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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

Bagels Are the Best Cultural Unifier Ever

Jul.01.16

Bagels Are the Best Cultural Unifier Ever

by Amy Rosen

Bagels in Toronto

I eat at least half a toasted bagel every single day. It is my lifeblood. It is my heritage. It’s usually my breakfast.

There are many Jewish dairy restaurants in my hometown of Toronto that specialize in baked goods like bagels, challah, babka, and the rest of it. Back at the turn of the 20th century, when boatloads of observant Jews were arriving from Europe to escape persecution, dairy meant kosher and kosher meant home. United Bakers, founded in 1912, is still thriving, while Harbord Bakery has been baking the world’s best challah and cheese danishes since 1945. The city also has countless dedicated bagel spots, from Gryfe’s to Bagel World, Bagel House to the new pisher, and Nu Bagel in Kensington Market, where Toronto’s Jewry first laid roots.

In the mid-1990s I was attending school in Halifax, Nova Scotia for a journalism degree, along with a tight class of about 36 students. Mike*, a nice guy from Newfoundland, was one of them, and Dave, an even nicer guy from a Toronto suburb, was another.

I didn’t eat pepperoni pizza and that’s what the gang always ordered, so Dave, who I believe was secretly in love with me, always had a bagel and mini packet of spreadable cream cheese on hand for me in his dorm room. One evening a bunch of us were gathered at Dave’s for an impromptu post-exams pizza party, Dave dutifully preparing my bagel and schmear, when suddenly from across the room, Mike shouts, “A bagel, Amy. That seems like something a Jew would eat.”

There were 15 people crammed into that double dorm room, scarfing down party-sized pepperoni pizzas and beer, yet if ever you wanted to hear a pin drop, this would have been the time. My response? “Gosh, Mike, that seems like something an anti-Semite would say.” (Nailed it!)

But understand this: Mike wasn’t anti-Semitic; he was ignorant. He apologized profusely, we hugged it out, and I continued eating my perfectly toasted bagel.

Bagels unify us, their doughy circles linking Jews like a chain-link fence across the Diaspora. My friend Ilona, who is not Jewish, is fascinated by Jewish food customs, or should I say, the lack thereof. I would go to a bar mitzvah brunch and she’d ask, “What did they serve?”

“Bagels, lox, cream cheese, tuna, and egg,” I’d say.

I’d go to a bris. “What did they serve?” she’d ask.

“Bagels, lox, cream cheese, tuna, and egg,” I’d say.

I’d go to a shiva. “What did they serve?” she’d ask.

After a while she just stopped asking.

But here’s the thing: A fresh bagel is so delicious and comforting that it never gets stale. Yet there’s always room for improvement and I’ve found it at Schmaltz Appetizing in Toronto, a newish grab-and-go noshery specializing in smoked fish and other bagel fixin’s. This is a photo of their Chub Chub: smoked Great Lakes whitefish, beet-marinated East Coast gravlax, dilled baby cucumber salad, and whipped Quebec cream cheese hit with horseradish, all on a Kiva’s (since 1979) poppy seed bagel.

For me, it’s the Chosen One.

*Names have been changed so that people don’t get mad at me.

Still Not Entirely Sure What Egg Butter Is But It Sounds Awesome

Jun.30.16

Still Not Entirely Sure What Egg Butter Is But It Sounds Awesome

by Hannah Petertil

Karelska piroger in Stockholm

I had already been in Stockholm a few days filling my belly with crisp breads and spreadable cheese when I first tasted egg butter.

Originally, I’d purchased my ticket on a bit of a “research” whim to dig into the Swedish taco and learn what exactly that phrase and food meant, but along the way I found myself floored by food at every turn. Warm kanelbullar, perfectly salted licorice, ice cream swirled with lemon and sweetened dollops of ammonium chloride. The country had me in a trance: would anyone even notice if I never came home? That’s when my friends introduced my to Karelska piroger and I started filling out a Fulbright application.

Karelska piroger, or Karelian pastries, come from Finland, not Sweden, but can be found pre-made or ready-to-heat in various places around Stockholm. My lovely hosts had just happened to stumble upon them a few weeks before my arrival when Elias, a lanky Finn on his mother’s side, spotted his childhood treat in a shop near their subway stop.

I’d met Elias’s wife through a whirlwind Jewish food fellowship in New York City and our mutual love of food made these two eager to share their find. We all gathered in the kitchen as the Elias bopped around, searching for the taste of his memories one egg at a time. Mina supplied me with a running narration and I learned it was the first time he was attempting Egg Butter, a classic topping for the oblong, rice-filled, crimped-edge pastry.

Sure, it sounds simple enough: Egg Butter. But the unforgettable mixture of hard boiled eggs and butter needs to come together at the perfect temperature to ensure the butter and eggs meld but don’t melt. Sipping our tea, we were all aware of the possibility for disaster: greasy hard-boiled eggs were not on the menu. With great, well-deserved joy Elias placed the (perfectly executed) delicacy on their kitchen table and quickly loaded up three pastries. Each piroger was loaded, but not overwhelmed, by the glossy, pale-yellow mounds. Helping myself to a warm piroger, quickly softening butter leaking into the rice filling, I knew I was going to need seconds.

As a dubious egg-eater, I was skeptical about this dish holding my interest, so when breakfast rolled around the next day and we pulled out the left-overs, heated up the pastries, and dug in for the second time, I was thrilled that the magic hadn’t dissipated. Even now, I still find myself obsessing over about these supreme pastries far too frequently.

Yeah, Why ARE Kinder Surprises Illegal in the States?

Jun.28.16

Yeah, Why ARE Kinder Surprises Illegal in the States?

by Kiki Aranita

Yok Si Cao Mien in Hong Kong

I go home once or twice a year to look for a Hong Kong that no longer exists. I look for stores that are no longer in business and restaurants that have either become bigger and shinier or closed without a trace. I work through a checklist of very minor and very important things in order to convince myself that remnants of my post-Handover childhood survive. My checklist is separated into two categories: packable items and meals that remind me of my place in the world.

On the packable side: I must go to the Wan Chai wet market to purchase a year’s worth of cheap cotton undies. “Why do you do this?” my aunt asks every time. “Can’t you buy underwear in the States?” “Yes,” I tell her. “But in the States you cannot find Calven Klain brand underwear.” She usually laughs at this. Sometimes she tells me that I’m crazy.

I go to Park n Shop and gather things that are either better or readily available in Hong Kong and not in America: cup noodles (better), Maltesers (readily available), Kinder Surprises (why are these illegal in America?).

On the meals that remind me of my place in the world side of the list, I must go to Tsui Wah for breakfast, even though there are much better places. At Tsui Wah, I order hot milk tea, which comes in sturdy cups printed with funny faces and condensed milk toast with butter, which, I know, is the easiest thing to replicate no matter how far away from home I find myself. Step one: make toast. Step two: slather toast with butter and condensed milk. Somehow, despite intense homesickness, I almost never accomplish this.

The most important part of my semi-annual pilgrimage to Tsui Wah is for the yok si cao mien, composed of slivers of pork, mushrooms, and bean sprouts and served over crispy fried noodles. The dish looms large in my memories, my after-Chinese-language-lesson reward as a Mandarin-speaking five-year-old amongst dozens of Cantonese-speaking girls. For years, eating yok si cao mien was a race against the rapidly diminishing crispiness of the noodles. I like when the noodles are fried to the point of nicking the roof of my mouth. Now I’ve learnt to ask for the noodles to be served separately from the glossy pork gravy, so I have control over the sogginess of my yok si cao mien. At the Tsui Wah at the Peak, where everything on the menu costs a few dollars more, the staff is very accommodating. At a Tsui Wah in Causeway Bay, you’ll be thoroughly chastised for dreaming up such madness. Pick the right Tsui Wah.

In my mind, there is no better breakfast (and definitely no better hangover breakfast). I may sometimes be tempted by iced milk tea served in a glass bottle in a silver bucket or some other variant of condensed milk toast, but my longing for yok si cao mien never wavers.

When Going for Seconds at a Breakfast Buffet, Salad Is Never the Answer

Jun.28.16

When Going for Seconds at a Breakfast Buffet, Salad Is Never the Answer

by Didi Kader

Dungeness Crab in the Pacific Northwest

While the rest of America slips into summertime and flip-flops, the Pacific Northwest lingers in what we call Juneuary: the wet, warm, and unpredictable purgatory we endure before arriving at summer. Real summer begins when our dependable sun-filled days are long and luxurious thanks to our northern geography. Until then, we take our chances with the outdoors in Juneuary.

My boyfriend and I had plans to bike a trail that follows old railroad tracks in Snohomish County. We were going, rain or not. The forecast was for clouds. To steel myself for what could be a wet ride, I suggested breakfast at the Eagles Buffet in the Tulalip Resort Casino, not far from the trailhead.

We entered the casino and walked past the lights and ding-ding-ding of slot machines, some of which tempt the human weaknesses for wealth and food with names like ‘Lobstermania’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jalapeños.’

I’m a veteran of the buffet and explain the rules of the eating game to Abe: focus on the novelty items. Round two is the sweet spot. If you’re carrying plate number three, you might have gone too far; proceed at your own belly’s risk. Don’t forget we have to get on bikes after this. He nods and we grab a couple warm plates.

I find the Dungeness crab stacked in ice. The man behind the counter assesses the pile and picks out the cluster with the biggest legs. Steamed hot or served cold, he asked. I take the crab cold, like the Pacific water it came from, and slide a small bowl of hot butter and lemon wedges next to it.

I go next to the carving table and say yes to prime rib and wild salmon. It’s only 10 a.m., so to keep up the appearance of breakfast I add to my plate a buttermilk pancake, a savory potato pancake dotted with scallions, and a raspberry-cheese blintz. I nudge in a small bowl of hot maple syrup, and on the way back to the table I pause at the fruit bar. I make a bowl of melon, pineapple and grapefruit.

A server brought mugs of coffee, and seeing the crab, left packets of wet wipes. We each took a leg and got to work cracking and pulling chunks of sweet crabmeat to dip in butter. Maple syrup from bites of pancake dribbled onto the prime rib in my crowded plate.

I wondered out loud if I should get salad for round two, keep it light for the bike ride. Abe paused from dismantling another crab leg and looked at me. “What’s the fun in that?” he asked.

I went to the buffet and glanced at my watch. I decided it was late enough that it wouldn’t be inappropriate to have a barbecued beef rib.

On our way out, Abe played a few bucks in a slot machine and won $14.
We got to the trailhead and pulled on our rain gear. As I biked down the trail, a spray of rain brushing my cheeks, I thought about how beautifully prime rib and maple syrup go together.

Do Not Question Strange Breakfasts, Submit to Them

Jun.27.16

Do Not Question Strange Breakfasts, Submit to Them

by Braden Ruddy

Granitas in Trapani

On a sleepy side street in the city of Trapani, western Sicily’s millennia-old trading and tuna hub, lies granita mecca Antica Colicchia Pasticceria Gelateria. Outside, electrical wires haphazardly draped over picturesque balconies share space with ornate tiles, laundry set out to dry, hanging flowers, and tiny satellite dishes beaming soccer matches and Tunisian music videos to those inside.

An old Mediterranean Phoenician trading port that lies closer—both geographically and culturally—to North Africa than it does to mainland Italy, Trapani has retained parts of its unique Arab character and reliance on the sea for thousands of years. Short ferries to Tunis continue the cultural, economic, and historical ties between Trapani and the Arab world today. This is a city, in Italy, that favors couscous over pasta.

Trapani’s undisputed granita king since 1885, Antica Colicchia Pasticceria Gelateria serves, perhaps, Sicily’s best granitas to a mix of local families, workers, and tourists looking for a typical Sicilian breakfast to cool down with on the narrow souk-like streets of Trapani’s old city.

Granitas are a resolutely Sicilian tradition that can be eaten throughout the day as a dessert, a palate cleanser, or a refreshing semi-icy treat. Most frequently, however, they are consumed for breakfast alongside a warm brioche and a shot of espresso.

Outside the tiny old café, sounds of a drill waft from down the block as restorations of this grand old city’s buildings, badly damaged from allied WWII bombings, continue seventy years after the end of the war.
Like many other things in Sicily, including the food, architecture, and people, the granita has a fascinating migratory history that originates from the varied civilizations that have come to this island since the 11th century BC and then not wanted to leave.

Historians believe that the Arabs that ruled Sicily in the 9th century conceived of the first granitas here by scaling Mt. Etna’s volcanic peak to bring down fresh snow, mixing it with sugar and the island’s bright local ingredients. The brioche served alongside most likely came from the Normans who made their way from France in the 11th century to build on the advancements of the Arabs and make Sicily one of the most flourishing, dynamic, and multi-cultural places in the world while the rest of Europe remained largely in the dark.

At Antica Colicchia Pasticceria Gelateria in Trapani, the granitas are prepared roughly the same way in 2016. Fresh local almonds, lemons, espresso, blood oranges, or pistachios are finely mixed with sugar and hand-shaved ice that retains its glorious snow-like consistency. Served out of a glass with a tiny ornate silver square spoon, there is nothing artificial here. Just three ingredients—water, sugar, and natural nuts, fruits, or flowers (jasmine granitas are a Trapanese specialty)—that’s it.

It’s 10 am and as our almond and espresso granitas slowly melt into a delicious breakfast soup mopped up by the fresh-baked brioche, a rotund man in an Italian soccer jersey eating gelato out of an oversized ice cream cone walks by pushing a shopping cart filled with bricks. Across the street three priests are lighting sticks on fire outside of a Baroque church.

There is something slightly absurd about eating a magical slush-like creation, essentially an early form of ice cream, for breakfast. But in Sicily, the absurd takes on a poetic quality seeped in a history equal parts glorious and tragic that simply makes sense. When half the city is waking up and doing the same, and has been for more than a thousand years, one must not question the granita. One must submit to it. Every morning.

Hangover Heaven Is a Place on Earth

Jun.23.16

Hangover Heaven Is a Place on Earth

by James Fixter

A Full Scottish Breakfast in Edinburgh

The country famous for its porridge habit is obviously a place that understands the value of warm, stodgy comfort food when you’re feeling delicate in the morning. Looking around me, delicate is exactly the right word to describe the disheveled university students who sit hunched over the tables, wincing at the noise of clattering plates from the kitchen.

Exam season is over, the hard work done, and the celebratory drinks obviously flowed freely the night before. When Edinburgh’s student population wakes to a pounding headache after a night of debauchery, they can be thankful that the perfect cure is close at hand. A greasy spoon diner where even the Wi-Fi password is “hangover heaven”? Sounds like the right place.

The iconic English breakfast famous (or perhaps infamous) all over the world is often held up as a shining example of great hangover food, but Scotland has never been a place to be knowingly outdone by its neighbor to the south. After applying their celebrated spirit of innovation, the Scots managed to go one better and concoct a platter as fearsome to behold and tricky to conquer as they are.

The customary fried eggs, bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes, and baked beans from the English breakfast are all present, joined by additional hearty Scottish delicacies: black pudding (blood sausage), the infamous haggis (a surprisingly delicious mixture of offal and spices cooked in a sheep’s stomach), a crispy potato scone and a slab of square sausage. In truth, the picture is not a pretty one and the ingredients are not so much arranged on the plate as piled high. But what it lacks in style, it more than makes up for in substance.

The restorative properties of this jaw-dropping plateful seem to be just what the doctor ordered for my fellow diners: with every mouthful of greasy food, a little more of the hangover nausea is eroded away and replaced by fortitude. Those who manage to go the whole hog (a fairly apt description given the sheer amount of bacon and sausage on the plate) can recline with pride, loosen their waistbands, and let out a contented groan.

However, this is merely phase one of Edinburgh’s own particular hangover tonic. After refueling over breakfast, the hardcore contingent makes its way to the foot of nearby Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano that dominates the skyline of the city. It’s a steep climb among the blackened volcanic rock made all the harder by the extra weight of a mountain of food, forcing you to truly earn those calories.

Soaking up the previous night’s booze with breakfast is a great cure for the stomach, but the bracing wind at the summit does wonders for a pounding head, too. The views of this historic city and its iconic castle from here are magnificent and the feeling of rejuvenation immense. Looking out over such dramatic scenery, it’s easy to see why Scotland came to be known as “The Land of Legends,” but to call it “The Land of Legendary Breakfasts” would not be an understatement.

Oh, and there’s good news for those who couldn’t even muster the energy to crawl out of bed: they can have the very same breakfast delivered to their door in a polystyrene box. It’s true what they say: hangover heaven really is a place on earth.

Waiting for a Ferry to a Sinking Island

Jun.22.16

Waiting for a Ferry to a Sinking Island

by Anuradha Sengupta

Jhal Muri at Lot 8

“Has the vessel left for Ghoramara?” asks a woman in a green salway kameez wearing outsized sunglasses. The ferry guard tells her it hasn’t arrived yet. She looks back at a group of women waiting behind her. “Let’s have some chai then,” she says. They walk across to one of the tea shacks on the jetty, struggling to hold on to their umbrellas against the strong wind that is churning the waters into choppy waves. It’s 9 am and already the day is unbearably hot.

We are at Harwood Point, or Lot 8, the jetty where people take a ferry to Ghormara or Sagardwip islands, two islands on the Sunderbans delta in the Bay of Bengal. I am on my way to Ghoramara, which is quickly sinking due to rising sea water levels.

I haven’t had any breakfast, so I follow the women to the tea shacks. It was 6 am when I set off from home, dawn breaking over the rooftops in Kolkata. I arrived at Lot 8 after a three-hour rickety bus ride. Like all good tea shacks in Bengal, the fellow at the ferry point has an array of glass jars filled with biscuits in all kinds of shapes, sourced from local bakeries. I order a cup of tea, and pick out some biscuits to go with it, both savory and sweet.

An adjoining shack is selling the popular Bengali snack teley-bhaaja, fritters made of eggplants, onions, potatoes, pumpkins or cauliflowers dipped in a chickpea-flour coating. Stocking up on a plate of pumpkin fritters, I move on to a jhaal muri shack where a man in a vest and lungi (a sarong-like clothing worn by men in Bengal) is briskly mixing sprouted legumes and puffed rice with chopped onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and green chillies. He tops it all up with a drizzle of mustard oil and salt, and serves it in a paper cone. Up ahead on the road, flies buzz around the heaps of grapes, pomegranates, bananas, and guavas being sold at a few fruit stalls. A line of improvised vehicles stand on one side, made of wooden planks, old Jeep parts, and a diesel engine that looks like the front of a motorbike.

Arms laden with fritters and jhal muri cones, I head back to the women on the wooden benches. The tea arrives in a small glass. It’s milky and sweet and hits the spot. I dunk the biscuit embedded with nigella seeds in the liquid and bite off a chunk. Over cups of tea, biscuits, and fritters, we—fellow passengers to Ghoramara—get to know each other.

Some of the women are teachers who traverse the water of the Bay every day to teach at the only school in Ghoramara. One of them is a health worker at a government clinic. One of the teachers, Rituparna, says they skip school on rough weather days. “The boats are not in good condition and there have been incidents of capsizing.” The health worker—Snighdha—is waiting for a boy from Ghoramara. “He had a vaccine which seems to have gone wrong, his leg has swollen up,” she says. “I have to take him to Sagar Island which has a proper hospital.” Snigdha—born in Ghoramara—talks about the fear that the monsoon brings when it arrives in mid-June. destroying homes and lives. “My island’s nearly gone, swallowed by the river.” Her mother and brother still live in Ghoramara. “I got married and came out.”

Our conversation and short session of bonhomie is interrupted with the arrival of the ferry to Sagar Island. Snigdha finishes her tea and walks to the long line of disembarking passengers to look for the boy. I order another cup of milky tea, looking out across brown waters of the Bay of Bengal, waiting for the ferry to Ghoramara.

Finding Your Breakfast Home Halfway Across the World

Jun.21.16

Finding Your Breakfast Home Halfway Across the World

by Danielle Oteri

Sfogliatella in Naples

Napoli Centrale, 8 am, I order a sfogliatella from the train station bar even though I’m not hungry. Soon I’ll board the train to Milan then tomorrow fly back to New York. This pastry is the last taste, for now, of the city where I feel most at home.

The barista squints below her visor and asks, “riccia o frolla,” referring to the choice of flaky or smooth pastry wrapped around a soft mound of sweetened ricotta cheese.

“Riccia,” I reply, as though there isn’t really a choice, and her posture softens. Reaching under the counter with a square of wax paper folded against her palm, she tells me that my accent sounds foreign, but she is confused by my very Neapolitan face.

I always have this conversation in Naples. With my dark hair that does whatever it wants and heavy eyelids, only my New York accent betrays me as not a local. Neapolitan friends have picked apart my face to identify the regional mix of conquerors and oppressors: Greek, Spanish, a little French maybe. In America, I’m accused of having “resting bitch face,” but here among citizens whose philosophical musings are informed by the nearby volcano, I belong to them.

“Italo-Americana,” I say with a shrug.

“You chose the riccia, proof of good Neapolitan blood,” she says with approval, passing the sfogliatella across the marble counter. My fingertips press against the paper to feel its heat and hear the pastry crackle, proof of freshness that even in the Naples train station is assured.

Sfogliatelle have been my favorite sweet since childhood, when my grandparents would bring over a string-tied box of them fresh from the Bronx. When I started coming to Naples as an adult and discovered that these were not holiday treats, but what you eat here every single morning, it was like the 6-year old inside of me was told she could indeed have candy for breakfast.

But there are also rules. Like cappuccino, sfogliatelle are not something any Italian would dare consume after a big dinner, though Neapolitans find excuses like the merenda, or afternoon snack, which may come as late as twilight and is best enjoyed while swanning around the Piazza dei Martiri with friends.

Like Parthenope, the siren founder of Naples who died of heartbreak and washed up on the coast, the sfogliatella also arrived from the sea. One origin story, rote but beloved, describes a 16th century nun on the Amalfi coast experimenting with some cooked flour and milk during the dark early hours inside the convent’s kitchen. She formed the pastry to imitate the shape of a monk’s hood hanging along his back, thus inventing the smooth frolla version.

The recipe was made distinctly Neapolitan when a man named Pasquale Pintauro created a flaky shell that reminded of elaborate French pastries still fashionable in Naples, even after Marie Antoinette’s big sister had been deposed as queen. In the window of Pintauro’s pastry shop on the fashionable Via Toledo, the sfogliatelle were upended to resemble seashells, the new Rococo architectural motif in the city ruled by a Spanish Bourbon king.

Almost 200 years later, Pintauro’s pastry shop on the Via Toledo is still in place. Locals gather there for sfogliatelle on Sunday afternoons though legions loyal to “La Sfogliatella Mary” crowd around it in the Galleria Umberto.

Back at the train station bar, I wipe a galaxy of transparent crumbs off my scarf and take one last shot of caffé normale. I’ll creep back into my American skin tomorrow in Milan at the hotel’s continental breakfast.

Instead of a Caffeine Kick, Try Curdled Soy Milk in the Morning

Jun.20.16

Instead of a Caffeine Kick, Try Curdled Soy Milk in the Morning

by Steven Crook

Soy Milk in Taiwan

A few days before Dr. Tsai Ing-wen took the oath of office to become Taiwan’s first woman president—and the first female national leader in Asia who wasn’t the widow, daughter or sister of a previous leader—I went back to Kaohsiung to witness the scattering of a friend’s ashes.

A decade earlier, he’d told us he wanted his remains sprinkled in the shade of a huge banyan tree that overlooks the harbor. He eventually passed after years of ill health, some of which could be attributed to bad habits when younger. En route to the ceremony, I made a slightly dubious lifestyle choice of my own. I detoured to a breakfast establishment famous in Taiwan’s second city for adulterated soy milk. Once hailed as a protein-rich, low-calorie alternative to cow’s milk, unfermented soy products like soy milk are now linked to health problems including hypothyroidism, kidney stones, and male infertility. And if that isn’t bad enough, at Guo Mao Lai Lai the beverage is best enjoyed when it’s slathered with oily condiments and salty toppings.

But it’s fresh, meaning the beans are soaked the evening before, steamed before sunrise, blended, then pressed through a cheesecloth. Drunk hot and neat, just-made soy milk is quite unlike—and quite a bit stronger than—its bottled, refrigerated supermarket counterpart. For first-timers, the experience is akin to trying coffee prepared by a good barista after a lifetime of drinking instant. But raw soy milk isn’t to everyone’s taste, so many Taiwanese stir in sugar. In Mandarin Chinese, the non-sugared variant is called xian doujiang. This means “salty soy milk,” but at Guo Mao Lai Lai, only the finest of palates can detect brackishness beneath the various pungencies.

The eatery is in a neighborhood so nondescript people grab whatever excitement comes their way, on a plate or otherwise. I arrived just before nine am, when most folks are at work or school. Yet none of the staff were slacking off; the queue was a dozen deep, and moving fast. The soy milk connoisseur ahead of me ordered a bowl seasoned with finely chopped scallions, browned shallots, tiny dried shrimps, a dollop of sesame oil, a few drops of rice vinegar, and a squirt of red chili oil. I turned down the shrimps, instead opting for youtiao—Chinese savory crullers—as both a side dish and a topping.

Then I waited, and not just for the mix to cool to a drinkable temperature. The vinegar causes the soy milk to curdle; the final consistency is similar to cottage cheese. Despite its lumpy, foamy appearance—it looks like something you’d throw away if you found it in your refrigerator—this concoction is as satisfying as a good stew.

Sometimes it’s good to commence the day with a capsaicin kick instead of a caffeine jolt. And if you’re still nervous about the health effects of unfermented soy, dwell on this: The Ohio surgeon-missionary who set up Taipei’s first soy milk bottling plant in 1953 practiced medicine until he was 94. Soy fanatic Dr. Harry W. Miller then spent three years trying to perfect tofu-based cheeses. By all accounts he failed. What am I likely to achieve in my nineties?

The Spicy Scent of Home

Jun.16.16

The Spicy Scent of Home

by Ying Tey Reinhardt

Nasi Lemak in Germany

The ground chili paste in my pan is spitting hot and searing red. The luxuriant crimson mush, made up of shallots, dried chilies, and a handful of ikan bilis (white anchovies) ground earlier, darkened in the oil. The angry fumes scald my eyes, causing me to tear up.

“Oh, that’s going to be one hell of a freaking spicy sambal,” says Christian approvingly as he walks across the kitchen to unlatch a window. My husband hovers over my shoulder as I continue frying, and watches me pour the rest of the fried ikan bilis into the mix.

It’s 10 a.m. in Hermsdorf, a little village in East Germany. Spring air fills the kitchen and mingles with the pungent spice. I’m preparing the chili that makes up an important component of nasi lemak, a Malaysian breakfast staple that consists of coconut-milk rice, roasted peanuts, cucumbers, and boiled eggs. But because our German friends will recoil in horror if they don’t get bread for breakfast, we plan to serve it later for dinner, for my husband’s birthday party.

In Malaysia, feeding someone is the most important act of love. When greeting someone, it’s not unusual to ask them if they’ve eaten. Knowing that your stomach is full assures the other party that you’re well. And if not, the person asking will invite you for food. And here I am, proving my love by trying to recreate the perfect nasi lemak, a comfort dish that Christian and I bonded over, while we were still dating in that part of the world. This is not the first time I’m making it, but this is the first time with the right ingredients. The previous attempts, without the ikan bilis for the chili paste and pandan leaves for the rice, was lacking punch. Christian didn’t mind but I knew better. Living in Germany has taught me to be meticulous. Every ingredient counts.

Just a day ago, we were shopping at Go Asia, a major Asian grocer in Berlin filled with rows and rows of spice and sauces, noodles of all imaginable flavors, and Asian herbs and vegetables neatly packed and glistening fresh. I gasped when I entered; I was awestruck with the choices. Christian said it was as if I had discovered Wonderland.

Hermsdorf, which was once part of the ex-German Democratic Republic, offers no such supermarkets. The closest Asian market, 12 miles away, is a dingy squat. On the dusty shelves are only two choices of soy sauce and little else. Needless to say, pandan leaves and white anchovies were unheard of. At Go Asia, the supermarket was airy and glowed with promise. The two-hour drive was worth it.

My kitchen is now officially coated in layers of oil and hot chili splatters. Wafts of coconut and sweet pandan leaves escape the bubbling rice cooker. Freshly cut cucumbers lay on the chopping board. Peeled hard-boiled eggs in a bowl. A fishy, spicy scent lingers in the air. I hear our neighbor below crack open her window. She coughs. It smells like home.

Mission: Shanghai Soup Dumpling

Jun.15.16

Mission: Shanghai Soup Dumpling

by Angela Wu

Shen jian bao in Shanghai

Overnight layovers are one of travel’s trickier challenges to master. The key to making the most of those few rushed waking hours on the other side of the world? You need a mission.

Ideally, your mission is simple and achievable. On a recent 18-hour layover, my mission was breakfast.

At home in Los Angeles, I buy sheng jian bao by the box from a local Chinese food court and snack on them cold, plucking them one by one from the refrigerator. I grew up with them, despite being thousands of miles away from the city where they’re traditionally sold on street corners. Now, I had a rare slice of time to enjoy sheng jian bao the way they were meant to be enjoyed—for breakfast, in Shanghai.

It’s an understatement to call them pan-fried pork buns, which is how they often appear on menus. Sheng jian bao are the more delicious, less internationally famous, just as soup-filled sibling of xiao long bao, the tiny soup dumplings that Shanghai is also known for. Each bao is about the size of a child’s fist, with a crispy golden crust on the bottom and a pillowy white top sprinkled with scallions and sesame seeds. Inside is a juicy nugget of pork, savory and a touch sweet, and a thimble-sized sip of soup.

That tiny sip is decadent. Rich and flavorful—and filled with fat—it oozes out of the pork filling as the bao sizzles and steams in the pan. These days you can even find versions that come with a straw for slurping up the soup. But I wanted the classic.

My layover gave me just one breakfast, and one shot. Fortunately, I mentioned my quest to my taxi driver, who lit up. He was so passionate about sheng jian bao that he offered to drive me straight to his favorite restaurant, still open even as we approached midnight. His enthusiasm convinced me: this was the one. The mission, however, was breakfast. So he dropped me off at my hotel with walking directions.

I woke up the next morning, without a trace of jet lag, to find the city experiencing a very rare snowfall, the kind that makes the news. But I was on a mission. I set off into the cold.

A few years ago, my mom and I visited Shanghai together. We spent a steamy summer afternoon wandering through old neighborhoods, searching for the street where she grew up. Maybe it no longer exists, or maybe it’s just lost to us—but we didn’t find it. This time, as I cut through narrow courtyards and passed street vendors selling little chestnuts and big ladles of congee, I felt as if any of these streets could have been that street. I wouldn’t have known it, but I felt the warmth of possibility everywhere.

Finally, I turned a corner and found the sheng jian bao I had been looking for. They came with a large glass of sweet soy milk. I ate them all in 10 minutes.

Mission accomplished, I rushed back to the airport.

The Very Best Place to Drink First Thing in the Morning

Jun.13.16

The Very Best Place to Drink First Thing in the Morning

by Alexa van Sickle

Flat Pints in Edinburgh

We traipsed into the pub from the cold sunlight of a January morning. We expected some kind of reaction. If not quite the Scottish 8am boozer equivalent of a record-scratch, at least some curious or even indifferent looks.

Groups of people who ventured into Edinburgh’s morning-hour pubs were usually trying to prolong the night, crashing post-work drinking sessions for the city’s night-shift workers. But not this time. We were sober, but wired after 14 nights (midnight to 8 am) at a press research company housed in a former primary school. (The bathrooms were still painted baby pink and baby blue). We had joined the ranks of Edinburgh’s night workers.

You can drink in bars almost 24 hours a day in Edinburgh. In the 60s and 70s, some bars got licenses to open at 5 am so all-night workers (dockers, bond-warehouse workers, railway staff) had a place to unwind. Inevitably, some of the city’s thousands of students discovered them. The slight thrill of leaving the comfort zone of Edinburgh’s student bars on the city’s south side was probably part of the attraction. Diane’s Pool Hall in the West End is a renowned hub for people who aren’t ready to call it a night when the sun rises. (One Yelp reviewer called it “the Ground Zero of Edinburgh’s seedy underbelly.”) There was also the storied Boundary Bar, which stood on the old dividing line between Edinburgh and the grittier port city of Leith. A pole divided the bar into the Leith and Edinburgh sides, which had different drinking licenses (after-hours drinking was only done on the Leith side). I was more familiar with the Penny Black (hours: 5 am to 3 pm) where all-nighter students rubbed shoulders with off-duty postmen, casino workers, or just full-time drinkers.

But our night-shift local was not a city institution. It was usually empty. Ten-minutes walk from our office at the top of Easter Road, it was a nondescript pub about halfway down Leith Walk, the wide artery that forms a ramp between Edinburgh’s gilded center to the gateway of Leith. It was pretty typical: the walls bathed in hundreds of seasons of smoke and damp, slightly sticky dark wooden tables. (This was also a few months into Scotland’s smoking ban, so fresh cigarette smoke no longer obscured the dank smell from decades of ale spills ground into the 70s-era carpet.) This was where we would unwind after nights of scanning Scotland’s newspapers and preparing binders of media coverage, so Edinburgh’s press officers would have them on their desks by 9 am. We’d order pints of local ale or lager: Tennents (actually from Glasgow) or MacEwans, and even the lager would be flat. And we would wait to for the beer to make us feel drowsy enough to could go and crash for the rest of the day.

We coped with the nocturnal drudgery in different ways. Emma from Durham snacked on whole coffee beans. I ate Tesco chocolate cake garnished with increasingly hot chili peppers to stay awake. We also had CDs: Arcade Fire’s Funeral, lots of Johnny Cash, Guns N’ Roses. But there’s something really depressing about playing Use Your Illusion II at 4 am just to hear something other than the hum of computers.

At first, we tried to have a normal post-work evenings, and do normal evening things like run errands, or cook breakfast/dinner after our shifts. But we soon discovered that we were capable of sleeping right through the day from 9 am to midnight, when the next shift started as Edinburgh’s hilly streets began to fill up with drunken boys in kilts and goose-bumped girls in dresses without coats. Over winter, when Scotland’s daylight hours are already meager, I saw only a few minutes of daylight for weeks. (Our team leader had been doing this for two years straight. He was a little prematurely gray, but seemed otherwise cheerful.)

Diane’s Pool Hall still opens at 8 am, but the Penny Black is gone. The Boundary is now called City Limits and has no early-hours drinking, but there are a few pubs scattered around the city that do. I don’t know what became of our post-night shift local. I recently took a trip down memory lane/Leith Walk, thinking I would find it eventually although I had forgotten its name. But I didn’t. It could now be called the Joker and the Thief, or the Brass Monkey. Or it could be that new dry-cleaners.

Photo: Kim Traynor

Industries Rise and Fall But Fried Bread and Sugar Is Forever

Jun.10.16

Industries Rise and Fall But Fried Bread and Sugar Is Forever

by Terri Coles

Molasses in Newfoundland

Cheap tea and molasses they say they will give,
All taxes taken off that the poor man may live –
Cheap nails and cheap lumber, our coffins to make,
And homespun to mend our old clothes when they break.

Molasses is an important enough part of Newfoundland’s identity that it earned a mention in The Anti-Confederate Song back in 1940. Along with baby bonuses and better health care, lower prices for staple goods like molasses were among the carrots dangled before this island by the forces working to convince its people to join Canada.

The dark, sticky syrup probably wasn’t the deciding factor in just-barely convincing the majority of Newfoundland’s people to join Canada in 1949. But like so many of the province’s staple foods, it has endured beyond the point of being a necessity, even as much of the island surrounding it has continued to change.

A walk down Water Street in St. John’s, arguably North America’s oldest city, makes those changes obvious through a mix of new, nationally recognized restaurants and empty storefronts that once contained eateries that fell victim to the province’s recent financial troubles.

Tough economic times are nothing new for people who survived on subsistence fishing for about 500 years. When I first moved to Newfoundland—a craggy island that sits in the North Atlantic, off Canada’s eastern coast—the province was in turmoil. Its cod fishery had been shut down by the federal government just a year earlier, putting 30,000 people out of work and tossing the entire place into a state of economic and cultural crisis. In the early 2000s, an offshore oil industry was developed, but that recently crashed as crude prices have fallen. An austerity budget is working its way through the provincial legislature.

But in St. John’s, you’ll also see clear signs of things that have remained the same throughout the turmoil. That includes breakfast specials at the local pubs pumping out Celtic-tinged traditional music at all hours.

Toutons with molasses is among those enduring dishes, a combination of the ingredients that helped build the province. Toutons are a way to use leftover bits of bread dough from freshly made bread; everyone’s grandmother makes the best loaves on the island. Fry the dough patties up with leftover fatback pork, drizzle them with molasses in the ubiquitous yellow carton, then throw on the scruncheons—the crunchy bits that form in that pork fat—and you’ve got a breakfast that hits all the sweet spots of flavor and texture.

Molasses was once an item of necessity in Newfoundland, inextricably tied with the cod that brought Europeans to the island in the first place. That spoonful of blackstrap molasses had to be swallowed down because it contained iron and calcium, and it didn’t hurt that it covered up the taste of the cod liver oil that kids also had to (reluctantly) line up for in those days. And the steady supply of salt cod heading off the island and traveling southward kept the molasses flowing back in the opposite direction from the West Indies.

These days, Newfoundlanders can get sugar a bit more easily. Iron capsules, or beef, aren’t that difficult to come by, either. But molasses is still an important part of the foods you’d expect to find when you stop by grandma’s during a trip around the bay. She’ll probably have lassie buns, and you might find figgy duff pudding left over from dinner the night before drizzled with the black, sticky sauce. But no traditional Newfoundland breakfast is complete without those toutons, even if the health-conscious are more likely these days to use canola oil for the frying. The cod fishery is largely diminished, but toutons and molasses endure.

Photo: Badagnani

The Singular Satisfaction of Overcoming a Food Fear

Jun.09.16

The Singular Satisfaction of Overcoming a Food Fear

by Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki

Khlii in Morocco

“There’s no way I’m eating that!” I loudly protested to my soon-to-be husband as he eyed a vat of yellowish paste one day in Marrakech. “You should just try it, it’s really good,” he cajoled me. But I was firm. No way, no how was that going in my mouth. It looked like something a cat had coughed up. He gave up, shrugged, then ordered it anyway. I had to leave the table.

Moroccans have learned how to eat and preserve almost every part of an animal; some of it is good while the rest has something to be desired. Khlii is one example of these preservation techniques. Hard to pronounce but supposedly delicious to eat, khlii is cured and dried strips of meat (usually beef or sheep) that have been preserved in fat. It is sometimes labeled as rotten meat, which isn’t true. A spoonful is added to a hot skillet to melt and then cooked with eggs. It’s sometimes also used to stuff in breads or mixed into soups.

I thought after my first run-in I was in the clear, but every time we went to visit Morocco, and every time my husband returned from a trip, a plastic container of khlii was present. Slowly I learned not to recoil from the sight of it, though I couldn’t imagine taking a bite. As we had children, they, too, learned to appreciate their Dad’s love of this mystery meal and wondered why I never joined in. “Go ahead, you guys enjoy,” was always my response.

We moved to Morocco almost ten years after our first meeting. One day, when we had friends visiting, we decided to take them for breakfast. My husband claimed he had a great spot that we would love. I trusted his instincts and happily went. He ordered a traditional breakfast and our table was graced with all of the components that make a great Moroccan breakfast. There was soft, flat batbout bread and small plates of butter, olives, honey, amalou (an argan oil and almond paste), argan oil, and olive oil. I very happily tucked in. Then the waiter brought something else.

Khlii.

This isn’t happening, I thought. My friends knew I was a total foodie and rejecting this meal would mean they wouldn’t want to try it either. I smiled while secretly shooting eye daggers at my husband. He somehow had seduced me into trying it after all these years. He knew I wouldn’t let on to our friends that I was too afraid. So I did the only thing I could.

I ate it.

Ripping off a piece of bread I tentatively went for the eggs, avoiding the meat chunks. I put it in my mouth and chewed. No problems yet. I took another piece of bread and held my breath while reaching for the meat, quickly moving it from the plate to my mouth before I could think to much. I chewed and smiled. My husband laughed.

It turns out khlii reminded me an awful lot of beef jerky and tasted absolutely delicious. I so regretted having missed eating it for all these years. If you open my fridge today there’s one thing you’re sure to see: a small plastic container filled with khlii. Just for me.

Yes, a Thousand Times Yes, to Ice Cream in a Bread Bowl for Breakfast

Jun.08.16

Yes, a Thousand Times Yes, to Ice Cream in a Bread Bowl for Breakfast

by Kirsten O'Regan

Gelato con Brioche in Palermo

It’s 10:30am on a Tuesday and I am eating an ice-cream burger the size of my face. Despite the gargantuan proportions involved, this is a delicate procedure: the salty, sweet brioche must be handled carefully, allowing the steady consumption of gelato without losing trickles to the Sicilian spring heat. The operation is so sensitive, in fact, that I fear I look somewhat ridiculous: cradling the glossy bronze bun while turning my head this way and that, negotiating the mercurial subtleties of its cool contents with my tongue. The whole thing feels vaguely indecent. Not that anyone else in this public park seems to mind; this is Palermo, after all, and gelato con brioche is a respectable—even venerable—breakfast option.

Besides, Palermitans have bigger fish to fry. As I studiously make my way through voluptuous layers of fior di latte, pistachio, and crystallized almond, Palermo’s gnarled morning traffic creeps past. Several motorists a street away on Via Roma gesticulate wildly over a minor traffic accident, while municipal workers converge on the Politeama Theater to protest public sector layoffs (“We are fifty years! We cannot find new jobs!” a middle-aged woman tells me with a grin as I stroll by, friends guffawing at her English). The implacable massif of Monte Pellegrino watches over the fray, looming dustily above the outer city’s concrete apartments.

Sicily’s mountains have always ensured a supply of ice, for confections or otherwise; inhabitants have long harvested great blocks of frozen water from the taller peaks. And it was the Arabs, of course, who brought sugar—growing crops of cane across the island in the medieval period, in the first real sugar cultivation Europe had ever seen. The Normans swept across Sicily in the 11th century and ended up holding the island for the next two hundred years, transforming the physical fabric of the place and—presumably—bringing with them a proto-brioche. The first known reference to the pastry occurred in 1404, and later writings refer to brioche (a rich yeasted bread fortified with eggs, butter, and milk) as being Norman in origin.

Gelato is slippier, although the first ice-cream machine, patented in 1686, was indeed claimed by a Sicilian: Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a former fisherman and more famously the founder of Paris’ seminal Café Procope (thus arguably the man who made coffee a French national pastime). It would be a leap to claim that Sicilians invented ice cream, but they have undeniably mastered the art of gelato’s proper, unabashed consumption. Pasticcerias and gelaterias specializing in the art of iced sweetness saturate the island, serving up smears—not scoops—of pastel-hued delights (pistachio, apricot, lemon, hazelnut, coffee) and garish wonders (strawberry, melon, raspberry, mandarin) throughout the day, more often than not sandwiched fetchingly between the halves of a sliced, sweet bun.

Flavors and trimmings vary: one café might serve the bun warm; several offer drizzles of chocolate, a dollop of cream, a sprinkling of nuts. The garnish may include a mini cone to scoop out bite-sized pieces, or a flat wafer. One gelateria in Palermo has given the “snack” a wellness makeover, with sugar-free options, a whey protein-powered chocolate sorbet and a kamut bun. Another veers to the opposite extreme, with a maxi brioche the size of a soccer ball, which looks like sweet suicide. Ice cream sandwiches are such an elemental aspect of Sicilian life that a 1980s New York Times dispatch from Palermo, written during the “years of lead” (when mafia killings reached new heights and “excellent cadavers” were popping up like acne on a teenager), introduces the city with a casual gelato con brioche breakfast scene.

“The Sicilians … had from the early days shown an extraordinary aptitude for the confection of ices,” Elizabeth David wrote in Harvest of the Cold Months, a posthumously published (and unswervingly obsessive) socio-cultural history of ice cream. Indeed, Sicilian gelato is a thing apart: made without the bulking properties of egg or cream, and whipped up instead from crema rinforzata, a cornstarch base, which may have its origins in wobbly Arabic puddings. The starch gives the gelato a supple, rounded mouth-feel, seeming to resist for a moment on the tongue before melting into sweet oblivion (vaguely reminiscent of the stretchy dondurma of Turkey, whose consistency derives from salep, the powdered bulb of an orchid). It is not uncommon to find Eastern echoes in Sicilian flavors: jasmine gelato in Trapani, saffron and almond in Noto.

As I valiantly try and fail to eat the vestiges of the brioche’s bobbly cap, I find myself internally justifying my food choices and swiftly conduct a mental intervention. In Sicily, food should not be rationalized. The island is sultry, sensuous, with its own proper rhythms and reasons, its own taboos and prerogatives, its own particular code of culinary conduct. There is something insanely wonderful about gelato con brioche that, as the experience wears on, leans heavily towards the insane. Sicilians have taken an insubstantial, subsidiary confection, and turned it solid, essential; the weight of the bun in the hand is visceral, shocking, a fantasy made flesh.

Yet, rather than defying logic, gelato con brioche for breakfast makes a weird kind of sense, just as sheep’s head soup, complete with brain, must be served as the first meal of the day in Iran: it’s too heavy to be reasonable at any other time (although Sicilians are not purists; they will eat an ice cream sandwich whenever they please). Even the construction—seemingly excessive—is functional. The brioche makes an excellent thermal insulator, protecting its precious cargo from the hot Scirocco winds whipping across the island from Africa. For the minutes the brioche takes to consume, time slows; the world shrinks to the size of a diminishing mitt of creamy sweetness. The gelato abides.

The Perfect Pancake Is Worth a Six-Hour Bike Ride

Jun.07.16

The Perfect Pancake Is Worth a Six-Hour Bike Ride

by Olga Kovalenko

Baba in Xizhou

The area around Erhai Lake in Yunnan, China, is famous for its serene beauty and ancient Bai traditions. They are also famous for a vibrant cycling culture. The mild climate and smooth roads attract Chinese cyclists for the annual Tour de Erhai, an 80-mile race around the lake that starts in the regional center—Dali—and continues along gentle hills, rice paddies, and tiny Bai villages. Yunnan is one of the less developed areas in China, so you can still see villagers walking in their traditional attire and plowing fields with the help of animals. Time seems to have stopped around Erhai.

Chinese tourists rent colorful bikes for day trips and even try tandem or triple-bikes, which are a source of many falls and even more fun. Lycra-clad pros wrap their faces in black scarves for protection against dust and sunshine, and zoom along the lake like wheeled ninjas. Dali itself has a perfect size and location for every-day riding, and sooner or later every visitor succumbs to the local cycling craze.

After a few months of life in Dali, I bought a brand-new bicycle myself and started taking it for a spin to the nearby sights. A popular destination among Dali cyclists was the town of Xizhou, 12 miles away from Dali. It took me about six hours to get there and back, and it became my favorite weekend destination. Besides, Xizhou was famous for its pancakes—baba—which made a perfect breakfast.

Baba is a thick pancake the size of a palm. It can be made sweet or salty, the latter being stuffed with minced pork or spring onions. Baba is sold in many towns around Erhai, but a Xizhou baba is particularly famous for its balance of fat, softness, and saltiness/sweetness.

I would keep my stomach empty every weekend and take an early ride to Xizhou. The town would welcome me into a maze of narrow streets and old houses of brick and wood. The center of activity would be the small square, where locals would come to buy and sell goods exchange gossip, and have a snack. The baba stand would be the busiest one.

The path to my breakfast was not always clear. One day would be too sunny, another would be too rainy; one day, there would be construction going along the road, while another day would be the soy bean harvest. The harvest was the worst. The villagers would cut the plants with the pods still intact and spread them along the road so that passing cars would crash the pods with their wheels and make it easier for the villagers to get to the beans.

In these harvest periods, the roads would be a real hazard. Eager villagers would pile the plants so high that it would be impossible to ride through them, and I would have to dismount and walk. The already crashed pods and beans spread all over the road would make me skid while making a turn. But I would remember the breakfast waiting for me in Xizhou, and press on.

The Joyous Breakfast of Large-Hearted People

Jun.06.16

The Joyous Breakfast of Large-Hearted People

by Vidya Balachander

Halwa in Negombo

One Sunday, a few weekends ago, my husband and I found ourselves deep in the heart of Negombo, a seaside town that skirts Colombo’s international airport. Better known for its narrow strip of bars and restaurants that offer jetlagged tourists a taste of Sri Lanka’s laid-back vibe, Negombo has, in recent times, also become an unlikely refuge for another sort of traveller. Fleeing sectarian and gang violence in their native country, several Pakistani Christian families seeking refugee status have found peace—and a sense of community—in the rustic bylanes of Negombo, dotted with Christian shrines at several corners. Only a couple of days earlier, I had become acquainted with one such family. True to the mehmaan nawazi—or no-holds-barred hospitality—in which Pakistanis take pride, they invited me home to break bread with them.

That’s how we found ourselves in their sparsely appointed home, listening to the matriarch of the family recount how they were forced to abandon their middle-class lives in Karachi and flee to this corner of Sri Lanka. It had been six years since they first arrived. After the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, rejected their application for asylum twice, they were now technically illegal immigrants, unable to work, loath to return, and living in constant dread of deportation.

As we took in the story, marked by gun violence and battle scars, the members of the large family scurried into action. One daughter furnished a chintz-print tablecloth to drape over the tatty dhurries we sat on, while another vanished into the kitchen and emerged bearing a plate of puris: puffy, golden, deep-fried bread that is a beloved breakfast item in Pakistan (and much of the Indian subcontinent). The puris were paired with classic sweet-and-savory accompaniments: a rich, orange-hued halwa made of semolina, sugar, and a generous helping of ghee, and chanay, or chickpeas, cooked until the chalky outer skin had been coaxed into silken submission.

We tore off bits of the saucer-sized puris and scooped up alternating bites of the halwa and chanay, the sweetness of one muted by the rich, spice-laden savoriness of the other. My husband recounted eating a similar breakfast in Karachi several years ago and for a few moments, reveling in the nostalgic comfort of familiar flavors, all felt okay, in our world and theirs.

In the weeks that followed, I would often think back to that morning, when we were offered a rare window into lives that would put the comfort of ours firmly in perspective. My journalistic instinct would prompt me to question some parts of the story, to prod them to see if they shook loose. But looking back, my cynicism is always tempered by the memory of that generous feast. A breakfast of halwa-puri is meant to be a joyous, celebratory one. To offer to share it when one has so little—that requires a large heart.

A Surfer Life Breakfast for the Type-A Cubicle Set

Jun.03.16

A Surfer Life Breakfast for the Type-A Cubicle Set

by Erin Russell

Açaí Bowls in San Diego

I tapped my feet impatiently outside the locked door: I was going to be late to work again. Finally—15 minutes after the posted opening time—keys jingled to let me into the tiny Brazilian café so I could order the beach version of a power breakfast: the açaí bowl.

With its proximity to the San Clemente headquarters of Sambazon—the company which first imported açaí to the U.S.—as well as a bustling Brazilian community, concoctions made with the exotic berry* were thriving in San Diego long before the rest of the country began to struggle with the pronunciation (for the last time, it’s ah-sigh-EE, dammit). Even in its native country, most Brazilians haven’t seen the actual fruit, which grows deep in the Amazon and does not travel well. However, the frozen pulp is ubiquitous at lanchonetes, snagged in small plastic cups as a snack or dessert.

I can’t speak to açaí’s “superfood” health benefits, touted by Oprah, then challenged when we reached peak açaí in 2009. And the much-lauded “energy boost” it provides is partially due to a calorie count that would send diet-conscious Californians into fits. But I’m simply a fan of cold fruit in the morning, and have mentally linked açaí bowls to the relaxed surfer lifestyle I long for. If it reduces my body’s free radicals, great.

The pursuit of perfection is frustrating. My neighborhood café requires a painful wait, as if each piece of fruit and flake of granola is set with tweezers for maximum aesthetic value. On weekends, that’s fine: I loosen up, often toting my bowl to the beach. However, on weekdays, I am not well-adapted to a flexible concept of time. That day, Very Important Spreadsheets required my attention, and I needed the cogs to get moving so I could make it to my cubicle on time.

The artiste finally presented her finished product in a styrofoam bowl, which I was able to pay for this time: also at odds with my Type-A self: the credit card machine is perpetually broken, and sometimes she can’t make change for cash.

Sure, there are other, more organized places that made decent bowls, emptying plastic pouches into blenders and decorating the icy slush. This might even be more similar to Brazil’s treatment of açaí, where the dirt-tasting pulp is often sweetened with guarana syrup to an almost sickening degree, the final product resembling a gritty Amazonian slushee. But I like my açaí bowls thick. Don’t pretend the thin, soupy abominations creeping into “healthy lifestyle” cafés worldwide are comparable: in San Diego, açaí bowls should be something to sink your spoon into. Give me my neighborhood bowl any day.

Sneaking into my desk with seconds to spare, my coworkers and their #saddeskbreakfasts looked on with envy as I dug into the sweet purple mash, letting my mind temporarily drift to the beach. The açaí spooned out like smooth ice cream, and traditional toppings of bananas, crunchy granola, and sticky honey were joined by the Americanized additions of strawberries and blueberries. Maybe today I was staring at a computer monitor instead of the waves. But to me, it was a way to start the day with a reminder that soon my toes would be back in the sun-warmed sand, spoon in hand.

*Technically a drupe, not a berry.

The Benefits of Plantain Leaves 101

Jun.02.16

The Benefits of Plantain Leaves 101

by Nifty Jacob

Adda in Kerala

There’s something uncanny about the history my family shares with plantains. Green leaves freshly cut from a thick stalk in the mornings is a memory that surfaces often; that and the smell of grated coconut, the waft of black ginger tea, and a vision of ammachi’s (my grandmother’s) kitchen.

Adda is a traditional dish cooked in the southern state of Kerala, India. It is also one of which my family is particularly fond. Thick rice batter, flattened onto a banana leaf and stuffed with a handful of sweetened, grated coconut was ammachi’s staple every time we met her for breakfast.

Being part of a Syrian-Catholic household, every Sunday had a routine. First there was the morning mass at church. Next stop was her kitchen, made of brick walls and a thatched roof. Ammachi would make her appearance exactly five minutes after we did, the amount of time she needed to change from her Sunday outfit and remove her jewelry.

Right after she walked in, it was time to take count. “Two,” she’d say pointing at herself. “Four,” pointing at mom. “Seven,” pointing at my aunt. And on and on, she would do the sum in her mind, meticulously counting the number of adda’s that each person was likely to eat, and invariably the number of leaf packets she’d need to cook the adda in. Once she was done running the numbers, she would take her huge knife and walk out the backdoor to cut leaves from her carefully tended plantains. It was a task she didn’t trust anyone with.

“You will end up tearing the leaves,” she chided anyone who made the grave mistake of thinking they could be of help.

The women of the family would then gather around the kitchen counter and join the matriarch as she prepped for breakfast. The leaf packets were steamed for roughly seven minutes. The sweet aroma of coconut would hit the bridge of our noses by the fourth minute. By the fifth, we had already grabbed our plates and huddled over the old wooden table, with one creaky, broken leg. Soon, the chatter of my aunts pulling out hot addas and placing new ones in the steamer would fill the kitchen.

Tea was prepared twice, always. One round brewed for as soon as the men in the family woke up and another one to accompany breakfast. If it was adda, milk was put on the stove for a third round. It somehow made sense to have a hot beverage with which to drown each mouthful.

For a few of my cousins who disliked the routine, ammachi would unflinchingly deliver an interrupted session of ‘the benefits of plantain leaves – 101’ between flattening the dough and wagging a finger at them. It’s a tradition that I often think of, especially now that ammachi can no longer cook. The old kitchen is now replaced with a new, modular one. The creaky table is long gone. The plantains have slowly withered and died.

“Perhaps it’s time to start the routine all over again,” my mother said to ammachi, as we fed her breakfast one Sunday morning, after mass. Her eyes crinkled. She smiled a wide, toothless smile.

Tasting Freedom in the Form of an Airport Cold Cut

May.31.16

Tasting Freedom in the Form of an Airport Cold Cut

by Alexa van Sickle

Wurstsemmel at the Vienna Airport

For a little while there, Austria–one of Europe’s most reliably boring countries–got interesting.

The Presidential race–between Norbert Hofer, the far-right Freedom Party’s gun-toting candidate, and ex-Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen–went down to the wire, with Hofer ahead by 4% on election night, pre-postal vote count. As these final, decisive votes were tallied in fits and starts the following day, Austria’s media sites crashed. The live announcement was delayed, so the state media ran old episodes of a Bavarian soap opera instead. Reading my Twitter feed was like a nightmarish election-day version of Schrodinger’s Cat—a universe in which both candidates had won, and both had lost. Hofer wins!! VAN DER BELLEN IST PRESIDENT! Lies! Hofer still ahead by 60,000! Americans made comparisons to Bush-Gore 2000. And through it all, the Austrian media couldn’t decide on a hashtag.

Of course, when I landed at Vienna airport four days later, Van Der Bellen had prevailed, but only by a sliver of 31,000 votes (0.6%). I didn’t cast one of those votes. I’m not an Austrian citizen. Yet, my affection for Wurstsemmel, Austria’s beloved everyman sandwich, means that I will always have some Vienna blood.

Eating a Wurstsemmel is my ritual when I return to Austria. Vienna airport’s arrivals hall boasts a more-than-decent supermarket with a meat and cheese counter. So I get a Wurstsemmel, and unwrap the wax paper at a stand-up table under the arrivals board. I finish it before I even leave the airport.

It’s simple. Just a semmel (Kaiser roll), a round roll of sturdy white bread (think baguette, not Wonder) and a few thin slices of Extrawurst, which is exactly as suspect as it sounds. Extrawurst, Austria’s most popular lunchmeat, is a cold cut made of the combined greasy forces of beef, pork, and bacon fat, plus garlic and spices. It’s hot-dog-style scraps, and the color of a cartoon piglet. But I love it anyway. And that’s it: just meat and bread, and sometimes a little gherkin if you’re feeling fancy. Any more would ruin the perfect marriage of the soft, salty wurst and the hard crisp of the roll.

Austrians take their national snack very seriously. Kommissar Rex, a cop-and-dog TV series set in Vienna that became an international hit (yes, really), has a running gag involving the clever Alsatian, Rex, stealing the hapless sidekick’s Wurstsemmel. In 2013, McDonald’s was forced to pull an ad campaign comparing a Wurstsemmel unfavorably to its Ranchburger (which at the time both cost just one Euro) after outraged Austrians summoned a social media shitstorm.

So it’s only fitting that a few years back, when Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache (campaign slogan: Vienna must not become Istanbul!) showed up at an exclusive Christmas party, a disgruntled citizen hurled a Wurstsemmel at him. It didn’t end well; witnesses said Strache’s bodyguard got twitchy and gave the perpetrator, a 40-year old ex-banker, a black eye. (The worst part? He missed!). Strache beefed up his security afterwards.

As I tore into my Wurstsemmel under the airport arrivals board, I realized that without those 31,000 votes, it might have tasted a little different. That day might yet come. But for now, if Austrians keep throwing their Wurstsemmels at Hofer, we might have a few more years of freedom from the Freedom Party.

A Last Breakfast in Los Angeles

May.27.16

A Last Breakfast in Los Angeles

by Nathan Thornburgh

Eating with the good drunks of El Abajeño

It’s no secret that El Abajeño in Culver City is a crush, a craving, the reason I jump the taxi line at LAX on arrival.

I cling to places like El Abajeño (and Tito’s, and Azuma, and so on) because each visit to Los Angeles brings so much unwanted mess. This time, in no particular order, I got so high I had to eskimo roll my way out of a hammock in Boyle Heights; I got 86’d from a J-town karaoke bar; I wasted entire days in traffic on the 110, the 91 eastbound, and the 405 in both goddamned directions. Take the food out of LA, and it could be one of the worst cities on earth. Put the food in, and it is suddenly one of the best.

The last day of a weeklong visit, with a midday flight back to New York ahead, it is time for me and my kids to have our third and final visit to Abajeño. The beauty of the breakfast here is that it’s really not much different than the lunch or dinner. The entrees are just as comically oversized as later in the day. They all have lagoons of refried beans, and stewed meat that has been simmering since the last Copa America. Putting an egg on it and calling it Huevos Rancheros doesn’t fool me. It is the same trough of Guadalajaran goodness you’d find any other time of day.

Waiting in line, I call my seven-year-old son by his name, Nico, and bark at him in Spanish to pay attention and order his food. Me and my wife, who is half-Mexican, don’t speak great Spanish around the house. Mostly we only use it when we’re yelling at the kids. That’s a wildly ineffective strategy, unless the goal is to have them forever associate the language of Cervantes with punishment. But it’s our strategy.

From ahead of us in line, someone heard the boy’s name. “Nico!” the man says in Spanish. “That’s my name too.” My son cocks his head and looks at him. He’s mid-50s maybe, a bit sour-smelling with an unmistakable alcohol tan, but happily enough buying himself a full plate of food and a cold beer at 10am. His eyes twinkle. He gives Nico and thumbs up and goes to sit with his food.

We eventually make it to our own table with our own giant plates of food and get to work. Huevos rancheros, enchiladas afloat on a sea of sauce, a burrito the size of a muffler. It all gets eaten. If our plane later that day were to crash-land in the desert, our family would outlive all the other survivors, because we smuggled a week’s worth of food in our stomachs.

I’m thinking about taking my boy and going over to talk to the old, drunken version of Nico. He seems nice enough, and I’m always looking for ways to expose the kid to Spanish that’s not spoken in anger. I stand up from the table, though, only to see that old, drunken Nico has fallen asleep, his fork laid across his chilaquiles, his hand next to his beer.

Sunday Morning at an Empty Fish Market

May.26.16

Sunday Morning at an Empty Fish Market

by Jonathan Lipfriend

Fish stew at the Howrah Fish Market

It’s 20 past 6 in the morning and I am wandering the aisles of an empty fish market, the smell so overpowering that I am breathing solely through my mouth. The few men I meet in the deserted aisles ogle me as they pile boxes of ice or de-scale dead-eyed herring. The Howrah Fish Market is the largest and busiest fresh fish market in the Kolkata area, but apparently not on a Sunday morning.

The almost unbearable aroma slowly becomes the norm as I wander around aimlessly. The rationale had been to arrive as early as possible in the hope of seeing the market at its most majestic. While looking around at the empty stalls I manage to step in a puddle, and immediately recoil as I feel the ice-cold fish remains lap against my flip flopped foot.

I turn a corner and almost crash into a smiling, middle-aged man who, somewhat unexpectedly, grabs me by the hand and leads me through the maze of piled boxes. Awhad takes me to his shop and proudly presents me, like a trophy, to his younger brother Subodh.

Our conversation is little more than sign language but it’s peaceful watching them go about their morning chores. Awhad descales, chops, and slices a fish I don’t recognize. The smell of ginger, garlic, and chilli rises up to replace the fish as Subodh smashes spices into a paste. Feeling a little intrusive, I get up to say goodbye and leave them to their breakfast but they make themselves very clear: I can’t leave until I’ve tasted their stew. I follow Subodh up the rickety ladder leading to their home. For some reason their humble quarters, somewhere between a tree-house and a ship’s cabin, make me feel instantly at home. Awhad follows us up, nonchalantly balancing the pot of stew on a towel on his head.

As the stew is served a bottle of spirits materializes from beneath a shirt. Big grins all round. The stew is spicy, fragrant and unbelievably fresh, the miracle cure to the diabolical taste of the unknown spirits.

Emerging from the market at 8.30am, unexpectedly inebriated, I found Kolkata had well and truly awoken. I wobbled my way back to the bus station cowering beneath the Howrah Bridge, contemplating whether I had indeed succeeded, or drastically failed, to see the market at its most majestic.

Inhaling the Yeasty Scent of a Dying Art

May.25.16

Inhaling the Yeasty Scent of a Dying Art

by Prathap Nair

Baking bread in Berlin

After weighing a chunk of dough on an ancient scale, Fred Kühnel throws it to me over the kitchen counter of his bakery, dusted with flour. His assistants in checkered long pants and aprons pushed racks of little brötchens in and out of the ovens. The aroma of yeast and baking bread lingers in the kitchen, filling the morning air with the smell of breakfast. “Knead it slowly and shape it, dust it if you need,” he says.

While most of the city is still wriggling under its sheets, I am at a bakery in the Botanischer Garten neighborhood in the south of Berlin, dusting my hands with rye flour over 90s American pop music streaming out of the radio.

Bakeries like Kühnel have almost vanished from the urban landscape in Berlin, where the appreciation for bread is declining and chains are taking over the void left by family bakers who baked for generations. According to Kühnel’s own estimation, there are only approximately around 20 traditional bakers like him left in Berlin. The sourdough starter (sauerteig) at Kühnel’s is over a hundred years old, started when the bakery opened its door to customers in 1895.

As far as breakfasts go, this is as close as I will get to baking bread. My imprecise sense of proportions and heedlessness towards measured steps ensure my failure. Unlike other forms of cooking, bread baking demands a dedication to perfection I sorely lack. My attempts so far have been unsatisfactory at best – brick-like loaves that are heavy and dense without palatable texture.

I knead two chunks, dust them in flour and drop them in the loaf pans lined up for baking. Despite the presence of five other bakeries, most of them chains, in the vicinity, Kühnel’s customer base isn’t collapsing. On Sundays there is usually a queue outside the bakery. “People buy bread from different places these days. They like one particular bread from our bakery and other from another one. It stabilizes the business, not take it away from me,” he says.

Baking is hard, physical labor and interest among the younger generation is diminishing. Kühnel starts at 1.00 in the morning and baking in the kitchen goes on till 10.30 a.m. His bakery produces 15 different types of bread and 25 varieties of brötchen and they are periodically shifted to the display case in his bakery to be sold fresh every day. Left over bread from the previous day is shredded and added to the flour, adding another level of complexity to the bread’s taste.

As soon as my bread is ready, Künhel slips it into a special paper bag lined with butter paper supplied to maintain the freshness of the bread. The bread needs cooling down before it can be sliced. I take the train back, clutching my loaf in my hand, inhaling the ripeness of the yeasty bread and its mocha brown outer crust.

At home, I make coffee and slice the bread before serving myself two slices with a tiny portion of butter. Despite my poor kneading skills, the bread turned out to be more or less shapely, albeit with a broken crust that looks like parched earth. The hundred-year-old sourdough has done its job; each slice sunk into my teeth and each bite revealed the complex taste German bread is so famous for. A fleeting taste of a dying art being kept alive by passionate bakers like Kühnel.

Straying from the Path to Freedom for a Little Piece of Paradise

May.24.16

Straying from the Path to Freedom for a Little Piece of Paradise

by Olga Kovalenko

Tea and sweets in an Indian ashram

Rishikesh, in the North of India is known as the world capital of yoga. It was along my travel route and seemed like the right place to try a bit of the ashram life. I leafed through my guidebook and chose a respectable and affordable institution located on a hill on the outskirts of Rishikesh, in the middle of a forest filled with frolicking monkeys and chirping birds.

As I was climbing toward it, I imagined all kinds of wonders: yogi who breathe fire, starve to death, sleep in caves, and chase nirvana 24/7. When I entered the gates, my jaw dropped: instead of a cave, I saw something similar to a mellow hotel with a curfew and no Internet.

There were little houses scattered among lawns and clumps of trees. Every student was allocated one such house: a tidy, cool, small space supplied with all the basics. Yoga and meditation were practiced two times a day. We were provided with breakfast (after a 5:30am wake-up call and yoga session), lunch, 5 o’clock tea, and a snack. We had access to a library stacked with English-language books on spirituality and some British classics. In our free time we could sprawl on a lawn and chat, read or nap.

At the time when I arrived, there were around 15 people living in the ashram, some of them already weeks into this scheduled life of meditation. They looked satisfied.

The food in the ashram was vegan, but surprisingly tasty. There was even tea with milk and spices. The only thing that lacked was Indian sweets, a favorite of mine. I couldn’t imagine my breakfast without tea accompanied by a piece of something sugary and delicious, like my favorite burfi. I spent the meditation hours dreaming about those little milky slabs with cashews and pistachios spiced with cardamom or coconut. A diligent yogi would call this sweet-less situation a perfect set up for conquering the desires of the body. But I wasn’t a diligent yogi and I called it hell.

I was suffering quietly for a few days and almost resigned to a life without burfi, when I met A., an Indian girl from Delhi and my new neighbor. She knocked on my door one day and asked if I wanted to listen to music. Music was prohibited in the ashram, but nobody paid attention as long as it was kept indoors and at a low volume. And so we listened to music and talked, among other things, about food.

“Why don’t we go to the downtown?” asked A. “If we have any important things to do, we are allowed to go out for a few hours, right after breakfast.” Burfi sounded important enough to me, but the gatekeeper didn’t need to know about it.

Going out of a quiet ashram was like jumping into a roaring sea. We made our way through a crowd of shouting rickshaw drivers, vendors peddling their merchandise, beggars asking for alms toward a pastry shop. After a long and thorough examination of its showcase, we got a bag of almond and mango burfi and a few pieces of pistachio ones. Using our time-out to the fullest, we went to check our e-mails and spent the rest of our free time in the Internet café, drinking tea, munching on the burfi and reading the news stream. A diligent yogi would call it straying from the path to freedom. But I called it a perfect breakfast and a little piece of paradise.

Grading Shakespeare Papers in a Pancake House

May.23.16

Grading Shakespeare Papers in a Pancake House

by Susan Harlan

Flapjacks in Maggie Valley, North Carolina

“So what have you got there?” my waitress asks, turning over the coffee mug on my table.

“Papers to grade,” I say.

“Hmm. Coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

It’s the end of the academic year, and a stack of Shakespeare papers divides me from the summer. They must be graded, and I have come to Joey’s Pancake House to accomplish this. The small mountain town of Maggie Valley isn’t far from Asheville, but it’s a different kind of place. The town’s visitors are mostly bikers (of the motorcycle variety). Dinner isn’t farm-to-table; it’s bloody prime rib and potato. Breakfast is pancakes.

A pancake house is a perfect place to work, particularly on a rainy May day. The constant movement of people, the clanging of dishes, the bright lights, the endless coffee. I spend a lot of time in libraries, and they can be too silent. If you shift in your chair or rummage around for a pen, you disturb the universe. But this isn’t the case in a pancake house, a place so comfortable that its name assures you that you’re home. It’s a house, but with pancakes.

Joey’s opened in 1966 and replaced its sign just before its 50th anniversary. The old sign proclaimed JOEY’S PANCAKE HOUSE on a slightly yellowed and weathered background. Below, “& Restaurant” was rendered in cursive, as an afterthought. First, Joey’s is a pancake house, and then it is a restaurant. The new sign is similar, but it depicts a stack of syrupy pancakes and notes, “Since 1966.” The old sign was the past; the new sign looks back on the past.

The dining room feels timeless, or perhaps just out of time, with its wagon wheel chandeliers, wood paneling, green gingham window valances, and green padded booths. In an adjacent waiting room, people read over posters for spring festivals and visiting preachers.

My table is set with everything I could need: a caddy of Smucker’s Concord Grape and Strawberry Jelly packets, salt and pepper, sugar, syrup (two bottles), and a small dish of disposable white plastic creamers. The menu is printed on a paper placemat. Pancake house menus are plenitude embodied: eggs and omelets, French toast, waffles, breakfast meats, and starches – grits, hash browns, toast, and biscuits. Plain pancakes or pancakes with strawberries, blueberries, pecans, bananas, chocolate chips, or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Seemingly endless options.

Joey’s pancakes are pancakes of the South. There are pancake houses all over the country, but I didn’t have much experience with them until I moved to North Carolina, so to me, they are the South. My father made buckwheat pancakes when I was growing up, but these were healthy, California pancakes. They weren’t topped with a scoop of whipped butter.

My breakfast arrives on heavy, unbreakable diner dishes, cross-hatched by countless knives and forks: pancakes, two eggs over-medium, and a slab of ham. I set one of the eggs on top of the pancakes and puncture the yoke with my fork. And I read through my stack of papers, endeavoring to write legible comments and then placing each finished paper on another stack. When I accidentally spill coffee on one, I write an arrow next to the brown splotch and scribble, Oops sorry coffee. The stack of finished papers grows.

Customers pay at the cash register at Joey’s. I buy a mug, too – something to take home. When I walk back to my table to leave a tip, I see that it has already been cleared and reset, with new, spotless paper placemat menus. A paper placemat menu is only yours: you drip egg yolk and syrup on it, and then it is thrown away.

I survey the parking lot, trying to remember where my car is before I run out into the rain. Down the street, a large plastic bear stands guard in front of a souvenir shop, reared up on his hind legs, his mouth open and his paws outstretched. I pass him as I drive out of town, and it feels a little like driving into summer.

Feeling Like Yourself Again

May.20.16

Feeling Like Yourself Again

by Clementine Wallop

Lassi for the Pregnant in Jodhpur

It’s a late, late breakfast. The reason isn’t a long and lazy supper or too many cocktails on a roof the previous night. The reason is that I’m carrying a baby who is making me wretchedly, reliably sick several times a day and leaving me depleted, nauseous and not at all hungry.

Avoid spicy and fried foods, my pregnancy app says. Like some bad joke, it tells me this just as we’re landing in India. At mealtimes my husband is in clover, scarfing down curry after kebab and dosa after samosa. I am usually the first to the table, the queen of restaurant research, the last person to shy away from a new taste or a snack story to tell, but here I am off my game. Little makes me feel unlike myself like not wanting food. I shun intricately spiced dishes, gag at the thought of meat, manage a few weak spoonfuls of rice between periods spent on the bathroom floor, my head on the cold tiles. The woman who ate scorpions and drank fermented horse milk seems a long way away.

But here we are in Jodhpur and word is there’s a lassi we must try. I picture it and don’t immediately feel sick so we’re good to go. We hammer along in a sky blue tuk tuk that matches the city buildings, push and honk our way through hypercolor crowds out buying powders and water pistols for Holi. I focus hard on not being sick, though there’s no horizon to look towards for steadiness in the chaos of Jodhpur’s streets. By the clock tower there’s the lassi stop with open sides and a counter where a man with a fine mustache is ladling out plastic beakers of pale yellow whipped yoghurt. We find some space in the corner of the restaurant; we are dull in a room of ruby and rose saris. I spoon some lassi up tentatively. It’s spiced: black dots of cardamom, a taste of flowers, a smack of saffron. Next to me people are using oily fingers to pull apart snacks of curling green chillies that have been dough-dunked and deep fried. It would be appealing usually but today my limit is the lassi. I keep spooning. It’s sweet sweet sweet, cutting through the metallic taste in my mouth and the disappointment of my recent diet. I continue, I scrape the cup out. I feel soothed and settled.

A waiter comes, swinging a metal cup holder stuffed with twelve more lassis he’s passing around the busy room. He looks at me, waves the holder, makes a questioning face: ‘you want another?’

For the first time in some time, I consider it.

When Breakfast Has Eight Legs

May.18.16

When Breakfast Has Eight Legs

by Brady Ng

Eating tarantulas in Phumi Khna

Beads of sweat roll down the man’s lean torso, their paths interrupted by a scar decades old. Jam Wai used to hunt the Khmer Rouge, but these days he lives a quiet life in a bamboo hut along Cambodia’s Route 67. In the past few years, he even picked up a new trade. His prey now has eight legs, or six. They are tarantulas and scorpions, and he sells them to restaurants and streetside vendors who serve them as food.

Jam Wai’s gear is minimal: a trowel attached to a wooden pole, its edge sharpened; a bamboo cage, carried by his son, who joins him on hunts; a twig, snapped off from any nearby tree; his bare hands.

The May heat scorches the fallow rice fields, and the rains are late. Tarantulas and scorpions burrow beneath loose dirt to escape the heat until dusk falls. Jam Wai sends his children ahead to scout for nests. It doesn’t take long before our trek brings us to the first few.
He examines a mound, determines that there is, in fact, something below. He raises his trowel-staff, aiming the sharp edge at his concealed prey. He has a couple feet of dirt to get through. A few hard strokes remove earth, then he slows down to dig with precision. Going too deep too quickly would only damage the prize.

He kneels to continue digging with his bare hands. The tarantula, sensing an opening to escape this new threat, makes a run for it, but Jam Wai already has it pinned down with the twig.
He picks it up, grabs his trowel, and presses the tarantula’s head against the bladed end. A slow, hard press shaves off the arachnid’s fangs, which Jam Wai tosses into the brush. Its only means of defense removed, the tarantula cowers in Jam Wai’s palm. Venom pools in his weathered flesh. There’s enough to kill two or three people. The spider shrinks. It’s in pain and fear.
Some say Cambodians eat insects because the Khmer Rouge devastated the country in the mid-1970s, causing widespread famine, and foraging insects for food was the only way to survive. But the fact is that various insects—crickets, silkworms, water bugs, scorpions, tarantulas, and more—have been part of Khmer cuisine for generations. Red ants almost taste like cumin, and are used to flavor beef. Black beetles and locusts are fried and served with garlic. Termite eggs are cooked into salty, sour soup.

Normally, a day of hunting, with help, can yield over 100 spiders and scorpions. But Jam Wai is aware of the dangers of over-hunting. From December to February, he takes a break to let the bugs regrow their population. During that period, he works on a dragonfruit farm to supplement his income.

We continue the trek, and Jam Wai gathers a few more tarantulas, called a-ping in Khmer, as well as a handful of scorpions, their stingers sliced off in the same manner. When we return to his hut, the bugs are dunked into a basin of well water and cleaned. Then they are seasoned and lowered into a pool of cooking oil heated over coals. Sliced garlic sends pleasant smells through the woods nearby.

Jam Wai enjoys the trade. One of his clients is Bugs Cafe, a hip restaurant in Siem Reap that combines the traditional use of insects in Khmer cooking with French and other recipes. The restaurant’s chef, Seiha Soeun, accompanies us, and explains how he himself was a little apprehensive about cooking bugs at first. But once he tried a few dishes—bug burgers, tarantula tempura, stir-fried silkworms—he became hooked.

Breakfast is served. Scorpions are bitter but tarantulas are fleshy and kind of taste like chicken. They’re all great. I stick a few more in my mouth, tossing aside only the pincers.

She Despised the Flavor of Short Cuts

May.16.16

She Despised the Flavor of Short Cuts

by Kim Green

Handmade Bánh canh in Cambodia

As my second trip to Cambodia approached, I craved noodles for breakfast. I’d gone there the first time to interview Chantha, a successful social entrepreneur and 50-something survivor of the wars and revolutions that cut short the carefree part of her childhood before she was ten years old. We were planning to co-write her memoir. But in interviews, the stories came with difficulty, and through many tears.

Sharing meals loosened her memories, especially during our early-morning soup stops on roadtrips together. I came to love those pit stops. We slurped fat noodles and sweet iced coffee while memories of breakfasts with her parents in Battambang in the 1960s percolated to the surface—same damn dish every day, she grinned. “I didn’t like the Chinese noodle soup,” she said, “but I was a child. I had no choice.” Now, that same damn soup conjures school mornings with her mom.

By age 24, Chantha’s entire family was gone. Alone in communist Saigon, she eked by on rations, then spent the next decade in Thai refugee camps, boiling skeletal chickens over jury-rigged kerosene burners. What sustained her through the years of narrowed hope and meager fare was the memory of sumptuous dishes her mother taught her to prepare. She returned to ruined Cambodia and scraped out a new life with her young family—in part, by reviving her mom’s recipes.

On my second visit, I figured, more research was needed—often (I hoped) in the form of noodles. I stayed at Chantha’s house this time, and her history unfurled in the steam and aromas of resurrected recipes. My favorite: bánh canh, a thick Vietnamese soup with noodles made from rice flour.

Late one morning, as dust and moto noise streams into her kitchen from a busy Phnom Penh street, she teaches me to make the dough. “You need strong hands,” she says, adding hot water to the squeaky flour and letting me mash it with my fingers.

The way her mother made it, she explains, was much more labor-intensive. “Now I make it faster, so less special,” says Chantha, as she pats the dough into ovals and instructs me to cut it into thick noodles with scissors. “My mother would never—“ she adds, shaking her head.

We are doing it wrong. Her mother consumed a whole day in this process, rolling each noodle by hand into a perfect cylinder—no scissors allowed. To Chantha’s mom, the best dishes were the ones that required the most effort, and she despised the flavor of short cuts.

Chantha chops up a chicken, sautés it with garlic, and makes a broth, then adds the noodles—which thicken the soup to a glutinous creaminess. We top with fried garlic, chopped scallions, cilantro, black pepper, fire-red chili, and fried dough from a street vendor. In ecstasies, I slurp down one, then another bowlful. Eating takes a fraction of the time spent cooking.

I don’t know many people back home who would consider making fresh noodles, by any method, an easy way out. To me, the soup is splendid; it tastes of Chantha’s careful handiwork and her great affection for the people she feeds.

I write down the recipe in my notes under the heading, “Bánh canh: How (and WHY) to make it”—to remind me, once I get home, that making something as perfect as you can, as an act of love, is generally worth the effort.

The Gloriously Sweet and Spicy Breakfast Pillow

May.13.16

The Gloriously Sweet and Spicy Breakfast Pillow

by Nick Pachelli

After surviving the type of severe turbulence that comes with flying into Albuquerque in the spring, I wobbled through the airport flanked by jars of red and green chile. A clear blue sky engulfed the desert outside, where a patchwork of chamisa bushes and tumbleweeds rustled around the tarmac.

When I visit Albuquerque, I always seek out the same food: enchiladas and burritos “christmas”—smothered in red and green chile—and sopapillas with red chile. I must have eaten thousands of sopapillas between the years of 1991 and 2009, and a couple hundred since then, when I left Albuquerque for California.

The sopapilla is a somewhat plain option, but with a satisfyingly sweet flavor and a bready, pretzel-like texture. The New Mexican version, its wheat flour and masa harina leavened with butter, is a 200-year-old adaption of Spanish fry bread and a chubby, less crunchy cousin to the sopaipa and cachanga of Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. It comes in either a square or triangular shape, and is served with honey, butter, and the occasional side of red or green chile.

There’s a hypnotic quality to watching sopapillas being made. The dough is rolled out into perfect squares, hand-slapped to invigorate the wheat flour and masa harina mix, and placed in the hot oil. It swims around the pool with a low gurgle and expands into small, golden pillows before being transferred to a red wireframe basket.

Everyone in New Mexico eats sopapillas—the kids drench them in honey, the adults stuff them with chile and ground beef. Hot, crunchy carbohydrates covered in stuff both sweet and savory: there’s no way not to love them. (In gluttonous fashion, they’re made in a seven-pound variety for eating challenges across the city.)

I opt for my “sopa and red” at El Camino Dining Room, the 1940s-themed diner with whitewashed adobe walls and a red chile recipe that hasn’t changed since the place opened in 1950. It’s one of the few eateries in the city that retains its neon Route 66 theme. With the local mailman, farmer, and clay potter taking their morning java at the counter and chatting with the owners about the past week, the place retains its status as a local treasure.

While I waited, I scanned the menu and gazed outside at the motor motel across the street with the vintage 1960s sign that reads, “Vacancy… Color TV.” The smell of simmering red chile with its oniony undercurrent pulsed through my section. A few minutes later, my sopa and red landed on the table.

The result was wonderfully nostalgic and spicier than I remembered. The red chile came in a small bowl and the sopapillas landed on the table in a cloud of steam—crispy and flaky on top and tender at the seam. I tore a corner off one and dipped the open edge into the red chile, swirling it around and catching the scent of garlic steaming off the soggy dough. There could be no better breakfast bite on a windy Albuquerque morning.

To Remain Loyal, Embrace Change

May.12.16

To Remain Loyal, Embrace Change

by Shraddha Uchil

Sheera in Mumbai

It’s early in the morning, way too early for me to be up. But here I am, walking down the street, in desperate need of breakfast. On my right is a temple where the morning pooja is in full swing, the sounds of a hundred cymbals clanging away in harmony. Outside the temple, hawkers urge me to buy garlands of flowers for the idol. I politely decline and walk faster, eager to get to my destination before the whole neighborhood descends on it.

I’m headed to Ram Ashraya, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Udupi restaurant in a Mumbai suburb called Matunga, which has long been home to a large community of South Indians, thus earning itself the name “mini Madras.” When you’re in Matunga, you’re transported away from the hurried, brash Mumbai, and into a world that could very well be author RK Narayan’s fictional South Indian town of Malgudi, albeit with a dash of cosmopolitan flavor.

For over 70 years, Ram Ashraya’s kitchen has been churning out crisp, buttery dosas and fluffy idlis doused in sambhar for its loyal patrons.

I remember the first time I visited Ram Ashraya. It was four years ago, when I was a newbie in this big bad city called Mumbai, and when eating out on weekends still meant frequenting inexpensive joints that wouldn’t burn a hole in my pocket. The fragrance of strong filter coffee hung in the air, enticing all those walking past. It clearly worked, because standing with me was a swarm of people determined to get a table inside. I persevered, and a half hour later I was seated. Thus began a love affair with a breakfast treat.

I don’t visit as often as I used to, but when I do, even the hour-long wait on weekends can’t deter me.

This time, I’m in luck: the restaurant isn’t as crowded as usual, so I pull up a chair at a tiny two-seater table. Ram Ashraya is a no-frills eatery. You enter, eat, pay, leave. They don’t have the time to brandish fancy menus or give you more attention than necessary. Instead, the waiter rattles off the names of dishes available on that day, the name of each dish merging with the next, giving you something that sounds like “IdliSambharMysoreMasalaDosaMysoreSadaMeduVada.”

If you’re familiar with the routine, you understand Waiterspeak. And if you’re anything like me, you don’t much care for it. You already know what you’re here for: the sheera.

This breakfast offering is also referred to as kesari bhath (saffron rice) in northern Karnataka, which is where Ram Ashraya’s version was perfected. The dish is essentially sweetened, ghee-laden semolina studded with raisins and cashew nuts. But the cooks at Ram Ashraya take this Udupi menu staple to another level. Walk in before 10 am, and you’ll be served the former kind. However, arrive when the clock strikes 10: 01 am and you’re introduced to a whole new world of flavored sheera, from the not-too-uncommon pineapple to the outlandish mango, strawberry, and butterscotch. What’s even more surprising, however, is the ease with which the people residing in the locality have adapted to, nay, embraced this innovation, including the orthodox South Indians who would rather give up their Carnatic music than veer from tradition.

With this thought in my mind, I devour the contents of the two plates before me, one a banana sheera and the other, guava, the flavors of the day. As I’m walking out, I realize why everyone keeps coming back: because change, after all, is the only constant.

Rainy Day Sandwiches No. 12 & 35

May.11.16

Rainy Day Sandwiches No. 12 & 35

by Tom Taylor

Soy Milk in Taiwan

When my plane touched down in Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport, the rain was coming down steadily. The wet tarmac glistened in the the airport’s panoply of lights, while an army of poncho-wearing ground staff guided our plane to its gate. Because I was arriving from the relentless hell-heat of southern Vietnam, this was all a welcome sight. After several weeks spent coated in a perma-glaze of sweat, the notion of a cool, rainy night was undeniably appealing.

By the time my third night in Taiwan had rolled around, however, the rain hadn’t let up. This soggy trend continued into my fourth night, by which time I’d arrived in the country’s center city, Taichung. By this point, I was beginning to miss the ceaseless sunshine of Vietnam.

For a traveler, though, the show must go on—even in the rain—for every day spent inside is a day deprived of new experiences. And so, on my first morning in the waterlogged city of Taichung, I put on a sweater, some ratty jeans, and a pair of Converse—the closest thing to rain gear I had in my bag—and set out in search of breakfast. Because a good friend of mine was an English teacher in the city, this first meal of the day was thankfully not a difficult thing to find.

I rendezvoused with my friend at a restaurant called Lai Lai, on the corner of Xitun and Wenxin Roads, which he told me was one of his favorite breakfast spots. Given that the line to the restaurant’s counter spilled out onto the rain-soaked sidewalk, it was clearly a favorite among locals, too.

While we waited in line, I scanned the menu board above the counter, trying, without success, to make some sense of an indistinguishable clutter of Chinese characters. As it turns out, however, these efforts were pointless, as my friend had already decided what we’d be eating. Relying on the impressive amount of Mandarin he’d picked up in the eight months he’d lived in Taichung, he placed our order with the cook, who flipped omelets and fried eggs on a steaming grill. A minute or two later, we paid up and were handed our trays.

I still wasn’t sure what I’d be eating.

The answer, as it turns out, was a Taiwanese egg sandwich, accompanied by a tall glass of frothy soy milk. The sandwich was wonderfully simple: a small omelet, seasoned with snippets of green onion and black pepper, and wrapped in a flaky, sesame-seed-sprinkled Chinese flatbread called shaobing. Each sandwich came in a small, transparent plastic bag, which I instinctively tried to remove. My friend, however, stopped me to recommend that I eat the sandwich from the bag to help mitigate the inevitable flaky mess. So, heeding his advice, I dug in, pulling the bag back with each warm, crunchy bite and washing each bite down with a sip of sweet soy milk.

Outside, the rain continued to come down in sheets, as waves of umbrella-toting locals shuffled off on their morning errands. As the steam rose from sandwich, and the smell of fresh bread and fried eggs filled the air, I thought to myself that there could be no better breakfast on such a soggy morning.

In the Land Where You Can Go Anywhere and the Food Is Good

May.10.16

In the Land Where You Can Go Anywhere and the Food Is Good

by Calvin Godfrey

Nasi Ulam in Penang

I got to the Palau Tikus market at roughly 6:30 am to find that “Madame Khaw” hadn’t shown up yet. After a curious cup of milk coffee and half an hour of dumb stumbling through crates of vegetables and icey-eyed fish, Khaw’s bicycle-mounted restaurant sailed up onto the market’s northwestern sidewalk.

A small, round woman hopped down onto the pavement and set to work. A tiny brass abacus dangled from round her neck as she leaned forward and to pull plastic off metal bowls overflowing with technicolor curries, stewed snails, and chicken feet, delicately fried and braised until the meat fell off the bone.

Khaw had cooked a whole wedding feast in her apartment and brought it out for breakfast.

Khaw flipped on a small fan jerry-rigged to a motorbike battery, dropped a stool at her side and passed me pieces of lompok pork roll, pickled eggplant, chili-soaked cucumber. The flavors here had an intimacy; the food one only finds at a grandmother’s house.

My heart nearly seized when she filled a plastic container with nasi ulam—heavenly rice tossed with slivered herbs and pungent rhizomes.

One person who’d failed to find her at the market heard that Khaw had emigrated to Canada to live with her daughter.

“Ha, no!” Khaw said. “I was just visiting my sister in Vancouver! She took me on a holiday to Miami. The beach was beautiful, but there’s nothing there. The food … was nothing. No spice.”

Khaw found Disney World equal parts big and boring.

“Four days and nothing to see there. And too hot!”

Khaw, who insisted I call her “Dolly,” couldn’t imagine leaving the island.

“I like Penang,” she said. “Because I can go anywhere and eat and I know it’s going to be good—the taste is going to be right.”

A Perfect Breakfast, Nourishing and Unpretentious

May.09.16

A Perfect Breakfast, Nourishing and Unpretentious

by Jodi Bosin

Eggs in Japan

The schedules of businesses on the island had proved to be unpredictable. A phrase about “island time” comes to mind, though no one here bothered to use an adage to excuse unpunctuality. On Naoshima, an island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, life is so serene it doesn’t even matter.

One of the so-called “art islands,” Naoshima is a surreal place, filled with sculptures, gorgeous museums designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and a series of artist-renovated homes called the Art House Project.

I like long mornings, so I’d set out for a bakery that allegedly opened at 8 am, where I’d planned to spend a few hours before the Art Houses opened. Upon arriving around 8:30 I found it closed, with no activity inside and no indication of when it would be open. It didn’t make sense to walk back to my hostel, so I resigned myself to wandering. I saw a sign for a supermarket and made my way over but it, too, was closed. I began to lose hope for breakfast redemption.

Then I noticed a friendly wooden sign that said “open” in front of a house near the supermarket. I couldn’t see inside, but it seemed promising. I passed through the threshold, took off my shoes, and entered a café that seemed to be inside someone’s living room. The space was bright and filled with wooden tables. On the shelves sat an array of lovely vases, lamps, ceramic bowls, magazines, jars of preserved fruit, and flowers. A family of four sat on cushions at one of the tables, having breakfast. A TV was on in a corner, tuned to a Japanese cooking show in which an old woman was showing a young woman how to make the components of a meal. Attached to the main room was an average looking kitchen, cluttered with knick-knacks, piles of paper, and notes on the refrigerator, endearingly incongruous with the café atmosphere beside it.

I took a seat, and a kind-looking woman with graying hair in a ski vest and slippers came over with a menu. It wasn’t in English, but I gathered that the only choice was the breakfast set so I ordered it, accustomed by now to getting set meals without needing to know what they contained.

Soon after, she brought out a large black tray artfully arranged with coffee, thick buttered toast, a salad with the tasty miso dressing that seemed ubiquitous, yogurt with a kiwi sauce, and an egg with some salt. Like all the eggs that had graced the many bowls of ramen I’d had in Japan, this one was perfectly soft boiled, its yolk a bright, beautiful orange. The meal was simple and nourishing, unpretentious but somehow perfect.

Afterward I lingered awhile, in no hurry and at peace. Normally the sound of a TV would bother me, but I didn’t mind it. The family had left and it was just me in the sunlit space. The owner worked in her kitchen, washing vegetables, talking on the phone, unperturbed by my prolonged presence, a guest in her home. When ten o’clock arrived, I took my leave of the chance encounter and stumbled back out into the sunshine.

A Good Piece of Bread Can Remind You Who You Are

May.06.16

A Good Piece of Bread Can Remind You Who You Are

by Anuradha Sengupta

Pois in Goa

“I am a Barbie girl, in my Barbie world…”

A beat-up music system is belting out the 90s hit. It is early morning. I am at St Rita, a bakery in Aldona, North Goa. Established in 1964, it is the only remaining bakery with a traditional earthen oven in the area. I am here to pick up some fresh-off-the-oven local breads for breakfast. I am here on a holiday, staying with my cousin.

Bread is a staple at most meals here and comes in many shapes and sizes, as evidenced by the preparations at the bakery. The workers move with ballet-like precision. Palm-sized circles of dough are being rolled out and arranged on stone slabs, dusted with wheat bran, placed on wooden trays, stacked on shelves and left to rise. In one room, prepped dough rounds are being placed deftly into the oven with a long-handled wooden paddle. Some of the dough rounds are snipped with scissors, spread into squares, and baked into butterfly-shaped katre paos. Others are rolled into long cylindrical forms and made into circular ring-like shapes; these are the hard-crusted konkons, a teatime favorite. Small rectangle-shaped dough will be made into pao, small loaves which are buttered for breakfast, used to mop up curries, and wrapped around fritters, much like hot dog buns.

In a couple of hours, the breads will be delivered across the neighborhood via bicycles mounted with baskets covered in blue tarp. Meanwhile, I pick up an assortment from the first batch and head home, inhaling the aroma of freshly baked wheat laced with toddy.

Goa is the only state in India where baked bread is a big thing. Mornings in Goa begin with the ritual purchase of the day’s supply of breads from the poder, an adaptation of the Portuguese pãdeiro, or baker. The Portuguese invaders brought bread to Goa. It was their missionaries who trained locals how to bake bread, albeit using local materials, lacing the bread not with yeast, but with local fermented liquor.

I spent a year in Goa sometime in early 2000, working on an AIDS awareness project. My memories of Goa are punctuated by culinary experiences: of vindaloos and sorpotels, of xacutis and cafreals, and of crusty, chewy warm breads. My favorite was the poi: pita-like wholewheat circles which I’d stuff with cucumber, tomatoes, herbs, and crumbly cheese made in the hills of Kodai. These pockets were wholesome and convenient snacks for busy days in the field interviewing locals about their sex lives. I must have eaten thousands of poi then, and at least a few hundred more on my trips back.

This time, too, my stay has been filled with encounters with pois and paos. On my last day, I have the most divine brunch of chorizo-pao and garlicky, olive-oil drizzled poi with a beetroot salad at Black Sheep Bistro, a new-ish restaurant in Panjim. The chef says he gets the bread from a bakery similar to St Rita, with a wood-fired oven. “It’s just around the corner,” he tells me. He probably recognizes a major fan of all things bread, for he whips out his phone and begins to show photos he has clicked of the bakery. He has just returned from a stretch outside Goa. “Food evokes the past,” he says. “You bite into a poi, and it reminds you of who you are.”

You Can’t Rush Perfection in Life or in Pancakes

May.05.16

You Can’t Rush Perfection in Life or in Pancakes

by Jodi Bosin

Congyoubing in Shanghai

I knew it when I saw it, a phenomenon I’d come to rely on in searching for local food stands in Shanghai. In theory, the place had a name and address, but none of that was evident, so I wandered around the intersection until I spotted a small alley with a line of people and the smell of scallions. This must be the place.

I approached the line and peered past the crowd into the small window set in a stone wall. In the shadowy space an ancient man stood hunched over a griddle, in the midst of the methodical process of preparing congyoubing, scallion pancakes. Further back was a table of mixing bowls filled with scallion-speckled dough and a door that led into a darkened room. He worked very slowly. After mixing the dough, he placed piles of it in neat rows on the griddle, flattening the ones in the middle. He watched them closely, flipping and rearranging them, while the piles on the edges warmed and waited their turn. Scallion pancakes come in many forms, but these were very particular; small and thick, like none I’d seen before. They took awhile to cook through due to their proportions. When the pancakes were sufficiently done, he slid the griddle over to reveal an old-looking oven underneath, a stone circle with a fire in the middle. He placed the pancakes around the edges and slid the griddle over to let them cook.

The whole process probably took about 20 minutes, his movements deliberate and plodding, the crowd restless. Some even abandoned the line, perhaps late for work, but I had nowhere else to be. His progress was almost painful to watch. He seemed way too old to be working, and he was bent over at an alarming angle, his back clearly in terrible shape. I felt a mixture of pity, compassion, and impatience. As he waited for the pancakes to cook he chatted with some of the customers. To my dismay, in spite of the alarming appearance of his health, he lit a cigarette, which he smoked in slow motion, the way he did everything else.

After an eternity, he finally deemed the batch ready, reaching into the fire to remove each congyoubing and handing out the requested amounts to the fortunate patrons who made the cut this time. I took my fresh, oily treasure, wrapped in a piece of brown paper, out into the drizzling morning. The exterior was crunchy and the inside hearty and warm, the perfect antidote for a dreary day. But the acquisition of the breakfast felt like more than something to eat. It was the completion of a small quest, an expedition to a dragon’s lair, an encounter with the mythical.

A Breakfaster First and a Traveler Second

May.04.16

A Breakfaster First and a Traveler Second

by Brent Crane

Roti in Kuala Lumpur

The roti man was both an abuser and a creator. In his ancient storefront, he pulverized the dough, stretched the dough, pulled the dough, and, finally, when it was stretched thin and face-sized, he let it brown and crisp on his griddle.

Middle-aged and black-mustached, the cook was the master roti maker of Kuala Lumpur’s Old Train Station. At least that is what it appeared to me, a clueless wanderer and first timer in this historic landmark; a newbie to the whole city, for that matter. And here I was, leaving on my second day for greener, less populated pastures: Penang, an island four hours north by bullet train.

“My train leaves in twenty minutes,” I said to the roti man as a sort of passive warning. I was running late but the roti had trapped me. It did not faze him.

“No problem sir. Something to drink? Coffee? Iced. Yes, sir. Please sit, sir.”

I did as the roti man said. I am a breakfaster first and traveler second.

At 9 am, the open-air dining area was moderately full, Malays and Indians sitting alone or in groups, commuters and travelers all of them, because we were in a train station.

There was the roar of the trains coming and going below and, periodically, a stream of passengers—Malays, Tamils, Indians, Han Chinese, Hakka Chinese, the whole Malaysian rainbow—passing through the ticket gate, which was right there by my table.

I approached the dark-skinned, mustached Indian ticket attendant, a Hulk. I handed him my ticket. With the clock ticking and the roti cooking, I needed reassurance that I was in the right place.

“Coming just on that platform, sir,” he said and pointed one barrel-sized arm down the stairs. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes to arrival.

My iced coffee came as soon as I sat back down, Malay style, white coffee, made with robusta beans roasted in butter and delivered to me by a man with a tough face in a tropical island shirt. I sipped it through a straw as I took in the surrounds. One hundred and six years old, the station is a marvel of colonial architecture.

The station is white and airy, with diamond cutout window patterns and Mughal-inspired spires, a masterful melding of east and west. Through the windows, I could see to the abandoned tracks below overgrown with grass and other weeds, with rusty, hulking lorries waiting in vain for their next ride.

My roti arrived, perfectly charred and with a small bowl of dipping sauce, a chili curry with chicken bits and bay leaves. I tore apart the roti with a fork and spoon, using the spoon as a knife. Pain from the chili woke me up just as much as the caffeine.

Fifty cents later, I am walking past the Hulk and down to my platform through the ancient station. The train was punctual, a giant white snake, new to this world and looking suspiciously out of place in this fading vestige of colonialism. It was part of the new Malaysia: efficient, shiny, and right on time. I stepped inside, into a brave new world of AC, plush seats, and sliding-glass doors opened with a button. My stomach full and mouth burning, I was off to Penang at high speed.

Longing for Cream and Jam Early in the Morning

May.03.16

Longing for Cream and Jam Early in the Morning

by Pedestrian

Sarshir in Khuzestan

Soft boil an egg left for you by one of the hens in the garden. Pour yourself a cup of tea. Spread some sarshir (cream) or kareyeh gavmish (butter) on a warm, fresh piece of bread that smells of toasted cumin and sesame seeds. Then add some morabayeh albaloo (tart cherry jam) to the spread and roll it into a small sandwich. The cream is thick but soft, the golden orange egg yolk is bursting with flavor, the tart cherry jam is sweet and piquant, adding texture to the richness of the butter or cream. Take a bite from the bread, and sip some tea to wash it down. Welcome to breakfast in Iran’s south west Khuzestan province.

Across Khuzestan, breakfast comes by way of the female water buffalo. The mighty creatures bask in the cool, crisp waters of the Shatt Al Arab River. Their keepers, the marsh Arabs who live along the Shatt, sell their water buffalo milk to chefs in the cities, who in turn use it as the main ingredient in breakfast foods like shirberenj, ferni, and sarshir. To get used to the sweet, luscious taste of water buffalo dairy is to forevermore shun everything that comes in a package at the supermarket. Even the best cow’s milk tastes like “chalk” compared to water buffalo milk, Abdullah, who has been keeping water buffalo for nearly 40 years, tells me. A native of Khuzestan who is far from home will live the rest of their days longing for an early-morning gav mish (water buffalo) breakfast.

Sarshir is cream eaten with jam or honey and lavash or taftoon flat bread, which used to be baked at home but is now increasingly bought at the neighborhood bakery. Ferni, enjoyed both hot and cold, is made with milk and rice flour, a soft, sweet desert enjoyed for breakfast or Ramadan sehur. Plenty of local carrot or albaloo jam is topped on shirberenj before eating, a thick rice pudding made with whole rice and water buffalo milk. There must always be an early riser in the household to step out and buy these foods, since shops open after morning prayer and close soon after sunrise.

If you walk the streets during those hours, you will find people waiting by a door, copper bowls or pots in hand. These are eager customers who have come to purchase their morning meal. The foods are cooked by at least one dairy chef in the neighborhood, in his home, and sold at the front door. Their door will open again in the evening, before the maghrib (sunset) prayer, by which time the water buffalo are sound asleep.

Life Is Good When Breakfast Is Plentiful

May.02.16

Life Is Good When Breakfast Is Plentiful

by Bonnie Lei

Dopuh Nweh in Yangon

Ya ba de. Pronounced in a Burmese drawl, it’s a mix between the Beatles crooning Let it Be and Pumba and Timon bopping to Hakuna Matata. That’s alright, no worries, life is good, life flows on. For a country transitioning between military junta rule and nascent democracy, the phrase encompasses both resiliency during decades of oppression and hope and optimism for the future. For me, ya ba de is a life philosophy I have adopted for embracing the delightful and sometimes challenging quirks of living in Yangon.

I’m jarred awake by the yelping alley dogs. My phone, and with it my morning alarm, had died when the electricity cut off. Ya ba de! I’m a few minutes late to work, but I can grab breakfast on the go.

I squeeze sardine-style onto the rickety public bus. As the vehicle huffs its way through infamous Pyay Road traffic, I perch on a wooden plank between redolent armpits. Ya ba de! I get to practice conversational Burmese while using local transport, and the money I save can be spent on food.

And 30 minutes later, I am pushed off the still moving bus into one of Yangon’s finest wet markets. In an early-bird society that regularly wakes before dawn, the crowds have already thinned by now. But to my eyes, the narrow walkways are still crammed full of shoppers and vendors. I respectfully elbow my way through the throngs.

My first stop is to visit my a daws, aunties who present a variety of tea sweets in bamboo baskets. Today’s choices include sticky rice doughnuts—crackly sugar crust giving way to mochi-like chew—and puffy brown sugar pancakes griddled to order over coals. I hesitate, debating which to indulge in. Who am I kidding? Ya ba de! I take one of each.

Even before I walk 10 paces, all that are left of the sweets are crumbs. Properly fortified, I am now ready to bargain for whichever fruit is in season. Currently, it is plump little mango plums, harbingers of the bigger mangos which will ripen in a few weeks’ time. These baby versions have a puckery tartness to them, balanced usually in local recipes with sugar and chili powder. I like to pop them as is, the acidic zing my alternative to caffeine. How about 500 kyats for 10? Ya ba de! An all-natural waker-upper for less than 50 cents.

Next, I cross the railway tracks to my favorite roadside Shan noodle shop. The nyi ma lays, little sisters, recognize me, and ask if I want “the usual.” Ya ba de! My favorite Myanmar noodle dish, dopuh nweh. Uncongealed Shan tofu serves as a creamy chickpea sauce that slumps around sticky rice noodles, curried pork, and peanuts. It is the perfect comfort food. The secret ingredient found only at this shop is their homemade carrot pickles, added as you like tableside. For me, that means generous heaping spoonfuls, greedily nibbled until the fermented goodness gives me the kick I need to hightail it the rest of the way to the office.

Ya ba de! Life is delicious. Life is good.

Waiting in Limbo for Visas, Money, Tickets, and Job Offers

Apr.29.16

Waiting in Limbo for Visas, Money, Tickets, and Job Offers

by Olga Kovalenko

Nescafé in Hanoi

When I got out of a train in Hanoi, I had around 20 bucks in my pocket. It was enough for a taxi downtown and some modest meals until I could get money transferred to my bank account. Back in Ho Chi Minh, I was tipped off about an affordable hostel located in the middle of the Hanoi Old Quarter, near the Hoàn Kiếm Lake. I could reach lots of sights by foot and diversify my diet, which for the last two days consisted of plain baguettes.

The hostel was tucked between unremarkable buildings in a back alley. I walked a few times past it before I saw the sign. When I asked about room rates at the reception, a young guy with matted hair waved in a relaxed way: “You can pay now, can pay later, it’s okay.” But what lured me to stay there, in the end, was free breakfast with unlimited coffee.

When I dropped my bag in a dormitory and got on the rooftop to break my baguette fast of the last two days, I discovered that I wasn’t the only smart face on that ship. One by one, sleepy and disheveled, other travelers climbed up the stairs and sat around the table that occupied the whole terrace.

Emilio, an Italian with perfect English and a PhD in history, had worked in the hills of the North Vietnam, cooking at a small restaurant, and was now waiting for his visa extension. There was also a student from the Czech Republic, two Brits taking a break from their jobs, and an English-language teacher from the U.S. All of them waiting for visas, tickets or new job offers.

Emilio squinted at his breakfast—a freshly fried omelet stuck between two pieces of soft, white bread—and dug into it.

“Bread-omelet, too?” the reception guy asked me.

“Just bread is fine, I’m vegan,” I said and sighed. Bread again.

The bread was soft and crunchy. Despite its plain taste, I liked it. It reminded me of Europe and home. Josh, a huge American in his forties, was also reminiscing about home. But he was better off here, he said.

The Brits found Vietnam amazing and tirelessly explored. “We were in that underground eatery yesterday, trying the snake,” they said. “We also got some of that poop-coffee.” The Old Quarter was full of shops advertising weasel coffee, which alluded to the famous and extremely expensive Indonesian coffee—kopi luwak—processed by civets. The weasel coffee was a chemical imitation of kopi luwak sold at a much cheaper price. On the rooftop, we were served a more banal sort of coffee: Nescafé.

Every morning, we emptied one pot after another, chatting, gossiping, and discussing our plans until the hostel management started ignoring our demands for refills. But by the time we were denied the next pot it was already midday and we dispersed on our daily activities, to be united next morning again.

In a few days, I got my money transfer and was ready to move on. Emilio got his extension, Josh found a new job with housing. The Brits and the Czech student exhausted all the sightseeing potential of Hanoi, but we stayed and stayed. “One more day,” I said. “I don’t wanna leave you guys,” said one of the Brits. And so we stayed a bit more, gathering around our bread-omelet with coffee every day until it was time to leave or ask for more visa extensions.

When I think of Hanoi now, I don’t remember those places of interest that I visited every day. But I remember that tiny rooftop and free Nescafé with bread as if it were yesterday.

There’s No Shame in a Breakfast That Sends You Back to Bed

Apr.28.16

There’s No Shame in a Breakfast That Sends You Back to Bed

by Christopher English

Bombas in Barcelona

Breakfasting in Barcelona can initially appear an underwhelming proposition for the uninitiated. Many succumb to poor renditions of the Catalan classic, pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato). It is an exquisitely simple pleasure when properly executed, though hugely underwhelming when prepared with little love. Coffee is universally available but rarely inspiring. However, the Catalans have a slightly clandestine culinary card up their sleeves when seeking their morning sustenance: esmorzars de forquilla (fork breakfasts) are intended to sustain throughout a day of heavy work, or, in my case, a day of heavy walk.

Though it had been on my to-do-list as a dinner destination for some time, I initially encountered La Cova Fumada by chance. During a stay in the La Ribera district, I went for a wander though the streets of the nearby neighborhood of La Barceloneta, sporting a slightly fuddled head from the previous evening’s excessive natural wine consumption in the outstanding Bar Brutal. Using an age-old signifier when seeking good food, I trailed a group of old men through an unmarked facade and took a solo seat next to an open kitchen.

Above a cacophony of Catalan conversation, my order was taken. Glancing at the surrounding tables there seemed only one option to drink and a carafe of the house red was promptly delivered to my table. Blood sausage came grilled, sliced into thick rounds and accompanied by a bowl of buttery chickpeas. Squid simply seared on la plancha and dressed with a little picada of oil, garlic, and parsley came next. Artichokes arrived fried, exposing their crispy innards. Next, the signature dish of the house, said to be invented in the 1950s by the grandmother of the current proprietors. The much celebrated bombas appeared: small spheres of minced meat and mashed potato housed in breadcrumbs and deep-fried, crowned with a cover of potent ailoli and a cap of fiery rust-colored sauce. Since I was already introducing garlic into my system at such an early hour, I ordered a round of the toasted bread, generously smeared with more of the same.

The two gentlemen next to me were clearly construction workers and I surreptitiously watched in awe as they consumed plate after plate, washed down with copious glasses of wine. Whether they were just staring work or just finishing I was uncertain, but either way, surely little of consequence was to be achieved after such a breakfast, neither by them nor I.

To conclude the feast, a fluro-green shot of the traditional digestif, hierbas, was offered as a parting gift from the house. It lacked the herbaceous intensity of the Balearic incarnation with which I was more familiar, but certainly not the potency. It was 9:43 am. Shot downed, bill paid, and sunglasses donned, I walked out into the morning sunlight, vowing to veer from the powerful lure of my pension and the bed that was beckoning me back a mere hour or so after I had left it.

Photo: Movimiento Mediterráneo

A Familiar Meal, from Cape Town to Glasgow to the American South

Apr.27.16

A Familiar Meal, from Cape Town to Glasgow to the American South

by Alexa van Sickle

Mealie Meal in Cape Town

One of my favorite movies growing up was My Cousin Vinny. Spoiler alert: unlikely New York lawyer Joe Pesci cracks a murder trial on the question of how long it takes Southerners to make fresh—not instant—grits in the morning. In my ignorance, I pictured grits as some kind of edible creature, like tiny shrimp. I hadn’t realized I had been eating grits at my grandmother’s house in Cape Town every Christmas.

Because grits are similar to what my South African relatives call mealie meal: a ground maize flour that, mixed with different proportions of water, produces a stodgy porridge, or a more solid “pap.” There are hundreds of names for this staple around Africa and beyond, but the term I learned first is a jolly distortion of milho, because Portuguese traders brought the maize from the Americas to Africa. (A “mealie” is a pleasing local term for corn-on-the cob.) Mealie meal often fortifies savory dishes, and grits come with cheese or shrimp. But around South Africa’s Western Cape, it’s common to sweeten this culinary blank slate with sugar, honey, and milk for breakfast, which is how I was weaned onto it in the 1980s, armed with a large spoon and a sweet tooth.

It was only the presence of this local porridge (and the revered Mrs Ball’s Chutney) that could place my grandmother’s first-generation breakfast table—decked out with lime marmalade, tea, eggs, and marmite—in the Cape rather than, say, London, Bootle, or even Glasgow, where her mother was born. True, the Brits who make their way abroad have a certain reputation for clinging to their peculiar routines, hemisphere be damned, but their roots weren’t that deep. Her mother’s family had emigrated from the grey west coast of Scotland to the dry heat of Durban. My grandmother absorbed plenty of earnest Scottish attributes, but otherwise rebelled against her strict Presbyterian background. (Secular to the end, her final wishes were that we forego a funeral in favor of a Pimms-fuelled party, and scatter her ashes—illegally—around Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and St James’ Beach. We complied.)

I was young when she died. So I learned the milestones of her life in South Africa only afterwards: driving an ambulance for the Red Cross in Durban during the war; hanging out with Roald Dahl, who was in East Africa with the King’s Africa Rifles; protesting against the National Party’s repugnant apartheid laws with the Black Sash movement.

These days, we make it back around once a decade. My mother left Cape Town in the 1960s to follow science studies to Heidelberg, then Vienna, and would never return for good. My aunt and her family returned several years ago, after some decades abroad that started in pre-Revolutionary Iran and ended in Wimbledon. My uncle’s three daughters never left. And now when we return and eat at their tables in Cape Town or Johannesburg, there is far more than just mealie meal to represent the continent they made their home.

Photo: Aleph500Adam/Commons

A Humble Reminder of a City and Safe Haven

Apr.26.16

A Humble Reminder of a City and Safe Haven

by Kirsten O'Regan

Bougatsa in Thessaloniki

I don’t usually eat much pastry. Croissants (even Parisian ones) leave me cold, strudel doesn’t appeal; I generally favor a crustless quiche. But if you’re in Thessaloniki and you’re not eating at least one pie a day—ideally one pie per meal—then you’re doing it wrong. Pastry proliferates across Greece’s second city. Glass cases of pies, oozing unctuous fillings from between crackling sheaves of filo, tempt passers-by on each corner. Spirals and slabs, triangular wedges and bulging half-moons; soft mouthfuls of spinach, feta, leek, onion securely encased in bronzed layers of butter and flour. Any one of those will make a serviceable—nay, sumptuous—lunch. Only bougatsa will do for breakfast.

The name itself dances on the tongue like an onomatopoeic expression of joy: an exclamation of surprise elegantly sling-shotting itself forward, through twanging consonants, into the satisfied sigh of the final vowel. Boo-gat-saaaaahhh. Peer in the cabinet. It doesn’t look like much, especially at this stage: a flat, flaking slab of filo. Even when prepared—one generous square sliced deftly into many smaller squares (a raised eyebrow from the mezzaluna-wielding assistant, and the arch enquiry, “only one portion?”), the resulting golden rubble softened by a swift squall of icing sugar and cinnamon—its bland, burnished exterior remains deceptive. Take a bite. That flaxen façade hides moist inner layers, lovingly clasping a voluptuous semolina-custard core.

I eat my first helping of bougatsa (a still-warm clutch of bite-size morsels; mellow vanilla filling bolstered and balanced by the salt-flecked crunch of the filo) by hand from the packet, sitting at the top of a small flight of stairs that cuts irreverently through a section of Thessaloniki’s Byzantine walls. Elderly Greek women, passing warily, witness my al fresco gluttony with mild consternation.

Below, the town tumbles to the edge of the Thermaic Gulf, across which hover the snow-shrouded slopes of Mt Olympos. This location—at the foot of the Balkans, on the watery intersection between east and west—has historically rendered the city a place of sanctuary and exchange. Amongst the concrete apartment blocks of the modern centre nestle the bones of bygone eras: austere outcrops of Byzantine churches; the odd, tatterdemalion Ottoman mosque; an all-but-forgotten 1920s synagogue, lonely remnant of a once-flourishing Sephardic community.

Northern Greece’s bougatsa, like its buildings, is a product of the diverse milieu—Jewish, Christian, Muslim—that characterized Thessaloniki up until the mid 20th century. Salonica has long been a city of refuge; while under Ottoman rule, the city opened its arms to exiles from east and west. Sephardic Jews, expelled from Western Europe by Ferdinand and Isabella’s anti-Semitic decrees, surged into the city from the late 15th century. In the early 1900s, Judeo-Spanish-speaking Jews made up almost half the city’s entire population; the remainder was a heterogeneous mix of Greeks, Slavs, Ottoman Turks, Circassians, Armenians, Russian Ashkenazim, Georgians, Kurds.

Bougatsa likely joined this cosmopolitan brew from the east—it may even be a modern iteration of the Byzantine “santé bougatsa,” described by 17th century traveller Evliya Çelebi as a sweet pie sprinkled with sugar and sold by street vendors in Stamboul. A descendant of that ancient sweetmeat, legend has it, was carried into Thessaloniki by the flood of Greeks who poured into the country in the early years of the 20th century: Orthodox Christians driven from the Ottoman Empire as the power of the Sublime Porte imploded.

Reports of that mass migration could just as accurately depict the refugee crisis that currently grips the region. Ernest Hemingway, writing in the Toronto Star in 1922, described “exhausted, staggering men, women and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along in the rain beside their worldly goods.” Many of the displaced settled in Salonica, filling a vacuum left by the city’s Muslims, who had set sail for Turkey. They brought with them a rich culinary tradition, and, perhaps, a recipe for semolina-custard pie. Bougatsa is a humble reminder of the city’s historic role as safe-haven, at a time when Greece is yet again at the forefront of a historic exodus.

An object lesson in tolerance (however fragile or conditional), maybe—but the pastry is also a powerful trigger for more primal reveries. Like Proust’s madeleine, bougatsa is a repository of personal, as well as collective, memory. Crunching through my portion, sitting on sun-warmed stone in the crook of the ancient walls of an unfamiliar town, I am transported back to my own childhood: the melk tert my mother used to make. A South African specialty, that pie—egg custard in a shortcrust shell—owes its milky, cinnamon-sprinkled charm to an equally unlikely confluence of cultures: the Cape’s distinctive combination of lactose-loving Dutch settlers and their spice-savvy Javanese slaves.

People move, this pre-noon pie-induced reverie reminds me—whether by choice or necessity, out of force or free will—and food moves with them: out of history, into the hard-won, hybrid present.

The Pride of Eating a Really Bony Fish Successfully

Apr.25.16

The Pride of Eating a Really Bony Fish Successfully

by Charline Jao

Bento in Taiwan

Jet-lagged and drowsy, my mother called out from her room that my aunt dropped off a bento from San Jing (三井) that I could eat for breakfast. This was exciting. San Jing is the place for Japanese food in Taiwan. I don’t mean that in a popular way, but in a fancy way. The same way that many New Yorkers rarely make the trek to the Empire State Building or visit “New York must-eats” from tourist guides, people in Taipei rarely go to San Jing unless they’re there to entertain special guests or to celebrate a big occasion. I looked at the hostile fish which snagged my gaze, and it felt like having birthday cake on a regular, birthday-less Thursday.

I’ve heard that ayu, or sweetfish, are native to Taiwan’s Xindian River, but other sources tell me that the species was actually introduced from Japan. Japanese occupation led to a great amount of Japanese influence on Taiwanese culture. I heard remnants of this in the musical combination of enka and C-pop my mom was blaring from her room, the architecture within the capital city, and the many Japanese restaurants we’d always visit for sashimi, tonkatsu, and ramen.

Visiting Taiwan as an ex-pat every year, I’m always met with a copious amount of Taiwanese food, much of it fish. My mother always told me eating fish would make me smarter, a better thinker, and generally healthier. With her and my other relatives picturing barrages of horribly greasy and cheese-smothered meals in America, they were determined to restore my contaminated ABC (American Born Chinese) body to one full of Taiwanese sweetfish, noodles, and soymilk—lots and lots of soymilk. Truthfully, after being suddenly confronted with the task of managing my own diet at college, this was a welcome break.

I snap a photo of it and send it to a friend. “This fish is mad at me.”

“What did you do?” he replied.

I responded with a silly Facebook sticker. Digging messily into the grilled fish, I saw that it was extra special because the insides were full of eggs. After breaking into the crisp skin and soft meat with a pair of chopsticks I choked on a few small bones: the ayu’s final revenge.

Its twisted body—a result of the chef’s skewer—makes it look like the fish is still swimming, something I never understood. Why would you want your food to still look vaguely alive? I’m reminded of this ongoing joke Taiwanese people have about foreigners: the westerner goes into an Asian restaurant and orders a fish. They yell out in fear when the meal arrives. Why? Because they’re so used to eating fillets that they don’t know fish have heads and tails which we, the non-wasteful group, gladly devour. It’s a meticulous and frustrating process to eat the ayu clean, but when you do, it really feels like you’ve worked for the meal. That sense of accomplishment itself is worth a few bones.

You Don’t Have to Be Famous to Chug a Cup of Wiggly Tofu

Apr.21.16

You Don’t Have to Be Famous to Chug a Cup of Wiggly Tofu

by Shirin Bhandari

Taho in the Philippines

“Ta-ho! Taah-hooo…Tahooooo…” A street vendor outside our college at the University of the Philippines would shout. It is peddled in a distinct way. The name called out repetitively in a full and rising inflection to catch your attention. For years, every single morning it was my breakfast of choice. Before the first class of the day I’d rush out onto the road to grab a warm cup of taho without fail.

My life as an art student pretty much revolved around paint. Whatever money was leftover went to food. There was a need for something nourishing, fast and cheap. The long-standing joke amongst friends was to never have Taho again after graduation once we became rich and famous. The paint fumes can make one delusional, apparently.

The Philippine snack consists of soft and silky tofu, brown sugar syrup, and tapioca pearls. Its origins can be traced back to the Chinese douhua, which is soybean pudding eaten savory or sweet. Through trade, the Chinese have influenced local Filipino cuisine for centuries.

It is prepared before dawn and stored in two aluminum buckets that hang from each end of a bamboo stick. A vendor balances it on his back, or perhaps use a bicycle for ease. The larger bucket holds the tofu base. The smaller container keeps the brown syrup (arnibal) and sago (tapioca pearls). The men follow routes around town very early in the morning until late afternoon. They are a particularly common sight throughout the country.

The white wiggly tofu is served in a clear plastic cup, either small or large. It is normal for customers in residential areas to bring out their own cups to be filled along the sidewalk. Using a flat, wide, metal scoop, the surface of the curd is skimmed of any excess water. A thin, metal ladle is used to spoon the tapioca pearls and syrup, which are then mixed gently with the tofu.

The only way taho junkies consume it is by slurping it straight out from the cup in one slow gulp. Spoons are not an option and straws are for phonies. The warm bean curd squirts in your mouth. The mush mixed with the starchy translucent sago and amber syrup creates quite a sugar rush. For a few extra pesos, you can dictate your proportions: light to corrosively sweet, all depending on the type of morning or day it will be.

A decade has passed. I have transitioned into consuming taho while hungover every Sunday morning outside a church. I never became famous.

Variations on a Fish Soup Theme

Apr.20.16

Variations on a Fish Soup Theme

by Ailsa Ross

Fish Soup in Northern Greece

During my second year at Edinburgh uni, 19 and desperate to grab vast chunks of the world, I spent my nights Googling endless variations of “how to travel the world for free.”

Through a European temp agency, I scored a job as a waitress/bartender at a hotel in a small beach town in northern Greece.

Pay wasn’t great. Many of my compatriots weren’t too keen on working for the equivalent of a Mars bar an hour, even with room and board included, even with the Mediterranean a ten-minute walk down a hill from the staff “accommodation,” a half-built house surrounded by a yard filled with discarded bricks and barbed wire.

I didn’t care.

I was in Greece. The girl who couldn’t answer a phone or look anyone in the eye a year ago was living in Greece, on an adventure, working with clever Slovakian and Czech girls, handsome Albanians, peacocking Macedonian boys, and—my new best friend—a silicon-enhanced Colombian rollerskating champion, Daniela.

We did everything together, Daniela and I, until she found a rich Greek boyfriend named Nico, quit working at the hotel, and moved into a flat up the road.

Catching up on the beach a couple of weeks after she’d left work, I moaned to Daniela about the boys getting the best shifts, the cheap work shoes I had to glue back together every night, the fighting between staff. “I want to quit,” I said.

“Hey, if you’re serious,” said Daniela, “I can get you a job at Cheers! It’s Nico’s cousin’s bar. Then you’ll have your days free and we can run around the coast eating at different tavernas each day. Nico can pay.” She laughed.

“Sold,” I said. “God, you’re so lucky Daniela. Did he get you that dress, too?”

“He did, but I’m not lucky. The more a man buys for me, the more he thinks he’s buying me. Trust me, keep going with your education. That way you can buy all your own things, and no one can believe they have power or control over you.”

Two days later, I was pouring drinks at Cheers! It had been decided that I’d stay at the family home of Yannis, one of the co-owners.

He explained, “At the house it’s me, my mum, and my grandma. They don’t speak English, and you can barely string ten words of Greek together, but they’re kind and you seem kind. They’re looking forward to having you.”

Late next morning, having slept for the first time at Yannis’s house and feeling shy, I tiptoed downstairs to a huge spread, and practically fell back from the warmth of the “kalimeras”—“good mornings”—from the mum and grandma.

I watched the family use their forks and spoons to take the whole fish from their soup bowls, then deftly pull the meat from the bones, tossing the best bits back in the broth.

I tried to copy, and instead spun fish from my plate all over the lacy white tablecloth. Everyone laughed.

“Having trouble?” asked Yannis. “Here, let me help you.”

“Efharisto”—“Thank you”—I whispered, cringing.

Tucking into my newly-prepped bowl of soup was one of the best food experiences I’ve ever had.

“What is this called?” I asked Yannis.

He translated for his mum and grandma and said, “It’s just fish, Ailsa. It’s just…fish soup. You’ve never had such a thing before?”

“At home, sure, but it doesn’t taste like this. We make it with milk, and smoked fish, and black pepper.”

“Sounds good.”

“It is.” Both soups taste of care, and love, and family.

Later that day, I called my mum from the village payphone. “I’m ready to come home,” I said. “I love you. I’m lonely. I’m ready to come home.”

Photo: Jules/Commons

If You Want to Put Ketchup on Raw Fish for Breakfast, You Do You

Apr.19.16

If You Want to Put Ketchup on Raw Fish for Breakfast, You Do You

by Kiki Aranita

Poke on the Big Island

We have run out of things to do on the Big Island. Or rather, we have run out of stomach real estate. Plate lunches, saimin, and every single kind of mochi available at Two Ladies’ Kitchen have done us in. “Please, no more big food,” I tell Chris. We drive around Hilo, looking for the smallest breakfast available. I spot a yellow banner announcing $1 Spam Musubis outside Poke to Your Taste, where a too-small banner reading “Poke to Your Taste” insufficiently covers another sign that probably also reads “Poke to Your Taste” (there was a “po” sticking out) but I’m just guessing here.

I get a little foil box with rice, shrimp, and undressed cubes of fresh ahi and bring it over to a condiment table, where there are a couple different kinds of chopped onions, bottles of shoyu, mayonnaise, and ketchup (no idea). There are plastic spoons sticking out of little containers of furikake and toasted sesame seeds. I find that it’s sort of a weird and wonderful thing to assemble my own breakfast poke. I tell others to trust me when it comes to making poke. Ahi costs us too much in Philadelphia, but I’ll make ahi poke for you, if you insist. I’ll also make ahi poke as a special order for customers of Poi Dog Philly, the sort-of Hawaiian food truck I co-own, but they’ll have to purchase it by the quart and we don’t make any money on it. This is poke as public service.

Trust me, I know how much alaea salt to put in your poke. I know how many macadamia nuts to crush to make a substitute for inamona, the kukui nut condiment that flavors many a poke, and how much diced onion is too much diced onion. Here, I can prove to myself that I am indeed trustworthy.

The poke trend that seems to be sweeping American coastal cities makes me more than a bit uncomfortable, especially when businesses insist on adding a diacritic acute to the “e” in poke. Language can be marvelous in its fluidity, but we lose things if we aren’t mindful. I fear for poke going the way of bruschetta and tuna going the way of silphium. May a species not die in our bellies, à la the emperor Nero, who supposedly consumed the very last stalk of silphium, and may we not lose sense of the origins of a dish. Yet I’m happy to see people making fishless poke. Poke doesn’t have to be made with fish; the dish is more about the act of cutting.

Poke to Your Taste and new mainland poke chains have only customization in common. Poke to Your Taste could not feel more humble and like my grandma’s kitchen with its jalousie windows (there’s even the same rice cooker as she had, the big one for family gatherings that was decorated with pink flowers). Adding the amount of salt that I like, a couple teaspoons of diced sweet onion, a sprinkle of green onion, a squirt of sriracha mayo and some furikake on my rice, I put together a breakfast that tastes like home to me.

The Divine Breakfast for the Unapologetic and Reckless

Apr.18.16

The Divine Breakfast for the Unapologetic and Reckless

by Sharanya Deepak

Kachori Sabzi in Banaras

It is 11 am, we have overslept, and I stumble out of the car into Kachori Gali, excited but also a little scared. Dining in Banaras is not an easy task. Banarasis are known for excess affection, short tempers, and unlimited servings. The oldest city in the country is indulgent with their cuisine.

Everything is fried, sugar coated, and almost every place is an all-you-can-eat.

“You’ll be fine,” my friend grins at me. I can’t be so sure. Kachori sabzi is Varanasi’s favorite breakfast. A kachori is flaky, fried bread usually served with stuffing, but is eaten differently in every part of the country. Here in Banaras, kachoris are eaten as a part of a two-piece breakfast, and they will tell you it’s the best way. The dough is spiced and rolled into small breads, deep fried and fluffy. For breakfast, it is served hot with sabzi: usually a curry of pumpkins and potatoes.

As I exit the car, I am greeted by two tall men who recognize me from when I was fifteen years old. I came here a lot as a kid, in sweltering summers, hiding behind my father and refusing to eat. “Should I sit inside?” I ask nervously, and before he can answer, I know I have made my first mistake. “INSIDE? Why would we put you inside, where no one can see!” he roars at me, smiling widely. I apologize. He tells me I must eat ten kachoris at least, and I whimper in agreement.

Ram Bhandar Kachori wala is one of the many breakfast merchants on this street. Kachori Gali, literally meaning the Street of Kachoris, can be trusted with any of its vendors, but my family has stayed loyal to him for years. The man is surrounded by his sons, all recognizable by the same strong jaw. How many, they ask me. Three, I say. And they laugh.

It is soon 11:30 am and I am on my fourth kachori. I believe I have had enough. Heads not vigorously as I beg and plead to not be fed more. “It’s been ten years!” one of the other men says, and I say no, it’s been two. And there it is, another mistake. If Banarasis hate anything, it’s the reduction of exaggerations. I apologize again, and know I’m going to have to eat more.

Kachori sabzi is usually followed by jalebas, which are the traditional jalebi but bigger. Jalebis, flour rolled into circular shapes, deep fried and coated with sugar and saffron, is a beloved sweet throughout the north of India. Jalebas are the same, but bigger. Jalebas can go tragically wrong, but the ones here are perfect. I stare at the jaleba before actually eating it and get desperately sentimental to no one’s surprise but everyone’s amusement. I tell the men at Ram Bhandar about the indulgence of this city and how I fell in love with it as a kid.

It is through their cuisine that you can tell Banarasis are boundless. They are unapologetic, reckless, and poetic. Mixing pumpkins, flour, and fried dessert into perfection is not a feat that can be ignored. I eat four more kachoris. By now I cannot even stand, but there is applause. They are pleased. I am ecstatic. This breakfast, like the air in the holiest city in the world, is simply divine.

Here Is the Glorious Cheese-Covered Krispy Kreme of Your Dreams

Apr.15.16

Here Is the Glorious Cheese-Covered Krispy Kreme of Your Dreams

by Angela Wu

Donuts in Bangkok

To travel thousands of miles and eat a Krispy Kreme donut for breakfast—at the mall, of all places—felt almost embarrassing. I can’t count how many Krispy Kreme donuts I’ve eaten in my life, and I don’t think I want to know. But I’d never had a donut covered with grated cheese. That’s how I found myself ordering a “Butter Cheese” donut at the fanciest mall I’ve ever seen, a gleaming white complex decorated with lush greenery on Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road.

The outside of the EmQuartier mall looks like a swirling Apple Store, except for the waterfall decorated with peacocks. Approach from the SkyTrain station, and you’ll walk in on a red carpet. I was street-level and sweaty. I was here because a blast of air conditioning had whisked me off the street. Now, I was standing in the food court, staring at a familiar donut display case.

The “Butter Cheese” donut came on a plate, with a small silver fork. It was early enough that there was no one around to judge me for eating a donut, with a fork, at the mall, in a city of spectacular street food. There was also no one but me to appreciate that this donut was covered in cheese. The stiff shavings looked like they belonged on a frozen pizza. I took a bite.

Butter and cheese taste surprisingly neutral. I was glad I tried it, but it looked more interesting than it tasted. What I appreciated more was air conditioning, so I spent the rest of the day at the mall, wandering from the grocery store to the rooftop garden. It’s just too hot to hang out elsewhere, agreed two students I met on a patio facing the waterfall.

“You don’t have much to do, if you don’t go to the malls!” one of them said. “You have school all day, and then if you want to watch a movie, look around, do some shopping, eat, chill, whatever…you go to the mall.”

“You wouldn’t, like, go to the park to chill, because it’s too hot,” her friend explained. They looked at each other. “Yeah, we basically just live in the mall.”

I soon replaced Krispy Kreme with the little balls of fried dough sold by street vendors. But I kept going back to the malls. In steaming hot Bangkok, malls function like a network of air-conditioned oases that could cool and entertain you for days. It’s not just air conditioning I was after, though. Travel guides encourage you to “get lost” exploring a new city, but I think it’s good to know that you can also “get lost” at the mall. Literally, if you’re in one of Bangkok’s sprawling mega malls.

Here, there are malls for vitamins and cheap cell phones. And there are malls for Louis Vuitton and Prada. There are food courts and restaurants and movie theaters at the mall, but also gardens, ice skating rinks, and aquariums. There’s also an airport-themed mall, where each floor represents a city, and San Francisco inexplicably gets two floors. That week, I went to all of them, got lost, and loved it.

A Flaky, Oily, Meaty Hangover Cure

Apr.14.16

A Flaky, Oily, Meaty Hangover Cure

by Cher Tan

Burek in Montenegro

First thing in the morning, and we were departing the beautiful solace of Montenegro.

Montenegro is what I’d consider the “pocket rocket” of locales. A part of a state union with Serbia until 2006, you can traverse its entire length in an afternoon. Up until three days ago, we were in Kotor, near the border of Croatia, and barely an hour and a half later we had arrived in the nation’s capital, Podgorica.

And now we were leaving, minds still fresh with memories of Marko and his fellow metalheads, whom we’d met on the street purely by coincidence. We had spent the night prior fusing common threads—politics, metal bands we like, our mutual affection for 90s Australian TV show Heartbreak High (it had been imported to ex-Yugoslavia)—and drinking cheap, local wine; five liters in what looked like a plastic oil container bought for €5 from a convenience store window shielded by a screen. The wine was mixed with Pepsi for effect. The hangover the next day was brutal.

Trudging into the train station bleary-eyed, sustenance was of importance. We were sick of the pizzas, pastas, and burgers we found ourselves gravitating to in our short time in Montenegro, as we started to become travel-weary and longed for the comforts of home. There was only a single food stall in a dim corner of the station, and we caught the shopkeeper’s eye as he looked over at us with interest.

The stall had one small, heated showcase, filled to the brim with what looked like pastries. It was difficult to discern what was in them. “Burek,” the shopkeeper said as he noted our curiosity. “Very good and fresh! Meat, or spinach and cheese.”

We got two each at €1 a pop, then sat down at the café facing the tracks to wait for our train. Unfurling the burek from its paper bag, its crust so oily the oil had partially soaked through, it had already left stains on the bag. Our Turkish coffees arrived, and the first bite that accompanied it was delightful: the meat, freshly cooked and piping hot, melted in my mouth as it coalesced with the filo pastry skin. The burek was light and airy, yet packed a punch within. My mouth felt like it was in contact with something that was a cross between a sausage roll and an apple strudel. And even that wasn’t quite right. It evidently belonged in a league of its own. As bite after (flaky, oily, and meaty) bite ensued, the further away my hangover felt.

Our train was two hours late. We got two more. When the old Soviet-era train eventually made its slow, mechanical presence felt, we got on with one final burek each in our hands. Later on, I would learn that burek dates back to the Ottoman empire, its modern-day presence serving as a remnant of a regime that no longer exists. Croatian burek varies from Montenegrin burek, which differs from Bulgarian burek, and so on.

As the train wound down valleys and mountains away from Montenegro, the burek would stoke cravings that could not be satiated for months to come.

Eating a Messy Pastry on the Sidewalk in a City Where People Don’t Do That

Apr.13.16

Eating a Messy Pastry on the Sidewalk in a City Where People Don’t Do That

by Stephanie d'Arc Taylor

Sfoliatelle Riccia in Naples

When you approached the Pasticceria Pintauro onto Naples’s Via Toledo, you smelled the aroma of butter emanating from the tiny, table-less bakery from a block away. The pastries, shell-shaped flakes filled with a perfumed but not sweet mixture of orange-flavored almond paste and ricotta cheese, are now hot in their paper bag, sweating through parchment squares. Sfoliatelle riccia.

This is not New York; you can’t just strut down the street chewing with your mouth open like you’re John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. People are already looking at you with curiosity as you stand uncertainly outside the shop, calculating how quickly you can get to an appropriately private place to commune with your breakfast against how long it will take for the crispy layers to turn cold and damp.

Let them look. For the traveller in Naples, there’s no better place to eat a Pintauro sfoliatella than on the sidewalk outside the shop, as classy Neopolitans brush by you in their puffy (yet strangely sleek) nylon jackets and well-cut suits on the pedestrian street where everyone is supposed to keep moving.

In today’s maze of borders, refugees, and “one in one out,” sfoliatelle is a thought experiment, as well as a pinnacle of Neopolitan confectionery. As the result of a melding of Arab, Greek, and Italian culinary traditions, it’s comforting—but slightly facile—to imagine the pastry as proof that in the past, people and ideas moved easily between various corners of the Mediterranean.

Much of what we think of today as Italian food comes from the Arab (also known as Saracen) sailors, engineers, and farmers that invaded and settled in Sicily and southern Italy beginning in the 9th century. Pasta wouldn’t have been invented without the hard, durable wheat developed and imported by the Arabs; the eggplant was once known in Italian as radice araba, or Arab root.

Sfoliatelle is undeniably an example of how Arab and Italian cooks blended their own traditions together to create something new. The almond, introduced to Italy by the Greeks, was first combined with sugar cane and used in confectionery by the Arabs. Saracen traders also brought citrus fruits like lemon and orange to European shores for the first time (the orange makes its first appearance in European records in 1002, as a gift to a Norman prince from an Arab).

But it wasn’t as sweet as “you’re new, let’s bake together.” Violence and religious persecution were hallmarks of the Saracen period in Italy. Some scholars think that many Arab-Italian sweets were developed and preserved by women of the Saracen harems banished to mountain convents after their courts were violently disbanded. Lucera, an Arab colony in Puglia, was founded after the Norman king Frederick II relocated Sicilian Arabs in response to religious riots. The town’s main cathedral now stands on the site of a mosque that was torn down during the Crusades (after all the Arab Muslims in town who refused to convert were massacred).

The news tells us that it hasn’t gotten any easier to assimilate, or welcome new people with open arms. Sometimes ideas clash violently. We can’t hope that groups of people, traumatized and fearful, will come together as smoothly as almond paste and ricotta. But we can challenge our ideas about difference while eating a messy pastry on the sidewalk in a city where people don’t do that.

For Real, Bread Is the Best Thing Ever

Apr.12.16

For Real, Bread Is the Best Thing Ever

by Swati Sanyal Tarafdar

Bread in Kolkata

Cooking is a skill I acquired early in life, and I made whimsical use of my mom’s kitchen while still in school, much to her exasperation. Books on international cuisine weren’t easily accessible, and a couple of half-baked food shows on Indian national television were all I had. Hence, when I traveled and lived outside India, my love for various kinds of food and cuisines only deepened. The one ubiquitous item I totally and completely fell for was the bread. Not just the white ones, but all kinds of rustic and whole grain loaves: peasant breads, potato and rye, multigrain, whole wheat, sourdough, black Austrian breads, magical German breads, ciabatta and foccacia, French loaves, even little pretzels and cinnamon buns.

I was quite fond of the white-flour loaves and roadside pavs available at home in Kolkata, India. But now, my excitement knew no bounds. Much to my country folks’ disgust, I would eat breads slathered with butter, pate´, shrimp spread, avocado, honey, you name it, thrice a day. I would have them sandwiched, toasted, dipped in goulash, or scraping the sides of a pasta bowl. And I still wouldn’t have enough. I explored and was totally head over heels over the fantastic varieties of bread that came with their idiosyncratic typicalities from each region, each locale, and each kitchen. I was mystified by the ways one can create such a wide range of distinct flavors with the same set of ingredients.

I wanted to bake these goodies in my home kitchen. All my German and Hungarian friends baked their breads in their tiny kitchens as we did chapattis in ours. With a lot of enthusiasm, I started my bread baking. I bought books, read bakers’ blogs, watched tutorials on YouTube, and when these failed, tried sneaking inside a bakery as an apprentice.

No part of these exercises in baking was easy and no doubt, most of my bread baking drills ended in disappointments. The loaf wouldn’t look like a loaf or the baguette like a baguette, the braids of the challah wouldn’t come together, the crust would be golden but the inside would be soggy, or it would sound hollow when tapped but would be difficult to cut open.

I ran through troubleshooting tips in popular food blogs, bought myself a kitchen balance, an oven thermometer, and even stalked a respected baker. I fed my yeasts and hovered over my seed cultures, starters, and bigas for days and at inhuman hours, fought the darn leuconostoc with military vigor, and finally resigned myslef to the fact that bread baking, indeed, is rocket science and best left to the chemists.

Yet, soft and fluffy 100 percent whole wheat loaves sprinkled with sunflower seeds, or a pretty, no knead, Jewish bread kept haunting me. So I kept trying.

Until I broke a piece from the first-ever crisp, hollow sounding, handsome looking loaf that came out of my OTG (oven-toaster-grill) in my Indian kitchen, a couple of months back. The trick might have been hiding in that fresh yeast that I hunted out from an obscure market area in a second-tier Indian city. Or maybe the Indian-style buttermilk that I used with the dough. Hallelujah!

I was ecstatic and showed the loaves around to whomever bothered to glance, and then placed myself on the couch and relished warm pieces of it dipped in butter to my heart’s content. A few bites later, I realized three more minutes in the oven would have made it perfect. Nevertheless, divinely aromatic, home baked, healthy multigrain loaves are no more an elusive dream for me. I can bake them in my kitchen, anytime.

Photo credit: Ben Ostrowsky

Sometimes You Just Want to Lay Down and Cover Your Body With Bread

Apr.11.16

Sometimes You Just Want to Lay Down and Cover Your Body With Bread

by Mark Wetzler

Cordero Asado on Chiloe

I arrive at the farm, located just outside Queilen on the grand island of Chiloe in southern Chile, sometime after noon. I say farm, but really it’s just where Pablo and Marcela live. They have sheep and pigs and chickens and a garden, but it’s not a farm in the traditional sense of the word.

The guests are already there. There’s Alejandro, an Argentinian living in Santiago who will consume several liters of wine throughout the day; another older man from Santiago who speaks excellent English; and a woman who might be French who after lunch will immediately flee to an adjacent bedroom to take a siesta.

The occasion is brunch.

The occasion is cordero asado.

Marcela shows me her “workshop,” which is actually a bakery. It smells so strongly of freshly-baked bread that I can’t breathe deeply enough to take it in, and want to curl up right there on the floor and take a nap, a piece of bread in my hand, a piece of bread in my mouth, my body covered in bread.

Outside, Pablo is spit-roasting a lamb that came from their flock. The flames dance and lick at the meat as Pablo slowly rotates it over the embers. And then there’s Clara, too. How could I forget Clara! Clara is Pablo’s mother. Later that night she grabs a cigarette from the cigarette drawer and heads to the porch, exclaiming, “Let’s get a little bit intoxicated.”

Clara might be the wisest woman I’ve ever met. She’s made a living her whole life doing drawings of fish and birds for biology journals. She shows me some of them: exquisite renditions of guppies and Magellanic Oystercatchers that leave me enchanted.

Brunch is a lively affair of Coke Zero and loud conversation. I eat about 16 bread rolls, each covered in more butter than the next, and my arteries start to groan. Alejandro has drunk a gallon and a half of wine but seems as lucid as a newborn baby. Marcela is a gracious hostess. The feast on the table abounds. There’s brussels sprouts and pebre (a kind of pico de gallo), fresh lettuce, new potatoes, old potatoes, native potatoes, and fresh bread, succulent bread, nourishing bread. And the lamb, of course. This feast is biblical. We are the apostles, though I’m not exactly sure what is the center of our adulation.

Later that day, after many convivial hours around the table, our voices dim in accordance with the dimming light of the evening. We have coffee and Camembert and also a kind of bread pudding. Doña Clara talks about growing up in France and then moving to Mexico and then back to Chile. I could listen to this woman talk all night. Everything she says is completely unselfconscious. She’s completely in the moment with her Coke Zero and mountain of lamb and after-dinner cigarette.

“I don’t eat vegetables,” she says.

That night I stand on the balcony of the cabin on the beach where I’m staying next to the main house, looking up at the stars. The Milky Way is throbbing. Despite general confusion and bombardment in my bowels I know I’ll sleep well tonight. I have to. I’m on a farm.

A Surprisingly Serene Brunch in Between Parking Lots

Apr.07.16

A Surprisingly Serene Brunch in Between Parking Lots

by Linda Givetash

Irio in Nairobi

I wasn’t sure what to expect for brunch from an informal Kenyan eatery with no name. Research told me a typical Kenyan breakfast consists of uji, chapatti or mandazi—porridge, flatbread or doughnut—and a cup of chai. But it was already late in the morning when I approached the restaurant with my two friends, and we had no guarantee what would be on the menu.

Under the shade of a few trees, five women dressed in brightly colored skirts took turns chopping vegetables, stirring pots, and seating customers at a makeshift dining space. This restaurant couldn’t be more unlike the fine dining venues at Nairobi’s infamous Westgate Mall across the street.

A cluster of massive pots—some of which held about five gallons of liquid— were boiling aggressively over open fires. There was no breakfast in sight, apart from fried eggs, as lunch items were already being prepared.

Not wanting boiled fish or boring eggs, we consulted the staff to determine a brunch-appropriate alternative, deciding on cowpea stew, chapatti, and irio.

We took a seat at one of several handmade picnic tables where only four or five other customers were scattered. The venue was surprisingly serene despite being sandwiched between two busy mall parking lots.

One of the staff, armed with three plastic bowls, delivered a stew that resembled green lentils more than cowpeas. I asked what type of bean was used, but not speaking Swahili, I could only understand the description of “green beans.” After a taste test, the consensus among my friends was that the stew was made of lentils.

I’ve never had lentils for breakfast. Being a vegetarian, they’re my usual go-to for a hearty dinner on a cold day. I was surprised to discover the stew—flavored with only salt, pepper, onions and tomatoes—a satisfying breakfast.

A plate of three chapattis was brought over to us by a man who was kneading, frying, and stacking the cooked dough with the speed and efficiency of an assembly line.

The greasy chapatti was a welcomed comfort food and perfect for scooping up the stew. A plate of irio—mashed potatoes laced with kale and kernels of maize—also complemented the stew. While the individual dishes were rather bland, the combined flavors and textures were perfect for breakfast. Spicy peri peri (peppers) were also offered to give the meal a kick.

We leisurely finished off our meals, enjoying the breeze and sunshine. It cost less than $4 to feed all three of us and we were left so full that lunch wouldn’t be necessary. Given that a single cup of coffee at the fancy mall across the street goes for nearly the same price, the idea of ever again choosing a pricey Western brunch over the open-air eatery seemed ludicrous. If we arrive early enough, we have mandazi to look forward to.

An Especially Important Meal If You Have Just Crawled Out of a Slow Cooker

Apr.06.16

An Especially Important Meal If You Have Just Crawled Out of a Slow Cooker

by Tom Taylor

Croissants in Ho Chi Minh City

I have always found that my appetite suffers when it’s hot. The hotter the day, the less I feel like eating. When I returned to the relentless heat of Ho Chi Minh City from the nearby beach town of Vũng Tàu, where I picked up a full-body, tomato-red sunburn, this was truer than ever.

On my first morning back in Ho Chi Minh, I woke up feeling raw and depleted. Despite my body’s calls for calories, however, I had almost no urge to eat. But being an avid believer in the old “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” adage—particularly for those who look like they just crawled out of a slow cooker—I showered, got dressed, and set out in search of food.

As I navigated the city’s hectic streets, dodging scooters and waving away street hustlers selling everything from sunglasses to cigarettes to motorbike rides to maree-wanna, I ran through a list of breakfast options, eager to come up with something that would go down easily. Any variation of the classic Western breakfast—eggs, bacon, sausage, et cetera—seemed entirely too heavy. Vietnamese dishes like pho or xôi (a steamed rice dish), meanwhile, struck me as too hot. And so, having narrowed down the choices, I wandered into ABC Bakery & Café, a backpacker favorite on Pham Ngu Lao Street in the city’s tourist riddled District 1. This turned out to be the perfect choice.

The bakery’s shelves were lined with dozens of freshly-baked treats: donuts, éclairs, muffins, cookies, croissants, and more. They also offered slices of Hawaiian pizza and baguette sandwiches, though neither appealed to me at the time of my visit. After some deliberation, I grabbed a butter croissant, though I would hesitate to call it a croissant, because it was not crescent-shaped. I also ordered an iced coffee, a staple of Vietnamese mornings and a must-try for any visiting coffee lover. It all cost just 55,000 Vietnamese Dong—less than $2.50 USD.

A few minutes later, I was enjoying my purchases in the air conditioning of the café’s upstairs dining area, as a strange but endearing playlist of Disney songs played through the overhead speakers. First, Let It Go, then Reflections, then Can You Feel the Love Tonight, then I stopped paying attention.

The croissant’s flakey exterior pulled away in perfect strips to reveal a delicious, doughy interior. The coffee, which I ordered with condensed milk, despite my preference for coffee that doesn’t taste like dessert, was cold and sweet. Before long, all that was left on my plate were a few crumbs, and I was sipping the last drops from a condensation-coated glass, feeling entirely revivified and ready for another day in Vietnam’s largest city—sunburn and all.

Fish Face in the Morning Is Worth a Little Effort

Apr.05.16

Fish Face in the Morning Is Worth a Little Effort

by Aaron Wytze Wilson

Milkfish Soup in Tainan

“Why would you want to go to Wuming? It’s really gone downhill in the last couple years.”

We’re on our way to eat milkfish soup in the southern Taiwan city of Tainan when our taxi driver asks us quizzically about our breakfast shop of choice. A pang of anxiety washes over me. How could this be? Every Chinese-language food blog gave Wuming glowing reviews.

“It used to be the best,” says the driver “but the taste has really changed since it passed to the second and third generation. A-Tang is the best now.”

I should have asked a local in town right from the get go. The people of Tainan are known for being picky eaters, like our shrewd taxi driver.

Tainan has eaten milkfish since the city’s founding nearly four hundred years ago, and is one of the region’s primary staple food items. It often seems like the people of Tainan have developed extra-sensory sensitivity for picking out the freshest milkfish, as well as a finicky attitude to anything but the most perfectly prepared.

Tainan is the only city in Taiwan that eats milkfish for breakfast, and the people claim they’ve historically eaten the dish in the morning in order to prepare for a long day working the sugar cane and rice fields.

Just like Taiwan’s other oddball breakfast eatery, beef soup shops, there are a sundry of dedicated milkfish breakfast joints found throughout the city.

As the taxi pulls up to our internet-approved milkfish eatery, we’re surprised to find the inside-lights dimmed, and the front door shuttered. “Sorry,” says a woman beating a floor mat with a broom outside the shop, “we don’t open until nine in the morning.”

“We’re saved!” I whispered to my partner. We then hop back in the taxi and take up the driver’s suggestion.

“It looks like you and A-Tang were destined to be together after all!” chuckled the driver.

It could be said that destiny brought the humble milkfish to the city of Tainan as well. It was likely introduced to Taiwan by the Dutch East India company, who may have brought the salt-water fish along with them from their base of operations in Jakarta, Indonesia.

How the fish got its name in the local language is also wrapped in the city’s history. It’s believed that the fish got its name from a rebel Chinese naval commander named Koxinga. One day, Koxinga was enjoying a hearty serving of milkfish soup after a long naval campaign to expel the Dutch from Taiwan. He enjoyed his serving of milkfish stew so much, he exclaimed excitedly to his man-servant, “What fish is this?” or “siánn‑mih-hî?”

Unfortunately, Koxinga’s man-servant didn’t understand his thick Hokkien accent, and thought he was giving a name to the fish: “sat‑ba̍k‑hî.” The story has stuck since, leaving the milkfish with a gaffe of a name.

Taiwan’s obsession with milkfish is made all the more unique by it’s East Asian neighbors’ reluctance to embrace it. The fish is incredibly difficult to fillet, having more bones than most people can bear. For those willing to endure the de-boning, they should expect fish meat that has a tender but firm texture. Milkfish has a relatively high fat content, with a mild flavor. Most milkfish joints in Tainan are experienced with deboning the fish, and our order at A-Tang was completely bone-free.

My partner and I decide to order milkfish skin served in soup, along with pieces of stomach meat served alongside oily breadsticks. There are dozens of other ways milkfish can be served, and I hear a woman behind me ordering a fresh cut of milkfish head in her soup. “The meat around the eyes and face is really delicious,” says my partner.

As I begin eating, I’m amazed by how delicate and soft the milkfish skin is. It’s no wonder it hasn’t left the Tainan breakfast table in over three centuries.

Photo: Angel Wong

A Mom Is a Mom and Can Never Be a Facebook Friend

Apr.04.16

A Mom Is a Mom and Can Never Be a Facebook Friend

by Savera Z John

Appams and Shtew

Easter breakfast at home is always appams and shtew. It’s extra special on Easter day: after 40 days of Lent, of no-meat days, the delectable goat meat shtew is the perfect meat fix and indulgence.

Appams remind me of my tipsy aunts. Growing up, appam batter was always fermented with toddy. The aunts would take swigs of the toddy, to check its strength and taste. There was a special joy in seeing righteous aunts acting silly. A spirited argument would follow, on who makes the tastiest appams. They all agreed that Ammini’s appams were the best.

Appams are notoriously difficult to get right. The batter is prepared by grinding soaked rice with coconut milk, adding a roux and toddy (or yeast), hand beating the batter and leaving it to rise overnight. No using ready-to-cook powders.

On Easter, after church, we would rush home hungry. A ladle of batter would be poured into the heavy appam chatti (wok) and swirled around. Would the appam stick or come off the chatti? Would it have a lacy edge and a spongy middle? Would the edge be wafer thin with just a hint of crunch?

It was a moment of reckoning.

A disaster? There would be a frantic rush to salvage the batter by adding egg whites, baking soda, coconut milk, or even coconut water? A total disaster? Sigh. We would end up eating bread with shtew.

The perfect appam? Get ready to eat a meal fit for the gods.

We say shtew, you say stew. My Syrian Christian community would pronounce it thus. My aunts did, too, and my grandmother before that. Could a shtew be a stew? Could meat gently simmered in coconut milk and delicately spiced be called a stew? To complicate it further, we call goat meat ‘mutton’ in India. So ‘mutton shtew’ is a misnomer and a mispronounced dish.

With the appam, the shtew-stew has to be goat meat. It is a marriage made in heaven and no chicken is allowed to break it.

Ammini can’t make her appams anymore. She rues the fact that her daughters don’t make it like she does. First extract of coconut milk, second extract, third … who has the time, they tell her. They do their own thing.

She reads her daughter’s Facebook status: “Made awesome appams like my mom’s. Love you ma!”

100 “likes” and 50 “aww” and “awesome” comments.

Ammini: “Where is the photograph? I hope you didn’t use the ready-to-cook powder and make it on a non-stick appam chatti.”

Gosh! How embarrassing. I need to unfriend my mom. A mom is a mom and can never be a Facebook friend.

But she does make the most awesome appams and shtew.

Breakfast Is Best at 40,000 Feet

Apr.01.16

Breakfast Is Best at 40,000 Feet

by Christopher McLackland

Industrial Goodness in the Cockpit

During my normal workweek as a pilot, I receive a standard airline wake-up call at 3:30 am on average.

My airline generally provides decent hotels who offer quiet rooms and an expansive breakfast buffet on the house. However, the freshly cooked omelets, the bacon, the haggis (when in Scotland), the flaky croissants, are available when the buffet opens at 7 am. In the typically bastardly ways of fine print, the hotel slips a caveat into the crew information that “early departing crew will be provided with a continental breakfast option.”

In Hamburg, we receive one roll and one piece of questionable salami per person. In Billund, we get Nescafé and last night’s cheese and crackers. In Venice, the superbly tuxedoed waiter prepares fresh cappuccino and double espressos to accompany a buffet so pitiful it defeats description. In Budapest, it is a cling-wrapped bread roll best used as a weapon. Suffice to say, it’s not worth it.

Nowadays, I pack my bags the night before, lay out my uniform precisely to allow for maximum dressing speed, and request a wake-up call for thirty minutes before pickup. I skip the continental swill and load myself into the bus at the last possible second.

While admittedly jaded from the several hundred flights I do every year, breakfast in the air still thrills me. Matt Goulding’s paean to airline food describes it best: at 6 am, I also “shake with anticipation at the smell from the galley.” A plate of rubbery Spanish tortilla, crispy hash browns, and salsa keeps me going. The distinctly un-flaky, preservative-infused croissant smeared with butter and jam puts a smile on my face and revives my ability to speak. I might even be able to have a conversation with my colleague as I smear another breakfast roll with dill-infused cream cheese (shelf life: one year) and top it with smoked salmon.

By this point, the sun is usually starting to rise, and the view is spectacular. It is time for coffee, contemplation, and contentment at skipping hotel breakfast.

Airline coffee has a shaky reputation, which is deserved. The canisters are rarely cleaned, and the water from the on-board tanks is, to put it charitably, “potable.” It won’t make you sick, but that’s about it. However, there is a secret brewing method that involves cleaning the canister, feeding the pot with bottled water, and positioning the grounds in a particular way. Give it five minutes, and you have something that looks and tastes like coffee.

My indecipherable welcome aboard address changes to a clear and ebullient arrival speech that undoubtedly annoys some of my sleepy passengers. After my plastic tray of industrial goodness, I might just be able to last until Rome this afternoon. An apertivo at Freni e Frizioni is calling me, if I can drag my crew away from the grotty bar next to our hotel. And pickup tomorrow is, mercifully, at 9 am.


The author is writing under a pseudonym.

A Dream-Like Jet Lagged Meal Interrupted by a Monster

Mar.31.16

A Dream-Like Jet Lagged Meal Interrupted by a Monster

by Laurie Woolever

Squid in Kanazawa

Through some combination of naiveté and denial, I believed I’d overcome my jet lag just three days after leaving New York, but it persists: I am wide awake, and hungry for breakfast, at 2 am, after a few hours of super-deep sleep in a business hotel in Kanazawa, Japan. There are worse fates.

Kanazawa is a city of just under half a million people, situated at the foot of the Tateyama mountain range and just inland from the base of the Noto Peninsula that curves into the Sea of Japan. The shinkansen (bullet train) line from Tokyo that once terminated in Nagano began running to and from Kanazawa in April 2015; for now, this city remains largely unexplored by foreign tourists, though they—we—are slowly starting to arrive.

Yesterday was Shunbun no Hi, the vernal equinox, a public holiday in Japan; at lunchtime, the 300-year-old, seafood-intensive Omi-cho market was packed with families snacking on oysters the size of a grown man’s hand, steamed snow crab legs, uni in the shell, and megaprawns. Now, after hours, there’s a high concentration of drunk, young, cigarette-smoking life on the wide avenues and tiny back alleys that intersect outside my hotel as I walk to Lawson, the nearest konbini.

It’s reliably over-lit, staffed by unwavering professionals, and crammed with things like “fish and almonds”—a bag of slivered blanched nuts mixed with tiny dried silvery fish—and packages of chewy, semi-dehydrated squid rings coated in spicy grated roe. I have already tried, and loved, both of these snacks, but I want something more recognizably meal-like, so I choose a cold container of sliced raw squid seasoned with spicy roe, a skewer of juicy grilled and glazed chicken thigh, and a salty egg salad sandwich on crustless white bread.

Back in my hotel room, I brew a cup of green tea and happily consume the meal that I hope will convince mind and body to let me sleep for a few hours. I turn on the TV, seeking further narcotic effect, but there’s that fucking garbage monster, Donald Trump, a dream-stealer, a waking nightmare. I may never actually sleep again.

A Simple, Soothing Breakfast Unlike Any Other

Mar.30.16

A Simple, Soothing Breakfast Unlike Any Other

by Dara Bramson

Coconut in Vientiane

I haven’t spoken for four days. Under the weight of my bulging backpack, my final moments of silence are spent walking gingerly down 309 brick steps from the golden pagoda above.

Up at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, 3,500 feet above sea level overlooking Chiang Mai, words and wealth are irrelevant; consumption is subsistence, not pleasure. Down at the market, capitalism is once again at my fingertips. Steps between worlds.

Wafts of spicy curry hover around me as I walk through the crowded market toward the food section, past vendors chopping vegetables and stacking fruit. Even after days of two humble (albeit surprisingly tasty) meals per day, a hearty dish is not calling to me. I beeline for my beloved breakfast: coconut.

I point, pay 30 THB (less than $1 USD), and hold my breath as a young Thai woman lifts a machete to hack open my meal in her bare hands. The cool, sweet liquid is vivid on my tongue, and I feel like I finally understand the word quench. I glide my finger between the stiff shell and soft meat, savoring the smooth texture as much as the taste. It was bliss, and the only meal my body handled gracefully while recalibrating that week.

I fell in love with coconut while living in Bangkok years earlier. My strict nightly ritual included visiting the local market for two bulging plastic bags of cloudy water and a straw for the next morning. Walking home, the swishing fluid in my palms always evoked a childhood memory: driving home from the pet store with my best friend, each of us holding our own colorful beta fish.

In Southeast Asia, I began to understand that the complex history of coconuts transcended my naïve predilection. At my first Thai cooking class, we met our teacher at a local market, where she led us to a vendor whose loud, powerful shredder ground the course skin and meat into a giant plastic bag. Hours later, I massaged a cheesecloth full of shavings into warm water for soon-to-be milk, a core element of the dishes we would cook. “It takes time,” she admitted, while laughing at my sore fingers, emphasizing how integral coconut is to regional cuisine.

Before I began traveling in the region, coconut was the oil that migrated between my kitchen and bathroom; the occasional can of milk serving as a base for mediocre curries. Once I was there, however, coconut was comfort; gentle, soothing, healthy, and safe when alternatives appeared questionable. The all-in-one, nutrient-rich fruit-nut-seed became a staple in my diet, a far cry from the nasty bottled coconut water that I deem sacrilege. Now, ask me what victory is. I’ll tell you the story of opening a coconut from the backyard of my childhood home, days after landing from Saigon.

It’s True, “Fried Oil Ghost” Is a Great Name for a Snack

Mar.29.16

It’s True, “Fried Oil Ghost” Is a Great Name for a Snack

by Kiki Aranita

Yauhjagwai in Wan Chai

At breakfast in Wan Chai, I order milk tea, pork meatball jook—porridge—and cheung fun—a rice noodle roll—stuffed with ground beef. I know I won’t be able to finish everything. The jook is there for me to dip my yauhjagwai into. I love jook but I love yauhjagwai more. It’s youtiao in Mandarin, or “oil stick.” The Cantonese name, yauhjagwai or “fried oil ghost” is much better, so let’s call it that.

I’ve looked for yauhjagwai and found it all around Asia, piled up in baskets in the sunshine of Yangon, alongside my morning soy milk in Taipei, called quay and crammed in massive plastic bags in Hanoi, intended for dipping into pho. I don’t always need the pho or the soy milk.

When I moved to New York for college, my Hong Kong friends and I looked for yauhjagwai in Chinatown. We found many, but they never tasted the way they do at home. They were always drier, staler, and sadder. I bought sticks from Cantonese barbecue places, dim sum restaurants, and also those packaged ones you can find in refrigerated sections, and they all sent me into fits of heaving, unbearable homesickness. Yauhjagwai is supposed to be crisp (but not crunchy) on the outside with just a bit of chew on the inside. Air pockets in the dough are good.

The ones in Hong Kong are the length of my forearm. The sticks are found in pairs, conjoined twins stuck together that will slick your fingers with oil during sundering. Don’t get them too late in the day. They can’t be resuscitated.

My uncles frown at me as I whip out my phone to take a photo of my breakfast. Auntie Mary comes to my defense against the disapproval. “The camera eats first. The camera always eats first,” she says.

The congee is perfect. Silky, the way it should be, and seasoned enough to make condiments optional, though a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil never does any harm. When I make jook for myself at home, I’ll add turmeric, to force an extra pinch of health into my body. This pure white jook thus seems a little sinful to me in its perfection.

If I weren’t so fixated on yauhjagwai, this jook would have been the ultimate luxury. I mistook a pot of oatmeal for jook at Auntie May’s house, which caused me great distress. I dislike oatmeal. Auntie May eats it like jook and she puts ground black sesame seeds into it, a sort of Chinese tahini, which she insists keeps one’s hair black because her mother, my Popo, said this was so. I ate the ground black sesame seeds plain and oatmeal-less, by the spoonful, and met my other aunts and uncles for breakfast.

Auntie Mary looks at me doubtfully when I order zha leung, which is yauhjagwai wrapped in a giant rice noodle the way cheung fun is folded around meat and dressed with hoisin sauce and sesame seeds, but I polish it off, dipping some pieces into jook. Starch on starch on starch. I like more croutons in my salad than leafy greens and more yauhjagwai in my jook than well, jook. When the yauhjagwai is this good, jook is only a condiment to me.

Uncle Douglas, whom I call Da Jojo or Big Uncle in Chinese, the only one I always address in Chinese, stares intently at me during my yauhjagwai consumption (he usually ignores me). He says next time I come back, to tell the waitresses that I am his niece. “Remind them about me. You will get a discount.” My aunts all laugh. “No, they will charge her double!” one says.

Screw the Rules, Eat at the Indian Restaurant Inside the Gas Station

Mar.28.16

Screw the Rules, Eat at the Indian Restaurant Inside the Gas Station

by Jordan White

Chicken Korma in Nebraska

Of all the general life rules—don’t take candy from a stranger, look both ways before you cross the street, never wear white socks with black shoes—perhaps the most universally accepted is this: never, ever eat at the ethnic restaurant inside of a gas station in the middle of nowhere.

Twenty-four miles outside of Kearney, Nebraska, on the I-80 exit for Overton (a village of 588 people) rests a Shell gas station, somewhat worn and weathered. The dust has dulled the once sunshine-yellow of the awnings into something resembling an intense mustard. Just below the sign advertising the price of gas is a gravel-battered sign that reads, “Indian food. Exit now.”

At first, we were only too happy to adhere to the rule. This was just supposed to be a quick fill up and pit stop for me and my girlfriend on our way to see the sandhill crane migration in Kearney. Then a single card sowed the seed of intrigue.

Hanging on the community board just inside the station was a letter from a family from Chicago, praising Jay Bros as the best Indian food they’d ever had. They said they had tried Indian restaurants all over North America, from Chicago to Washington D.C. to New York to Toronto. All of them paled in comparison to the humble gas station. There were no newspaper clippings or Zagat reviews. Just that single, simple card.

I got back in the car and we drove the quick half hour to Kearney to see the cranes. They were beautiful, striking. Tens of thousands of cranes descended upon unbloomed fields, feeding and dancing. Their song, a melodic chirp, was constant and inescapable. Yet, for all of their hypnotic beauty, they couldn’t force Jay Bros from my mind.

Tales abound of awful experiences at shady restaurants, of food poisoning and mystery meat and food that only barely qualifies as such. But there are just as many tales of pleasant surprises, like the hole in the wall that serves a life-changing sandwich. Jay Bros had all the ingredients to be one or the other, and I needed to find out which one it was. After a final push from Kristen, we decided we’d go to Jay Bros for a late breakfast on our way back to Denver the next day.

We pulled up to the restaurant, anxious and eager. As soon as the owner—Harry, who’s from just outside of Mumbai, as I’d later learn—saw us walking towards the restaurant part of the building, he motioned for us to take a seat, placing menus in front of us as we did. We ordered some naan, vegetable samosas, chicken tikka masala, and chicken korma. Not a typical breakfast platter, but, when in Overton…

Whatever hesitancy still remained was quickly washed away at first bite. The tikka masala was perfectly balanced: the tomato didn’t overpower the dish, and the cream floated through the mouth. The korma had only the slightest hint of peanut, waiting to be discovered rather than standing in the spotlight. Unlike some restaurants, which give you mountains of food, the portions here were just enough to satisfy both hunger and curiosity.

A life lived solely by the rules is muted and dull. There are times where we must throw caution to the wind, say to hell with the rules, and take the plunge headfirst. Food is often the perfect window into these opportunities, a gateway drug into the unexpected. Maybe we end up worse for the wear, but at least we tried.

Egg and Noodles Sounds Good, But You Lost Us With the French Toast

Mar.25.16

Egg and Noodles Sounds Good, But You Lost Us With the French Toast

by Kiki Aranita

Vermicelli in Old Bagan

Surveying the breakfast buffet at the hotel in Old Bagan, I pick at the only things not covered in flies: rice vermicelli, a freshly fried egg, and a piece of French toast. I skip the crusty pot of congee and its little bowls of condiments altogether, though I really wanted congee this morning. It would have been some semblance of home in Burma, where not a lot makes sense to me.

Burma bewilders me, with its missing sidewalks and the occasional abandoned shotgun propped against a pillar at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (who abandons a shotgun in a public place?). And there’s the obsession with crisp, never-creased Euro and American bills: withdrawing cash from Wells Fargo before I departed, I had to tell the tellers to give me bills with which you could cut soft-boiled eggs. They looked at me as though I had three heads. I have also never been more grateful for the new bills in the lai see packets I received from relatives in Hong Kong at Chinese New Year, where I stopped on the way to Yangon.

There are two ancient pagodas behind me and the Ayeyarwaddy river stretches out in front of my breakfast table. No one tells you to not touch the pagodas in Bagan. There are no guards. No one there to tell you not to do things. I’m tempted to tell off people climbing up precipitous walls outside pagodas, to tell people running their hands over wall paintings to stop, but it feels futile, sort of like scolding someone else’s children.

A bowl of congee would be nice. But on the buffet, I can hardly see the diced hardboiled eggs in the bowl beneath the quivering black sheath of flies. The staff is gracious and attentive, but their languid waving arms cannot prevent the flies from descending. The coffee is bitter and terrible, idling and evaporating in a pot on a warmer, accompanied by a bowl of sugar and packets of cornstarch-based creamer.

Every meal I’ve had in this country has been glorious, until this one.

But as I start eating, I decide that a fried egg with a runny yolk, noodles, and French toast are the perfect breakfast, and the views in front and back of me make for a perfect day. I turn away from my plate for a second and take a step toward the pagodas. A dozen or so crows descend upon my table, swatting each other while trying to get at French toast scraps. I abandon breakfast.

Escaping the crows and the flies, I go back to the temples, leaving my shoes at the gate. The pagodas are small, but the golden Buddha figures inside are well tended to. Since these temples are on the hotel’s property, there are gates surrounding them, which is a greater attempt at preservation than I saw elsewhere in Bagan. Carpets cover limestone floors. Fruits, flower garlands, prayer beads, and bottles filled with sona flowers and water are laid out on chairs and low tables that serve as makeshift altars.

Two weeks after I’ve left Bagan, I read news of a ban going into place, prohibiting visitors from climbing pagodas. Then a couple days after that, another notice is quickly issued, reporting backpedaling on the ban.

Burmese Curries and Skijoring Is a Really Specific Combination

Mar.24.16

Burmese Curries and Skijoring Is a Really Specific Combination

by Carol Patterson

Breakfast Samosas in Canada

Few chefs have 98 dogs, but for Russell Donald they are as critical to business as his Burmese grandmother’s curry recipes. Donald fell in love with dogsledding and moved to Canada from the United Kingdom in 1988, bringing along his love of curries.

Now he runs dog sleds on the trails in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and runs The Mad Dog Café & Market with his wife, Dawn. “We’re not an Indian restaurant, but Indian food is our specialty,” explained Russell as I perused the chalkboard menu. Eating breakfast in a place called Dead Man’s Flats and served by an Englishman who claims to be mad (about dogs and curries) may sound risky. In fact, it’s a delicious way to start a visit to Banff National Park or Kananaskis Country. The café is a short drive to either park and you can dogsled before or after you eat.

Luna, the café mascot—an aloof Alaskan husky with one blue eye and one brown eye—had already headed to the trailhead when I tucked into my breakfast samosas and tomato chutney. The smell of curries wafting from the kitchen had my senses screaming “comfort food” as I bit into the lightly browned pastry. The flavors of eggs, bacon, sausage, and onion danced on my taste buds as Russell explained what it is like to cook for human customers and also feed nearly 100 dogs. “I used to go to the market to set up, then go feed the dogs, then run back to work at the market and then go back to the dogs. It was nuts!” he laughed. Now, the business has more staff, so Dawn has added menu items and Russell has attempted to set a world record for skijoring: being pulled on cross-country skis by a team of twelve sled dogs.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to try a breakfast Nanini—tomato chutney, eggs, cheese, bacon, and banana peppers wrapped in naan bread—as I rushed to layer on my winter clothes to go dogsledding. Driving up a narrow gravel road to the frozen Spray Lakes, I found Luna and twenty of her canine friends waiting to run with the excitement of a football team seconds before the ball is snapped.

Our guide led in the first sled with seven dogs and two passengers. Zaboo—the 9-year-old Huskie leading our group—looked over his shoulder, his pink tongue lolling out the side of his mouth as he settled into a steady run over the crusty spring snow. His gaze seemed to say this old dog knew all the tricks and I didn’t have much to offer except ballast. I travelled in the middle sled, trusting my team would follow Zaboo since my skill with haw and gee—left and right in dog-speak—was limited.

The sky was the color of a bluebird and the snow sparkled as we slid by. Pine smells drifted from the thick forest and the wind tickled my ears. I imagined what it had been like for early explorers who faced craggy peaks and tangled forests without snow machines or automobiles. Dog sleds could have helped winter travel but it is unlikely anyone was snacking on samosas.

Where the Salsa Is Fresh and the Huevos Come With Weenies

Mar.23.16

Where the Salsa Is Fresh and the Huevos Come With Weenies

by Carolina A. Miranda

Huevos con Weenie in L.A.

The conventional wisdom on Ciro’s Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles is that you get the flautas. These are the thin, crispy tubes of corn tortilla stuffed with shredded beef and presented in a veritable pond of guacamole. Ciro’s flautas are well-documented on Instagram and Yelp. They have been duly analyzed and deconstructed on Chowhound. And they have been lauded, on more than one occasion, by L.A.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, Jonathan Gold.

I am indeed an ardent fan of the flautas, along with the huevos rancheros, and the chorizo con huevo (a good hangover resurrection food). But the item on the menu that always grabs my attention—for its alliteration, its aesthetics, and the sheer nostalgia it induces whenever I see it on the menu in all-caps Times New Roman—is HUEVOS CON WEENIE. Eggs scrambled with hot dog.

As a kid, there were two food items in my mother’s refrigerator that could turn a trivial portion of leftovers into a meal. The first was an egg. The second was pan-grilled sausage. And by sausage, naturally, I mean a wiener: an industrially extruded cylinder of animal parts in some resplendent shade of pink.

A fried egg could transform a plate of white rice into a meal. A sausage could make up for an arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) that had already had all the pollo picked out of it. Put huevos and weenies together and you had the ultimate dinner of last ingredients.

At Ciro’s, a small, family-run diner that has been dishing up breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles since 1972, the huevos con weenie do not disappoint. Partly, this is because this bountiful breakfast platter arrives with rice, beans, tortillas, and the restaurant’s legendary avocado salsa, the latter spilling out of its black plastic mortar. And partly because they simply taste familiar, soft and salty, tucked into tortillas with mounds of beans and salsa.

But I also like the huevos con weenie because they are so resolutely of this place. Ciro’s isn’t the kind of spot you go to on an impossible foodie quest for some rare taco from the mountains of Durango. The menu is simple. And the décor is straight out of the tía handbook of interior design: wood-paneled walls and Mexican blankets capped with a stellar jukebox that plays oldies.

Ciro’s isn’t about being out. It’s about being at home, where the salsa is always fresh and the huevos con weenie are always on the menu.

Milk, Bread, Butter, Chocolate

Mar.22.16

Milk, Bread, Butter, Chocolate

by Marcia DeSanctis

Chocolat Toast in Bayonne

It was one of my more notable detours in a lifetime of impractical diversions on the road. Last summer, I took a long side trip on the way from Lourdes to the airport in Biarritz and stopped in Bayonne, a riverside city in the Pays Basque, just inland from the glittering beaches of the Atlantic coast. Good sense would have dictated that I fly out of Pau, which was much closer. Plus, I was not eager to pass through hordes of chi-chi vacationers inching through traffic on the Côte Basque, of which Biarritz was the de facto capital.

But this was no ordinary deviation, late as I was for the 8 pm flight to Paris. I could anticipate the regret, the what-ifs, the self-recriminations that were all but certain to cascade over me if, because of some foolish airplane reservation, I lost my chance to pull over for Chocolat Toast at Cazenave.

Every great food city has its emblematic dish: Singapore has chili crab, New Orleans has beignets, Brussels has moules frites. The singular aspect of Chocolat Toast, though, is that this signature, utterly Bayonnais concoction is served only at Cazenave, a family-owned shop on the rue Port Neuf.

It’s construction is simple: a cup of foamy hot chocolate as thick as Greek yogurt with a stalagmite of whipped cream on the side, two slices of buttered brioche toast and a generous pitcher of ice water (presumably to cut the blood fats swirling around after ingesting this achingly rich combination). Served at breakfast, at l’heure du thé, or right before closing time to post-miracle pilgrims from Lourdes craving the earth’s most glorious comfort food and who give no damns about missing their flight, the Chocolat Toast ritual is perhaps the sole obligation of the visitor to Bayonne. “People often stop here because it’s a tradition, which is both because of Cazenave itself and also because of the history of chocolate in Bayonne,” says owner Pantxoa Bimboire.

As his name indicates, he is a child of the Basque country, whose grandmother had been a waitress at the salon de thé in the rear of the chocolate shop and who, in 1930, convinced her husband to sell his jewelry store and buy Cazenave. Even then, a tray laden with Chocolat Toast was the iconic dish of this small city on the banks of the Nive and Adour Rivers, the ancestral home of the cocoa bean in France, which had journeyed there from Spain.

While he was decimating the local population, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés saw economic value in the drink the Aztecs called xocolatl, which revved Emperor Montezuma’s troops for battle. Cortés appropriated Mexico’s cacao plantations, and in 1524, the first beans arrived in Spain. Soon the addition of sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon rendered sweet flavor to the medicinal liquid brew and the drink became all the rage throughout Europe’s royal courts.

But in Spain, the chocolate trade was run chiefly by Sephardic Jews, and during the Inquisition, they were forced to flee for Portugal. Again, they were swiftly expelled before finding refuge in the Saint-Esprit quarter of Bayonne, where they brought the tools and know-how of the cocoa trade to France. Soon, another ignoble chapter: In 1761, an ordinance created by Catholic chocolatiers barred Jews from working in the chocolate industry. The Bordeaux parliament annulled this decree in 1767 and by 1854, there were 34 chocolate makers in Bayonne. This is the year that Cazenave opened its doors in the storefront where it remains today.

The shop window is perhaps a testament to Pantxoa Bimboire’s heritage, with plaques of chocolate wrapped in elegant, gem-hued paper. Normally, I’d stop to swoon over the stylish packaging, but it was late that July afternoon, and I had two hours until my plane’s departure. I made my way through the store to the salon de thé. Lined with smoky, century-old mirrors, the tea-room is suffused with Belle Époque glamor, the kind unfortunate restaurateurs in the New World try, pathetically, to fake. To further the sensation of sitting in a jewel box, the room sits under a stained glass dome, milky white and gold, installed in the 19th century.

What is most unchanging is the dish I crave, nearly always, since my first visit to Bayonne thirty years ago. There is nothing terribly complicated about the recipe. Yes, the chocolate tablets from Costa Rica or Venezuela are now organic, but the hot milk poured over them are still from cows who pasture in the lush Pays Basque, as is the cream for the dense Chantilly. The brioche toast is sliced from a special golden loaf, created by a local baker only for Cazenave. Most unusually, the foam that provides a tantalizing lid to the sweet hot chocolate is still whipped by hand using a wooded mousseuse—beater—fashioned from boxwood. “It will always be the same, because this is the heritage of Bayonne,” says Bimboire, who will soon hand over the store to the fourth generation.

And, I learn, it is somehow my heritage, too. This summer day, in this tearoom, making a beeline for what will sustain me: milk, bread, butter, chocolate, comfort.

Why You’d Want a Picture of a Bunch of Eggs Is Not a Bad Question

Mar.21.16

Why You’d Want a Picture of a Bunch of Eggs Is Not a Bad Question

by Luke Pyenson

Brekkie on the Great Ocean Road

The Princetown General Store and Café looked pretty promising. That is, my party and I were confident it would fulfill the promise of some type of breakfast in this desolate small town along Australia’s Great Ocean Road. It seemed like the only place in town to eat, but I didn’t understand why. Princetown lies just next to Port Campbell, home of The Twelve Apostles, a group of spectacular limestone cliffs rising from the sea that are visited by over one million tourists per year.

In any case, figuring it had to be a good thing that the area hadn’t become over-developed, we entered the General Store intent on encountering the type of “brekkie” that might adequately prepare us for visiting one of the Southern Hemisphere’s most impressive natural wonders.

Australia is a land awash in over-the-top breakfast propositions, cheffy creations that go far beyond the humble and delicious avocado toast. Days earlier in Melbourne, I had eaten at cafes whose menus read like a cross between Ottolenghi’s shopping lists and Dominique Ansel’s press releases. Harissa, labne, and dukkah comfortably coexisted with salted caramel, chocolate ganache-filled hotcakes, and all manner of flavored mascarpones. That’s not the type of thing we were up against in Princetown.

Inside the General Store, the interior decor was appropriately sparse: a few shelves stocked between one and two items each of staple dry goods. (If Vegemite is neither dry nor good, is it still a dry good? Discuss.) There was also a display rack holding brochures advertising local attractions. There were no avocados. Beyond a small counter there was a porch-like seating area and a picnic table overlooking the Gellibrand River.

Approaching the counter, we were met by the owner, Sharyn, and her son, looking frankly quite bored and a little surprised to have customers. I ordered a pretty typical fry-up (eggs, bacon, griddled tomatoes, and toast) and went out to the picnic table, passing the small kitchen area on my way. After a little while, the scent of bacon, as it is wont to do, began to waft outside, taunting me to go back in and take a photo of Sharyn making our breakfasts.

I’m not comfortable taking photos of people without asking, and I’m often too timid to ask. In this case, I had a feeling Sharyn might be a tough customer, but the photogenic scene unfolding in this rural Australian kitchen was, unexpectedly, a photographer’s dream. Each element of the fry-up was standing out in bright contrast to the black flattop griddle, steam was rising and fogging up the window, and Sharyn was presiding over the peaceful ritual with an unwavering concentration. I asked her if I could take some photos. Her response was something like, “Okay, but why would you want to?”

I could sense that Sharyn wasn’t wild about having her photo taken, so I took just one of her before focusing in on the eggs, bacon, tomatoes, and bread. I don’t think they cared.

Longing to Return to a Place You’ve Never Been

Mar.17.16

Longing to Return to a Place You’ve Never Been

by Dara Bramson

Lahpet in Phnom Penh

The faint aroma of stewing curry leads the way, reassurance that I’m not lost. As soon as I walk into Irrawaddi Myanmar Gallery Restaurant—Phnom Penh’s only Burmese eatery—I meet the owner’s eyes. She greets me with a smile, one that indicates she recognizes me, reinforced when she leads me to “my” table. It’s my third time here this week—today at breakfast time rather than dinner, though my order won’t change.

After weeks traveling alone with little intimate human contact, her graciousness fills a void as if I was enveloped by her soft embrace. Ceremoniously, she asks for my order and we both smirk slightly, ready to play the game.

“Lahpet, khayan thee hnut, and lapea yea with…”

“…no sugar!” she interrupts, as we giggle.

Moments later, a warm vegetable broth is in front of me, drops of oil and slices of soft onion floating about. Somehow—despite my permanent sweat marks from the enduring, sticky heat—this is soothing and not repellent. Mostly, the soup is a distraction from my anticipation for what brought me here in the first place: tea.

I first tried Burmese food in 2014, during a research trip to the Thai border district Mae Sot, a 10-minute drive east from the nearest Burmese trade town. When I wasn’t drinking tea, I was eating tea; the latter a custom of few countries in the world. (This was a treat for me as a tea-lover who is often ostracized for not drinking coffee.)

At the main market, I bought packets of sugary, clay-orange tea mix and strolled on the adjacent sidewalk. From there I could see Burma—renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military junta—beyond a messy no-man’s-land; a jumble of trees and trash surrounding empty, dusty pathways, occasionally occupied by humans or mangy dogs. Robed monks walked past me and bilingual warning signs; vendors stood behind haphazard barbed wire or sat in makeshift wooden booths selling cigarettes and sex paraphernalia, eating and drinking tea.

Though I never set foot in Burma, the impressions of its people and flavors lingered. What’s the word for wanting to return to a place you’ve never been? The closest I’ve come since were restaurants in San Francisco, Seattle, Chiang Mai, and now, Phnom Penh.

My eggplant dish is gone. I return to three final bites of salad, an explosive combination of fermented green tea leaves, crunchy nuts and seeds, fresh tomatoes, a cocktail of pastes and oils, and a few critical splashes of pungent fish sauce, a condiment akin to an ugly dress that looks great when you put it on. By now, the restaurant is buzzing and every table is feasting on Burma’s national dish. I’m tempted to order another but remember the forthcoming beverage.

Even as a former British colony, Burmese tea culture is distinctly Burmese. Teahouses are gathering places, where customers sit around low tables and tea masters know their preferences—more or less strong, milky, sweet—and where government spies clandestinely monitor patrons for conversations considered subversive. While I wait, I read Finding George Orwell in Burma, in which Emma Larkin traces the imperial policeman-turned-author’s years in Burma from 1922 to 1927.

My tea arrives. It’s perfectly milky, without sugar.

Dumplings Made of Meat, Flour, and Not Much Else

Mar.16.16

Dumplings Made of Meat, Flour, and Not Much Else

by Helen Wright

Khuushuur in Ulaanbaatar

It’s 9 am in Ulaanbaatar and my host mum Uka is chopping meat on the small kitchen table. The blade of the knife slices through the frozen mutton and thumps the wooden chopping board below.

I’ve just got up and am nursing a cup of dissolvable antibiotics and orange squash. Through the window at the end of the kitchen I can see the brown smog swirling around the buildings; it’s that air pollution which has given me a dose of conjunctivitis and a hacking cough. In the winter months, the city has one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world.

Uka, who has just come back from a yoga class, is making khuushuur—fried dumplings—for us to take on a picnic later today. I’ve been staying with her for almost a month and she wants to show me there is more to Mongolia than that capital city.

She takes out lumps of icy sheep meat from the freezer and defrosts them in the oven. The mutton is left over from the Lunar New Year festival, Tsagaan Sar, two weeks ago, and we’ve been struggling to eat it all since. The sheep’s head, stomach, and bones are outside in bags, frozen at -20 degrees, on the balcony. The winter weather is far more effective—and the balcony much bigger—than Uka’s freezer.

She shakes a large amount of flour into a bowl, adds water, then kneads the mixture into dough. She pushes it around the pink pearlescent plastic bowl with her hands before dividing it into six lumps. She rolls each dough ball out with a rolling pin and spoons the filling of chopped mutton and cabbage into the center. Then she folds the dough over on itself and crimps the edges to make it hold. At the end she has too much meat left and makes a giant dumpling we nickname “the fat one” while giggling.

By the stove, her 14-year-old daughter is already frying the first batch. When they have turned brown on both sides she transfers them to a plastic container on the worktop, where they send up spirals of steam.

Uka and her daughter leave the kitchen to get changed and I’m told to help myself to the golden parcels for breakfast.

I take my first bite: the dough is tough but tasty, the meat tender and the cabbage soft. The fat from the meat spills out, runs down my hand and onto the tabletop.

Dumplings made of meat, flour, and not much else have been eaten for centuries in Mongolia, a country which traditionally can’t grow much produce because of the harsh winters, which can drop to -40 and lower.

We drive 60 miles west through valleys lined with snow-covered mountains along good roads, bad roads, and finally no roads at all to a Buddhist temple. The sky is blue and clear, the snow so white it makes the clouds look grey. The golden roofs of the temples gleam in the sunlight. I’m made to climb through a rock called “mother’s womb” to get reborn.

It’s wonderful to be able breath in clean air again.

Later, driving home, we pull up by the side of the road and eat our picnic. I’m sitting in the passengers seat in the front of the car and through the windscreen all I can see is white and blue.

The dumplings are still warm and just as delicious, but this time the view is much better.

Comfort Food for Early Risers and Late-Night Partiers

Mar.15.16

Comfort Food for Early Risers and Late-Night Partiers

by Jasper Teow

Teochew porridge in Singapore

I was seated at a local kopitiam (coffee shop) in a slightly questionable neighborhood. It has the requisite tissue-strewn greasy floor tiles, and the jarring crackle of once chart-topping mandopop hits blasts in the background. I’m sitting under the vulgar protrusion of flickering fluorescence that is its signboard, once upon a time serving to differentiate the shop from its rivals down the street, now serving merely to allude passers-by to its dwindling existence.

My watch reads 3 am. A group of six saunter in, fresh from a night of drunken revelry at the nearby clubs. The men are middle-aged, jaded. The ladies are supplying forced laughter and faked flattery, and are wearing revealing party dresses as fleshy as they are flashy. They take their place on flimsy plastic stools, ordering up a second, maybe third, round of drinks. The chosen one of the group ambles to the counter, shouting out orders like a seasoned professional, without stopping to look at what’s on display. Perhaps everything looks alike with beer goggles on.

To them, this is supper. A reward for their work on the dance floor, fuel for further shenanigans. The night is still young.

My watch reads 3:30 am. A frail, elderly man in a cleaner’s uniform takes his seat in a corner, observing the earlier group over the rim of his kopi mug. He waits for the group to finish ordering before hobbling up to inspect the offerings on display, estimating the cost of different permutations of dishes and whether it fits within his limited budget. After settling on his optimal combination, he points to indicate his choices, ordering without a word.

To him, this is breakfast. A necessity to last through the long day ahead, fuel to grind through his double shift washing toilets at the nearby 24-hour shopping mall. The day’s just begun.

The selected dishes arrive, ranging from the simple—boiled peanuts, salted duck eggs, stir-fried greens—to the more elaborate—plump steamed squid, chilli smothered clams, fatty meats stewed for hours on end, and braised tofu—all accompanied by steaming, piping bowls of plain porridge. Much has been said about comfort food being a great equalizer, and just for a moment, I could see the food in question, teochew porridge, as just that. The moment the thud of bowls on tables signals the arrival of the food, everyone in the kopitiam—no matter his or her financial situation, state of mind, or lot in life—halts all conversation, and just for that moment, everyone focuses instead on executing the scoop-soup-slurp-burp process of consuming teochew porridge, exhaling in quiet satisfaction with the repeat of each cycle.

It is a dish of juxtapositions. On one hand, you have over-boiled rice. Plain, bland, and oft described by locals as “sick people food.” However, any semblance of the ordinary is instantly dispelled by the accompanying dishes, often liberally spiced, heavily oiled, lavishly salted, or intensely pickled. Not to forget the imperative condiments, taucheo (fermented soybeans) and a potent blend of vinegar, garlic, and pounded chillis. Teochew porridge excites, but at the same time, it comforts.

The elderly man downs his last scoop of porridge water and lets out a soft sigh, acknowledging the long day ahead. He takes one more furtive look at the group of six, now finished with their meal, before shuffling out of his seat and onto the dimly lit street.

Finding the Breakfast You Didn’t Know You Were Meant to Eat

Mar.14.16

Finding the Breakfast You Didn’t Know You Were Meant to Eat

by Raksha Vasudevan

Rolexes in Uganda

The sweetest surprise of moving to Uganda has been re-discovering the breakfasts of my south Indian childhood.

Since the late 19th century, when Indian workers were brought over by British colonialists to help build the Uganda-Kenya railway, certain Indian dishes have become so assimilated into local cuisine that they are now considered Ugandan by all measures.

The chapatti is a good example. Long bus journeys are thankfully broken up by vendors crowding around the vehicles, hawking chapatti, samosas, and bhajji (vegetable fritters), still warm from deep frying. The chapatti is also critical to the rolex, the ubiquitous Ugandan street food and ideal breakfast: an egg fried quick-quick on a sizzling round black stove, garnished with tomatoes, onion, peppers, cabbage, and if you’re lucky, avocado, all folded into a chapatti. The perfect portable breakfast on a hungover Saturday (or jam-packed Monday that leaves no time for lunch).

Ugandan soil also yields giant, deformed-looking jackfruit and sunrise-colored mangos in copious quantities. As a child in Madras, I remember their sticky juices leaking down my chin as I gobbled up the flesh so fast that my mother would worry about me choking. Later, growing up in Canada, I would sometimes splurge on a mango, only to be inevitably disappointed, the taste of the imported fruit a mere shadow of its freshly plucked cousin. Fortunately, the Ugandan equivalents are as fleshily sweet as any I remember having in India.

These familiar foods were unexpectedly comforting as I tried to find my footing in a foreign land. But it was when I visited one of Kampala’s oldest Indian restaurants that something clicked, that feeling of forces beyond your comprehension bringing you to a place that you did not even know you were supposed to be. I had expected the north Indian dishes available in most Indian restaurants in North America: butter chicken, paneer tikka, naan. But it was their south Indian menu, with dishes perfect for breakfast or tiffin (light midday meal), that almost brought tears to my eyes: mysore masala dosa (spongy dosa with a red chutney and potato stuffing), uttapam (vegetable pancake made from rice flour and dal), idli (soft white steamed lentil rice cakes) with sambar (lentil-based vegetable gravy), mango pickle, and coconut chutney. And, incredibly, the desserts displayed behind the glass counter held pal kova, my favorite sweet, the one that would wake me in the middle of the night in Madras, compelling me to creep into the kitchen like a thief and steal a few pieces, shivering with illicit delight.

The entire meal tasted—felt—like home.

The melding of Ugandan and Indian cuisine remains rather one-sided, at least to my foreign eyes: Indian dishes have been absorbed into local food culture, but only a few Indian restaurants serve any version of matoke and beans, or posho with g-nut (grounded peanut) sauce. Maybe such fusion is next, or maybe not. Maybe like in any healthy relationship, the cuisines are meant to co-exist, sometimes mingling, doing things together, but living out their own stories.

From the Land That Brought You Vegemite, a New Breakfast Treat

Mar.09.16

From the Land That Brought You Vegemite, a New Breakfast Treat

by Patricia Rey Mallén

Avocado on Raisin Bread in Sydney

There I am, once again. Eyes wide open, thoughts a-fluttering, not a hint of sleepiness. Even though is 4:30 am, and I am in bed. A bed miles away from the one I slept in the night before.

Oh, jet lag. You unrelenting son of a bitch.

(In Spanish, jet lag is male. English has been my working language on and off for over seven years, but some habits die hard.)

After a decade on the road, I thought it would get easier. It has not.

My very first experience with severe jet lag was, as it is for many Europeans, in Australia. I was 21, a senior in college, about to embark on a year abroad in Sydney.

I could barely remember when my infatuation with Australia started. I had dreamed about the land down under for so long. I was so ready to take it all in, if only I could get some sleep.

Luckily for me, I was introduced to the Aussie remedy nice and early, when I woke my landlord at 5:45 one morning in a jet-lagged haze a few days after I landed. The poor guy opened the door after a few knocks, all bleary-eyed and messy-haired, and invited me in.

While I rambled on about something or other, he brewed some coffee and brought me something to eat: smashed avocado on raisin toast. He had yet to utter a word.

I absentmindedly took a bite, not even processing that I had never had avocados before, and that the bread had raisins in it, not minding to even pause my chattering. He stopped me cold with the first words he had said to me: “Do you like it?” The clock marked a little past 6 am.

The question made me think about what I was eating for the first time. Did I like it? I usually had toast for breakfast, but it was plain, white bread with butter on it. Simple flavors.

This was salty and sweet and creamy and crunchy all at once, as if the food gods had decided to throw it all together and let me choose the taste quality that I enjoyed the most. I slowly chewed it for a few seconds, pondering.

“You know what, I actually do,” I said. It wasn’t a lie.

“It’s an Aussie thing. Avocado is nature’s butter,” he said. “You’ll have this plenty other times.”

I would come to learn during my stay that Australians take breakfast seriously. In the years since my first visit, I have found that Australia is the unofficial breakfast destination, with travel and food bloggers singing the beauty of brekkie.

In the upcoming months I would munch on blueberry bread with butter, not only eat but love Vegemite with cheese on toast, and learn to make flat whites during a stint as a barista at a local coffee shop.

I would even have raisin toast with simple butter a few times, but smashed avocado won every time. It always managed to bring me back to that first week, even when I finally got used to eat it at a less extreme breakfast hour.

My year in Australia kicked off my nomadic life, and ten years since I cried of happiness upon seeing the Opera House from the plane, I still think about Sydney on a daily basis.

I find glimpses of the country here and there, in every coffee shop offering flat whites and fellow travelers who generously spare a spread of their Vegemite. Avocado toast has remained a godsend in every new batch of blurry first days after I land somewhere several time zones over, and I have tried to replicate the dish all around the world whenever I find myself unable to sleep at 4 am – including whenever I am back in Spain, to my parent’s bewilderment.

Closest I’ve come is Mexico, which I now call home, and where I have reached a compromise. Avocados are indeed better, but I’ve had to learn to make do with five-grain bread. Raisin toast is, simply, nowhere to be found.

A Slice of Heaven’s Garden and Bad Coffee

Mar.08.16

A Slice of Heaven’s Garden and Bad Coffee

by Rebecca Holland

Harisa in Irbid

It was a late night in June of 2010 when I arrived in Irbid, Jordan, the country’s second-largest city, which sits just south of the Syrian border. The air was warm and heavy with the scent of sand, citrus, cardamom, and cigarette smoke. Scents that on following trips caused a flood of memories and comfort, but on this first foray out of the United States was so very foreign.

Soon, Irbid turned familiar, thanks in large part to a Nescafe stand and a friendly baker. Every morning at 7am I would walk a mile to Irbid University, taking in the hazy sunrise, chaotic traffic, and intense heat, even in the early morning.

There were about a dozen Nescafe stands on that walk, but I always stopped at the one just outside my apartment, where a man named Muhammad served steaming paper cups of instant coffee flavored with cardamom. I would stand, sipping a cup, half asleep, while Muhammad drilled me on Arabic phrases, correcting my pronunciation over and over until he deemed it acceptable. Then he would hand over a second cup for the road.

Though I grew used to the bitter, weak coffee, saved only by the aromatic cardamom, I remained bewildered by Nescafe’s popularity throughout Jordan. Instant coffee accounts for more than 40 percent of coffee in the Middle East, compared to barely 10 percent in North America. Nescafe stands dot the streets of Jordan, lighting up in the night and even popping up along major highways. I tried to find out why, receiving answers from “It’s the best, no?” to “who knows why we do anything, but it’s delicious,” and most often, “we love our Nescafe as much as we love our hummus.” End of story, and after a few months I loved it, too.

A crumbled strip of sidewalk and a hectic roundabout later I arrived at Alahandra Sweets, where Ahmad, a talkative older man with a limp and a toothy grin, would be waiting with a slice of harisa. The dense, sweet semolina and honey cake drenches napkins with its sugary moisture. It looks almost too sweet, but the addition of geranium gives it a floral, lighter flavor as it dissolves in your mouth. Hala, Ahmad’s sister, once called it “a slice of heaven’s garden.” Her laugh filled the little shop, echoing as she wove her way through the trays of kunafa and spinning shelves of baklava, working efficiently to serve the morning rush. Meanwhile, Ahmad offered tea and told me about his time in Alabama, which he adored—”They call it sweet home for a reason, yes?”—and about how he wished he had children. Hala would stop her rushing to present a bowl of pistachios, or maybe dates or oranges, depending on the day.

Hospitality is a hallmark of Jordanian culture, drawn from the traditions of the nomadic Bedouin group, which prizes karam, or generosity, as one of man’s most honorable virtues. It is not uncommon for foreigners to hear “welcome to Jordan” again and again, shouted from cars or storefronts, or to be invited into someone’s home for tea, even if they’ve just met. The warmth will surprise you, then pull you in.

On my last day in Irbid, Muhammad gave me strict instructions to practice Arabic every day, and Ahmad and Hala smothered me with hugs and pushed a box of sweets into my hands.

Though Jordan is filled with wonders from the ancient city of Petra to the Roman Ruins at Jerash, the strangeness of floating in the Dead Sea and the glorious night sky at Wadi Rum, it’s these three people, and these two breakfast rituals on a not very special street in an often overlooked city, that have remained in my mind.

Photo: Osamah.w

How Do You Say “Starbucks Sucks” in Mandarin?

Mar.07.16

How Do You Say “Starbucks Sucks” in Mandarin?

by Ketti Wilhelm

Espresso in Suzhou

It’s a typical gray winter weekday, and I’m wandering the streets of my new neighborhood, increasingly desperate, as I have been since I arrived in this city, for a quiet place with caffeine and a little space to work. In most directions from my apartment, the smog-choked streets offer little other than noodle shops and mini-marts, difficult places to write.

I’ve just moved to a new city in China: the sprawling, far eastern metropolis of Suzhou, just inland of Shanghai. After wandering in a different direction this morning, and lingering a little longer at the shop windows whose signs I couldn’t read, I’ve had a stroke of luck and found a good coffee shop.

The place is called 36th Story, but its owner tells me everyone just calls it “Max’s place.” He’s free to talk to me because, at 11 in the morning, I’m his only customer. In the last few years, coffee has become hugely popular in this tea-loving country, but mostly as a pricey trend for those who are hip to the Western world, rather than as a morning habit. And here, the hip only drink coffee in the afternoon.

This is Max Wang’s third coffee shop in this ancient but essentially boring city. He kept building new ones because he needed more space, and his customers have followed him to each new location. This one is spacious – unafraid, like the industrial suburb it inhabits, to take up as much space as it wants.

Max tells me he serves more espresso than tea, and his sugary specialty recipes—blending such flavors as peach, rose, blue curaçao, and mango with espresso—are the secret to his success.

The corporate world has also caught on to the goldmine potential that is China’s new taste for coffee. A Starbucks just opened down the street, kitty-corner from Max’s place. There’s already a Costa Coffee a block away in the other direction. But those uniform, corporate-branded, Western-style shops feel out of place here in messy China. While Max’s place is undeniably a coffee shop, not a tea shop, its character is still undeniably Chinese.

In a few ways, Max’s shop would seem at home anywhere in the world. He entices customers with wifi and a mostly English-language R&B playlist that varies from soothing to sappy-sweet.

But the similarities end there. Max’s menu board is all in Chinese, which is surprisingly rare for a coffee shop in China, as most shops are foreign, corporate ones, and English writing carries definite cachet, even in places where the customers can’t read it. As I take my seat after ordering a simple flat white, I have to shoo away a pair of cats (two of the seven whom Max allows free range in the shop) and find a new place for the giant teddy bear on my chair. (China has an endless appetite for cutesy decorations, and almost every seat comes decorated with a pastel stuffed animal the size of a kindergartener.) Instead of Western toilets, the bathrooms here have squat toilets (or ceramic holes in the floor) which are the norm in China, but are not to be found in any Starbucks or Costa on the planet. And when my drink arrives, it comes with a glass of warm lemon water, which is continually refilled by a nervous waitress who tells me she speaks no English.

I ask Max if he’s worried about the new Starbucks. He chuckles, looking shy but confident, and says no.

“It’s hard for me to explain in English,” he says. “Starbucks is a machine. That machine is only good for Starbucks. But here, people are more important.”

The Tantalizing Spicy Sourness of Potato Mash Dipped in Tamarind Water

Mar.04.16

The Tantalizing Spicy Sourness of Potato Mash Dipped in Tamarind Water

by Swati Sanyal Tarafdar

Phuchka in Kolkata

The underground metro train surfaced and came to a screeching halt before heaving out exhausted, sweating passengers from its air-conditioned interiors. In less than a moment, the ball of humanity poured into the staircases and escalators, molten lava-like, and was eventually thrown out into the open. The momentary relief from the stale, enclosed space doesn’t really last. Calcutta (or Kolkata) summers are usually hot, humid, and stinking of sweat, and this day was not much different from the ones I spent here growing up, sixteen years back.

Sixteen years ago, my friends and I would be returning from our college, and there would be a hurry to reach home, seize something to eat, and go on for evening classes or hobby courses. The enormous crowd from the metro station would be pushing us in the general direction like a great stream of water, just like today. We would keep going, until suddenly a thought would strike. Phuchka!

Phuchka stalls are found all over Kolkata, in every nook and corner. Years ago, the stalls would open in the late afternoons and go on, undeterred, until the last customer went home content. Today, it is also a late breakfast item. From the streets of Kolkata, phuchka have made their way into boutique restaurants and five star ones, and are served at all times.

I spread out my limbs to find balance and then elbow away from the homeward mass, towards a less-used outlet. The cobbled square just outside the gateway is lined with huge glass boxes containing crisp, yellowish balls the size of lemons. Phuchka.

The man on the other side of the box, the phuchkawalla, is almost hidden by his cart load of goodies. He is not the same man who served me and my friends sixteen years back, but I go ahead and watch him work. Like the typical phuchkawalla, he is smashing potatoes in a large, ancient aluminum plate, adding to it coarsely powdered black salt, tangy spices, chopped coriander, and finely sliced chilies with singular concentration. The crowd is still thin, so he takes his time kneading the mass of smashed potato in, say, 32 different ways. Finally, he scrapes his hand on the sides of the plate and looks up at the faces collected around him with pride and satisfaction, almost like a ringmaster before presenting his best act to the crowd. Then starts his magic.

“How many will you have?” My childhood phuchka seller would almost throw a challenge with a glint in his eyes and a sideways smile. This seller hands over tiny, disposable bowls to the motley audience circling his cart and I notice it’s not plastic. In swift movements, he reaches inside the glass box, takes out one phuchka at a time, deftly makes a hole in it with his left thumb, takes a small round of the carefully prepared potato mash, and shoves it into the irregular opening. Finally, he dips the whole thing in a clay pot containing tamarind water and serves the dripping, still-crisp round of endless flavors to the first customer. The act has not changed at all. The whole process takes him 15 seconds.

Sixteen years back, the taste of phuchka was always that of freedom and recklessness, considering family elders forbade us to have this unhygienic roadside snack. The crispness of the flour shell and the tantalizing spicy sourness of the potato mash dipped in tamarind water cannot completely define the taste of this simple dish. It was the characteristic aftertaste that remained on the tongue long after, the aroma of the bowl made of dried sal (shorea robusta) leaves, the way one’s mouth started watering when remembering them much later, as well as the familiarity that developed gradually with the phuchkawalla, establishing a lifelong bond.

One will find at least one or two stalls selling Kolkata or Bengali phuchka in almost every Indian city. This particular variety is much different than its distant variants, panipuri or golgappa, which are made of durum wheat, have grams for filling, and are accompanied with sweet sauces. Kolkata phuchka tastes of chilli, of tamarind, of full-bodied potato mash, corianders, and of reminiscence. I look at my septuagenarian neighbor relishing a mouthful, and smile happily.

My Small Drunk Greek Breakfast

Mar.03.16

My Small Drunk Greek Breakfast

by Sarah Souli

Tsipuro and Toursi in Ioannina

Yannis doesn’t speak any English and I don’t speak any Greek. This had been true the entire time I was staying at my friend Nikos’ house in Ioannina, but our linguistic differences had been bridged by a cushy buffer of translation and the fact that for most of the day, Yannis was churning out Marxist-Socialist theories at the university he worked at. Mornings thus far has been a solo cup of coffee before heading out of the house.

But this Saturday, Nikos had to run some errands with his mother. Did he want me to wake up his brother Stratis, who could act as a translator for me and his father? That seemed unfair; Stratis had come home late just a few hours prior, and besides, at this point in my life, I had eaten breakfast in stranger situations.

I dressed and headed downstairs, where Yannis was already sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle of tsipuro and a plate of toursi. Tsipuro is a 45 percent alcohol made from grapes. Toursi are pickles. Yannis makes both himself.

Did I mention it was no later than 10 am?

“Sarah!” Yannis said, his arms outstretched.

“Yanni!” I replied. “Kalimera!”

“Café?” he asked.

“Ne,” I said, nodding my head and taking a seat at the table.

Yannis mounded a spoonful of ground coffee into the espresso machine and sat next to me as the water sputtered. A minute of silence passed as we both tried to string together a sentence. He managed first.

“You … like Ioannina?” he asked.

“Ne,” I said. “Poli … um … poli …” I fluttered my hands around my face in what I hoped was a convincing mime of “your city is very beautiful and I very much enjoy the well-preserved historic artifacts!”

Yannis nodded gravely and handed me my coffee. I took a sip as I contemplated the fact that we had both exhausted our repertoire of the other person’s language and not five minutes had gone by. We sat quietly for a while longer as I drank my espresso, prolonging the time I was occupied and thus could not be expected to communicate.

We looked at each other and smiled, shrugging our shoulders as if to say “Welp, these next three hours should go by quickly.”

Yannis, being the older and more experienced of us, realized it actually wouldn’t without a bit of help. Which is how, at 10:30 am, I found myself being offered a shot of tsipuro on an empty stomach by a sixty-four-year-old political science professor.

Though tsipuro is the preferred beverage of choice in Ioannina, and Greeks do seem to drink it all day long, this seemed like a particularly early hour to start drinking. Still, when a Greek offers you a beverage, you must drink it: you’re sharing a moment, and it would be rude to refuse. Yannis ferments his own tsipuro in a plastic barrel in his basement. A framed portrait of a Lenin solemnly looks over the barrel.

“Yammas!” we cheered, clinking glasses. Yannis motioned with his fork at the glass dish of toursi.

Toursi is a traditional accompaniment to tsipuro. Yannis marinates a mix of chopped vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, onions) in olive oil, white wine vinegar and salt. The vegetables sit on the kitchen counter overnight; they pickle while retaining their crunch.

My first food of the day was a piece of carrot, which turned my mouth sour. I sipped my tsipuro, and reached for my notebook and pen. Breakfast was the perfect time to learn the Greek alphabet and teach the English one. Yannis and I sat huddled over the notebook for the next few hours, forking toursi and drinking tsipuro. We ran out of letters and graduated to household objects, pointing at a chair (karekla), an orange (portokali), the table (trapezi). I was nursing another coffee and learning the word for sofa (kanapes) when the door opened.

“All good?” Nikos asked.

Yannis and I looked at each other. “Poli kala,” I said, smiling. It was, after all, a very good breakfast.

Photo: Phso2/Commons

An Ideal Breakfast Sandwich on the Aegean

Mar.02.16

An Ideal Breakfast Sandwich on the Aegean

by Julia Kitlinski-Hong

Ayvalık tostu in İzmir

A traditional Turkish breakfast is an elaborate affair, with many small dishes and countless cups of tea. Tost, which consists of two toasted pieces of bread with soft white cheese, sucuk (spiced sausage) and tomato in the middle, is the opposite. Quick and easy, it is ideal sustenance for an early morning road trip to the coast.

As a newly minted English teacher in İzmir, escaping to the beach town of Çeşme was a common weekend ritual that I learned to embrace. It was a reason to leave behind the weight of the week’s lesson plans and the uncertainty of moving to a new country.

As the week came to an end, the city streets would begin to empty as a majority of its inhabitants left for the cooler shores of the Aegean. The nearby neighborhood of Bostanlı, which usually hummed with nighttime activity, was deserted, with only the thick summer air to fill the leftover silence.

My boyfriend and I learned to leave early in the morning to avoid the tangle of traffic that clogged the main arteries out of İzmir later on in the day. Our bribe for waking up early was a hearty breakfast sandwich at a roadside cafe that served as fuel for the journey ahead.

Our destination was Süt Evi (Milk House), an hour outside of Izmir. A laughing cartoon cow that served as its mascot made it a welcome sight among the other drab roadside eateries and car repair shops.

Joining all the other blurry-eyed patrons in a spacious, generously air-conditioned room, our menus were quickly placed in front of us. Brightly colored pictures of each item helped make up for my elementary grasp of Turkish.

Though in truth, a menu was just a formality, as I had my order ready on the tip of my tongue: Ayvalık tostu with cheese and sucuk, hold the tomatoes.

As we waited, tulip-shaped glasses of the customary Turkish tea were placed on our table. I drank the familiar amber liquid as the scent of toasted bread and melted cheese drifted around us from the surrounding tables. My stomach rumbled in response.

Time seemed to stretch on as we waited for our sandwiches to come. Finally, they arrived. Toasted ovals of perfection that kept the savory goodness of the molten cheese and spiced sausage hidden away under a deceivingly simple toasted bread exterior. The crunch of bread punctuated the silence between us as we inhaled our sandwiches. Soon all that was left were a few rogue crumbs on and around our empty plates.

Full, we stumbled out into the sunlight, to head once more to the sea. The beach was calling.

There’s Only One Flavor of Ice Cream to Have for Breakfast

Mar.01.16

There’s Only One Flavor of Ice Cream to Have for Breakfast

by Juliette Lyons

Dulce de Leche in Buenos Aires

It was just before twelve and I hadn’t yet eaten, so I suppose it was breakfast. No clouds were out and the air was humid. After spending half an hour strolling through the heavenly chaos that is El Mercado de las Pulgas on the edge of Buenos Aires’ Palermo and Chacarita neighborhoods, I decided to stop at the next empanadería to break my night’s fast.

I didn’t need to walk far.

I read the neon sign across the road and just like that, my sweet tooth awoke and my craving for meat wrapped in pastry was a long-lost memory.

I’d never been to an ice cream parlor like this one before, a traditional heladería, brought from across the Atlantic by Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. I stepped into the 1930s-style parlor and discreetly approached the only customer, an old man who looked to be in his late seventies, perhaps even eighties, to take a look at which flavor had dragged him to this parlor before noon. I walked to the counter where a man was ready to take my order and asked if that was dulce de leche—caramel with an Argentine twist, a national pride—slowly melting in the old man’s wafer cone.

“No, amor,” the man told me. “It’s super dulce de leche.” I looked up at the menu board hung behind them. The list was endless. But tucked between the dulce de leche and the dulce de leche granizado, there it was: the super dulce de leche.

I asked what the difference was between the three, trying to sound as Argentine as my fresh-off-the-boat accent would let me. He explained that granizado has with chocolate chips while super has dollops of actual dulce de leche stirred into the ice cream. “We make the best one in town,” he said. Chamuyo, please. I’ve heard that one before. He continued, “How long have you been here?”

“A few months.”

“Oh, you’ll be coming back. Just like him.” he pointed to the old man. “We have been around for seventy years and he has been coming here for the super dulce de leche since he was a child. You need to try it.”

Super it was. The loyal viejo couldn’t have been wrong for that many years. The metal lid came off the tub and the ice cream man dug his arm deep into the freezer, gently filling up my polystyrene quarter-kilo bowl with creamy scoops of bronze brown. Three plunges into the freezer later, my bowl was full and placed on the scales. “Listo,” he said, wiping the edges of the bowl with a towel and delicately sellotaping the lid on.

I thanked him and sat on the bench outside. On that summer’s morning I couldn’t have followed better advice than starting the hot and humid day with super dulce de leche. The man behind the counter was right. A chamuyero—smooth talker—he was not. He really does have the finest scoop in the city.

Less Insipid Scrambled Eggs Designed for the Indian Palate

Feb.26.16

Less Insipid Scrambled Eggs Designed for the Indian Palate

by Rohini Kapur

Akuri in Mumbai

I’m at Café Military in the heart of downtown Mumbai on a weekday morning. It is 10 am and only two tables are occupied, each with a gentleman, engrossed in the morning’s newspaper. One of them is sipping on a bottle of London Pilsner beer.

We pick our table at the other end of the café near the cashier, a stern-looking man who is likely to get annoyed if you don’t tender exact change. The waiter doesn’t hand us a menu: the single sheet of paper is right on our table, first laminated in clear plastic, then held in place by a piece of glass that serves as our tabletop. We peek through the glass to see what’s on offer for breakfast. I order akuri, a typical Parsi breakfast dish, and ask if I need to order bread with that. It comes with a “lot of bread,” the waiter assures me.

While my friend and I wait for our food, we both agree that we’ve stepped back in time. This Irani café could be the setting for a 1970s Hindi film, an unemployed young man with little to his name seated at this table, mulling over the woman of his dreams, hatching plans to make money, while ordering one cup of masala chai after another. There’s very little that seems to have changed in the café, and it’s close to what it looked 30, maybe 40, years ago. The old wooden tables are placed close to each other, and the walls are almost devoid of colour. Small paintings of erstwhile Mumbai adorn the walls, alternating with mirrors to create the illusion of space. Old-fashioned tube lights hang from the ceiling while stand and ceiling fans whirl gently. The red-and-white checkered tablecloth has been replaced with green-and-white.

The akuri arrives fairly quickly, filling up a bright yellow plastic quarter-plate. The rather large side of thickly-sliced baguette fills up another. The eggs are rather yellow, obviously laced with turmeric. I spot chopped green chillies, the classic Indian way to heat up a dish.

“Akuri is essentially scrambled eggs,” my Parsi sister-in-law had once told me. “But with some additional ingredients like onions, tomatoes, and spices.” I’ve never been a fan of scrambled eggs, their taste and texture too insipid for my Indian palate. But akuri? Oh, akuri is different.

My akuri is super soft and lightly mashed. It packs in flavor. Chopped onions add bite, tomatoes lend a hint of tartness, and fresh coriander leaves with some Indian spices bring the touch of piquancy that are absent from typical scrambled eggs. At last, scrambled eggs that look good and taste great. The slight toughness of the freshly-baked bread is a perfect complement to the akuri. This is a breakfast dish I could come back to often.

Café Military is one of the several Irani restaurants that dot the old part of Mumbai. Iranian Zoroastrians (or Iranis, for short) first migrated to India in the 19th century from Persia (now Iran), and started restaurants in Bombay (now Mumbai), primarily catering to low-income workers. Today, they keep costs low by focusing on inexpensive food rather than inviting décor or elegant service. While they were mostly popular for snacks like brun maska (buttered buns) and baked goods (puffs and cakes), some of them also serve typical Parsi fare, like dhansak (mutton curry), lagan nu custard (desserts of eggs, milk and custard) and akuri, among others.

As an intrinsic part of the city’s food culture, Irani restaurants have long fed retired folks like the beer-ordering man at Café Military, college students, office clerks, errand boys, and foodies seeking nostalgia. Unfortunately, their unwillingness to adapt to 21st century realities, stiff competition from ubiquitous street vendors, and rising costs are threatening the survival of Irani restaurants. Several have shut shop already. For the few that live on, survival is perhaps a constant battle. But, like the city of Mumbai, a business survives by being aggressive and street-smart. Nostalgia-seeking customers aren’t enough.

But while the remaining Irani restaurants endure, I’d like a plate of akuri for breakfast, please.

Photo: Ewan-M/Commons

Sea Urchin and White Wine: The Best Breakfast Imaginable?

Feb.25.16

Sea Urchin and White Wine: The Best Breakfast Imaginable?

by Andrea Ratuski

Oursins in Carry-le-Rouet

We were told to arrive early at Carry-le-Rouet for the annual Oursinade, or sea urchin festival. Lucky we did, because we were able to nab a spot at one of the tables that line the port of this pretty town. So, oursins for breakfast it was.

One wonders how anyone could have imagined that this prickly black ball found in the Mediterranean (and elsewhere) would be edible. Once cut open—carefully— the green sludge is removed, revealing five slim, orange ovals of roe. Better to let professionals do this part. While I guarded our place at the table, my husband went in search of a dozen, then another dozen, then one more. Scraped out with a tiny spoon, the creamy roe slithers down the throat and tastes of the briny sea.

And how does a sea urchin go down first thing in the morning? Well, better with a glass of Picpoul de Pinet!

Carry-le-Rouet is situated in a picturesque bay on the aptly-named Côte Bleue, or Blue Coast, just west of Marseille. All manner of sailboats and fishing vessels bob in the marina.

It was back in 1952, so the story goes, that the fishermen of the town decided to give the mayor, Jean-Baptiste Grimaldi, his weight in sea urchins as a gift. Given how lightweight they are, that would have amounted to rather a lot of sea urchins.

This evolved into a festival, held in the town every February, when sea urchins are in season, and it has now grown so popular that this year it is being held on all four Sundays of the month. Sea urchins are still harvested by hand, according to traditional methods.

On a sunny Sunday, throngs of people descend on this tiny town, where stand after stand offers heaving buckets of the delicacy. For those in need of a bit of variety, there are also oysters from Bouzigues, shrimp, sautéed squid, and paella.

We linger at our table, not willing to give up our precious spot. This gives us the chance to meet a ton of people, including a large family from Avignon with a newborn baby, some lovebirds from further down the coast, and even a couple who have driven 500 miles from La Rochelle, on the west coast of France, just for a salty taste of the south.

We finally relinquish our coveted spot and stroll by the masses of people camped out on the rocks with their platters of sea urchins and bottles of white wine. Then we take a leisurely stroll on the coastal walk to soak in the sunshine and all that blue.

By 2 pm, there’s not a single oursin to be had.

You Will Know British Holiday-Makers By Their Painfully Silent Breakfasts

Feb.24.16

You Will Know British Holiday-Makers By Their Painfully Silent Breakfasts

by Clementine Wallop

Tea and Toast in the BnB

In these small rooms we keep silence. These rooms of deep reds and dark wood, of little light and heavy curtains. We are British, and it is morning at the bed and breakfast.

Why are we silent as our tea arrives, is poured, is milked and sugared? Why do we only speak to apologize as the teaspoon clatters back too heavily on the flower-patterned saucer or the edge of our broadsheet falls into the raspberry jam?

It’s our national awkwardness, carried around as surely as wet weather clothes and unnecessarily good manners. It’s our uncertainty about how to fill a silence that we mostly decide to solve by leaving only silence and no fill.

We are not unfriendly, we are unnoisy. We are not unhappy, we are unsure. If you walk into a room of us, you’ll find us a silent refectory of weekenders, contemplating breakfast without conversation between our tables set for two.

The breakfast room of a B and B is too small to talk in without being heard, without giving away the state secrets that are our thoughts on the day’s news, our car parking spots, our next stops on the road.

So you will know us, the British holiday makers, by the nature of our quiet, our plans for the day that we whisper so as not to annoy anyone else’s boiled eggs and soldiers. Our eggs we will have ordered with a string of pleases, thank yous, and sorrys for things we haven’t done that wouldn’t have been rude even if we had done them.

We will know you, you world travelers, by your easy conversation, your loudness, your declarations that the B and B is cute and quaint, by the amount we can learn about you while we sit shuffling our newspapers and trying not to let our knives squeak on the plate as we cut our bacon.

You may not know it, but we are dreading you speaking to us, asking us where we’re from and if we’ve seen the castle yet or where we had dinner last night because you found a great little place. If you do speak to us, we reply politely with as few words as possible. Otherwise you will have but one sentence out of us as we put our knives and forks together, stand and push in our chairs.

“Have a good day,” we’ll say. And we nod and we walk out.

A Crunchy, Salty, Sweet and Spicy Fried Thing Is One of Life’s Great Pleasures

Feb.23.16

A Crunchy, Salty, Sweet and Spicy Fried Thing Is One of Life’s Great Pleasures

by Sasha Surandran

Banana Fritters in Kuala Lumpur

Comfort food comes in many forms. For me, it comes in the shape of the humble banana fritter, served hot from the wok. If you love the combination of crunchy and sweet, one bite of a deep-fried piece of banana fritter will have you… oh, who are we kidding? Nobody stops at one bite.

Growing up in Malaysia, regardless of how much you earned or whether you lived in town or a little village, a tea break around 3 pm was mandatory, served with fritters or other kuih (tea-time snacks). Fritters were sometimes fried at home, but usually bought from vendors who tended little wooden carts just down the road. A few pieces were usually enough to tide you over until dinner.

Today, little stalls selling banana fritters and other popular tea-time snacks such as fried tapioca and jackfruit, curry puffs, fish crackers, and more, can be found all over the country. In fact, one of the best things about a Malaysian road trip, if you avoid the ubiquitous highways that tear through the country, is the food lined up along the trunk roads. Local fruits, fresh coconut water, and, of course, fried food galore are just a few of the temptations that will have you waylaid.

Thankfully, hidden amid the office blocks and condominiums of the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, fans of all things fried can still find street vendors deep frying bananas and fish crackers—best eaten piping hot from the wok and best avoided when rubbery and cold—along the cobbled pavements and in front of grim ‘no hawking’ signboards. These vendors offer a taste of simpler times, and most importantly, you can get a few pieces for one Malaysian ringgit.

Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to find that sweet spot that only a deep-fried banana fritter can touch. Street vendors are slowly disappearing from the streets. With crackdowns initiated by city authorities on vendors without licenses, as well as ongoing gentrification, the humble purveyor of banana fritters may not be just down the road anymore. The changing appetites of urban dwellers also mean that deep-fried fritters, though delicious, are kept for special occasions rather than a regular affair. Will the day come when there will be no more street vendors plying their greasy fare by the homogenous high-rises of KL?

But there’s always hope. To take a photo for this story, I walked down the road from my office in one of the business districts earmarked for further development. A new mass-transit station was being built nearby. There were a few street vendors set up that day, and I made my way to a new push-cart with the words Pisang Goreng Johor (banana fritters from the Malaysian state of Johor) in bright red letters. The vendor was a young woman and she had just put out a batch fresh from the wok. After I placed my order, I asked if I could snap a photo of her wares. She smiled and asked if I would be posting it on Instagram.

As I walked back to the office with my greasy paper bag, I snuck a piece, dipped it in the chili & soy sauce concoction that made it authentically ‘Johor’, and ate it. It was crunchy, salty, and sweet, the piquancy of the chili a delightful addition. Simple pleasures.

For a Super Vigorous Morning Try Raw Beef for Breakfast

Feb.22.16

For a Super Vigorous Morning Try Raw Beef for Breakfast

by Aaron Wytze Wilson

Beef Soup in Tainan

When I first arrive at Ah Cun’s Beef Soup shop, I almost can’t believe my eyes. There’s no line. Mind you, it’s the Lunar New Year, Taiwan’s most important holiday, and everyone has likely returned to their hometown to spend time with family. It’s also seven in the morning, which may seem like an unusual time of the day to encounter a line for beef soup.

But not for Ah-Cun’s. Not for the Southern Taiwanese city of Tainan. The city is well known for its habit of eating beef soup at early hours. At Ah-Cun, Tainan’s most famous beef soup shop, customers begin to appear as early as four in the morning, when freshly slaughtered beef from Tainan’s Shanhua District is delivered to the shop.

I grab one of the metal stools at an outside table and ask the laoban, Mandarin for “boss,” to give me a bowl of beef soup. He plops a bowl of long leathery strips of raw beef halfway cooked in a soup broth down in front of me, along with a small dipping bowl with ginger slices and soy paste to marinate the beef. The experience of eating fresh beef in the early morning is similar to eating fresh tuna at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market; the earlier you arrive, the fresher and more tender the meat.

But when I ask people in Tainan why they eat beef soup in the morning, I’m left with more questions than answers. Chao youjingshen a! is the answer I usually get, which means “super vigorous!” It’s an extra dose of energy before you head off to work.

Then why doesn’t anyone else in Taiwan eat it for breakfast?

Moreover, Taiwan historically doesn’t have a history of beef consumption. Before Taiwan’s industrialization in the 20th century, the island was primarily an agricultural society, and a cow was far more valuable alive helping out in the fields than in a bowl of beef broth. Taiwan’s farmers respected their bovine friends so much that they received a proper burial after their passing.

Beef-soup enthusiast Chang Chia-chun, who has extensively researched Tainan’s peculiar breakfast habits, points to a seemingly unlikely culprit: Japan.

Taiwan was formerly Japan’s first overseas colony, and the island was heavily influenced by cultural trends occurring on the Japanese mainland. One of those trends was picking up Western eating habits, which meant beef consumption. “Tainan’s first bowl of beef soup was likely served at Tainan’s then 5-star hotel, the Four Seasons Inn,” said Chang in a recent interview.

But details are still light on how beef soup made it from Japanese colonial boutique hotels to tiny street-side shops on the side of the road, much less on how it became a breakfast dining habit. Nevertheless, shops like Tainan’s Ah-Cun have thrived on the morning beef soup trade. I ask the boss for his theory on the people of Tainan’s love of morning beef soup. He replies: “Chao youjingshen a!” Indeed, super vigorous.

When Breakfast Becomes Dinner and Then Breakfast Again

Feb.19.16

When Breakfast Becomes Dinner and Then Breakfast Again

by Giulia Pines

Head Cheese and Bread in Trier

Germans don’t do extravagance. They don’t go in for excess. So when invited into a German’s home for breakfast, it may come as a shock to see the entire table covered, without an inch to spare. There’ll be sliced meats and cheeses, hard-boiled eggs and jars of spreads, plus at least three different types of bread and several kinds of crusty rolls. It isn’t just how much is on the table that’s surprising; it’s the fact that this may be almost exactly what you had for dinner the night before.

Due to an odd obsession with sleeping soundly, and the conviction that this might have to do with one’s dietary health, Germans have been perfecting what they call Abendbrot—a light evening meal of bread adorned with something—for years, reserving the hotter, heavier, and larger meal for lunchtime. How this came to pass in one of the world’s most productive countries remains a mystery, considering the fact that these larger midday meals hit the stomach like a hot stone, and that Germany has no real siesta to speak of.

But back to breakfast, which you can now see is really the same as dinner. Germans don’t like to make a show of abundance, yet breakfast with guests is the one time of day they’ll choose to show off. I’d been living in Berlin for over a year when I first encountered this breakfast excess, but it wasn’t in the German capital where I was given my initiation. Sure, Berlin restaurants are well-known for their brunch spreads, but, Berlin being a haven for those living on the cheap, those lured in by promises of “all-you-can-eat for €10 per person” are often met with the telltale sliminess reserved for cold cuts just taken out of their supermarket packaging, the slight giveaway crustiness of sliced cheese that has sat too long in plastic.

No, I was in Trier, a pretty little city about as far southwest as you could go without hitting Luxembourg, and I was staying with a family who had a Metzger (butcher), a Bäcker (baker) and a Biokäserei (organic cheese-maker) all within reach. And so the table was covered in breads accompanied by half-full jars of homemade jams, each with its very own little jam spoon. Some, no doubt, made from berries picked at their own family Dacha just out of town. I was at last getting the chance to sample three kinds of sausage alongside head cheese, Schwarzwald or black forest ham, and liverwurst in its casing, plus Edamer (Edam), Bergkäse (mountain cheese) and Gouda all artfully laid out on a plate. Even the hard-boiled eggs were there, nestled inside an enormous eggwarmer in the shape of a quietly satisfied mother hen. I could predict the uneaten eggs would end up sliced and on the dinner table by evening. I could also pick out the slices of uneaten bread we’d been rude enough to leave on our plates the night before. No matter, anything we didn’t eat for breakfast could be recycled for Abendbrot once more.

What I didn’t see on the breakfast table were pickled pearl onions and garlic slices, cornichons and sun-dried tomatoes in oil; really anything that might leave a suspicious stink on the tongue. The night before had been a rollicking good time, with local riesling followed by whiskey followed by rounds of cards and sing-alongs with the extended, somewhat tipsy family. The morning’s Abendbrot was decidedly less enthralling, and yet the two were essentially the same meal.

At once I saw through the cornucopia of the breakfast table to the essential frugality and reserve of the German lifestyle lying beneath, but I wasn’t about to point that out to the kindly woman expectantly pulling out a chair and pouring my coffee. Because when Germans finally break their all-time favorite rule against indulgence—or at least, believe they’re breaking it—they should be, well, indulged.

Photo: nayrb7

A Morning Bowl of Soup That Makes Cold Days Worthwhile

Feb.18.16

A Morning Bowl of Soup That Makes Cold Days Worthwhile

by Lucy Sexton

Bun Rieu Cua in Hanoi

As winter settles upon Hanoi, a penetrating, damp coldness seeps in, keeping bed sheets, clothes, and bones perpetually short of dry. The historic trading city is damp by nature, leapfrogging across several rivers, lakes, and ponds that constitute the marshy Red River Delta.

Like the eroding and resettling of sediment along its tapering riverbanks, the city both crumbles and rebuilds itself everyday. This constant state of activity makes a hot and hearty breakfast a necessity of life.

Bun rieu cua, a sour tomato and crab-paste noodle soup eaten in the first half of the day, is perhaps the heartiest of all.

Each layer of this breakfast soup takes something from its cold, watery environment and turns it into weapon to fight the evils of Hanoi winter.

Bà già, the grandma who ladles the soup at my favorite bun rieu spot, a bustling little shop on the corner of a narrow alley, must start the simmering process while the sky is still dark.

Pork bones, tomatoes, and crab juice simmer for hours to make the base broth. The soul of the soup comes from paddy crabs found in rice paddies and surrounding watery lands.

The crabs are crushed, bone and all, into a nutritious cure-all. Strained, the liquid makes the broth while the calcium rich paste is made more pungent and sweet with fish sauce, shallots, and egg.

Bà già says she adds tamarind, fish sauce, and a litany of ingredients spoken so quickly in Vietnamese they flew past my ears. A polite way to keep a chef’s secrets.

Later, she delicately adds crab paste to the top of the broth. It quickly cooks as it floats upon the eternally bubbling pot.

When I order, she flash cooks chewy bun rice noodles in a single-portion sized strainer, adroitly spills them into my bowl and piles on my regular additions.

First, tiny steamed snails—ốc—likely pulled from Westlake, the biggest lake in Hanoi, which still serves as a productive, albeit somewhat polluted, fishing grounds for locals.

Then cubes of fried tofu she quickly heats up again atop the broth.

Sometimes I agree to the deep purple, congealed pigs blood—huyết—for extra stores of energy, as if crab, snails, and tofu aren’t already enough protein.

She fills the bowl to the brim with the tomato broth and adds a dollop of caramelized shallots, something I’ve never seen in any other bun rieu.

At the wobbling table covered in a peeling formica laminate, one of the shop boys plops down the steaming bowl and a bowl of shredded lettuce, banana flower, mint variants, bean sprouts, and my favorite, split ITALrau muongITAL stems. I’m heavy handed with my greens; they add a fresh crunch that ensures this soup doesn’t miss out on a single flavor, texture or nutritional group.

For me, this soup represents the best of Hanoi: industrious like its chefs, entertaining with every flavor on the spectrum, and so hearty you may start to love the wet and grey winter skies.

Why the Coffee Sucks in One of the World’s Best Coffee-Growing Nations

Feb.17.16

Why the Coffee Sucks in One of the World’s Best Coffee-Growing Nations

by Mark Wetzler

Coffee in Marsella

I’m sitting outside a cafe in Marsella, Colombia—a small town located in the middle of Colombia’s “eje cafetero,” or “coffee axis”—trying to figure out why Colombian coffee is so bad.

It shouldn’t be. If I were to get out of my chair and sprint in any direction for two minutes I’d soon find myself wading through rows and rows of leafy, verdant coffee plants, some of the most renowned arabica plants in the world. And yet order a coffee in 99 percent of establishments in Colombia, like the one I’m at right now, and the result is the same: a product that vaguely resembles what you know to be coffee but tastes more like battery acid.

Further north, in the town of Fredonia, an hour and a half south of Medellin, I get a little insight as to why this is. I talk to Richard, a twenty-something Fredonita whose family owns Cafe Don Chucho and has 30,000 plants in the neighboring hills. Richard is fighting a difficult fight; he’s trying to bring coffee culture to Fredonia, a tiny town built on a mountainside whose main modes of transportation include horseback and heavy-duty Toyota Land Cruisers.

“The old people, they’re not going to change,” explains Richard. “They’re happy with the way tinto tastes. It’s what they know. But the younger generation is starting to get more interested in the way coffee could be.”

The tinto Richard is talking about is essentially what Colombian coffee culture has always been. It’s made in a colossal silver cylinder drip machine, filtered several times and heated and reheated throughout the day. What’s more, often times it’s not even Colombian; it’s imported pre-ground from Vietnam. When I ask Richard if it wouldn’t be cheaper to use local coffee, he looks sheepish. “Actually, probably yes,” he says. “But again, this is the way they’ve always done things. It’s the system they’re used to.”

In the capital of Bogotá, just 143 miles away as the crow flies but nine hours by bus, this system is starting to change. The following week I check out cafe and bakery Arbol del Pan, a perfect example of the advancing coffee culture in Colombia. The americano I order tastes fresh-roasted, fresh-ground, and properly prepared.

Arbol del Pan gets their coffee from Vereda Central, a local roaster whose employee, Santiago, sheds valuable light on the Colombian coffee situation.

“In the 70s and 80s, the norm became exporting the best beans and using the pasilla“—beans damaged by bugs and other elements—”for local coffee. Then came Oma and Juan Valdez (Colombian coffee chains) who started using healthy beans, but still not the best. And now you have places like Arbol del Pan that only use premium-quality, single-origin beans.”

Why would a farmer sell them in his home country when he can get a much higher price abroad? And, of course, there’s also the matter of tradition. “People are used to their tinto and and they’re used to paying 800-1000 pesos”—about 30 cents USD—”for it,” Santiago says, echoing Richard’s statements. “Why would they pay more?”

In Bogotá, however, people are starting to pay more. People are willing to shell out a few extra pesos for a locally-sourced, high-quality product. This isn’t surprising, being in the capital, but I wonder what will become of Richard and his coffee shop back in Fredonia. Due to the longstanding tinto tradition, Richard is fighting an uphill battle. And in Fredonia, as well as in most of Colombia, the hills are steep.

You Can Blow a Shocking Amount of Money on Room Service for Breakfast

Feb.16.16

You Can Blow a Shocking Amount of Money on Room Service for Breakfast

by Jesse Dart

Granola at the Waldorf-Astoria

The flight to JFK from London felt short, almost like a commute: smooth and simple, no fuss. In New York, it was cold and the car ride into Manhattan was eerily slow. “There’s always traffic, every day, every hour, it never stops,” said the driver.

I was staying at the Waldorf Astoria; not the kind of hotel I’m used to, but this was a trip that was being paid for by others. There were a few of us in town for an event, all in the same hotel, same schedule, same restaurants and food. It was all very planned out and routine. I got an email when I arrived: “Everything is taken care of, including breakfast, so help yourself to room service if you like, or there is a breakfast served each morning downstairs.” I only thought of room service for the rest of the day.

I can’t remember exactly my first experience with room service in a hotel. It was probably during one of our family vacations to Las Vegas when I was about 12 or 13. My parents never thought that Vegas was the wrong place to take my sister and I and on those trips. I learned more about life than in five years in the Midwest. Room service is an institution in Vegas. As a young, naive kid who liked to eat, I soon realize that there was this entire world of hotel breakfasts: huge buffets of steaming pancakes, sausage, bacon, and eggs that didn’t seem to exist anywhere else. I’m sure it did, but everything seemed so surreal in Vegas in 1993. Since then, I’ve realized that getting breakfast at a hotel is usually a great idea because it’s hard to get breakfast wrong. Almost anyone can cook eggs, bacon, pancakes, or toast. If anything is bad, it’s normally the coffee.

I took full advantage of the room service on offer at the Waldorf and took great pride in placing my order the night before. The operator repeated my order back to me:

“That’s granola with yogurt and fruit, orange juice, and coffee, Mr. Dart?”

“Yes, that’s right, at 7:00 am”

“No problem sir, it will be with you then. Have a good night’s sleep.”

It was terribly simple; it’s easy to spend a ridiculous amount of money on breakfast in your room. The prices are never friendly, made for desperation or laziness, I think, or those with expense accounts. I was trying to be good and not order the huge stack of pancakes, waffles, or anything with hollandaise sauce.

In the morning the doorbell to the room woke me up, the first hotel room I’ve stayed in with a doorbell.

“Sir, it’s your breakfast,” said the waiter.

Pulling a robe on over my pajamas, I opened the door to the white-gloved waiter.

“Good morning,” he said. “Should I just leave it here for you?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“Shall I pour the coffee for you, sir?”

He unwrapped the granola and the out of season melon and berries, arranged like a painting.

The whole scene was so short it was over in a blink of an eye, but it was performed with a graciousness that reminded me that being a waiter is an art. It was as refined a service as you can find. It was a simple pleasure, a little luxury that made me feel like a king for a day.

If You’ve Never Had a Soju Hangover You May Not Understand This Breakfast

Feb.12.16

If You’ve Never Had a Soju Hangover You May Not Understand This Breakfast

by Tom Taylor

Three-Minute Ramen in Daejeon

I found myself in Daejeon, South Korea on the tail end of a liquor-fueled, 17-country odyssey across Europe and Asia. It would be the last city I explored before heading back home to Ottawa.

By the time I arrived in Daejeon, my funds were running quite low, as is generally the case at the conclusion of a long trip. The time had unfortunately come for belt-tightening, unless I was prepared to starve until I boarded my flight home. So whiskey gave way to soju and beer in big plastic bottles, and dinners out were replaced by spicy beef jerky and cellophane-wrapped, triangle-shaped kimbap.

On one of my last mornings in Daejeon, I woke up feeling truly haggard. I’d consumed far too much soju the night before, and was tender with all the internal bruises one typically feels after a run-in with Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverage. After spending several minutes mired in my sleeping bag trying to make peace with my hangover, my depleted body’s screams for sustenance became too loud to ignore and I ambled out into the Daejeon morning in search of breakfast. Hell-bent on stretching the remaining contents of my bank account, I decided to see what I could find to eat in a nearby 7-Eleven.

As my childhood neighborhood’s only seller of Pokémon cards, the 7-Eleven had been a staple of my youth. As it turns out, however, the 7-Elevens in South Korea are quite different from the ones I was used to. The most notable difference, of course, is that in South Korea, the store’s shelves are packed with beer, wine, and liquor; a fantasy at best in the Canadian province of Ontario, where regressive liquor legislation limits the sale of alcohol to just a few stores. Another key difference between the Canadian 7-Elevens I knew and the one I wandered into in Daejeon that morning was the inclusion of a small dining area. Running along the front window of the store was a counter where customers could sit and enjoy their purchases.

So, after meandering the brightly-lit aisles of the store and shakily deciding on a bowl of three-minute ramen and a can of Let’s Be coffee, I took a seat to eat my breakfast which, I can proudly say, cost me just a few dollars. The ramen was good and hot; soothing to my soju-tortured stomach and just spicy enough to help me sweat out some of the alcohol. The coffee—or coffee imposter—was as thick and vile as pond water. It was, however, rich in caffeine, which is precisely what I needed on that bleary-eyed, South Korean morning.

I swapped mouthfuls of steaming ramen with reluctant slurps of canned coffee, watching through the window as patient parents shepherded their children to school and briefcase-toting businesspeople made their walks to work. A few short days later, I’d be back to the normal routines of my life.

The Kahi Abides

Feb.11.16

The Kahi Abides

by Campbell MacDiarmid

Pastries in Kirkuk

Rain doesn’t fall often in Kirkuk. One might accordingly expect a torrential downpour to dissuade most from heading out early on a winter weekend morning. If there’s one dish that will compel a man to navigate cold, flooded streets before Friday prayers, however, it’s kahi, the pastry treat that is Kirkuk’s signature breakfast. At least, so Abdullah tells me in the taxi ride from Erbil.

We’re heading an hour south from the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region on a reporting trip to one of Iraq’s most contested cities. Situated geographically between the Zagros Mountains and the lowlands of Mesopotamia, the historic city of Kirkuk sits at the crossroads of many different cultures. Turkmen, Kurds, Arabs, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and other minorities all call the city of some million people home. Who was there first (and should rule today) is disputed. More recently, the stakes were raised with the discovery of oil under Kirkuk; vast reserves that promised riches but delivered conflict.

Until the summer of 2014, the federal government in Baghdad controlled Kirkuk, but when the Iraqi army fled ahead of an advance by Islamic State militants, the Kurds, many of whom had long claimed the city as their Jerusalem, sent in their peshmerga fighters. The Kurds defended Kirkuk from the extremists and retain control today.

The issue of who—or what—is authentically Kirkuki is therefore as sticky as a syrup-soaked pastry. It’s a question I’ve come to ask. But before we start working, Abdullah, our fixer, is adamant we eat kahi. And if you’re going to eat kahi, Snunu is the place to get it.

Five traffic officers blow their whistles shrilly outside the bakery. I assume they are attempting to thin the traffic jammed in the pot-holed street until Abdullah tells me they are renting out the limited parking spaces. Rain from the roof cascades in a waterfall over the entrance, and inside the tile floor is slick and the warm air heavy with the scent of rosewater syrup. In the back, a man works frantically to shuttle folded pastry in and out of a gas-fired oven before it burns. The crisp sheets are quickly sliced on trays by another man, who completes the dish by ladling over hot syrup and a dollop of geymer, a kind of heavy cream. Men queue at the counter to order takeout and more stand at benches around the walls, hunched over steaming plates, eating in silence.

Such is the renown of Snunu (which means swallow bird in Arabic) that in 2010, during the American occupation of Iraq, soldiers of the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, would stop by on patrol to sample the breakfast that was said to be better than pancakes or waffles or even French toast sticks.

It’s the kind of dish that develops its own mythology. One tradition is for the mother of a new bride to bring kahi to the home of her new son-in-law the morning after the wedding.

Kahi is said to be a legacy of Iraq’s Jewish community, another minority which once called Kirkuk home. On the festival of Shavuot, when Jews commemorate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, Babylonian Jews would celebrate with kahi.

For hundreds of years, a community of some 200 Jewish families lived in Kirkuk’s citadel. Their population peaked some time in the 1940s, after Kirkuk became the center of Iraq’s petroleum industry. The 1947 census recorded 2,350 Jews in the city, but after the formation of the state of Israel increasingly persecuted Jews gradually left Iraq. By 1957, the census recorded just 123 Jews left in the city. Today there are none. Their synagogue and homes are rubble—like the rest of the citadel—and Kirkukis picnic among the ruins.

But the kahi abides. Although, like most things in Kirkuk, its origins are contested if not entirely lost to history. As Iraqi food historian Nawal Nasrallah points out, “It is a very popular pastry, and everybody—regardless of ethnicity or religion—has been eating it for centuries.”

Her research into medieval Arabic cookbooks reveals numerous recipes for pastries, flattened into sheets, folded, fried or baked, and drenched in syrup. In modern-day Egypt, the popular fateer is similar. “But it is true, kahi did have a special place in the lives and festivities of the Iraqi Jews,” says Nasrallah, who has authored books on Iraqi cuisine.

We eat our kahi and leave satisfied. Back in the street, the rain has stopped and the officers still run their parking racket. There are more pedestrians now and street vendors display plastic belts and cigarette lighters shaped like pistols. Abdullah stops to admire a tray of lethal-looking folding knives, but we’re late to our first meeting and I step out into traffic past the policemen, fueled by a winning combination of sweet carbohydrate and just enough grease.

I won’t find answers today to the big questions about Kirkuk. But everyone—whatever their background—will agree that kahi has a special place in the city.

Breakfasting in the Noodle Shop Where the Tet Offensive Was Planned

Feb.10.16

Breakfasting in the Noodle Shop Where the Tet Offensive Was Planned

by Wes Grover

Pho in Saigon

The first time I ate at Pho Binh, a modest noodle shop in one of Saigon’s working-class neighborhoods, I was unaware of its ties to the Viet Cong. Back when the eatery was frequented by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, there weren’t any plaques on the walls honoring Comrade Ngo Van Toai, the original owner, for his service. Other than that, Pho Binh, which ironically translates to “peace noodles,” appears much as it did during the war.

I was living down a drab little alley nearby and, out of convenience more than anything, Pho Binh became my go-to spot for a bowl of pho bo (noodle soup with beef) for breakfast. The soup is pretty much the same as you’ll find anywhere else in the city, and if you didn’t know any better, so too is the setting. It’s a family business, often with children playing with action figures at one of the tables while older relatives work a steaming vat of broth by the entrance.

Around my third or fourth time here, I noticed the plaques and photographs of Ngo Toai and asked about their significance (or rather, pointed with an inquisitive look on my face to convey interest and curiosity as best I could). That’s when Minh Nguyen, one of the family elders, led me up a dark staircase in the back to a large room with a few wooden chairs, tables, and a display case holding 25 medals. It was here, I learned, that while U.S. soldiers dined downstairs back in January 1968, a secret group of North Vietnamese, known as the City Rangers, planned one of the bloodiest attacks of the war: The Tet Offensive.

Tet is a celebration of the Lunar New Year, regarded as Vietnam’s most important holiday. Typically a time of ceasefire during the war, in 1968 the North Vietnamese saw an opportunity to bring the battle to Saigon, hoping to inspire an uprising. Until then, combat had largely remained in the countryside.

Minh was not in Saigon at the time of the seige, though he knows the family story well and, through broken English, his deliberate body language tells that this is not just a place of family pride, but national honor. A month before the strike, Ngo Toai, who operated the restaurant as a front for the North Vietnamese, was simply told to gather enough food to last 200 people for a month. As the City Rangers orchestrated the siege on strategic locations throughout the city, including the U.S. Embassy, soldiers of the 6th Subdivision of the People’s Army of Vietnam began arriving at Pho Binh under the guise that a large family was reuniting for Tet.

Though ultimately the uprising did not succeed in Saigon, the ramifications of the two violent weeks that ensued changed the scope of the conflict. The South was forced to bring reinforcements into the city, leaving the countryside vulnerable, while journalists in Saigon captured images that would permanently sway U.S. public opinion against the war. As for Ngo Toai, he was arrested soon after, tortured, and imprisoned on Con Dao Island, where he would remain until the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 and finally be recognized for his duty. Ngo passed away in 2009.

During the offensive, Minh was in Da Nang, a coastal city about 500 miles north, where shrapnel from a U.S. B52 bomber left him hospitalized for a year. Rolling up the leg of his army green pants, he shows me the scars that remain 48 years later. He then assures me with a genuine embrace, “Today, Vietnam and America are friends.”

Mardi Gras the Czech Way

Feb.09.16

Mardi Gras the Czech Way

by Morgan Childs

Slivovice in Děbolín

A doughnut does not a sustaining breakfast make, but a doughnut and a swig of moonshine is a different story. It’s Masopust, the Lenten Carnival season, and at 8 am in the local pub in Děbolín we knock back the first shots of the day, paint our faces, and layer our costumes over our coats.

The snow is as deep and as dense as packed brown sugar and rolls into the distance without end like a scene out of Doctor Zhivago. There are forty some-odd houses in this town, and the plan is to hit them all—sing a song, do a dance, take a shot—fueled by greasy jelly doughnuts, mayonnaise sandwiches, and glugs of slivovice, a crystal-clear liquor that doubles as a paint solvent, distilled from local plums and resurrected in unmarked bottles from the back of the villagers’ freezers. Na zdraví, we say, clinking glasses: “To your health.”

I have to wonder what the Czechs are letting go of when they celebrate their medieval Mardi Gras, because it’s not as if they hold something back the rest of the year. It isn’t, after all, as though theirs were a diet of kale and quinoa rather than cracklings and cream, of lard and fried cheeses and pork knuckle and potatoes twelve ways. As if their perfect pilsners weren’t their national treasure, their president not notorious for appearing inebriated before a crowd; as if my GP hadn’t prescribed a pint or two as a daily digestif. As if, in the land of pork and pleasure, there weren’t enough opportunities for revelry.

“The Czech Republic has made you an alcoholic,” my friend Honza teased recently over the third just-one-last drink of the night, a cocktail he’d brought with him from Moravia: beer, red wine, potato rum, Communist-knockoff Coke. Overkill, to be sure, but that’s part of the point.

And Honza’s right. Drinking it all in day after day, one’s senses get a little stunned by the dirty aroma of burning coal, the film-noir smog in the street, the pinup-girl curves of the river. Those sickly-sweet Necco-candy-colored facades on the buildings. The amber pilsners, capped with four fingers of foam like giant pill bottles choked with cotton balls. After one too many, I opt for a hair of the dog. Na zdraví, I tell Honza, stumbling over the words. Bottoms up.

If Breakfast Is Your Only Meal for the Day, Make It Count

Feb.08.16

If Breakfast Is Your Only Meal for the Day, Make It Count

by Lorena Rios

Guajolota in D.F.

I arrived in Mexico City after two years in Cairo, from the belly of one beast to another.

Mexicans are not all that different from Egyptians. We laugh mostly at the expense of others and our main pastime is teasing each other until we forget what it is we were doing. Our governments operate under the semblance of democracy while seething with corruption, and our cities’ infrastructure turns old and derelict a little too fast. There is one thing, however, that Mexicans do differently; breakfast.

Mexico has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, and in the city of 21.2 million, Mexico’s greasy diet and guilty pleasures are proudly on display. Tacos, tortas, carnitas (pork barbecue), asados (meat stews), sopes, quesadillas, pan dulce, emanate an aroma like no other. But the concoction that caught my attention was not the massive pots of pork stew; it was the guajolota, a tamale in a sandwich. I left the house at 7 am to witness Mexico’s middle and working class rise from their slumber. I was after a guajolota and champurrado—a chocolate-based hot drink made from corn flour—for breakfast. This idyllic breakfast is popular among the thousands of industrious men and women who seek to have a cheap, calorific breakfast that will satiate them until lunchtime. Around 8 million people ride the subway every day. Groggy men and women jump into already full cars and thrust themselves against the masses inside, pressing against each other compliantly.

I follow the crowd obediently; careful not to disrupt the mechanic flow that animates the city so early in the morning. Women around me began applying makeup on the platform and inside the cars. Within minutes they have curled their eyelashes with a spoon, applied eyeliner with a surgeon´s steady pulse, added mascara, foundation, and blush. Back in the streets, food stands and carts sit on street corners, some encompassing entire blocks. People eat sitting down, standing up, or on the ago. After an hour of public transport and hunting for my tamale sandwich, I finally spot one. The guajolota stand is one of the most inconspicuous in the street-breakfast buffet. It doesn’t captivate you the same way a taco stand does; neither does the smell entrap you like that of carnitas. A tin pot for the champurrado, a cooler that keeps the tamales warm, and a pile of bread is all that lures the eye.

Undeterred, I ordered a guajolota filled with mole and a chocolate champurrado, aware that I was eating around 800 calories—half the day´s calorie intake— in a single meal for less than $3 USD. I painstakingly finished my guajolota and instead of going to work like everyone else, I rode the metro back home with the certainty that I would not eat until the next morning, but regretting nothing.

The Unlikely Origin Story of a Breakfast Paradise

Feb.05.16

The Unlikely Origin Story of a Breakfast Paradise

by Chryselle D’Silva Dia

Chole Bhature in Mumbai

Our Sunday mornings were once defined by three Cs: church, community, and chole.

Growing up, every Sunday after Mass and all its associated rituals had concluded, our family piled into our spacious, white Ambassador car and headed to an unremarkable Sindhi restaurant in Chembur Camp. This was a former army barracks used to resettle refugees after India’s Partition in 1947, which was now a residential area. We joined other zealous devotees for plates of steaming hot ragda pattice (a potato patty dunked in a tangy pea gravy and served with an assortment of sweet and spicy chutneys) and chole bhature (chickpeas in a spicy gravy served with a large, fluffy, deep-fried bread).

The Partition of British India into India and Pakistan resulted in an exodus of millions of people to both countries. The Sindhis fled from Sindh (now in Pakistan) and settled in pockets around independent India. One of these was in Chembur, the heart of industrialized Bombay. This is where the Sindhis made their home and healed their wounds; they also brought to us the most finger-licking food around.

Several decades after the little army barracks welcomed families running away from this crisis, we stood on the steps of the restaurant, warmed by the heat of the gas stoves placed right at the entrance. We watched, entranced, as the pattice turned golden brown on the large tavas and the chole was dished out in small, round, dried-leaf bowls. We rarely ate there; the company of truck drivers and assorted men staring at teenage girls was not deemed good enough company. Women rarely stayed to eat at the restaurant; that has changed now with a swanky renovation and the gentrification of the area in general.

The memory of that Sunday morning treat lingers. I have not found a place that replicates that peculiar tangy taste of that chole, with its dark gravy tantalizing the corners of my mouth. Perhaps it is the taste of nostalgia, of a childhood that was lost too soon. My father passed away long ago, too early at 46, his sudden death changing our lives in more ways than we could imagine. It took us a while to return to our Sunday ritual: it felt too much like a celebration and we three siblings, part-orphaned, could not bring ourselves to give in to that thrill, that sense of hungry expectation as you wait for your food to be packed and handed over to you.

The joy had been taken out of Sunday mornings.

My family now lives in the other end of this city that has enough people to be a country in its own right. Yet, if any one goes to Chembur, now all posh and trendy, they stop and bring home a bit of this delectable goodness. ‘Camp’ is now famous for more than its vintage connections to Bollywood and for the row of Sindhi and Punjabi restaurants that serve everything from deep-fried sweets to lamb kebabs roasting over an open coal fire. But that chole remains the breakfast of my dreams.

The Ultimate Everyday Luxury

Feb.04.16

The Ultimate Everyday Luxury

by Chris Newens

Croissants in Paris

The croissant is the ubiquitous, unassuming foot soldier of patisserie, the breakfast staple that lines the front rank of bakery displays from Paris to Patagonia. Often overlooked, frequently underappreciated, but a good one is the least expensive that true luxury can get. They are also fiendishly laborious to make. From scratch, we’re talking a 10- to 14-hour process: pastry and butter continuously folded over one another then chilled, until through some sorcery the heavy essence of butter is moulded into a form that can be bronzed into a honeycomb of air and light.

Enter Pauline, the unassuming boulangerie that opened just over a year ago immediately opposite my Paris apartment. I still remember the slow summer of its construction, my girlfriend and I languidly watching the bakery take shape outside our window, joking with one another about how good it might turn out to be. Neither of us really expected much—our place is only in the unfashionable 19th arrondissement, after all—but there’s always going to be some magic that accompanies the construction of a new bakery, and it was nice to imagine.

An aside here about Parisian boulangeries: their quality varies and at times they can seem as numerous as stars in the sky. Before Pauline opened, there were six within a five-minute walk of my front door. Six! I’ve often wondered if there even exists a route across Paris that does not pass a bakery entrance: either there is not, or if there is, it invites so many loops and switchbacks that it would take months to complete. So it was no small thing that immediately on opening it was clear to me that Pauline shopped the best croissants in the capital.

A disclaimer: I have in no way been put up to say this. I don’t know anyone who works in Pauline beyond basic “bonjour” pleasantries. I haven’t even mentioned to them my absolute admiration of their craft. It is simply a fact, and one that’s been echoed by every other person I’ve introduced to the patisserie, Pauline’s croissants are phenomenal. They are the perfect symphony of texture and taste: flaky though never dry, doughy though never too moist, a finely tuned balance between savory and sweet.

But who am I to make this statement? France takes its baked goods as seriously as other countries take war, and there are, after all, competitions for this kind of thing. The official holder of 2015’s “Best Croissant in Paris Award” is one Benjamin Turquier. He shops his prize-winners in the 3rd Arrondissement, which, in the good name of fairness, I’ve recently tried.

Now, I’m not going to say that Turquier’s croissants are not also delicious. They have an almost biscuity crust and a rich butter flavor that tastes like the rural past. Like Pauline’s, they represent one of the closest things to a work of art that one could ever hope to buy for a euro. And yet on a certain level, Turquier’s could never be quite as good as the ones I bought in my local. For croissants are not, nor do they aspire to be, a three-Michelin Star experience. That is to say, no matter the individual croissant’s inherent quality, it should never on its own be “worth the trip.”

The essence of the best croissants lies in their quotidian-ness. They are the ultimate daily luxury, best enjoyed from an establishment less than five minutes from your door. And if that establishment’s croissants can go toe-to-toe with the very best the rest of the world has to offer, so much the better.

A Full Stomach Is No Reason to Skip a Meal in the Philippines

Feb.03.16

A Full Stomach Is No Reason to Skip a Meal in the Philippines

by Kiki Aranita

Sinanglao in Vigan

We thought we were on our way to breakfast when our friend Camille led us into 9 Sisters’ Longanisa & Bagnet in Vigan. One man stirred an enormous wok mounted upon a wide, brick oven, heated from below by a pile of burning sticks. He deposited the bagnet—deep-fried pork belly—after it endured boiling and two rounds of deep-frying, onto a pile of newspapers for another man wearing rubber slippers to tend to. It had crisp, bubbled-up skin and it darkened the newspapers with dripping oil. The slippered man cut us little bite-sized pieces of bagnet and giggled at our delight. Skinny dogs gazed at us mournfully. A row of pork skin hung behind them, drying like tiny washcloths on a laundry line, while a curtain of longanisa sausage links obscured ladies stuffing the sausages by hand at a low table. Everyone was friendly and sweet, graciously answering all our questions until we inquired about what spices they used in their longanisa. Everyone went quiet.

Nobody was hungry after 9 Sisters’. However, as was often the case, a full stomach never seemed to be a sufficient reason to forego a meal or snack in the Philippines, so once again, we were heading to breakfast. Camille had promised us tocino—fatty bacon—for our first meal of the day, but she also stopped to pick up little plastic baggies of chicharron. Under Camille’s wing, we were always heading to get something to eat and on the way, we made numerous stops for other things to eat. We were in the Philippines looking for inspiration, dishes that would make our food truck back in Philadelphia more interesting. Camille over-delivered and we overate. Camille’s husband Melo had barely driven another fifty feet when she stopped him again. There were red plastic stools and picnic tables covered in oilcloth set up, tricycles parked, mopeds planted in the gravel, and the scent of stewed beef wafting through the air. “Let’s get sinanglao. It’s like the Ilocano version of siningang,” she explained.

Everything felt familiar to me in Vigan, but nothing was exactly what I had tasted before. I thought I understood Filipino food. I grew up in Hawaii, eating plenty of it. Now I see that’s sort of like saying, I belong in this family, but I’m a second cousin, thrice removed. I know you, but I don’t. In the Philippines—and in the province of Ilocos Sur in particular—I am off-center. Not lechon kawali but bagnet. Not dinuguan but dinardaraan. Not sinigang but sinanglao.

The sinanglao—an offal stew—gathering looked like an extremely well organized picnic, as many restaurants in Vigan do, with plastic tables and chairs spilling out onto the pavement.

Ladies in aprons and hairnets ladled soft slices of beef, cubes of coagulated blood, kidney, and sour broth into chipped porcelain bowls from cauldrons set upon makeshift, propane-powered stoves. We handed over a few pesos and bought plates of white rice to sink, chunk by chunk, into our sinanglao. We sprinkled peppery cane vinegar and green bile into our stews from little glass bottles and we dug in with spoons and forks. It was steamy, tart, and delicious.

“What is this place?” I asked Camille, expecting her to name some restaurant.

“Oh, this is just the post office,” she laughed.

Eating Tomatoes on Cereal Does Make a Certain Amount of Sense

Feb.02.16

Eating Tomatoes on Cereal Does Make a Certain Amount of Sense

by Cara Strickland

Frosted Flakes in Jeonju

When I was nineteen, I traveled to South Korea with several others from my Tae Kwon Do school, eager to soak up the culture that had birthed our sport. Although we stayed in fancy hotels (one had a pillow menu with varying scents and degrees of softness), my favorite part of the trip was our stay in Jeonju (our master’s hometown) where we were hosted by families.

As we arrived, a group of children watched us through the windows of our tour bus with barely contained excitement. One girl jumped up and down, unable to contain herself. She turned out to be part of “my” family, eager to show my roommate and I the sights.

Our host mother didn’t speak English, so most of our communication was brokered by the eldest of their three daughters, Ha-Neul. She was twelve. In my journal from those days, I wrote: “You start by taking off your shoes and after that there were very few moments when I wasn’t eating.”

We went out to dinner at TGI Fridays, bringing in our own Pizza Hut pizzas as appetizers. The boxes were tied with a red ribbon. No one batted an eye at our contraband. Throughout our stay, after each bite of pizza with pureed sweet potato and sweet pickles, kimchi, or slurp of green-tea ice cream, Ha-Neul would pause and look searchingly into my eyes, “Delicious?” she would ask, emphasizing each syllable. I would nod and smile, “Delicious.”

One morning, I watched the two older girls eating fried eggs with chopsticks, cutting them precisely and getting them from plate to mouth without a single slip. The kitchen was small, but there was room for a large appliance that looked like a chest freezer. Ha-Neul told me that it was specially made to store kimchi.

Instead of eggs, my host mother poured us generous bowls of Frosted Flakes, opening the box with a flourish. Then, she cut several cherry tomatoes in half and sprinkled them on top of the dry cereal before pouring on the milk. I looked at her wonderingly, and then at my roommate. Ha-Neul looked at us both expectantly. She gestured to the box, the one with Korean characters and large strawberries on it, clearly an intended taste of home, then she pointed to the cherry tomatoes atop my cereal and again at the strawberries. I smiled at her, and took a bite. Before I’d finished chewing, she asked, “Delicious?” I repeated her word back to her, still puzzling over the flavors in my mouth.

Later, at home again in the U.S., I did a little research. It turns out that many Korean people treat tomatoes as fruits, especially cherry tomatoes. You will find them as an ingredient in fruit salads, in patbingsu (a Korean shaved ice dessert), or dusted with sugar and eaten out of one’s hand like a grape.

As a college student with regular access to Frosted Flakes from a dispenser and cherry tomatoes from the salad bar, I would occasionally recreate this particularly memorable breakfast. In trying to give a familiar taste to those who had been traveling, my host family unintentionally created a beautiful blend of our two cultures, and it was indeed delicious.

The Best Pretty Good Chilaquiles in Oaxaca

Jan.29.16

The Best Pretty Good Chilaquiles in Oaxaca

by Meredith Bethune

Chilaquiles in Southern Mexico

All roads converge on the zócalo in Oaxaca, the tree-shaded main plaza flanked by a Spanish cathedral and dotted with benches. As a child, my mother and I spent a few weeks there each year for ten years. The zócalo was our destination every single day. We’d stroll down the sloping pedestrian thoroughfare of Alcala towards the town square and browse the handicrafts, marvel at the daily firecracker show, or watch a demonstration.

We’d also get coffee, but always at the same café, which had the best cappuccinos. I liked pouring a cascade of sugar onto the spoon and dunking it into the frothy milk cap. I did it three times in a row while vendors stopped at the tables to sell weavings, carved wooden bookmarks, and chewing gum.

I recently returned to the southern Mexican city with my parents for the first time in 15 years. Of course, we headed straight to the zócalo on our first morning back in Oaxaca. That café on the southeast corner that had remained nameless in my memories was still there. I could see now that it was called Del Jardin.

I immediately recognized one of the waiters. After so many years, the lines on his chiseled face were deeper, the bags under his eyes slightly heavier, but it was indeed him. We sat down at an empty table overlooking the zócalo, and the plastic-laminated menus felt familiar in my hands. Various vendors passed our table to sell the customary items. I can’t say I recognized the street performer that day, but the lilting melody of his marimba provided a pleasant musical accompaniment to all the activity on the zócalo.

I knew exactly what I wanted. There were many old favorite foods I planned to eat in Oaxaca, but that morning I yearned only for a heaving plate of chilaquiles: the simple Mexican breakfast of day old tortillas drenched in tangy red or green sauce. It arrived piled high with sliced white onions, queso fresco, and sour cream.

Most Mexican dishes are highly regional. But chilaquiles are a national dish, according to Diana Kennedy’s classic book The Art of Mexican Cooking. There’s one exception: the green sauce version apparently hails from Michoacan, which lies more than 400 miles north of Oaxaca along the Pacific coast. Kennedy’s standard red chilaquiles recipe looks similar to what I ate in Oaxaca that day: corn tortillas dried overnight tossed in a red sauce of tomatoes, chiles, and garlic cloves, served with the requisite toppings. The sauce was tangy and rich with a subtle piquant kick. They were served just slightly warmer than room temperature.

The side of beans, though, were all Oaxaca. I was first introduced to those smoky, porky, and runny refried black beans as a kid. Black beans reign supreme in southern Mexico. The pinto bean is a rare sighting there.

Ok, I’ll admit it. I’ve eaten lots of chilaquiles as an adult, and Del Jardin doesn’t make the absolute best version. I’ve also had much better cappuccinos, and I no longer take them so sweet. But, over the course of that week in Oaxaca, we enjoyed many more meals, coffees, and a few beers at Del Jardin. We also got well-acquainted with the musical stylings of the marimba man, too.

Hopscotching Through the Lands of Pork and No Pork

Jan.27.16

Hopscotching Through the Lands of Pork and No Pork

by Emily Ding

Pork saksang in Sumatra

It wasn’t morning, but it was, in the most straightforward sense of the word, breakfast.

I was in Langsa, a city a few hours’ drive north of Medan in Aceh. I had come to visit the Rohingya refugees, Myanmar’s largest Muslim minority fleeing religious and ethnic discrimination in Rakhine State, at shelters that had sprouted up along the coast in the wake of last year’s Southeast Asian boat crisis. Their intended destination had been Malaysia, but due to the vagaries of border controls and the weather, they had ended up here. Nevertheless, it was a welcome respite for them. Aceh is the only province allowed to enforce sharia law by the Indonesian government in a historical concession of partial autonomy to separatists, and here, the Rohingyas could practice their religious customs freely—unlike in Rakhine State, where mosques have been closed or burned down.

By the same token, I had run into logistical hiccups immediately upon arriving in Langsa. I was traveling with a male photographer friend, and we were not allowed to share a room because we weren’t married to each other; in one guesthouse, I wasn’t even permitted a room to myself and had to leave because I was unmarried. “There was an incident here, sometime ago, and you don’t have a husband to protect you,” was all the young male receptionist would go by way of explanation, and apologized profusely for being the cause of any inconvenience. I had also come in the middle of Ramadan, which meant that I couldn’t eat or drink in public during fasting hours, since most of the restaurants were Muslim establishments. I am ethnically Chinese and irreligious, but in Muslim-majority Langsa, flying in the face of local customs would have drawn too much unwanted attention, and, possibly, repercussions.

I ended up finishing my assignment earlier than I’d expected, and with a few days to spare, decided to head south to Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. The journey took a whole day, and I started getting hungry on the shared taxi over from a connection in Medan. Mindful of my Muslim companions, however, I refrained from bringing out the biscuits I had packed with me.

Sometime in the evening, but before sunset, the driver pulled the car over and my travel companions started to climb out. When I remained in my seat, the driver asked, “Are you Muslim?”

“No,” I said, as it started to dawn on me that he hadn’t taken my appearance for granted. Back home in Malaysia, a Malay, or someone who looks Malay, like myself, is usually presumed to be Muslim. In Indonesia, you could be Muslim, Hindu or Christian, and it would be hard to tell.

“Come on then,” the driver said, ushering me out, while a young Muslim man stayed in the car to wait.

We walked to a roadside grill covered in sizzling pork, and only pork, done many different ways. My companions ordered the panggang: grilled pork with crispy skin and oozing fat, thrown in with tomatoes and cucumbers and doused with a squeeze of lime and chilli, served with pork broth on the side. I went for the saksang, a curry of diced pork (sometimes substituted with dog meat) that left a tartness on my tongue from the spices. I cleaned up my plate with little effort, since it was both breakfast and dinner for me.

We had moved into the territory of the Batak people, who are generally Christian. Pork was back on the menu, and breakfast would be served in the morning.

Revisiting a Favorite Breakfast Half a Century Later

Jan.26.16

Revisiting a Favorite Breakfast Half a Century Later

by Nooraini Mydin

Nasi kandar in Penang

It is quite a joy when your favorite childhood food tastes the same 50 years later. That is the case with the nasi kandar from my favorite stall. Nasi kandar is a breakfast dish that is unique to Penang, Malaysia’s culinary capital. It is served drenched in a dark beef curry mixed with a fish curry sauce, a match made in heaven. I prefer it with a chunk of beef or two, half a boiled egg, and a couple of bindi (okra).

As I tuck into my nasi kandar breakfast, I am transported back to my childhood when on Sunday mornings, my father would have the nasi kandar delivered to our house. I remember secretly lifting the lid on the tiffin carrier to see the rice, half white and half in tones light to dark brown from the sauce, and nestled underneath, the delicious beef chunks emitting the rich aroma of spices.

Nasi kandar was traditionally pedaled by a hawker carrying the rice and curry in baskets balanced on a pole (kandar). He would usually sell takeaway but those desperate to eat in can perch on a stool and savor the delight right away.

My favorite stall has no name and is perched on the corner of a Chinese coffee shop on Jelutong Road. “The one opposite the Perak Road Police station,” I would hear people shout as directions.

I like to sit and watch the guys serving up the takeaway orders to the queue snaking down to the road. The packer takes the order, a complicated affair as each customer orders a few packs and each with a different combination. “One rice with two beef, half an egg and two bindi, one rice, fish, whole egg, half rice, one beef, half egg and one bindi…” With a powerful memory he passes each order to another guy, who passes it on to the man who dishes it up. The dish is passed to the assistant who throws its contents onto the first layer of a stack of plastic sheets lining a greaseproof paper. The packer flips it this way and that and binds it with a rubber band. By then the next order is ready to be packed.

The stall opens from dawn to 10 am or when they run out of food. The first callers are men returning from dawn prayers at the Jelutong mosque and bleary-eyed factory workers fresh off the night shift, followed by people heading to work, joggers back from a run, and schoolchildren buying a takeaway.

It is a spectacular show when the fresh food is delivered to the stall from the owner’s house, a short distance away, bringing an old tradition to life as they carry the gigantic rice and curry pots on a pole, dodging the heavy morning traffic.

Photo: Amrufm

Sometimes a Boring Breakfast Is the Best Breakfast of All

Jan.25.16

Sometimes a Boring Breakfast Is the Best Breakfast of All

by Linda Givetash

Espresso in Kigali

Leaning back into a pile of cushions while sipping a perfectly rich Americano, I felt at home. Months of living in chaotic Kampala suddenly became a distant memory, even though I was only a few hours away.

Traveling to Kigali was like being transported to another world. Pristine roads lined by streetlights and sidewalks connected the city’s neighborhoods, which sprawled across rolling green hills. Vendors selling SIM cards in the city center were unaggressive as they solicited me from at least arm-distance away. The nights were quiet except for the sound of rain hitting tin roofs and cement walkways. Having become accustomed to the exact opposite urban arrangement in Kampala, Kigali seemed a mirage.

I found Inzora Rooftop Café tucked away at the back of Ikirezi Bookstore—easy to miss from the road—on my last morning in Kigali. A friend who had visited the city a few weeks earlier tipped me off about the Kacyiru neighborhood café but with a limited description.

Inzora’s menu was very simple: a number of espresso-based drinks, teas, smoothies, and a handful of baked goods. Not yet having my morning caffeine fix, I ordered quickly and made myself at home. The seating area was spread out against floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a lush ravine. A soundtrack of typical café jazz and local folk songs played as I waited for my order.

I was giddy from the sight of my meal as the waitress placed it in front of me minutes later. The Americano was strong enough to be the perfect wake-up, yet not too strong to need milk and sugar. And even better, the drink was made from medium-dark roasted Huye Mountain beans farmed less than three hours away.

A fruit smoothie of fresh strawberry, mango, and pineapple along with a raisin oatmeal cookie made for the breakfast I was craving. This was certainly not the milky chai and chapatti I had spent months sampling across East Africa. Although delicious, the Indian-inspired breakfast eventually left me craving my old comforts of coffee and cereal in Vancouver. While I was still thousands of miles away from home, the humdrum breakfast left me feeling transported, banishing my homesickness. Sometimes we all need a getaway to the familiar.

Packing All the Delightful Energy of Spain Into a Single Meal

Jan.21.16

Packing All the Delightful Energy of Spain Into a Single Meal

by Ira de Reuver

Churros Con Choco in Spain

Ferry Horns or Sheep Horns?

The melodious crowing of roosters encouraged me to rise early at my temporary casa on the Spanish coast. I start packing, hearing the horns of the ocean steamers traveling through the air from the harbor of Malaga. Or is it my imagination? It could just be the excitement and anticipation about my upcoming trip by ferry to Melilla, from where I plan to continue on a road trip into Morocco.

With a light stride I descend the hill via a labyrinth of small, winding roads guarded by colorful potted plants, while the early morning sky opens up with the promise of a sunny day. I reach a local churreria that I spotted the day before and I sit down with only one thing on my mind: eating churros con choco.

I settled myself next to a table where two love birds in their seventies flirt, all the while laughing, teasing, and planting small kisses on each others’ cheeks. Locals carry bags filled with fresh vegetables and groceries, cheerfully making a stop at the diner to indulge in this traditional sweetness.

There are few things more typically Spanish than churros con choco. The piped stripes of deep-fried dough are made of a mixture of flour, a pinch of salt, and some oil. The hot cup of choco needs no explanation.

The origin of churros is not clear, it is said that the Portuguese brought the art of making churros to Europe after exploring China in the 16th century; some say it was during the 1920s that churros were coupled with chocolate.

Another theory is that Spanish shepherds invented churros centuries ago, as high up in the mountains freshly baked goods were not available. So the shepherds came up with a cylindrical daily staple, which could easily be fried in a pan over an open fire. They named the fritter after Navajo-Churro sheep, as the horns of these sheep look similar to the fried pastry.

While I dip my churro in a mug of thick, sweet, and delicious hot chocolate, time passes slowly. An energetic nurse arrives with her elderly patient in a wheelchair. A man takes a seat with his puppy. A grandmother walking past with her two grandchildren is forced to stop, as the children want to play with the enthusiastic puppy. Passersby are chatting and singing, while a salesman is showing all the customers a basket filled with fresh salmon for sale. Hombre! a man shouts when he spots a friend on the other side of the road and happily invites him to join for a churro con choco.

All the delightful energy of Spain comes together in this small churreria, where customers from all walks of life begin their day with churro con choco, as do I.

Pretzels: the Bagels of Philadelphia

Jan.19.16

Pretzels: the Bagels of Philadelphia

by Sarah Grey

Pretzels in Philadelphia

“Fresh! Hot! Pretzels!”

It’s 7:30 am in Philadelphia, and there’s a pretzel seller touting his wares under my window. Here in Fishtown, on the banks of the Delaware River, things have been changing quickly: the brick rowhouses that housed fishermen, Irish immigrants, and brewery workers a century ago are being renovated and flipped faster than you can say “gentrification.” Between the hip coffeehouses, galleries, and warehouse lofts, though, longtime Fishtowners carry on the old traditions, like selling hot soft pretzels carried on a stick first thing in the morning.

And is there any Philadelphia tradition more beloved than soft pretzels? You can find them on just about every corner in Center City, though every Philly native you ask will point you toward a different bakery (there are at least a dozen). The prominence of pretzels is part of Pennsylvania’s German heritage, which goes back four centuries. The central and eastern parts of the state are famous for their Amish and Mennonite residents, many of whom speak “Pennsylvania Dutch,” a German dialect that’s evolved on its own since it was imported to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. (“Dutch” is a misnomer; it’s actually a corruption of Deutsch, or German.)

Pretzels are popular all over the U.S., of course, but here in Philly, they’re breakfast. New Yorkers bring bagels to work and Southerners bring Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but here, if you want to make friends at the office, you swing by Furfari’s Soft Pretzels on Frankford Avenue (or wherever your secret spot is) and pick up a dozen soft pretzels still warm from the oven. You’ll even find their fresh pretzels sold inside the local elementary schools first thing in the morning, with a line of children clutching quarters stretching down the hall from the pretzel cart.

The iconic Philly breakfast pretzels aren’t the wide-open twists you find at every Auntie Anne’s: they’re dense and squat, very nearly rectangular. They come in a cardboard box still connected, with a little container of mustard on the side. When you tear one away, a little puff of steam tells you how fresh it is. They’re also dirt-cheap: think fifty cents apiece.

Furfari’s pretzels have been the same since the bakery opened in 1954: elemental, conjured from the simplest interplay of salt and flour and water. A little yeast, maybe a hint of sugar, some egg wash to burnish the top and make the salt stick. They get more chewy as they cool, but the clean, yeasty flavor always plays well with coffee for a quick rush of morning carbs.

At the Mennonite-owned Miller’s Twist in the Reading Terminal Market, on the other hand, it’s all about butter. Here tourists watch women in T-shirts and women in bonnets roll the dough for a wider, richer pretzel with less chew, one that leaves your fingers slick. They’re delicious on their own, but Miller’s has locked down the Reading Market breakfast game by combining pretzel dough with a breakfast sandwich. Pretzel wraps stuff the buttery dough with egg and cheese, sausage, or even the glorious grease-and-Cheez-Wiz mixture that Philadelphians just call “cheesesteak.”

There’s debate about how much butter is too much, but you’re unlikely to go wrong if you show up early with a salt-shedding armload of pretzels and mustard. And if the pretzel-seller disturbs your sleep? Get up and run outside like a kid chasing the ice-cream truck. That’s how we do it in Philly.

Settling Into a Routine of Killer Fish for Breakfast

Jan.19.16

Settling Into a Routine of Killer Fish for Breakfast

by Emily Ding

Piranha in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve

We found three of them one morning, twisting to swim free of the net we’d drawn, like a curtain, along the opening of the river cove the night before.

It was the eighth day of my ten-day canoe journey in Peru’s Northern Amazon, and this was the first time we’d caught piranhas. On the makeshift grill of our hut on stilts, half swallowed up by the swollen river this rainy season, my guide, Santiago, and his wife, Maritza, made quick work of the red- and yellow-bellied creatures. But even grilled to a crisp and served on porcelain plates with boiled plantains and potatoes, they still looked menacing. Everyone expects the taste of piranha to live up to its fearsome reputation, but it tastes like the fish we commonly eat and is surprisingly tender. It just has bigger teeth, which give it that pugnacious underbite, and which we admired before tucking in.

Later, Santiago showed me a C-shaped scar on his calf. “A piranha bit me once when I was wading around in the river. A piece of my flesh came loose,” he said.

I wanted to know: Did the piranhas swarm toward him? Are they really attracted to blood? Are they really carnivores?

“It’s not like in the movies,” Santiago said, laughing.

However, that’s not to say Santiago doesn’t believe in any of the tales surrounding this area. As a Cocama tribesman who has lived all his life in the jungle, he believes completely and seriously in Chullachaqui, the shapeshifting spiritual guardian of the Amazon animal kingdom. During long days on the river when there was nothing to do but paddle and talk, Santiago would tell me many seemingly impossible stories.

There was the giant caiman—25 feet long—which sent a big wave through the river and flipped a canoe into its mouth with its tail, or the local man who battled a jaguar with his bare hands and lost a leg, or the Pozo Galicia, a water well at least 100 feet deep that harbors the most monstrous creatures in the Amazon, including the anaconda. But as soon as I asked about the possible perils in us seeking out caimans, or about the mewling sound I heard in the middle of the night (which Santiago informed me was a baby puma, which meant mama puma was near), or the fact that we had no line of communication to the tour agency’s headquarters were something unfortunate to happen, I would be placated with the assurance that, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”

Of course, it was just ten days. And in those ten days, we had settled into something of a routine, which is not a word I would have ever used to describe the Amazon when it existed only in my imagination. We would wake up by dawn every morning, have breakfast, load up the canoe and spend most of the day paddling to our next stop, taking our lunch in between. When we arrived, we would set up camp, have dinner, and get to bed at about the same hour the frogs start their croaking symphony. And we ate fish every day for breakfast and lunch—the heaviest meals of the day here.

In retrospect, however, and in light of those stories that have stuck with me, I’ve started to see these routines more as rituals: an adherence to a certain invisible order.

In any case, mealtimes were never dull. How could they be, with piranha on the menu? Santiago and Maritza had also taught me the many ways to eat a fish here: grilled, fried, as soup, as stew, or wrapped in jungle leaves for extra fragrance—always thrown in with the local comeno seasoning, or ajinomoto, partly to offset the zing of the fish, which we would rub in salt when we caught them to keep them fresh. All in all, the worst thing to happen to me in the Amazon were the dozens of mosquito bites covering my body.

Eating Local in an Occupied Land

Jan.15.16

Eating Local in an Occupied Land

by Adam Rasgon

Zeit Wa Za’atar in Beit Jala

The topographical nature of Palestine and Israel is fourfold: the western coastal plains, the central foothills, the eastern rugged mountains, and the arid Jordan valley. Hosh Yasmin, an organic farm located in the Makrour Valley, sits at the heart of the rugged mountains, overlooking groves of olive trees and Jerusalem to its north and Beit Jala and Bethlehem to its south.

I travel to Hosh Yasmin from Jerusalem on a white and blue bus that mainly serves local Palestinians and tourists headed to Bethlehem. After a fifteen-minute ride and a pass through a checkpoint, the bus stops in front of an Israeli army base bordering the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. I get off the bus and walk in the opposite direction down a narrow road, just wide enough to fit a single car. A wooden sign and pyramid-like structure appear in the distance, marking the entrance to the farm.

When I arrive at the farm, Mazen, the owner, kindly greets me in Arabic, “ahlan wa sahlan.” He surveys the different outdoor seating options and directs me to a table just above his grove of olive trees. He then promptly brings me a cup of tea made from sage, mint, thyme, lavender, and other herbs grown on the farm. I sip my tea and take in the breathtaking landscape around me. I feel the hilltop winds blow past my face and barely hear the cars passing along the road in the valley below.

Gradually Mazen brings out each breakfast dish, which he has carefully prepared with organic ingredients from his farm and the surrounding villages. He first brings arguably the two most famous Palestinian staples, zeit wa za’atar, olive oil and za’atar. Eating utensils are discouraged here, so I dip homemade wheat bread into the thick and opaque olive oil—unique to Beit Jala because of its white soil—and then the za’atar, a heavenly combination.

He then brings foul, a pasty fava bean dip native to Palestine and other parts of the Middle East. Unlike the traditional dark-brown foul, Mazen has created a light-brown foul, easier on the stomach and filled with flavor. He explains that he soaks the fava beans for three days, boils and smashes them, and then infuses them with local herbs, green pepper, lemon, and tahini, giving it a lighter color. I sample the foul and its different flavors coalesce into one sharp and rich taste of deliciousness.

Next Mazen brings qalayet bandoura, an oily tomato dish common among Palestinian villagers. He prepares this dish by first sautéing garlic, onion, and green pepper and then adding chopped tomatoes and spices. For good measure, he douses the dish in olive oil. The aromatic smell of garlic wafts through the air. Breakfast at Hosh Yasmin is an excursion into the culinary roots of the Palestinian society: both the great food and the tradition of exceptional hospitality.

Being a Family Means Sharing Acquired Tastes

Jan.14.16

Being a Family Means Sharing Acquired Tastes

by Ndéla Faye

Chereh in Doudam

“I’d really like to try a traditional Serer breakfast,” I say one day, nostalgically remembering the strange and exciting taste of chereh from my childhood.

My family look at me, clearly amused: most people now just have bread and coffee for breakfast, but my aunt is honoring me by agreeing to prepare the traditional breakfast. “Ah, so you are a true Serer if you like Serer couscous,” they tease me. Chereh, a thick, grainy millet porridge, familiarly known as “Serer couscous,” is usually served with fermented milk or cream and sugar as a breakfast cereal, but today I am getting a special treat and getting mine with fish, potato, and a spicy fish broth to accompany it.

I’m in my ancestral village of Doudam, where my family has lived for the past 800 years. It’s about 60 miles inland from Dakar. The Serer represent the third-largest ethnic group in Senegal, and my family’s history can be traced back to the Faye kingdom of Sine-Saloum in the 14th century.

My aunts and cousins are sitting in a circle, gutting and cleaning the fish one of my uncles has just caught from the nearby lake using his own traps. The traps, hand-woven from dried palm-tree leaves, seem to have been very successful overnight. “The fish might be small, but they’re very tasty,” he grins. My family are almost completely self-sufficient: their main income comes from growing and selling peanuts, tomatoes, and millet.

Making breakfast, like all meals, is a family affair that requires everyone’s involvement. Children are running around, coaxed every now and again to help carry something or bring something from the back room. The kitchen is small and crammed, so most things happen outside the kitchen, in the courtyard.

My aunt sets a large bowl of chereh in front of me. As I take my first bite of the dish, the memory of the taste hits me like a ton of bricks: the chereh bears a semblance to smooth sand in my mouth and it has a nutty, almost bitter taste to it. Each diner creates their own little hole in the bowl, where a generous portion of the fish sauce is poured. “Definitely an acquired taste,” I think to myself as I keep scooping more food into my mouth. My family laugh at me.

The rhythmic noise of women pounding millet with a heavy, wooden pestle to remove the hull of the grain starts again outside. Every now and again, they hoist the heavy wooden stick high up in the air and see how many claps they can do, before the pestle falls back into their firm grip. Wanting to prove my Serer-ness some more, I go over to help, but the only thing I seem able to do is provide entertainment for the children who are watching me attempting to lift the pestle. I barely manage to lift it a few inches from the giant mortar. I admit my defeat and happily watch my family chattering and fussing around the yard, preparing the next meal of the day.

A Communal Breakfast That Is Sugary, Warm, and Filling

Jan.12.16

A Communal Breakfast That Is Sugary, Warm, and Filling

by Charlotte Allan

Mealie Pap in Kaokoland

He drives me there himself in the end. He says he would have lent me a car, but he wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow his instructions.

I pull a face. Try me.

Ok, turn left six miles before you reach Angola, then right at the tree, drive 150 feet, see the rock, don’t turn there but take a right at the next one.

All right then. We set off together at dawn, bouncing along with sleep in our eyes listening to the only CD in the car: Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour. I brood to the music, medicating my morning melancholia and hunger pangs with peanuts and a small carton of supernaturally orange Exotic Juice. It’s the tail end of the dry season in Kaokoland and all of life looks extinguished; ragged palms loom through the dust like fronded quotation marks waiting for something to appear in between.

When we zig-zag past a rock into a dry forested area I wouldn’t have found myself, he points through the glade. Peaked rondavels sit behind a wooden fence. We head over with our gift of maize for the morning meal of mealie pap, a corn porridge.

Himba women from Namibia’s Herero people live here. Their braided hair is beautifully colored with smooth red mud, which sprout at the ends into fans of fluffy black hair. Their skin is dyed with heavily scented ochre; powdered leaves mixed with butter to protect the skin from the sun.

A beautiful girl leads me over to the fire and her hut, where her mother is starting to prepare the breakfast. On a circular metal platter, a metal pot is balanced on large stones while twigs are lit underneath. Goat milk and the white, powdered maize are added to a metal pot and stirred with a wooden stick until it ploufs and puffs like creamy rice.

I’m invited to join the women in the family; the men eat separately. We dig in from a plastic bowl with our fingers. The pap is sugary, warm, and filling. On the sidelines, a ten-year-old boy appears to have developed a crush on me. He gives me dreamy looks as he fiddles with his braid.

When it’s time to leave, the beautiful girl follows me into the forest and examines my hair between her fingers. It’s clean, but looking at her elaborate locks, I think I’ll make more of an effort next time. She smiles at me before padding back through the glade.

My guide and I get back in the car. Sam Smith picks up where he left off. We turn right at the tree, left at the rock, and swerve out onto the red earth before heading north towards Angola.