Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Primo's Pics...for you, Regan

Hey, Regan.  I could go for some Primo's donuts right about now, too.  Does James want to fly back to L.A. and then head over to Amsterdam?  No?  I guess I'll have to go back to L.A. for a visit, then.  I'm ready for a buttermilk donut.
Here are some pictures I took at Primo's last October.
Seriously, a donut sounds kind of good right now.

A treat

The last few weeks have been full of fun and travel.  But instead of talking about my adventures, I want to tell you all that I got to eat a Primo's donut for breakfast.

A picture with James - to record the historic moment.  A real donut in Nigeria.

Primo's, if you've never been, is the best donut shop in Los Angeles.  Mr. and Mrs. Primo have been running the place since 1956.  The coffee is no good, but the donuts are light, fresh and cakey.  So James and I spend most Saturday mornings sitting in front of Primo's with coffee from home (for James) and a carton of milk (for me), eating our cinnamon/chocolate/buttermilk donuts.  Sometimes Mr. Primo comes outside and tells us about back when the neighborhood was covered in celery fields and the opening scene of "The Grapes of Wrath" was filmed on the dirt road that is now National Blvd.

Thanks for bringing me a taste of home, James!  

(PS.  Since I should be writing about Nigeria: there are donuts here, too.  They are a lot heavier and a lot less sweet than the American variety.  Also, they are called 'puff puff,' which is extremely fun to say.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Yea, it is spring!  We've had some really nice days here this week, and it seems that everyone is happier now that the flowers are blooming and a winter coat is not required for biking around town.  My husband's birthday happened to coincide with this week's lovely weather giving us the chance to get outside to do some celebrating.  He did ask me for one thing this year: to bake him a birthday cake.  In the years that we have known each other I have never made him a cake, a fact he has brought up on many an occasion.  I think it was just rubbing salt into the wound that I have made birthday cakes for other people, just not for him.  That's what happens when you do the long-distance thing for a while.  What was I supposed to do, mail him a cake from 6000 miles away?

So have I griped about not being able to find cake flour here?  Pretty sure I have. It's probably in a post about not being able to find other such niceties of the civilized world like vanilla extract and tape measures with centimeters and inches printed on them.  Fear not, this will not be one of those posts.  Imagine for a second what I looked like when I walked into the supermarket on Friday convinced that I would not find what I was looking for, convinced that control over Dutch baking supplies remained firmly in the hands of the powerful cake mix companies, only to discover in the moment I stood in the small baking corner, the world had been turned upside down.  Unfortunately, I did not have a camera with me to record this historic event, but I re-enacted it the next morning for you.
I look a little more comatose than surprised in the picture, but it was kind of early so I should get points for effort.  Can you read the package?  It says "cake flour!" So what if it's not real cake flour like I could get at home.  In an effort to make it light and airy, they mixed regular flour with a bit of rice flour, but still it's a step up, and I'll take it.

With my cake flour firmly in hand, I could being the task of making a lemon cake.  Lemon flavor is what Niek wanted, and I'm only too happy to oblige considering how obsessed I am with making lemon desserts.  I had a lemon tree in my backyard in L.A., which is where this love affair began.  Anytime I needed a quick dessert, I would just walk out back and pick a few.  It was so easy and of course so delicious.  It's not quite as easy here, but it's not as if buying a few at the Moroccan market is a really trying affair.  And now that spring has made an appearance, I suddenly feel like fresh and light flavors again.
The Dutch don't really do cakes well.  Various cookies?  Yes, delicious.  Apple pie-type things?  Also quite awesome.  Cake? Meh.  Cakes just aren't the same here (as if I should expect them to be the towering layers of an American cake).  It usually involves a few really thin spongey layers  really thick layers of some sort of mousse.  Don't get me wrong, they can be delicious.  They're just not cakes to me.
Here's an example from our wedding last year.  The pink layers are a raspberry mousse.  There probably something very American about me that craves something much grander than this for a celebration, something that indicates just by looking at it that it is decadent and loaded with tons of eggs and butter.  

Maybe cakes are a little more restrained here, because they are almost never considered a dessert.  It's what you are supposed to serve in the afternoon with coffee.  Even at our wedding, we had to explain that we would be following the American tradition of serving the cake last instead of directly after the ceremony the way the Dutch do it.  It still throws me for a loop that celebrations start with something sweet before moving on to a savory meal.
The many layers of cake, frosting and lemon curd created an effect that was anything but subdued, and it proudly took its place of honor at the end of the meal while we wished my husband a happy birthday.  I have no idea what we'll do with a cake that was meant to serve twelve, but I'm sure we'll enjoy our coffee time a little more for the next few days.
The recipe was wonderful and fairly easy.  If you feel like a lemon cake, you can find it here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Babyshower, Part II

About a month ago, I promised to post more pictures of the baby shower I threw for one of my friends.  I then realized that in all of the excitement of the day, I had failed to take any pictures of the shower or the food that I had been so anxious about preparing and presenting.  Luckily the guest of honor had the presence of mind to snap a few pics of the place before the guests arrived.  She's been kind of busy (something about preparing for the imminent birth of her first child) and just got around to sending me the pictures this past weekend.  If I were a pregnant lady quickly approaching my due date, I'm not sure I would ever have remembered to send a scatter-brained friend some pictures of cupcakes, but she is a much more organized person than I am, so you are all very lucky.

Despite my fear of organizing large events for lots of people I do not know, I was so excited to throw this shower.  My friend is so lovely and just deserved an afternoon of people celebrating her.  Baby showers are a completely foreign concept here, and I have spent quite a bit of time over the past few months trying to figure out why these kinds of celebrations aren't commonplace.  I'm talking about parties that are traditionally meant to bring communities of people together with the goal of supporting and aiding individuals in a new phase in their lives.  I'm thinking of bridal showers, baby showers and house warming parties.  (To be fair, I have been to a house warming party here, and some people did bring gifts, but it wasn't expected, and the gifts were all very small things.  Mostly, people just stood around and drank a bunch of beer.)  You can bet there is no such thing as a registry here, either.  A handful of stores have bridal registries, but a baby registry?  Um, no.  That is just not done.

Please excuse the plastic wrap over the sandwiches.  It's the only photo I have of them.

Here are the cupcakes.  I can't believe it took me so long to make so few!

I am not trying to say that Americans only care about getting really good gifts from their friends for their babies or that Dutch people aren't interested in celebrating big life events.  Baby showers have always seemed to me like a community building event.  People come together to talk, eat and share advice in addition to the gift-giving part.  It seems like a great way for a personal and small network to provide support to new parents.  Based on all the stuff my friend and her husband have bought over the last few months, I'm going to go ahead and say that having a baby is expensive.  Isn't a baby shower meant to take some of the financial burden off of first-time parents?

My husband thinks that a shower seems like a very American form of support: individuals banding together to help out an individual in need.  I think he may have a point.  Whenever we have discussed this, I've asked him why the Dutch might be less inclined to support individuals in this way.  He just looks at me and tells me that the Dutch do support individuals; they give a large portion of their income to taxes which in turn comes back to the community in forms of social services.  So while your friends will probably not buy that really expensive Bugaboo stroller for you*, their taxes (coupled with your mandatory health insurance) ensure that you will have no out of pocket expenses for prenatal care or delivery and that you'll receive a hefty reimbursement for childcare costs once you go back to work after your twelve weeks of paid maternity leave.  So, in a nutshell, that is why the Dutch do not have baby showers. 

Despite the guests and the hostess having absolutely no idea what to expect from the day, the shower ended up a great success.  Everyone seemed to enjoy the food and had a good time playing the baby shower games I suggested.  It was just a bunch of ladies getting together for some food and baby talk.  Maybe showers will catch on here, after all.  Who doesn't like a nice afternoon tea with the ladies?

*I realize that a Bugaboo isn't something that most American women would get at their baby showers, because it's freaking expensive stroller.  It's really just to emphasize the point that the big-ticket items (stroller, car seat, I don't know what other expensive things babies need but I'm guessing there are a few things) wouldn't automatically go on some sort of baby gift list here.  By the way, Bugaboo is a Dutch company, and the streets of Amsterdam are crawling with them. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Yoruba is a tonal language, which means that pretty much everything I say is unintelligible to anyone other than myself.  Normally, this doesn’t matter – the people I’m trying to communicate with just smile, tell me I’m trying and wonder what the heck my gobbley-gook meant. 

Today, for example, I informed the archive ladies that I will be going to Lagos to pick up my husband on Friday.  This sentence sounded perfectly clear and understandable in my own head.  The ladies, however, smiled kindly, asked (in English) what I was trying to say and then corrected my sentence . . . repeating back to me the exact words I had just said.  Except with actual Yoruba tones instead of my (apparently) free-form version.

Good luck trying to understand me, people of Ibadan!

At other times my cavalier treatment of Yoruba tones has more serious consequences - like when people ask if I eat Nigerian food.  I typically list the various Nigerian meals I’ve enjoyed and then end with something along the lines of “But I like pounded yam [iyan] the best.”  Well, it turns out that I’ve been pronouncing ‘iyan’ with a high tone at the end, instead of the low tone it’s supposed to have – and therefore telling people that “I like famine the best.”  That’s right.  All over Ibadan, I’ve left a trail of people wondering why I like Nigerian food just fine, but I enjoy famine the most.  (Also, when I tell people that I have a husband, I might also be telling them that I have a car, a farm or a penis.  I’m never quite sure.)

Yams, not famine.


Shopping and the Dutch Bike

Just wanted to share how I get the shopping done when Niek isn't around.  We do the non-Dutch thing of buying groceries once a week.  Unfortunately we were just too busy helping a friend move on Saturday to make it to the store.  This morning, because there was basically nothing left in the house and I had been reduced to eating almond butter and raisins with a spoon, I hopped on my bike and did some shopping.  The weather was beautiful today and biking along in the sunshine put me in a great mood.  After living in Los Angeles for so long where people will get in their cars to drive literally a few blocks, it feels kind of liberating to be in such a bike-friendly place.
Below is my bike.  It has no gears, a pedal brake and a little bell to warn the tourists who walk into the bike lane.  I love it so much.  Sorry I had to take the pictures inside the garage.  I wanted to show off the pretty day in the background, but it was too complicated to balance the weight of the grocery bags on the bike without the support of a sturdy column.  Hope the weather is becoming just as lovely where you are.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The bread flour quest

Sorry to bring this up again, but the Dutch must be the Europeans, who are least inclined to bake.  Here I am in the thick of Western Europe.  You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a corner bakery filled with bread and cookies, but somehow, please do not ask me how it is possible, I can't find basic baking supplies in Holland's largest city.  All I wanted was some bread flour, that was all I was asking for; to be more precise, that was all my cookbooks were asking for.

My cooking routine has been in a bit of rut lately, so I've been happy to take suggestions for our dinner menu from a fellow historian grad student who has been staying with us for a few weeks.  I think if it had been left up to me, we would have been stuck eating omelets or granola every night last week.  When he enthusiastically mentioned making our own pizzas for dinner one night, I was game.  The only concern I had was making the crust.  I had never made pizza crust before.  In fact, I had never made any kind of yeast bread, ever.  Kind of weird for someone who has spent more than half her life baking.  I did buy a jar of yeast once, but it sat in my refrigerator for a few years before I moved and decided to throw it out.  After looking through a few of my cook books I thought, "Hey, how hard can this be?"  Hmmmm....well, it's actually not that hard, but somehow I managed to fail on the first attempt.  I will blame the Netherlands, once again, for my major baking failure.

First trip to the stores in my neighborhood resulted in no bread flour.  Fine, I would just get some whole wheat flour and make a delicious crust like I once enjoyed here in Columbia, Missouri.  Problem, "whole wheat" flour here looks like someone took bleached flour and mixed it back with the wheat bran (kind of like graham flour). That's not what I wanted.  Then I spotted a bag with a German name on it that looked like whole wheat flour.  I asked Niek what he thought Gerstenmehl meant.  He had no idea, so I thought I would just take a chance and buy it.  Guess what, it does not mean whole wheat flour. 

Apparently it means barley flour (I have got to improve my German vocabulary) and has the consistency of semolina.  And this is what it looks like after it's been used as a substitute for bread flour.
That's also exactly what it looks like after it has been left to rise for two hours.  I covered it with a wet linen towel, went for a nice long run out in the semi-warm spring weather and came home to find a yeasty, heavy brick of dough.
I would have tried to make a crust out of it, but it crumbled in my hands.  Into the trash can it went where it made our house smell like the after-effects of a frat party.
The next day I did my regular tour de find-a-seemingly-common-American-ingredient through the supermarkets, natural food stores, and the British-American store.  Nothing, not one place had either a normal whole wheat flour or bread flour.  So, I resigned myself to using the all-purpose flour on hand thinking it would be awful and all the cookbook writers would come after me for daring to use bleached, bland flour in their glorious recipes.
Nope.  Nothing wrong with it.  It rose like a dream, and I fulfilled my fantasy of tossing pizza dough into the air.  Pictures were taken of that, but they're too embarrassing to share.  Our houseguest and Niek took a more sane approach to rolling out their dough and adding their toppings.
 ...mmm hmm, it was delicious.  I'll definitely be attempting the crust again, with or without the bread flour.  Too bad my neurosis to find the perfect ingredients and my frustrations with a foreign country stressed me out for absolutely no reason.  I'm still going to look for some bread flour, though.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Banana bread, Nigerian style

My backyard banana tree.  Mmmmmm.

Here in Nigeria, I don't cook.  I don't clean.  I don't wash my own clothes.  Basically, I get to be a lazy bum.  But to make up for my laziness, there is one thing I can do: bake cakes.  Honey cake, vanilla cake, lemon cake, banana cake . . . my cake evangelization may even have led to some conversions: I've been asked to bake birthday cakes, which always get a warm reception.  And believe me, if Nigerians didn't like the cake, they would tell me - no worrying about delicate feelings around here!

My campaign for cake awareness in Nigeria got off to a slow start, what with my liberal use of sugar (which is called 'iwo oyinbo,' or 'white person salt' in Yoruba) and my refusal to do frosting.  However, it has really picked up speed recently.  I'm trying to use more fruit and local spices -- and when I have enough self-control to get out my camera and snap a photo of the cake before cutting it up and wolfing down a piece, I'll be sure to blog about my experiments . . .

But for now, I'll just share my super simple banana cake recipe.  I picked this recipe off the internet because it called for melted butter - no need for a mixer.  What can I say?  My needs are simple here.  [And I can't remember where I found the recipe: but Thanks, random website!]

1/3 C melted butter
3/4 C sugar

4 ripe mashed bananas
1 beaten egg
1 t vanilla (I like to add an extra 1/2 teaspoon.)

Fold in:
1.5 C flour
1 t baking soda
pinch of salt

Pour in loaf pan or square dish and bake at 350 F for 45 - 60 minutes.

This is the only picture I took of the baking/eating process. Oops!  

Diana, here is a warm, sunny picture of banana leaves to give you a taste of the tropics.  
And although my bananas are probably a lot better than yours,  you get to drink lattes.
Lucky duck.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Go Bananas

Last week's stress-fest of writing, reading, writing, writing, and more writing is complete.  My chapter now has a rough draft!  At the moment that draft roughly resembles what I think a freshman would create in a composition seminar if the assignment was to experiment with stream of consciousness writing, but hey, at least it's a rough draft. That is why I can't write this week on the intersection of food and Dutch culture.  I would love to, really I would, but I didn't experience much outside the walls of our apartment for a while.  I guess that's what happens to grad students working against a deadline.  In fact, last week I subsisted mostly on cookies during the day and big bowls of pasta for dinner while sitting at my desk.  I eat when I'm stressed, and oh my, did I eat a lot of processed food.  By the time Saturday morning rolled around, I was ready for some food that didn't come out of a package and took more than ten minutes in a boiling pot of water to create. 

Regan and I chatted briefly (too briefly) last week during one of the rare moments when her internet was working.  Boo on you, Nigerian internet providers.  She told me she had just made a banana cake, probably from bananas growing in her yard or somewhere equally local and fresh, and it made me hungry for a baked good of my own.  I bet my bananas were not picked ripe from the tree, and I wonder if her bananas looked like this:
The best banana bread comes from overly-ripe, almost trash-can worthy bananas.  I usually don't have too many black bananas sitting around, but when a few go bad, I just stick them in my tiny freezer until the mood strikes me to bake them into something more appetizing.
A nice and simple recipe for a weekend morning.  The loaf pan easily fits in our little oven, and the good smell makes the house feel homey and Midwesterny.  As much as I love this bread, I can't help but look at the old bananas in my freezer with some longing for fresh fruit that isn't citrus and that doesn't require days of shipping to arrive in my kitchen.  I sighed a bit this morning when I woke up to a light dusting of snow on the ground.  Hurry up, spring!
At least spring has arrived at the florist.  Do we have these flowers in America, and if so, does anyone know what they're called?
Regan, I can't wait to see pics of your banana cake.  It sounds so creative and I bet it was delicious!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

My Favorite Meal

For writing on a blog about food, I’ve been remarkably slow in getting down to the nitty-gritty of eating in Nigeria.  So here it is: I’m going to tell you about my favorite Nigerian meal.  I’ll even include the recipe so that you can all run out to the store, pick up some ground/dried cassava and melon seeds and make your very own eba with egusi! 

Break out the pots and pans:

Me: E kuuse.
Tomato-seller: Ooooooo!!!  You speak Yoruba.  You are really trying, o.
Me: E se.  E jo, I’d like to buy 100 of tomatoes.
Tomato-seller: Ahhhh!  She said “e se”!!!  How long have you been in Nigeria?
Me: Five months.
Tomato-seller: Do you take our food?
Me: Bee ni.  Mo feran eba ju lo.
Tomato-seller: Ooo!  You have tried, o.

This is a conversation I have every. single. day.  Asking whether you eat Nigerian food is the ultimate test of the extent to which you’ve embraced the country.  I can criticize the failure of leadership in Nigeria, the lack of basic human services, the rampant corruption and the gang-like mentality of the police (these are all popular topics of conversation), but if I pack away a plate of iyan and ukazi soup, I must really like this country. 

Which, of course, I do.  So I eat lots of Nigerian food.  Here in Ibadan, one must be able to eat amala to prove true devotion to the Yoruba people.  No gathering is complete without plates of amala . . . I’ve been told that people will talk for weeks if you dare to get married without the requisite offering of amala to guests.  They will go home hungry (nothing else qualifies as “real food”) and grumble about your hospitality. 

I first learned about culturally-based conceptions of food (and not just what tastes good to people) when I took my host family out for pizza in Accra.  I thought it was the best meal I’d ever eaten, while my family wondered what they should have for their dinner.  Apparently, even when eaten at 7pm, pizza is just a snack.  So are sandwiches, hamburgers and spaghetti.  A meal must include a large serving of starch.  In Nigeria, it is called “swallow food” – food that you have to really work to eat, but leaves you feeling full for hours (sometimes days) afterwards. 

For my money, eba is the best of the Nigerian swallow foods.  It is made of gari – dried and ground cassava – that has been mixed with water and cooked into a paste.  You can eat eba with almost anything, but I love the egusi stew.  The main flavor in this dish comes from ground melon seeds (“egusi”) . . . I sit here trying to think of an equivalent flavor in the American palate, but nothing comes to mind.  I guess you’ll all have to make a trip to Nigeria to experience the deliciousness of egusi – and have I mentioned often enough that you get to eat with your hand?!  Down with forks!

Egusi – an approximate recipe
(And by ‘approximate,’ I mean that Abigail gave me all quantities in Naira: 50 Naira tomatoes, 100 Naira eja, 30 Naira crayfish.  But she was very specific about cooking times!  Oh, and the recipe serves 4 people.  Approximately.)

  1. Blend 4 small tomatoes, 1 medium onion, ¼ cup ground crayfish, pepper and Maggi to taste.  Bring mixture to a boil on stove until it reduces to a slightly-watery paste, then fry the paste.  (No one said this would be easy.)
  2. Transfer paste back into large pot and add 1 cup meat stock.  Taste and season with salt and/or more Maggi (Abigail wants me to emphasize the Maggi) here.
  3. Add 1 medium dried fish (eja gbigbe), shredded, to the pot.
  4. If you’d like, add some meat.  Allow contents of the pot to boil for 2 minutes.
  5. Add 1 cup ground egusi.  (Don’t worry, I’ll bring some home in my suitcase.)  Allow pot to boil for 5 minutes.
  6. Add 3-4 cups of a shredded green leafy vegetable.  (Abigail typically uses ugu, but you might try collard greens.)  Combine everything and then cook for 3 minutes.

This dish should not be too watery.  You can serve the egusi with rice or as a side dish.  It is really just a fancy way of preparing greens – which are called ‘vegetable’ here . . . which makes me wonder if there is a generic word for, you know, all vegetables.  Hmmm.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Coffee and cake...and then more coffee

I have to make this quick, because I have been kind of swamped with my writing schedule.  I have a chapter due on Friday and am nowhere near where I should be right now, so I am feeling a bit stressed about getting it done. 
Let me take a nice, relaxing moment to reminisce about the latté and apple pie I had just a week ago.  The pie, known as appeltaart here, is really kind of a cross between a cake and a pie.  There's a thin crust on the bottom, but the filling has enough flour in it to keep the apple slices from falling all over the place.  There are about a billion places in Amsterdam to get this national treasure, and I knew a Canadian ex-pat in one of my Dutch classes determined to try them all.  Her knowledge of appeltaart haunts was astounding and kind of scary.  This is the piece I shared with a friend in a cafe on a sleepy street in the center of Amsterdam. 
And just for comparison's sake, here is a picture of the appeltaart Regan and I split this past summer when she came for a visit:
That one had a thicker top crust and came with cinnamon ice cream, which was pretty awesome on a hot, August day.  I've never attempted to make it myself at home, mostly because the ones I order in the cafés are so good.  Maybe I should try a recipe, you know, with all that free time I've got on my hands.
And just a quick note on the beverage, the one I love probably too much.  Americans call it a latté, but the Dutch call it a koffie verkeerd.  You can also order a latté here, but you have to say [láh tuh] and not [lah tey] or the waitress will instantly know you are American and switch the conversation into English even if every other word you have said has been in grammatically correct and perfectly pronounced Dutch.  Just a heads up.  I usually say koffie verkeerd, because it means "messed-up" coffee, and I think it's a cute description.  A regular coffee is black and the "incorrect" one has a bunch of milk in it. 

So now I'm going to go make myself a coffee and get to my work writing.  As much fun as writing a blog post can be, I can't send it to my advisor as part of a chapter section.