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World of Food 5: Andorra – Portabella Omelet

by Amberleigh Jack

Looking back, my weird food habits started long before they officially became a “thing” that needed fixing. My Plunket book is filled with notes on my inability to take milk or the majority of the alternatives. I couldn't stand bananas and cheese was probably my least favourite food. I have a vivid memory of being forced to eat peas by a babysitter until I was sobbing at the table, and to this day I can't stand them.

As a kid, I was also pretty much obsessed with mushrooms. On family outings to Cobb 'n' Co, my go-to order would be a bowl of mushrooms. I'd choose them over almost anything.

They're still definitely right up there on the list of pretty damn good.

Which is maybe one of the reasons Andorra is now right up there on my list of places I want to see some day.

The European country is a tiny landlocked space, neighboured by Spain and France. Spanish, French and Catalan influences dictate the food, largely due to the fact that the mountainous terrain means that about two per cent of the country is really viable agriculturally.

You know what else those mountains mean, though?

Mushrooms. A whole lot of them. So many, in fact, that come Autumn, Andorra plays host to the Festival of the Noble Mushroom (Fira de Bolt). Not only a festival celebrating mushrooms, but a festival with a truly great name, too.

Great names seem to be a bit of a thing for Andorra. The country itself is officially Principality of Andorra, but sometimes known as Principality of the Valleys of Andorra.

If great naming ability and a festival dedicated to celebrating the noble mushroom isn't enough reason to visit, the population of around 80,000 has one of Europe's highest life expectancies at about 80. Education is free, Healthcare is funded and there are currently about 12 full-time members of the military, whose primary role is presenting the flag at official ceremonies, (the military hasn't engaged in combat in about 700 years).

Also, mushrooms.

So, for Andorra, if you're wondering, I cooked mushrooms.

Mushroom omelet in fact. Which made me a little nervous. I pride myself one that can cook the perfect egg on demand. However you want your egg, I can master it. Unless you ask for an omelet. Then we're both in for a world of pain. I've tried, more than a few times, but I've never been able to master the whole flipping thing.

For someone that prides themselves on cooking eggs like a pro, this is a tough admission to make. You've been warned.

So the omelet. Ingredient-wise, it's pretty simple. Saute shallot in butter with salt and pepper. Stir in a couple of cups of sliced portabella mushrooms with a good pinch of tarragon. Set aside.

So far so good. Now for the eggs. Whisk and pour into a pan with butter.

So apparently, when the egg starts to cook, you pull in the outer sides with a fork, letting the egg flow over and cook under it. At this point I think I was pretty much nailing it. And that for the first time ever I might make an omelet that isn't a massive failure.

When egg is pretty much cooked the mushroom mix goes into one half and, while I'm still not a cheese person, if you are, go nuts on the Gruyere here too.

Then use a rubber spatula to flip, tilt and transfer to a plate.

And then everything fell apart.

As far as taste goes – eggs, mushrooms and a bit of french flair with the taste of tarragon coming through – there's really no going wrong with that.

Look-wise, this  will likely be a cause for a few restless sleeps in the near future.

Any tips much appreciated. I'm keen to master this one.

It's gonna sting for a while.

In World of Food, Amberleigh Jack is cooking a dish from every country in the world, partly as a way of confronting food anxiety, partly because mmmmmm. One at a time, in alphabetical order.


World of Food 4: American Samoa

by Amberleigh Jack

Oka I'a

"Is American Samoa a country?"

"It belongs to the US. It's not part of it, though. And it's on my list."

"To be fair, so is Antarctica."

"But American Samoa has a flag. And it means I get to eat fish. I've been missing fish."

"Good criteria."

I'm not a geography major. But for the purpose of this project, American Samoa is totally a country. Largely due to the fact that I've eaten a lot of red meat lately. And I was planning to go fishing. That didn't end up happening, but by that point I had my heart set on fish. So American Samoa, it is.

I'm one of those people that has countless texture phobias when it comes to food. I can't stand eating bananas or peas. I have to add enough water to smoothies to get away from that too-thick-to-be-a-drink consistency.

I'm getting better though. Oysters are now a favourite which, to be fair, are right up the list of worst food textures around.

Raw fish, funnily enough, I've never had an issue with. Death row meal? Fresh fish, for sure.

Oka I'a is basically raw fish salad, marinated in citrus, then drowned in coconut milk.

I'm a massive fan of ceviche, and when I first started re-learning to eat, it became one of my go-to safe foods. No cooking (added oils) to worry about, a bit of citrus and some salad. That's doable to someone who's trained themselves to be terrified of food. I've never tried the Polynesian version with coconut milk, however. For a long time, coconut milk wasn't something I could face. These days I love it. Yet another plus for American Samoa - I get to mix two of my favourite foods while trying something new.

Oka I'a seems to be one of those dishes that is so common, there's no real set recipe. After hunting through a few it seems to general rules are:

Any white fish will do, as long as it's fresh.

Chop and marinate in lime juice for anything between 1-100 minutes (depending entirely on how much you want the fish "cooked").

Drain and add whichever chopped raw vegetables you want (though cucumber and tomato are popular).

Add tin of coconut milk.

Leave in fridge.

While life and tides got in the way of fishing, the woman at the local fish market promised the snapper had come in that morning.

I recall an ex-boyfriend teaching me the art of picking fresh fish. The more translucent the better, Always smell it. The less *fish* smell the better.

I think I did okay.

This week has also been a very anxious week food-wise. So I guess it's  pretty good timing that this week's country gives me a "safe food", while still incorporating something that a couple of years ago would have been an impossible risk.

Sometimes the steps forward are huge. Sometimes they're baby steps. As long as they're going in the right direction, though, right?

I went basic with the veges. Cucumber, tomato and red onion went in with the chopped and marinated fish. Seasoned with a bit of salt and parsley and the result was easily my favourite so far. Creamy and fresh, with crunch of the onion and still super light. Tastes like summer.

If raw fish texture freaks you out, this won't be a fun meal. But this is my new go-to combination.

So is American Samoa technically a country?

Based on what I've just eaten, I pretty much don't care. I'm calling it, for sure.

In World of Food, Amberleigh Jack is cooking a dish from every country in the world, partly as a way of confronting food anxiety, partly because mmmmmm. One at a time, in alphabetical order.


World of Food 3: Algeria (Tadjine Djedj b’ Zeitoun)

by Amberleigh Jack

My friend's mum died this week. Since he told me, I've had the strongest memory of walking into her house a few years back and being hit with the smell of soup on the stove top. That smell that only comes from food being cooked slowly over a number of hours. The combination of meat and vegetables and seasoning that permeates the entire house as it cooks.

I don't know why that's my first and strongest memory when I think of her. Or why that memory hit me as hard as it did. There were plenty of times at the house where food wasn't being cooked. And that soup certainly wasn't a common smell.

But that soup is what I've been smelling all week.

Smells like a home.

Smells like love.

Algeria's chosen dish is nothing like that particular soup. But it's cooked slowly, with chicken and a good amount of spices. That scent that, after a few hours, pretty much invades every space of the house - that's the same.

I don’t own a tadjine. I also, as yet, don’t own a pestle and mortar. My pantry is also lacking a number of ethnic spices. This whole project will wind up being an expensive one, I think. But my kitchen will be a place of culinary dreams by the end of it.

For now though, I’ve heard a slow cooker will do an okay job in place of a tadjine, and pre-ground spices will have to be the go.

Eating disorders and “safe foods” are a weird concept. Void of logic. Every person will have a list of some sort of food that is safe. If they’re in a situation where they need to eat, they’ll beeline for those foods. And they’re always bland. Dry toast or completely unflavoured oats. Chicken or salad without a hint of salt or dressing. It’s almost like spices make food taste better, and people with eating disorders are completlely wrapped up in a world of food as punishment and reward. Food that tastes good, therefore, isn’t “deserved”. I know, right? I did say there was little logic when it comes to eating disorders.

Which, I guess, is one reason that this recent food journey is one of excitement. Chilli and heat is something I've discovered makes food taste amazing. Salt is God when it comes to flavour. Oil and seasoning on salad males salad pretty damn incredible.

So as Algeria rolled around I discovered I'd get the chance to try something totally new to me - saffron. When I asked for it at my local spice shop the diminutive woman reached underneath the counter and displayed a tiny plastic container full of the stringy red spice. Half a gram for $5 she told me, and refused to put it on the counter until I paid. I felt like I was buying something slightly more illicit than saffron. Told myself not to screw it up as I walked out with it. I get the impression this is the kind of stuff I'm expected to look after.

It didn't smell of much, surprisingly. A bit earthy, but an incredible dark red colour.

Bordering the Mediterranean sea and the Saharan desert, Algeria’s neighbours,and culinary influences, include Morroco and Tunisia. The food in Algeria seems to be also heavy on stews and long, slow cooking processes, though with more heat and spice than the previous countries.

For my chosen dish, Tadjine Djedj b’ Zeitoun (I’m keeping the name – Slowcooker Djedj b’ Zeitouun doesn’t quite sound so ethnic or impressive), I'm basically cooking chicken slowly in water and spices (it's one thing I've noticed so far - stock is never really used for the ease of extra flavour - time is the key to flavour), adding spice and olives later.

Having never even tasted harissa, I decided to go full authentic (well, as full authentic as one can get without a mestle and porter) and make my own. It’s easy, and has since become my new favourite additions to meals.

Ground (in the mortar and pestle of course …) chilli, salt, pepper, cayenne, coriander seeds, cumin and garlic are mixed in a pan with tomato paste. Olive oil is added and mixed for a bit. A paste forms which then become a flavour base for whatever dish you may be making. And the smell of the heat from the chilli is that amazing hit up heat that gets right into your sinuses as you’re cooking. There are different versions of harissa floating around, so find your favourite and roll with it. Well worth it and keeps in the fridge for about a week apparently (mine didn’t actually last that long.)

The dish itself is incredibly simple. Chicken browned in a pan and transferred to the tajgine (read: Breville slow cooker), harrissa, saffron, thyme, chopped fresh coriander and water goes in, and sits for a couple of hours. At this point chopped carrots, more coriander, juice of a lemon, a big handful of green olives and pepper to taste goes in and an hour later is ready.

A quick batch of cauliflower rice (or white rice if you eat it), seasoned with salt and corriander made the dinner complete.

If I were basing a world trip dependent on the cuisine of the country, I think I’d put Algeria on the list somewhere. The brightness due to the saffron (funnily enough that's really all it added) and the heat and flavour from the harrisa made this one something I think I'll be making a few times more.

And that smell? That permeating, homely smell that invaded the house throughout the cooking? It stuck around for  a while, even after eating.

That smell took me right back to my friend's mum's house again.

Smells like love.


World of Food 2: Albania (Kime Me Vez)

by Amberleigh Jack

Ground meat reminds me of arguments.

When I was a kid, the adult arguments I remember were often followed by bolognaise. I'm pretty sure my child brain twisted the memories a bit. There were likely arguments when mince wasn't served, and we probably ate a fair bit of it without fights. But one of my strongest memories is of awkward dinners where conversation was a forced kind of "don't let on to the kids" friendly. To this day I don't cook with mince. Funny how random moments as a kid shape your tastes as an adult.

So when the first recipe I came across when researching Albania was a simple, yet common dish of eggs baked in a mince-base, I barely even looked at it.

Albania has a host of neighbours to draw some pretty incredible culinary influences from, with Italy, Greece, Montegro, Kosovo and Macedonia covering most of the border space,and the Adriatic sea on the east. It's also had a pretty long and nasty invasion history. Italy, Greece, Ottoman Turks and Serbia have all had a crack at different times throughout the country's history. With such a rough past, and a lot of harsh, rocky mountain terrain, Albania is still trying to recover from major issues with iliteracy and poverty. Despite that, life expentency is generally pretty good. Maybe it's in the diet.

Heavily influenced by its history, Albania's cuisine features a lot of fresh produce and fruit, olive oil and very little cow's milk products (while cheese and yoghurt is huge, it's generally made from goat milk). Baklava, eggplant, rice pudding and spinach pies have been adopted as pretty staple Albanian dishes. Corn is the most widely available crop, though rice is growing in popularily. In the mountainous areas where poverty is a major issue, the diet consists largely of corn, yoghurt and cheese.

In other areas, lamb is the most popular meat. Stewed, baked in a sauce of egg and yoghurt or used as a stuffing for eggplant or capsicum. Liver is a delicacy, seafood from coatal regions are common.

Lamb meat may be good in Albania but, apparently, the animal's head is truly king. After seeing my first image of a line of roasted lambs' heads on display, I'm kinda intrigued. In a "that looks pretty gross but I'm also really curious" kind of way. After perusing even more recipes and photos, I'm definitely a little obsessed with the idea.

Ever tried to find a lamb's head at short notice down at the local, though? Turns out it's not that easy. And, honestly, some of those images do look pretty off-putting. I'm determined to cook an animal's head at some stage along this journey. But today is not the day. I'm not that adventurous just yet.

And for whatever reason, I kept returning to the first recipe I found. So mince it is.

Kime me vez is pretty simple. One pan, cheap ingredients easily sourced and spiced only with paprika and salt and pepper. It's also, from what I've read, quintissentially Albanian. The basic concept of chakchouka, but with the addition of ground meat.

Interestingly, although lamb is the most common meat in Albania, every recipe I saw for kime me vez suggested beef.

There's a lot of onion-chopping involved. About 1.5 onions per person. I also realised, when hit with the sweet smell of brown onions cooking, that I can't remember the last time I cooked with them. My Dad used them all the time when he made curries, I can't remember smelling it since he was alive - more than 13 years ago. Amazing how quickly certain food smells can transport you to something you haven't thought of in years.There's something about that smell, right? Similar to the smell of bacon. Smells like childhood. Or maybe that's just me.

Garlic, paprika, salt, pepper and ground beef goes in to be browned and finally water and chopped tomatoes to make the sauce.

And that's pretty much the bulk of it. Except the eggs. The most important part of this particular dish. If you ask me, they're pretty much the most important part of any dish.

There's no beating a perfectly cooked egg. Undercook or overcook by the smallest of margins though, and the entire meal is ruined. The importance of egg cooking can never be underestimated. Trust me on this.

I've spent a lot of time and research mastering the perfect poached egg (3:20 on a low heat, if you're curious). This isn't poaching though. Chance of undercooking the white or overcooking the yolk is reasonably high. It doesn't help that the lid to my pan isn't glass. I'll be cooking blind. My anxiety may seem a little excessive. But tell me that after being served a badly cooked egg.

I wound up with a mountain of food, for very little money. Being used to seasoning everything I cook with plenty of spices and chilli, I was pretty surprised to find that a dish with very little had a fair bit of flavour. Plus, egg and paprika? How can you go wrong?

The mince? Actually pretty good. Surprisingly.

Generally mime me vez is served with bread, which, if you're a bread fan, would have gone a good way in soaking up the juices. I whipped up a quick simple salad on the side - another Albanian staple.

Despite intiially skipping this dish a few times before finally settling on it, I'm pretty pleased I did. Simple comfort food with warming flavours of egg and paprika. Easily a lunch I'd tackle again.

Oh, and the egg? 10 minutes with the heat reduced. Worked out pretty much bang on.


In World of Food, Amberleigh Jack is cooking a dish from every country in the world. One at a time, in alphabetical order.


World of Food 1: Afghanistan

by Amberleigh Jack

It's funny how sometimes meaningless conversations or moments can turn into inspiring ideas down the track. It was a little more than a year ago that a random conversation with my trainer spurred an idea that has now finally become this project. We were talking food ideas and he suggested looking into some global recipes, adapting them to suit my tastes and hopefully finding new foods and flavours along the way.

Being somewhat an all or nothing kind of girl, I figured: why not try them all?

So that's the plan. Travel the world alphabetically, cooking a dish from each country. I'll generally be adapting recipes to suit a paleo/primal blueprint - but it won't be a strict rule.

First, a bit of background. My own relationship with food was pretty destructive for a large part of my life. Since making the attempt to recover from an eating disorder a few years back I, to my surprise, learned to find food, flavour and the creation of meals exciting. Dishes became more than fuel or calories, time in the kitchen became relaxing and I found real joy in searching recipes and meal ideas.

Still, it's easy to get stuck in a rut of easy and safe foods. There are countless flavours to try and battles to be won. There's still a long way to go. So I'm sending myself on a culinary journey of self-exploration.

The only rules I'm making for myself are that I'll travel the world in alphabetical order, cooking a dish from all 196 countries (yep, I'm counting Taiwan). The dishes don't have to be the national dish or even a full main meal. They just have to be something. I'll be tackling a new country at least once a week.

What am I expecting?

I'm hoping to continue to find joy in discovering food and flavours, to force myself out of various comfort zones and to develop and understand my own relationship with food, while learning more about global relationships with food, flavours and tradition around meals.

As an added bonus, maybe my plating skills may improve somewhat, too. It's just one of many reasons I never became an award winning chef. When it comes to putting food on a plate – let's just say my natural talent isn't immediately apparent. So until I've mastered the art – just trust me. The food probably tastes a whole lot better than it often looks.

I'll be spending a lot of time in my kitchen, but I'm hoping that along the way I can spend time in others' as well. Learning techniques and traditions passed through generations and cultures. While I'll make an effort to adhere to a lot of traditional ingredients and methods, at times recipes will be heavily adapted.

I'm definitely down for organising a pig roasting get-together among friends when Serbia arrives, though I imagine I'll pass on frying up a guinea pig when Peru rolls around.

However it pans out, though, I'm imagining an exciting,and sometimes confronting, journey of self-dicovery though food. One dish at a time.

I'd love to receive tips, ideas or simply your own food memories - wherever it is that you're from. 


Dish 1: Afghanistan (Sabzi e Goshte)

When it comes to food, I learned a lot from my mum. From a love of fresh seafood to comforting memories of fish and chips on a Friday evening after an afternoon tackling the waves at Pukehina beach. One thing that was passed down and stuck with me from a child is a dislike of overly-cooked vegetables. She grew up being presented with boiled-beyond-recognition greens and never cooked that way as an adult. In turn, I grew up with a love of fresh and crunchy, and have been lucky to have grown up in a place where fresh and crunchy is widely and easily available.

So the idea of a spinach-based qorma (stew) was a challenge in itself. In fact, Afghanistan as a whole proved a challenging first meal for a few reasons.

Being a hot, dry, landlocked area, Afghanistan has a cuisine based primarily on rice, barley and wheat dishes, with root vegetables and legumes often making up the difference. Meat, from what I've read, is generally preserved for special occasions. If you're looking to adapt to a primal diet, wheat, rice and legumes seem, from the outset, a bit of a logistical nightmare to navigate. The country's national dish is Kabuli palaw - a pilaf made with rice, lentils, lamb, carrots and raisins, flavoured with plenty of earthy spices.

And then, while searching through recipes, something clicked - Our western obsession with restriction or paleo and primal living has become almost necessary - not because it's best, but because we have such a tendency to drown our food in sugar, highly processed carbs and comfort through convenience. A bit of time in the kitchen, eating out of markets rather than boxes isn't a concept lost by those that don't have cheap food on demand with a quick dial of a phone. That's my theory, anyway. I'm only one country down, there's plenty of time to put that hypothesis to the test.

Afghan meals seem to be an affair of love, with time and care spent in the kitchen. Sweetness, from what I gather, is created through fruits like raisins and prunes. Meal-times feature a number of dishes - often a rice dish flavoured with spices and fruit, a qorma or other "main" dish and often naan or other bread-based dish together with yoghurt,chutneys and other bits and pieces to add flavour and nourishment. Family-style dining in its truest form - not something saved just for special occasions.

Eggs and proteins don't come cheap so aren't the main components of meals. Wealthy families eat multiple rice dishes a day. Royalty and celebrational feasts will feature multiple rice dishes. Sweets and candy are treats, rather than the every day norm in most households. Dessert is often fruit - pomegranates and grapes being available in abundance.

Eating out isn't common. Where the western world has adopted the idea of having someone cooking and cleaning as perfect for celebratory meals, in Afghan homes it seems almost as if the preparation and cooking is part of the celebration in itself.

While looking into the cuisine of Afghanistan, I found a wonderful site - Afghan Culture Unveiled.

Within it, Humaira Ghilzai, co-founder of Afghan Friends Network and gender equality advocate,blogs about Afghan food and culture. Numerous times she recalls meals that would last for hours, after having been prepared for more than ten.

It got me thinking about my own food memories growing up. I have some great ones – my dad was a master of curry, and my mum could fillet and cook fresh fish like a pro. I don't recall many moments of spending time in the kitchen with my parents though. It's not necessarily a bad thing, just a thing of circumstance. My brother and I had our sports. Mum and dad had full time jobs. At some point food would be cooked and it would get eaten. We had some great family moments, but few of them took place in the kitchen. Birthdays and celebrations were definitely a restaurant affair though. And at some stage restaurants became a regularity rather than a treat. I think there's a lot to be said for culture and recipes being shared between generations within a kitchen.

One thing I realised pretty quickly was just how easily I'd got into a routine of speed and convenience when it came to my own cooking. I was excited about spending an hour or more in the kitchen actually creating again, but before I began it did dawn on me that throwing together a quick salad with a piece of chicken would be a lot quicker, with a lot less to clean up.

There's plenty of time for quick and easy though. The US perhaps. Even still, I felt like I was cheating myself a little. Like the first country of this project should be a feast of pretty mammoth proportions. That I should be spending hours making sauces and chutneys and amazing rice platters and filling the dining table with enough food to feed a large family with leftovers to pack away. Not today though. In fact, I decided to skip the rice component altogether.

I did, however, try a recipe for paleo "naan" that I'd seen a while ago in a recipe book by Rachael Devich - Eating Clean, Living Paleo. I've never really trusted paleo versions of these types of things. All too often they don't come close to resembling the original inspiration. A nice surprise then, that a simple mixture of arrowroot poweder, egg, baking powder and oil thrown in a frying pan tasted pretty much how I remember naan to taste.

That's one win.

The chosen dish itself? Sabzi e Goshte. Basically slow cooked spinach with lamb. Apparently a common dish in Afghani households, often without the meat (the vegetarian version being Qorma e Sabzi).

Having pretty much fallen for Humaira's tales of Afghanistan, I found the recipe on her site and got to work.

The spices were things I am used to and love – onions (onions are a big thing in Afghani kitchens – I'm yet to find a qorma recipe that doesn't use them as a base) and lamb are browned before being simmered away with water and turmeric, ground coriander and cumin – immediately giving the kitchen a real homely, comforting smell. A while later a LOT of frozen spinach with a bit of lemon juice is added before cooking down until everything is tender and well-stewed.

The end result? A kind of brownish green thick stew. The cooked spinach smell was pretty strong, and to be honest, a little off-putting at first. That whole slow-cooked vegetable adversion was tougher to tackle than I'd imagined.

I surprised myself though. The flavours and spices definitely had that earthy ethnic comfort aspect. The "naan" was fun having not eaten one in a long time and I have a mountain of leftovers (which, if I'm totally honest, will be adding more lemon juice and a few crisp,fresh vegetables to - simply to cut through the richness). The dish is usually served with yoghurt which, in hindsight, would have gone a long way in cutting through some of the heaviness of the meal. I'd have loved to have seen how it would have turned out had someone that had grown up making it had created it instead.

The verdict? Far less of a failure than I half-expected my creation to be. It wouldn't be a first choice for a last meal, and from what I've learned, I think I'd get incredibly homesick for light and fresh if I spent a lot of time immersed in Afghan culture. But I've officially started, which is the main thing. And I'm looking forward to returning to the Middle East as this project continues to see just how much more adventurous I've become.

One dish down. Just 195 to go.