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eat the cup, 2018, part one :: open up and say 'da'

sometimes you win without hackers
as always at the beginning of the world cup tournament, i spend my first couple of days trying to decide which country to feature first. i had pretty much made up my mind that i would follow last cup's example and honour the hosts first off, but then i decided that it would be even more fun to come up with a meal that combined the cuisines of both teams in the first game.

of course, that would mean accepting that there were two teams on the pitch in the first game and i think some fans would say that was arguable. no one expected much of saudi arabia, to be fair. but no one expected a lot from russia, so having the hosts welcome everyone by stampeding over their first opposition like a herd of rabid camels was, to say the least, unexpected. their 5-0 mauling of the saudis gave produced a new hero, denis cheryshev, a man who didn't even rate inclusion in the "panini" sticker booklets that fifa produces, and the first meme of the tournament when russian president vladimir putin could do nothing but shrug as he tried to make conversation with fifa president gianni infantino and saudi crown prince mohammed bin salman. "i said to put your money on my boys, so don't blame me if you missed out."

by contrast, my opening eat the cup feast was a much more balanced affair; i planned it that way. i wanted something that combined the heady perfume of middle eastern spices with the cooler, crisper side of russian cuisine.

the idea of russian food being "cool" and "crisp" might not jive with what you've come to expect from its reputation. but nobody expected them to win 5-0 either [or to win their second game 3-0], so it's actually on theme.

for the russian part of the meal, i cooked a version of okroshka, which is sort of what gazpacho would be if it came from eastern europe and featured produce from that area of the world rather than from the southwest and if it were seasoned differently. let's try this another way: okroshka is a cold soup. there's no one recipe, of course, because it's something that has a long tradition. the base is usually made with potatoes, a type of meat [ham and sausage are popular], hardboiled eggs and vegetables typical of the region like radishes, cucumbers and scallions. it's also very popular to add dill as the principal seasoning.

traditionally, the liquid base is kvass, which is a non-alcoholic beverage made from fermented rye bread. more recently, the trend has been towards using kefir, which takes the place of both the liquid and the sour cream that's normally added. i opted to go the kefir route because it's somewhat easier to obtain and because i'm not a big fan of anything made with rye, generally speaking. if you live in a city with a reasonably sized eastern european community, chances are you can find kvass.

the soup is supposed to be relatively thin, so most recipes recommend adding water to the kefir. personally, i'd suggest adding soda water, which will add a sharper edge to the proceedings. alternately, you can make it thicker either by not diluting the kefir or by using a larger proportion of potatoes. it's an extremely forgiving recipe.

it's also extremely easy to assemble, so much so that i could hardly believe it. other than cooking and cooling your potatoes and eggs, the prep work consists entirely of chopping everything up very fine. once you've done that, you pour the liquid over it, add the sour cream [if you're using kvass and if you want it] and that's it. it's so simple it almost seems like cheating. i mean, it's hardly more complicated than making yourself a bowl of cereal, right? if you're haunted by that feeling, you can always leave it to sit in the refrigerator for a few hours, which will soften up the vegetables a bit and make the flavours combine a little more smoothly, but that's not actually the way recipes recommend.

pour liquid over solid. eat.

for the saudi portion of the meal, i made chicken al kabsa, which was touted as a "national dish", a claim that seems suspicious to me because chickens are not native to saudi arabia. in truth, i think that it would be more traditional to make this dish with lamb or goat meat, but i went with chicken because when you're talking about traditional saudi arabian cuisine, you're talking about something a little ephemeral to begin with. with no potable above-ground water, saudi arabia is a forbidding place to settle. so the people who have traditionally inhabited the area have moved around a lot, interacting with people from many different cultures in the surrounding region and drawing ingredients from them. so as i was preparing the chicken al kabsa, i was reminded a lot of a recipe i have that purports to be from north africa.

that's not an argument against the dish, however, which calls for a spice mixture that will send gourmets and gourmands into fits of ecstasy; coriander, cardamom, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, white pepper and plenty of saffron is a combination for the gods. to go full-on arabian, you'll want to include black limes as well. black limes are persian in origin, but the saudis have taken them to heart and they're about as close as one gets to a "national flavour". unfortunately, they're not the easiest thing to find. you'll find them at larger middle eastern grocery stores, or, more accurately, stores that target a middle eastern clientele. if you live in a smaller town, black limes are likely going to be as difficult to find as the saudi team's offence against russia.

although you can choose to cook the chicken separately from the tomato and spice broth that will cook the rice, i decided to make everything in one deep pan and it was perfect. the slow-cooking the chicken with the broth and spice mix meant that it was perfectly seasoned [without marinating it beforehand] and juicy. i have a horror of overcooked meats of any kind, so this is a big deal for me.

combined, the two dishes were a sharp contrast. the straightforward, audaciously simple [and relatively unblended] flavours of the okroshka and their fatty dairy base could hardly have been more different than the complex, fragrant flavours at work in the al kabsa chicken and rice. because of its complexity, the al kabsa did steal the show, which was itself a stark contrast to what unfolded on the pitch.

as a complement to the dishes, you'd need something fairly clean tasting, so i'd suggest either a nice vodka, perhaps mixed with soda, or a chilled mint tea. we, however, chose to toast this first meal with a drink appropriate to the news that canada will be co-hosting the world cup in 2026, with the 100% official bottled bloody caesar made by mott's clamato. for those who scratch their heads: yes, clamato [clam + tomato] juice is real. it's not as good as tomato juice, it's better, because it's smoother and has a lovely pungent element that tomato juice doesn't have. and while the idea of a premixed cocktail in a bottle might seem gross, mott's are the originators of the drink and their version[s] show that they are still the champions. there are different versions, but dom and i particularly recommend the extra spicy, which is not "burn your head off" but will put some spring in your step.

that makes for a pretty filling meal, but afterwards, there's always room for

man candy of the match

as tempting as it is to focus on players who show much of their perfectly sculpted bodies, sometimes you're just floored by how incredibly, strikingly good-looking someone is. thus it is with saudi arabian team captain osama hawsawi.




so long, farewell...

having lost to uruguay earlier today, the team is officially eliminated from contention, so if you want to catch a glimpse of his ridiculously elegant bone structure and possibly his heart-melting smile, you'll have to tune in to see him take on fellow eliminees egypt next monday [june 25]. handsome sir, we hardly knew ye. congratulations on making the name osama great again. 

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