For example, one of our favorite films is A Room With a View. At one point, the dear old dowagers the Miss Allenses decide to travel to Athens, and write of their plan to the good Reverend Mr. Bebe. Mr. Bebe says to his friend:
"Isn't it wonderful? Isn't it romance? Most certainly they will go on to Constantinople. They are taken in a snare that cannot fail. I really do believe that they will end by going round the world."
It is an innocent, sweet film that my sister and I love. So, of course, when I called my sister one afternoon to say I was very excited that I had found a new book on Indian cooking, she clucked her tongue at me, and said: "I really do believe that you will end by going round the world."
Once challenged, I could not refuse. So here is yet another goal laid on my growing To Cook list: to cook a recipe from every country in the world, all 243 of them. I suspect that it is going to take me several years, but that's all right - years, I've got. The irony in this is, of course, that the only foreign country I've been to is Mexico. But if I cannot end by going round the world, at least my tongue can.
I will begin at the beginning: with Abkhazia.
The Republic of Abkhazia is a mountainous, independent state inside of Georgia, on the north shore of the Black Sea. It is a beautiful country, with a mild climate, snow-capped mountains, and rich pine forests along its coasts. During the 1993 war with Georgia, which established Abkhazia as an independent state, almost 250,000 people (mostly ethnic Georgians) were either killed or displaced in what some consider a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Abkhazian cuisine is much like Georgian, since the region was politically part of Georgia for so long. In researching Georgian cuisine, I found a zestily written website (is "zestily" the adverb equivalent of "with zest"?): David Mchedlishvili's "About Georgia."
My vegetarian eyeballs skipped right over the numerous veals, beefs, livers, lambs, and roast suckling pigs that scamper across the Abkhazian table – and settled on some heavy, delicious-sounding vegetable dishes: kidney beans with plums, beets with cherry sauce, cabbage with walnuts, eggplant carved up in a dozen different ways, and mushrooms in cream.
The kidney bean dishes are lobios. Mchedlishvilli describes how small red and white kidney beans grow wild in Abkhazia and Georgia, and are sold without being sterilized. "Sometimes bugs hide in these beans," he writes. "It has not dampened the longevity of us Georgians one bit."
The kidney beans I used for my lobio dish came from a plastic bin at my local food co-op, so, frankly, probably do contain bugs. Authenticity is important when cooking your way around the world.
I found just about as many different recipes for lobio as there are people in Abkhazia (that would be about half a million): lobios flavored with lemon, coriander, walnuts, red hot peppers, cinnamon, cloves, ground marigolds, pomegranate juices, tarragon vinegar, tkemali sauce, plum jam, bay leaves, garlic, tamarind, or some combination of these.
I chose one with walnuts and lemon juice. It was essentially a very strong, heavy Abkhazian chili: soft, smooth beans covered with crunchy walnuts; the sweetness of the cloves and cinnamons balancing the heat of the onions and peppers. If I make this again, I'll cook the onion and garlic in a bit of oil or water first, to reduce the zap they pack. The walnuts were the best part – I would add more next time.
I also couldn't resist a recipe called Soko Arazhanit: mushrooms in cream (though I really didn't try to resist). I've never had a mushroom like this! It doesn't look at all exciting, but it is thick, smooth, and very rich. The cloves are the best – god, I love cloves. The dill and cream go together so deliciously, and the salt hits the back of your throat. I'll be making this again!
Serves 6 to 8
1/2 pound of small kidney beans (~1.25 cups)
3/4 teaspoon of salt
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped (in the future, I would cook this in some water or oil first, to reduce the heat – it was just a bit too sharp when put in raw)
2 sprigs of cilantro
1 sprig of parsley
1/2 generous cup of shelled walnuts
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 small hot red pepper
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
Pinch of ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon of ground marigold
1/2 to 3/4 cup of pomegranate juice (I substituted lemon juice)
Soak the beans overnight covered with water (or if you are, like me, impatient, cover rinsed beans with 4 times their volume water, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let sit for an hour. Rinse them and carry on with the recipe. Or just use canned beans.)
Place the beans in a large pot and cover with fresh water. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Bring the water to a boil and simmer until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Drain and stir in the chopped onion.
Grind the cilantro and parsley together with the walnuts, garlic and hot pepper. Add them to the beans.
Mix the cinnamon, cloves, marigold, and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt into the bean mixture. Pour in enough pomegranate juice to moisten the beans, and mix well.
Allow the beans to cool to room temperature, then serve liberally garnished with pomegranate seeds.
1 tablespoon of butter
1 pound of mushrooms, trimmed and thickly sliced
1 1/2 cups of heavy cream
2 tsp parsley
2 tsp dill
5 whole black peppercorns
1 2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
3 whole cloves
Season with a very small bit of salt
Melt butter in a saucepan and toss the mushrooms in it just long enough to coat them. Season lightly with salt and pepper to taste.
Heat the cream to boiling and pour over the mushrooms.
The author recommended tying the spices into a cheesecloth before adding them to the mushrooms, but I just tossed them in whole.
Cover and simmer the mixture for 15 to 25 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed.