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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

We Are the Free, the Proud, the Donut Eaters of Detroit

Dec.27.16

We Are the Free, the Proud, the Donut Eaters of Detroit

by Michael Snyder

Kefir in Hamtramck

In July, I went to Detroit to report a story on the food businesses at the heart of that city’s vibrant Arab community.

The story was important to me. I’d returned to the U.S. a few months earlier after nearly five years living in India, a country where Muslims—180 million of them, about 14 percent of the national population—are consistently treated as second-class citizens, more so since 2014 when the Hindu Nationalist party swept the country’s elections in the largest democratic event in history. I returned home in the midst of this hideous election to a climate of Islamophobia in the U.S. that was discomfiting in its familiarity.

I wanted to do something, so, being a food writer, I pitched a story on the Arab-American food businesses in Dearborn, Michigan (essentially a suburb of Detroit) and the crucial role they’d played not just in resuscitating that city’s commercial life but also in providing jobs and community for immigrants and refugees from a region that the U.S. has played such a singular role in destabilizing.

While in Dearborn, I heard about another small city called Hamtramck, a tiny municipality within the sprawl of northern Detroit, which, earlier that year, became the first American city to elect a majority-Muslim city council. “News” outlets like Breitbart predictably cried apocalypse with the smug horror of soothsayers whose prophecies have come to pass just a little sooner than expected. Locals, as far as I can tell, barely batted an eye.

Though once a predominantly Polish enclave, Hamtramck has, in recent years, become a heterogeneous mix of Catholic Poles, Bangladeshis and Yemenis. One acquaintance described it to me as “America’s Model City.” Another told me that I had to go one morning for donuts and kefir—a fermented milk drink—at a place called The Family Donut Shop on Conant Street.

So the following Sunday I drove out to Hamtramck. Conant Street, the main commercial drag, isn’t a particularly pretty place, just a long stretch of asphalt lined with one-story buildings in brick or faded siding, each girded with its own little parking lot. There are Bengali grocers and Yemeni Café’s and Polish bars. Signs are written in four languages with three different scripts. A shop called Hookah Town sits less than a block from Our Lady Queen of Apostles Church and the John J Skupny Funeral Home. A few yards from there, in a low-slung building painted a dim shade of peach, was the Family Donut Shop.

I walked in and took a seat on a chromium stool. The walls were covered, floor to ceiling, in faux wood. It might have been 1970 in there. At one end of the bar, a group of older Bangladeshi gentlemen stood chatting happily over a basket of donuts (in South Asia, Bengalis are known, above all, for loving sweets and long philosophical chats). On the stool to my left, a young Yemeni guy pulled apart a wedge of borek, a type of cheese-filled flatbread or pastry common to the Arab and Turkic worlds, while sipping weak American coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Working the counter was a young woman in a pretty, robin’s-egg blue hijab, who asked what I wanted, with a broad smile and broader vowels.

I asked for a cinnamon swirl donut and a cup of kefir. “You want what?” she asked, the smile fading a little, eyebrow cocked. I repeated my order, less confidently this time, explaining what I was looking for and noting, for the first time, that it was nowhere to be found on the menu bolted to the wall. The Yemeni guy next to me chuckled quietly. “So you mean… yogurt?” she asked. I nodded and smiled and she looked at me like I was off-balance but brought over a cup anyway, cold and sour and surprisingly good with the too-sweet donut. It is, after all, a free country.

The Most Lauded Bakery in Laos

Feb.20.17

The Most Lauded Bakery in Laos

by Janelle Bitker

Croissants in Luang Prabang

It’s not too surprising that Luang Prabang gets billed first and foremost as a spiritual center. The old town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely because of its more than 30 temples with gleaming gold facades, multi-tiered roofs and glittering mosaics. As the sun rises every morning, tourists pour out onto the main drag to give alms to the city’s 200 monks, who take their tokens of rice while being blinded by a million camera flashes.

What’s more surprising is that guidebooks don’t emphasize how much Luang Prabang, the main tourist destination in Laos, feels like France. I contemplate this while walking to breakfast, passing French café after French café, their patios blurring with the sidewalks.

The French first built a consulate in Luang Prabang in 1885. After battles with Siam (modern-day Thailand), France added Laos to its roster of Southeast Asian territories, along with Cambodia and Vietnam. The Lao people had mixed feelings about its French overlords: better than the Siamese, certainly, but the French didn’t make many improvements in Laos. Most resources went to Vietnam during that nearly 50-year period.

I arrive at my destination, Le Banneton, the most lauded bakery in Laos. It’s a simple-looking place, with white walls, wood beams and a ceiling of arabesques. But the pastry case beckons with its golden hue of viennoiserie, delicate layered cakes and crusty baguettes.

I order one croissant aux beurre. A quick tear and the surface erupts into countless flakes, its stretchy center an excellent sign of its properly buttery lamination process. It isn’t the best croissant I’ve ever had, but after traveling through Southeast Asia for weeks, it tastes positively luxurious. I had nearly forgotten what wonders butter can do.

I close my eyes, enveloped in the hum of French tourists deep in conversation. Across the street, monks stroll into one of Luang Prabang’s many temple complexes, their robes saffron flashes in my peripheral vision. Next to me, a stack of old French fashion magazines easily outnumbers Lao reading material. On the other side, a French family of four battles over the last bite of opera cake. The kids whine for more dessert, which sounds remarkably the same in every language.

Articles abound that claim tourists are ruining Luang Prabang; they disrespect the town’s Buddhist traditions while indirectly forcing longtime residents out of their homes so they can be turned into hotels.

But on this morning at Le Banneton, on a quieter end of Luang Prabang’s main street, with the neighboring temple only hosting a couple of tourists at a time, and the monks drying out their orange laundry as usual, we coexist peacefully.

The Great Railway Breakfast Bazaar

Feb.17.17

The Great Railway Breakfast Bazaar

by Bulbul Mankani

Kachoris in Jaipur

Indian trains provide an astonishing variety of fresh food all day. Food carts abound at major stations, serving fluffy fried poories with spicy potato curry, kachoris and chutneys, rice and cholas, and samosas. Sweet chai is a favorite. Vendors scurry between train windows with steaming kettles and precariously balanced cups. You need to call out for them quickly and have the correct change in hand: for the chaiwallahs, every second counts at the short station stops.

Traditionally, Indian travelers carry food from home, but it’s more exciting to buy breakfast from the train window, and Indian train journeys bring you regional specialties. Chugging through Uttar Pradesh, the asafetida-flavored curry with fried wheat puffs will sell out unless you yell for it loudly enough. In Kerala, breakfast is a crunchy crisp paratha with its spiral layers and yellow egg curry with a hint of coconut. In other southern states, idlis are king: steamed rice cakes with spicy daal and a few vegetables and coconut chutney, wrapped in a banana leaf. Also in the south, coffee from the region’s coffee estates replaces chai.

For three years, I took the Shatabdi Express train from Jaipur to New Delhi once a month. This early morning train served meals on board, but I could never resist the food carts. Waiting for the train, I could smell the pyaaz ki kachoris, a Jaipur specialty, being made. This deep-fried, savory snack travels well: a wheat pastry filled with fennel, coriander, chilies, cumin, and finely chopped fried onions.

Pyare Singh, one of Jaipur’s train station vendors, has been making kachoris for about a decade. He learned to make them in a small shop in the Old Town, and got the license to sell them when he was 29. He quickly understood that he would move more kachoris if he kept his product hot, and now he can stock about 80 of them in a glass box warmed by a hot-plate.

For me, two of Singh’s kachoris, downed with piping hot chai as I boarded the Shatabdi, gave me a sense that all was right with the world.

Divided By Politics, United in Salty Cheese

Feb.16.17

Divided By Politics, United in Salty Cheese

by Samantha Shields

Halloumi in Cyprus

When I lived in London’s Cypriot enclave, Green Lanes, I used to buy slabs of halloumi cheese from the huge, plastic buckets overflowing with cloudy brine that lurked in the corner of every greengrocers on the road. I’d eat it for breakfast raw, sliced in fresh pitta bread, loving its saltiness and squeakiness between my teeth, and the hits of freshness from flecks of mint.

It wasn’t until I moved to Cyprus many years later that I realized I’d been doing it all wrong. While it’s delicious raw, halloumi is at its very best straight off a hot grill. The char on the outside intensifies the flavor of the salt, and the inside doesn’t melt but instead keeps its wonderful texture. If you need a condiment, it goes equally well with Greek-Cypriot mosfilo jam, made from the tiny yellow fruit of a local hawthorn tree, or with Turkish-Cypriot ezme salad, a fiery chopped mixture of tomatoes, peppers, chilies, and pomegranate molasses.

Another thing I realized when I moved to Nicosia: this cheese is political. In the Republic of Cyprus, the southern part of the island that has been a member of the European Union since 2004, it’s called halloumi. In the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, occupied by Turkey since 1974, it’s hellim. Both cheeses are made from a mixture of goat, sheep and cows’ milk, although they shouldn’t contain too much cows’ milk.

A 2008 Greek-Cypriot attempt to secure European Union Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for halloumi failed, dogged by Turkish-Cypriot accusations of gastronationalism and a German company’s attempt to trademark the name hellim.

But last year the European Commission published an application to register the names halloumi and hellim, in Greek and Turkish, as PDOs for cheese of this type produced in all the territory of the island of Cyprus. Hopes are high that the attempt will succeed this year, putting halloumi and hellim in the same category as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton, and feta. There are some concerns that small producers won’t be able to afford to pay the international body that will carry out production controls to monitor the milk ratios, but overall, the cheesemakers on both sides of the divide have managed to come together in a way that politicians have so far failed to.

At Mousikon Kafeneion, a traditional old-style cafe on the Greek-Cypriot side of Nicosia, a stone’s throw from the Green Line dividing the island’s capital, I ordered the Cypriot breakfast. Generous slices of grilled halloumi came with a dollop of mosfilo jam, the local smoked ham called lountza, chunks of fresh tomato and cucumber, and good bread and olive oil.

I listened to the call to prayer drifting over from the Selimiye Mosque on the other side of the border, and later the church bells from the Greek Orthodox Faneromeni Church not far from the cafe. Maybe the reunification of Cyprus will start with cheese.

A Love Letter to London’s Best Cheese-Soaked Potatoes

Feb.15.17

A Love Letter to London’s Best Cheese-Soaked Potatoes

by Phylisa Wisdom

Raclette in London

I lived and worked in London for a little more than four years. I recently went back for a whirlwind one-week visit: seven opportunities for my favorite breakfasts. One of them comes from Borough Market, the iconic food market next to London Bridge train station.

Borough Market is one of the most crowded spaces in London. On any given weekend the prepared food and cart section is full to the brim with a crowd queuing for burgers, Turkish delight, brownies, coffee, salads, and Afghan curry, to name a few of my favorites. But the jewel in Borough Market’s crown—according to me and the poor, unfortunate souls I’ve spent many hours queueing with—is Kappacasein Dairy.

The menu does not change. Raclette or a cheese toastie, both £6 ($8). For me, it’s the raclette every time. The word raclette comes from the French word racler, “to scrape.” In this case, it’s a thick, locally-made Ogleshield cheese heated and scraped onto steaming baby new potatoes and crisp pickles. It is not exactly traditional breakfast fare.

When I was a 9-5 London worker, I liked Kappacasein raclette best on a long weekend midmorning or as an early lunch. You really need to allow for a midday slump after this breakfast.

On this occasion, I stopped by around 11 a.m. on a Tuesday and the queue was a fraction of what it usually is. My belly was empty on one of the coldest London days I can remember. I watched the enormous half-circle of cheese bubble and pop under an industrial-sized raclette set. I watched, breath visible in the chilly air, as the cheese heated up. Then the woman serving me grabbed the cheese, turned it about 45 degrees, and scraped the top layer onto the potatoes. Unlike many of the best heavy breakfasts, this is one for which you stand and wait.

After she added the pickles and fresh ground pepper to my cheesy potatoes I took my heavy plate to find an empty bit of curb to sit on. I noted as I walked that the immense weight I was carrying would soon be in my stomach. I wanted to eat fast so the cheese wouldn’t harden in the cold air, but it pays to savor both the raclette and the curbside view for people-watching.

After this breakfast, you have to keep moving or you’ll fall asleep. I walked to get an espresso from Borough Market institution Monmouth Coffee to cut through the fat. Digestif coffee in hand, I headed to the South Bank of the Thames to continue my day of visiting old favorites.

A Very Habit-Forming Pancake-Burrito Hybrid

Feb.14.17

A Very Habit-Forming Pancake-Burrito Hybrid

by Charlotte Edwards

Jian Bing in Hebei Province

I’ve never been one for breakfast, so pre-baby, I usually skipped it. A month after giving birth and returning to work, I didn’t think twice about resuming my usual routine of preparing my husband’s breakfast and rushing off to catch the bus to work. However, I’d neglected to realize how much my appetite had increased because of breastfeeding.

By the mid-morning break on my first day back teaching English to nursing students at the local college in Renqiu, China, my stomach was growing uncontrollably. Luckily, outside the sprawling campus was a street filled with vendors preparing all sorts of delicious street foods for students who were unsatisfied by the cafeteria fare and hungry teachers like myself.

I needed to make a selection quickly so I got in a short line to buy a food that I’d never seen before: jian bing. A helpful student who was in front of me called it a pancake, but the only way it resembled the ones I grew up eating in the United States was that it started out round.

The woman who made it, probably no older than my student, poured a butter-colored batter on a large, round griddle and swiftly cracked an egg on top of it. When the egg was partially cooked, she used her hands to flip it over. Then she started asking me questions in rapid-fire sequence as she worked with impeccable precision and great speed.

“Can you eat spicy foods?”

“Just a little.”

“Do you want scallions and cilantro?”

“Yes, extra scallions, please.”

As she added a liberal amount of green atop the fiery red chili paste she asked, “Do you want crispy fried crackers or fried dough sticks?”

“Crackers, please,” I said, having just noticed the two options sitting on a shelf over her mobile makeshift kitchen that sat atop her three-wheeled cart. The crackers resembled a thin, rectangular tortilla chip, while the fried dough stick was just what it sounded like: a long piece of dough fried until the outside was crispy.

“Cut or uncut?” was her next question.

I wanted the huge burrito-like food cut in half, so I replied with a simple, “cut it.”

In less than three minutes, start to finish, my first jian bing was in my hands. It was piping hot and savory, and both soft and crispy. Thus began my daily jian bing habit, which lasted for the next two years.

It’s been several years since my first taste of jian bing, and while I’d like to eat it daily, my jeans tell me otherwise. So it remains a special treat that transports me to a past season of life.

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