I went down to the Folklife Festival on Saturday. I was hoping to go on Friday, because one of the demonstrations at the Chinese kitchen was listed as “Duck Blood Glass Noodle Soup,” but didn’t manage to.
“You didn’t miss it – it didn’t happen,” said Arnie Malin, the Foodways Coordinator for the Festival. “I couldn’t find any duck blood.”
He shouldn’t feel too bad about that, though, as he did locate an impressive array of other ingredients. Another dish was billed as “Capsella Meatball Soup.” Capsella is shepherd’s purse, a plant which grows wild just about everywhere around here but is not sold in stores. Chinese leeks, bought frozen, made a good substitute. Anyway, as he told me, the Festival isn’t about absolute authenticity in the food preparation, but about the people preparing the food, and the stories they tell while they do it.
I was allowed back in the kitchen to meet the cooks and take pictures. I found two chefs from the same restaurant in Beijing, prepping for the demos. Yuman Zhao is a pastry chef who was about to demonstrate “Huangyang-Style Jade Shumai.”
Chefs Yuman and Peng, With Dumplings
Chef Peng Wang in the Open-Air Kitchen
True to Arnie’s promise, Chef Yuman’s demonstration included an explanation of the significance of jade in Chinese culture. The dumplings are colored jade green with spinach juice, to represent the precious stone, which has a spiritual significance beyond its value as decoration.
Chef Yuman Got a Rhythm Going With the Chef Knives
But I was most impressed with her technique in forming the “flower-bottle top dumplings,” as she shaped the dough into a roll, pinched off bits, flattened them with her palm, then used a stick to roll each into a flat round. She had two sticks. The professional one had tapered ends, but the home-style stick was just a cylinder. I suspect it can be made from a broom handle.
Two Sticks – She Can Use Them Both
The dumplings are filled with mixed vegetables, garnished with a little chopped bacon, and then steamed in a bamboo steamer. They are beautiful and delicious.
Flower Bottles, Garnished With Bacon
Over at the Flavors of Kenya, the “Swahili Snacks” program was just finishing up. The demos had been divided into Coast and Upland cuisine, and Amina and Fatma were cooking some coastal specialties.
Amina and Fatma, With Interpreter
The coastal areas of Kenya have been influenced by trade with India and parts East, while the uplands dishes use less spice and have a distinctive taste due to use of a fermented cooking oil (about which, more later).
Amina in the Kenyan Kitchen
Fatma is from Lamu, and works in a museum. She has been cooking since she was eight years old. She and Amina had made two traditional snacks. Date cake was made with dates, eggs, butter, flour, sugar, and cardamom, garnished with raisins. It was pleasant, but no match for the deep-fried goodness of bajia: fritters made with gram flour and baking powder, mixed with potatoes, bell pepper, onions, garlic, coriander leaves, and salt. (“Don’t forget to write down salt,” said Fatma. “It’s very important!”) She’s right.
Kenyan Snacks: Bajia and Date Cake
The next session was equal time for upland Kenya. Emily and Alice Oduor live near Lake Victoria, and run a catering business. Emily demonstrated how to prepare “Upland Stew: Beef Pilau,” while explaining that pilau is a universal dish in Kenya, but has regional variations. The major variation in her version was the use of that cooking oil I mentioned earlier. I got a whiff of it, and it smelled like nothing you would think of as edible – but then the finished dishes smelled remarkably enticing! Its transformational power must be something akin to Asian fish sauce.
Chefs Alice and Emily Oduor, with Interpreter Phyllis Ressler
Emily explained that although it’s called “ghee” in Kenya, it is far removed from the clarified butter of Indian cuisine. Here’s how she explained its manufacture:
Put unpasteurized milk into a gourd at room temperature for 24 hours, until it starts to look like yoghurt. Then, shake it “for all afternoon,” and as it becomes covered with “yellow cream,” collect that cream and boil it for two hours. Now, the oil can be kept indefinitely, without refrigeration. Emily brought a bottle of it with her from Kenya, wisely assuming that she’d never find it here.
Audience Members and Pilau in the Mirror
Then Alice cooked collard greens, after impressing us all with her knife skills. She shredded those greens while remarkably not cutting herself.
Cutting Collards Closely
The dish is known as “Sukima Wiki,” or “Push the Week.” Alice explained that it means that, because the dish is cheap and easy to cook, it can push the food budget for the week to last until the next paycheck. The only ingredients are collards, onions and that “ghee,” and it only takes five minutes after the collards are added to the sautéed onions.
Emily gave us a lesson in Kenyan hospitality. Kenyans cook in big pots, enough for the “unseen [unexpected] guest.” House guests will be offered food without being asked first, in order to not give them an opportunity to refuse out of politeness. It made me want to book passage to Kenya immediately. Land at the coast, and make my way to Lake Victoria!
And P.S. There was a huge arch constructed on the grounds at the entrance to the Festival. It was a magnet for selfies. I couldn’t resist.