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Eating the World Every Morning

That Is One Badass Noodle Soup Lady


That Is One Badass Noodle Soup Lady

by Cindy Fan

Bun bo in Vietnam

In Vietnam, the police are universally reviled. Get stopped on the road by a cop and you’ll be losing a lot of money that day. The police are to be avoided, tiptoed around, and if you’re unlucky and are pulled over, you definitely don’t draw their ire because that “fine” could always be much worse.

I was especially wary of the country’s uniformed power while in Buon Ma Thuot, the largest city in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, a region heavily contested during the war; it’s been touchy ever since. In 2001, anti-government protests by 20,000 ethnic minorities on land rights and religious freedom were brutally suppressed. The government blamed overseas opposition groups for fueling the unrest, so foreign travel to the Central Highlands has been tightly restricted and monitored ever since, which is a bit of a challenge when you write Vietnam travel guides for a living.

But when it’s 6 a.m. and you’re smack in the middle of Buon Ma Thuot’s impressively ugly center, already sweating badly while perched on a plastic stool slurping up a mediocre bowl of bun bo beef noodle soup, and you’re watching the city’s sunrise hustle, a whirling zoetrope of vendors and traffic, motorbikes transporting a seemingly impossible load of cargo, livestock or people, avoiding the scrutiny of a paranoid Communist government is a distant thought.

Vietnam is always in motion but for a brief moment every morning, you can suspend yourself in a bun bo shop and ruminate. I liked the humorless grit of this city, a sprawl of bland, low-rise concrete built after the city was obliterated in the war. These days the region makes its money from growing coffee. Drink that stuff at your own risk. For me, Vietnamese coffee is gastrointestinal napalm, mercilessly sending all contents raging through my internal plumbing. Like I said, in Vietnam everything moves, for better or for worse.

I was fishing out the last strands of rice noodles when the driver and car I had hired for the day pulled up in front of the shop. I paid the lady, climbed into the backseat and we were about to leave when, suddenly, there they were, two policemen blocking the car. One officer, just a boy fresh out of academy, bore a scowl on his pimpled brow as if an idling car was a serious felony; the other was an older fellow and he could barely contain a smirk that foretold of an upcoming payday. There was no stopping allowed here.

But instead of getting out of the car and tactfully trying to wiggle out of trouble, as is the norm, the driver power-locked the doors, hurled some choice words, and refused to budge. Refused. He had reached his breaking point. The cops knocked on the windows. They tried the doors. They angrily paced in front shouting. The driver silently stared ahead and gripped the steering wheel tighter, as if bracing himself for impact. I sat frozen and wide-eyed, not knowing what to do.

That’s when I saw her, the noodle soup lady marching across the road, her red apron strapped to her like armour. A short, sturdy woman, she went right up to the po-po and let them have it.

“She’s my customer,” she said. “They were only stopped for a second.”

The cops remained unmoved and waved her off, like swatting a dogged fly.

“You let her go!” she shouted. “You let her go now!”

Then all the vendors left their sidewalk carts, they streamed out of their shops and surrounded the car. Within seconds there were 40 people between me and the police, an intense standoff. This kind of public opposition to the authorities is almost unheard of in Vietnam. The crowd crossed their arms and jeered; they, too, had had enough. The younger officer shifted uncomfortably. His forehead glistened with sweat. The other officer muttered something to the crowd.

They strolled to their motorbikes and hightailed it.

The vendors drifted back to their carts, the noodle soup lady returned to her world of doling out beef broth and the driver and I carried on our way.

One moment you are alone and anonymous, the next you’re an accidental revolutionary and the world comes to a standstill: it’s unnatural and you can feel it happen, the unpleasant sinking-stopping feeling like being in an arriving elevator. Then reality takes you back into the current.

One thing is for sure: that bun bo was the best damn noodle soup I’ve ever had.

Never Attribute to the Supernatural That Which Is Adequately Explained by a Golden Retriever


Never Attribute to the Supernatural That Which Is Adequately Explained by a Golden Retriever

by Martina Žoldoš

Pan de muerto in Mexico

It was mid-October when Fernando bought a fresh pan de muerto in a nearby bakery for the first time this year. It was warm and soft, lightly sweet, and smelled of orange zest and roasted sesame seeds: a familiar smell that would guide deceased relatives to the house two weeks later. While my daughter was loudly praising the bread’s taste, I remembered my first experience with it four years ago, before she even existed.

My small family—me, eight months pregnant, my partner Fernando, and our golden retriever, Pek—had just moved to Puebla and we were crashing at my parents-in-law’s house. Day of the Dead was just around the corner and my partner’s mother had set up an altar made of papel picado, a special type of ornamental paper with motifs of skeletons, photographs of the loved ones that had passed away, marigolds, candles, a glass of water, some salt, tangerines and guavas, a skull made of sugar, and pan de muerto. I was told that the deceased ones from the photos would visit us on the Day of the Dead, and treat themselves to the food placed on the altar. On the morning of Nov. 2, we discovered that someone really had feasted on these offerings: the bread was missing.

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, has a special meaning in Mexican tradition. Its circular form represents the cycle of life and death. It has a small bump on the top that represents a skull, while four shinbones, placed in a shape of a cross, reference the four directions of the universe or the four cardinal points according to the Aztec calendar, related to four principal gods: Quetzalcoatl, Xipetotec, Tlaloc, and Tezcatlipoca. It is believed that in the pre-Hispanic times, blood—obtained from human sacrifices—was added to the dough.

Today, the bread retains its traditional shape, but it’s made with different techniques, ingredients, and recipes depending on the region. In central and southern Mexico, they sprinkle it with white and red sugar or sesame seeds, while in other parts of the country they fill it with chocolate, dried fruits, coconut, nuts, cream, apples, or even pumpkins and parmesan cheese. Usually, it’s available only in October and November—the first of many signs that Day of the Dead is approaching. On Nov. 2, it’s impossible to find any other bread in any local bakery, so you involuntarily end up eating it for breakfast.

That morning four years ago, we set the table with pan de muerto, freshly squeezed tangerine juice, and hot black coffee. We were grateful for the opportunity to spend the day together, and satisfied with our first Day of the Dead. Our golden retriever was satisfied, too. He got his share of pan de muerto: the night before when nobody was watching.

Jubilation, Unprintable Expletives, and KFC in the Middle of Zimbabwe’s Coup


Jubilation, Unprintable Expletives, and KFC in the Middle of Zimbabwe’s Coup

by Kate Bartlett

Sadza nuggets in Harare

When I was growing up in Zimbabwe in the 90s, we didn’t have KFC, or many other fast-food joints for that matter, and most people lived primarily on the maize-meal staple, sadza.

So it was strange to be back, 17 years after I left, chowing down on KFC’s deep-fried sadza nuggets for breakfast during a military coup. Maybe it was just my euphoria at being back home and covering the story of a lifetime, or the jubilation of the Zimbabweans all around me at the downfall of a despot, but those sadza nuggets were divine.

Sazda has the consistency and appearance of mashed potato. It’s a carb-heavy comfort food usually consumed with some kind of relish–spinach and peanut butter is a common side dish. KFC’s sadza nuggets are a modern, greasy twist on an old classic: rolled into little balls, dusted with KFC spices, and deep-fried with a gravy dip.

My fixer, Problem (actually an extremely helpful guy saddled with an unfair name) and I were eating the nuggets as we walked down the road with the hundreds of thousands of people who had turned out for a rally against Zimbabwe’s longtime leader, Robert Mugabe, who had been placed under house arrest by the military days earlier. He resigned Tuesday evening.

The atmosphere was electric; people were singing and dancing, hugging random strangers. Hooting minibuses, decorated with names like “No food for lazy boy” and “God’s protection,” were overpacked with people coming to the rally, some hanging precariously from the roofs.

If I hadn’t been working so hard reporting the story, I might have had more time to dwell on my return to a place that, I now realize, I never quite recovered from leaving. But even as I worked, adrenaline pumping through my veins, I took it all in: the orange of the princely flamboyant trees and lilac of the avenues of jacarandas, the smell of summer rains on the long grass, the red mud, the soft sounds of people speaking Shona, the taste of the sadza.

Let’s get one thing clear: I’m not a “when-we”–the name given to nostalgia-prone white Africans who long for “the old days.” I don’t long for Rhodesia; in fact, I never knew it: I was born in 1983 in a newly independent Zimbabwe.

Having grown up with leftist parents who had moved to the country post-Independence on a wave of optimism, and a mix of black and white friends, what I long for is the Zim I knew in the 90s–when there were good schools, good healthcare, and the country was still somewhat of a model for southern Africa.

That Zimbabwe is no more after years of misrule by Mugabe and his vicious, shopaholic wife, Grace.

The people had had enough long ago, essentially voting Mugabe out in the 2008 elections, but the opposition here has been violently repressed, and now it has taken a military coup—thankfully bloodless—to get the old man out.

Whether what comes next is good is unclear, but Zimbabweans say they are sure it can’t be worse.

Back at the rally, Problem and I were enjoying the creative banners protesters had made for the occasion. “Leadership is not sexually transmitted,” read our favorite, which showed a picture of the first lady with a red cross through it. Mugabe, at 93 the world’s oldest leader, had favored his wife to succeed him and wanted to create a dynasty.

Grace Mugabe is widely loathed in this plundered country for her penchant for high-end brands and fancy cars, while her children cavort in the most expensive clubs in Johannesburg. One video doing the rounds on Zimbabwe’s social media shows one of Mugabe’s sons pouring champagne all over his expensive watch.

“Gucci rags pack your bags,” read another banner referring to the first lady.

“Hello, I’m a journalist, can you comment on why you’ve turned out to protest today?” I asked a young man walking alongside me.

He let off a colorful string of expletives about Mugabe.

“I can’t publish that,” I told him, laughing.

Then I ate another sadza nugget.

No Matter How Old You Are, Chilled Butter-Cream Was Best When You Were Young


No Matter How Old You Are, Chilled Butter-Cream Was Best When You Were Young

by Shirin Mehrotra

Makkhan-malai in Lucknow

Growing up in Lucknow, a city in the north of India where winters were always bone-chilling, there were only two things that would make us crawl out of our cozy blankets—catching up on the morning sun and the cry of makkhan-malai on the streets. I have feeble memories of an old guy, standing at the doorstep with a huge basket on his head.

The contents of the basket always appeared mysterious to me. I’d look with wide-eyed wonder the way the old man scooped out a bit of cloudy, unsalted butter, placed it in a bowl made of a dried leaf, topped it with cream, and handed them over to the patiently waiting buyers. And I would happily take one, despite not being too fond of the dish.

Sold only during winters, makkhan-malai (literally, butter-cream) is a dairy product that every North Indian swears by. Saffron-flavored milk is thickened by boiling for a few hours, left in heavy dew for the night, and then hand-churned early in the morning. The churning creates stiff, frothy butter, which is then removed and kept aside.

In past times, the hawkers carried this butter and cream—which come from the same milk—in a basket, placed on top of slabs of ice. The ice ensured the butter wouldn’t go bad in the heat. Today the ice slabs and cane have been replaced by wooden ice boxes carried on a bicycle. Take a walk at the Chowk area in Lucknow, and you’ll see multiple vendors with conical glass cases, selling makkhan-malai. While it’s available from November onwards, the real deal is made only during peak winter, when the dewfall is heavy.

The dish has various names: makkhan-malai or nimish in Lucknow and Kanpur, malaiyo in Varanasi and Daulat ki Chaat (named after the shop owner who first started selling it) in Delhi. The Parsi community makes a version of the same dish which they call doodh no puff.

While makkhan-malai has travelled places and now sits on the menu of one of India’s most celebrated restaurants—Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent has the dish on his menu, where he tops the delicate butter with rose petals and palm jaggery—my heart belongs to the one from my childhood, sold in the tiny by-lanes of Lucknow.

Will Someone Please Make Us This Yemenite Pancake Hybrid Stat?


Will Someone Please Make Us This Yemenite Pancake Hybrid Stat?

by Malou Herkes

Lachuch in Tel Aviv

The first time I met Irit, she was running around her tiny hole-in-the-wall café, blistering aubergines and squeezing oranges, chopping salad and plonking plates onto tables. All the while, she screeched Hebrew greetings and orders to her customers. Her long grey hair was scraped into a messy bun and she wore a t-shirt with the words “I DO WHAT I WANT” on the back.

She’s the type of person you can’t not like. Irit has a little place in the Yemenite quarter of Tel Aviv, just behind the main Carmel shuk. It’s a quaint neighborhood of one or two-story buildings with flat roofs, that make it easy to imagine the old Tel Aviv, the one before skyscraper hotels and shopping malls. In Hebrew, the area is known as Kerem HaTeimanim, which translates as Yemenite’s vineyard, and it’s here that she grew up, when camels and cattle still crowded the streets.

When I arrive, the place is full. So instead of waiting, Irit gets me squeezing lemons for fresh lemonade, serving shakshuka, and making lachuch; a cross between a crumpet and a pancake.

Lachuch is classic Yemenite-Jewish fare, and is now ubiquitous in Israel, along with a fiery, fresh coriander relish, known as zhoug, and a variety of sweet pastries and breads, including a layered sausage-shaped roll of pastry and margarine that’s slow-cooked overnight until it’s deep brown and buttery sweet, then eaten with an egg.

Yemenite food has become an intrinsic part of Israeli cuisine, introduced with the waves of Yemenite-Jewish migrants who came to Israel, fleeing worsening tensions during the 1950s. Irit’s parents were among them.

Lachuch is a basic mixture of flour, yeast, salt, and fenugreek, left to rise and bubble for an hour before being fried into an airy pancake. It’s comparable to Ethiopian injera, I suppose. But Irit’s version is crispy. And has an egg in the middle.

The batter is rising in a corner. The day’s humidity is doing its job as bubbles appear, crackle and pop on the surface. It’s been sitting for an hour, and she insists that any longer will ruin it. She stirs the gloopy, airy mixture in a clockwise motion with her hand, while a pan with oil heats on the hob. She then scoops out a ladleful of the batter, slops it into the pan and tilts it so the mixture spreads and covers the base in a thin layer. Little bubbles appear on the surface as the base sets and browns. The main rule is not to flip it, but instead to cook it until set. Irit cracks an egg into the middle, then folds it up and allows the hot pocket to cook the yolk, allowing for egg white to spill out and form crisp edges around the lachuch’s now golden crust.

The lachuch is flipped and slam-dunked onto a plate with smoky aubergine and a crisp salad of fresh herbs and red peppers piled alongside. Tahini is drizzled liberally on top. She hands me the plate brusquely, almost forgetting the obligatory side of fiery zhoug and grated fresh tomato. We eat.

Probably the Most Wholesome Breakfast Dispatch We’ve Ever Published


Probably the Most Wholesome Breakfast Dispatch We’ve Ever Published

by Laura Marie

Bircher muesli in Switzerland

I climb down from the top bunk in the renovated Swiss hospital where I am staying. The retreat center keeps prices down in expensive Switzerland by having us all participate in work around the building, and my shoulders are a good kind of tired after cleaning 18 bathrooms the day before.

There is no kitchen staff; everyone helps out with meals. I’m intrigued to see what was in the enormous, heavy vats that I’d carried to the refrigerator the night before, mysteriously capped with aluminum foil. They said it was “muesli,” but they seemed too heavy for the granola-like substance I knew to be muesli.

What greeted me the next morning in the quiet dining room, between carafes of coffee and plates of pastry, was… goop. The goop appeared to contain some granola-grains like oats, yes, but it also had dried fruit, fresh apple bits, a glistening layer of yogurt over all of it. It looked unappealing, but before I could pass it over, one of the breakfast hosts for that morning grabbed a cup and scooped me out a serving. “Trust me,” she said, as if she could feel my hesitation. “Try it.”

What I tasted was fresh, sweet, with a touch of cinnamon. It felt like everything healthy I could eat, all in one bite. The sun filled the room, reflecting off the snow-capped Alps. I was absorbed in the task of eating my muesli. The small cup I had was so filling I no longer needed the rest of the room’s breakfast bounty.

This goop, or what we know as Bircher muesli, was actually the first muesli (the crunchy stuff came later). When Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner developed it in 1900 to improve his patients’ health, it was intended as a healthy substitute for dinner, not breakfast. His original recipe—oats soaked overnight, condensed milk, and raw apple—was both effective and delicious, and this meal helped spark Switzerland’s reputation as a wholesome, healthy-living nation. Now it’s a staple breakfast in western Europe, not to mention a mainstay in health stores and brunch spots in the United States.

I didn’t come here seeking the wellness cures of centuries past, but I can feel myself getting a little healthier, it seems, with every bite of this chewy, sweet, crunchy muesli.

L’Abri Fellowship
Chalet Bellevue
Route de Villars 89
1884 Huémoz

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