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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

Speaking the International Medical Language of Avocado Toast

Jul.14.16

Speaking the International Medical Language of Avocado Toast

by Christine Chu

Avocado Toast in Ruhango District

The journey to Ruhango Hospital from Kigali was hard, quite literally: I had felt every rock and pebble on the unpaved roads winding through the land of a thousand hills. In spite of this, our team of doctors—the senior physician, our Rwandan medical students Dennis and Gerard, and me, the gynecology resident on her first global medical mission—arrived early in the morning. Already, a throng of women were waiting, clustered patiently in the atrium. By the time we had found a rhythm by which to see the growing crowd, it was noon. We had yet to have our first meal.

Exhausted, perhaps from the high sun, lack of food, or the speed of work, we wandered in search of sustenance. Near the front of the hospital, we found a sign declaring “Cafeteriya – Cantine – Canteen,” in hand-painted letters. Inside the unassuming little room, a glass display similar to a jewelry case stood in place of a counter. A wealth of gem-like mangoes and bananas and golden oval pastries sat along the shelves. On a nearby table, a gaggle of mismatched thermoses full of milk and tea were gathered.

From the bright case, the medical students selected two soft rolls, elongated like baguettes but clearly of a softer crumb, and two perfectly round fruits. I only recognized these as avocados when they split the hard skin with a paring knife, and the soft green flesh and large pit appeared. With surgical precision, they scooped out the flesh in thick green curls and flattened them onto the split rolls with a fork. Though I gripped the dry, foil-wrapped bar I had brought for a meal, my mouth watered as a familiar meal emerged.

I’ve always thought of avocado toast as thoroughly American: trendy, green, and very Californian. And yet, it is admittedly simple and delicious, my breakfast of choice in those precious early morning hours before surgery. After a shower of salt and a drip of balsamic vinegar, the toast would be in my mouth and I would be out the door. And here it was again, a quick meal for hungry doctors, recreated a continent away.

My first days in Rwanda had been a haze of the unfamiliar. Though conceptually I was prepared for difficulty, reality was harder. Endlessly hopeful crowds waited for help, and there were many women we could not aid. Even communicating simple commands was a complicated process involving overworked Rwandan students, my high-school French, and the few Kinyarwandan words I picked up from repetition. Every night, I passed out on my bed, often before dinner, overwhelmed by jet lag and cultural barriers.

But food is a universal language, perhaps the greatest unifier, and when it comes to filling the bellies of medical trainees on the go, things are the same the world around. The simple, bright green comfort of avocado and bread became an instant touchstone of connection to a land I was learning to understand and to a people I was growing to love.

A Temple Dedicated to All Forms of Sugar For Breakfast

Jul.27.17

A Temple Dedicated to All Forms of Sugar For Breakfast

by Jane Mitchell

Nepolitana con crema in Madrid

I walk into the historic quarter of Madrid, carefully negotiating the throngs of tour groups with their umbrella-wielding guides. Madrid lies under a cloud of autumn grey and rain has made the footpaths greasy. Down the Calle Mayor, at the Puerta del Sol, where all roads start their journey through Spain, is my breakfast destination: my last sweet breakfast before returning home to Australia.

La Mallorquina has been filling Madrelinõs with sugar and spice since 1894. The shop has been on the fringe of the Puerta del Sol since 1960, its two main windows on Calle Mayor and around the corner towards Calle Del Arenal, holding an arresting and ever-changing display of cakes and pastries impressive enough to stops tourists, but still revealing only a small hint of what’s inside.

The staff behind their glass counters of cakes never stop: hola, buenas. It’s a question as well as a greeting. What do you want? It’s not rude, just matter-of-fact.

“Café con leche y nepolitana con crema.” I stumble over “por favor,” but the waitress is already moving before I can finish.

“Café con leche,” she calls out, placing saucer, spoon and sugar sachet in front of me, searching the glass shelves for my breakfast. The man at the coffee machine doesn’t acknowledge the call but continues his constant ballet of beans into the grinder, grounds into the machine then dripping the hot black coffee into cups or glasses.

A long room, one end is dedicated to cakes for taking home, the other is a bar that runs three sides around the room. Staff behind the cake-laden glass counters wear crisp, white coats and if they aren’t taking or delivering orders, they are constantly refilling the glass shelves with more fresh pastries that appear on large trays from the kitchen out the back. Around the bar, people cram into any free space they can to place their elbows and order their choice.

My waitress leans over the counter and delivers my nepolitana con crema. It’s still slightly warm. The sugar-glazed, semi-flaky pastry is lightly wrapped around a soft and sweet vanilla cream. A few seconds later a cup of hot, black coffee is placed on my saucer and, without ceremony, hot milk is poured in from a silver jug. The waitress is gone just as quickly, catching the eye of a newcomer ready to order.

In Australia, cafés can be sedate and quiet affairs. A table, a menu, time to think and decide. Breakfast is more often savory instead of sweet, and people linger over it; perhaps a second coffee, maybe even a third. La Mallorquina fills up in the mornings with people stopping in for a small sweet hit, often with caffeine. But they don’t linger. La Mallorquina in the mornings is a constantly moving, ever-changing, swirling cauldron of people eating, drinking, arriving, and leaving.

Omg, Someone Make Us This White-Bread Frankenstein Casserole Right Away

Jul.26.17

Omg, Someone Make Us This White-Bread Frankenstein Casserole Right Away

by Lara Southern

Bobotie in Franschhoek

Autumn in South Africa is beautiful, and offers the occasional breezy respite from its standard blistering forecast. This morning, no such luck. I am visiting my mother and father in Franschhoek, where they grow pears and apples and I abuse their parental charity. After shuffling my way to the kitchen, cotton-mouthed and bleary-eyed, I land upon the remains of last night’s dinner. Bobotie.

At first glance, this Cape Malay classic could be the kitchen-sink dish nightmares are made of. In what I imagine can only be an extremely oversized saucepan, minced meat is combined with miscellaneous dried fruits, buttered onions, and peach chutney before milk-moistened white bread chunks are folded in. Then this glorious glop is blended, poured into a casserole, topped with a curry-laced egg custard, and broiled.

My mother, though a wonderful cook, likes to strictly adhere to recipes. That bobotie is endlessly malleable and subject to hundreds of different interpretations proves troublesome to her perfectionism, so she outsources this most treasured of dishes. Cafe Tramurei’s iteration is lamb-based, laced with apricots, and accompanied by rice stained neon with turmeric. (Apricots are added to many Malay dishes, often as unwelcome saccharine invaders into an otherwise perfectly lovely savory dish. Here, it works.)

Not only delightfully fun to say, bobotie is the most aptly Frankensteinian of feasts, a blend of the myriad cultures and flavors that make up South Africa. On this morning, through a light hangover and heavy humidity, it is particularly perfect. In the glow of the open fridge door, each spoonful parties its way across each part of my palate—sweet, salty, funky, pungent. It is cacophonous, confusing, and more than a little ugly. In this moment, it’s utterly beautiful.

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.

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