Sunday, September 30, 2012


This meal came at the expense of my stomach, and my mind telling it to stop whining. See, I had a flu shot a couple days ago, and while I had never had any adverse reactions before, I certainly did this time. But beyond my sore muscles, upset stomach, and occasional headache, I did manage to get my ingredients and get in the kitchen.

To start off with, since Belgians are famous for their beer – but to the silent revolts of my stomach – I bought several types of beer. I bought some Leffe, a blonde abbey ale that supposedly has been made since the year 1240. I also bought Hennepin, a saison ale (I’ll go into that more in detail later: it’s for the stew). And to top it off, I also picked up some Hoegaarden for the bread.

The trifecta of a good weekend.
I changed up my stylo a little bit. This time, I did the bread the night before. I chose a Belgian white beer bread. For this I used Hoegaarden (which I found out is pronounced “Who-gar-den, according to Wikipedia and the side of the 6-pack box, and really, who’s going to argue with a box?). I loved the way it sizzled and bubbled when it hit the dry ingredients. Probably some kind of reaction with the baking powder or sugar, I’m guessing. For a hot second, I was like a kid with a science kit. Just before I put it in the oven, I poured 6 tablespoons of melted butter right on top of the batter in the loaf pan. The butter sat on top of the batter like a child’s wading pool. It baked for an hour in the oven, and when I took it out, I realized that I was glad I put the silicone loaf pan on a cookie sheet. I forgot I think there is a small slit in the bottom and some of the liquid leaked out during baking. But it didn’t affect the flavor. It was nice and yeasty, some slight softness in the crumb in places, hard crust, and overall, it was wonderful. It’s the type of bread that you bake to make the house smell good. If you like the sweet-pungent smell of yeast like I do.

Who knew heaven smelled like a really yeasty beer bread? 
I also made Belgian hot chocolate. I couldn’t get through making a Belgian meal without including chocolate somewhere (even though I did purposely skip one of the most famous foods from Belgium: Belgian waffles. But only because I don’t own a waffle iron, and I didn’t want to purchase one when I could ask for one for Christmas in a few months.) I also didn’t have a whole vanilla bean, so I just put in 2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract, plus the few drops that were left in the bottom of the bottle. I also added half bittersweet chocolate and half dark chocolate. It was so good, yet very rich. It even stopped ME in my tracks. We added marshmallows, even though I have no idea if Belgians do that or not. (But they should.)

One of the few chocolate drinks that stopped me in my tracks. 
The main entrée for today was Carbonade Flamande. It’s a stew that consists of beef and bacon, some onions and garlic of course, beef stock and beer. I used Hennepin, a saison ale. It’s more of a hoppy ale, and I found it was good to cook with. Then I cut slices of a baguette and spread Dijon mustard on it and placed it on top. I actually put everything in a crock pot and let it cook on high for about five hours.  That way, it didn’t heat up my entire kitchen and house. It certainly smelled good, like one of those stews that is perfect for fall weather. The only part that got me was that the bread – after five hours in a crock pot – was soggy and almost slimy. It’s purely a texture thing. But I did recognize this method as having its roots as another way to preserve stale bread. 

The only other problem I had with the stew was that it called for a bouquet garni, where you tie a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme and parsley together and drop it in the stew. Well, I couldn't find all the materials as is, but I did have it all dried. So, I tore open a tea bag and dumped out the contents, put in the herbs and tied it together with the string from the tea bag. Ok, I was pretty proud of myself for improvising. 

Genius, I know. 
I came up with two sides: the first one being Belgian carrots.  It is carrots (obviously) mixed a little cream (I forgot to buy heavy cream, so I used the last couple tablespoons worth of sour cream.), butter, parsley, sugar, and nutmeg. Sweet, yet not overbearing. I really liked this one. I’m definitely using this recipe again.

These are the things that dreams are made of.
The other side dish I made is called Salade Liégeoise. It’s made of green beans and potatoes covered with bacon that was fried with a little white wine vinegar. (It called for red wine vinegar, but I already had white wine vinegar.) At the end, I sprinkled chopped green onions on top. I really liked this one too. The flavor of bacon in the vinegar reminds me of my childhood when my mom used to make wilted lettuce salad.

A picture of what my childhood smells like. It's quite possible I might also dream about this too.
Overall, the whole meal reminded me of fall, which seems fitting considering that tomorrow is the first day of October. It’s a nice end to summer, finally. All seasons must end, and new ones begin: sometime you can ease into it like getting into a hot tub, and other times you open up the door and fall down the stairs. But this meal got me thinking about meals and food as a means of marking milestones in life. Whenever there’s a holiday or a birthday, an anniversary, a promotion, good grades at school, winning a game, there’s food involved. There must be some kind of correlation in the human mind between food and marking a time in your own history. Food is memorable. How many times do you recall a vacation somewhere and you mention the food? Like, every time for me. I make vacations centered around food and drink. So, this meal marked the beginning of fall with good food, surrounded by my family. And a lot of Belgian beer.

If this is Belgium, count me in. 
Up next: Belize

Saturday, September 29, 2012


Belgium is home to several famous classical composers, singers, and musicians. One of the most famous composers is César Franck. Actually, his name is César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck. (Whew, did I leave anyone out? I can see why he just went by César.)  He was born in Liège, which was then part of the Netherlands. He later moved to Paris, where he was a professor and renowned organist. He was particularly known for his skills in improvising. He’s probably best known for his many organ works, a shorter work called Panis Angelicus, and the Violin Sonata in A Major, M. 8.

Another composer that was likely born in the Flanders region is Heinrich Isaac.  He’s best known for one of my favorite pieces of lied “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.” I sang this piece when I was in middle school, and it’s one of my favorites to this day.

A contemporary of Heinrich Isaac is Josquin des Prez. Anyone who has studied Renaissance music has probably heard of Josquin des Prez. (I know I have those many years ago as a music major.) He’s often thought of as being the father of polyphonic vocal music, that is, having more than one melodic line. (The Albanians who I covered earlier were also famous for their vocal polyphonic music.) While he wrote many different kinds of masses and is probably best known for them, he also wrote many chanson as well. One of the pieces I’ve known for years and sung in middle school as well is the piece “El Grillo.”

Belgium also has a great tradition in jazz and blues. In fact, one of the instruments that is now mostly heard in jazz and blues – the saxophone – was invented by a Belgian, Adolphe Sax. Another famous jazz musician is none other than Toots Thielemans. He started out on guitar, but really made a name for himself as one of the greatest harmonica players of the 20th century, as well as his whistling abilities. Americans may not realize it, but he’s famous here, too: for whistling the melody in the Old Spice cologne commercials. 

One of my favorite musicians – first introduced to me by my younger sister when we were in high school – is Django Reinhardt. (I actually wanted to name our son Django, but my husband wouldn’t let me.) 

His style of playing reminds me some of the stylings of the late, great Les Paul, whom I had the honor of watching perform in New York City in January 2000. I got to shake his hand at the end and he gave me a kiss on the cheek. I saw an interview with Les Paul, and he said he was in awe of Django's playing and wished he could play half as well as he. I think he certainly does. RIP, Les. 

Sorry, the quality of the photo is bad. But this is me with Les Paul, Jan 2000 at the Iridium Club in NYC. See, I'm not lying. 
As far as popular music goes, my Spotify playlist is huge. Belgium has a ton of indie rock groups, which is good for me since I love indie rock. And what I've noticed is that the vast majority of these bands sing in English. Not sure why that is (marketing, perhaps?), but at least I can understand it. Not that the language a group sings in ever stopped me from liking them. Among the ones I like are Zita Swoon, Admiral Freebee, Absinthe Minded, Das Pop, Zornik, and Hooverphonic. I did find one punk rock band that caught my attention called Janez Detd. I’m still debating on buying the album; I like many of their songs off the album “Killing Me.” Even though they were listed as a punk rock group, and many of their songs did sort of remind me of a late-1990s Offspring-sound, there were also several of their songs that sort of reminded me of more of a Linkin Park sound. I could definitely see them performing on The Warped Tour. 

When it comes to dance, the vast majority of my searches conjured up information on the dance club scene. Electronica, house music, trance, and dance music are highly popular in Belgium, which makes me think I’d fit in nicely. I did have to laugh, because one of the most popular groups was the Belgian group Technotronic. Their songs “Pump Up the Jams” and “Move This” became international hits and fan favorites at my middle school dances and on my mixtapes.

However, folk dancing is pretty popular in and around Belgium, and even in areas where many Belgians moved away to, like Canada and the eastern US. In Belgium and other countries, there are dance troops where they will gather in traditional costume to keep up the folk dancing traditions.

Up next: The Food!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I’ve been waiting for a week to post on this. But only for one reason: James Ensor. And it’s really because of another reason. When I was in high school and college, I was a HUGE fan of the group They Might Be Giants. Between my sister and me, I think we owned a ton of their albums at one time. If you’re not aware of who they are, they write rock songs, some (ok, most) with unusual lyrics, that often include but aren't limited to topics on science, literature, history, random weird things, and the absurd. They expanded into children’s songs in recent years, I think. They actually wrote a song called “Meet James Ensor” (on the album 1994 album John Henry), and now it’s finally relevant.

Belgium has been a center for visual arts for many centuries, especially for painters. Some cities, like Antwerp and Brussels, are well-known meccas for painters and artists. One painter, James Ensor, was instrumental in the expressionism and surrealism movements. Ensor painted “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” (1889) which received a lot of bad publicity and subsequently was banned in many areas because of its scandalous overtones. However, its current home is in Los Angeles, California at the Getty Center. Despite being quite famous, Ensor didn't really leave Belgium, even during WWII, except for a few short trips to Paris, London, and the Netherlands. He remained in his hometown of Ostend and his daily walks around town were famous as well.

There are several famous art museums that house large collections of other famous Belgian painters, for example The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp houses a large collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens, and there is a large René Magritte collection at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.

Belgian literature is divided into two categories: Flemish literature and French literature.  There are also a few writers who write in the Walloon language (which is related to French, though it has so few speakers now, it’s almost feared it will become a dead language in the future). Until this past century, most Belgian writers wrote in French, even if they actually spoke Dutch. French at one time was used as a language for royalty and the courts, and it still carries a quasi-lingua franca status. (That’s one reason why you’ll notice that everything is also translated into French at the Olympics.) Some of the major authors are Tom Lanoye, Dimitri Verhulst, Thomas Gunzig, Juan d’Oultremont, Jacques Mercier, Nicolas Defrecheux, Edouard Remouchamps.

One thing that Belgium also does well is comics. You are probably aware of some of their work without even knowing that you knew. One of the most well-known cartoonists is Peyo (pen name of Pierre Culliford), best known for The Smurfs. (If you watch the new Smurfs movie that came out in 2011, there’s a scene where one of the Smurfs opens a book, and it has Peyo’s name on it.)  The original was first published in October 23, 1958.

Another famous cartoonist is Hergé (pen name for Georges Prosper Remi), best known for The Adventures of Tintin. The amazing thing is that he wrote and illustrated the comic from its inception in 1929 all the way until he died in 1983. I love Tintin, and I got my kids into it as well. There are some episodes available on Netflix streaming. Ironically, they also remade a movie about Tintin in 2011 as well. It was apparently the year for Belgian comics. 

Up next: Music and Dance

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Belgium has several public holidays where people get off of work and school, but there are many more celebrations and holidays where you do have to show up to work and school still. Belgium’s government on first glance is seemingly complicated because of its linguistic diversity. There is a national government, but then there are also governing bodies for the Flemish Community, Dutch Community, and German Community, and there’s a governing body for the Flanders region and the Wallonia region, etc., each one handling certain aspects of social and governmental statutes. Highly complicated, but it seems to work. I think.

New Year’s Day.  January 1. Public Holiday. New Year’s celebrations start days in advance. Everyone attends parties, either at someone’s home or at bars, clubs, hotels, etc. Belgians like to bring in the New Year with lots of good food and drink, singing, dancing, and good company. On the stroke of midnight, people kiss and hug each other, and open the champagne bottle. One tradition is that the children will decorate colorful paper with holiday wishes for their parents and family members that they will read on New Year’s Day morning. Farmers will give blessings to their animals.

Epiphany. January 6. This is the oldest of Christian celebrations, and traditionally, the church is decorated in white (although green is used for certain Sundays after the first Sunday of Epiphany in certain churches). It celebrates the revelation that God’s son comes down as the human form of Jesus Christ. Western Christians also celebrate the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus at this time, while the Eastern Christians celebrate Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River around this time as well. It’s also known as Three King’s Day, where some kids may dress in costume and go door to door singing songs in exchange for candy or coins.

Valentine’s Day. February 14. Valentine’s Day in Belgium is celebrated much the same way as in the US: lots of candy and cards and gifts are given to the loves and crushes of your life. One difference is that there may not be as much giving gifts to friends as in the US.

Easter. Varies. Public Holiday. The 40-day Lenten period before Easter starts with a carnival that is held in many cities throughout Belgium. During Lent, many people avoid eating meat and give up other things as well, per the Catholic tradition. Since the majority of the population is Christian, most people will attend church services on Easter Sunday. Even those who don’t regularly attend church, they will try to attend on Easter. Afterwards, a nice Easter dinner is enjoyed with friends and family. Decorating Easter eggs and having egg hunts are common events on this day as well.

Easter Monday. Varies. Public Holiday. The day after Easter, many people use this day as a day of rest after the festivities of Easter. In Belgium, many people get this day off of work.

Labour Day. May 1. Public Holiday. It’s celebrated the same day that many other countries celebrate International Worker’s Day. May Day is also celebrated on the same day, a day that is tied in with ancient rites of spring. It’s a day that is centered around the eight-hour day movement: eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, eight hours for rest. (I wish it really worked out that way. I actually get 9 hours at the office; 1 ½ hours in traffic; 6 ½ hours helping with homework, family stuff, running errands, cooking dinner, and writing; 7 hours rest)

Iris Day. May 8. (I found it listed for May 5-6 for 2012.) This is only celebrated in the Brussels Capital Region. There are free concerts and street festivals throughout the area. The iris is the symbol for the Brussels Region because it grew there naturally although the area was originally covered in swamps. The government had a contest for the public to design the emblem.

Ascension. Varies. Public Holiday. This marks the 39th day after Easter and is used to commemorate Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

Pentecost. Varies. Public Holiday. Also known as Whit Sunday, it’s the Christian holiday that celebrates the decent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples, according to the New Testament of the Bible. The day falls 50 days after Easter. There are special services held for Pentecost Sunday.

Pentecost Monday. Public Holiday. The day after Pentecost, most businesses, government offices and schools are off on this day. Also sometimes called Whit Monday. Some churches may also have an additional service held on Whit Monday as well.

Day of Flemish Community. July 11. Held in remembrance for the Battle of the Golden Spurs (or Guldensporenslag). It’s only celebrated by the Flemish Community of Belgium. What the battle was about – in a nutshell – is that the Flemish citizens in Brugge violated orders set by the king and rebelled against him, so he sent an army in to “convince them” he wasn’t to be messed with. Well, the two went head to head in an open field, and it was an overwhelming victory for the Flemish townspeople, where afterwards, they collected the golden spurs of the French cavaliers.

National Holiday. July 21. Public Holiday. This is the day to commemorate the first ruler of Belgium, Leopold I. Eating popular national dishes such as mussels and fries (or steak and fries) is a very common thing. From what I’ve gathered, it’s not such a large-scale celebration as other countries have for their national days.

Assumption of Mary. August 15. Public Holiday. This is the day centered around the Christian myth when the Virgin Mary ascends into heaven. There may be special services at certain churches on this day. You may find some Virgin Mary symbolism around as well, like the color blue and the lily.

Day of the Walloon Region. 3rd Sunday in September. Celebrated only in the southern region of Wallonia, it’s a celebration for the French-speaking region of Belgium. Most of the festivities take place in its regional capital, Nemur.

Day of the French Community of Belgium. September 27. This day is for the French-speaking Belgians, celebrated with concerts, parades, and street festivals in the region. The date chosen was from the date that a riot occurred after patrons from a patriotic opera walked out the doors and started storming government buildings. (See, what the power of opera has? And you thought classical music was boring.) Dutch troops were dispatched, but after days of bloody fighting in the streets, the troops withdrew.

All Saints Day. November 1. Public Holiday. This is a Christian holiday for all the saints, especially used a catch-all for all of the saints that don’t have their own feast day.

All Souls Day. November 2. This holiday is in remembrance for those family members and friends who have passed on. People will often visit the graves of loved ones to light candles and give homage. The holiday is related to Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos or Italy’s Il Giorno dei Morti.

Armistice Day. November 11. Public Holiday. Held the same day as in the US. There are usually ceremonies held on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. However, unlike the US, businesses and schools are closed on this day.

Day of German-speaking Community in Belgium. November 15. Like the other two communities, this holiday is just for the German-speaking areas in Belgium. On this day, you’ll find the flag of the German community flown, which consists of a red lion and nine blue cinquefoils and a royal crown. People will often wear the regional colors of red and white.

King’s Feast. November 15. It’s a day used in honor of the monarch and the royal family. There is a te deum held at the cathedral, but the King doesn’t show up for this. It wouldn’t be considered good etiquette to honor himself.

Saint Nicholas. December 6. Also known as Sinterklaas, it’s a holiday in honor of Saint Nicholas. The character of Saint Nicholas is similar to the Santa Claus that we know in the US, with a few minor differences. Sinterklaas is said the ride on rooftops with a white horse and carries a staff. He also has mischievous helpers who have black faces and dressed as Moors (called Zwarte Piet). [Please go to your nearest bookstore and pull the book "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" by David Sedaris off the shelf and flip straight to the chapter called "Six to Eight Black Men." It's about this, except he was speaking to someone from the Netherlands. Then just go buy the book, because it's hilarious. And I have excellent taste.] It’s mostly a holiday for kids, where they have to wait until the next morning to receive their gifts. (Adults and parents have to wait until Christmas to receive their presents.) The bad kids get sticks in their shoes.

Christmas. December 25. Public Holiday. The Dutch-speaking areas celebrate with Saint Nicholas, while the French-speaking areas celebrate with Pere Noel, who also checks on the children, leaving chocolates and sweets for the good kids and sticks for the bad kids. (Sticks seem worse than coal as in US traditions, at least coal burns longer.)  Belgians also celebrate with decorated Christmas trees that the presents go under, and everyone celebrates with a Christmas dinner. Making sweet breads are also a popular tradition around this time of year. Spending time with family is the focal point of the holiday.  

Up next: Art and Literature

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Renowned for its chocolate, beer, and waffles – otherwise known as a perfect meal – Belgium offers much more than that. Located in Western Europe, Belgium lies between Netherlands and France and west of Germany.

It was actually part of the Netherlands until it broke apart and gained independence in 1830. For that reason, Dutch remains the most widely spoken language in Belgium. And actually, Belgium has three official languages: the two main ones are Dutch and French, but there are sizable German-speaking communities as well, prompting German as a third official language, even though less than 1% speak it.

A low-lying country and prone to flooding, Belgium was one of the few countries that were included in the area known as The Low Countries (which included the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, parts of northern France and western Germany). Several river systems (like the Rhine, the Oise, and Scheldt) and their tributaries meander their way through Belgian fields and countryside.

The name Belgium comes from the ancient Roman name, Gallia Belgica, which pretty much covered the same area. Its capital is Brussels (in French: Bruxelles; in Dutch: Brussel), which also happens to be the de facto capital of the European Union as well as the seat of the French Community and the Flemish Community. Most likely, the name Brussels came from the Old Dutch meaning “home in the marsh” from the words broek (marsh) and sel (home).

Belgium also has several other cities that have become famous over the years. Antwerp is an important seaport in the northern part of Belgium. Legend says that giant used to guard the river Scheldt and charge a toll for crossing the river. For those who refused, he’d cut off a hand and throw it into the river. One day, the valiant Brabo gave the giant a dose of his own medicine and cut off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river. Therefore, the Dutch word for the city Antwerpen prevails (from the words for “hand” and “to throw”). It was host to the 1920 Olympics, but suffered considered damage during WWII a couple decades later.  It’s known as a center of art, especially painting. In fact, Vincent van Gogh lived there for many years. It’s also known for its diamond district, an area of several blocks with many shops for cleaning, cutting, and trading diamonds. Hmm, I may have to make a stop in Antwerp.

History buffs may have heard of the Treaty of Ghent, which was the location of the signing of the treaty that ended the War of 1812 between the United States and England. Today Ghent is the home of Ghent University, Belgium’s first Dutch-speaking university. It’s also the place out of which several culinary dishes grew out of, including waterzooi (which started out as a stew with local fish, but later changed to using chicken). They even have Vegetarian Thursdays, which I think are awesome. It would never catch on in Indianapolis, though, sadly. The best thing in Ghent? A music festival called “I Love Techno” that’s part of the Flanders Expo (no, not Ned Flanders). When the kids are older and moved out, I’m definitely putting that on my calendar. For reals.

Most Belgians enjoy a higher quality of life, the vast majority living in urban settings. And they also enjoy 100% access to clean water and sanitation in both urban and rural settings. About 99% are literate and their healthcare is among the best in Europe (including becoming a popular medical tourism spot). It does happen to be a majority Christian country (and of that 75% are Roman Catholic), although there are sizable communities of other religions, including a large Jewish population in Antwerp. Its multi-cultural environments provide a rich and intricate insight into Europe as a whole. Belgian culture is proving to me to be a fascinating blend of history, art, music, individualism, and perseverance.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

Sunday, September 16, 2012


Rye bread is particularly popular in Belarus, mainly because its cold and wet climate limits which grains can work within its environment. Spices are used minimally, mostly herbs like marjoram, chives, bay leaves, parsley, and others. Many foods are flavored by salt and pepper, onions and garlic, and sour cream or milk.

Earlier this week, I had found a recipe for Belarusian meatballs from a book called “The Belarusian Cookbook” by Alexander Bely. I did add a few herbs that weren’t listed in the recipe (namely marjoram, chives, thyme, parsley). I actually had made some penne with an alfredo sauce and I added some fresh chard from my cousin’s garden into the sauce.  This is one recipe that I’ll definitely keep.
 Belarusian meatballs with penne alfredo with homegrown chard. 
Today, I made the rye bread. The recipe I had actually called for the dough to be made in a bread machine. But I don’t own one, nor want one. So, I made it by hand and let it rest for an hour and a half. It never did rise very much. I formed it into a ball, and covered it in caraway seeds, which to me, is the one thing that really gives it that “rye bread” smell. After baking it for 45 minutes, it came out of the oven smelling wonderful.  I’ll have enough to eat on and give away, since my husband really (and I mean REALLY) doesn’t like rye bread, or any bread with seeds on it (or as he calls it, “debris” or sometimes “rocks and sticks.”)
Rye bread with caraway seeds on top; or, my husband's demise. 
One popular dish that I kept coming across on many different sites was called draniki. It’s made of grated potatoes mixed with a few other ingredients and fried. While it was always described as a potato pancake, what I made seemed more like hash browns. And it could possibly be the style that I grated the potatoes. After frying it up, it turned out really well. But the topper, the apex, the kicker: I took some chopped garlic, added a little vegetable oil, some salt and whipped it in a blender, then added a couple dollops of sour cream in it and blended it some more, and THEN placed a little on top of the draniki. It made good even better.

Draniki.  I could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and midnight snack.
Now for the main dish.  I chose Kotleta Pokrestyansky. It’s basically pork cutlets browned in some butter. Then you pour in a simmered mixture of mushrooms (I used baby bellas), some butter, some dry sherry and chicken broth and let the whole thing simmer for a while. I did add some extra salt and pepper to the mixture. It turned out pretty well. I can see how some might think it’s not as flavorful, but if you close your eyes and concentrate on what you’re tasting, the flavors are there; it’s just that it’s subtle.

Rye bread, draniki, and kotleta pokrestyansky.
Overall, this meal was really good. The thing that really got me about these recipes was that many of these recipes only use a few ingredients (ok, like less than 10). Many of these recipes that are considered “national dishes” (and this goes for almost every country) are directly from the kitchens of the families that are simply trying to survive the leaner times. The amazing thing about people is that we’ve always found ways to add flavor to our food by using what was available: like cream and local herbs and the styles that we choose to cook it. It’s a great lesson in thinking of ways to flavor food during those non-pay weeks: a small way to trick your mind to think that things really aren’t that tough when you’re eating well.

Oh, and I finally made myself an apron. To me, it’s the most fabulous apron ever. Definitely classy.

Best. Apron. Ever. Mostly because I made it myself. Even though you  can't see it  sparkle in the picture. 
Up next: Belgium

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Music is highly important to Belarusian culture. It’s said that every Belarusian can play at least one instrument. (The music major in me is thrilled!)

During the renaissance days, most musicians worked as a skomorokh, which basically seems to me like a cross between a minstrel and a jester. They would make their money by singing silly songs and doing comedic acting. The main instruments they used were bagpipes, buben (a type of tambourine), balalaikas (a three-stringed Russian instrument with a triangle body), domra (a type of lute with three or four strings), and/or a gudok (a three-stringed instrument played with the bow, usually as a drone).

Skip forward a few hundred years.  Several Belarusian composers seemed to find their niche in classical music, especially in opera and ballet; in fact, most cities have their own opera or ballet companies. The first work of any significance is the opera Faust by Antoni Radziwiłł (a very famous name in Belarusian history, many recipes carry the family name).

Rock music is really popular, and most rock music is subject to vast amounts of censorship from the Lukashenko administration. Many folk and rock musicians have banded together to keep the messages of freedom and their opposition to this government alive, yet many have to play underground for fear of arrest in certain situations. They also have trouble performing in Belarus and are banned from radio airplay, having to travel abroad in order to give concerts on many occasions.

I have found a few of these bands on Spotify and more on YouTube. One I fell in love with is Lyapis Trubetskoy, whose music is fun-sounding ska music – one of my absolutely favorite genres of music! (Because everything needs a horn section in the background.) I also found the album Agitpop on iTunes for $9.99, so I’m super excited to add it to my collection. This video is to the first song off of the album, catchy at it is, I have no idea what they’re really saying (but I can only venture to guess). AND, my Cyrillic reading skills are really terrible after years of not studying; I can only recognize a few letters here and there. The
"cut and paste" or "stop-motion" style (whatever it's called) reminds me of Monty Python. 

And this video caught my attention at the cameos of some of the world's best known dictators. Kinda weird, kinda creepy, yet with the smell of satire that takes a certain kind of person to find humorous (like me). I kinda like it. The song's catchy anyhow. I really get the sense that the focal point of their music is based on an anti-dictator sentiment and freedom. 

I also came across another group called Krama, which is more of an electronica group. Now my husband and I debated on its specific classification. There were times when I could categorize it as trance, but he thought overall, it fell closer to the minimalist category. I could also agree with that. It makes nice music to work to. This is my favorite song off of this album. 

One band that is actually considered Belarus’ favorite band is called N.R.M. Unfortunately Spotify doesn’t haven’t themselves together on this and didn’t have any of their music. But I did find several videos on YouTube.

While it didn’t originate in Belarus, ballet dance is really popular. As mentioned earlier, most cities will have opera and ballet companies operating and giving regular performances. This could be tied to its close ties with Russia and that ballet is popular in Russia as well. Most dance schools in Belarus not only learn ballet, but they also are skilled and learned in folk dancing as well. And many of these schools learn dances that are not only native to Belarus, but also to that region (including Slavic dances, Ukrainian dances, etc.). Folk dancing is directly tied to folk music, and many times, the two go hand in hand (literally at some points). Most folk dances, I’m venturing to guess from what I’ve seen on YouTube, have a quick tempo and a lot of energy and acrobatics. Many include men and women dancing together in partners, but with alternating sections where men dance and then women dance, and coming back together.

One folk dance I came across (and there isn’t much information on specific dances, but there are many YouTube videos about Belarusian folk dances) is Lawonicha, or Lyavonikha. From what I could gather on a translated Wikipedia page (from the Polish site), the lawonicha is a dance characterized by its 2/4 time signature. One of its characteristic rhythms is /4-eights / 2-eights, 1-quarter / 2-eights, 1-quarter/, also called a trzytaktowa term. That also leads me to wonder if it consists of three-measure phrases. If anyone knows whether or not this is a three-phrase dance, please let me know because I find it interesting if this is true.

Up next: the food!

Thursday, September 13, 2012


A lot of art and architecture in Belarus goes back to antiquity. There have been great efforts to preserve its fine arts in museums and universities, the largest collection being held in the National Museum of Art. The city of Vitebsk also houses many famous pieces and collections and has historically been one of the artistic centers of Belarus, outside of Minsk.

The earliest forms of art can be dated back to the 14th century with the Byzantine Empire. It’s mostly centered around manuscript illustrations and iconography. 

Another movement started after the October Revolution of 1917, where many revolutionary avant-guard artists started popping up around Vitebsk.

Marc Chagall is thought to be one of the most influential and famous Belarusian artists. He used several mediums, including stained glass, which can be seen in several cathedrals, UN buildings, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. He also made a name for himself in doing large-scale paintings, like doing part of the ceiling of the Paris Opéra. Chagall also utilized some of the styles found in Cubism, Symbolism, and Surrealism.  He merged these established styles with his own styles, making him one of the most well-known Jewish artists in Eastern Europe.

Belarusian literature also goes back centuries, and like most early written literature, started out as mainly religious texts and poetry. One of the most well-known poets of this era (11-13th centuries) is Kiryla Turauski. Most people from Belarus at this time not only write in the Belarusian language, but most also write in Latin, Polish, and/or what’s called Church-Slavic (mostly used for liturgy in the Orthodox Church). In the modern times, you’ll find writers using Russian as well.

The modern period of Belarusian literature started in the 19th century, and one of the foremost authors was Yanka Kupala.  Kupala left Belarus and lived in Vilnius (Lithuania) and later in St. Petersburg. He had published a number of poems and books that really irked the communist government, calling for his arrest at one point. He died by falling down a flight of stairs in a hotel in Moscow in 1942. Some speculate whether it really was an accident like it was documented as, or whether it was a suicide or homicide.

Outside of Belarus, Vasil Bykaŭ is one of the most well-known and most widely-read Belarusian author. Many of his works have been translated into English and many other languages. During his youth, he fought for the Red Army, his literature loved by many Soviets. In fact, he was even given the title “People’s Writer of the Belarusian SSR.” However, Bykaŭ has spent many years abroad because of his opposition to the Lukashenko administration/dictatorship. He was able to return to his home in Belarus a month before his death.

Theatre also plays an important role in Belarusian culture, but it really didn’t take off until the 20th century. As a means of freedom of expression, the Belarus Free Theatre was created in 2005, as well as a number of underground theatre troops. Its main function is to serve as pressure against government censorship and in support for the freedom of speech and expression. Many authors, playwrights, actors, and musicians have been arrested for performing pieces that the government feels are in opposition to the establishment. This movement has brought these censorship issues to the attention of many writers across the world.

Up next: Music and Dance

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Unlike many other countries, Belarus has more holidays designated towards commemorations and historical/national events than religious holidays.

New Year’s Day. January 1. For a long time, different parts of Belarus celebrated the new year at different times, especially during the Middle Ages. In many areas, caroling has been a tradition that goes back centuries. Families will set out to make 12-course meals, including kutia (a grain pudding). In fact, people refer to the entire meal as kutia, as in they hope the meals for the rest of the year are as extravagant as the holiday meals. There are a lot of rituals involved in the New Year, like spreading different kinds of grains on the floor in hopes for good luck and prosperity. One popular story is that Grandfather Frost makes his appearance to the local villages and bring biting frosts, but the people will offer him kutia to try to appease him.

Orthodox Christmas. January 7. During this time, families and friends feast on special foods that are normally eaten around this time. Many people attend special church services during this time that are, for the most part, longer than normal. In Orthodox Christianity, there are fewer adherences to the gift-giving and commercial aspect of Christmas.  Some families use a white tablecloth to symbolize the purity of the baby Jesus, and some also place straw on the table as well to symbolize the straw in the stable where Jesus was born.

Defender of the Fatherland and Armed Forces Day. February 23. This marks the day in 1918 when people signed up to join the Russian Red Army. It was later renamed to the current name with the break-up of Russia. The President will always perform two traditional ceremonies on this day: to lay a wreath at Victory Square, and to present general’s shoulder boards to certain members of various ministries.

Constitution Day. March 15. This day marks the day when the Constitution was established in 1994. However, President Lukashenko immediately started making huge changes the minute he got into power, as in filling positions with people he appointed, getting rid of free-enterprise, and limiting free speech – things that the people feel are trashing democracy as we know it. For a lot of Belarusians, Constitution Day is a farce.

Catholic Easter and Orthodox Easter. Varies. These two days usually are on different days. Many people will start their Easter day off with church services in the morning. People will generally spend the rest of the day with family and friends. For those who celebrate Orthodox Easter, many will visit the graves of loved ones and lay fresh flowers on them. Decorating Easter eggs is a really popular thing to do, and some are really elaborate. 

Unity of Peoples from Russia and Belarus Day. April 2. Since there is a special tie to Russia, it’s no wonder there’s a holiday for this. Russian and Belarusian actors and musicians will usually make public appearances for special events.

Chernobyl Tragedy Commemoration Day. April 26. On this day in 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was the site of one (of two) of the largest nuclear accidents in history. The power plant is actually in Ukraine, on the border with Ukraine and Belarus, but its effects can be felt all across Eastern Europe.
International Labor Day. May 1. This is a day aimed at supporting labor organizations and labor movements. People usually spend the day with family and friends. There are parades, picnics, concerts, and many politicians will usually give speeches as well.

State Flag and State Emblem Day. 2nd Sunday in May. The current flag was adopted in 1995. The flag is made up of a larger red stripe that covers the top 2/3 of the flag, and a green stripe on the bottom 1/3 of it. To the left side (the flagpole side) is a red and white national pattern.  The national emblem is a green outline of the country with sunrays behind it and a red star above it. On either side is a splay of clover flowers and one of flax with shafts of wheat.  Below is the words “Republic of Belarus” in red and green ribbons.

Victory Day. May 9. This is as a day that celebrates the victory over Nazi Germany during WWII.  One-quarter of Belarusians died during WWII, and there is a huge parade that is held in Victory Square in Minsk.

Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Great Patriotic War. June 22. Another name for WWII, it’s to remember the thousands and thousands of victims of the war that started on this day in 1941. People will light candles in honor of those who fell.

Independence Day. July 3. A huge military parade tops this day in celebration of the liberation of its capital city Minsk from the Nazis in 1944.

Kupalle. July 6-7. Kupalle is a mid-summer festival that incorporates a lot of folk arts and folklore. It’s a way of preserving ancient traditions that date back to the pagan days. One tradition is to search for the blooming fern, which legend says that it only blooms once a year, and whoever finds it is ensured prosperity and luck.

Dziady. November 2. It’s actually an ancient Slavic festival that commemorates the dead. In Belarus, it’s also come to be a day in honor of the victims of Soviet political repression.

October Revolution Day. November 7. This is a day that commemorates the beginning of what has been known as Red October, the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Bolshevik Red Guard forced their way to take over government buildings.

Catholic Christmas. December 25. Christmas somewhat takes a back seat to New Year, the bigger of the two holidays, even though it’s really celebrated twice in this country. They do a lot of the traditions that are also found in other countries, such as caroling and decorating trees. They also have a lot of special treats to eat around this time of year and the giving of gifts, and the most important one: spending time with family and friends.

Up next: Art and Literature

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Several years ago, I was watching some rerun of some sitcom where a couple who had just met was saying good-bye on a sidewalk. She was very sentimental and was trying to drag it out, while his reaction to the entire ordeal was very systematic and mundane as he loaded his luggage into a cab. At the end, he finally said frankly, “Look, my apologies, I’ve really got to go. I have to go to Minsk for this conference. I’ll be back in a week. I’ll call you.” And then he left her standing there dumbfounded.

Until recently, I had always associated Minsk as a place where people go for serious-sounding conferences for short periods of time. And little outside of that was anything I was familiar with. But now I’m filled with so much absolutely-useful knowledge, my head is bursting with it. (Or it could just be seasonal allergies.)

Minsk is the capital of landlocked Belarus, located in Eastern Europe and formerly part of Russia. It’s surrounded by Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.  While it’s not on any major body of water, ancient glaciers moving through the area scored out over ten-thousand lakes. It’s like the Minnesota of Eastern Europe.

Belarus has been controlled, or rather under the control, of several different countries throughout history. Most notably it was part of communist Russia for over seven decades. While it gained independence in 1991, it still remains tight with Russia. Their president Aleksandr Lukashenko has increasingly restricted free speech, religious freedoms, and peaceful assembly in the country. It’s only a Republic in name only these days.

There are two official languages: Russian and Belarusian. Russian is spoken and used by a larger percentage of the population, but there are a sizable number of Belarusian speakers. The Belarusian language has also been known by several names, mainly White Ruthenian, White Russian, Byelorussian or Belorussian. It actually belongs to the East Slavic language group, similar to Ukrainian and Russian, which are for the most part understandable to each other.

Despite its censored and controlled social issues, the country from a public health and growth point of view is up there towards the top. There are twice as many doctors available (as far as physician density goes) than in the US and almost four times as much in hospital bed density than in the US. They have less maternal deaths than the US as well. Both urban and rural areas in Belarus have 100% access to clean water sources (as compared to only 94% of rural areas in the US unfortunately).

Belarus boasts a 1% unemployment rate, however there are a large number of underemployed. Most of the jobs available are in services, as opposed to agriculture or industry. They do produce a lot of grains, potatoes, beets, vegetables, flax as well as beef and milk. You can see evidence of a lot of these items in their own cuisine. They are also huge pork consumers, but surprising has a lot of vegetarian dishes as well (many of these recipes came from leaner times in Belarusian history). Belarus is also a large manufacturer of earthmovers, motorcycles, metal-cutting machines, TVs, refrigerators, radios, and textiles among other things.

I think it’ll be interesting to go through the culture of Belarus, especially its cuisine. The current administration has made attempts at creating a new Belarusian culture, a modern one, an amended one. But what he doesn't realize is that its culture is what it is, and that includes the good with the bad, the beautiful parts with the ugly parts. Without its history, whether people agreed with it or not, it’s what’s made it what it is today. You can’t just pick and choose who you are. It’s a rich history, an interesting history, a complicated history, a self-sacrificing history. And let’s get started.

Next up: Holidays and Celebrations

Sunday, September 2, 2012


My background noise today as I cooked was the rain bands from Hurricane Isaac that I could hear from the open windows. We needed the rain, even though we’re still behind what we need.  The smell of the rain put me in the mood to cook, and I was really excited to get started on this food.

My daughter mixing the bread dough, but really I think she's playing in it.
The bread I chose was called Granny’s Bajan Sweet Bread. I usually try not to do the same thing twice, so I was a little leery about doing another coconut bread (even though the last one from the Bahamas was sooooooo good).  However, this one was different: it included cherries, for one. Another was that there was no resting time required.  One of the optional steps in this bread was to pour in half of the dough, add in a coconut filling in the middle, then pour in the other half of the dough on top of it. It didn’t quite look like it was done, but a wooden skewer came out clean and tasted like a coconut unicorns and rainbows. In fact, I sent my husband to the store for artisan vanilla bean ice cream. Because what this bread needs is to be warmed up with a dollop of ice cream on top in a bowl. I know, Barbadians everywhere are probably thinking, ‘What are you doing to our bread?’ but really now, don’t question my motives.

I chose to do the All Inclusive Salad as a side dish. At first glance, it seemed like a regular tropical fruit salad of sorts.  I had to exclude some of the fruits listed, simply because I couldn’t find paw-paws or guavas. And there was apparently a recall on mangos. So, I used a golden delicious apple, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, grapefruit (which I didn’t like in it because it has such an overpowering flavor), carambolas (otherwise known as star fruit), and I substituted a meridol papaya, but it also had baby cucumbers and a little bit of onion (which completely grossed my husband out). It was topped with honey and white wine (I went with an Australian reisling that got put in the freezer two days ago and forgot about. Yes, unlike vodka or gin or tequila or rum, wine DOES freeze.). It was really good once it was able to let the flavors meld together.

Next came the main dish: beef stew.  It seems simple and comforting enough, right? Beef stew is a dish that I associate with rainy Saturdays growing up, but more or less the kind out of a can with a side of last night’s corn bread (you know, a dad kind of meal when mom takes a day out by herself).  I’ve never made a stew from scratch before, so I was really sort of hoping this turns out well.  I sautéed the beef along with the spices and herbs (happy I found Caribbean jerk spice with no MSG!), some celery and onion, and a little pepper sauce. Once it was mostly browned, I added water and some beef stew seasoning I happened to find and let it simmer for 40 minutes. Then I threw in a bay leaf, carrots, diced beets, a little salt and pepper, and three of the greenest bananas that I could find. The last ingredient was what was throwing me. I really wasn’t sure how it was going to taste.  But you know what? Because they were green, the flavor was more subtle than if they were riper.  And really, once all of the flavors simmered for 25 more minutes, it created its own flavor.  In fact, my husband thought the stew was “fire” as he puts it. He even ranked it higher than the peanut stew from Angola (which still ranks fairly high with me still).

To me, this was a meal of trust, as in trusting that the ingredients on the recipe will not only mix well together, but will also taste so good, it’s “fire.”  I mean, cucumbers and onions in my fruit salad and bananas in my beef stew? Most would think those ingredients were misplaced on the wrong recipes, but the Barbadians knew what they were doing. And I’m glad I did it. But for now, I have a higher calling: sweet coconut-cherry bread and vanilla bean ice cream. And maybe some more defrosted wine.

 [I did get a new laptop, but it's not a Mac, sadly. Some features I could get to work beautifully on a Mac, I'm still having trouble on this silly PC, like putting captions on the photos. But it's a computer nonetheless.  I should be grateful for what I have; it's still easier to type on than my iPhone.]