Cooking to impress-- the foreign edition
February 29, 2008 6:56 AM   Subscribe

Cooking to impress-- the ethnic edition.

I need your recipes for dishes that are associated with a specific nationality/country or culture (I already found this one for a spicy carrot salad from a previous AskMe question) that will wow my guests....and demonstrate that yes, I actually can cook quite well.

Bonus points for dishes that can be prepared at least in part ahead of time, and won't break the bank (no Beef Wellington, please). Apps, main course, veggie side, dessert--it's all good, as long as it's totally wowed your dinner guests and made you seem like a culinary genius in the past.
posted by availablelight to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Mesir wat. It's an Ethiopian dish, a well-spiced combination of red lentils and onions. It's damn cheap because of being mostly lentil, very tasty for the same reason, and very versatile– you can treat it as a staple, a garnish, or temper it with rice or injera, which serves as both food and vessel in Ethiopian cooking.

If you're feeling adventurous, Fufu might be up your alley: it's a doughy mix of powdered yam and water from West Africa (note that that recipe specifies potatoes; I recommend yam [real yams, not sweet potatoes]) that is used in the same way as injera, but is somewhat stickier, and because of the scooping method used to pick up other food with it, it is a lot more of a tactile experience. I would recommend an okra dish to accompany it, like this. Note that etiquette requires you put out a saucer of lemon water in which your guests may wash their hands. :)
posted by invitapriore at 7:25 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wow, when I read the question I immediately thought Ethiopian. I would suggest that unless you are a very skilled baker you order ready-made injera rather than make it on your own, as I have heard homemade versions are disappointing. For a truly authentic Ethiopian dinner it is a must, though.
posted by TedW at 8:19 AM on February 29, 2008

Best answer: I've made a Moroccan pastry called m'hanncha (not this recipe, but close enough), and it's easy and very impressive-looking (it's shaped like a coiled snake). In fact, if you learn how to handle filo dough, you open up a world of impressive-looking and yet not that difficult ethnic eats you can add to your repertoire.
posted by carrienation at 8:43 AM on February 29, 2008

I'm not sure if you'll consider these "wow" material, but I've wowed people with them before.

Finnish Cabbage Rolls -- these are really good, fun to eat, and fun to cook. You can easily do the assembly (the hard part) ahead of time, and just put them in the oven when it's time to cook them. If you get a small cabbage, the rolls make great appetizers, or you can get a larger cabbage and serve a couple of them for dinner (think of elegantly cabbagey mini-meatloafs).

Tandoori chicken is surprisingly easy to do in the oven (technically, it's supposed to be done in a tandoor, but it comes out well enough this way). All of the work is in the marinade, so this is another good do-it-ahead-of-time dish. Serve the chicken with some raita, vegetable briyani, and mint, lemon, and/or spicy carrot chutney for an entire Indian meal. The best part is that you can prepare everything ahead of time, and just bake the chicken and briyani before the meal.

Hummus is a ridiculously easy Middle-Eastern appetizer, and people love it. A little effort in the presentation (drizzle on some olive oil, sprinkle with paprika and roasted garlic, and surround with kalamata olives, lemon wedges, and fresh pita bread) will make this look very ethnic and fancy. It goes very well with tabouli. Both are best if made ahead.
posted by vorfeed at 8:45 AM on February 29, 2008

You can find a lot of traditional Icelandic recipes here. I've mostly made fish dishes, desserts and breads, because a lot of the Iceland-specific meat dishes involve things that are difficult to find in the US, and for seriously traditional, there wasn't a big variety of veg growing on the island. Fiskibollur or Fiskrönd are great fish dishes--simple, so the fresher/better quality the fish is, the better. Brúnaðar kartöflur--really easy, tasty glazed potatoes. Kleinur are a take on doughnuts, but twisted up, and flavoured mainly with cardamom. Pönnukökur are wonderful and simple (especially if you have a crepe pan), sprinkle with sugar and roll up to serve with coffee, or spread some rhubarb jam on the inside, drop in a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream, and fold into quarters. Piparkökur and Laufabrauð are both Christmas traditions, but might be too involved for you on short notice. You could also go simple, and serve some Kúmenkaffi after dinner--coffee brewed with caraway seeds.

I'm assuming you're skipping the more obvious ethnic dishes (i.e. burritos, lasagne, falafel, samosa, etc.)? If not, I've got some Indian recipes which, while good, are pretty much standard fare at most Indian restaurants. This Aloo Gobhi is incredible, and there's a YouTube video on how to make naan--for more authenticity, try tossing in some charnushka seeds.

There's Salată de vinete, which is what I like to call Romania's answer to baba ghanooj--essentially baba ghanooj without the tahini. I just make it by feel, now, but here's a decent English recipe ... if you're comfortable with throwing things together, though, just roast some eggplant, grate some onion and garlic, toss in some lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, and mayonnaise, run through the food processor, and serve in a big bowl with some simple white bread for your guests to spread it on. If you want to do the mid-eastern variant, dump the mayo, add tahini, and lose the onion, and you've got the basic baba ghanooj. Some people also add cilantro, cayenne, other spices as well (several recipe variants available at the Food Network page, for example). Serve spread out in a dish, with some good olive oil drizzled over it, sprinkled with pine nuts and maybe chopped fresh cilantro. Decorate with some kalamatas, and pita wedges on the side.

From the same site there's also a recipe for Ardei umpluţi, or stuffed peppers. To be really Romanian the peppers should be these pale yellow-green Hungarian peppers that look a bit like banana peppers (green bell peppers aren't very common, and the red are too sweet). But to be REALLY Romanian, take the guts of the Ardei umpluţi and wrap them in some cabbage leaves that have been soaked in hot water until they're floppy enough to be rolled. Chop some cabbage and toss in the pot with the rolls and enough water to cover, and simmer for an hour. Voila ... Sarmale--national dish of Romania. (Googling "sarmale" will give you some suggestions on cabbage prep, but the recipe linked above is the most similar to the one I've seen the grandmothers preparing here that's also in English).

You could brew up an authentic Masala/Kashmiri chai as well--granted, most people now think they know "chai" thanks to the diabetic-coma inducing boxed swill sold by Oregon and Tazo, but if you brew it up right it's a guaranteed simple way to impress your guests. Try this previous AskMe post for a plethora of suggestions on chai-making.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 9:06 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I, too, immediately thought of Ethiopian food. I have to agree that mesir watt will not do you wrong -- it's absolutely amazing. (And, I second my worries about homemade injera. The trick, if you want to try to make your own, is to use more regular flour than teff flour. My SO has tried and tried and tried to make injera, and he has had some success... It's extremely difficult, but also extremely important to Ethiopian cuisine.)

Also check out Ethiopian potato salad. It's as easy as regular potato salad, but it's delicious. (My SO has been trying to get his potato salad to be as close to what they serve at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant. The recipe I linked to isn't exactly like what we've gotten there, but it's still pretty good.)

Also, I believe this is Ethiopian, because they serve it at our Ethiopian restaurant and call it "Ethiopian Coffee." Make coffee, but with ground up cloves and allspice in it.

In Thai food... It's a little bit more difficult to prepare, but Mee Krob is fantastic. The coolest part is the noodles. You fry them up, so they puff up huge, turning into crispy, puffy deliciousness. So, it's really good to prepare if you like having people watch you cook--it's fun!

Depending on where you are, this may not be "ethnic," but yorkshire pudding is a fantastic British bready-thing. They're like popovers, and they are absolutely delicious.

You also can never go wrong with Indian-style curries. They take a considerable number of ingredients, for the curry paste, but you can definitely make it ahead of time. Beyond making the curry paste, you mostly just mix meat, vegetables, coconut milk, and curry paste in a pot/skillet. If you get fish sauce and shrimp paste from an Asian market, you will make a fantastic, authenticy curry. My SO and I make curries all the time because they're so easy and delicious.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:15 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Chicken paprikash is also a signature Hungarian dish. Cook with some egg noodles, or make some spaetzle to serve with it. Really good, but really heavy.

(Also, mămăligă is a traditional Romanian staple food, and can be eaten with almost everything. The local version of polenta, it's essentially just cornmeal, salt and water--boil the water, toss in the cornmeal and sugar and whisk, and then let it cook for about 10 minutes. It's made in almost any thickness--from a porridge-y consistency to dense enough to be eaten like bread. It's also made with milk, or sour cream, or cheese; break up the mămăligă after it's cooked and layer with a soft, farmer-type cheese or a grated yellow cheese, with a dollop of sour cream on top or spooned into milk, like porridge. A good side for a traditional dish like sarmale.)

Are you looking for a buffet of assorted ethnic foods, or are you looking to go with some underlying theme (region, ingredient, etc.)? More info on the desired effect might get some more useful suggestions.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 9:44 AM on February 29, 2008

Response by poster: There's no underlying theme-- there will be a number of countries and cultures represented altogether. I am looking for something reasonably sophisticated and tasty-- and sadly I do not have a food processor at the moment.
posted by availablelight at 10:02 AM on February 29, 2008

I love this particular Cuban dish, called Vaca Frita. (disregard the blog, I don't read it. I only found the recipe there and can't vouch for whatever else is in there.)

The dish is really easy. You start it the night before, it marinates overnight, and all the steps are really easy. The flank steak will set you back maybe 35 bucks, but you can supposedly use chuck or skirt steak as well. (I like flank best.) Also, you can sautee some sliced green pepper to go with it. The ingredients outside of the beef are all really cheap, and the dish is surprisingly light.

The only thing I'll add is that most black beans don't taste all that cuban out of the can. To compensate, I'd take a small saucepan, add a thin coat of olive oil and heat it. Then toss in a minced garlic clove and a little minced shallot and cook until browned. Then add the beans and simmer as normal. For the rice, I like to sub chicken stock in for the water.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 10:12 AM on February 29, 2008

you could always make caribbean roti:

in a neutral oil, sautee shredded chicken, pork, goat, chickpeas, or sweet potatoes with chopped okra, diced bell pepper, diced tomatoes, onions, garlic, a bit of garam masala, ginger, cayenne, and allspice (plus lots of salt and pepper). add a wee drop or two of coconut milk to make it saucy, like the consistency of pulled-pork barbecue. wrap it up in a big burrito tortilla or, if you have an indian market around, some chickpea-flour flatbreads.

recipes available here
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:14 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Navrattan pullao (Nine Jeweled Rice) is a pretty impressive Indian dish good for wowing folks. Takes a bit of preparation, but the rice can be made ahead of time and heated up later (although obviously its much better if served promptly). This is not the best recipe I've come across for this dish but you can adapt it as you see fit. My personal fave is to be found in Neelam Batra's The Indian Vegetarian.

Serve with a simple mint-yoghurt chutney: 8oz plain yoghurt, half cup of fresh finely chopped mint, finely chopped serranos (seeded and de-ribbed) to taste or preference, mix it all up and let sit covered in the fridge for at least a few hours - overnight would be better.
posted by elendil71 at 11:39 AM on February 29, 2008

If you're feeling adventurous, Fufu might be up your alley

Oh, man. Not to dissuade you from experimenting, but unless they're West African, it's very unlikely that your guests will be wowed by pasty starch balls. Like poi, fufu is very much an acquired taste.

Instead, make Pepper Soup! You're unlikely to find all of the traditional spices themselves outside of West Africa, except in an imported prepared spice mix, which is what I use (I haven't tried making the "substitute recipe"), but that's good, right? Because pepper soup seasoning makes for a unique, delicious flavor that your guests likely won't have encountered before. How could you fail to surprise and impress with something so lip-smackingly good and also completely novel? This guy is jonesing for some.

I tend to use beef stew meat instead of goat, but if you must have goat, make sure it's boneless. Most of the frozen goat you find at Caribbean/African/Pacific Islander stores seems to have been butchered by running it through a wood chipper. It's boney as hell and there's no logic to the cuts, making it dashed inconvenient to eat. You did say elegant, right? Bones and soup spoons don't mix. Pepper-wise, I use a habanero and a couple of anaheims. You definitely want the fruity punch of a habanero or scotch bonnet, but too many can overwhelm. I like to throw in a root vegetable or two, like parsnips or turnips, for a bit of sweetness, and some shredded turnip greens in lieu of utazi. Like most complex soups, this one benefits from being made well ahead of time. It's delicious straight off the stove, but prepared early, refrigerated for a few days, and reheated prior to serving it really shines.

Ghana's Independence Day is coming up on the 6th of March, so if your affair is in the next week or so, you have an excellent justification for serving Pepper Soup.
posted by mumkin at 12:09 PM on February 29, 2008

Æbleskiver (wikipedia) are tasty, comforting, and yet a little fancy. Perceived as way fancy even though they're not much harder to cook than pancakes. You'll need a special pan, and for maximum effect you'll also need to grind the cardamom yourself with a mortar and pestle or spice mill. Super bonus ethnic coolness if you serve them with lingonberry preserves. Associated with Christmas.

Also associated with Christmas. Куття/kuttyá is also really well-liked, but again, isn't really that hard. Wheat-poppy-honey porridge, with other tasty inclusions.

Avgolemono soup is one my dinner groups have loved. It's pretty hearty, too; serve with good bread and a greek salad (I mean tomatoes, cucumbers, maybe bell peppers, all in good big dice with some olive oil, lemon juice, basil, feta cheese, and kalamata olives—not lettuce with a smattering of other vegetables and one lonely olive sitting somewhere).

Borsch is wicked impressive to the uninitiated. This recipe is quite rich. Serve as a first course with bread and butter, then the second course should include some meat. Котлети/schnitzel would be good, as would Вареники/pierogi/Пельмени, for which you can use the dough recipe from here (wraps about a pound of ground meat, plus a couple grated cloves of garlic, half an onion, and some salt and pepper) and the serving suggestions from here or the mushroom gravy from here (see also variant borsch recipes at two of these sites). The technical differences between the names given above are that the third one is Russian, always has meat, and is folded around like tortellini.
posted by eritain at 4:03 PM on February 29, 2008

I tend to use beef stew meat instead of goat, but if you must have goat, make sure it's boneless. Most of the frozen goat you find at Caribbean/African/Pacific Islander stores seems to have been butchered by running it through a wood chipper. It's boney as hell and there's no logic to the cuts, making it dashed inconvenient to eat.

I was about to suggest making goat roti until I remembered this problem. It's more or less impossible to get a non-bizarre cut of goat in North America. Boneless stewing goat is very difficult to come by, even at a Caribbean butcher shop; apparently inexplicably boney goat meat is the norm in the islands, or so I've been told by my parents.

If you're going the roti route, however, there's also the western Caribbean (?) variation on it, which is a bit different from the one that thinkwoman posted. Essentially make a beef or goat stew with very small cubes of meat, rather than shredded. Look for a good Jamaican yellow curry (it'll be more fennel-y rather than cumin-heavy) and add a decent amount of finely chopped scotch bonnet peppers and a little coconut cream. The only vegetables I'm accustomed to seeing in roti are white onions and some sort of starch -- if you want to be really authentic, add some shredded dasheen/taro, but potato works just fine too. The filling ends up looking more like a very thick stew rather than something that resembles pulled pork.
posted by thisjax at 7:58 PM on February 29, 2008

If this is a one time thing then this may not be helpful but if you're interested in expanding your culinary horizons then I can suggest some books. Culinary Artistry doesn't have a lot of detailed recipes. As such it's probably more suitable for someone who is already a pretty good cook. As opposed to someone like me who uses it mostly as coffee table decoration. It discusses combinations of ingredients that work well. They also cover a very extensive set of ethnic cuisines and the ingredients that are essential to evoking the essence of those cuisines.

I've got dozens of cookbooks on my wishlist that might be helpful. Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian. . . I've been collecting references for authoritative or otherwise highly recommended cookbooks. Some are pan-Asian or at least cover a number of Asian countries but only a couple seem to be really global.

The Ethnic Paris Cookbook
The New York Cabbie Cookbook
posted by stuart_s at 9:35 AM on March 2, 2008

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