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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.

Five Different Breeds of Goat and a Peacock Just For Good Luck

Sep.26.17

Five Different Breeds of Goat and a Peacock Just For Good Luck

by Jake Emen

Breakfast in Havana

There are many different reasons one would want to travel to Cuba. Food generally comes on the lower end—if at all—of a long list that usually includes rum, cigars, classic cars, and architecture.

But some people are trying to change that. I’m visiting Vista Hermosa, in Havana’s Guanabacoa municipality. Misael Ponce runs the show at this finca, one member of a 68-farm collective, following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, who started the operation.

They have, well, just about everything here. There are five different breeds of goat, there are chickens and rabbits, turkeys and pigs, guard dogs keeping watch and ranging farm dogs hanging out, and peacocks, just for good luck. There’s a tropical fruit cornucopia, with banana, guava, mango, tamarind, cherry, avocado, and soursop. There’s sugar cane and sweet potato, and there’s the mamancillo, a fruit I’ve never heard of, which you eat by first biting off its hard shell and then proceeding to suck out the gooey, tangy-sweet fruit hidden within, spitting out the remaining seed.

I’m strolling through Ponce’s farm, trying a bite of this fruit or that one, but I’m starting to struggle. I’m roasting in the brutal, humid heat of a Havana summer morning. I haven’t had any caffeine yet. Somewhere along the line, I’ve stepped in cow (goat? horse?) shit. And the small bites of sumptuous, sticky fruits are simply reminding me that I haven’t eaten anything else.

But a late breakfast bounty awaits. The farm produces a range of cheeses and cured meats—startlingly styled in Italian and Mediterranean fashion—including their riffs on pancetta, lomo, and salami, along with mozzarella, ricotta, and pecorino. If you’re lucky, you might be able to try a bite at the farm; otherwise, you can sample their fare at several high-end paladares back in central Havana, such as Mediterraneo Havana.

I arrive at the restaurant, wide-eyed in expectations of the meal that awaits. If I close my eyes and take a bite, I don’t think I’m actually in Florence or Rome or Sicily. But I sure as hell feel a world away from the touristy Cuba many people see.

The more visitors a finca such as Vista Hermosa attracts, the more they’re able to invest into their burgeoning food production capabilities, and the more interest they should, in turn, generate. And locals are slowly starting to take note. “Food is the most expensive thing in Cuba,” my guide, Javier, explains to me. “But it should be cheaper… the cheapest! People didn’t know about [a place like this], so they didn’t care. Now some do.”

Breakfast Doesn’t Have to Be the Best, It Just Needs to Be Your Favorite

Sep.25.17

Breakfast Doesn’t Have to Be the Best, It Just Needs to Be Your Favorite

by Karen Gardner

Fried eggs in Millvale

Sliding into a booth at P&G’s Diner, I’m overwhelmed by the smell of butter. P&G’s is an institution: a diner, pharmacy, and gift shop that anchors the town of Millvale, near where I grew up. Millvale lies across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, stretching from the river bank up a steep hill. The town is old, industrial, and a bit beaten up, but residents have plenty of local pride.

Pamela Cohen and Gail Klingensmith opened the first Pamela’s P&G Diner in Pittsburgh in 1980. Pamela cooked, Gail ran the business, and a friend helped out. As the diner grew in popularity, they were able to hire staff and expand, eventually running six diners in the Pittsburgh area. The chain’s diehard popularity spread outside Pittsburgh as well. In 2009, the Obamas invited Pamela and Gail to make pancakes for the Memorial Day brunch at the White House. The diners each remain locally owned, either by Pam and Gail, their family members, or former wait staff.

The P&G Diner in Millvale is the least fashionable and well-known of the chain. It’s a place where brunch is still about eggs and grease rather than mimosas, where it’s ok for everyone to call everyone else “honey,” and where tables are moved as strangers become friends over plates of french toast.

At P&G Diner the food is great, the prices are low, and there are key chains, postcards, Band-Aids, and cough drops for sale. The old-timey clock above the entrance, the cozy booths, the waitresses with names like Flo, Patty, and Tammy make it feel familiar and nostalgic. It’s just another diner, but one infused with memories.

I remember sitting inside on cold weekend mornings with my family. My brother would order corned beef hash and I would mix ketchup into my potatoes to make our meals look the same. I remember when Hurricane Ivan hit Millvale in 2004 and the whole neighborhood flooded. The legend is that Pittsburgh’s underground fourth river shot a geyser up through P&G’s kitchen. Whatever the truth is, the diner was shut down for half a year. I remember the town in shambles, and then how Millvale picked itself up and rebuilt.

I order the Big Lincoln: two fried eggs, Lyonnaise potatoes, bacon, and two hotcakes. The eggs are soft with runny yolks, the bacon perfectly crispy, the potatoes cooked, diced, and then fried: a middle ground between hash browns and home fries. The hotcakes are thin and the size of your plate, with crispy edges. I like them rolled with a filling of sour cream, strawberries, and brown sugar. With bottomless coffee, it’s a decadent and filling breakfast, impossible to eat in one sitting. I’m tempted to say that it’s the best breakfast in the best place, but it isn’t. It’s just my favorite breakfast in my favorite place.

What, You’ve Never Had Bright Red Foam on Your Drinkable Oatmeal Before?

Sep.21.17

What, You’ve Never Had Bright Red Foam on Your Drinkable Oatmeal Before?

by Allegra Ben-Amotz

Atole rojo in Oaxaca

It was my first time with a tour group. I’d come to Cuajimoloyas, in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, to forage for wild mushrooms during Mexico’s rainy season. Instead of navigating the forests alone, I joined a band of women and their local guide, a man named Celestino, for the town’s yearly Regional Wild Mushroom Festival.

We’d spent the previous day hunting, trying to collect the greatest variety of edible and non-edible toadstools. We woke up early the next morning for the announcement of the winning team by the fairgrounds at the base of the mountain.

I’d packed poorly for the July chill, and wandered the booths proffering various mushroom-based dishes in search of something to warm my bones. I spotted Celestino huddled under a tent, blowing on his hands as he waited for his breakfast. He was having atole, a traditional corn-based beverage thats something like a drinkable oatmeal. It sounded perfect. I ordered my own and we waited at the sole vinyl-covered table under the tent, elbow-to-elbow with an elderly Mexican couple.

When Celestino’s aunt, the woman running the booth, brought over two brown ceramic bowls brimming with bright red foam, I tried to tell her this was not what we’d ordered. “You’ve never had atole rojo before?” Celestino asked. “It’s for special occasions.”

Flavored with a powder of toasted corn, cacao beans, and brick-red achiote paste, the atole was steamed and then frothed on top to create a crown of festive bubbles. I dunked a strip of pan criollo (rich, eggy local bread) into the biggest bubble on top, tasting the icy foam. Celestino held his bowl in his hands, slurping it like a mug of coffee. I followed suit: the bowl was hot to the touch, the initial chill of the top layer giving way to an earthy, slightly-sweet molten drink.

Celestino poked my side. “That’s us, second place!” he said, and I heard the judges repeating our names. We went up to accept our prize, still clutching mugs of our celebratory atole in our hands.

Breakfast in Kashmir is So Good, They Have it Twice

Sep.19.17

Breakfast in Kashmir is So Good, They Have it Twice

by Sophia Ann French

Czot in Kashmir

It was my first time on a houseboat and my first trip to Kashmir. Standing on the deck of the boat, I was excited to start working on my first film when Ajaz, the owner of the houseboat, brought me a cup of tea. It was the first time I tasted Kashmiri nun chai. We Indians love our chai with milk, sugar, and, at times, I add a dash of cardamom seeds to make a Mumbai-style masala chai, but nun chai wasn’t like any other tea I’ve had. It was pink, and salty. (It’s usually served with milk, but I had it without.) I took a reluctant sip and was surprised to enjoy the unusual flavor. Over the three months we spent in Kashmir, nun chai became a staple at every breakfast.

The union of bread with tea is an age-old tradition, and a Kashmiri breakfast pairs the savory tea with fresh-baked loaves from a kandar waz—these bakeries are found in every neighborhood across the valley and the bread is baked in a wood-fired, clay tandoor. On the first morning, Ajaz served us czot and lavasa. Czot is made by mixing refined white flour with water and kneading pieces of dough into thin rectangles. The kandar makes impressions on each piece with his fingertips before putting it into the oven, so the bread has ridges across the surface. I’d smear dollops of butter across its auburn crust and dunk it in nun chai. Lavasa is an unleavened flat bread with a blistery surface. I didn’t enjoy its stretchy texture when dipped in tea, so a Kashmiri colleague made me a delicious roll by stuffing the lavasa with barbecued meat and chickpeas.

The Kashmiris love their bread and chai so much they have it twice every morning. The film’s crew would leave for reconnaissance soon after breakfast, but I stayed back on the houseboat to interview the locals about militancy in Kashmir. The valley has been disputed territory between India and Pakistan for decades. Kashmiris who cross the border into Pakistan and return to India to fight are called militants. Ajaz, like many young Kashmiris, didn’t go the militant way, but is caught between the crossfire between the militants and the Indian army.

In the middle of his interview, Ajaz excused himself for a few minutes and returned with a tray of the pink tea and bakarkhani, a round bread that looks like puffed pastry. It’s brown and crispy on the outside with soft fluffy layers on the inside. I’d never seen this at breakfast, and Ajaz explained that the Kashmiris have specific breads for specific times. Bakarkhani and nun chai became part of our 10 a.m. ritual, when Ajaz and I ruminated over the differences between Kashmir’s past—when it was a center for Sufism and Shaivism—and its fraught present.

If Nothing Else, This Experimental Utopia Has a Pretty Good Café

Sep.18.17

If Nothing Else, This Experimental Utopia Has a Pretty Good Café

by Ranjini Rao

Bagels in Auroville

With the blaze of the August sun in our eyes and yet a lightness to our step in Pondicherry, India’s beloved, dreamy beach town, and an erstwhile French colony, we set out for Auroville to have breakfast at the Auroville Bakery Café.

Our host—a dear friend who had grown up talking, breathing, and eating all things French in Pondy—had raved enough about it for us to want to sample the food there.

Auroville is an ambitious utopian living experiment, courtesy of the vision of philosopher-guru Sri Aurobindo and his colleague Mirra Alfassa, aka The Mother. Founded in 1968, it was designed as a village-for-all, governed by multicultural harmony, where people from all over the world are welcome.

The foundation for the bakery was laid by an Austrian banker, Otto, who moved to Auroville in the 80s and collaborated with bakers in the area for a while. The café in the back is a recent addition to the bakery, we were informed. The bakery was created by several eager hands, trying and testing recipes ranging from brioche to knackebrots to provide an excellent patisserie for Aurovilleans in the 90s.

The café’s newest crew—a German, a Ukrainian, a handful of Indians, and a couple of French nationals—came aboard in the 2000s, and decided to offer beverages, too. They started the café out small, with a few vibrant chairs and tables assembled under the trees in the backyard garden, but they were determined to serve big, satisfying breakfasts.

The menu was handwritten on an overused blackboard, and didn’t seem too exciting at first. But on closer inspection, we saw the items of which we’re sadly deprived in Bangalore: bagels with cheese, salads loaded with proteins, fresh fruit platters, wholewheat sandwiches with fresh cheese, quiches, tarts, croissants.

We ordered a bagel with cheese, a fresh fruit platter, and a grilled vegetable and cheese sandwich to share, plus juice, tea, and coffees.

The bread in the sandwich was a far cry from the supermarket variety to which we’re accustomed, which is softened and aerated with additives. This bread was crusty, substantial, with a nutty, earthy taste. The cheese was fresh, thick-cut, and refreshingly light on sourness and saltiness, unlike the aged cheeses sold outside, preserved with chemicals. It was a delicious morning.

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