It started with a book I picked up at the library called International Night, in which chef Mark Kurlansky and his daughter Talia, cook a meal from a region chosen randomly, by the spin of the globe. I thought this was a brilliant idea, and one that I would like to do one day with my own kids. What a great way to learn about the world!
The book started me thinking about what similar things we could do within our homeschool group. Cooking a whole meal was out of the question, but the idea of focusing on the kids’ own background was interesting. Ultimately, we settled on a potluck where everyone would bring a dish from the country of their ancestors.
The kids were pretty excited about this concept, and not just because it would involve eating. I think children like to contemplate their roots, mine do anyway, and researching and cooking food is a fun way to explore their cultures even further.
We planned on each of the families choosing one or two dishes to prepare and share at a little party to kick off the school year. My kids are all mixed up, ethnically speaking, so they had plenty of food options. We floated some ideas around…Chinese? We were sure one of the other families would bring at least one Chinese dish. Mexican? We eat Mexican food all the time here in California. They passed on German and Irish, and vociferously rejected my husband’s suggestion of haggis. Finally, they committed to making a couple of the local dishes of Hawaii.
I own a fantastic book on the culinary history of Hawaii, which helped us narrow our choices. Hawaii is all mixed up too; its multicultural population is widely reflected in its local foods, which borrow and blend dishes that are of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian, Filipino, and Portuguese origin.
The kids chose a popular local dish called Chicken Long Rice, and for dessert, (because we had to have dessert!), they picked an east/west mashup cake? custard? confection? See, I don’t even know how to categorize the dish called butter mochi.
In The Food of Paradise, Rachel Laudan theorized that butter mochi was the idea of one of the home economists employed by the gas and electric companies to increase the use of ovens in Hawaii, where most of the population had cooked for generations without them. Perhaps a Western cakelike dessert using Asian sweet rice flour might do the trick?
However butter mochi came to be, that’s what we were making.
First step: Asian market. This was a fun little trip. There were new sights and smells and colorful labels on odd looking items. We found packages of mung bean threads that were nearly as tall as my son.
“Surely these would be for a restaurant,” I commented.
“Or if you really liked noodles.”
So, ginger and noodles for the chicken dish, and glutinous rice flour and coconut milk for the dessert. The boba were an impulse buy.
This recipe could not be easier. Wet ingredients in one bowl, dry ingredients in another, put them together, done.
Once everything was mixed together, we poured the batter into a rectangular dish and baked it for 90 minutes.
Our friends arrived with their dishes: a Swedish beef and potato dish, some yeasted buns stuffed with sauerkraut, and a Chinese steamed cake. We added some pineapple for good measure.
The kids took turns talking about the dishes they brought and pointing out the country of origin on the globe. We chatted about grandparents and immigrants and food.
My kids’ takeaway from the whole thing? We are all mixed up. Every single one of us.
FYI – this makes quite a bit. We’ve never had a problem with that, but you could cut the recipe in half.
*Sweet rice flour is flour milled from glutinous rice. This doesn’t mean it contains gluten, nor is it sweet. It simply means that it is made from a kind of rice that gets really sticky when cooked, rather than from a strain of non-glutinous rice.
Butter Mochi (Sweet Rice Flour and Coconut Cake) Adapted from The Food of Paradise by Rachel Laudan
1 lb (3 cups) *glutinous rice flour/sweet rice flour (mochiko)
2 cups sugar
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
Two 12-ounce cans coconut milk
5 large eggs
4 oz melted butter
1 tsp vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet ingredients in another, and combine both mixtures. Pour the batter into a 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Bake for 90 minutes. Cut into 24 small squares to serve.