October portrayed the opposite.

We sipped on saffron wine and nibbled chebeh rubyan (shrimp balls), tzatziki and hummus. For mains, we had chicken machboos (spiced chicken and rice) and spicy baked fish with muhammar (sweet rice).

Bahrainis, like Algerians, enjoy stuffed dates for dessert. More and more we were beginning to discover how cuisines from different parts of the world overlap.

ERITREA, EAST AFRICA

Eritrea, in northeast Africa on the Red Sea coast, was a colony of Italy from 1882 to
1941, and still boasts beautiful art deco buildings in the capital, Asmara.

Although in November Melani could have chosen a mix of Eritrean dishes and spices with Italian dishes, she didn't take the easy way out.

The evening started off with a bun, an Eritrean coffee ceremony where ebaba (popcorn) is served as an accompaniment.

Eritrean stews are much like Ethiopian stews. While we enjoyed mopping up zigni berbere (beef stew) and doro wat (chicken stew) with injera (sourdough flatbread), Melani fervently hoped that she wouldn't draw Ethiopia at a later stage. Spoiler alert: that is exactly what happened.

Her blow was softened somewhat with makleel (sweet dumplings).

NORTH KOREA, EAST ASIA

With a tumbler of rice wine in hand, we giggled in December when Jolanda told us that, around 2014, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had reportedly ordered all male citizens to copy his haircut.

Kimchi featured strongly in our tastebuds' tour of North Korea.
Kimchi featured strongly in our tastebuds' tour of North Korea.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

Over kimchi (fermented vegetables), we heard that our host for the evening had driven nearly 100km one-way to source the Korean ingredients. The effort had paid off, we mumbled, with mouths full of mandu (dumplings), ggoma kimbap (seaweed rolls), kimchimari-guksu (kimchi noodle soup) and yakgwa (sesame cookies).

We agreed to disagree on kimchi — you either love it or hate it.

ESWATINI, SOUTHERN AFRICA

Eswatini might be close to home, but for my next turn I thought it would be interesting to take my guests — as far as unusual ingredients were concerned — out of their comfort zone.

Thus I served mageu (a fermented maize drink), crocodile tail marinated in buttermilk and crumbed in cornflakes, boerbok stew with pap, and fried banana to round it all off.

Only once their plates were nearly clean, and after guessing games had been played, did I reveal what had been on the plates. There were some gasps but nothing that another glass of wine couldn't fix.

Mageu (a fermented maize drink) kicked off the supper club's culinary tour of Eswatini.
Mageu (a fermented maize drink) kicked off the supper club's culinary tour of Eswatini.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

Everyone giggled at my expense when I confessed I'd forgotten there is a crocodile farm in our hometown of Paarl and had driven to Cape Town after a Google search.

SAMOA, POLYNESIA

Tattooing is part of Samoan culture. If only Jolanda's guests had known, they could have visited a tattoo parlour to really get into the Polynesian island spirit. Instead, they made do with tropical attire.

In true island style we started with 'otai (a watermelon rum drink), followed by pani popo (coconut buns) and oka i'a (fish salad). Next there were keke pua'a (pork buns) and a chicken dish called moa fa'asaina. We rolled home after pai fala (pineapple meringue pie).

ETHIOPIA, EAST AFRICA

Ethiopia presented a challenge for Melani as she'd already done Eritrea. With a lot of vegetable and spicy meat dishes, the foods are very similar and she had to work hard to offer her guests a totally different taste experience.

We were delighted with a refreshing “energy booster” of layered mango pulp, avocado, pineapple pulp and passion fruit to counter the hot summer day. Ethiopians and Eritreans mostly eat without using utensils; they use their right hands but we chose to forgo the custom.

Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine are very similar, with lots of vegetable and spicy meat dishes.
Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine are very similar, with lots of vegetable and spicy meat dishes.
Image: Supplied

Next came doro wat (chicken stew) with black lentils simmered in berbere (a red pepper spice blend that includes cumin, fenugreek and paprika). The winner of the day was kitfo, minced raw beef marinated in chilli powder and then infused with spiced butter, enjoyed with ayib (traditional cheese made with fresh milk) and sautéed greens. We ended with mango, natural yoghurt and pistachios.

ICELAND, NORTHERN EUROPE

Think of Iceland, think of cold. Indeed, it's cold, windy and cloudy for most of the year. Their lowest recorded temperature is — 39.7C. Thus I decided to make my seven guests feel some of Iceland's cold too.

The evening started off with a contest: everyone had to stick their hands into a
bowl of ice water. The one who lasted longest would win. There was no talking allowed, though many participants were unruly as far as the rule of silence went. The first one out lasted 18 seconds; the winner one minute, 15 seconds. Then we did it a second time, with the other hand. This time, the guests were allowed to swear. Apparently swearing helps with endurance. After three minutes there was a tie.

A starter of prawn curry soup helped everyone to warm up again. So did the plokkfiskur, a simple fish stew most Icelanders grow up with, served with turnip slaw. I made the fancy Saturday night version with cheese melted on top.

The rye bread ice cream (rye crumbs are caramelised before being stirred into the ice cream) served with whipped cream and honey was a winner too.

We love what we are doing and so do our guests. Friends and acquaintances have become afraid of “eating the closed door soup”, a Chinese proverb that means you are kept out of a party or gathering.

Follow more of the ladies' culinary journeys and find all the recipes they used at Facebook.com/CookSistas