Follow Roads & Kingdoms on...

Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

That Is One Badass Noodle Soup Lady

Sep.01.16

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.

Always Eat the Fish Eye At the Bottom of the Bowl

Apr.25.17

Always Eat the Fish Eye At the Bottom of the Bowl

by Efraín Villanueva

Fish broth in Barranquilla

It’s Carnival in Barranquilla. There are marimondas, negritas Puloy, ITALgarabatos, monocucos, and many other traditional figures joyfully wandering in every street. There is dancing in all the ways the locals know: cumbia, mapalé, chandé, fandango, porro, merecumbé, bullerenge. There are kids, adults, pets, houses, and cars dressed up in colorful costumes.

A very well-organized recocha (which Urban Dictionary defines as “to be disorderly in the name of fun”) reigns in the town. There also is, of course, lots of alcohol involved. It’s been like that for more than a century, so the mayor and the police have agreed to make an exception from the recent national law that forbids the consumption of alcohol in public spaces.

If you ever come for the Carnival and you want to keep up and party non-stop during the five-day celebration, you need to know how to hold yourself together. What does it for me is food.

“Are you really gonna have fish soup for breakfast?” my German girlfriend, Sabeth, asks with a surprised expression on her face.

I inspect her side of the table. Her plate is filled with two carimañolas (yucca dough stuffed with ground beef), one arepa e huevo (corn dough stuffed with a fried egg and extra ground beef), suero costeño (a fermented milk-based dip) and corozo juice. I smile. It makes me proud how much she enjoys our fried-stuff cuisine.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she defends herself, “for me it’s different. I’m a foreigner, I’m supposed to try as much as I can.”

“Yeah, right. You’re just embracing our culture. Nothing to do with you being a good eater.”

She grins.

“Look, it is not fish soup. Not technically. This is just a caldo, a broth. A real soup would include a big piece of fish, potatoes, green plantains, yuca, ñame. The real deal. Wanna try?”

“It’s breakfast time. Soup is for lunch,” she argues.

“In Germany you guys have Weisswurstfrühstück… and that’s with beer.”

“That does not count. That’s Bavarian,” she says, making her Germany-is-bigger-than-Bavaria-you-people face.

“Wanna try it or not?”

She does. She always does. And her closed eyes confirm what I expected: She loves it.

We eat. I dive to the bottom of my plate and find a pleasant surprise, at least for me.

“Look, I got a prize!”

“What is that?” she asks.

“It’s the eye. I love this but I’m willing to give it away just for you. Wanna try?”

She always does.

Fresh, Ripe Tomatoes: the Culinary Opposite of Airport Curries

Apr.24.17

Fresh, Ripe Tomatoes: the Culinary Opposite of Airport Curries

by Andrew Strikis

Breakfast in Cyprus

As the rosy-red flesh of tomatoes basked in the light streaming through the stone-and-timber window frame, I could sense Karen’s reluctance as she mentally prepared herself for that first bite.

Less than 48 hours earlier we were in the U.K., slack jaws mechanically processing a lukewarm airport curry, a flaccid coda to our exploration of Scotland’s bonnie but slightly stodgy shores.

The tiny, cobblestoned village of Vavla, in Cyprus, was our new home, and we were hoping for something, anything, to resuscitate our neglected taste buds.

Over mugs of hot coffee, we could hear our hosts Donna Marie and George nattering back and forth in the kitchen; she with her Yankee drawl, rusty from disuse, he with his thick, gravelly, Greek-inflected English sporadically tumbling forth like slow-moving boulders, a verbal dance born of decades of practice. They met in the U.S., but Vavla is their home now, and food was the pivot on which their lives spun gently.

First, a simple plate. Humble fare, familiar not just to Cypriots but to the Mediterranean. A basket of freshly baked bread, thickly cut and steaming. Sliced cucumber, tomato, halloumi: green, red, white. Threatening to none except Karen: since childhood, tomatoes have been her culinary nemesis.

Not this morning. With eyes wide, we shared a moment of revelation from the most unexpected of sources: tomatoes. Sweetness, with barely a hint of acidity. Here, you were just as likely to pick up a tomato as an apple for a snack.

The term ‘foraging’ is everywhere now, but for Donna Marie and George, this is their life, and they laugh to hear the terms ‘organic’ and ‘foraged’ used with such reverence. To wander their garden was an education, as they shared their knowledge of the land, the seasons, and the fruits of their labor.

George’s eyes lit up as he spoke of his passion for split green olives. With a generous measure of diced garlic and a splash of lemon juice, these are still the best green olives we’ve ever woken up to. Also on the table: Mosphila berries transformed into the sweetest of jams, a small bowl of local almonds, freshly squeezed orange juice. And yet more olives, air-dried and packed with umami.

Ah, to Be Handed Deep-Fried Pork Skin by a Kind Stranger

Apr.21.17

Ah, to Be Handed Deep-Fried Pork Skin by a Kind Stranger

by Sarah Witman

Carnitas in Mexico City

The Mercado de Medellín feels like an open-air market stuffed inside an aircraft hangar. Whole baby sharks sit on ice, arranged artfully among freshly caught shrimp and starfish. Stall shelves are covered with neatly arranged apples, watermelon, plantains, and cartons of strawberries—the same brand I buy back home in Wisconsin. An entire wing is dedicated to flowers: fiery red lirios (lilies) and delicate gipsófila (baby’s breath).

The market is a cross-section of Mexico City culture, along the intersection of the traditional Roma Sur and hip Roma Norte neighborhoods. During the week it’s a sleepy, sensible grocery store. Saturday mornings are a different story.

Carnitas?”

By mid-afternoon on Friday, I had seen the carnitas vendors already beginning to set up: sharpening knives, wiping down gleaming metal workstations. This is what I’ve been waiting for all week.

“Si si si! Gracias…” I say, accepting the most succulent shard of meat I’d ever seen from the vendor’s outstretched hand.

“Dos tacos, por favor.”

No need to specify what type; there is only one. The carnitas are cooked on a steaming spit. It’s then chopped up fairly fine, and lovingly portioned onto two corn tortillas. The tortillas are fresher, and more substantial, than the papery rounds I’m used to getting in the Midwest. So instead of doubling up, I can split the carnitas among them to make four tacos.

I spoon on salsa verde, one taco at a time. There are the ubiquitous little dishes of chopped onion, cilantro, and lime wedges on the table, too. Mexico City has taught me to appreciate limes.

The vendor bustles back over, asking how everything is, and hands me a crispy piece of chicharrón, deep-fried pork rind, free of charge.

“Mucho gusto!” I say with enthusiasm. This is a rather formal way to say “pleasure to meet you.” But I think he got my point.

Pretty Much the Most Heartwarming Story About Shit-on-a-Shingle You’re Likely to Hear

Apr.20.17

Pretty Much the Most Heartwarming Story About Shit-on-a-Shingle You’re Likely to Hear

by Heather Arndt Anderson

Biscuits and gravy in Portland

Biscuits and gravy may be a bastion of Southern cuisine, but they have also been embraced in Portland, Oregon, the land of brunch lines and culinary trend-spotting.

Everywhere from greasy dive bars like The Trap to Instagrammy critical-darling Tusk has it on the menu. People queue up for an hour to order it at Screen Door. As a 4th-generation Portland native and historian of both breakfast and Portland’s culinary scene, I intimately understand the fuss.

I grew up below the poverty line, the firstborn to two ex-military kids on the cusp of their twenties. My mom had herself been the firstborn to two teenaged parents from Oklahoma, and her childhood had seen struggle.

Between her role as Alpha Sister to four siblings and her stint in the Marines (she was a corporal), she had learned how to stretch a dollar in the kitchen with simple fare. This often meant our meals focused around a pound of dried navy beans flavored simply with a ham bone and a bay leaf, but occasionally, when the food stamps had run low, she fell back on perennial classics like chipped beef on toast, known affectionately in our household as shit-on-a-shingle.

My mom’s version was as economical as it can get: ground beef crumbles simmered in a white sauce made with powdered milk, thickened with roux made from the hamburger drippings, served on a slice white bread. It was a study in beige. It wasn’t glamorous, but it filled our bellies. I always really liked it, and not only because it came with a free pass to cuss at the dinner table. I enjoyed the soft, white warmness of it. Similar iterations came in the form of biscuits and gravy, made with leftover Jiffy mix biscuits and the same pasty hamburger gravy, and I ate it all with gusto.

When I grew up and started dipping a furtive toe into the world of fancy food, one of my first experiences was eating at Bread and Ink Café on Hawthorne. Back in the mid-90s the street was only starting to get hip, and Bread and Ink was the nice place with real napkins and white tablecloths, in a brick building that had once been a grocery store. It was a little out of my price range, but breakfast was an affordable luxury.

The first time I had biscuits and gravy there, I wasn’t transported back to my mother’s elbow or anything so melodious, because although she could ably feed her family, my mom never derived any joy from it. This B&G tasted like love, not making-do.

I had never known that shit-on-a-shingle could be decadent, but here it was: a broad plate of tender biscuits flecked with butter, blanketed in silky cream gravy scented faintly with nutmeg and black pepper, punctuated with sausage bits and needlessly gilded with melted cheese. This was manna from heaven, if heaven was the once-nicest joint in a formerly working-class neighborhood and God was Baron—the venerable gentleman with the jangling chain wallet and slight limp who’s been waiting tables there for thirty years.

There are countless ways in which Portland has gotten too big for its britches, but Bread and Ink’s biscuits and gravy are my favorite example.

Nothing Primes You For a Papal Visit Like A Sugar High

Apr.19.17

Nothing Primes You For a Papal Visit Like A Sugar High

by Dave Hazzan

Cake and cookies in Rome

As kids in the 80s, my brother and I were bombarded, every Saturday morning during cartoons, by a plethora of advertisements for sugary cereals. An enormous-chested tiger told us we could ski Mont Blanc if we ate Frosted Flakes, a glue-huffing leprechaun promised us Lucky Charms were magically delicious, and a very creepy third-rate Bugs Bunny knock-off told us Trix were for kids.

Kids loved the idea of waking up to bowls full of sugar (duh), and billions of dollars rolled in to the coffers of Post, Kellogg’s, and General Mills, not to mention the manufacturers of Ritalin and the whole dental profession.

Today, I carry on the tradition of sugar for breakfast in Rome. When my wife and I arrived at our Vatican-side B&B, our host offered us an “Italian” breakfast option. We didn’t know that an Italian breakfast, per our hosts, includes more sugar than a case of Coke.

It begins with two pieces of spongy cake, shot through with chocolate chip shrapnel. Alongside the cake are four carefully chosen cookies: a long, puff-pastry finger biscuit; a chocolate cookie with white chocolate stars glued on; a circular butter cookie; and a tiny nub of cookie that is like a straight shot of solidified syrup. Accompanying that is a glass of very sweet pink grapefruit juice and a cup of espresso. Feel free to add sugar to the espresso, if you haven’t already slipped into a diabetic coma.

It’s a wonderful way to start your morning, or at least the first hour and a half of it. Nothing primes you for a visit to the Vatican quite like this plantation of sugar. From the apartment, it’s a 10-minute dash to St. Peter’s Square, and then an energetic hour in the papal mosh pit, elbowing your way to the front to see the Holy Father.

But sugar is a short-term drug, and when it wears off, things become dark. The mosh pit isn’t any fun anymore. That sun is awfully hot. Does that jackass behind you really need to whelp so loud? Does this guy really think he’s Christ’s living embodiment on Earth?

The energy is drained from you, like a high-octane gasoline burnt out of an Italian race car. The pope is done touring around in his Popemobile, waving at the crowds and kissing the babies. He’s gone home to his apartment, to rest his holy, weary feet. And you are alone, in the center of St. Peter’s Square, sad and faithless, because your high fructose breakfast has worn off.

Now comes the hangover. Or cake for lunch.

Photo by: Jo Turner

View All 473 Breakfasts