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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

Yak

Mar.28.15

Yak

by Mark Hay

Everything in this house is yak. I’ve got yak wool socks on my feet and a yak hair matt on the floor under my ass. There are bowls and leather sacks of yak milk in various stages of fermentation and spindles of yak yarn in the corners. The walls are made precious, rare wood, but from the outside I’ve seen that they’re studded with a fix-it mortar of yak dung patties. And I believe the same is being used to stoke the fires in the little cook stove beside me.

The greatest concentration of yakitude in the room, though, is probably the hearty breakfast before me: soft yak-milk bread, baked with a divot in the center of the roll for a dollop of rich, yellow yak butter to drop and melt in. This in turn is mashed in one’s hand into a greasy paste, and smooshed around a helping of granular yak cheese, soft with a taste somewhere between ricotta and Parmesan. To the side, there’s a bowl of finger sliced potatoes, which would be a nice variation if they hadn’t been slathered and fried golden in dripping gobs of yak butter themselves. And to top it all off, once I finish my bread, my hosts pour steaming yak butter tea, a thick mixture with a heavy tang and saltiness, into the bowl, the remnants of bread and butter bobbing up little globs and oily droplets at the surface.

I didn’t seek this spread out in some fit of Epic Meal Time machismo. This is pretty much par for the course for the nomadic family I’m visiting in their winter hut outside of Lhagang (Tagong), a grasslands town and nexus point for yak herding Tibetans in the Garzê (Ganzi) prefecture of China’s Sichuan province. Although we’re not in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Garzê is part of the Tibetan plateau and home to the Khampa Tibetan peoples, traditionally itinerant herders with a penchant for large, gilded knives and guerilla warfare. Some folks in Rongzhang (Danba), towards the TAR, farm wheat and potatoes. But Lhagang’s all-patchy scrub grass and boggy mud clots at an elevation of 12,000 feet. It’s plugged into wider China—there’s even an electrical wire running up to the house—but despite the AM radio and blow dryer off in a corner, in most aspects of day-to-day life, including a culinary reliance on yak, the Khampa nomads are relatively tuned out. But no one’s complaining.

This is something I’ve noticed when crossing paths with nomads from Kyrgyzstan to Mongolia. No matter how the local economy takes off, and no matter what new foods go on the shelves, the basic diet remains one of meat and dairy overload. Not that their diets don’t change and evolve or that many I’ve met don’t relish a good Snickers bar. But in the grand scheme of things, there’s still quite a bit of flesh about. It’s enough to put a self-avowed Western urbanite meat enthusiast like myself to shame.

But it also gets me thinking about diet and nutrition and the ends to which humans can be stretched and conditioned. It gets me thinking: Why will I almost certainly sweat rivulets of grease and get the meat shakes tonight, while everyone else here will get on just fine? Why do I hear so much about the merits of a vegetarian or fruitarian diet, and the deadliness of milk, and then meet so many nomads who, despite being wind-burnt and battered, are as strong as whatever they herd into old age? Why does my doctor always preach variety, but experience tells me that one of the healthiest diets is usually whale blubber and rotted seal meat?

Maybe I put myself in these situations and ask myself these questions because I want to justify my low-veg, meat lover’s diet. Maybe it’s just comforting for me to think that you can build a civilization on yak feasts. I like the idea of a world where people seem to get by without food pyramids. My body’s a frail, little modern city thing. But it makes me feel sturdier by proxy to know that the Khampa eat like this and thrive. And it gives me the smug, self-righteous satisfaction that maybe all the health nuts out there don’t know much more than I do—because they don’t know that with the right upbringing, we could all get by in a world of infinite yak.

What, You’ve Never Had Bright Red Foam on Your Drinkable Oatmeal Before?

Sep.21.17

What, You’ve Never Had Bright Red Foam on Your Drinkable Oatmeal Before?

by Allegra Ben-Amotz

Atole rojo in Oaxaca

It was my first time with a tour group. I’d come to Cuajimoloyas, in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, to forage for wild mushrooms during Mexico’s rainy season. Instead of navigating the forests alone, I joined a band of women and their local guide, a man named Celestino, for the town’s yearly Regional Wild Mushroom Festival.

We’d spent the previous day hunting, trying to collect the greatest variety of edible and non-edible toadstools. We woke up early the next morning for the announcement of the winning team by the fairgrounds at the base of the mountain.

I’d packed poorly for the July chill, and wandered the booths proffering various mushroom-based dishes in search of something to warm my bones. I spotted Celestino huddled under a tent, blowing on his hands as he waited for his breakfast. He was having atole, a traditional corn-based beverage thats something like a drinkable oatmeal. It sounded perfect. I ordered my own and we waited at the sole vinyl-covered table under the tent, elbow-to-elbow with an elderly Mexican couple.

When Celestino’s aunt, the woman running the booth, brought over two brown ceramic bowls brimming with bright red foam, I tried to tell her this was not what we’d ordered. “You’ve never had atole rojo before?” Celestino asked. “It’s for special occasions.”

Flavored with a powder of toasted corn, cacao beans, and brick-red achiote paste, the atole was steamed and then frothed on top to create a crown of festive bubbles. I dunked a strip of pan criollo (rich, eggy local bread) into the biggest bubble on top, tasting the icy foam. Celestino held his bowl in his hands, slurping it like a mug of coffee. I followed suit: the bowl was hot to the touch, the initial chill of the top layer giving way to an earthy, slightly-sweet molten drink.

Celestino poked my side. “That’s us, second place!” he said, and I heard the judges repeating our names. We went up to accept our prize, still clutching mugs of our celebratory atole in our hands.

Breakfast in Kashmir is So Good, They Have it Twice

Sep.19.17

Breakfast in Kashmir is So Good, They Have it Twice

by Sophia Ann French

Czot in Kashmir

It was my first time on a houseboat and my first trip to Kashmir. Standing on the deck of the boat, I was excited to start working on my first film when Ajaz, the owner of the houseboat, brought me a cup of tea. It was the first time I tasted Kashmiri nun chai. We Indians love our chai with milk, sugar, and, at times, I add a dash of cardamom seeds to make a Mumbai-style masala chai, but nun chai wasn’t like any other tea I’ve had. It was pink, and salty. (It’s usually served with milk, but I had it without.) I took a reluctant sip and was surprised to enjoy the unusual flavor. Over the three months we spent in Kashmir, nun chai became a staple at every breakfast.

The union of bread with tea is an age-old tradition, and a Kashmiri breakfast pairs the savory tea with fresh-baked loaves from a kandar waz—these bakeries are found in every neighborhood across the valley and the bread is baked in a wood-fired, clay tandoor. On the first morning, Ajaz served us czot and lavasa. Czot is made by mixing refined white flour with water and kneading pieces of dough into thin rectangles. The kandar makes impressions on each piece with his fingertips before putting it into the oven, so the bread has ridges across the surface. I’d smear dollops of butter across its auburn crust and dunk it in nun chai. Lavasa is an unleavened flat bread with a blistery surface. I didn’t enjoy its stretchy texture when dipped in tea, so a Kashmiri colleague made me a delicious roll by stuffing the lavasa with barbecued meat and chickpeas.

The Kashmiris love their bread and chai so much they have it twice every morning. The film’s crew would leave for reconnaissance soon after breakfast, but I stayed back on the houseboat to interview the locals about militancy in Kashmir. The valley has been disputed territory between India and Pakistan for decades. Kashmiris who cross the border into Pakistan and return to India to fight are called militants. Ajaz, like many young Kashmiris, didn’t go the militant way, but is caught between the crossfire between the militants and the Indian army.

In the middle of his interview, Ajaz excused himself for a few minutes and returned with a tray of the pink tea and bakarkhani, a round bread that looks like puffed pastry. It’s brown and crispy on the outside with soft fluffy layers on the inside. I’d never seen this at breakfast, and Ajaz explained that the Kashmiris have specific breads for specific times. Bakarkhani and nun chai became part of our 10 a.m. ritual, when Ajaz and I ruminated over the differences between Kashmir’s past—when it was a center for Sufism and Shaivism—and its fraught present.

If Nothing Else, This Experimental Utopia Has a Pretty Good Café

Sep.18.17

If Nothing Else, This Experimental Utopia Has a Pretty Good Café

by Ranjini Rao

Bagels in Auroville

With the blaze of the August sun in our eyes and yet a lightness to our step in Pondicherry, India’s beloved, dreamy beach town, and an erstwhile French colony, we set out for Auroville to have breakfast at the Auroville Bakery Café.

Our host—a dear friend who had grown up talking, breathing, and eating all things French in Pondy—had raved enough about it for us to want to sample the food there.

Auroville is an ambitious utopian living experiment, courtesy of the vision of philosopher-guru Sri Aurobindo and his colleague Mirra Alfassa, aka The Mother. Founded in 1968, it was designed as a village-for-all, governed by multicultural harmony, where people from all over the world are welcome.

The foundation for the bakery was laid by an Austrian banker, Otto, who moved to Auroville in the 80s and collaborated with bakers in the area for a while. The café in the back is a recent addition to the bakery, we were informed. The bakery was created by several eager hands, trying and testing recipes ranging from brioche to knackebrots to provide an excellent patisserie for Aurovilleans in the 90s.

The café’s newest crew—a German, a Ukrainian, a handful of Indians, and a couple of French nationals—came aboard in the 2000s, and decided to offer beverages, too. They started the café out small, with a few vibrant chairs and tables assembled under the trees in the backyard garden, but they were determined to serve big, satisfying breakfasts.

The menu was handwritten on an overused blackboard, and didn’t seem too exciting at first. But on closer inspection, we saw the items of which we’re sadly deprived in Bangalore: bagels with cheese, salads loaded with proteins, fresh fruit platters, wholewheat sandwiches with fresh cheese, quiches, tarts, croissants.

We ordered a bagel with cheese, a fresh fruit platter, and a grilled vegetable and cheese sandwich to share, plus juice, tea, and coffees.

The bread in the sandwich was a far cry from the supermarket variety to which we’re accustomed, which is softened and aerated with additives. This bread was crusty, substantial, with a nutty, earthy taste. The cheese was fresh, thick-cut, and refreshingly light on sourness and saltiness, unlike the aged cheeses sold outside, preserved with chemicals. It was a delicious morning.

A Delicious Breakfast Ruined by Reality

Sep.15.17

A Delicious Breakfast Ruined by Reality

by Corinne Redfern

Barbati in Bangladesh

It’s our third day of reporting in Jessore, and we’re starving. A tightly-bound team of four, we’re supposed to be covering child marriage—a weighty topic that’s reduced our sleep and raised our stress levels—and our stomachs are the ones suffering for it.

Somehow I’ve taken to subsisting on peanut butter scooped out of the jar with the end of a pen. The roadside café near our hotel doesn’t appeal—five men hover on the steps outside and stare. But our fixer is insistent: it’s time to find food. Plus it’s shaded, and there appears to be tea.

Female foreigners don’t come here often, we learn. The proprietor, Mahmoud, nervously knots and unknots the front of his navy-blue lunghi as we help ourselves to the pots of food: shoveling saucers full of rice onto wet stainless steel plates and drowning everything in heavily-spiced daal.

The food is good; hot and heavy. But it feels like we’re getting in the way. We push our chairs back to leave, and relief flushes Mahmoud’s face.

Less than 24 hours later and we’re back. It’s barely morning, but the day’s interviews are already going awry and we need to regroup. Today, Mahmoud is waiting. As we elbow our way to reach a space at the back, the 66-year-old stands beaming before producing a red plastic lunchbox from behind his back. A handmade paper bag follows; unwrapped to reveal eight flour-soft pathiri folded in four. Water is procured and ceremoniously poured.

He told his wife about us last night, Mahmoud explains, lunghi-knot intact as he checks the table arrangement one last time, and finally lifts the red plastic lid to reveal a hot, spiced pile of green beans and garlic. So she made us a breakfast of barbati, just in case we were still in town.

They were worried, he adds, in case yesterday’s food wasn’t good enough. That day, he hadn’t known we were coming. He hadn’t had time to prepare.
We try to send compliments back to the chef, but Mahmoud insists he could have cooked the barbati himself. It’s just a matter of heating salt, garlic, turmeric and onions, dicing potato and chopping up yard-long beans; stirring the ingredients with water until they soften and the spices find their way under the skins.

After all, he should know. He’d taught his wife the recipe himself two decades earlier, although she’s improved on it since, and won’t tell him what’s changed. How old was she when you married her, we ask, mouths full and distracted. It’s only as our breakfast digests that it dawns on us he answered “ten.”

Photo by: Rds26/Wikipedia Commons

Battle Lines Drawn in Philly’s Cookie Wars

Sep.14.17

Battle Lines Drawn in Philly’s Cookie Wars

by Gina Zammit

Spiced Wafers in Philadelphia

Like jack-o’-lanterns on Halloween, another black-and-orange tradition arrives each fall in Philadelphia. Spiced wafers from two dueling companies, Ivins and Sweetzels, appear on store shelves in late August.

These curious cookies have rabid local fans, outselling even Oreos throughout their autumn reign. But, come the first signs of peppermint sticks and jolly Saint Nick, which, sadly, increasingly encroaches on the fall season, just as mysteriously as they arrived, they disappear.

Spiced wafers are best compared to ginger snaps, although there are distinct differences. Containing a mix of autumnal spices including ginger, cinnamon, allspice, molasses, and cloves, these tough cookies have a more complex flavor than traditional ginger snaps. The wafers are baked three times longer than most cookie varieties, achieving a hard, but not rock-solid, texture, “born to be dunked.” They are best served alongside another fall favorite, apple cider (preferably from the local Bauman’s Cider Company), with a cold glass of milk, or spicy tea.

Although the cookies are confined to the greater Philly area, including parts of southern New Jersey, there is a fierce rivalry between the brands’ devotees. Sweetzels supporters favor the less spicy, sweeter version, while Ivins fans prefer the longer-lasting kick of allspice, and a cookie lighter on the molasses. But despite their loyal followings, the cookies’ origins are somewhat mysterious.

Sweetzels’ website proudly proclaims that “The Old Black & Orange Magic is Back!” and a “Philadelphia original since 1910!” Sweetzels were originally produced by the Tritzel Baking Company, which was based in the Philly suburb of Landsdale. Along with the cookies (Sweetzels), the company also manufactured potato chips (Chipzels) and Pretzels. Eventually, the company shuttered in 1965, was bought by the Borzillo family, and is now located in Nooristown in Montgomery County.

However, tracking down information on Ivins proved to be more challenging, so I went directly to the source. Danielle D’Elia, Communications & Government Relations Manager for the supermarket chain, Acme Markets, and Nina Borzillo, daughter of Sweetzels owner Robert D. Borzillo, both helped enlighten me.

Public information about Ivins is a little harder to discover, because it’s a proprietary brand of Acme Markets. But it didn’t start out that way.

According to Acme’s company records, Ivins Baking Company was originally located on Broad Street in Philadelphia. They sold their “penny cookies” at Acme Markets for a number of years, until the company closed its doors sometime around the 1960s. Acme Markets quickly swooped in on that opportunity and purchased both the company name and the recipe. Although the spiced wafers are no longer produced in Pennsylvania, they’re sold today at all 178 Acme locations and remain unchanged from the original recipe. (Sweetzels, on the other hand, are sold at most other stores, but not at Acme Markets.)

The wafers are rumored to have come from a German ginger-snap recipe, modified to its current version during the colonial era. Now, they are the essence of autumn in Philadelphia and a staple at tailgating events. Or, as Nina Borzillo prefers, with morning coffee.

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