Iraqi Eggplant with Garlic & Mint Yogurt Sauce

Baraka’s Culture Kitchen Kit will surely feed an army, but what if you wanted a few more pieces to fill out your diningroom table?  Then you have to have Baraka’s Eggplant with garlic and mint sauce.  A staple recipe in Baraka’s home, here at Culture Kitchen, and soon we hope your home too.  Get the recipe below and get cooking!

Ingredients:

2 Large eggplants
1 handful of mint
2 cups yogurt
salt
Corn oil (for frying, feel free to use your standard high burning point oil)

Tools Needed:

Measuring cups and spoons, a medium-sized mixing bowl, and a large fry pan (Note: if you do not have a large fry pan, you can use a smaller one, but you will need to fry the eggplant in smaller batches).

Instructions:

Wash the eggplants and cut off the tops. Using a knife, peel the skin in stripes from top to bottom. The end result should have a white and purple stripe pattern.

Cut the peeled eggplants in half horizontally and again lengthwise into slices, about 1/3 inch thick.

Lay out eggplant slices in a large dish and sprinkle them with 3-4 tablespoons of salt. The salt pulls the water out of the eggplants, which helps them brown while frying. Move the eggplant around every 10 minutes to evenly distribute the salt and remove as much water as possible. Drain the water as it collects in the bottom of the dish. Allow the eggplant to sit for up to an hour.

While the eggplant is sitting, wash and pick off all the leaves of mint. Reserve the flowering buds at the top of a stem for garnish. Roughly chop the larger mint leaves.

Peel and mince 4 to 5 cloves of garlic. You want to make the pieces as tiny as possible to mix throughout the sauce.

Combine the yogurt, mint, and garlic and mix thoroughly.

Once the eggplant has had a chance to sit for about an hour, heat 1/4 cup corn oil in a pan over medium to high heat until very hot.

Using your hands, squeeze as much water as possible out of the eggplant pieces.

Slide the eggplant slices into the oil at a shallow angle to prevent splattering and fry in batches until golden brown, flipping once (about 2 minutes on each side).

Depending on how high the heat and how hot the oil, the eggplant may cook more quickly or slowly. Also, the eggplant will continue to “cook,” deepening in color even after it has been removed from the oil.

Remove the eggplant from the pan and set aside to cool completely before topping with the yogurt.

Do not drain oil from the eggplant on a paper towel as you need the oil from the eggplant for the correct flavor and texture.

Once the eggplant slices are fully cooled, arrange them flat on a serving dish and spread the yogurt sauce on top. Garnish with the reserved mint buds and serve.

Culture Kitchen Vietnamese Box with Linh

We love hearing directly from our Master Cooks! This month get to know Linh and the incredible recipes she is sharing in the next Culture Kitchen kit.  In a few minutes you will get to know all you need to cook and eat like a true Vietnamese expert.

Want to see more videos? Let us know on Facebook.

A spice tour with Suchitra

The Spice Box–every Indian home has at least one. If you haven’t experienced opening one before, it is magical. The shiny stainless steel container holds cups of fanciful spices that bring the rich flavors of Indian cooking to life. In creating the Western Indian Culinary Explorer with Suchitra we got a chance to not just take a peek at the key spices in her spice box, but to also take a whole tour of her pantry. That sparked today post and the first of many Culture Kitchen Master Cook Pantry Interviews, giving you an insight into the visually stunning and aromatic experiences of real home cooks.

Masala. You hear it all the time, but what does it mean? A masala is simply a spice blend. It could be a blend of many spices or just a key few. You can buy masalas at the grocery store or create your own mix at home. Suchitra uses store-bought masalas and makes her own masalas from scratch for a richer flavor. Garam Masala is commonly used in many Indian dishes–each region of India and each Indian family has their own version. Different ratios of cumin, cloves, coriander seeds and cinnamon make up these family masalas and give varied flavors for their prized veggie, chickens, and other seafoods or meats. Suchitra uses Garam Masala in both the Chicken Tikka Kebabs and the Spiced Vegetables in the Western Indian Culinary Explorer. They offer a layered flavor from the varied combinations of spices.

But Masalas aren’t the only way to add flavors and color to dishes: Suchitra uses many individual spices in her cooking. Here are her top picks for what makes this month’s Culinary Explorer special.

Asofoetida, the devil’s dung, hing, or the stinky gum is probably the strongest-smelling spice we’ve ever encountered, and Suchitra agrees. Asafetida comes from the gum of a root and in its natural state is like a rock, but as used in Indian cooking and Suchitra’s Dal recipe, it is pounded into a fine powder. Suchitra keeps this stinky spice hidden in the pantry in three ziplock bags and a tupperware container, but somehow, its pungent smell still escapes throughout her pantry and sometimes even the entire kitchen. It is commonly found in veggies and lentil dishes throughout India, as it is believed to help with digestion.

Turmeric, bright yellow and fine as flour, is an unmistakable spice that helps bring Suchtra’s Dal and Spiced Veggies a unique flavor and adds to their color. Although used fresh in other cultures, in Indian cooking Turmeric is almost exclusively used as a powder or for its fresh leaves in fish curries, since the leaves give a much lighter flavor. This spice, although flavorful, doesn’t just come in handy in the kitchen. Turmeric is common place in Diwali, the festival of lights, where it is used for its bright color. But the most interesting tidbit we learned from Suchitra was about turmeric’s potentially antiseptic and medicinal qualities. She remembers falling as a child and having her grandmother yell for the turmeric to be rubbed all over her wounds. Suchitra says all the pain and bleeding stopped, but she had a yellow knee for days as a memory of the fall.

Amchur, a more uncommon spice in India, is Suchitra’s key to adding a sour flavor to the spiced veggie. Amchur is dried mango powder. It has a sweet fruity smell and is, in fact, quite sour. The dried mango it comes from is not ripe. The mango skin is green and the flesh is pure white. This spice is commonly used in the North where Suchitra’s family is from and is an alternative to Tamarind. Tamarind is commonly used throughout India, but in the North Amchur is used for a slightly different flavor and to prevent any color change in the food.

Saffron is by far the most expensive and coveted spices in Suchitra’s menu. Used in the saffron rice, this spice comes from a flower. It can be found growing a few places in the North of India but is mainly imported from Spain. According to Suchitra, ask any Indian what kind of Saffron is best and they will undoubtedly say, “Spanish Saffron is very good.” Don’t use too much saffron because excessive quantities will give your dish a sour or metallic taste. This spice is all about appearance, as it adds a light yellowish color to rices and desserts to make the meal appear more luxurious.

This is just the beginning of our spice tour! We will continually bring you more ingredients and ways to use them as you enjoy good food, good company and, of course, explore.

The Story Behind our Master Cooks

We work with an incredible group of ladies who we like to call ‘Master Cooks.’ None of them went to culinary school to learn how to julienne a carrot or make a radish rose, but they can roll up their sleeves with the best of chefs to turn out mouth-watering, unfussy food from their home countries. They’re the real deal, taught by older generations and equipped with the knowledge to teach the rest of us. So what exactly makes a Master Cook?

1.    A deep love of cooking and sharing food that’s unmistakeable when they start talking about the dishes they’ve made their whole lives.
2.    Sincere pride in the richness of their culinary heritage and a passion for sharing what makes it so special (no leaving out of the secret ingredients or holding back spiciness–we want the real deal, even if it makes us sweat!)
3.    Worn and well-loved cookware! These ladies’ pots and pans have earned their keep.
4.    Great storytelling. Our Master Cooks are full of candid kitchen tales–how they learned to cook, what food they eat at their favorite holidays, how it’s illegal to transport the stinky durian fruit on buses in their hometown, and how they burned a special meal for the man that later became their husband.
5.    And of course, the cooking chops to back it all up. Their signature dishes have to be the most authentic, deeply satisfying versions of the food that our testers have ever had.

When Culture Kitchen first began, we had trouble convincing our cooks that people really did want to learn how to make their food, their way. Once those ladies got in front of an enthusiastic group, though, they loved teaching and their excitement brought a wave of Culture Kitchen instructors to our door. Now we have a formal vetting process to make sure we are working with some of the best personalities and cooks in the community.

So where do the menus come from?

Our Master Cooks are busy ladies with full time jobs and/or family responsibilities who teach with us on the side because they love to share their skills and show the world what their home countries can serve up.

We work with our Master Cooks to figure out the right menu combinations that represent the meals they have at home with their families. The challenge comes when we have to convert their methods of measuring (“a bit,” “some,” “a handful”) into real measurements that can be followed by a novice! We test every recipe multiple times in-house with our Master Cooks and with actual Culture Kitchen users, our ambassadors. At every step, we are testing for taste, consistency, and finally to see which would work well for our classes, the website, or the Culinary Explorer. It is a long, exciting process that brings a recipe to life and preserves it for future generations.

These incredible ladies are inspiring a generation of enthusiastic home cooks to break out of their culinary comfort zones. We couldn’t be more excited to work with them, and with you, as we continue to explore the rich and delicious cultures in our local communities.

Straight From the Source: A Mixing of Regions and Vietnamese Flavors

“Straight from the source” a series of stories about food and life from around the world narrated by our chefs. 
Guest blog post from Vietnamese Culture Kitchen chef Linh Nguyen 
I was born in Sai Gon to parents from the north and south of Viet Nam.  My entire life has been a fantastic mix of all three regional cultures and cuisines.  Our day to day family dinners would be an eclectic mix of northern and southern cuisine, while larger family gatherings would include cooking from my aunts and uncles-in-law from the central region.  My mom would marvel at how my dad would add boiled green onions instead of fresh bean sprouts and basil to his pho, and my dad would be almost offended at my mom’s use of sugar in her stews.  Whenever Auntie #5  from Hue (southerners and centralers don’t use names, just their rank) would walk by a dipping sauce or a pot, she would surely add a couple more spoonfuls of chili paste or one or two extra peppers.   Although culinarily, the line was clearly drawn between the north, center and south we always managed to have a great time cooking and eating together.  Most of the time, my southern aunts and mom would run the kitchen, whipping up delicious southern food full of bright colors and fresh vegetables.  Whenever in-laws were allowed in the kitchen, they would add a central and northern flavor to the mix, incorporating the heat and delicacy of central food and the wintry warmth and pickled goodness of the north.
Each distinct region in Viet Nam has its own historical and food culture, each claiming to be the best.  In the north, the birthplace of pho, dishes tend to be saltier and more vinegary than the rest of the country.  With less access to fresh fruits and vegetables than central and southern Vietnamese, northerners tend to rely more on pickled condiments, hearty stews and soups flavored with dried spices, and salty braised meats and vegetables.  In the south, the opposite is true.  The warmer weather provides yearlong bounty and southerners take full advantage of their environment.  Many dishes are accompanied by a large plate of fresh vegetables to be added raw at the table.  In the central region, home of the capital of the last Vietnamese dynasty, court cuisine still has lingering influences on every day food.  Central food tends to be spicy, bite-sized and more elaborate in preparation and presentation.
Although there are many regional distinctions, Vietnamese cuisine and life in general is dictated by a search for balance-a balance between hot and cold, sweet and salty, spicy and salty, soft and crunchy…the list goes on!   With many special occasion dishes, such as pho, this attention to balance is maintained.  Southern-style pho consists of a rich beef broth, a variety of meat, and rice noodles balanced out by fresh bean sprouts, peppers, herbs, and lemon juice.  Northern-style pho achieves balance in a different way: pickled garlic and vinegar are used to balance the richness of the broth instead of fresh vegetables.
Balance is also sought out in everyday meals.  In any Vietnamese house, a normal weeknight dinner consists of five parts: soup, meat, vegetables, rice and fresh fruit.  At my house, you can almost always depend on eating a light and gingery broth with greens, a braised or caramelized catfish or pork in claypot, a mountain of stir-fried, garlicky greens, aromatic jasmine rice, and a huge portion of fresh fruit on any given night of the week.  The light and fresh vegetable dish balances out the heavier protein-rich meat dish, the wet broth balances out the dry rice, and the sweet fruits balances out the savory part of the meal.