Several years ago Dan started bringing home strange ingredients and challenging me to make something out of it. Perhaps spawned from my binge-watching of Chopped, or just because he knows that I love a good challenge, this became a frequent event at dinner time. I tackled all kinds of bizarre ingredients and, to be honest, I probably spent more time Googling than cooking. Some efforts were rewarded with tasty meals and others were total flops.
Then, sometime last year, I informed Dan that this Chopped-ish challenge would go both ways. After all, he was clearly missing out on all the good times. He agreed, but we revised and upgraded the plan.
Thus, World Cuisine Challenge was born.
The new rules: One person picks a country (any country). The other person has to research the country’s cuisine, pick a night of the week, and cook a typical dish from that country. No whining, no excuses…Cook like a champion.
Verdict: SO MUCH FUN!
To date we have researched and cooked with inspiration from eight countries (as follows):
- Laos (Dan)
- Romania (Carolyn)
- Angola (Dan)
- Azerbaijan (Carolyn)
- Papua New Guinea (Dan)
- Bolivia (Carolyn)
- Italy (Dan)
- Fiji (Carolyn)
We’ve have some rock-star dinners, mediocre meals, and a few epic failures. It’s all about the journey.
Tonight was Fiji night. Here’s how it went…
Food in Fiji
Fijian food is remarkably simple. That’s probably because Fiji is an island smack in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. But with isolation comes resourcefulness.
The people of Fiji know how to use a few core ingredients to whip up some delectable dishes of fish, root vegetables (taro, cassava, and something called duruka, which is a flower of a cane root), rice, and coconut. There is some culinary influence from India, as there were a handful of folks who came over in the late 1800s, but otherwise things have stayed much the same.
For my Fijian challenge I chose a coconut-based, curry-like fish dish that is loosely referred to as “fish in lolo.” The internet boasts several variations based on a similar core ingredients: mild white fish, coconut milk, hot peppers or chilies, and limes/lemons/lemongrass.
Sign. Me. Up.
In post-meal reflection, “fish in lolo” reminded me of a blend of Thai and Indian curries. Spicy yet sweet, creamy but light, and super flavorful. According to the internet (i.e., numerous authors of varying quality, accuracy, and expertise), this is a common curry-like dish that uses up “what’s left in the fridge.”
Like many curry and curry-ish recipes, this comes together quickly. I’m a big curry fan because they are fast and simple, and they make for some delicious leftovers.
Want to up your curry game? Try this one out!
Step 1: Mise en place. Yes, that’s the extent of my French. Mise en place means “put in place.” Or, my translation: “Get your s*** in order.” This is really important for curry recipes, as they are so fast that you don’t have the time to leisurely dice a pepper before your coconut milk has burned. Chop everything ahead, measure out your spices, and have all ingredients on the counter before you start. Use small prep bowls (a great investment if you love to cook) or sort items on a large cutting board. Prepping ahead means less stress later (that phrase could go on one of those generic inspirational posters with pictures of oak trees…).
Now that everything is prepped and ready, let’s get started!
Start with the aromatics. Swirl a bit of olive oil into a large, deep skillet, and add the garlic and ginger. Stir it around for a minute or so until it smells delectable – not too long or it will burn.
Add to the skillet the red onion, hot pepper, lemongrass, and about 1/3 of the coconut milk. Stir it all together. If it looks like frosting for a Mardi Gras king cake, you’re on the right track!
Give this about 3 minutes to cook and meld together. When you start to smell the lemongrass, add in the rest of the coconut milk, the turmeric, and the cumin. It’s going to turn yellow and that’s OK! Some might argue that it would be better to toast the spices with the garlic and ginger at the beginning – try it either way.
After the sauce has returned to a uniform color, add the fish pieces and toss to coat. Then add the fish sauce, brown sugar, and lemon juice.
Cover with a lid for about 7 minutes (still medium heat) to cook the fish through. Don’t know what to do with yourself while you wait? I recommend pouring yourself a glass of chilled Sauv Blanc. Cheers.
Return to the stove (preferably with glass of vino in hand). Add the crushed tomatoes. It will now look like a McDonald’s advertisement. Don’t worry, your dinner is going to taste WAY better than that sorry excuse for “food.”
Then add the sweet potato (par-cooked makes the process faster). I found a purple sweet potato at the store, which loosely resembles the violet color of taro root. Oh hey, Phoenix Suns curry!
Put the lid on again for a few minutes while you gather some plates. When plating, serve the curry on top of rice. Top with basil and/or unsweetened coconut flakes.
When your first plate is gone, go back for seconds. No judgment.
World Culinary Challenge is a blast. I encourage others to try it out in their own kitchens. Even if it’s just once a month or every-other month, expand your horizons, and check out recipes from lands unknown (or at least unknown to you). Passport to culinary adventure begins now!
“Fish in Lolo” (Fijian-inspired Coconut Curry with Fish)
- 1 lb. sturdy, white fish (Mahi Mahi, cod, snapper), cut into 1-2 inch pieces
- 1 large taro root (sweet potato is a good substitute), chopped into 1 inch pieces and par-cooked over the stove for about 10 minutes
- 1 hot chile pepper (serrano, red Thai chiles), finely chopped
- 2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped and seed removed
- 1 stalk of lemongrass, minced (if you can’t find lemongrass, extra lemon juice will work)
- 1 can (400mg) of coconut milk
- 1 tsp. tumeric
- 1 tsp. cumin
- 1 tsp. garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
- 1 tsp. fish sauce
- 2 tsp. brown sugar
- Juice of 1/2 of a lemon
- Basil (chiffonade) and unsweetened coconut flake, for garnish
- Prepare ingredients: Remove outer leaf of lemongrass and finely chop. Dice onion. Peel the garlic and mince the ginger. Slice chile, scrape out seeds, then finely chop. Roughly chop tomatoes. Chop the sweet potoates into cudes. Cut up the fish. Measure out the turmeric and cumin.
- Heat a large fry-pan on medium heat. Add ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Add ¼ cup of the coconut milk, lemongrass, chile, and onion and cook until tender, 2-3 minutes.
- Stir in remaining coconut milk, turmeric, and cumin. Simmer for a minute or two.
- Add fish pieces and toss to coat. Cover and let cook for about 5-7 minutes, until fish is cooked through but still tender.
- Add tomatoes, lemon juice, fish sauce, and brown sugar. Simmer for 2-3 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve over rice. Top with basil and/or unsweetened coconut flakes