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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

You Can’t Rush Perfection in Life or in Pancakes

May.05.16

You Can’t Rush Perfection in Life or in Pancakes

by Jodi Bosin

Congyoubing in Shanghai

I knew it when I saw it, a phenomenon I’d come to rely on in searching for local food stands in Shanghai. In theory, the place had a name and address, but none of that was evident, so I wandered around the intersection until I spotted a small alley with a line of people and the smell of scallions. This must be the place.

I approached the line and peered past the crowd into the small window set in a stone wall. In the shadowy space an ancient man stood hunched over a griddle, in the midst of the methodical process of preparing congyoubing, scallion pancakes. Further back was a table of mixing bowls filled with scallion-speckled dough and a door that led into a darkened room. He worked very slowly. After mixing the dough, he placed piles of it in neat rows on the griddle, flattening the ones in the middle. He watched them closely, flipping and rearranging them, while the piles on the edges warmed and waited their turn. Scallion pancakes come in many forms, but these were very particular; small and thick, like none I’d seen before. They took awhile to cook through due to their proportions. When the pancakes were sufficiently done, he slid the griddle over to reveal an old-looking oven underneath, a stone circle with a fire in the middle. He placed the pancakes around the edges and slid the griddle over to let them cook.

The whole process probably took about 20 minutes, his movements deliberate and plodding, the crowd restless. Some even abandoned the line, perhaps late for work, but I had nowhere else to be. His progress was almost painful to watch. He seemed way too old to be working, and he was bent over at an alarming angle, his back clearly in terrible shape. I felt a mixture of pity, compassion, and impatience. As he waited for the pancakes to cook he chatted with some of the customers. To my dismay, in spite of the alarming appearance of his health, he lit a cigarette, which he smoked in slow motion, the way he did everything else.

After an eternity, he finally deemed the batch ready, reaching into the fire to remove each congyoubing and handing out the requested amounts to the fortunate patrons who made the cut this time. I took my fresh, oily treasure, wrapped in a piece of brown paper, out into the drizzling morning. The exterior was crunchy and the inside hearty and warm, the perfect antidote for a dreary day. But the acquisition of the breakfast felt like more than something to eat. It was the completion of a small quest, an expedition to a dragon’s lair, an encounter with the mythical.

The 7 Train to Nepalese Breakfast

Oct.20.17

The 7 Train to Nepalese Breakfast

by Cristina Schreil

Sel roti in Queens, NY

If not for the routine thunder of the 7 train, I’d be disoriented. Behind me is charted territory: the subway, Queens. Before me is a chunk of Nepal. It’s Sunday morning, and I’m following Shailesh, a Kathmandu-born actor turned activist, through a diverse section of Jackson Heights. My stomach practically utters a whale call as we come to an establishment that brims like a subway car. I almost miss the Nepalese businesses in a crush of cell-phone stores and clothing boutiques.

A sign reads “Nepali Bhanchha Ghar.” I learn “Bhanchha” means kitchen.

We’re here for sel roti, a traditional treat. Many greet us with “Namaste” as we enter. The wall has Nepalese flags and snapshots of peaceful mountaintops and the Dalai Lama. It’s a savory-smelling hive; servers scurry behind a small counter tending to vats of soups, stews, and momo, the beloved Himalayan dumpling. But the real showstopper is in the corner. A woman in a baseball cap perches on a low stool. Upon hearing my sel roti order, she flies into action. A stack of crisp, graham cracker-hued hoops are next to her. They appear like towers of onion rings.

Choking up on the handle, the woman swishes a large ladle about a bucket of white, grits-like batter. She grabs the decapitated head of a soda bottle and plops a heap into the back end. Drifting this device over a wok with bubbling oil, she opens the spigot to let a thick strand fall. Her wrists are quick. She shapes the batter into a floating circle, forging a saucer-sized hoop that puffs and fries like a donut. It’s meditative. Gingerly, she coaxes and flips it with a long wand. It bobs luxuriously, as if it were on vacation.

This treat is uniquely Nepalese; sel roti is nothing like the South Asian roti flatbread. Made from ground, soaked rice, they’re staples on special occasions and festivals. I receive a tidy plate with one sel roti loop among mounds of colorful assorted “thali,” or plates of chutneys and pickled vegetables. A lime wedge, onion hunk, and tiny pepper sit like gleaming gems. A closer look at the sel roti reveals this is no onion ring: constellations of pearlescent dots fleck the golden exterior. I rip inside and find a light, rice-doughy texture and pleasant sweetness. A tooth-sinking crunch immediately calls to mind Chinese sesame balls. I pop some pickled vegetables into my mouth for an intriguing contrast between bitter and sweet.

Shailesh explains that the Nepalese commonly have a light bite for breakfast—sel roti, or another bread or porridge—with spiced tea. But for now, he says, this will do. I agree.

Nepali Bhanchha Ghar
7406 37th Rd Jackson Heights, NY 11372

All That About the Cat and We Don’t Even Get the Dalai Lama Story?

Oct.18.17

All That About the Cat and We Don’t Even Get the Dalai Lama Story?

by Shirin Mehrotra

Croissants in McLeodganj

It was late at night, around 8-9 maybe (that’s late in Himachal) when I spotted a pale yellow wall, with “Lhamo’s Croissant” scribbled across it. I could only make out the feeble outline of a café, and made a mental note to check it out the next morning. The idea of eating croissants for breakfast spread a warm feeling in my belly on that cold night.

I was in McLeodganj, a place I had been dreaming of visiting since I read David Michie’s The Dalai Lama’s Cat. The book opened the world of Tibetans in India to me, who had settled in this sleepy hamlet after leaving Tibet (after the Chinese occupation) and followed in the footsteps of their spiritual guru, the Dalai Lama.

When “HHC” (His Holiness’s Cat—the central character of the book) wobbled her way through the lovely hills, I imagined myself trailing in her paw-steps. I wondered about the pretty book cafes where she would perch herself on top of book shelves. The aromas that wafted from the kitchen of the Dalai Lama would make me mentally re-create those fabulous meals. And now that I was finally here; the place was everything I had imagined it to be. With the view of the Dhauladhar Mountains from every corner, there was an invisible layer of peace spread over the town.

Next morning, as planned, we walked to Lhamo’s Croissant—a picturesque two-level café at the corner of the street, with a terrace that opened up to the view of the snow-capped mountains. We were welcomed by a young Tibetan boy who single-handedly managed the place. Chef Lhamo, owner of the café, walked in right behind us with a bagful of grocery and fresh vegetables in her hands. She said a quick hello and walked straight to the kitchen at the basement of the café. Soon we could hear the sounds of our breakfast being rustled up and saw Lugoen, the manager, walking out of the kitchen with tray full of freshly baked breads, all whole-wheat or gluten free.

As we stretched our legs on the low seating section, our breakfast was served: freshly baked whole wheat breads with butter and jam, eggs, freshly squeezed juice, coffee, almond milk smoothie and chocolate croissant; everything so unadulterated, like the mountain air. We lazed around at the café for a while, a book in hand, before venturing out to explore the rest of the town, unaware that a chance encounter with the Dalai Lama awaited us at our next spot.

What Memorable Breakfast Doesn’t Involve a Shot of Vodka?

Oct.17.17

What Memorable Breakfast Doesn’t Involve a Shot of Vodka?

by Luciana Squadrilli

Breakfast in Georgia

When my best friend and I decided to pick Georgia as our holiday destination, we mostly had in mind pristine nature, secluded Orthodox monasteries, and the famous qvevri (amphora-fermented) wines.

An in-depth study of local gastronomy had only convinced us further of our choice, and so we landed in Tbilisi dreaming about lavish dinners based on cheese-filled khatchapuri, kinkhali dumplings, and lamb stews. We didn’t have great expectations for breakfast, though, and the stale croissant we ate in a drab café near Liberty Square on our first morning in Tbilisi seemed to confirm this.

Traveling around the country in the rural areas of Kakheti, Imereti, and Racha in search of orange wines and local specialties, however, put breakfast time in a whole new light: the morning meal in those areas was a seductive mix of carbs, animal proteins, fruits, and dairy, accompanied by Turkish coffee—with slight variations according to region and host. Day after day, sleeping in basic country inns and family-run hotels, soon breakfasts became my favorite moment of the day.

In a small hotel in Telavi—the heart of the wine-making Kakheti region—we had fresh green grapes, a salty and spongy cheese, bread and jam, and some delicious fried rolls filled with cheese. At the lovely wine farm in the Racha region—pompously named Chateau Dio—we had boiled eggs, cheese, local sausages, and the creamiest smetana (sour cream) ever, to go with bread and a delicious honey which reminded me of Greek desserts with yogurt.

On our second stay in Tbilisi, we rented a bright apartment at the 18th floor of a run-down building where a stunning view over the city made up for the every frightening elevator ride. Here, we waited in vain for the owner to bring us the breakfast and then gave up and bought some biscuits at the nearest shop. At 10 a.m. we were about to leave the apartment when she showed up with boiled eggs, fruit, and a sensational, freshly baked khatchapuri. This was when we learned that Georgians eat this lovely baked good any time of the day, and that Georgians are quite slow to get started in the morning (and stay up late.)

But our most memorable breakfast was at a dull hotel in Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi, in the Imereti region. After a sleepless night and a difficult start of the day thanks to linguistic misunderstandings, we finally sat at our table, with plenty of food, including a generous amount of smetana, blackberry jam, and some oily yet tasty machkatebi (Tushetian pancakes). We were ready to leave when the owner proudly offered us a shot glass, full to the brim, of chacha—in his version, not the famous local grape spirit, but vodka, infused with fresh oranges and lemons. Obviously refusing to drink it would be rude.

Going back to our usual breakfasts of espresso and rice cakes is what gave us the post-holiday blues this time.

Chicken Wings Are Everything Argentina Is Not

Oct.16.17

Chicken Wings Are Everything Argentina Is Not

by Leigh Shulman

Chicken in Buenos Aires

I landed in Buenos Aires, a short stopover on my way to run a writing retreat in Nicaragua. One flight behind me and a long way to go. Travel limbo. But first, to eat.

Media lunas, small croissant-like pastries, with coffee are the usual breakfast, but I wanted something else. I wanted meaty, eggy, smoky food to fill me up for hours. There was only one place to go: Chicken Bros.

I met Timmy, one of the owners, at Argentina’s first Burning Man a year earlier. He, his friend Justin, and two fryers served hundreds of wings on the roof of their building. They opened the restaurant a few months before I got to Buenos Aires, and I was in time for brunch.

Two graffitied chicken butts greeted me from above the entrance, and was that bacon I smelled? Inside, the place buzzed with life. Plates of chicken and waffles flew by on their way to hungry people. A DJ set up his table. I pondered the menu.

Huevos Benedictinos? No. I wanted wings.

Chicken wings are everything Argentina is not. All bones. How can you make a meal of it? And spicy? Even the mildest of chilis offend the Argentine palate. Eating with your hands? Nope.
But what sauce to choose? I narrowed it down to Sweet Chile Lime (two flames) and Blazin’ Buffalo (four flames).

“How spicy is a flame in a country that doesn’t like spice?” I asked.

“You’re gonna feel four flames in your mouth for a while after you eat,” Timmy told me.

I’ll take the challenge.

“Blazin’ Buffalo it is. Soy ginger sesame, too?” “I’m in.” Then I found a table and waited for my food.

The second I bit into twice-fried crispy skin, the tang of jalapeño hit. First the lips, then tongue, soon my tonsils pricked. Red, peppery, burning.

Thank god for celery sticks and Ranch dressing. And another prayer for the other side of my plate. Thick, sweet and salty soy redolent of ginger.

The rule of chicken wings: give into the mess. Napkins are defenseless against sticky soy. Sesame seeds cling to the corners of your mouth as red hot and brown sauces spread across your face.

“How’re those wings?” Timmy shouted as he delivered an armful of bagels with cream cheese and lox. Mouth full, I mustered a thumbs-up.

Dessert next: there’s nothing more American than battered and fried Oreos with ice cream. My favorite state fair food. But cover them in dulce de leche and sugared walnuts. You’re in Argentina.

My Own Private Albanian Breakfast

Oct.11.17

My Own Private Albanian Breakfast

by Madeleine D’Este

Eggs in Albania

There’s one problem with vacations: they have to end. And like suntans, the memories fade too fast. But food is one way to bring the holiday home with you.

In June this year, I spent three weeks of long, lazy summer days in Europe but eventually I had to return to Melbourne in all its grey, mid-winter gloom. I swapped open-air cafes, beaches, and waterfalls for an open-plan office with harsh lighting and stuffy heating.

The unexpected highlight of this trip was Albania. The history, people, cafes, mountains, and of course, the food. Sweet juicy tomatoes, crisp green cucumbers and heart-stopping black coffee, exactly the way I like it.

After days of planes, trains, and furgons I stopped in Himare on the Albanian
Riviera, for three days of reading on white-pebble beaches alongside the refreshing, clear Aegean waters. My guest house overlooked the sea and each morning, my hosts laid out a spread in the communal kitchen of fresh bread, warm burek, local honey and jams, boiled eggs, and of course, black strong coffee. But no matter how glorious the crisp golden pastry of the burek looked and smelled, it wasn’t worth the belly aches. As someone with a gluten intolerance, I had to be a little more creative at breakfast.

On the first day, I made up my own little Albanian breakfast; hard-boiled eggs, slices of creamy feta, a splash of homemade olive oil, sprinkles of dried basil, salt, and pepper. It was a winner; the right mix of salty, creamy, and aromatic, and I ate my concoction every morning on the patio, under the vine-covered pergola gazing over the sea, never wanting to go home again. But eventually, Melbourne beckoned.

Once home, when I craved my Albanian breakfast, I started looking around for an alternative. But despite the culinary fusion of Melbourne’s cafes, I couldn’t find my made-up Albanian breakfast on any menu. The closest is the moreish “Macedonian breakfast” from a café in Thornbury with ajvar, poached eggs, feta, avocado, and bacon. It was up to me to recreate my Albanian breakfast. At least the ingredients were easy to find. I bought the best feta I could afford from the supermarket (Greek not Albanian), hard-boiled a few eggs, drizzled on my olive oil (Spanish not Albanian) and added herbs and spices.

While it wasn’t the same—the feta not as creamy, the olive oil not as grassy and fresh, the dried basil lacking the same oomph—the salty, crumbly texture of the feta with the hard-boiled eggs was enough to transport me back to the sunny patio of my guest house in Himare for a few moments and ignore the rain outside. And add a new breakfast to my home cooking repertoire.

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