Articles on this Page
- 12/15/13--20:22: _Omakase at Mizumi
- 12/15/13--20:53: _Ekiben
- 12/15/13--20:57: _Krupuk
- 12/15/13--21:46: _Florida's Citrus St...
- 12/15/13--22:33: _Staten Island
- 12/16/13--17:39: _The Track Kitchen
- 12/16/13--17:51: _Gamsei
- 01/09/14--09:30: _The Brew: Great Lak...
- 01/09/14--13:15: _Our Top Travel Stor...
- 12/16/13--17:34: _The Grain Store
- 02/11/14--14:30: _Aurora, NY: Inns of...
- 02/13/14--11:00: _Love Cake
- 02/14/14--10:00: _San Francisco: The ...
- 02/17/14--08:00: _Capital of Heat
- 02/18/14--11:00: _Costa Rica: El Sile...
- 02/20/14--10:16: _My Search for Nitza
- 02/21/14--07:00: _Scenes from Marseille
- 03/10/14--11:40: _Jamaican Breakfast ...
- 03/20/14--09:00: _Nowruz: A New Day
- 03/24/14--10:41: _Travel Guide: Dalma...
- 12/15/13--20:22: Omakase at Mizumi
- 12/15/13--20:53: Ekiben
- 12/15/13--20:57: Krupuk
- 12/15/13--21:46: Florida's Citrus Stands
- 12/15/13--22:33: Staten Island
- 12/16/13--17:39: The Track Kitchen
- 12/16/13--17:51: Gamsei
- 01/09/14--09:30: The Brew: Great Lakes Brewing Co.'s Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
- 01/09/14--13:15: Our Top Travel Stories of 2013
- 12/16/13--17:34: The Grain Store
- 02/11/14--14:30: Aurora, NY: Inns of Aurora
- MacKenzie-Childs Pottery Workshop: This is the must-see attraction of the area—catch the free 40-minute tour of the shop and Victorian farmhouse; the colorful handcrafted ceramics and furnishings are each one-of-a-kind and continue to be produced on this small farm in Aurora. Grounds open daily from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm; visitor’s center opens daily 10 am to 5 pm. 3260 State Route 90, Aurora, NY 13026; tel: 1-888-665-1999
- Heart and Hands Winery: Only a handful of Finger Lakes wineries are located on the east side of Cayuga Lake; in addition to King Ferry and Long Point (right in Aurora), try this newish winery 5 minutes up route 90. Carefully chosen for its limestone soil, ideal for pinot noir grapes, the vineyard is off to a promising start that should only improve as the vines mature. The friendly husband and wife team mostly left careers (she still commutes back twice a week) in the NYC area to pursue their passion. 4162 State Route 90N, Union Springs, NY 13160; tel: 315-889-8500
- Montezuma National Wildlife Preserve: If approaching (as I did) or departing north of the Aurora Inn, consider taking the driving loop or even stopping for a hike to observe the many birds and wildlife. 3395 US Route 20 East Seneca Falls, New York 13148; tel: 315-568-5987
- 02/13/14--11:00: Love Cake
- 02/14/14--10:00: San Francisco: The Adagio
- Take in a play at one of the neighboring venues in the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s theater district.
- Go for dim sum in Chinatown, a short walk from the hotel.
- Shop until you drop in the department stores around Union Square or the high-end boutiques on the walking street, Maiden Lane, each a few blocks away.
- 02/17/14--08:00: Capital of Heat
- 02/18/14--11:00: Costa Rica: El Silencio Lodge
- Catarata Del Toro: This private reserve is located just a few miles from the lodge and is home to the largest waterfall in Costa Rica. The challenging trails will take you to the base of the 300-foot falls. Entrance fee is $10 U.S. dollars. 6km Norte de la Iglesia; tel: 506/2476-0800
- Parque Nacional Juan Castro Blanco: This enormous national park is home to multiple volcanoes, thermal springs, and a multitude of wildlife. While it’s less developed, this also means fewer tourists. Expect to see monkeys, sloths, pumas, and a ton of birds. Bring your binoculars.
- 02/20/14--10:16: My Search for Nitza
- 02/21/14--07:00: Scenes from Marseille
- 03/10/14--11:40: Jamaican Breakfast Recipes
- 03/20/14--09:00: Nowruz: A New Day
- 03/24/14--10:41: Travel Guide: Dalmatian Coast, Croatia
3131 South Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas, NV
The best thing about railway travel in Japan is ekiben, artfully composed bento lunch boxes sold at eki, or train stations, that allow you to sample each region's specialties. Travelers from Hokkaido in the north tuck into ekiben of sweet steamed snow crab legs, plump beads of salmon roe, and crispy pickled lotus root arrayed on beds of shredded egg omelette; ekiben from Hamamatsu Station on the south central coast feature grilled eel sprinkled with sesame seeds, flanked by Japanese pickles and served over sweet soy-sauce-simmered rice. But my favorite may be from Yokokawa Station up in the mountains: Steaming braised chicken, chestnuts, burdock, bamboo shoots, and dried apricots are served atop rice in a takeaway clay pot, unique even in the days before plastic when ekiben were still packaged in wooden boxes.
With more than 500 train stations and over 1,600 styles of ekiben on offer, the choices are dizzying, but the ritual stays the same: As the train leaves the station, the coach fills with the sounds of beer tabs snapping back, ekiben lids popping open, and the rustling of dozens of disposable chopsticks being freed from their wrappers as everyone prepares to dig in.
Scott Hass is author of Back of the House (Berkley Trade, 2013).
We're crazy for krupuk, crunchy chips whose name throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore is an onomatopoeia for their fantastic crackle. A category more vast, even, than Western potato chips, krupuk are made from all sorts of fascinating ingredients—tapioca flour with dried shrimp, bitter melinjo seed, tempeh—then sun-dried and sold uncooked. When dropped into hot oil, they swell magically into crispy wonders we can't stop eating. Is there a better cocktail snack? We doubt it.
Amy Traverso is senior lifestyle editor at Yankee Magazine.
Those pizzas are a given here. After all, Richmond County, which encompasses all of Staten Island, boasts the nation's largest percentage of Italian-Americans. Also a given are old-school Italian restaurants like the nonagenarian Basilio Inn (6 Galesville Court; 718/447-9292). On this charming restaurant's covered back porch overlooking a bocce court surrounded by fig trees and bushy herb plants, we feast on garlicky clam-laden linguine alle vongole and silky housemade pappardelle in a bright, fresh tomato sauce dotted with goat cheese. For dessert, we like to head over to Royal Crown Bakery(1350 Hylan Boulevard; 718/668-0284) for outstanding cannolis—fresh-fried pastry tubes piped with sweet ricotta laced with chocolate chips. The place shares a patio with its sister spot, Royal Cucina, where we pick up a hero for later: prosciutto, provolone, soppressata, capicola, mortadella, roasted peppers, you name it, on an Italian roll fresh from the bakery's oven.
Beyond Italian, there are all sorts of flavors to be had in what is now New York's most rapidly diversifying borough. In Port Richmond, where the jukeboxes crank out Mexican corridos and boleros, another awesome sandwich stop is Monte Albán Supermarket (170 Port Richmond Avenue; 718/650-0036). Here, a torta like the Cubano—a mayo-dressed bolillo roll freighted with head cheese, roast pork, chicken franks, Oaxacan cheese, avocado, lettuce, onion, pickles, jalapeños—makes a meal and a half.
Indeed, no matter the cuisine, it's an island fit for big appetites: At Killmeyer's Old Bavaria Inn (4254 Arthur Kill Road; 718/984-1202), a revival of a Teutonic tavern first established here in 1850, dirndl-clad fräuleins with New York accents proffer hefty plates of sauerbraten, wursts, and grilled pork steaks. And at Lakruwana (668 Bay Street; 347/857-6619), one of several Sri Lankan restaurants not far from the ferry terminal, the curries—earthy goat; sweet-spicy pork; soupy lentils laced with cumin; hard-cooked eggs in a sauce verdant with pandan and curry leaves—are all-you-can-eat at the Sunday buffet.
For a final snack before heading back across the water, we seek out a hidden gem: cheese börëk. Phyllo dough coiled around a tangy feta, ricotta, and egg filling and baked until brown and crispy outside and stretchy and chewy within, it's an incomparable Balkan treat you'd never imagine could be enjoyed at My Family Pizza (340 Victory Boulevard, 718/720-4500)—unless someone told you that this unassuming slice shop is run by members of the island's Albanian community. Well, cat's out of the bag now. Guess it's time you hopped the ferry.
420 Mead Avenue
Aiken, South Carolina
Jane and Michael Stern are SAVEUR contributing editors and authors of roadfood.com.
Camper English is a SAVEUR contributing drinks editor.
One of Cleveland's great treasures is a world-class brewery on the west side of town called Great Lakes Brewing Co. I first got to know the brewery when I was a penniless graduate student, eager to learn about craft beer but too broke to afford anything more expensive than Milwaukee's Best. Whenever I found myself with a few extra dollars at the end of the month, I would hop in my station wagon and drive to the west side of town for a delicious pint or two at the brewpub. Great Lakes has been around since 1988, which on the American craft beer timescale means it’s practically ancient. They brew a killer selection of crisp lagers, hoppy IPAs, and robust stouts, but my favorite, especially during the colder months (of which Cleveland has plenty), has always been their toasty Edmund Fitzgerald porter.
The name derives from the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, an ill-fated, 750-ft shipping freighter that regularly docked along Cleveland’s Lake Erie waterfront and ultimately sank during a treacherous winter storm on Lake Superior in November 1975. (The following year, it was forever memorialized in song by Gordon Lightfoot.) It’s a fitting moniker because porter beers, which originated during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Great Britain, were named for dock workers who unloaded cargo from freight vessels.
Eighteenth-century British porters were murky, astringent libations, typically served warm and flat and stored in less-than-sanitary wooden barrels (ever had beer fermented with brettanomyces? Well, it's Greek for “British fungus” because the yeast was first discovered in British porter barrels). But the style has evolved over the years: Modern-day versions are still murky and blackish-brown in color, but they’re also relatively sweet, with aromas of caramel, toffee, and black licorice. Edmund Fitzgerald is a textbook example of American-style porters, which tend to be hoppier than their British brethren while still maintaining the classic bittersweet chocolate and roasted coffee profile.
It’s a great beer for winter because it’s meant to be poured on the warmer end of the spectrum—around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, as opposed to 38–40 degrees for a pilsner. The relative warmth in the glass along with the robust chocolate and spice notes make it both refreshing and comforting on a chilly day and perfect for pairing with hearty winter fare.
Great Lakes Brewing Co. Edmund Fitzgerald Porter is available in many parts of the country, particularly on the East Coast, for about $10 a six-pack.
Great Lakes Brewing Co.
1947 West 28th Street
The Grain Store
Granary Square, 1-3 Stable Street
King's Cross, London
See the recipe for Endive and Roquefort Salad with Smoked Pepper Jelly and Hazelnuts »
Alexander Lobrano is a SAVEUER contributing editor.
The long, quiet drive practically forced this rattled New Yorker to recalibrate to the country-clock. I passed numerous vineyards, the primary lure for my visit to the Finger Lakes, and drove within a mile of the hamlet Seneca Falls, said to have inspired Frank Capra’s fictitious Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. There were few towns or traffic lights, the landscape made up of Mennonite farms, modest homesteads, and the occasional honor-box concession stand, from which I picked up a $5 jar of fall flower honey. I finally approached the idyllic small town of Aurora with the appreciative sigh of a city dweller—civilization.
The Inns of Aurora are a collection of properties, and the namesake Aurora Inn, the largest of the three, is an 1833 Federal-style guest house with ten rooms and a regionally renowned restaurant, at which I would dine that night, but to my delight, I was quartered in the smaller E.B. Morgan House, a stately mansion of handsome gray stone, several doors down from the Aurora. The seven-room property was once the private residence of Colonel Edwin Barber Morgan, co-founder of the New York Times and American Express, and it exuded intimacy, providing a sole on-premise innkeeper, Dale Whitaker, to tend to both the home and guests’ needs.
The common areas of the E.B. Morgan were exquisitely furnished in rich colors and the walls decorated with modern art juxtaposed against original 1850s details; yet the careful balance of elegance with comfort invited me to relax—as though I was weekending at a wealthy friend’s home. My king room, tucked away at the end of the hall, had calming floral décor in soothing shades of ecru, rose, and artichoke. The room provided ample storage space to prevent any of my belongings from spending the night on the floor (one of my hotel room pet peeves), and the marble bathroom invited romance: a pair of rainfall shower-heads and double-seating in the shower, plus a ledge for both shampoo and Champagne flutes. This was a place to indulge.
Fortunately, dining at the Aurora Inn was as much of an indulgence as sleeping there. Dinner under the care of executive chef Patrick Higgins entailed sampling regionally sourced, organic, and foraged foods. Higgins refreshes the menu regularly, balancing his interests with seasonal availability. My starter of Hudson Valley foie gras came adorned in a bright rhubarb gelée and my main, a meaty local duck breast, arrived with a layer of perfectly crisped fat so flavorful and crunchy that Higgins should consider serving it diced in bowls as a savory snack at the cocktail bar. The accompanying wine list leans towards local producers but offers a few international selections for those still unconvinced by Finger Lakes wines. After dinner, beneath the twinkle of upstate New York stars, I stretched the five-minute stroll back to my room into ten, satisfied and happy, my only regret that I didn’t book a second night. —Lauren Mowery
IN THE AREA:
Valentine's Day was especially forbidden because it had to do with dating. At the all-girls school I attended, my best friend Zahra and I scoffed at romance all throughout the year, not just in February. Boyfriends were for American girls and lovers were only acceptable on-screen in Indian movies. So Valentine's Day would come and go, and Zahra and I would shuffle past the vendors selling heart-shaped balloons and the seasonal stationery stores with paper hearts in the windows, swarmed by the kids from the co-ed American school.
But in the 9th grade, right around the time I started to read the dusty, used Sweet Valley High paperbacks that we quietly passed beneath the tables in class, to consume in secret as we would, in later years, with cigarettes—I met a boy. It was at our school’s annual bonfire in the middle of the netball field, a bit of a rager by Lahori standards: Jeans and t-shirts replaced school uniforms, and teachers allowed us a degree of independence by watching from the rooftop of the main building at the edge of the field. The party was a mix of self-conscious dancing, lip-synching to Madonna, and—most important, and most thrilling—awkward gawking at adolescent boys. They were the cousins, brothers, and family friends of students; their names had been submitted in advance to the school and after rigorous background checks (or so we were told) their attendance was pre-approved by parents and teachers.
With sultry Jennifer Lopez playing over the sound system, I caught the eye of a lanky fellow in an AC/DC T-shirt, his dark hair stiff and shiny. Naturally, the first person to notice our attraction was Zahra. When the boy—Akber—and I were thrown in the mock jail next to the DJ booth, I knew it was Zahra's doing. Akber and I didn't talk much during our mutual incarceration, but by the time we were "bailed out" I was in love—or at least I thought I was.
Countless secret email exchanges later, I was ready to declare my love, and I decided to do it the American way, on Valentine's Day. The Sweet Valley Highs and the foreign television reruns I watched religiously reinforced a belief that this holiday was the one day a year that it wasn't just okay to express your love; it was practically a requirement. I devised a plan: I would use my mother’s trusty chocolate cake recipe and bake Akber a cake, because that’s what Hariett always did for Jamie on Small Wonder. I would write my confession of love in a card like Ralph Wiggum did for Lisa Simpson. I would not, unfortunately, be able to dance with him in a red sari in the rain like Kajol from the Indian film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai—that would be too debaucherous, and only older, more cultured women wore saris on this side of the border. But baking a cake and writing a card I could handle.
If my mother found out, it would mean no Simpsons for a month at least, and being grounded—maybe foreverZahra and I plotted the details of my cunning plan during school break-time. We would bake this love cake (a name she coined) together so she could say she was taking half of it home, when really she would drop it off at Akber’s house on her way. (If my mother found out, it would mean no Simpsons for a month at least, and being grounded—maybe forever. I had yet to test her on her no-boys rule.)
The day came for the execution. My mom kept her imported cookbooks upstairs under lock and key, far from greasy fingers and oil splatters, but I loved the cake recipe so much that she had meticulously copied it out for me on a piece of paper years before. I dug through my drawer frantically until I found the dog-eared, butter-smeared, and stained hand-written recipe. It came from a book where recipes were constructed as proportions—flour was listed as a hundred percent and all other ingredients were listed as a percentage. I took out two pens and two pieces of paper, one for Zahra and one for me, and neatly copied out equations that would translate each percentage into weights. Then I asked Zahra to do her set as I did mine. “No cheating," I said.
We came up with the same quantities, which was reassuring. I knew the hard part would be measuring the eggs. I had done this once with my mother when she first taught me how to weigh things, but not since then. I measured everything out with a precision I'd have brought to a nuclear science experiment. Zahra watched me without matching my enthusiasm. “I’m bored," she said. "Let me do something to help.”
But I didn’t trust her with a project of this importance. I creamed the butter and sugar with a hand-held mixer, read the recipe over again, reached for the eggs mixed in with vanilla extract, and then put out my hand to take the large bowl with the dry ingredients. Zahra snatched it up before I could, and my heart jumped.
“Not funny!" I complained. One hand still holding the mixer, I tried snatching the bowl of dry ingredients from her. After missing twice, I finally got it, spilling some flour in the process. She was testing my patience.
“Can you stop? This is really important to me!” I continued mixing as she stared. “Can you stop doing that?”
“I’m not doing anything," Zahra replied.
“Because you won’t let me do anything else.”
I was about to add the eggs when I remembered I had forgotten to turn the oven on. A perfect job for her. “You can turn on the oven, gas mark 180°,” I said, and she shot me a sarcastic look and complied.
Finally, the batter was dark, smooth, and creamy. She held the bowl as I poured the batter in a round buttered tin and handed her the spatula to lick. “This is great,” she said, but I didn’t have to taste it to know. I stuck the cake in the oven and turned the light on so I could watch it bake while we made the icing. We were successful in avoiding any further escalation of tensions, for the time being.
After twenty minutes I peeked into the oven through the greasy glass window to find that my cake hadn't risen at all. Horrified, I mentally ran through all the steps I had taken thus far. Did I forget something? Maybe the door was too greasy and I wasn’t seeing straight. I opened the oven and pulled out the tray. The cake was dangerously wobbly. The oven was a disconcerting lukewarm. I looked at the gas mark, set at 80°, and my heart sank. This cake was a disaster. Akber would never be able to love a girl who couldn’t bake a cake; my confession of love was doomed, our affections would die before even being realized. I would never get married or have children, let alone little Akbers. I saw my life unravel in front of me in a spiral of loneliness.
Quickly, my teenage despair turned to anger, and I said things to Zahra that even now I don't wish to repeat. She stood there in silence; when I ran out of things to say, she simply walked out of the kitchen. I upped the oven temperature to 180C and spent the next hour closely monitoring the cake. The toothpick eventually came out clean and I started breathing again.
I checked on the bowl of icing, which was just as I had left it. I placed a tablespoon in a small bowl. The cake had been rescued and it was time to make a peace offering. Zahra was in my room playing my 2Pac CD, the one she had given me—not a good sign. I walked in and handed her the bowl as she mouthed the words to Wonder Why They Call You B****.
“Here,” I said, holding out the icing unceremoniously. It wasn’t cool to be sentimental.
She shrugged her shoulders and didn’t take it, so I set the bowl on the table next to the couch and casually sat myself down at the opposite end. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading the latest Sweet Valley High books I had picked up until my mom called us downstairs for dinner.
The silence between us was probably apparent as we ate chicken karahi and dal with my family and my brother’s older, cooler friend who was also visiting. When dinner was finished and my mother said, “Let’s try that chocolate cake you girls made today,” the spark of hunger in their eyes was unmistakable. We brought the cake to the table, and slice after slice was consumed. With each bite I saw my family take, my anxiety levels rose higher—it would all be eaten with none left for Akber! As the boys went in for seconds, Zahra’s first slice still lay untouched on her plate. My mother confronted her with the phrase we heard her say most often in life: “Sweetie, why aren’t you eating?”
I didn’t care that she had almost destroyed my love cake. I loved her“I’m really full, just saving it for later,” Zahra said, without missing a beat, and then shot me a look that plainly said "you owe me." The plan was still on. At the end, not counting her preserved slice, little less than a quarter of the cake remained. “If you don’t mind, I was hoping to take some home so my parents could try it too,” Zahra said to my mother, and in that moment I didn’t care that she had almost destroyed my love cake. I loved her.
“Of course," my mother smiled. "I’ll have the rest wrapped up for you.”
Shortly after dinner, my mother received a call from Zahra's mother. Her grandmother was unwell and so she would be spending the night—a privilege we normally had to negotiate days in advance, but now, it was nothing short of disaster. “I can drop off the cake with Akber tomorrow on my way home” Zahra whispered to me awkwardly. But tomorrow wouldn't be Valentine's Day. I was surprised at how little I cared.
“Don’t worry about it,” I whispered back. I knew she was uneasy; her grandmother had been unwell for some time. Zahra was the eldest grandchild, which automatically made her the favorite. We didn’t talk about it, but instead watched Grease for the fiftieth time together. We sang all the songs and took turns being Sandy and Danny, simultaneously playing Betty, Putzie, Doody, Sonny and all the others, staying up late into the night.
Some time shortly before sunrise, we got hungry, so I brought out the cake. “We should really eat this.”
“Are you sure?” Zahra asked, shocked, and I nodded, handing her a fork and taking a bite myself. The gooey, fudge-like icing stuck to my tongue, and I felt a jolt of regret at having kept this deliciousness from the both of us earlier in the evening. But we had it now—and we had all of it. I only broke the silence of our happy feast once, to say to my best friend: “Happy Valentine's Day.”
See the recipe for Chocolate Cake with Fudge Icing »
But the real draw of the Samuel Suite is its outdoor space: a 400-square-foot balcony with sweeping views of the San Francisco skyline. Lounging up there on the pillowed outdoor corner couch amid the potted palms with my friend Ben, who is lovely but, after all, just one person, I couldn’t help but wish I had called in a crowd.
Ah, well. Next time. Instead, Ben and I take the elevator back down the 16 flights to the lobby and pop into the Mortimer, a cozy corner bar and lounge where the drinks sound silly—Freaky Tiki, anyone? Oxidation Libation?—but are, in fact, the type of serious libations that would fit right in with those at surrounding bars like the Prohibition-style whiskey specialist Bourbon & Branch, and swanky pre-theater hangout Rye. I sip a bitters-rye-and-port Beatnik, Ben a sage-orange-and-gin Flying Monkey, and we nosh on a couple of pizettes: wild porcini and ricotta and an “Italian meat lover” loaded with proscuitto, sopressata, and coppa, and spicy with pepperoncini. Delicious.
Though the evening bar food is plenty good, my favorite time to dine in the hotel is at breakfast, a meal which I have always found San Franciscans do splendidly. My brioche French toast at the Adagio is sky high, the jams are housemade, the cups of coffee enormous and made with locally roasted beans. I could sit for hours, reading the Chronicle, developing the latest million dollar app, or just relax and soak up the glittering surrounding of my Tenderloin district oasis. —Betsy Andrews
IN THE AREA
It was then that I noticed my tongue was on fire, burning with the heat of a thousand chiles, a spiciness known in Mandarin as la. I felt droplets of sweat form on my cheeks. The spice swelled and pulsed. Behind the la was a citric flavor and a numbing sensation that tingled the sides of my tongue; it at once protected me from the power of the chiles and, somehow, increased my sensitivity to it. This was ma, the effect produced by Sichuan peppercorns, called hua jiao in Mandarin—little dusky pink fireballs that are actually the dried seed husks of the prickly ash tree.
Those two flavors—ma and la, Sichuan's signature combination—were precisely what I'd come to Chengdu looking for. See, I'm a chile fiend. My pantry features an entire section devoted to dried peppers from Thailand, China, Mexico, India, Kenya, and Israel, and my refrigerator shelves sag with unlabeled bottles of homemade hot sauces. I'm neither macho nor masochistic, and while I could lecture you on Scoville units, capsaicin, and endorphins, I'll keep it simple: I think heat makes food taste better.
The city of 14 million inhabitants lies on a vast fertile plain some 50 miles east of the Tibetan plateau foothills. Chengdu sits virtually in the center of the province, a circumstance that aided the city's rise; it was in Chengdu's teahouses that silk traders and traveling officials lingered on their journeys, lending the city a sensual, cosmopolitan air. Nowadays that legacy expresses itself in a vibrant, even frenetic, food culture, which recently earned Chengdu a UNESCO "City of Gastronomy" designation, the first in Asia.
No other cuisine makes such liberal use of chiles while at the same time achieving such complexity and balanceChengdu has its share of overdevelopment, with skyscrapers replacing quaint downtown neighborhoods and cookie-cutter housing developments sprawling into the distance, but even so, the city possesses a laid-back vibe that stands in contrast to the world-ruling auras of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. As soon as I arrived, I checked into a hostel near the city center, and proceeded to eat my way across town.
In the early morning hours of my first full day in the city, when the streets around the hostel were serene, I went for a run, skirting the edge of People's Square, Chengdu's geographical center, until I reached the banks of the mist-shrouded Jinjiang River, one of four waterways that interlace the city. As I crossed bridges, I dodged grandmothers returning from crack-of-dawn market excursions, lugging jugs of rapeseed oil, used for frying, and shopping bags overflowing with greens. On my way back, I bought pork buns from a little shop called Hanbaozi. Through its wide take-out window, I could see cooks stuffing soft white wheat-flour buns with ground pork seasoned liberally with Sichuan peppercorns. With every bun I ate, that tingly numbness—the ma—crept farther across my tongue and palate. An order of four buns, plus a glass of warm soy milk, made a very good breakfast.
Fish-fragrant sparerib noodles, it is important to know, do not smell or taste like fish. Rather, "fish-fragrant," as I learned from the laoban, a no-nonsense middle-aged former salesman who introduced himself as Ma Yingjun—Handsome Ma—refers to the ingredients typically used in cooking fish here: garlic, ginger, scallions, and, often, pickled chiles. Fish-fragrant dishes are frequently stir-fried, but Handsome Ma's yu xiang pai gu mian was more complicated, beginning with a stir-fry and segueing into a long braise. The aromatic dish, an invention of Handsome Ma's, blew me away. I slurped through the bowl in seconds. Then I looked around at the neighboring tables to see what else to try.
The next thing I spotted was a small bowl filled with steamed egg custard, topped with a spoonful of ground pork and chopped ya cai (pickled mustard greens). The egg itself was preternaturally light and creamy, and when I asked Handsome Ma how it was done, I couldn't believe the simplicity of the preparation: just eggs, beaten and steamed. They offset the noodles perfectly.
This was my first taste of how meals worked in Chengdu. For every complicated dish there was an accompaniment of mellow yet transcendent flavorThis combination was my first taste of how meals worked in Chengdu. For every complicated, labor-intensive dish, such as the fish-fragrant noodles or Handsome Ma's excellent hong you chao shou (spicy pork wontons in red chile oil), there was an accompaniment that involved just two or three ingredients of mellow yet transcendent flavor. This balancing act took place in meal after meal. Later that afternoon in a suburb of Chengdu, I ventured a taste of ma la rabbit heads, a surprisingly delectable treat that was possibly the spiciest and most complexly flavored thing I'd ever eaten, and it, too, was paired with a simple porridge of rice and purple sweet potatoes—wonderful.
I spent the next day exploring Chengdu's many neighborhood markets, studying the local chiles. The varieties were mind-boggling: I found xiao mi la, a sharp-tasting hot pepper reminiscent of a Thai bird's-eye chile that infuses braises with vivid heat; chao tian jiao, or "heaven facing chiles," used sun-dried, wok-toasted, and then coarsely ground; erjingtiao, deep green or red peppers that are pickled and minced for a mildly spicy seasoning; ye shan jiao, chiles ranging from purple to green in color that grow wild in the mountains; and more.
Given the abundance of chiles here, I found it hard to believe that people in Sichuan only really started cooking with them in the 19th century, 300 or so years after they were first imported from the New World. The fact is, chiles were just one felicitous addition to an ancient cuisine that has always placed great value on bold flavors. Before chiles arrived, cooks often paired Sichuan peppercorns with the sour red fruit of the Japanese Cornelian cherry tree. Chiles, when they finally came along, must have felt something like the missing piece of a very old puzzle.
To learn more about the chile paste, I paid a visit to Pixian County's Museum of Sichuan Cuisine, where I beheld, sitting outside in the courtyard, row upon row of open-topped clay pots containing fermenting chiles and beans on their way to becoming douban jiang. A manager of the museum's classical collections, Ding Shibing, explained why Pixian is ideally suited for producing the ingredient. In other parts of the country, chile bean paste makers regularly have to add water to their fermenting product to replace moisture lost to evaporation. Not in Pixian, where the ancient irrigation system that turned Sichuan basin into an exceptionally fertile area—a marvel of hydraulic engineering completed in 256 B.C. and still in use—helps to maintain sufficient ground humidity to keep the paste from drying out as it ages. Dujiangyan, as the vast network of canals is named, not only ensures the country's best douban jiang, but earned Sichuan the enduring moniker, the Land of Plenty.
Chengdu people make the most of their bounty and the remarkable local larder it yields—not just chiles and those peppercorns but a cornucopia of fruits, cultivated and wild vegetables, and moreChengdu people take that to heart. They make the most of their bounty and the remarkable local larder it yields—not just chiles and those peppercorns but a cornucopia of fruits, cultivated and wild vegetables, and more. They are as obsessed with food as you'd imagine for a people whose native poets immortalized the cuisine (11th-century bard Su Dongpo on fatty pork: "Simmer slowly/With a little water"). These poets have contemporary counterparts in characters like "Super Piggy," one of Chengdu's many food bloggers.
"I am a sichuanese man. If I am not eating something, I must be thinking about what to eat," said Super Piggy, whose real name is Xu Yun, when I met him for lunch one day. We were eating offal, beloved in Sichuan, at Ming Ting, one of Chengdu's "fly restaurants," bare-bones eateries said to attract diners like flies. Over lunch—pigs' brains braised with tofu and douban jiang; pigs' kidneys stir-fried with a mountain of chives—Yun, a trim man in his mid-30s, waxed philosophical, quoting Plato as easily as Chinese poets. As our conversation turned to the cooking of Chengdu, he said that if I really wanted to experience the city's cuisine, I'd best get into the kitchens of its home cooks.
I spent the rest of my stay seeking out invitations to eat in people's homes, where I encountered this deliciously freewheeling approach to cooking, grounded in the basic flavors of Sichuan but relaxed and improvisational, again and again. One evening Guo Wei-Wei, a young dimple-cheeked writer, had me over to dinner at her brand-new apartment, where she broke down a five-pound rooster, fried some of the meat with shredded young ginger and chiles, and stewed the rest of it with carrots and douban jiang, yielding one chicken two ways—both of them delicious.
On my last night in Chengdu, I went to a dinner party hosted by Ivy Hui, an avid home cook. When I arrived, Hui was preparing sweet and sour fried meatballs made from not just pork but, of all things in landlocked Chengdu, oysters, which lent an ingenious note of brine. Hui also served spareribs that had been braised in lu—a mix of spices such as cassia, star anise, and fennel seed—and then deep-fried and tossed in a hot wok with generous handfuls of xiao mi la chiles. The ribs had a complex flavor that combined the must of a spice market, the fatty punch of barbecue, and a penetrating heat—a masterfully Sichuanese balance of power.
As I devoured the spareribs I could feel the familiar heat—the ma and la that had brought me here—rising in my face. With my chopsticks I plucked a slice of raw cucumber from a plate and crunched it in my mouth. A counterpoint to the frenzy of flavors that surrounded it, the cool vegetable quieted my palate just long enough before the chiles beckoned once again.
See 8 Sichuan recipes in the gallery »
In addition to lazy afternoons taking in the view, the hotel offers a laundry list of activities, from empanada-making classes to guided hikes, but our evening meals at the hotel's La Ventanas Restaurant were what really stood out. The restaurant is committed to local ingredients and seasonality, not hard in such a lush country. Start with a salad—a mix of spinach, spearmint, and other assorted greens topped with strawberries, raisins, and blackberries—made from entirely from ingredients grown in El Silencio’s 5000-square foot organic greenhouse. Other dishes feature free-range chicken and lamb from the on-site farm; the trout we ate, sprinkled with herbs and served alongside grilled watermelon and potatoes, was caught at the property’s farm just hours before we consumed it. After dinner, we stumbled back to our room full and happy. Before dozing off I noticed one last touch: A heated water bottle tucked under the covers to warm my toes at turndown. –Anne Roderique-Jones
IN THE AREA
“You will need to cook for yourself now,” my mother said, standing in our yellow-tiled kitchen in 1988. I was moving away to college and she wanted to make sure I could take the Cuban dishes of my Miami childhood with me: a lavishly spiced ground beef dish called picadillo, and comforting fricassé de pollo, tender braised chicken in a tomato sauce dotted with olives, capers, and raisins. She handed me Cocina Criolla, the bible of Cuban cooking, written more than 60 years ago by Nitza Villapol, the island's most influential culinary figure.
Nitza, as she was known, was most famous for hosting a cooking show on Cuban television called Cocina al Minuto, which launched in 1948, as many a compatriot will point out, a good 15 years before Julia Child debuted on American airwaves. She was also a radio host, a magazine columnist, and a spokeswoman for food brands, a one-woman empire who taught generations of Cubans to cook the classics. Her cookbooks had several renegade print runs in the United States. Nostalgic Cuban families who had fled the Castro regime, as my own family did in the 1960s, relied on these reprints to keep a piece of their beloved island alive and to pass on their heritage to their children. But as large as she figures in our hearts and minds, little has been written about the woman who managed to transcend time, politics, and an island, and whose influence would stretch far beyond Cuba's shores to profoundly touch me, an American woman born to Cuban immigrants.
Along with my mother, it was Nitza who had taught me to cook and appreciate food. I'd known of her for years, but it was only after I went to culinary school and began to think more seriously about food that I set off on a journey to understand her. As I prepared her sweet flan recipe, I wondered if Nitza truly was an instrument of propaganda for the Cuban government, as some have suggested, and sought to understand her influence on millions of kitchens throughout the Cuban diaspora. This is the story of my search for those answers. My search for Nitza.
When I reached out to Marcos Lopez, a Cuba-based friend of Nitza's who wrote a book about her life, the first thing I learned is that, like me, she was born in America, not Cuba. As a kid in the 1920s, she lived in a small apartment in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, where her parents frequently welcomed fellow Cuban expats. They would drop by unannounced, and Nitza's mother, Juana Maria, would whip up hearty Cuban meals. “Juana Maria cocina al minuto,” friends joked, impressed by her ability to feed a group in minutes. A few years later, Nitza and her family settled in Havana, the island's cosmopolitan capital, where my family comes from. She was homeschooled after a bout with polio left her bedridden. At 19, Nitza was able to walk again and she found a job teaching Spanish at a public school, but she always aspired to more.
Through López's account of Nitza's life, I learned how that early hardship filled her with gumption and helped her claim a place in history: The moment she read about the launch of Cuba's first television station in the local newspaper, she simply wrote the owner proposing he hire her to develop a cooking show. He did, and the first episode of Cocina al Minuto aired December 23, 1948. While I've never been able to view that original show, I've seen so many photos of Nitza that I can picture her on the set with her soft curls and precisely defined lips and eyebrows. I imagine she looked so glamorous making guanajo relleno, a Christmas turkey that relied on a classic Cuban marinade of garlic, citrus, oregano, and cumin. It was her mother's recipe.
Her books were just as likely to include recipes for fancy bisques, soufflés, and aspics as for homey dishes of black beans and rice
The show became one of the most successful programs in Cuban television history, and it kicked off Nitza's career against the backdrop of a Cuba vastly different from the time-stalled island we know today. The glamorous playground for socialites and celebrities was brimming with American products back then. Poring over Nitza's early books and articles in the stacks of the University of Miami's Cuban Heritage Collection, I kept seeing ingredients and tools referred to by their brand names—to purée something in a blender, for instance, is osterizar, or “to Oster-ize” it—and her cookbooks were just as likely to include instructions for fancy bisques, soufflés, and aspics as for homey dishes of black beans and rice.
But in 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power, things began to change. Within six months, sweeping agrarian reform redistributed large swaths of privately held farmland, some to the peasants who tilled it but most to the government itself. Castro nationalized American sugar and rice mills and food packaging plants, and within three years 70 percent of all Cuban farmland was under the central government's control. The few independent farmers who remained were required to sell to the state at artificially low prices. There were drastic food shortages by 1962, which led to the establishment of a food rationing system that remains in place today. By then the United States had severed diplomatic ties with the island and imposed an economic embargo that's still in place as well.
“Certain ingredients began to disappear,” Nitza said in the 1983 documentary Con Pura Magia Satisfechos, filmed in her Havana living room when she was about 60. “Some disappeared all of a sudden, others disappeared little by little. There were very difficult moments, days when at noon I didn't yet know what we were going to be able to cook on the show a few hours later.” For Nitza—for all Cubans trying to put food on the table—the shortages meant that homegrown staples like plantains, mangoes, and coffee, as well as basic imports like rice and oil, became scarce.
Long before I'd watched the film, I had heard about those days. My parents were still in Cuba when the shortages began, and they often told me of the night when there was a single avocado for dinner, bought on the black market, and of the days they got by on water alone. Those experiences would shape their lives in America, influencing how they raised me in a small rental apartment in a working-class neighborhood. Every night my family made a point of sitting down to a homemade dinner.
When the amount of rice rationed to each family was reduced—an unthinkable loss for Cubans—Nitza taught people to make macaroni and beans instead
By the 1980s, Nitza was teaching Cubans how to fry eggs with no oil, make breaded steak with no eggs, and, when meat and other animal proteins all but disappeared from ration cards, cook the pith of a grapefruit as if it were a steak. When the amount of rice rationed to each family was reduced—an unthinkable loss for Cubans—Nitza taught people to make macaroni and beans instead.
“She was determined that Cubans be known not for their austerity but for their ingenuity,” said Lillian Guerra, a Cuban-American history professor I spoked to at the University of Florida. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up the Cuban economy for nearly three decades, was catastrophic. Agriculture came to a virtual halt, buying and selling meat or produce without government sanction became a serious crime, and the average Cuban citizen lost 20 pounds in the two years that followed.
It was during this time that I first traveled to Cuba to meet my extended family, a few years after I'd received that fateful cookbook from my mother, years before I would learn Nitza's story. I traveled to the outskirts of Havana to visit my grandmother's sister, Tia Mamita. A wisp of a woman, she hugged me tightly, her embrace erasing years and distance and even the fact that we'd never met before. The sun was unforgiving, and I remember the tall glass of cold water she offered, which I guzzled gratefully. I left my aunt's home thinking how nice it was to meet her and how small she looked in comparison with my grandmother, who lived in the United States.
This was at the tail end of Nitza's career. She was running out of ingredients for her show, focusing instead on fashion and gardening. It was a tragic turn for the Castro supporter who had dedicated herself to the idea that even in the most dire moments, a plate of food could preserve dignity. Her show went off the air in 1993, and the last episodes were difficult to watch. The kitchen, like Cuba itself, was neglected. Its famous host wore a sagging housedress and her eyes were filled with defeat. A few years later, at age 74, Nitza died of heart failure.
Shortly thereafter, I returned to Cuba, stopping at Tia Mamita's home to drop off a package. “You must come in and stay for a while,” she said. I had plans that day to see friends, but she insisted. “You must come in and eat something. The last time you were here all I could offer you was a glass of water. I had nothing in my refrigerator that day, and I was terribly embarrassed.” Her eyes welled. “So when you left, I went out and bought a can of peaches.” She showed me a plain tin with no label. “I have been saving it in case you would one day return. I don't have much in my refrigerator today, but my child, these peaches are yours.”
I thought about my friend waiting for me outside with his motorcycle still running, and I hesitated. But when I looked into my aunt's brown eyes, I understood the sentiment: the consummate Cuban custom of bestowing generosity on a visitor, whether family, friend, or stranger, driven by the notion that hospitality is our ultimate measure of grace. It is the grace that Nitza knew to be present in a plate of food, whether made in times of ease or struggle. The same grace tucked into the pages of the precious cookbook my mother would give me just a few years later. I turned and yelled out at my friend. “Park the bike! We're going to eat some peaches.”
See the recipe for Fricassé de Pollo (Cuban-Style Chicken Stew) »
Each household lays the haft seen, or New Year's table, to welcome the New Year. Literally meaning "Seven S's", each item included in the haft seen begins with the letter "S" and symbolizes one of the seven guardian angels: somagh (sumac) represents light and the color of the sunrise; serkeh (vinegar) symbolizes age and patience; samanou (a sweetmeat made of germinated wheat) symbolizes affluence; sabzi (lentils growing in a dish) is for rebirth; seeb (apple) for health and beauty; seer (garlic) for medicine; and senjed (dried lotus fruit) represents love. A huge spread is prepared, including such favorites as Dolmeh (Stuffed Grape Leaves), Kuku Sabzi (Leek and Herb Frittata), Ghormeh Sabzi (Kidney Bean, Veal, and Herb Stew), and Baghali Ghatogh (Lima Beans with Egg and Dill); these dishes are chosen for their use of eggs (again, for fertility) and green vegetables, symbolizing the colors of the season and the awakening of the earth that comes with the spring. There is also usually a fish dish, for abundance. And of course, no meal would be complete without the pastries—soaked in honey, covered in pistachios, and enjoyed with tea—my version of happiness.
But the festivities don't end there. The 13 days following Nowruz are spent visiting family and friends, and on the 13th day, there's a big outdoor feast. The newly-grown lentil sprouts are tossed into a stream, and any evil spirits or thoughts are symbolically thrown away with them. We start the New Year fresh, rejoicing in the abundance of the spring season, and ready to make new memories.
See Farideh's recipe for Iranian Dolmeh (Stuffed Grape Leaves) »
See classic Iranian recipes in the gallery »
Dinner for two with drinks and tip
Inexpensive Under $50 Moderate $50–$75 Expensive Over $75
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Ulica Kralja Dmitra Zvonimira 2, Zadar (385/23/314-421). Moderate. At this chic spot tucked into Zadar's old town, chef Damir Tomljanović's modern cooking showcases the best of land and sea, pairing the daily catch with puréed potato and creamed Swiss chard (an elegant take on blitva). Small plates—crispy cuttlefish fritters, fish carpaccio in citrus emulsion—round out the menu.
Uvala Opat, Otok Kornat, NP Kornati (mobile 385/91/473-2550). Moderate. As one of the only restaurants in the beautiful Kornati archipelago, this 103-year-old establishment accessible only by boat could get away with much less than its perfectly executed lobster risotto, stewy langoustine na buzaru, and pristine grilled fish and clams. With the help of a wood-fired oven, the staff produces fresh bread daily.
Ulica Sopotska 5, Benkovac (385/23/686-118) Moderate. Situated 20 minutes from the coast in Croatia's idyllic hinterland, this rustic restaurant has been roasting lamb and cooking meat peka-style (long and slow under a clay dome) since 1904.
Obala sv. Ivana 40, Jezera, Murter (385/22/438-024). Inexpensive. In the sleepy fishing village of Jezera on the island of Murter, this seaside trattoria specializes in classic Dalmatian cooking, with definitive renditions of dishes such as black cuttlefish risotto.
Gornji Grad–Medveščak, Zagreb. The 80-year-old uber farmers’ market in Zagreb has everything from produce to freshly butchered meat. Located in Ban Jelačic Square in the heart of the city, the Dolac includes several traditional open-air markets, an adjoining covered market, and the Ribarnica fish market. The market usually closes at three or four o’clock, earlier on Sundays. The cafés surrounding the square are great for people watching and affordable light meals.
Prijeko 2, Dubrovnik (385/20/321-257). Moderate. Cash only. For fresh seafood with authentic local flavor, stop at this reasonably priced restaurant in Dubrovnik’s old town. The tiny spot is favored by locals for its fish soup, shrimp with white risotto, and buzzara, a traditional dish of scampi and mussels cooked in court bouillon.
Cocktail Bar Massimo
Kula Zakerjan, Setaliste Petra Kanavelica, Korčula Old Town (385/20/715-073). Located in a 15th-century tower on the waterfront of Korčula’s old town, this bar is accessible only by ladder (drinks arrive via a dumbwaiter). Sip a cocktail while lodged in a turret overlooking the water, the best spot in Korčula for watching the sunset.
One of the largest of the Dalmatian islands, Brač is closest to Split and known for its natural beauty. Historically Brač was famous for goats, but sheep figure more dominantly in today’s landscape. If you travel to Brač, be sure to sample vitalac, a grilled specialty of sheep intestines, sometimes stuffed into a whole roasted lamb or sheep. The island is noted for its rustic goat and sheep’s milk cheeses as well as olive oils and wines. Most of these products are highly sought after yet rarely found off the island, so take the opportunity to score a unique culinary treasure.
WHAT TO DO
Kornati National Park
Ulica Butina 2, Murter (385/22/435-740). This archipelago of 140 mostly unpopulated islands is a playground for sailors and nature lovers. Several reputable agencies, including Secret Dalmatia, provide daylong tours of these otherwordly islets and reefs.
This company designs tours specifically for gastronomes. It features off-the-beaten-path culinary tours, wine tastings, dinners, and cooking classes. Learn how to make authentic peka, travel to Brač island for a taste of the historic cooking traditions of the tiny village of Dol, or take a five--day jaunt through the country’s island -farmers’ markets.
Seafood is an integral part of Croatian cuisine, and there are numerous celebratory fishing festivals throughout the summer. At the beginning of August, head to the northern coastal town of Fazana for the annual Pilchard Festival, which celebrates the town’s symbol, the pilchard—a type of sardine—and features events such as fish-crate-hauling contests, lessons in handling nets and salting the fish, and, of course, eating. All the restaurants along the nicknamed “pilchard road” showcase a wealth of delicacies, leaving no doubt as to why the tiny fish has long been the lifeblood of this coastal community.
Asparagus, the universal signifier of the spring season, will delight locavore-minded foodies attending the 14th annual Asparagus Days, a two-week celebration of the wild asparagus growing on the slopes of the Učka mountain range in the Kvarner region and in the neighboring area of Istria. The festival, which runs April 12–27, kicks off with a frittata made from 66 pounds of wild asparagus along with 1,000 eggs served in the town square of Lovran, a village situated on the northern Adriatic coast.
Marunada (Chestnut Festival)
If you can’t make it to Lovran in the spring, there’s always the Marunada festival in October celebrating the chestnut harvest. The Lovran chestnuts known as maruni are larger and sweeter than the typical variety and have been an important export since the 17th century.