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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.

We Should All Be So Lucky as to Have Beautiful and Boring Memories

May.23.17

We Should All Be So Lucky as to Have Beautiful and Boring Memories

by Jessica Furseth

Brunost in Norway

The house I grew up in was sold the year after I left home, and I never saw it again. It’s in the Trøndelag region of Norway in a village called Å—a single letter word meaning “still river,” named for a stream where the water sometimes runs so slowly you can see your reflection. It’s a beautiful place that was also very boring.

Every Norwegian breakfast table has two kinds of cheese: white and brown. The white is a mellow gouda, and the brown is a very different animal. Brunost—literally “brown cheese”—is made from whey, is caramel-like in flavor, with a texture that resembles fudge, but with a cheesy tang. Brunost is one of the most Norwegian things you’ll find: it’s ubiquitous and distinctive, and also plain and quotidian, just like the brown paper wrapped around school lunches.

As a teenager, living in that house in the village with the curious name, I’d often have Brunost for breakfast. I’d carve off a slice of bread, homemade by my mother, on the chopping board that you pulled out of the kitchen unit like a drawer. Salty butter came next, and then the special Norwegian cheese cutter, the only way to get nice slices off the sticky Brunost. I’d take my open-faced sandwich and go sit on top of the stocky dining room table that my father had made, resting my feet on the bench while looking out the window and eating in silence. It was always so quiet in that village, a beautiful place where nothing ever happened.

I live in London now, a place where everything happens all the time, and I haven’t been back inside that house in 16 years. But I can still walk through it in my mind, perfectly recalling the smallest details: the feel of the front door handle in my hand, the texture of the hallway linoleum, and which kitchen cupboard had my mother’s shopping list tacked on the inside.

Tine, Norway’s national dairy, makes 11 kinds of brown cheese these days, but anyone who knows anything will tell you there are really only three. The light and mild Fløtemysost is full of cream, the medium-flavored Gudbrandsdalsost is the original and most common, and the dark and rich Geitost is my favorite. It’s sharp and pungent, made purely out of goat’s milk. This was the one I’d put on those slices of bread early in the morning, all those years ago, and eat while looking out the window onto the snow-covered landscape. I can still remember the grain of the wooden table, the curve of the plate, and the salty tang of the caramel cheese. The memory is boring and beautiful, and it’s so close to the surface that I can taste it.

Is This the Best Sausageless Sausage Sandwich in Chile?

May.22.17

Is This the Best Sausageless Sausage Sandwich in Chile?

by Cristina Slattery

Choripán in Punta Arenas

At a quarter of eight in the morning, other cities might have been buzzing. At the end of March, Punta Arenas—the capital of Chile’s southernmost region—was still dark, and although teenagers in uniforms were heading to school, the city was quiet.

In the main square, there is a bronze statue of Hernando de Magallanes, as Ferdinand Magellan is known in Chile. People make a point of kissing the statue’s large foot—or at least rubbing it—to ensure they will one day return to Patagonia.

Coffee shops that had been open the night before were all closed now. “Desayuno? Dónde?” I asked a woman crossing the street. She looked perplexed, but not because she couldn’t understand the questions. A long moment followed. “Down that street, to the right, there is a place,” she said, pointing in the direction of the Strait of Magellan. Sure enough, on the right, a block from the center square, Kiosko Roca was open for business.

The room was packed. The royal-blue banners of the University of Chile and bright red ones of “La Roja,” the national soccer team, decorated the walls. Waitresses took orders rapidly from the mostly male crowd. Some people occupied seats at the counter and others stood in the center of the room waiting for a seat to be vacated, or were content to eat standing up. There was one free spot on a round stool at the very end of the counter.

Pieces of bread with a sauce resembling tomato paste appeared on the counter in front of the man to my right. “Choripán,” he explained. This is all that Kiosko Roca serves. Here, the choripán is a sandwich that comes with a sauce made from chorizo, with mayonnaise (chorimayo) or with cheese (choriqueso). At Kiosko Roca, the choripán is larger than an English muffin, but slightly smaller than an average bagel.

Brazilians, Uruguayans, Argentines, and Chileans are all partial to this sandwich, but it usually comes with a whole chorizo. Kiosko Roca uses the paste, but not the meat itself. They opened in 1932, so generations of Chileans know about Kiosko Roca’s sausageless style of choripán, even if they have never eaten one themselves.

I went for the choriqueso. After five or ten minutes—time seems to pass slowly when one is hungry—it arrived. The warm, freshly-baked bread with just a thin layer of melted white cheese was ideally suited to the crisp morning.

A few minutes later, it was time to leave. A short walk led to the boardwalk that bordered the Strait of Magellan. Tierra del Fuego was visible on the horizon, but just barely.

Delicious, Flaky Pastries Not Quite Like Grandma Used to Make

May.17.17

Delicious, Flaky Pastries Not Quite Like Grandma Used to Make

by Dave Hazzan

Burek in Dubrovnik

Ottawa, 1989.

When we were children, my grandmother, Mariette Setton, would take the Voyageur bus from Montreal to stay with us. These trips happened about once a month, and I loved them.

Grandma would take us all to the fast food joint of our choice, stuff us with grease, and then spend the weekend telling us how wonderful we were compared to our father when he was our age, back in Egypt, the old country they had fled in the 50s as very unwelcome Jews.

When not stroking our egos, grandma would spend most of the weekend making “cheese bits” and “spinach bits.” There was a routine to this.
First, she complained that she had to work all weekend like the Hebrews of old.

Second, she complained about the quality of the filo, the paper-thin pastry used to wrap the cheese and spinach with. Is this really the best filo they had? To which my father replied, would you really like to drive to the Arab market across town and try them all out for yourself?

Third, she would complain about their taste once they were finished and baked, for which she only blamed herself. They were wonderful, of course: a taste of the old country my grandmother would not talk about. I also appreciated it when she told my Dad that 13 was perfectly old enough for me to drink beer with them.

Dubrovnik, 2017.

It turns out cheese and spinach bits are called burek. You can also get them with meat. It also turns out they’re a Balkan specialty, not just from Egypt. The Croatians shape them like Danishes, whereas my grandmother used to fold them over each other into squares or triangles. But the food is the same.

They’re also hella good for breakfast. At our home they were appetizers, but my God, what did we miss by not eating them in the morning. The most miserable 15-year-old could be persuaded to eat breakfast before school if it was salted cheese or spinach with lemon, wrapped in pastry.

Of course, when you get them at the bakery down the road (and outside the Old City) and eat them on a park bench, you save on the extortionate prices they charge for restaurant breakfasts, which aren’t as tasty anyway.

And the flakes make for great bird feed. My wife, Jo, has taken to imitating Snow White, and crumbling flakes into her hand so sparrows will land on her and pick them off. That the flying beasts are filthy with disease is apparently not an issue.

Mariette Setton died in 2007, at the age of 95. It wasn’t the kind of death where you cry, “Why God why?” to the skies. But that doesn’t mean we don’t miss grandma anyway. So, if I take nothing else away from Croatia, at least I’ll take away morning memories of my grandmother, who has never been here.

Photo by: Jo Turner

Honor Your Ancestors With Their Favorite Food, Or Whatever’s Easiest to Carry

May.16.17

Honor Your Ancestors With Their Favorite Food, Or Whatever’s Easiest to Carry

by Charline Jao

Dragonfruit in Taiwan

The heavy cloud of incense overwhelms me. I’m not used to the smell. Thin wafts of smoke draw out memories of household shrines, street-side temples, and our most recent visit about a year ago.

“It is not good for you to breathe in,” my mother tells me, when I ask if she likes the smell. Qingming Festival isn’t officially until next month—April 5th in Taiwan for the day Chiang Kai Shek died and different elsewhere depending on the solar calendar—but some places of remembrance have already opened for Tomb-Sweeping Day.

The temple has prepared vases, plates, and cups for families to use as we remember our ancestors. A colorful dragon stares at me from the bright red plates, just a little damp from people rinsing them after use. We set our white flowers into a vase and lay out our offerings—dragonfruits, apples, cookies, and savory snacks. Having few memories of them, I ask if the crackers and fruits were chosen to suit my grandparent’s taste. My mother explains it is more because they are convenient to carry. Next to us, a family brings out an entire fish and a huge piece of pork belly that the red plate struggles to hold. Another carefully removes the lids off the takeout they brought. The generic packing suggests they are from a local shop.

For any situation, you can find a Chinese food idiom or phrase to match it. Every festival food typically has a story or pun behind it, elevating eating into a cultural activity full of history and mythology. Fish symbolize prosperity, bananas stand for brilliance, and apples mean peace. One verse from an old Song dynasty book comes to mind here: “Firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea are the seven necessities to begin a day.” If we think of the sticks of incense burning unevenly into the white rice as some kind of firewood, we have all the components of an ideal morning. It’s almost like we’re having breakfast with the dead, though we ourselves are not going to be eating until later.

Here, my parents talk about their fathers in the present tense. “Dad must like it a lot here,” says my father. “The view is great, he has a lot of company.” This meal ends when the incense burns out, at which point the ashy rice is thrown out.

The food brought out for tomb-sweeping differs widely by region, with some focusing on dumplings or spring rolls. However, there’s just as much variation within this one temple. The family with the fish packs up and another takes their place, slowly pouring out rice wine into tiny cups. It’s easy to try and paint images of the deceased based on their offerings—this one loved drinking, this one enjoyed meat, this one really liked pea crackers—but I suspect it’s more telling of the families visiting.

You’d Dream About This Pancake For Four Years, Too

May.15.17

You’d Dream About This Pancake For Four Years, Too

by Lydia Tomkiw

Banana pancakes in North Sumatra

Before I even knew what was on the menu for breakfast, the orangutan mother and her baby had started eating theirs. I could hear them moving, rustling. Their breakfast would consist of whatever was reachable among the thick, leafy branches over 100 feet above me in the canopy of the Sumatran jungle. Our tent, pitched slightly uphill from a medium-sized stream, felt a world away from civilization, but in reality the city of Bukit Lawang and the surrounding palm oil fields weren’t too far away, and occasionally a bar would show up on my cellphone.

I had my hopes up about my own breakfast after I’d seen our guide Adi pull a bunch of small, yellow bananas from a black plastic bag the day before. I’d been dreaming about this pancake—thinner than American ones but a little thicker than French crepes, with pieces of caramelized banana—since I’d left Indonesia four years earlier. It’s a simple dish for breakfast or a snack you find across the sprawling nation of thousands of islands. It likely has its roots in the Dutch colonial period and their version of the pancake, pannekoeken. Sometimes it comes with a sliver of lime to squeeze on (a favorite in Bali and the Gili Islands), other places will drizzle chocolate sauce or condensed milk on top (a Jakarta street food option), and occasionally a dash of sprinkles is added.

The day before, I hadn’t eaten much. All of my clothing was sticking to me in places I didn’t even know were possible. I’d started sweating as soon as I had woken up and all I craved was water, and more water amid the haze of the dense jungle. I’d given up hope of seeing an orangutan in the wild. After all there was no guarantee—deforestation, palm oil plantations, farmers harvesting rubber and cacao are all encroaching on the natural habitat of orangutans.

I also had no idea if Adi knew how to make pancakes. Was he trekking with flour, sugar, and oil in his bag? Would there be a large enough pan at the campsite?

The light was beginning to fade, and as we approached our campsite I could see a giant pan resting on logs. Then Adi froze and pointed high above the tent, and there she was. A large adult orangutan slowly moving, using branches as links between trees, and then I saw the second pair of eyes amid her red hair—a baby clinging to its mother. Our eyes locked and we examined each other for a minute before some berries among the branches became more interesting to them.

In the morning, I could smell the smoke from the fire and hear chopping noises. “Pisang pancake,” Adi said using the Indonesian word for banana as he approached with a silver-colored metal camping dish. As I finished the last bite of sweet banana and craved another, the mother and her baby had already started to move on—it would be lunchtime soon.

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