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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.

Here’s to Pancakes and New Beginnings

Jul.21.17

Here’s to Pancakes and New Beginnings

by Cynthia Sularz

Blinis in Dnipro

Puzatta Hata is the largest Ukrainian cuisine chain restaurant. It’s welcoming, warm, and most of all, reliable. When I first arrived in Dnipro, Ukraine back in September of 2016, I was lost. I fell asleep immediately after moving into my new apartment, and thus in the morning, I became painfully aware of my empty fridge and even emptier stomach. Exhausted, dehydrated, and jetlagged, I left my apartment.

When I first entered Puzatta Hata, a wide variety of scents overwhelmed me. The buffet-style restaurant is something that has always hit or miss for me in the U.S., but as I soon learned, this Puzatta Hata would be a refuge. After long intercity travel, late night English lessons, or freezing evenings when the very idea of moving felt like too much work, Puzatta Hata was there for me.

That first morning I watched leisurely as a child was lifted to the sinks at the restaurant’s entrance. A frown soon formed on his mother’s face as her son splashed water instead of washing his hands. “блин” she muttered and my eyes shifted to the very thing she was alluding to. Pancakes.

Dnipro, the city I had moved to, is mostly Russian-speaking. And although Ukrainian has become more prevalent in day to day life, certain phrases remain habits. “блин” which directly translates to pancake, is a common way to say “whoops.”

“Пе́рвый блин всегда́ ко́мом” is a famous Russian saying which roughly translates to “The first pancake is always a blob.” This was true for my first month living in the industrial city of Dnipro, Ukraine, but like making pancakes, each month, my days improved.

Walking into Puzhatta Hata in the morning, I had my choice of eggs, sausage, borscht, cheeses, vegetables, and, of course, pancakes. Now, these pancakes aren’t like those one would expect in the United States. More reminiscent of a crepe, Russian pancakes—blinis—are thin. They are traditionally made from wheat, and sometimes buckwheat. Blini are served with anything from sour cream to quark butter, and can be wrapped around fruits, chocolate, or cheeses. If you really go all in, it feels like you’re eating dessert for breakfast. And on that first full day in Dnipro, desert for breakfast was exactly what I needed.

Historically, blini were thought to be a symbol of the sun due to their round form. Pre-Christian Slavs would prepare them at the end of winter in order to celebrate the rebirth of the new sun. Butter Week, or Maselnitsa (Russian: Мaсленица, Ukrainian: Масниця), the week before Lent begins when eggs, cheese, and other dairy can still be eaten, has even been adopted as a holiday by the Orthodox church, and blinis are the typical dish with which to celebrate.

As I sat there in the restaurant that morning, I couldn’t help but feel like something new was starting. It felt like a celebration, and my blini was the new sun, lighting the way to a year full of newness. Looking back, I didn’t know just how much a pancake can symbolize. How much a simple meal can warm you up and ensure that you are ready for the new day. How even if the first pancake isn’t great, the next will surely be better as you continue to strive and work.

Maybe it was just the hunger talking, but that first pancake, although doughy and far from a perfect circle, was one of the most perfect things I have ever eaten.

Disregard the Ghastly Color and Lumpy Texture And This Porridge Is Actually Quite Good

Jul.20.17

Disregard the Ghastly Color and Lumpy Texture And This Porridge Is Actually Quite Good

by Josh Freedman

Youcha Tang in Meitan

Meitan County, in southern China’s Guizhou province, is obsessed with tea. At the center of the county seat, on the peak of a hill named Fire Mountain, sits a 240-foot-tall building shaped like a teapot. Another township features a series of undulating tea fields called the “Sea of Tea,” named after an impromptu utterance by former president Hu Jintao. The character for tea adorns unassuming housing blocks and grand entryways alike, and even the streetlights overlooking the county’s recently paved extra-wide highways are shaped like tea leaves. Places in China often compete to be number one for something, and Meitan has crowned itself the undisputed number one place for tea in Guizhou.

You don’t need to drink tea with breakfast in Meitan, because you can get tea in your breakfast. Youcha tang, or oil tea soup, is a thick porridge made with tea leaves, sticky rice, peanuts, and lard. The ghastly grayish-green color and lumpy, viscous texture are misleading: adorned with fried dough twists and crispy millet, oil tea soup has a pleasant, slightly salty taste. Each variation of oil tea soup has different ingredients, but when I press for more specifics about what is in the bowl I am eating, I am simply told, “A lot of things.”

In Meitan, oil tea soup has earned the moniker “vitality soup.” “If you eat a bowl of oil tea soup in the morning, you’ll have vitality all day,” explains Bacon, my tour guide-turned-best friend who, like nearly everyone I meet in Meitan, takes hospitality to unparalleled heights. The origins of oil tea soup are murky, but local lore traces it back more than a century and a half, to the food that helped re-energize rebel forces fighting against the Qing dynasty army. The thick porridge is about as efficient as caloric intake gets, and it tastes pretty good, too.

Much of the rest of the tea obsession in Meitan, in which any possible item can be turned into an oversized monument to tea, is new. A decade ago, a friend explains, there was still plenty of tea in Meitan—it just wasn’t a big deal. Policymakers hope that combining tea and tourism can drive economic growth in what remains one of the least developed parts of the country.

The newfound overabundance of tea symbolism has succeeded in drawing people like me, strangely fascinated by giant teapot buildings, to Meitan. But something feels off about the extent to which tea has metastasized in Meitan. Similar to brand-new “ancient” towns sprouting up all over China, the single-minded obsession with tea feels forced: the need to make a place “about something” threatens to overshadow the essence of the place itself.

A dish like oil tea soup dispels any doubts about Meitan. It is the most utilitarian food imaginable, eaten by farmers and office workers alike. High-grade tea can be outrageously expensive, but a hearty bowl of oil tea soup remains less than a dollar. It, rather than the world’s largest teapot, would be a better choice to represent the people and places in Meitan: humble, nourishing, and surprisingly delightful.

The Misfit Breakfast of Vietnam

Jul.19.17

The Misfit Breakfast of Vietnam

by Sean Campbell

Beef stew in Ho Chi Minh City

My t-shirt is every bit as moist as the fatty chunks of beef and carrot floating in the deep red broth. I’m not in the least bit worried about the perspiration, or the splashes of broth on my shoes, or the way I’ve got the bowl tipped up to my face as I emit pleasured grunts.

Some of the meat melts in the mouth and some stiffens the jaw with its rubberiness—that’ll be the tendon, I guess.

Like a lot of Vietnamese soups, the magic is in the broth. Star anise, curry paste, pepper, cumin, chopped onion, chive, and the national condiment, fish sauce, are just a part of what makes up a criminally under-celebrated dish.

Lighten the brawn with chili, hoisin, lemongrass, hefty squeezes of lime, and a bunch of cilantro, basil, and ngo om (rice paddy herb) and you’ve got yourself a most complex flavor. Order a baguette on the side to dunk and mop up, and you’re onto a winner.

Vietnamese beef stew, or bò kho, doesn’t seem to fit in around here. The words heavy, hearty and earthy aren’t really words we’d associate with Vietnamese eating. This is a land famed not only for phở, but for the light sweetness of bún chả and crispy, fresh gỏi cuốn among others.

Its inner workings are about as complex as its disputed history. Some say it’s a colonially influenced take on beef bourguignon, while others suggest it’s nothing more than the pell-mell product of ingredients traded on the spice route.

In a country famed for zesty, sharp dishes, this is the heavyweight cousin. Right at the bottom of the bowl is where the most magic happens. The contradiction of flavor at the top, where one side might give you aniseed, onion on the other, coexists in perfect harmony at the bottom, a euphoric cross section of tastes begging to be smeared onto the crispy baguette.

It’s no easy task getting there, though. The piping hot bowl and the fragrance has your nose streaming and your tongue burning; I’ve eaten it under the baking sun and I’m certain that I weighed less after eating than before, so fair warning—get it early in the morning or late at night.

Bò kho might not be the most popular breakfast here, but I’ve never met a soul who claimed to dislike it. When I eventually return home to Ireland, I’m going to open up a food cart selling Vietnamese beef stew to morning commuters on cold winter mornings, and you know what? I reckon I’ll make a killing. So here’s to misfit breakfasts.

This Australian Breakfast Is “Like Sucking Mucus Out of a Corpse” AND IT’S NOT EVEN VEGEMITE

Jul.18.17

This Australian Breakfast Is “Like Sucking Mucus Out of a Corpse” AND IT’S NOT EVEN VEGEMITE

by Steele Rudd

Weet-Bix in Sydney

I have vague memories of an ad campaign that ran during the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics. Buffed and toothy athletes in their green-and-gold tracksuits stood, backdropped by an Australian flag, talking about how many Weet-Bix they ate each morning.

“Five,” bragged the sprinter. “Eleven,” growled the weightlifter. “Three,” chirped the pole vaulter.

I can’t be certain whether that’s an accurate memory or not, but I know that a variation of that campaign has been running more or less ever since. Weet-Bix stands for nutrition and nationalism, and they won’t let you forget it. It’s “Australia’s No. 1 Breakfast Cereal”; it’s the “Official Breakfast of the Socceroos” and the “Official Breakfast of the Australian Cricket Team.” Rather immodestly, it’s also the “Breakfast of Champions.”

But Weet-Bix are bloody awful. In case the name didn’t give it away, they’re wheat biscuits: even the most charitably-minded would struggle to describe them as anything other than “edible.” I’m not convinced they’re even particularly nutritious, although they do boast of being a great source of fiber. So is cardboard.

I think even the manufacturers of Weet-Bix have realized this problem, because when I get to the supermarket to pick some up—for the first time in decades—there’s an abundance of alternatives under the same brand. There’s a gluten-free option (sorghum, for the curious). There’s an organic option. There’s Weet-Bix for kids; half a dozen flavors of Weet-Bix drinks; Weet-Bix Bites and Blends and Minis. It’s all a bit too bright-lights-big-city for me.

Bugger this, I think to myself, and go next door to the Aldi. They’ve got a generic version that’s a perfect simulacrum of the Weet-Bix I remember. Plain, unassuming, shredded wheat oblongs in a box with the Southern Cross proudly spackled across it. It’s even got the official Made in Australia logo in the corner, so you know it must be good.

At home, I dump three of my ersatz-biscuits in a bowl, pour some milk over them and wait for them to soak it up. Some people like theirs crunchy, but I prefer my breakfasts mushy and unthreatening. While I wait I ponder the reasoning behind all the flag-waving on the box.

The original Weet-Bix are made by a company called Sanitarium. Like Kellogg’s, Sanitarium was founded on Seventh Day Adventist beliefs that vegetarianism, circumcision, and enemas light the path to righteousness.

Unlike Kellogg’s, however, Sanitarium is still wholly owned by the Adventists—although as noted their advertising leans more on the nutrition and nationalism, less on the circumcision and enemas. They claim to have invented the idea of shredded wheat biscuits right here in Sydney. It’s a fair call, although hardly one to swell your breast with patriotic pride; and with some variety of the cereal now available in most of the world it’s no longer the case that shredded wheat is a unique and defining aspect of the Australian psyche.

When my gruel’s nice and ready, I take a few bites. It’s cold and oleaginous, like sucking the mucus out of a corpse. I chop up a banana into it and wish I’d bought oats instead.

If You’re Stuck With Bad Weather Might As Well Eat Something Deep Fried

Jul.17.17

If You’re Stuck With Bad Weather Might As Well Eat Something Deep Fried

by Revati Upadhya

Buns in Bangalore

I only need to shut my eyes for a brief moment, and I can almost taste the hot morsel of crispy flatbread cradling the spicy, glossy gravy of chickpeas, and I am transported to the little tea house in Panjim, where I first tasted the Goan breakfast my friends had been telling me so much about.

There’s no better time than during drizzling and overcast skies to indulge in deep-fried goodness of any kind. And in Goa, I was introduced to a particular type of buns. A round, flat, mildly sweetened bread, fried in a large hot wok of oil until only slightly puffy, dotted sparsely with a hint of cumin. Crisp (but not crunchy) on the outside, puffy on the inside.

One morning, it was pouring, the rain coming down in sheets, and we ducked into the little teahouse. Inside, the air was warm from the sheer number of bodies gathered for their breakfast of snacks and tea.

It was a grey week in the beginning of June, and the monsoon had been threatening to hit for a few days, and it was the first time I tasted the dish that assuaged some part of my craving for a breakfast from back home. In the years that followed, buns and bhaji (the spicy gravy) became my go-to comfort food.

There’s something about the delicate balance between the subtle sweetness of the bun and the richly flavored curry it typically accompanies. Whether it was the mixed vegetable curry, or the slightly indulgent chickpea variant, or black-eyed peas, or the simplest of them all, made with sliced and wilted onions and tomatoes, the gravy always packed a punch. Runny, but slightly textured thanks to a ground base made from coconut and whole spices, it is the perfect accompaniment to the bun, in form and in function.

Last week, my Facebook feed was filled to the gills with gushing updates about the monsoon that had just hit Goa. As I scrolled through it, sitting at home in the city I have now moved to, I was filled with the inexplicable urge to immediately find my way to the tea-house where I’d breakfast at least once a week, but especially so when the monsoon first struck.

The smell of the wet earth following the first rains will forever stir up an intense craving for some fried buns.

Since the teahouse is now about 500+ miles away, I did the next best thing. Replicated it in my kitchen, while the rain came down in a feathery drizzle, as people call it in Bangalore. All this, so I could dig my teeth into a puffy bun, the steam escaping through my lips, and chase it with a cup of sweet milky tea.

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