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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

There Is Fried Fish on the Road Back to the Land

Jul.07.15

There Is Fried Fish on the Road Back to the Land

by Mark Hay

Catfish in the ACE Basin

It’s hard to be a morning person in the muggy spring of the ACE Basin. Dripping with Spanish moss and teeming with life growing on other life, this vast swamp (formed by the excesses of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers—hence ACE) stretches across much of the lower coast of South Carolina, from Charleston to Hilton Head. Many resort communities, built on the islands peppering the Atlantic and in the remains of massive rice plantations, conquer the humidity with air conditioning and sweet tea. But here in the dead of the swamp, the heat-blanket air, thick with last night’s grimy rainwater, makes everything slow and heavy. Which is to say, thinking I could get up at seven, walk out to the open-air bar beside my plywood shack guesthouse, and grab some breakfast before tooling around the swamps was a big mistake.

I spend a good two-to-three hours scribbling in my bright red notebook and listening to work drums and the shuffle of groggy villagers waking up before other folks start to congregate around the café with a bit of hunger (but much more sleep) in their eyes. I have no idea what breakfast will be. But that’s par for the course in the town of Oyotunji.

A self-declared independent nation, African-American nationalists carved Oyotunji out of a bit of Sheldon, South Carolina’s old Tamale plantation in the 1970s. These men, disenchanted with the pervasive racism of American society even after the civil rights movement, were determined to create their own community, defined in its culture and governance by Yoruba (West African) traditions, ostensibly picking up where their ancestors left off before being dragged into slavery. Over the past forty-some years, the city-state has gone through spurts of overpopulation and depopulation, ideological shifts and dynastic transitions (they’re ruled by a divinely ordained king—the Oba). But at its inception and now again, the community’s anchored in a back-to-the-land ethos.

The village is dotted with micro-gardens, and every day, folks trundle down to the rivers to see what they can pull out of the swamp. Some of the twenty-odd residents aren’t into this nature provides philosophy, so they still live on Entenmann’s sweets from the convenience store out on the highway (much to the reigning Oba Adefunmi II’s chagrin). Likewise, the breakfast menu at this nascent guesthouse (a bid to capitalize on interest in their community from spiritualists and nosy outsiders like myself) is sometimes just processed cheese on a bun with some peppers and onions slapped in for good measure. But sometimes, like today, it’s whatever the young man trudging up from the river has in his white bucket.

It’s a slew of catfish and white fish. Boku, a priest initiate and the local chef par excellence, jumps up, gutting and slicing and battering and frying-up the fish with some French fries. It’s a slow process, as he handles each fillet more like a meditating dervish than a line cook, but it’s worth the wait. There’s something especially juicy about fish when you get to eat it within half an hour of its death (that’s the appeal of ikizukuri, but I could never manage to eat a fish while still alive). It’s also psychologically appealing to know exactly who breaded and fried the fish, and with what. There’s something communal about sitting around and shooting shit as Boku slings each cut into a Styrofoam container. And I suppose this is the promise of the back-to-the-land ethos—the restoration of flavor, knowledge, and community in your food.

The problem is that while I experience this sense of community many times over a week at Oyotunji (crab bakes with children running underfoot and venison roasts while Michael Jackson movies play on a projector in the center of the open-air bar), as of yet it’s unreliable. Oyotunji isn’t self-sustaining—far from it. WalMart products still abound, despite the Oba’s best efforts to get everyone to eat a handful of mustard greens or kale from the micro-gardens with each meal.

The Oba doesn’t yet grow enough crops to feed the village, but he’s getting there. Yet the real problem isn’t a lack of resources. It’s the fact that breaking old eating habits and tastes is hard. And the fact that while back-to-the-land-ism is a big part of this village, not everyone’s as willing or able to be a part of that element of life. That’s not just a problem at Oyotunji. It’s a recurrent spoiler in almost every one of America’s countless intentional communities, where utopian visions of a natural life give way after a few years to the tempting eases and artificial deliciousness of modern life. For now, Oyotunji is maybe one-fourth fresh catfish and three-fourths fried dough. But that’s not so bad in the grand scheme of things. Even that’s more than I get in my usual, ho-hum Brooklyn life. So I embrace this sizzling, moist cut of fish and the drugged-out peace of a slow-moving, shit-shooting swamp morning, while I can.

I Tried This Australian Croissant-Muffin Hybrid So You Don’t Have To

Mar.22.17

I Tried This Australian Croissant-Muffin Hybrid So You Don’t Have To

by Thei Zervaki

Cruffin in Melbourne

It’s nearly 9:30 a.m. in Melbourne on a Wednesday morning. I get off a tram and turn into a side street in the hip neighborhood of Fitzroy. I follow the Google Map directions that will hopefully take me to my destination. My destination is Lune Croissanterie, the birthplace of the cruffin—the croissant-muffin hybrid.

I am not a pastry aficionado. I prefer salty snacks and savory dishes. But it was my first time in Australia and I wanted to explore and try everything that I couldn’t get in North America. The cruffin can be found in a quite a few pastry shops in the U.S., but I consider visiting its birthplace part of my duty. (The term “cruffin” was first trademarked by a Delaware company in 1993, but it seems they never actually produced one.)

After a few minutes of walking, I arrive. They say the line at Lune starts to form two hours before it opens (at 7:30 a.m.) during the week, and that the pastries sell out before closing time at 3 p.m. Today, there is only a short line of no more than ten people ahead of me.

Lune Croissanterie is housed in a huge converted warehouse space that looks like a luxurious factory. While I wait, I look at the center of the building—a giant glass cube (which I later learn is called simply the “Cube”) that forms the climate-controlled working space where croissants, kougn-ammans, and cruffins are made.

The line moves quickly, and I am almost ready to order. When I ask for a cruffin, I’m told that there is only one left: the Lemon Curd. Naturally, I take it. The lady behind me orders “one of each of everything left”. I grab a bench spot.

Made with house-made lemon curd, citrus sugar, and candied lemon zest, it is soft to the touch and wonderfully fragrant. I cut into the middle to taste the croissant part, which is densely layered. The lemon curd’s tartness is refreshing and reduces the sweetness of the dough.

I regret not ordering the plain croissant to compare, but of the two, the cruffin seems the more delicate. I cheer the Australians for this fantastic culinary invention.

The Best Part of Waking Up Is a Boiling Sheep Carcass

Mar.21.17

The Best Part of Waking Up Is a Boiling Sheep Carcass

by Emma Pomfret

Kaleh pacheh in Tehran

The smell wakes you up first; an acrid alarm call of boiling sheep carcass, catching the back of the throat with more kick than a triple espresso. Iran’s heartiest breakfast, kaleh pacheh—sheep’s heads and hooves—is being served at Tehran’s Bare Sefid, a stripped-back joint of wipe-down tables and tiled walls. Its logo is a prancing lamb.

We are straight off the plane from London and at 7 a.m., this is some education in Persian cuisine. Our guide had gleefully suggested a traditional Iranian breakfast. We imagined bread, cheese, carrot jam, and fresh tea. There is too much shame in backing out now.

At least we can choose the bits we want: cheek, tongue, eyeballs, brain. Everything is doused in ladles of broth and an optional slosh of fat, skimmed from the pot. No wonder Iran’s doctors warn of kaleh pacheh’s cholesterol content. Bare Sefid is pretty low key; one man removes the meat from the carcasses, simmered overnight or for five hours at the very least. Another is on broth duty, hypnotically drenching the cooked heads and each dish before it goes to the customer.

The meat arrives on plates to pick over. Tongue is firm and close-textured; the cheek delicate, shredding under a spoon like an hours-long stew should. Bowls of golden broth come with brain—gelatinous, creamy blobs—floating in the clear stock. Other customers drift in and some order a whole brain, the size of a child’s fist, wobbling on the plate, its surface shiny and with that familiar maze-like, walnut appearance.

I mash the brainy blobs into my broth. Brain is unmistakable in the mouth: mushy, offaly, nutrient-rich. Too much. I tear up the accompanying lavash flatbread and pile it into the broth with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Yes, that works; wholesome and rejuvenating.

In her terrific book, Persia in Peckham, Sally Butcher cites heads and hooves as a hangover cure (yes, even in Iran), and as a “great treat for the family.” However, it is unlikely I’ll follow her recipe for recreating this dish at home.

Yet this is the best start to our Persian adventure. Eating kaleh pacheh becomes a badge of honor as we travel through Iran, sharing our impressions of the country with curious locals. My other half is playing a tennis tournament while we’re here, and news of his pre-match preparation sweeps through the opposition like Roger Federer’s backhand. Who is this bold British cat? Then he wins the tournament.

While buttery, saffrony rice unites the nation, it becomes clear that kaleh pacheh divides; Iranian men swear by it, beating their chests in appreciation. Women are less convinced. A mother tells me she served it to her teenage daughters for its super-food quantities of collagen. They didn’t ask for seconds. And neither will I. Pass the pomegranate juice.

The Serious Business of Breakfast in Northern Italy

Mar.17.17

The Serious Business of Breakfast in Northern Italy

by Rachael Martin

Cappucino in Brianza

It’s 8:30 a.m. in the northern Italian village, and the café is in full swing. The businessmen and bank managers are there in their suits, having a quick caffè, as they call the espresso round here. They stand at the bar, against its glass cases filled with every type of brioche and croissant. They chat opposite shiny polished coffee machines where smartly uniformed staff prepare caffé, caffé lattes, and marocchino, coffees in chic little glasses.

But the cappuccino is the star of the show. Cappuccino, that unassuming coffee copied all over the world, smooth and light in a simple white cup. (But never order it after 11 a.m.) Cappuccino e brioche is the staple breakfast of northern Italy.

It’s the weekly market day and locals from the village gather in the bar. Old ladies fresh from morning mass in pearls and dark woolen coats sit around one of the tables, women who were once busy with grandchildren, but the grandchildren are grown now. They talk together in a mixture of Italian and local dialect about daughters, grandchildren, people they know. And did you hear about Francesca, what a terrible life she’s had, and now this?

The tables fill up, mostly with women. Women who have come from school drop-offs, women who no longer do the drop-off, women in black coats and black sunglasses with designer handbags. They prefer the longer breakfast, spreading it out until past mid-morning.

It’s mid-morning now, and the staff are clearing away what remains of the brioches and preparing for the pre-lunch aperitivo. A few retired husbands have come to join their wives at the tables, back from a walk through the market and a look around its stalls with the fresh ricottas and salamis brought down from the hillside farms.

Mothers are starting to come in from the market. They queue up at the deli above glass-cased pasticcini, cannoncini—small tarts topped with strawberries, raspberries, kiwi, and grapes—next to sticky, rum-flavored babas. There are biscuits, chocolate, butter, almond, two-tone beige and chocolate swirls, and a tray of pastel-colored macaroons. And then there are the cakes: tarts with jam, tarts with fresh fruit, chocolate cakes, apple cake, various forms of cream cakes, all with fluted edges.

These are the mothers who buy pizza and focaccia and bread for hungry children who will soon be home for lunch from school. These are the mothers who rush around in lives they never quite envisaged, just like their mothers before them. They stop at the bar for a quick caffè, then say goodbye to their friends and go off back into their lives.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Millet But Were Afraid to Ask

Mar.16.17

Everything You Wanted to Know About Millet But Were Afraid to Ask

by Shirin Mehrotra

Ponkh in Surat

It’s a bit past the breakfast hour as I hitchhike to Surat’s most famous winter market. Near Swami Narayan Mandir, a short trek away from the main road, under the Sardar Bridge, lies the processing unit of Surat’s limited edition crop of ponkh, also known as tender jowar—one of the six species of sorghum found in the country.

One side of the market is lined with shops selling ponkh fritters while the other side has wholesalers selling the roasted and the dried version. Ponkh is Surat’s winter crop. It’s grown mostly in Hazira, a port town bounded by the Tapti delta and the Arabian Sea. After harvesting, the crop is brought to the market, where it’s roasted, packed, and sold. A big chunk of it goes to stores in Mumbai, while some heads to famous Gujarati restaurants.

I had my first encounter with this pearl-like millet sometime last year at The Bombay Canteen, a Mumbai restaurant that celebrates local and indigenous produce. It piqued my curiosity, and a year later I was standing in the city where the millet originated.

The roasting process is a treat for the eyes and the ears. Bushels of fresh millet are first roasted under coals and ash, then wrapped in a coarse cloth for pounding. The pounding is soft and rhythmic, on the beats of Gujarati music blasting from the speakers. It’s a visual experience. Families from tribal areas in Maharashtra come to the city every year to work at the processing unit. Men take care of the roasting and pounding, while women do the cleaning and packing of the final product.

After soaking in the experience for a while, I head to the shop to get some packed ponkh for home. There’s a sun-dried version too, which is easier to carry and can be stored for longer periods. But the earthy sweetness of fresh millet, enhanced by roasting, is unbeatable. The ideal way to eat it is with sev—a deep-fried savory snack made of chickpea flour—and smothered in green chutney. Farms in Gujarat and Maharashtra have winter picnics or hurda parties (hurda is the Maharashtrian name for ponkh) where they roast it on the spot and eat it with flavored sev, green garlic, and a spritz of lime and chutneys.

I decide to have a late breakfast of ponkh wada—deep-fried ponkh fritters, split Bengal gram, and spices, as well as ponkh pattice—ponkh stuffed inside mashed potato and deep-fried.

It’s fiery, so I wash it down with a bottle of cold chaas—buttermilk.

Never Get Between a Canadian and His Bacon

Mar.15.17

Never Get Between a Canadian and His Bacon

by Dave Hazzan

Khlii in Marrakech

Traveling in Morocco, I find I’m getting weary.

Maybe it’s the dust. Maybe it’s the lack of women anywhere after sundown: I’m married and traveling with my wife, but it’s hard to adjust to this world of scowling, soccer-watching men. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on the road for six months.

Then it’s hard to get liquor, a severe drawback when you travel the Islamic world. I had a friend who once spent six months in Saudi Arabia. When he arrived at Heathrow at the end of his contract, and Immigration asked him why he was visiting England, he declared, “To drink beer and eat bacon!”

But hey, at least there’s the food. Today we left our hostel unfed and starving, ready to comb la nouvelle ville for whatever Moroccans eat for breakfast. At a café by the bus station, we found it.

We sat outside. They had a menu in four languages, and I ordered khlii, a mix of eggs and a sort of beef jerky, along with orange juice, bacon, and a bowl of harira, Moroccan soup.

Never get between a Canadian and his bacon–yummy, maple-cured, fried in its own fat, sizzling, cut fresh from the hog, fill-me-up-with-rashers-of-that-shit bacon. But if you’re going to substitute it for anything, then by all means, let it be beef jerky.

Western cuisine has criminally neglected the possibilities for beef jerky. It can be so much more than just a gas station snack for truck drivers and baked teens. It can be fried, sautéed in lemon, braised, fried, chopped up in salad, fried, pureed into tomato sauce, used as a cocktail garnish, or fried. Or, as the Moroccans do, put in eggs.

I was delighted with my khlii. The eggs were baked to a perfect firmness, and with every bite there were little beefy explosions of jerky. Washed down with a double espresso and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, that’s the way to begin your Moroccan day.

Until we asked for our harira, the soup which came with the breakfast special. The waiter seemed incredulous, like we were asking him to sacrifice a fresh lamb for our dinner. “Harira is soup,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, pointing at the menu, “and according to the menu, breakfast comes with soup. It says so right here.”

“That is not for breakfast! You got coffee and juice with your eggs. That’s already a very good deal.”

I find I’m getting weary once more.

Photo by: Jo Turner

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