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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

Sea Urchin, Steamed Rice, and the Meaning of the Morning Meal

Mar.24.15

Sea Urchin, Steamed Rice, and the Meaning of the Morning Meal

by Matt Goulding

Whenever I eat something really special, no matter what time of day, I have this little thing that I do: I nuzzle my jaw into my chest, I raise my shoulders up towards my ears, and I roll my head in swooping circles as if its weight were to much for my neck to support. And then, without warning, I start cursing, unleashing strings of expletives that have no place in decent company. There’s nothing noble or attractive about this habit, but after years spent traveling the world in search of the good stuff, it’s not something I have any particular control over—it just happens.

And so it is that when a small, cautious Japanese woman in a green apron places this beautiful bowl before me, it takes all of 30 seconds before my head starts swiveling and the expletives pollute the airwaves. I have traveled from Tokyo to Hakodate, the southernmost city of Hokkaido, expressly to eat donburi, these heroic combinations of steamed rice and seafood. After scouring the rainbow stalls of the morning market, I settle on Kikuyo Shokudo Honten, a narrow two-story stand offering more than three-dozen combinations of seafood dons. In a matter of a few bites, I’ve forgotten the 8-hour train ride, the tiny hotel room, the cold, wet day that greeted me this morning.

It’s not merely the staggering deliciousness of this particular collection of Hokkaido’s finest seafood—scallops swollen to the size of English muffins, salmon eggs that pop like little depth charges of salt and umami, cat tongues of uni that melt over the warm grains of rice like egg yolk on a carbonara—but the fact that I’m blinking back tears of joy and the sun has barely peeked above the Pacific. I have no business being this happy this early in the morning.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that this concerning habit of mine surfaces mostly in the hours when the world around me has barely stirred. Not at home, of course, where the rice and crustaceans are replaced with yogurt and cereal; you won’t catch me cursing over corn flakes. When it’s a byproduct of habit and necessity, breakfast can mean so little that many of us skip the meal entirely.

But when I’m on the road, no food has the ability to impact me quite like the morning meal. It starts with the flavors, which, in the best parts of the world, can shake you from your slumber like no cup of coffee ever will: the fermented fish of a Kyoto ryokan, the chile-slathered tortillas of a Oaxaca market stall, the boiled bones and wilted herbs of a Saigon sidewalk kitchen.

But it’s more than a simple matter of taste. The fact is, we are never more vulnerable than at the breakfast table. Our bodies have been in hibernation, our senses have been on airplane mode for the better part of eight hours, and with that first bite, something important about the day in front of us is conveyed through the millions of little taste receptors that light up our brains. If the world is trying to tell us something, now is the moment to listen.

The meaning of its message is different for all of us. For some, it’s the calm before the storm, a moment of peace and contemplation that softens the sharp edges of the day; for others, it is the storm, a full-throated expression of our surroundings and the forces that shape them. We want to taste it all, from the fragrant mohinga and spicy political gossip of a Yangon teahouse to the buttered toast and folded newspaper of a London flat.

That’s why we’ve decided to launch our new Breakfast series, to pay tribute to the meal that moves us most. We’ve reached out to hundreds of our contributors around the world to have them share some of their most memorable breakfasts with us. More than reviews or recommendations, these will be daily mediations on the morning meal—little postcards of time and taste and personal reflection, published just in time to go along with your own breakfast, wherever you may be having it.

I don’t want to promise too much here; not every noodle soup is a revelation, not every breakfast sandwich is an existential gateway. Sometimes a donburi is just a donburi—and that’s worth a few strong words, too.

Getting to Know Mexican-Style Sno-Cones

Jun.23.17

Getting to Know Mexican-Style Sno-Cones

by Thei Zervaki

Raspado in Tucson

I had no idea what a raspado was before I went to Arizona.

It’s a Mexican-style shaved-ice drink, named from the Spanish raspar, which means “to scrape.” It can be topped with fruit, flavoring, syrup, and various condiments. It can be sweet, savory, spicy, or all three. Naturally, I had to try it. For breakfast.

You can get raspado all over Tucson, but I went to Sonoran Sno-Cones, at their Mercado San Agustin location. Owner Maria Robles told me that when Sonoran Sno-Cones opened in 1999—after their family moved to Tucson from Obregon, in Mexico’s Sonora state—there were already a couple of raspado shops, but they served plainer, American-style versions. Sonoran Sno-Cones brought with them Mexican-style raspados, with fresh fruit, tamarind, and dry plum. This part of Arizona used to be part of Mexico, Robles said, so raspado culture is a way of staying connected to the area’s geographical roots.

At their store, the large menu board had a dizzying array of raspado combinations. Raspado terminology can be confusing for novices. Chamoy, an indispensable raspado ingredient, is a savory, sour, and spicy sauce made with pickled fruits. Nieve—from the word for snow—in a raspado refers to a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The sweet-toothed should go for the fruit-based versions, like mango and strawberry; you can add condensed milk—lechera—for a more creamy style. But there are also many options for lovers of sour flavors. The mangoyada raspado, with mango with chamoy and lime, is both sweet and savory. The chamoyada includes chamoy, lime and rielitos—the spicy Mexican candies made with sugar and chili powder paste. The saladito is a lime raspado blended with salt and topped with dried salted plums. You can add ice cream, peanuts or serpentine, another type of spicy candy.

For my first raspado, I went big: a savory, spicy one with strawberry and mango flavors, topped with tamarind and chamoy. The combination of sweet, savory, and spicy was perfect for a hot, dry day, not far from the Sonoran desert.

The Famed Parisian Café Culture, Now Available in Kabul

Jun.22.17

The Famed Parisian Café Culture, Now Available in Kabul

by Ali M Latifi

Coconut cookies in Kabul

The Slice Bakery opened while I was briefly living in Istanbul, but even in Turkey, I heard that it had become a gathering point for young people in Kabul.

Visitors to Istanbul from Kabul would talk about meetings and debates over coffee and pastries—Turkish milk tea, brownies, coconut cookies or a take on our traditional Afghan salty biscuits—at Slice.

When I moved back to Kabul in March, Slice was one of the first places I visited. I had to see if it lived up to its reputation.

The first time I went in, seeing the wood and glass tables full of young people—some in traditional Afghan piran tomban, others in suits and ties or distressed jeans and crisp leather jackets—it seemed that it was indeed the Afghan capital’s new hotspot.

More importantly, this wasn’t a high-priced establishment, tucked away in an unmarked building in a side street of a residential area catering to foreigners and rich Afghans. The bright yellow sign was visible from across the busy street in Shahr-e Naw, Kabul’s commercial hub.

I’ve been to the café countless times, but one evening in early May proved to me why this place stood out among the glut of restaurants and cafes that pop up each day in Kabul.

At the time, people all over Kabul were talking about the imminent return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former anti-Soviet commander and now leader of the nation’s second-largest armed opposition movement, who had just made peace with the central government after more than two decades in hiding.

Of course, people were talking about it at Slice, too. As soon as I ordered my latte and coconut cookies, my friends called me over to their table to discuss the return of a man who—along with rival commanders—had been responsible for the destruction of Kabul and thousands of deaths in the 1990s.

These young men, many of whom were too young to have any direct memory of the thousands of rockets Hekmatyar and his rivals rained over the city, were discussing his return over their cups of “Afghano” coffee, saffron-infused lattes, espressos, and green teas.

These debates were a sign of how far Kabul had come since the time Hekmatyar and his rivals were destroying the city. From the rise of communism in the late 1970s and until the U.S.-led intervention of 2001, Afghanistan was ruled by a series of communists, warlords, and the Taliban, whose policies made the expression of dissent extremely difficult, if not illegal. The free discussion among Afghans with different viewpoints—some who welcomed Hekmatyar’s return, others resigned to the fact that warlords always win, and those who refused to accept a man known as the “butcher of Kabul”—could almost, I thought, resemble the famous café debate culture of Paris or Beirut.

“Slice is what Kabul could become if everyone just left us alone,” said an Afghan-American documentary filmmaker, who had been visiting from her home in Brooklyn. One of the waiters put it more simply to a European journalist: “Slice is a symbol of what young Afghans want their country to be.”

Photo by: Qais Alamdar

Come for the Obscure Canadian Sport, Stay for the Buffet

Jun.21.17

Come for the Obscure Canadian Sport, Stay for the Buffet

by Julie Stauffer

Pork sausage and marshmallow salad in Tavistock, Ontario

Defeat makes you hungry. Or maybe it’s the fact that we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6:00 a.m. to make it to the World Crokinole Championship on time. Either way, two intense hours of disk-flicking have failed to get us beyond the preliminary round of the recreational doubles event, and our stomachs are speaking up.

Crokinole is a tabletop hybrid of curling and shuffleboard. Players use a thumb and finger to shoot their wooden disks across the board, knocking off their opponent’s pieces and—if they’ve judged the angles just right—coming to rest in the high-scoring center.

Most folks reserve it for rainy afternoons at the cottage, or for Christmas gatherings after the remains of turkey and mincemeat pie have been cleared away. But once a year, several hundred players descend on Tavistock, Ontario (population 6,836) to prove their prowess at a game invented just a few miles up the road.

There are grandparents and grandkids here for a little fun, and a smattering of Mennonite women in their white net caps. (While the Church has traditionally prohibited alcohol, cards, and dancing, it sees no harm in crokinole.) There are clubs from as far away as Texas and Prince Edward Island, and champions from past years here to defend their titles.

We have all convened in the town’s hockey arena, where row after row of crokinole boards have replaced the customary ice. Officials in reflective vests stand ready to settle disputes and enforce regulations. (Woe betide anyone who fails to keep a portion of their posterior firmly on their chair while making a shot.)

My colleague, Josh, and I came here with ambitious goals: to avoid defeat at the hands of children. And we have succeeded. In our first match, we triumphed over a nine-year-old and his grandfather. Even better, we soundly defeated Josh’s adult brother and cousin in our second match, with plenty of trash-talking on both sides.

By the end of eight matches, we’ve accumulated a respectable 37 points, placing us in the top half of the division. It’s not enough to move on, but that’s just fine. By now it’s 10:30, and we’re ready for some serious sustenance.

As tradition dictates, we join a group of other less-than-stellar players and head to Quehl’s. You won’t find prosciutto, pea shoots, or baby kale at this Tavistock institution. Instead, Quehl’s serves country cuisine with a Pennsylvania Dutch flavor. At the buffet, diners pile their plates with pork sausages, roast beef, mashed potatoes, pickled beets, sauerkraut, and four kinds of pie.

After demolishing his meat course, Josh’s brother announces his intention to load up on salad. He returns with a plate noticeably lacking anything green. “There’s fruit in here,” he argues, pointing to a mound of marshmallow “salad.” “Yeah,” says Jared, his doubles partner. “Maraschino cherries.”

But the best is yet to come. Everyone who participates in the World Crokinole Championship earns a commemorative disk, courtesy of Quehl’s. Those who choose to partake in the buffet can shoot it on the restaurant’s crokinole board to determine the discount on their bill: 10 percent off if it lands in the center hole; 5 percent off for anywhere else on the board.

Jared’s shot slides purposefully across the board and past the posts that ring the inner zone. The disk hesitates for the briefest moment on the lip of the hole and then slips smoothly inside. Doogie!

2018 Championship, here we come.

Hangover-Curing Fish Soup, Ecuador Edition

Jun.20.17

Hangover-Curing Fish Soup, Ecuador Edition

by Carolina Loza León

Encebollado in Esmeraldas

It’s noon, and the whole flat is waking up, hungry, with thumping headaches. Trying to piece the together the night before is a daunting task. The best way to do it is over some encebollado, Ecuador’s famous fish soup. We head out, tired and sweating on a hot, cloudy day in Esmeraldas, a city on Ecuador’s northern Pacific coast.

Lucien, a cocky French aid worker, hops on a bus, and I follow. “I won’t eat encebollado just anywhere,” he says. All Ecuadorians have their own ‘secret’ spot they believe serves the best version of this thick tuna, cassava, and onion-based soup. They usually take great pride in ‘their’ place, so you’d better like it, too.

Lucien leads us to a small, no-frills corner restaurant in the chaotic downtown district. Most of the patrons are families with young children. Most Ecuadorians eat encebollado—which originated on Ecuador’s coast—for breakfast, with plantain chips or bread, depending on which part of the country it is. It’s a favorite both for hard-partying revelers and for families doing brunch, Ecua-style.

Looking the worse for wear and surrounded by five-year-olds excitedly ordering soup for their families, we pay our USD$2.50 each. Lucien starts piecing the previous night together. The bar had closed at Ecuador’s mandatory time—2 a.m.—but then there was a lock-in, where they had too much to drink. For once, I’m glad I left the bar before they did. I pretend to listen, and look at the street outside: empty, like the rest of the city on a Sunday morning. The only activity for blocks is this restaurant, its white plastic chairs spread on the sidewalk.

We finally get our bowls of soup. The encebollado is thick, orange-hued, with bits of chopped parsley and cilantro on top. I squeeze all the juice of a lemon wedge into the steaming liquid. The first taste is soothing; it’s comfort food, but it’s also nutritious. It makes this grey Sunday morning bearable. I have to give Lucien credit: he’s chosen his encebollado joint well.

Meat, Cheese, Wine, the President: Just a Monday Morning in Vienna

Jun.15.17

Meat, Cheese, Wine, the President: Just a Monday Morning in Vienna

by Cynthia Sularz

Breakfast in Vienna

I had just flown in from Kiev to Bratislava, in Slovakia, then took a bus to Vienna, another hour-and-a-half’s journey. My body was tired, but I was very hungry.

Crisp air clung to the streets as I approached Vienna’s Naschmarkt—a vast food market with over 100 stalls and several storied restaurants and bars. The scent of braised and smoked meats filled the air as my body, defeated from travel, yearned for a special meal.

The choices were overwhelming. Meats, vegetables, and cheeses were only the beginning; we also passed stands showcasing varieties of vinegar, oils, olives, and spices. To know where to even begin required some expertise. So, following in Anthony Bourdain’s Vienna footsteps, we entered a small butcher shop called Urbanek. The man asked us what we were looking for; we told him to surprise us.

The resulting spread was rich and perfectly paired: each slice of cheese, meat, and sip of wine served to us in the order they were meant to be sampled. Our morning snack—with plenty of Grüner Veltliner—stretched into lunch. The highlight of the meal, for me, was boar; it’s something I rarely eat, and its lean texture surprised me.

One of Urbanek’s regulars stood with us. He was well into his 50s, with warm eyes and a hardened but welcoming smile. He spoke to us in broken sentences, telling us about favorite beaches and cheeses, and why he didn’t care for Chris Christie, my home state’s governor. I have studied German for years and attempted to respond, but he insisted on practicing his English.

He was just about to tell us more about his time in America when another man touched his shoulder. He spoke into our friend’s ear and then the two of them motioned for us to lean forward. “The president of Austria,” the man said in a rough whisper, “is in the market.”

It was 11 a.m. on a Monday and the president of Austria was simply walking through the Naschmarkt? The man repeated this claim, and motioned his head towards a man, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with what seemed to be his wife. I was doubtful.

I tried to recall the Austrian president’s face. Rough images of the man sprang to my head from headlines. “Alexander Van der Bellen,” our new friend assured us. I stared at the man; others did too. Soon, small groups of people approached him gingerly, asking for photographs.

I thought about how, a few minutes earlier, this man was telling me his opinions about my own state’s governor.

“Do you like your president?” I asked.

He smirked and shrugged. “He’s OK.”

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