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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

Screw the Rules, Eat at the Indian Restaurant Inside the Gas Station

Mar.28.16

Screw the Rules, Eat at the Indian Restaurant Inside the Gas Station

by Jordan White

Chicken Korma in Nebraska

Of all the general life rules—don’t take candy from a stranger, look both ways before you cross the street, never wear white socks with black shoes—perhaps the most universally accepted is this: never, ever eat at the ethnic restaurant inside of a gas station in the middle of nowhere.

Twenty-four miles outside of Kearney, Nebraska, on the I-80 exit for Overton (a village of 588 people) rests a Shell gas station, somewhat worn and weathered. The dust has dulled the once sunshine-yellow of the awnings into something resembling an intense mustard. Just below the sign advertising the price of gas is a gravel-battered sign that reads, “Indian food. Exit now.”

At first, we were only too happy to adhere to the rule. This was just supposed to be a quick fill up and pit stop for me and my girlfriend on our way to see the sandhill crane migration in Kearney. Then a single card sowed the seed of intrigue.

Hanging on the community board just inside the station was a letter from a family from Chicago, praising Jay Bros as the best Indian food they’d ever had. They said they had tried Indian restaurants all over North America, from Chicago to Washington D.C. to New York to Toronto. All of them paled in comparison to the humble gas station. There were no newspaper clippings or Zagat reviews. Just that single, simple card.

I got back in the car and we drove the quick half hour to Kearney to see the cranes. They were beautiful, striking. Tens of thousands of cranes descended upon unbloomed fields, feeding and dancing. Their song, a melodic chirp, was constant and inescapable. Yet, for all of their hypnotic beauty, they couldn’t force Jay Bros from my mind.

Tales abound of awful experiences at shady restaurants, of food poisoning and mystery meat and food that only barely qualifies as such. But there are just as many tales of pleasant surprises, like the hole in the wall that serves a life-changing sandwich. Jay Bros had all the ingredients to be one or the other, and I needed to find out which one it was. After a final push from Kristen, we decided we’d go to Jay Bros for a late breakfast on our way back to Denver the next day.

We pulled up to the restaurant, anxious and eager. As soon as the owner—Harry, who’s from just outside of Mumbai, as I’d later learn—saw us walking towards the restaurant part of the building, he motioned for us to take a seat, placing menus in front of us as we did. We ordered some naan, vegetable samosas, chicken tikka masala, and chicken korma. Not a typical breakfast platter, but, when in Overton…

Whatever hesitancy still remained was quickly washed away at first bite. The tikka masala was perfectly balanced: the tomato didn’t overpower the dish, and the cream floated through the mouth. The korma had only the slightest hint of peanut, waiting to be discovered rather than standing in the spotlight. Unlike some restaurants, which give you mountains of food, the portions here were just enough to satisfy both hunger and curiosity.

A life lived solely by the rules is muted and dull. There are times where we must throw caution to the wind, say to hell with the rules, and take the plunge headfirst. Food is often the perfect window into these opportunities, a gateway drug into the unexpected. Maybe we end up worse for the wear, but at least we tried.

A Breakfast Worth Picking Spine Out of Your Teeth For

Jul.25.17

A Breakfast Worth Picking Spine Out of Your Teeth For

by Dave Hazzan

Capelin in Torbay

It’s mid-July in Newfoundland, and the capelin are rolling.

Down at Middle Cove, on the coast of the Avalon Peninsula, the little fish have come to spawn on the beach. The locals call this the “rolling” of the capelin (pronounced KAY-plin), a two-week event that occurs every summer.
At dawn and dusk, the tides are black with the fish, and the beach is awash with Newfoundlanders, and tourists from “the Mainland” (the rest of Canada), out to catch the fish.

This is the world’s easiest form of fishing. All you need is a simple net, or even just a bucket—or hell, a good pair of leathery hands should do it. You wade about calf-deep into the water, and the waves bring in great schools of capelin, which you then scoop up.

I’m unclear on the capelin’s conservation status, but I hope there are plenty of them, because people are driving off with trucks full of buckets full of capelin. The local news is here, asking how the capelin are rolling this year. Well, is the answer.

Kyle Tapper is one of the dozens of Tappers who live in Torbay, just to the west of Middle Cove. A born-and-bred Newfoundlander, he shows me how to hold up the net, throw it “like a discus,” and pull in the capelin. They are then dropped into a bucket where they quickly suffocate. At least I hope it’s quick—they sure don’t flap around long.

Out at the Tapper home, there is a large wooden structure, present in many Newfoundland yards, used to behead and gut fish. So Kyle and I set to work, chopping off their little heads, slicing open their abdomens and pulling out their little hearts and spleens, and throwing them into buckets.

Occasionally you get a squishy female, and when you cut them open, they spurt a fine jelly of pale-yellow roe. The Japanese have taken a liking to capelin roe on sushi, and are buying up great gallons of it. We don’t know what to do with it though, so we throw it to the plants.

Most of the capelin, now freed of their heads and organs, go into freezer bags. But we save a few dozen, bring them into the kitchen, and coat them with flour. Then we throw them into a frying pan with plenty of oil, spray them with vinegar and salt, and voila! A Newfoundland breakfast worthy of anyone.

They’re a tasty little fish. They look like herring but taste much milder. You’re meant to pull the bones out, but they’re small enough that you can crunch and swallow them, though you end up picking bits of spine out of your teeth for the next hour.

Next week, the surviving capelin will go back out to sea, safe from the monsters on the beach who catch, mutilate, freeze, and fry them for brekkie.

They will have only the ocean to contend with—less deadly than a Mainlander with a bucket.

Photo by: Jo Turner

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.

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