Ramen gives Japanese chefs a chance to play loose with the rules.
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- 06/02/16--09:30: Behind Japan's (And America's) Ramen Obsession
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- 06/07/16--05:00: The World’s Best Sandwiches Come From Florence
- 06/08/16--08:30: What Goes Into Making Israel’s Top Bowl of Hummus
- Look for the best ingredients. Canned chickpeas have their place, but dried ones are more flavorful and make a richer purée. When it comes to tahini, Mike Solomonov of Philadelphia's acclaimed Zahav Restaurant recommends the brand Soom for its extra-nutty flavor.
- Add a pinch of baking soda to your dried chickpeas to get them extra soft.
- For a more complex texture, mash your chickpeas with a mortar and pestle, not a food processor.
- Save a few of the cooked chickpeas after boiling to serve on top.
- Make it into a meal by topping with grilled meat or vegetables.
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Welcome to Asian Food Adventures, where Dan Holzman, chef-owner of The Meatball Shop, and Matt Rodbard, author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, dive into the foods they love so much in search of higher meaning, expert advice, and a great bowl of noodles. Or all three.
When your friend is opening a new Oakland ramen restaurant and needs to visit Japan for some last-minute noodle inspiration, you drop what you’re doing and hop on a plane to join him. That’s how Dan found himself on a week-long ramen binge with our friend, chef Kyle Itani, across the country.
While no trip to Japan is complete without the requisite visit to Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, Dan—a lifelong New Yorker—prefers getting to the small towns where the people are excited by visitors interested in learning about their traditions. After stops in Akita for kiritanpo (cylindrical grilled rice skewers) and amazing yakitori, and Hakodate for ikura (pristine cured salmon roe) and live squid, the bullet train dropped Dan, Kyle, and their band of uni-obsessed hooligans in the city of Sapporo.
Americans most commonly associate Sapporo with the light lager they drink at two-for-one sushi happy hour, but this city in Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido is best known locally for ramen. Creamy, nutty miso ramen, specifically. To many it’s the home of the best ramen you’ll get in Japan.
Traditional miso ramen is served piping hot (over 200 degrees Fahrenheit) and is made with a base of white and red miso, scorched garlic, sake, honey, and lard. Chef Ivan Orkin, who runs the wildly successful Ivan Ramen in Tokyo and New York, has described it, at its worst, as a glorified bowl of miso soup. “That is the fucking worst,” he says. But when done right—rich and earthy and packed with Japan’s favorite five-letter word, umami—it’s magic.
It doesn’t take long to understand why the soup is served so hot. It’s cold in Sapporo, the kind of bone-chilling cold that makes you stop and wonder what all of these people are doing here. The city is so cold there’s an extensive underground tunnel system that lets you get pretty much anywhere without seeing the light of day. And on a bitter cold day, there is no better to salve than a bowl of piping hot miso ramen.
But it’s kind of weird to talk about ramen in terms of “tradition.” Ramen is a new food group, as traditional as the salad bar or McFlurry. It was only after World War II that Chinese wheat noodle soup (shina soba, or Chinese soba) found its way across the Sea of Japan to the islands. Flash-fried instant ramen noodle soup entered the Japanese market in 1958, invented by Momofuku Ando and initially sold as a luxury item retailing for nearly six times the cost of fresh noodles. Eventually the production price would drop and the noodles would be packaged with just-add-water soup mix in a Styrofoam cup. By the 1970s, both instant and counter ramen were a huge hit in Japan, eventually finding their way into the American food consciousness.
Kyle, speaking about the inspiration for his Oakland ramen, argues that there is very little room for personal expression in Japanese cooking. It’s a cuisine whose recipes were developed long ago and are in many ways locked in time by a culture set in tradition. But ramen is different. Ramen isn’t traditionally Japanese, so it allows chefs to play and grow. And there’s a whole lot to play with; Japan is a long and mountainous longitudinally oriented country, with an extremely diverse system of microclimates supporting extremely diverse growing seasons. The food growing in the snow-covered north is very different from that found in the sun-drenched south.
Today, ramen remains one of the most discussed and Instagrammed foods around. And while Dan and I looked at his Japanese holiday photos and talked more about Sapporo ramen, we started to unpack the reasons why everybody loves ramen in America. America is obsessed with what it knows of ramen, a narrow example of a rich and disparate offering ranging from the heart-stopping pork tonkatsu of the south to the most delicate bowls of seafood and chicken based broths garnished with delicate seasonal vegetables and lightly cooked seafood. Diners love eating it, writers love listicle-ing it, chefs love making it—both fulltime and as late-night pop-ups. And if we were going to figure out why, we needed to indulge. Thankfully, one of Brooklyn’s best ramen bars, Yuji, was located just down the street.
By day, the 12 seats in the storefront on the quietest stretch of Ainslie Street in Williamsburg operates as Okonomi, a restaurant evoking the spirit of mottainai—a Buddhist term that in Japan translates roughly to “what a waste!” (that is, at Yuji they try to avoid wasting things). The breakfast is a traditional Japanese set of pickles, vegetables lacquered in mirin and sesame oil, and a choice of fish. By night, chef-owner Yuji Haraguchi focuses on ramen—both with and without broth (the latter’s called mazemen, pronounced mah-zuh-men)—and a small selection of sides like pickles or sashimi.
We order four bowls, which at most places would be way too much to handle. At Yuji, it’s the smart bet to experience Haraguchi’s range. The bowls are very different, each sharing only one similarity: they are all inventive and absolutely delicious. There’s an Aka Aka bowl built around a unique crawfish dashi (very in-season during our early spring visit), which, topped with torched sea cucumbers, mizuna, and scallions,had more in common with a velouté that you could find at Le Bernardin than anything served in most ramen shops.
Dan’s favorites are a miso mazemen uni bowl, and what the chefs calls tunakotsu—roast tuna belly with charred scallions and yuzo kosho, a citrus-fortified chile paste. But the night’s highlight is the most ingenious ramen, which isn’t like any ramen we’d ever tried: a ramen / shabu shabu mashup where a light shio broth and wavy noodles are accompanied by a plate of raw ocean trout that we drop into the bowl of piping broth to poach along as we slurp.
As we wrap up the last of our bowls, we get to talking about our initial question: Why is ramen so popular with basically everybody? Okay, the obvious answer is that it’s fucking good. Yes, ramen is delicious. But so are enchiladas. Enchiladas are a gift from the food gods. But nobody is all about #enchiladas these days. (Okay, maybe one guy.)
“Each bowl we make is a blank canvas,” says Yuji cook Dave Potes, a couple days after our visit. I’ve called up Potes and manager George Padilla to attempt to answer this question of why ramen stands apart as such an obsession. Padilla says that the whole point of Yuji is not just serve delicious ramen, but to educate customers about all that ramen can be, particularly in America where any rules are thrown out the window.
Potes calls Yuji “truly American ramen,” and that the recipes are influenced by Haraguchi’s obsession with sourcing and utilizing amazing fish. “Yuji spent a lot of time at the fish markets in Boston and New York,” he says of his boss. Take for example the tunakotsu, one of the restaurant’s trademark bowls, which Potes said was created after the chef saw the massive tuna backbones and belly skin being discarded at the market. Yuji threw the scraps in a massive pot and started to boil away. The rest is ramen history.
But what we fully realized in our dive into ramen realization is that a bowl of ramen is pure interpretation—with any number of variables being tweaked (stock, toppings, proteins, spice), by the creator. Kind of like the knobs on the soundboard at a recording studio. Or the swirling of paint on a freshly stretched canvas. Making ramen is a form of pure expression for a chef. And it is us, the diners, who are the biggest winners.
Get the recipe for Home-Style Chicken Ramen »
Crushed by rocketing from sea level to 13,000 feet in the air, I woozily hand my passport to the customs agent. Visa stamped, I jump in a cab and head into a bewilderingly quiet city silenced by democracy—a vote on a constitutional referendum left the city absent of cars and people—no work, no protests, no markets, little food. Silence.
This is not the La Paz I had read about. It did, however, provide a relaxing introduction to a city known for it’s crushing elevation, intense traffic and bustling street markets. The next morning the city erupted with the energy of a well-rested giant: horns, dogs, people, traffic, diesel and—finally—food.
Andean cuisine, like much of the rest of Bolivia, is a combination of the native ingredients and traditions of the Aymara and Quechua mixed with what the Spanish brought to the table hundreds of years before. It’s big on spice and heat, and for every meat or starch there seems to be a salsa to match.
Set high in the Andes, La Paz and its sister city El Alto combine to form a sprawling metropolis of 2.4 million people. Straddling the altiplano and spilling down a giant canyon formed by the Choqueyapu River, neighborhoods and their respective markets seemingly hang from the canyon walls. Connected by a maze of extraordinarily steep and winding streets bisected further by an endless amount of staircases, La Paz is as breathtaking for its beauty as it is for its elevation—as high as 14,000 feet above sea level—and to understand the city, you have to climb it. Start doing so at the market.
Mercado Rodriguez is the largest food market in La Paz, home to impressive mountain produce, meat, and fish from nearby Lake Titicaca. The potatoes alone are quite the sight to see—Bolivia is home to over 200 varieties—and they’re as colorful and varied as the outfits of the local woman who sell them.
The market is predominantly outdoors, sprawling up, down and around the maze of neighborhood streets. There is a smaller indoor section that sits beneath a canopy of tarps, corrugated metal and other fabrics. Inside you’ll find a staggering array of fresh produce and, depending on the time of day, sleeping vendors.
The market is surrounded by a number of small stalls or kioskos selling everything from bull penis soup to saltenas to—my favorite—the spicy fried chicken over hominy at Chicharroneria Arminda. There aren’t many options at Chicharroneria Arminda. Choose from pork or chicken. Both come deep fried. And both options get served over hominy and are accompanied by a steamed potato. But then there are the excellent charred salsas, made with local peppers and each tailored to match a particular meat.
Mercado Rodriguez is open daily from around 5 a.m. all the way until 9 p.m.; it’s busiest on the weekends and mostly outdoors. Once you’ve had your fill, take a 15 minute walk toward the small neighborhood square of Parque Riosinho. There, while snacking on some excellent salsa-slathered grilled alpaca, you can start exploring everything else La Paz has to offer.
Dave Snyder is a Brooklyn-based Designer and the Executive Creative Director at Firstborn in NYC. He moonlights as a Documentary Photographer. He likes food.
Florence holds a secret. In the heart of Tuscany, amidst the narrow, cobbled streets busy with pedestrians, cyclists, and roaming gypsy bands, are the world’s greatest sandwiches. Nowhere is the culture of cured meat and cheese making as spirited than it is in the hills in and around Florence, and nowhere are said cured meat and cheese put to better use between bread. The centuries-old culture and traditions of cheese- and meat-making here produce some of the finest foodstuffs in the world, and they happen to be quintessential sandwich ingredients.
Unlike their overstuffed and crudely flattened cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, Italian panini are made from a low quantity of high quality ingredients, each prepared in a way respectful to how they should actually taste. In this way, a panino is the embodiment of Italian cuisine. It is the singular product of the country’s culinary ethos: less is more. And as you eat your way around the city, you find that every component—from the bread to the fillings to the wine panini are often accompanied by—will be exclusively Tuscan, if not Florentine.
But Florence doesn’t just supply the ingredients for sandwich greatness; it’s also uniquely supportive of a sandwich spirit that’s been growing since the ‘70s and ‘80s, when iconic shops like All’antico Vinaio and I Due Fratellini opened and helped define a robust panini culture. But the seeds for this culture were planted as far back as the 1870s, just after Italy’s unification. “It was a time when many laborers and peasants poured into Italian cities from the countryside,” Jersey-born, Tuscan-living food writer Katie Parla tells me in an email, “and the panino filled with offal and simmered poor cuts of meat presented the ideal form of urban dining for the poor—quick, hearty, affordable, and portable.”
At around 5 euro a pop today, panini are the grab-and-go, stand-and-scarf version of Italian food at a fraction of the cost of other meals (a sandwich-friendly glass of wine will only set you back two more euro at the panini shop). And you can get panini at nearly every hour of the day—unique in a country that is otherwise strictly regimented when it comes to eating. During the hours of 3 and 7 p.m., when most of the city’s restaurants are closed, panini shops are one of the few places still open. The same goes for late nights when you need a sobering post-club meal.
Like almost anywhere in the world, you find factory-made foodstuffs in Italy. But in a city where taste drives success, even the mass-produced products are of higher caliber, and this keeps prices down for, as Parla tells me, “a city/nation in which people simply don’t want to pay much for a sandwich.”
Watch closely as a panino maker at All’antico Vinaio quickly slices through a thin piece of schiacciata bread. He quarters a wheel of Pecorino next, shaves off the wrapper, cuts perfectly symmetrical triangles, and lays them evenly onto still-steaming bread. If you time this, the second hand on your watch won’t finish half a rotation. With a flip of the wrist, crema di pecora or some other savory spread covers every millimeter of bread, working its way into schiacciata’s tiny air pockets. The visual element of panini making is always there, and it’s a vital part of the experience. So too is the fact that your panino will always be hand-delivered by the creator. It’s a personal exchange.
Standing on smooth old stones outside any panino shop, with a sandwich in one hand and local wine in the other, is to be part of something timeless. It’s a chance to hold a tangible part of Florence while the rest of the city passes you by.
The Elements of Florentine Sandwich Style
Florence, like a lot of Italian cities and regions, boasts its own unique ingredients. Here, though, more than anywhere else, these ingredients are ideal sandwich fodder. Take sbriciolona, for instance, a fennel-flavored salami that riffs on the finocchiona made in southern Tuscany. As in the south, it is made from ground pork and laden with fennel seeds and black pepper. But in Florence it’s shaped into an eye-popping foot-wide tube ideal for slicing onto sandwiches, and you’ll likely find it, hard to miss, sitting atop a deli case waiting for someone to order a sandwich with it. Not far away you’ll find salsiccia cruda, raw sausage meant to be eaten just like that: cut from its casing and smeared onto bread, no cooking required.
Tuscany is Italy’s land of Pecorino, cheese made from sheep’s milk. And in the lush, rolling green hills around Florence, an abundance of sheep graze, and variations of pecorino, from fresh and creamy (Senese) to aged and sharp (Toscano DOP), abound. Whether sliced or smeared, Pecorino, with its sharp, salty tang, is the perfect sandwich cheese.
Each of these uniquely Florentine ingredients, more often than not, go onto bread that is also unique to Florence. Semelino are small, crusty rolls, firm on the outside and chewy on the inside, perfect standard loaves. Florence also takes claim to schiacciata, the focaccia-like bread most of the city’s panini are served on. Schiacciata ferments and rises longer than focaccia, so the final product, once baked, is much more fragrant and slightly more dense, which helps keep the sandwich from tearing.
And Because Florence: The Guts
Then there is lampredotto. Order it on a roll and you’ve got the panino of Florence. The faint of heart and unadventurous may squirm to learn the filling for this sandwich is made from the fourth lining of a cow’s stomach. But to squirm is to miss the point entirely: This is the soul of Florentine (and, really, Italian) food. Born in the 15th century when no part of an animal was laid to waste and named for lamprey eels that once swam in the Arno River, panino con lampredotto is an extension of the peasant foods that shaped and have come to define Italian cuisine. It’s extremely tender, intensely seasoned meat, the stewy pulled pork of offal.
Where to Eat Panini
A short walk from Palazzo Vecchio is this tiny counter boasting one of longest panini menus in Florence. There’s no bad option from a choice of 30, but a favorite is the simple butter and anchovy (acciuga e burro) Fratellini is a great place to have your first taste of salsiccia cruda too, and simply paired with roasted eggplant (salsiccia cruda e melanzane) is how you’ll find it on Via dei Cimatori.
Via dei Cimatori, 38R, 5012239 055 239 6096
The menu at this standalone cart near the Sant’Ambrogio market reads about a dozen items long. But panino al lampredotto, Florence’s tripe sandwich, is the thing to get here. Before he lids each sandwich, Sergio Pollini, with expertise and enthusiasm, dips the underside of the top half of each bun into the simmering liquid. Just the top, because the bottom half will absorb the rest of the juices while you eat what is arguably the city’s best panino al lampredotto.
Via dei Macci, 126, 50122
Semel Street Food
Marco Paparozzi hand-writes the menu everyday at his tiny shop near Sant’Ambrogio market, but any of the nine or ten panini is a home run. Go for the tripe and cheese panino for a riff on the city’s lampredotto. Or, if you’re looking to carb load, the raviolo and pheasant sauce hits all the classic Italian flavors, re: tomatoes, soffritto (carrots, onion, celery), and ragu.
Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti, 44, 50122
The crowds and the panini are both big on Via dei Neri in front of All’antico Vinaio. The nearly 30-year-old store has grown to include a sit down osteria and wine bar, but the panini are not to be missed here, and La Favolosa may be the best use of sbriciolona in all of Florence. Sbriciolona is paired with artichoke and pecorino spreads (crema) and spicy eggplant.
Via dei Neri, 74/R, 5010039 055 238 2723
Located inside the Mercato Centrale, Da Nerbone is one of Florence’s oldest panini shops. Go here for lampredotto and bollito (boiled brisket) panini, as they have been making them since the 1870s.
Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 12 red, 50123
Alessandro Frassica’s ten-year-old shop right near the Arno River is the perfect example of high quality. By sourcing the best ingredients throughout Italy and by using a bounty of regionally protected ingredients (Robiola cheese, prosciuttio di San Daniele, etc), Frassica has gained a reputation for making some of the best panini in Florence.
Via dei Georgofili, 3r/7r, 5012239 055 219208
When wife and husband duo Mara Cipriani and Sergio Esposito first raised the shutters at Mordi e Vai, their stall in the Testaccio Market, it was 90 degrees outside. If you have spent even a minute in Rome’s swampy summer heat, you know these are less than ideal conditions for consuming hot food of any kind, much less meaty Roman classics like braised meat on crusty bread. Yet that’s precisely what was on the menu at Mordi e Vai that day in July 2012, and every day since.
“When we first opened, people scoffed and asked ‘who wants to eat meat or tripe sandwiches in this heat?’,” Esposito reminisces. “I told them, forget the weather! Come here and try the allesso,” referring to the house specialty, tender simmered brisket. The sandwich is one of several items served at Mordi e Vai that has virtually vanished from Roman tables.
Esposito’s pitch was clever and it has worked. Today, Mordi e Vai is by far the busiest stall at the Testaccio Market and year-round, hundreds of people queue up every day for sandwiches filled with brisket in various forms, as well as tripe with tomato sauce, kidneys and onions, tongue with salsa verde, and tomato-braised intestines.
In spite of their current success, Cipriani and Esposito were taking a huge risk when they opened their 20-square meter stall near the market’s Via Beniamino Franklin entrance. It was among the first market stalls in town to sell Roman fast food: hot, homemade meals rooted in local flavors intended to be eaten on the fly. Market dining may be a standard feature in other cities—even as close as Florence and Naples—but in Rome, the format was virtually non-existent before Mordi e Vai opened.
Nearly four years later, the Testaccio Market has become a point of reference in the city for market dining and Mordi e Vai has been joined by nearly a dozen stalls serving meals of various genres, from gourmet panini to gluten free pasta. Mordi e Vai remains by far the most popular, likely because its offerings most faithfully showcase the city’s traditional flavors and deliver them in a portable, affordable format.
After years in the food business—Cipriani owned restaurants while Esposito worked in the city’s slaughterhouses—the couple recognized a dearth of quick and affordable dining options that were anchored in Roman tradition. “We wanted people to taste the flavors of the past without having to sit down to a full meal, wait for their food, or pay restaurant prices,” Esposito explains.
The dishes, which are displayed behind the plexiglass counter, include a range of local classics, some of which have disappeared from menus as Roman cuisine has evolved. The aforementioned allesso, for example, rarely appears on home or restaurant tables, while picchiapò, is even less common. To produce the former, Cipriani simmers brisket with vegetables and aromatics. The finished product is sliced and served on bread soaked in the meat’s savory juices. Picchiapò, on the other hand, is made from allesso scraps, which are shredded, then cooked in a tomato sauce enriched with onions and chili. It, too, is served on a sliced roll, which absorbs the deep flavors of this forgotten Roman classic.
Mordi e Vai
Nuovo Mercato Comunale di Testaccio, Via Beniamino Franklin, 12/E
+39 339 134 3344
Katie Parla is the co-author of Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes From an Ancient City.
At 10 on Sunday morning, the chickpeas in a giant pot on chef Felix Rozental’s counter have already been soaking for close to 12 hours. Rozental is on his own today (Sundays in Israel are equivalent to Mondays in the U.S.), so he is chopping the parsley that tops the hummus, or as it’s called here at Han Manuli, msabaha.
By noon, service will start: Rozental tastes the chickpeas and strains some, tossing fistfuls into the broad metal bowl serving as a mortar. He only makes the one batch a day, enough for the 150 or so servings of msabaha he sells each day. His hefty pestle scrapes the side of the bowl, slamming down onto the hummus with its own weight. A few glugs of fresh lemon juice go in, lots of water from the boiling of the chickpeas. He pours in tahini from a pitcher held a few feet above, letting it drizzle in slowly, the final flourishes on his bowl of hummus that’s so much more than a bowl of hummus.
Great hummus is as common in Israel as taco stands in Mexico, but there is no place else serving it the way Han Manuli does: finessed and perfected by the trained hands of an obsessive who treats the dish like a chef would a $200 tasting menu.
“Every msabaha is a hummus, but not every hummus is a msabaha,” Rozental explains. Msabaha is more of an entire chickpea dish, which includes the basic puree with which most Americans are familiar, but elaborated upon. Here, at its most basic, it comes with loose chickpeas, herbs, and tehina on top, but options include wild mushrooms, lamb, and "sea monsters." (Tahini, called tehina in Israel, refers to both the pure sesame paste and the sauce made from it with garlic, lemon juice, and water. In his cookbook Zahav, Philadelphia's chef Mike Solomonov describes how Israelis love tahini "unconditionally and a bit irrationally.")
Calling anybody’s bowl “the best hummus” in Israel is like declaring a favorite slice in New York City: It depends on your personal preferences, what you grew up with, and more than likely what’s near you at the moment. A recent survey found that 93% of Israelis eat hummus more than once a week—and 5% eat it six times a week. At any given time, 70% of the country has it in their fridge.
The morning I came to Han Manuli to talk hummus with Rozental, Time Out Tel Aviv called it one of the best in the city (note: article is in Hebrew). The building dates back to the Ottoman empire, taking the restaurant’s name from the han, or guest house, that previously occupied the space, operated by an Armenian named Manuli. Rozental and his partner in business and life, Chen Rozenhak, hope to recreate the welcoming atmosphere of a guesthouse in their restaurant, serving msabaha in Jaffa, the Arab town at the south end (and historic root) of Tel Aviv.
Thick and warm—a sure sign that it’s freshly made—Han Manuli's msabaha comforts with its freshness, each bowl hand-mashed when ordered. The finest Bulgarian chickpeas, a carefully weighed ratio of baking soda, and constantly monitored simmer result in an ethereal texture that Rozental rightfully prides himself on. The beans stay whole for topping but, when prepared as hummus, practically melt under the rhythmic pounding of the pestle, as if they were pats of butter on a hot stove, giving up structure, but never flavor.
Looking south from Tel Aviv’s sprawling beaches, the minaret of Jaffa’s Sea Mosque extends into the sky much as the sand-hued stone of the old city protrudes into the blue waters of the Mediterranean. The Arab town existed long before Tel Aviv—a planned city created at the beginning of the 20th century—and the daily call to prayer, the remaining mosques, and Arab hummus joints remind the coming onslaught of gentrifiers of the neighborhood’s roots. Nearly 10,000 years of history shaped Jaffa, but now it’s almost wholly consumed by the modern, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. Han Manuli's Israeli ownership marks it as part of the new guard, but serving great hummus is long-standing tradition of Jaffa.
Rozental, with black skinny jeans, a tight-fitting black t-shirt, and a quick, sly smile, is forthright and unapologetic: When I ask him why he decided to open in Jaffa two and a half years ago, he cites the usual reasons—he and his partner lived nearby, rent was cheaper—but he also flashes a devilish grin and says, “You know, an Israeli opening a hummus restaurant in Jaffa, I thought it would be a little bit nice…and rude.”
Han Manuli bears little resemblance to the traditional hummus joints nearby: literal holes in walls where customers are asked to eat it and beat it and the menu is made up, in its entirety, of three different styles of hummus. The bathrooms are down the street. Rozental cooked at London’s St. John and for Alain Ducasse in Paris, and he’s bringing that fine-dining mentality to his Han Manuli. He wants to make the best hummus possible, and that involves the setting, along with ingredients and technique.
“It’s not that traditional,” he says of his msabaha, pointing specifically to the toppings. But in other ways, it’s even more so—he ditches all recent advances in hummus technology. No whirring food processors touch Han Manuli's hummus. In fact, from the old-school Arab-style coffee-making to the open-flame grilling, nothing in the kitchen couldn't have been there a century ago. His pricing, however, takes its cue from modern restaurants: He readily admits that he makes one of the most expensive bowls of msabaha in the world. At 38 shekels (just over $10 U.S.) it’s almost twice the 20 shekels charged at typical hummus shops.
Around 10:45, he weighs out a small amount of baking soda and adds it, along with plenty of water, to the chickpeas and puts them on the stove to boil. The baking soda is essential to soften the beans and, in his words, “make them more friendly on the stomach.” The whole kitchen is barely more than a 20-foot hallway, with a wooden counter for prepping and plating, a stove, and a sink. While the chickpeas come to a boil, Rozental rotates eggplants on and off the naked flame of another burner and sears well-oiled tomatoes hard on a cast iron grill plate over another. The tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and more are toppings for the variations of msabaha they serve.
Getting all of the prep done in the small kitchen on the six burners is a bit of a Tetris game—he’s constantly moving one vegetable to make room for another. At one point, it becomes a literal balancing act, as he places the screaming-hot grill full of tomatoes on top of the fryer—trying to balance it on the protruding handle. (The stove itself, too, is balanced: each of the four legs is raised off the ground by a small brick.)
As the chickpeas boil away on the stove, Rozental pauses to skim the foam from the top. It is clear why that foam has become all the rage as a vegan egg white substitute: It puffs, creeping up the sides of the enormous pot like a proto-merengue. The skimming, which he does every ten minutes or so, prevents the whole thing from boiling over. After about 40 minutes, he moves the chickpeas to a lower heat so they don’t fall apart completely—bad “for texture and aesthetics,” he explains.
Throughout the day, Rozental talks about his ingredients. He recently consulted on the opening of a hummus restaurant in Moscow, where he admits it will never be as good as in Jaffa, because the raw produce isn't as good. The buzzwords for many of the ingredients in Israel are the same as anywhere—local, organic, handmade, fresh—but they take on special significance in a country mad about vegetables. At Han Manuli, they use small Bulgarian chickpeas. Even raw, they are flavorful and barely harder to bite than a peanut. “It’s the best chickpea in the world,” Rozental insists, not just for its flavor, but also for how it grinds into a soft paste.
Rozental shuffles between boiling potatoes and peeling eggs but never seems hurried. He pulls out enamel baking dishes and lines them with crumpled parchment paper to store the grilled onions. They look like they might be straight off Pinterest. Most of Han Manuli has that look, in fact: the mustard yellow, muted aqua, and rust-orange painted chairs, the raw brick walls, and the copper pots hanging from the floating wood shelves.
Shortly before the restaurant opens at noon, Rozental gets ready to make the hummus itself. He crushes cloves of garlic one by one under the palm of his hand, then adds them to a large prep bowl with coarse-grained sea salt and nearly obliterates them under the weight of a heavy gold pestle, before adding tahini to complete the basic hummus--just the canvas upon which he creates msabaha.
Twice a day, he mixes that same tahini “dough,” as he calls it, with lemon juice and cold water, creating tahini sauce. It is one of the standard toppings for Rozental’s msabaha. Each bowl also sports a colorful palette of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, green herbs, chopped red onions, and chiles (chopped and submerged in oil with salt and garlic).
The pita at Han Manuli comes from a nearby bakery, from Rozental’s own formula, par-baked to 80%, then finished in—and served warm from—the restaurant’s combi-steamer oven. Each serving of msabaha comes with a plate of accessories: pickles, lemon, a hot sauce called harif (Israeli harissa), and raw onion. The onion, Rozental says, is to use to pick up the hummus instead of bread. “It’s our secret, it’s how we do in Israel,” he smiles.
The roots of msabaha come from Lebanon. Rozental considers his version to be more Jordanian or Jerusalem-style, but as nearly anyone here will remind you, hummus belongs to all of the Middle East. Israelis, however, are particularly proud of theirs. I ask Rozental why. “This is what we Israelis do. We are proud.” Rozenhak, his partner in business and life, adds, “it’s a representative dish. We chose it to be our specialty becomes it gathers people together at the table.”
At noon on the dot, the restaurant opens and the first ticket hits the line: two bowls of take-out msabaha that the same person orders every day. Rozental smiles like a sprinter setting up on the start line and prepares each bowl with impressive speed. This is the best part of running the restaurant, Rozental says, “The people, they come. They come and they eat.”
How to Up Your Own Hummus Game
If you can't make it to Jaffa for msabaha at Han Manuli, you can at least steal a few tricks from Rozental to make it at home:
Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based food and travel writer. Learn more about her at The GastroGnome.
Anyone who has grown up around (or vacationed in) Rhode Island has some memory of clamcakes. Eaten out of a greasy bag on the beach, off long communal tables in one of the state’s gone-but-not-forgotten amusement parks, or dunked into clam chowder from any clam shack or harborside fish market-cum-restaurant, these little fritters are as essential to Rhode Island summer as cider doughnuts are to fall in New England. But unlike those doughnuts or local Rhode Island clam chowder, clamcakes are practically unknown everywhere else, even as nearby as Massachusetts and Long Island.
Clamcakes’ similarity to crab cakes ends with the name; they are heavier in the “cake” department, more fritters or hush puppies than seafood patties. They’re mildly seasoned, perhaps with a bit of garlic, black pepper, or paprika. They may contain a touch of cornmeal, but typically are made with an all white flour batter. Some are chewy and soft, like savory funnel cake, while others are crisp on the outside and fluffy within. Most importantly, they are generously filled with minced fresh clams. The most reverent of recipes call for whole-belly quahogs and clam liquor, ingredients that perfume the hot-out-of-the-fryer dough with rich, briny steam.
The fritters range in size from marbles all the way to tennis balls, and David Norton Stone, Rhode Island food historian and author of Clamcake Summer: One Man Eats Every Clamcake in Rhode Island (Or Dies Frying), suggests a relationship between clamcakes’ size and their geography. Stone observes that the southernmost clamcakes, like those from Aunt Carrie’s or George’s of Galilee (iconic clamshacks on the southern tip of Narraganset), are typically the largest.
Older Rhode Islanders remember enjoying more petite clam cakes sold 30 miles to the north at Warwick’s Rocky Point Amusement Park. The historic attraction drew crowds with its rides, sideshow, performances, and food from 1847 until permanently closing its gates 1995. David Cascioli, the general manager of Rocky Point from 1974 to 1994, recalls serving nearly 1,700 orders of clamcakes—roughly 23,000!—in an average day of service. The park’s Shore Dinner Hall offered the cakes as a part of a traditional New England shore dinner and sold them by the bag from a takeout window.
The coastal property has since been turned into a scenic state park, but Cascioli now works as a consultant for the Rocky Point Clam Shack, a nostalgic culinary relic to the legendary amusement park that allows younger generations of Rhode Islanders a taste of the Shore Dinner Hall’s famous fritters and chowder.
Aunt Carrie’s officially claims that its founders, Carrie and Ulysses Cooper, were the inventors of the clam fritter. While this provenance is questionable–Aunt Carrie’s opened in 1920, and there are multiple references to clamcakes in 19th century food writing—the Cooper’s contribution to New England cuisine is irrefutable. Stone suggests that “what Carrie really invented was the clam shack itself, a place where clamcakes and chowder became a meal all alone.”
Today, few Rhode Island beach-goers can imagine a summer lunch besides chowder and clamcakes. Aunt Carrie’s received national recognition for this contribution in 2007 when it was named an American Classic by the James Beard foundation. The Rhode Island clamcake may not be as well known as Louisiana gumbo or Carolina barbecue, but it’s every bit as part of our national culinary fabric—one that warrants, at the very least, a trip back east for the summer.
Here’s how to make them as good as what you’ll find at the clam shacks of Rhode Island.
Notes From the Test Kitchen: How to Make the Perfect Clamcake
The Clams: Strained canned clams work in a pinch, but fresh quahogs make the absolute best clamcakes. The large bay clams’ fat, livery bellies nearly melt into the batter, enriching the cakes with loads of briney flavor. (Reserve the broth you get from steaming them for clam chowder.) And don’t be shy when chopping these babies up; the chewy muscles can tend towards toughness when left in pieces larger than a pea. The smaller the clam pieces, the more clammy flavor the cakes will pick up.
The Batter: A splash of mild beer in the batter keeps these cakes light and fluffy, but it is by no means necessary or strictly traditional; if you prefer to cook without alcohol, substitute the volume of beer with equal parts milk and clam broth. A touch of garlic, lemon zest, or paprika are pleasant additions to the batter as well, but don’t go overboard and overpower the clams!
The Fry: If you’re concerned about dropping fat dollops of batter into a big pot of hot frying oil, a 2-tablespoon ice cream scoop with a release-lever is a handy solution. Otherwise, try our easy home-method using two spoons: Use one spoon to scoop a generous lump (about two tablespoons) of batter. Hold the spoon close to the oil to prevent splashing and use the second spoon to scrape the batter gently into the oil. Allow the batter to set up slightly (about 10 seconds) before adding the next clamcake. And don’t crowd the pot—give them room to swim.
Get the recipe for Rhode Island Clamcakes »
More Fun With Bivalves: How Jacques Pepin Cooks Clams
On my first trip to Antwerp in January 2009, I arrived on a cold, brittle Sunday night and was disappointed to find practically everything closed, save a single bar on the corner of the Dageraadplats in the heart of the fashionable district of Zurenborg: Café Zeezicht.
Golden light poured out through the windows. Inside, a pall of cigarette smoke blurred the worn wooden edges. My travel companions and I ordered our beers, took our seats, and, all three of us part-time smokers living in a place where the practice was well on its way to official criminality, pulled cigarettes from our pockets with the giddy timidity of children muttering curse words when mom and dad are out of earshot.
In no time, a group of dashing young epidemiologists from the School of Tropical Medicine had taken the table next to ours. “Do you know our Trappist beers?” one of them asked. We said we didn’t and they proceeded to order round after round of Orval and Rochefort and Westmalle, beers bitter and malty and sweet and rich, all made in monasteries scattered around the Lowlands, and, to a one, clocking in around 8% alcohol. By the time we’d completed our crash course, we’d stopped feeling shy and given over to flirting, smoking, and drinking with Flemish abandon.
The doctors-to-be described Zeezicht as a brown café, Antwerp’s answer to a London pub or a New York dive, and told us the name came from the color of the walls, stained teabag-brown from years of steeping in cigarette smoke. The city’s oldest brown café dates to the mid-16th century, the apogee of Antwerp’s wealth and influence as northern Europe’s banking hub and a global center for the trades in spices, sugar, silver, and diamonds (it’s still a diamond town and home to the second largest port in Europe). Merchants from Spain, Venice, and England settled there. Catholics and Protestants and Jews coexisted peacefully, welcome so long as they contributed to the city’s prosperity. Welcoming and warm and relaxed, brown cafés are small monuments to that cosmopolitan tradition.
When I returned to Antwerp back in March, seven years after that first visit, the cigarettes had disappeared (the final ban came in 2011), but the brown cafés seemed otherwise unchanged, populated, as ever, by an equal mix of cat-toting old timers and cool young kids, who came not as a matter of fashion, but as a matter of course. Clearly the doctors’ explanation of the bars’ nomenclature had been wrong. Before leaving for my trip, I spoke with Kees Bloemendaal, who owns a brown café, to find out what the term actually means, but even he seemed unsure. “Everyone would define a brown café differently,” he conceded, “but the staff have to know the people who come regularly.” I asked if the bars had to be old. The city’s most famous brown café, Den Engel, dates back to 1903. Many others have been around since the 60s and 70s, but others, he said, have opened far more recently. “Maybe they have to feel old,” he said, with a diffident shrug.
A week later, on my first night in town, I went for dinner at a swish Italian joint around the corner from Zeezicht, where a pair of busboys told me that brown cafés have to have “lots of different beers and old people and they have to be kind of dirty.” They suggested I try a place called Den Billekletser that has occupied the same corner in the old city, just below the towering gothic cathedral, since 1979. I went by the next afternoon, took my seat at the bar, scanned the handwritten list of some three-dozen beers, and passed over the city’s local amber brew, De Koninck, in favor of a La Chouffe: a boozy unfiltered blond far less innocent than the frolicking gnome on its label might suggest. Tina, who served it to me, has worked the bar there for more than a decade. So I asked her, too: What makes a brown café?
She noted the color of the tables and chairs uncertainly, then said, “I find that everyone can come here: locals, tourists, classy people, even children.” She eyed the dark wood wainscoting with maternal affection. “It’s like a family—people will tell you their story,” she added, then proceeded to tell me part of hers: “Before, I was studying to be a social worker, but I left to come back here. My mother always said she was sad I didn’t go into social work,” she winked, “but I tell her, ‘Believe me: I do social work.’”
A few stools away, a regular called Etienne chimed in. “Brown cafés have to have lots of local guests,” he said. “It’s important that a musician can step inside and ask to play and it’s tolerated to bring dogs or children or to play cards.” So it should feel like your living room, I offered. Etienne nodded. His friend, returning from a cigarette break out front, added, “Even if you’re from another city, you go to a brown café and you know you’re in Antwerp.”
Though some of the bar owners I met in Antwerp lamented the gradual disappearance of the brown café, in the city’s compact center, you’ll still find one on virtually every corner (since there’s no clear definition for what makes a brown café, it’s impossible to get a definitive count). And unlike so many of the places we might now classify as dives, brown cafés don’t feel like dress-up versions of themselves. They’re not relics, but they’re not exactly trendy, either. They don’t belong to any particular time or demographic. They’re where the city goes out to meet itself, places where even an outsider like me can wander in for a drink and end up chatting with a Tina or an Etienne or, on a good night, a handsome doctor.
I left Den Billekletser and went a few blocks down the road to a place called ‘t Half Souke. An old woman at a table near the door pored over a newspaper, tipping Cognac from a bulbous snifter into a highball of cold chocolate milk. At the bar, a bearded man in a floppy fisherman’s cap leaned on a cane and drank a glass of red wine with surprising delicacy, chatting happily between dainty burps. The bartender, seedily elegant and alluringly stern, presided with gruff nonchalance.
When the old timers left, the bartender and I got to talking—or rather, she did, wandering over the accordion folds of the linoleum floor, an effective booby trap set for inebriated newbies. She told me how she accidentally inherited the bar from her “man” when he died 18 years ago (I told her I was sorry to hear that; “pff,” she responded, “the pain is over”). She told me the life story of the homeless guy who sits out front, the son of a regular customer. She lamented the death of conversation, which, to her, meant the death of the brown café.
“30 years ago there were 2,000 bars in Antwerp, but the world has changed,” she heaved a weary sigh. “Now everyone has computers and smart phones—and they say the drinks are expensive. Pff! Young people!” She complained about the airless density of the city—“it’s suffocating, man”—and railed against the cigarette ban. “At first we had a very Belgian solution: If you sell food, no smoking inside. If you don’t, smoking is fine,” she shrugged. “Belgians: We have a tradition of compromise.”
The next morning—March 22nd, 2016—that tradition of compromise came under attack. A series of explosions tore through the airport and metro in Brussels, the city that has, in the last century, taken up Antwerp’s old mantle as capital of Europe. Both the bombs themselves and the hideous rhetoric that ensued targeted the same openness and cosmopolitanism that have for centuries made this cold, dim corner of Europe so exceptional.
On the night of the bombing, I returned to Zeezicht. Whatever the bartender at ‘t Half Souke might have said, there seemed to be plenty of young people—and plenty of conversation. Dozens of 20- and 30-somethings sat outside drinking beers and rolling cigarettes. Inside, the crowd was boisterous and jovial, the young and fashionable sharing space with old regulars, all of them out despite the cold and the horrors the morning had wrought.
I looked around the bar, still my favorite on earth, and remembered that first night seven years before, wandering out into a fine, fresh dusting of snow, warm with alcohol and the attention of strangers, flush with freedom. It was different, of course, seven years later. The epidemiologists weren’t there and I couldn’t smoke inside—it’s 2016; the world has changed—but Kees and Tina and Etienne were right: That’s not what makes a brown café.
Must-Visit Brown Cafés
Dageraadplaats 7-8, Zurenborg
+32 3235 1065
Hoogstraat 20, Centrum
+32 485 97 38 93
‘t Half Souke
Hoogstraat 59, Centrum
Bosuilplein 1, Centrum
+32 3630 4015
Grotemarkt 3, Centrum
+32 3233 1252
The Italian pantry is vast. To talk about Italian food is to talk about wine, olive oil, salt, truffles, anchovies, prosciutto and salami and other cured meats, vinegar, cheese, hazelnuts—and so on. The country’s 20 regions are each known for producing their own distinct and impressive foodstuffs, making Italy one of the world’s leaders in fine craft foods easy to obsess over.
This enormous range of craft coalesces annually in Florence at Pitti Taste, a week-long event that brings over 340 food producers and their products together under the roof of the Stazione Leopoldi to show off the best of Italian food. What you get is the Italian pantry on steroids, filled with every food that makes Italy Italy.
Some of these products eventually make their way overseas to America, but many stay put in Italy and Europe, leaving the continent only for individual online sales. For the roving international eater, the fair offers a unique chance to learn about—and sample—some of the best of what the country has to offer.
With a nation of products to choose from, how are these 300+ producers chosen? “The selection process is lead by a committee of food professionals that consider high quality, special productions, and special stories behind the products as criteria for its decisions,” says Agostino Poletto, deputy general manager and marketing manager for Pitti Immagine. In its 11 years, “Taste has become the salon dedicated to Italian quality food and drink,” Poletto continues, “a reference [point] for the ever-growing and enthusiastic audience of people passionate on niche food culture.”
A 375-page guide tells the stories of the producers present. Here is a shortcut guide to 10 particularly amazing products to seek out.
Goose Charcuterie: Oca Sforzesca
In a country that so praises the pig, it is exciting to see cured meats made from other animals. In northern Italy’s Lombardia region, people have been making goose charcuterie since the 11th century, and Oca Sforzesca is the first and only Italian company to specialize in the production of 100% goose meat. Their products include goose salami wrapped in hand-sewn goose skin, smoked goose breast, goose bresaola, goose cotechino, and rendered goose fat. The leaner meat is sweeter and less salty than pork, and a great expression of a northern Italian delicacy.
Experimental Cheese: De’ Magi Alchimia De’ Formagg
Any cheese lover will melt at the sight of the stacks of wheels of De’ Magi cheeses. In the heart of Italy, halfway between the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas in Tuscany, affineur Andrea Magi takes an experimental approach to cheese making. He defines his work as that of an alchemist because of his desire to experiment and test the results of different microclimates and particular methods of aging his cheeses. In addition to producing his own cheese, Magi also works with other producers to improve their cheesemaking efforts. Whether young (try a creamy Pecorino) or aged into wheels you’ll want to grate on everything, Magi’s cheeses capture the setting in which they’re made. That is to say fresh and grassy, some milky, and others woody and cavernous.
Real, Honest Balsamic: Il Borgo del Balsamico
Cristina and Silvia Crotti are the founders of this balsamic vinegar operation in Emilia Romagna. Born from family tradition, the Crotti sisters’ product is now differentiated by various colors of packaging. The yellow, orange, and red-labeled balsamics (youngest to oldest, respectively), start at a minimum age of four years, and each is intended to be used for different culinary applications, with suggestions on each label. “Today it’s so important to give clear information to consumers,” Cristina Crotti says. “We are bombarded by information that doesn’t inform.” The youngest version is bright and sharp, with a lot of natural acidity. The orange and red, still have a zing, but it’s muted slightly by the natural sweetness and viscosity that develops from evaporation (and the resulting concentration of sugars) that comes with age.
Exceptional Salami: Fereoli Gino e Figlio
Emilia Romanga, specifically Parma, is considered the Italian capital of cured meats. This is where the Fereoli’s family business has been in operation since the 1800s. The classic Felino Salami, aged for 10 weeks and spiced with just salt and black pepper, melts in your mouth and is likely to make any other salami underwhelming by comparison.
Amazing Olive Oil: Antico Frantoio Muraglia
Olive oil labeling fraud is a growing problem, and finding legit from-the-source oil is more and more challenging. This is one more reason to try the vibrant, fresh monocultivar oils (made from singular olive varietals) from the Muraglia family, which has been producing high-quality oil in Puglia using traditional methods and local olive varietals for five generations.
Mountain Spirits: Distilleria Erboristica Alpina
Wine has always cast a shadow on Italy’s spirits culture. But once you get past wine—and the well-known grappa and limoncello—you get to dig into the country’s vast world of amari. These bitter elixirs, like Italian food, vary from region to region based on availability to local ingredients. In Piedmont, Distilleria Erboristica Alpina takes advantage of the alpine climate: harvesting raw ingredients from the mountains around Susa Valley and infusing their spirits with them. Most notable is Granger, made from genepy, alpine plants similar to wormwood that grow in France and Switzerland in addition to northern Italy. It’s unlike any amari I’ve ever had (I added six bottles that aren’t imported to my steadily growing collection after this trip): surprisingly full-bodied, more sweet than bitter, with a rich texture and traces of licorice and grass.
Jaw-Dropping Juice: Kohl
Apples and pears thrive in the cool alpine climates of Trentino Alto-Adige in northern Italy. And with a culture full of customs, knowledge, and tradition of turning fruit into juice (albeit usually fermented), Kohl makes fresh juices with mountain fruits and vegetables that have the same terroir-driven ethos that guides Italy’s wine production. There are nuanced, single-source apple juices made from local varieties like Pinova, Elstar, and Gravenstein, and blends of apple, apricot, pear, carrot, currant, and blueberry.
Craft Italian Beer: Birrificio Bruton
Birrificio Bruton was at the forefront of the craft beer movement in Italy when it opened in 2006. Located 80 kilometers west of Florence on the Serchio River, the brewery produces six beers year-round, from the light 4.5% ABV Bianca to the rich 10% ABV barleywine Dieci, and four seasonal beers. Their line of beers and decade-long experience brewing is the perfect look into the Italian craft beer market, and a standout of the 12 other craft breweries at this year’s Pitti Taste. Birrifico Bruton beers are distributed in the U.S. through Opici
Next-Level Rice: Acquerello
Rice may not be the first ingredient you think of when considering the Italian pantry (nor craft food), but the Rondolino family has been harvesting exceptional rice in Piedmont since 1935. Since 2000, Piero Rondolino and his son Rinaldo have been producing the rice variety Carnaroli, considered to be of the highest quality and exceptional for Italy’s iconic risotto. Compared to long-grain rice like basmati or even other medium-grain rice like arborio, carnaroli’s chemical composition is perfect for slowly and consistently release starch during cooking. But it’s firm enough to stand up to long cooking times and makes for a creamy, hearty risotto that’s hard to mess up.
Aged Anchovies: Acquapazza Gourmet
The Mediterranean and Baltic Seas gift Italy a myriad of delicacies unique to the Italian pantry. Acquapazza anchovies, from the Gulf of Salerno in Cetara, a small fishing village in Campania in the south of Italy, are a vital one. Traditional methods are practiced here to produce Colatura d’Alici (fish sauce). You can find this stateside in New York City at Buonitalia in the Chelsea Market. But here it’s made with local Salerno anchovies, fermented and aged in chestnut barrels. The company’s pickiness with its fish, and careful aging, leads to an excellent product and a more sustainable way to ensure that the small fishing village always has access to what it considers the symbol, and flavor, of Cetara—a clean brininess as fresh and warm as the coastal air.
And While You're in Florence
In 1982, when José and Betty Reyes first started selling pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition. The Salvadoran population was still new then—José, for instance, had come in 1974 as part of the earliest wave of immigration—not large enough to support much in the way of restaurants. Their restaurant in Adams-Morgan, at the time still a predominantly Latino and Afro-Caribbean neighborhood, was among the first in town to specialize in Mexican-Salvadoran cooking. They called their restaurant El Tamarindo, and made the humble pupusa their specialty. Three decades later, the pupusa is one of D.C.’s defining snackfoods, and pupuserías are ubiquitous.
A pupusa is a simple thing. Made from masa (that’s nixtamalized corn, same as what goes into a tortilla; arepas are made from ordinary corn flour), pupusas are round and puck like, fried on a flat-top griddle until the outsides are mottled golden brown, like a pancake with the moon painted on its surface. Served with a lightly pickled slaw called curtido and a bit of red salsa, pupusas are made to be pulled apart while still piping hot, their soft, flat crusts pulled apart to reveal fillings of braised pork mashed to a richly fatty paste, refried beans, gooey white queso, or, the Salvadoran coup de gras, the small white buds of a squash vine, called loroco, which impart a bright herbal crunch.
When they first opened the restaurant, Betty told me, she had no idea how to make a proper pupusa. “It’s something you have outside the house,” she explained (“like a hot dog,” José interjected). But even in the early days demand was high—then, as now, Betty and José kept their kitchen open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. on weeknights and 5 a.m on weekends to cater to the post-bar crowd. It wasn’t long before she’d learned the proper way of doing it: cupping a ball of masa in the palm of your hand, slapping in the ingredients, then sealing it off before patting it into shape and tossing it onto the griddle. In most pupuserías, this is done to order, the people manning the griddles moving with the efficiency and grace of master short-order cooks.
José and Betty’s eldest daughter, Ana, who now manages the restaurant, told me that on a busy weekend day they’ll sometimes turn out as many as 1,000 pupusas. Given the demographic changes in the area (read: gentrification by non-Salvadorans) that’s a testament to the pupusa’s ascendency even outside the Salvadoran community. As Evelyn, another of José and Betty’s daughters, put it, “it’s rare now to find someone in D.C. who hasn’t tried a pupusa.”
There’s probably no city in America where pupusas are so well known. Of the 870,000 latinos living in the D.C. metro area, roughly 35% are Salvadorans. In terms of pure numbers, LA hosts a larger population, but in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia Salvadorans represent not only the largest proportion of the Hispanic population, but actually the largest immigrant community of any kind. Abel Nuñez, the Salvadoran executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Columbia Heights, pointed out that you still can’t find good Mexican food in D.C., but good pupusas are all over the place.
The first trickle of Salvadoran immigration to the U.S. began in the late 1960s, but the major waves didn’t start until 1979, when leftist guerrillas revolted against the military government that had ruled since coming to power in a 1932 coup. That year, a military junta installed a new government that the US went on to support through 12 years of civil war and countless human rights violations.
It’s not quite clear why so many Salvadoran immigrants chose D.C., but they quickly became the core of the labor force in D.C.’s service and construction industries—long the city’s only industries outside of the government—settling around Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights. The Ontario Theater on Columbia Road, built in the 1940s as a state-of-the-art cinema hall for predominantly white audiences, switched in 1969 to exclusively Spanish-language programming. “Columbia Road was the center of our lives here,” José remembers.
It wasn’t until that first generation of immigrants had generated enough capital in their early jobs that pupuserías became common. Reyes took his first job at a Mexican restaurant called Casa Maria where, he told me, he learned the business of running a restaurant and developed the idea to open his own. Nuñez, who came to the US in the late 70s when he was in the third grade, remembers the first Salvadoran restaurants opening in the mid-80s, around the time that El Tamarindo opened. The first generation of migrants had finally earned enough to open their own places, and the next influx of immigrants from back home gave them the audience they needed.
35 years later, the neighborhood has changed. In 1999, the Columbia Heights metro station opened, ushering in a new phase of gentrification in the area (now Columbia Heights is home to several of D.C.’s hottest restaurants, including Bad Saint and Thip Khao, which serve Filipino and Laotian cuisines, respectively). The Ontario Theater was demolished in 2013 and the old clubs have long since been replaced by swish coffee shops and rowdy bars popular among the city’s young professionals (Kilimanjaro, the club that used to be El Tamarindo’s neighbor, is now a gym called Mint).
Many of the old neighborhood regulars have been priced out and gone to the suburbs, Betty told me, but they’ll still come down for their pupusas. And late night crowds from the stretch of bars on 18th street, just north of El Tamarindo, still flood in after hours to soak up the liquor, followed by the bartenders and staffers who serve them. Despite their broad popularity, pupusas are still primarily sold in neighborhoods with large Latino populations, but in those areas pupuserías have proliferated pretty intensely.
You’ll find the highest density of pupuserías along Mount Pleasant Road a short distance north of El Tamarindo. Venerable institutions like Ercilia’s and Haydee’s—the former a popular lunch canteen, the latter now more a bar than a restaurant with live music on weekends—have served pupusas—closer in size to American pancakes than the traditional puck-sized Salvadoran version—to Mount Pleasant regulars for years (though both are, to my palate, a touch too greasy). At El Nuevo Migueleño, which doubles as a disco at night, the owner Gilma does a crisp-edged, flavorful masa, and makes her pupusas in the smaller, more traditional Salvadoran size, and stuffs them with mozzarella rather than milder queso: a tasty variation, though a bit too tacky for my tastes. My favorite pupusas in the area come from Betty’s kitchen at El Tamarindo and from a relative newcomer called Pupusería San Miguel, a basement cubbyhole where the pupusas are dry on the surface but lush within, the curtido racy and sour with the grassy bite of Mexican oregano.
Back in March, El Tamarindo shut for three weeks, the longest it’s been closed in over 30 years, to undergo renovations that, as Evelyn put it, made it “a place for my generation to feel like they were getting the type of restaurant they’re used to.” The food’s the same as always, but the dining room is unusually handsome with big windows looking out onto Florida Avenue, high ceilings, and a nicely tiled bar that turns out margaritas by the bucketful.
But ultimately, as Nuñez pointed out, the difference between a good pupusa and bad one isn’t all that huge. They’re pretty much always made to order, always loaded with melted cheese, always hot, and always inexpensive—which is to say, they’re a difficult thing to really mess up. Pupusas have always been about practicality and adaptation. They were a portable snack for the earliest people who ate them. In the U.S., they grew to sate the bigger appetites of the American dream. At two D.C.-area Whole Foods locations, El Tamarindo will occasionally set up live stations where they prepare pupusas to order, and elsewhere, Nuñez told me, you can even buy them frozen: “emergency food” he called it. What could be more American than that?
D.C.’s Pupusa Trail: Six Pupusa Spots to Try
This is the crossover hit of pupusa joints. Snazzed up after its March renovation, El Tamarindo is more of a proper restaurant than anyplace else in the area—and the best place for a late-night cheese-and-masa fix near the Adams-Morgan bars.
1785 Florida Avenue NW
El Nuevo Migueleño
The flickering neon sign out front is a fair representation of what greets you inside: It’s dim and has seen better days, but Gilma serves a nice pupusa with a smile, and her husband, Victor, mans the bar with old school bonhomie. Get cheese and loroco and wash it down with a Modelo.
1721 Columbia Road NW
Pupusería San Miguel
This basement shop is the best pupusa in Mt. Pleasant, not just because the pupusa itself beats out everyone but El Tamarindo for flavor and texture, but also because it comes with what is hands-down the best curtido. Come here for a quick snack at one of the picnic tables on street level.
3110 Mt. Pleasant Street NW
If El Tamarindo is the best restaurant on this list, then Haydee’s is hands-down the best bar. Come on the weekend for live music and a drink with a fun neighborhood crowd. The pupusas are a good bonus and a solid insurance policy against impending drunkenness. 3102 Mt. Pleasant Street NW
It’s about as simple a canteen as you can hope to find. The pupusas aren’t exactly transcendent (then again, pupusas generally aren’t so much as they are comforting), but there’s something unmistakably special about this Mt. Pleasant standby. The 1950s facade, the big windows, the mixed crowd of neighborhood folk: it’s from another era. 3070 Mt. Pleasant Street NW
A small chain of three suburban locations, Doña Azucena serves some of the best, most traditionally Salvadoran (read: smaller) pupusas around for an almost entirely Salvadoran clientele. This is also the only place around that serves the lesser-known rice-flour variety of pupusa.
8728 Piney Branch Road, Silver Spring, MD
Often referred to as the Land of Seven Moles, Oaxaca’s food culture is famously rich and diverse. But it’s even more varied than most travelers realize: incredible heirloom varieties of corn that get ground up into some of the country’s the best masa, pre-Hispanic drinks that drink like a meal, exceptional small-batch smoky mezcals, and also way more than seven types of mole. In the the first country that UNESCO honored on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity solely for its food, Oaxaca state in southern Mexico stands out. Which is why when you’re there, you need to have a game plan that will allow you to eat as much as possible—which means snacking.
With a number of fine-dining establishments in the state’s capital of Oaxaca City, like Casa Oaxaca and Pitiona, the state’s restaurant scene is growing. But if you’re looking to get the best taste of Oaxaca’s culinary history, with its Zapotec and Mixtec influences, stick to the antojitos (snacks) that you can find sold all over the city. And while you may be tempted to pick up familiar tacos or elote, seek out these seven specialties for the truest taste of the Land of the Best Foods:
Similar to the sopes you may find in other parts of Mexico, memelas are thick, toasted masa cakes that are often eaten earlier in the day (some households will even serve them for breakfast). Grilled on a comal just long enough to crisp up the edges but before they become crunchy, the masa cakes are then topped with refried black beans and queso fresco, though you can also find them layered with shredded cabbage, salsa, mole negro, tinga (shredded and stewed chicken), potatoes, etc. If you see a comal and it’s earlier in the day, you’ve likely stumbled upon memelas. For some of the best in the city, head to Itanoní Antojeria y Tortilleria, a restaurant that resurrects and cooks with heirloom corn varieties in traditional Oaxacan foods.
For those who like a little more filling/topping to carb ratio, skip memelas and go for the snack with the equally fun name: tetelas. Here’s the formula: Heat up a large corn tortilla on a comal, fill it with refried black beans and crema and queso fresco and whatever else you may desire, get it hot enough to turn the crema from solid to liquid, and then fold it into a neat little triangle. While their shape may fool you into thinking these can be easily while walking, pause—remember that hot liquid crema? You might want to sit (and grab a plate) for these. The best also come from Itanoní Antojeria y Tortilleria, where you should get one with licorice-y, sarsaparilla-y hoja santa—the fragrant herb perfectly balances the richness of the cheese and crema.
Often compared to a pizza, tlayuda refers to both the base of this street food, a crispy corn tortilla the size of a steering wheel, and everything that goes on top of it to transform it into a behemoth snack. While the toppings vary from vendor to vendor, it’s almost always smothered with asiento (unrefined pork lard), refried beans, strings of queso Oaxaca, shredded lettuce, and tomato. Then comes the meat, with options like chorizo, tasajo (thinly sliced grilled beef), shredded chicken, chicharron—the list goes on. Opt for one with tasajo, which is easily one of the more popular options. These are best at markets, like Mercado 20 de Noviembre, but if you want the best, drive 30 minutes outside the city on a Sunday to grab one from the Tlacolula market, which is one of the oldest in the Americas.
South America’s recognizable empanadas are typically fried or baked doughs stuffed with anything from ground beef to olives to cheese. But if you ask for an empanada in Oaxaca you’ll get something that more closely resembles an American quesadilla. In the southern Mexican state, an empanada refers to a small, oval corn tortilla that’s heated over a comal, layered with your fillings of choice (any variety of mole, quesillo cheese, meats, etc.), and then folded in half. Common orders include empanada de amarillo (with super-spicy yellow mole) and empanada con flor de calabaza y quesillo (with squash blossoms and quesillo cheese)—you can’t go wrong with either. If you see a street vendor with a comal, you’ll likely be able to pick up an empanada or two.
Crunchy, salty, spicy, and garlicky, chapulines are like the potato chips of Oaxaca—except the fried component is not potatoes, but instead grasshoppers. Sold in big red bowls by street vendors, chapulines are a great eat-as-you-walk snack, but if you can’t get past the idea of raising a handful of bugs to your mouth, pick up some corn tortillas, toss in the chapulines, add a squeeze of lime, and a pour of hot sauce, and you’ve got yourself some makeshift tacos de chapulines.
The word ‘tamal’ likely conjures up images of steamers packed with corn husk-wrapped packets of dense masa, stuffed with pork or chicken, which you’ll likely see in Oaxaca. But skip them. Instead, look for tamales Oaxaqueños, which feature that same brick of masa, but instead of being steamed in corn husks, they’re steamed in banana leaves. You’ll also want pick out one that’s filled with what is perhaps Oaxaca’s greatest culinary claim to fame: mole, the sweet-spicy-bitter-salty sauce that has countless iterations often paired with chicken, turkey, pork, and rabbit (though can also be served with beef, or alone). Find the pride of Oaxacan tamales at Mercado 20 de Noviembre or El Pochote, the organic market in the Xochimilco neighborhood.
Drinks are not snacks—that is, until said drink is as filling as milkshake and the size of your head. Tejate is both. Made by mixing water with a ground-up paste of toasted maize flour, cacao beans, mamey fruit pits, and flor de cacao (a white flower you’ll likely see growing around the state), the frothy drink dates back to the indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec peoples in pre-Hispanic Mexico, and is something you won’t find fresh outside of Oaxaca. Don’t expect to see this concoction on restaurant menus; instead, look for the women at street food markets and in the zocalo, dipping their entire arm into big clay bowls full of a beige liquid with a frothy white layer on top. No, the drink doesn’t look appetizing, but get past its appearance: it’s slightly nutty, floral, and rich, and surprisingly filling and delicious. Ask to drink it out of one of the painted gourd bowls every vendor has, but don’t forget to return it (though if you want one to keep, keep an eye out for them at souvenir shops around the city).
The rest of the world is finally catching on to what Greeks have always known: Athens may be the country’s capital, but Thessaloniki is where you go to eat. That’s no small feat in a country that’s remained painstakingly true to its traditions for centuries; over in Thessaloniki, there’s room to breathe, and restaurants such as Ergon and Pizza Poselli are allowing the country’s cuisine to develop beyond the constraints of tradition.
Estrella is another one of these restaurants. It sits catty-corner to the beautiful Agia Sofia, whose history can be traced back to 795 A.D. And it sells a wildly popular pastry you won’t find anywhere else: bougatsan, a hybrid of a croissant and the traditional Thessaloniki bougatsa. It is a flaky croissant sliced in half, oozing creamy custard from all sides. It’s delicious, but also a buttery bellwether. Viral-engineered hybrid foods might be commonplace elsewhere in the world, but in tradition-bound Greece, where some recipes are viewed as immutable, the bougatsan is a sign of the value of change.
Chef and author Diane Kochilas describes the original bougatsa pastry as "a hand-held phyllo pie made with very thin, very elastic and buttery phyllo that is wrapped and re-wrapped around spinach, cheese or custard." Estrella's version transforms it from a self-contained pie to an oozing, single-serve dessert, but the original bougatsa has been part of Greece’s culinary repertoire for almost 100 years, the result of cultural diffusion from the many groups that have traveled through the region. Kochilas explains, “[Thessaloniki] is a multi-cultural city where the earthy foods of northern Greek farmland co-mingle with the influences of the Greeks of Asia Minor.” Refugees from the Ottoman Empire settled in northern Greece in 1922, and as Kochilas says, “[Northern Greek] cuisine is rich with all the spices of the East, and it's an urban cuisine, sophisticated, rich, sometimes influenced by French affectations. Many of the dishes we know as Greek classics came to Greece with them, i.e. moussaka and, yes, bougatsa.”
But while the bougatsa can be traced back to some of Greece’s earliest residents, the bougatsan was born through social media only two years ago, thanks to chef and food blogger Dimitris Koparanis. He posted a photo of his first bougatsan to Instagram and it became an immediate hit. “I think it had something like 100 likes in the first 30 minutes,” says Koparanis. Koparanis found instant Instagram fame, an unusual feat in a country where food rarely social media recognition, but he didn’t know how to push the pastry further—making one is a different story from baking enough for a restaurant. “The problem was that I didn't have the actual product,” said Koparanis. So Estrella started by selling 40 pieces every Sunday, with lines around the block. In the last two years, they’ve sold over 35,000 pastries.
The rest of the food on Estrella’s menu also veers drastically away from horiatiki and souvlaki. In addition to gooey crusty breakfast foods, Koparanis has come up with a breakfast pizza, a colorful mix of egg, bread, and beetroot sauce. But while it looks nothing like the typical salad and meat combination you find in most Greek restaurants, you can still find traditional local ingredients put to work in new aways. They use Koulori, a Greek bread ring resembling Turkish simit, a Gruyère-like cheese from Naxos, and honey from nearby Chalkidiki. Kochilas believes staying true to these original ingredients is part of the process of reinventing Greek food. “Presentation changes, food lightens up, new ingredients are woven into classic dishes. All that works, in my humble opinion, if the soul of a dish stays intact.” This reinvention has proved so successful that Estrella is preparing to open another restaurant in Athens.
The restaurant itself is different from the typical tavernas found on Thessaloniki’s narrow side streets. A muralist painted the inside, and owner Kostas Kapetanakis says they occasionally had DJs that would play for diners. And it’s packed with young people, even early on a weekday. They stand over their tables, taking photos with their phones. I hear some discussing the meal, bringing up a word that is new to some Greek diners: “Is it lunch?” “Breakfast?” “No, it’s brunch.”
When Matt Goulding of Roads & Kingdoms commits to a night of eating in Osaka, he doesn't hold back. Goulding describes this city as "the center of casual food culture," and in this video, he condenses a night of the city's best food into eight little minutes. It's glorious.
The night (or what he calls his "high-calorie mission") begins in Umeda, moving through immense modern buildings to a tiny hallway as Japanese salarymen move towards bar stools and dining counters. Goulding starts at a kushikatsu bar, where fried vegetables and meat skewers are the specialty. The next stop on the tour is Shimada Shoten, a sake distributor with an after-hours tasting room in the basement, where Goulding undergoes a "liquid roadtrip," sampling sakes from around Japan. Goulding then moves on to takoyaki and piles of fried pork and egg. As his plates become bigger, so does the crowd that follows him from place to place.
The short film winds up being as much about the people of Osaka as the food—Goulding explains that although the Japanese have a reputation as being rigid and formal, those qualities dissolve as the night goes on and the beer bottles pile up. The video ends, fittingly, in a bar, where Goulding and the rest of the bar raise their glasses, drinking and eating until they are the only ones left.
I’ve been obsessed with Japan for over a decade. Every food, product, and culinary technique to come out of it. But for the past few years I’ve had a special fascination with one especially funky yet integral ingredient of Japanese cooking: koji.
Made of cooked rice and/or soybeans that have been injected with the culture Aspergillus oryzae and left to ferment, koji is central to Japanese cuisine, used to make everything from miso to shoyu. And as the co-chef of Bar Tartine in San Francisco, where we focus on all kinds of fermented ingredients, koji has become an essential part of my pantry. https://twitter.com/bonappetit/status/747858649918365696 My koji fixation hit me about five years ago, when I was working part-time at the Culinary Institute in St. Helena, California. That year, the Institute’s annual autumn food conference, World of Flavors, focused on Japan. I was in awe of so many Japanese chefs under one roof that I decided to try making koji myself. The effort took me 48 hours and left me in near tears from both excitement and exhaustion, but eventually I had made an enticing batch of sweet bacteria-inoculated rice that left me hooked.
I needed to learn more, and I needed to go to the source. Four years later, thanks to a Jean Louis Palladin Professional Work/Study Grant from the James Beard Foundation, I had my chance. It was time to study koji in Japan.
It’s almost dusk when I touch down at Narita International airport. I’ve been flying for 12 long hours, but the flight seems short when I compare it to how many years I’ve waited to set foot here. I’m confronted by a tangle of emotions: excitement and anxiety, invigoration and apprehension. I’m tired, but sleep is an afterthought—there are too many things I want to do, see, taste, experience. With only the most basic Japanese language skills to rely on, I feel unprepared and uncomfortable, but I have to push these thoughts aside and savor the adventure.
As the sun sets, a gentle pink hue envelopes the sky as I ride into downtown Tokyo in silence. My dear friend and amazing chef Namae-san greets me at my rented apartment, my home for the next two weeks. I’m eager to see the city, so we simply drop my bags off, jump in a taxi, and head off for a meal of shabu-shabu. I fill up on Wagyu beef bathed in hot broth and grilled matsutake mushrooms. Soon the hard work comes, but tonight I simply get to enjoy myself.
I’ve been anticipating this day for months. I’m on my way to Terada Honke, a sake brewery that’s overseen by Terada-san, an eighth-generation sake brewer who makes some of the most amazing organic and natural sakes I have ever tasted. (Sake, like miso and shoyu, is also made with koji.)
The brewery has been making sake for over 330 years in Kozaki, a small town in Chiba Prefecture. Here they follow the ancient Kimoto method, in which every part of the process is done by hand. They allow the wild microorganisms that inhabit the air in the old brewery to help transform three ingredients—organic rice, water, and koji malt—into sake. Acting in accordance with nature and embracing this gradual process is a departure from the more mechanized practices that often define modern sake breweries.
Over tea, Terada-san shows me stalks of un-hulled rice. He explains each part of the plant and how he determines what varietal to use for what process. From there, we see where they wash the rice and then we come upon a 300-gallon bucket with rice steaming inside. A single shirtless worker is stretching nearby, and I wonder why, until it’s explained that as the newest team member, he’s responsible for scooping steaming-hot rice from the vat into small wooden buckets, which are then transported to cooling tables. He’s getting the best steam bath of his life…or so it seems.
When all of the rice is removed from the vat and laid on the wooden tables, a crew of eight begin to fan and continually turn it over onto itself until it cools to precisely 87° Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature for the initial bacterial inoculation. At this stage, high temperatures are prone to kill the spores. Once the rice reaches the correct temperature, it is moved into a cedar koji room that is temperature- and humidity-controlled.
Singing workers shake spores over the rice, making the air hazy with aspergillus, sending a few of us into coughing fits. Once the rice has taken all the spores it needs and the temperatures are registered in a log book, the workers swaddle the pile of rice like it’s a giant newborn and leave everything to rest. From there, the temperature will rise naturally during the sporulating process and the rice will once again be spread out to cool. To go from spore to fully koji-enveloped rice will take close to 72 hours in total.
We slide the large cedar barn door closed and catch a glimpse of the rest of the sake brewing-process before I’m ushered back to where we sipped tea earlier. This time, Terada-san’s wife brings out a magnificent meal: kasu pickles, onigiri with salted plum, carrot salad with toasted koji rice powder, tofu, taro, and a big leafy green salad with amazake dressing and miso, along with 13 different sakes to taste and pair with our meal.
Before leaving, I buy a copy of their cookbook, Cooking with Koji, to continue my koji education, and Terada-san gives me a small heap of his koji rice to sporilate at home.
Back home in California, 5,000 miles from Honke’s brewery, I make my own koji with Terada-san’s spores, the same self-propagating microbes they have saved and used for hundreds of years. They’re not just food; they’re history, and part of a lineage that celebrates the past while embracing the future. And to think, all of this meaning in one little grain of rice shrouded in mold.
Havana—beautiful, decaying, perfumed by diesel fumes and sweet sea air—is a challenging place for an outsider to come to grips with, even after repeated visits: Why has someone left the carefully arranged head and feet of a dismembered goat outside a Catholic church? Why are the taxis nicknamed almendrones (literally, "big almonds")? And, perhaps most puzzlingly, why do Cuban adults eat so much ice cream?
Starting around 10 a.m. and going well into the evening, Havana, especially its Old and Central quarters, is filled with people—an old lady with smooth, nut brown skin; a young man with an Elvis-meets-Reggaeton hairstyle; a teenaged girl in microshorts—consuming great quantities of helado with remarkable dedication. Some eat out on the street, but most spoon up their pint-size sundaes in one of the city's busy ice cream parlors, gorgeous but weather-beaten, where it's not unusual to line up for an hour and a half to get in.
Cuban ice cream parlors are curious places. Arlequín, a medium-size store on a busy, pedestrianized street in Central Havana, is done up as if a child's birthday party were about to start, its walls illustrated with huge cartoon characters that seem drawn from some trippy fairy tale. Yet for all the frivolity of the decor, the mood inside is oddly subdued, as though the liveliness of Havana had been held back at the door. Ice cream shops may be the only places in the city where there's no music, and the volume of conversation barely rises above the murmur of a library. The waitresses, dressed in 1950s soda fountain outfits (jaunty little hats, cute monogrammed aprons), are taciturn. I sat at a table with a couple of teenaged boys sharing earbuds, and a jolly-looking group of friends in their 60s, and between them they barely spoke a word.
It's a strange contradiction, particularly to a foreigner, but after a few days packed solid with ice cream eating, I started to understand it. As one man told me as we waited in a long, snaking line, "In Cuba, ice cream is social." It's just a particular kind of social: people who still subsist on rationed goods, collectively enjoying the rare experience of having as much as they want of something, surrounded by their compatriots, all alone together.
Coppelia is the city's best-known ice cream parlor. Fidel Castro commissioned it in the early days of the Revolution, and while Havana is full of buildings that evoke faded glory and eroded optimism, Coppelia is a particularly vivid example. Castro was inspired to create the shop, which bears strong resemblance to a modernist cathedral, after his first official visits to the United States, where he was turned on to American ice cream and its abundance of flavors. As with baseball, Castro seems to have been both impressed by Cuba's imperialist neighbor and determined to surpass it. Built on the site of a former hospital, Coppelia was made to accommodate 1,000 guests at a time and served up 26 different flavors of ice cream in its early years. Today, beneath its soaring arches and stained glass windows you're lucky to be able to choose among three, due to the shortages Cuba has been dealing with since various expansions of the American embargo, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But the number of available flavors doesn't seem to deter Habaneros. The usual order is an ensalada—an oval-shaped yellow plastic bowl containing five scoops, perhaps with caramel sauce and crushed cookies on top—and most people order three of them. These 15 scoops will be polished off in about 15 minutes, after which another ensalada might be ordered and consumed with equal speed. Many customers bring plastic buckets, ranging in capacity from two to five pints, and before leaving order more ice cream to go, squashing as many scoops as possible into their containers. As I found out when I went to Heladería Ward, a large ice cream parlor with 30-foot ceilings out by the Coliseo de la Ciudad Deportiva sports stadium, people look at you askance if you only order a single ensalada. Ask for the next size down—tres gracias, three scoops—and your tablemates will assume there's been a misunderstanding and try to correct your order.
Unlike various staple goods, such as toilet paper and cooking oil, ice cream in Havana is very, very cheap. An ensalada costs the equivalent of 20 U.S. cents. Unsurprisingly, the quality is not always high: The coconut ice cream at Soda Obispo, a popular store in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), is delicious, full of strands of fresh fruit; but just down the street is a busy hole-in-the-wall joint whose vanilla tastes worryingly like pink bubblegum. But deliciousness is only part of the point. During the Special Period (the era of terrible scarcity in Cuba that began with the decline of the Soviet Union), "ice cream was made with water instead of milk, and it still sold well," said Maria, who has worked behind the counter at Soda Obispo for decades. In the large back room there I found Wilber, a stocky man in a once-white tank top, who has been making the ice cream there for 15 years. Over the din of his machines, he explained that today his milk—"all full fat"—comes from New Zealand, Mexico, and Uruguay.
"The government buys it from those countries, then sells it to us for an affordable price," he said. At some level, the Cuban state has apparently decided that a population with limited access to many essentials deserves, at the very least, affordable ice cream. At the beginning of the Special Period, Cuba lost suppliers of both powdered milk (East Germany, during reunification) and butter (an economically depressed Soviet Union). Without money to buy these products elsewhere, the government had to decide whether the labor of its small number of cows would go toward the production of butter or milk for ice cream. Ice cream won.
One possible reason for this was offered up to me by a man I met who runs a casa particular where people can rent rooms and where I once stayed, and who also sells pirated DVDs and software in Central Havana. "People like me, with their own businesses, go to comedy clubs in Vedado," he said, referring to a more upscale neighborhood. "We'll pay the entrance fee, have some beers, and hang out there. But people earning a regular salary in national pesos can't afford that." For the average Havana resident living on a regular state salary, a few beers in a bar would add up to a week's wages. An ice cream parlor may be the only place regular people can afford to eat or drink with others.
The best ice cream I ate in Havana came from a tiny store in La Habana Vieja called El Naranjal. It was a modest-size vanilla ice cream sandwich. Acquiring it took about a minute and cost the equivalent of 60 U.S. cents, which would have been affordable to the Cubans walking past me as I left the store. But outside on the street, passing packed ice cream parlors, I understood why my sandwich's deliciousness was only part of the Cuban ice cream experience. I finished it alone, then headed back to my room.
Kyo Pang tapes a handwritten note to the door of Kopitiam, the 210-square-foot coffee shop she opened on Canal Street in October. “Out for break,” the sign reads. “We’re closed from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. See you later.”
Kopitiam takes a short siesta because it’s really a breakfast spot, though the fragrant kaya toast, cold noodles, and rice packed with tiny fish—fare Pang grew up with in Penang, Malaysia—are delicious all day. Her tiny cafe is among New York’s top destinations for a taste of genuine Malaysian home cooking; it even looks the part of Malaysian kopitiam, which translates literally to “coffee shop.” Pang’s uncompromising approach makes for a meal that’s just a step away from a passport stamp. And it all begins with her pantry.
Most Americans are still in the dark about the finer points of Malaysian cuisine. “A lot of people consider Malaysian food to be just Southeast Asian food, but ours is completely different,” Pang tells me. Part of the problem is representation—the number of Malaysian restaurants in New York can be counted on two hands, and other American cities don’t fare much better. As a result, most foreigners miss out on some of the most essential building blocks of Malaysian cooking: smoky raw sugar, bracing fermented shrimp, smack-you-in-the-face raw herbs.
Pang speaks while gently stirring peanuts frying in vegetable oil. This is a theme that runs through our conversation—she’s never, ever idle, always multitasking. While cooking, Pang retells a bit of Malaysian history: how the food was shaped during periods of rule by the British, Portuguese, and Dutch, and influenced by the mix of laborers and foreign foodstuffs that entered Malaysia via the country’s three main ports in Singapore, Malacca, and Penang.
These ports are also where you find the most Baba Nyonyas, or Peranakan, people of half Chinese, half Portuguese descent, of which Pang is third generation. Though Pang notes how fewer and fewer of the younger generation are cooking the food she ate as a kid. “The food we are serving is slowly disappearing.” Her approach is fueled by a multi-cultural, religious Baba Nyonya community, and the unique canon of foods she ate growing up. “Everything I make here is a recollection of my childhood memories,” she says. “People forget a lot of things. But you just cannot forget taste.”
Pang is constantly chasing these tastes and flavors at Kopitiam. “I get really picky when it comes to certain ingredients,” she explains with a smile. “My point of opening Kopitiam is to introduce people to the actual taste of our culture. I wanted to open in New York because this is a very diverse city and I want to share the beauty of my culture to more people of the world. But it has to be done a certain way.” If a shipment of chile paste gets stuck in Texas and Pang can’t make her two versions of belacan (fermented shrimp paste)—one spicy and made with heaps of lemongrass to go with milder dishes; one slightly sweet to balance some of the saltier ones—she won’t go down the street for a subpar import—she’ll close the restaurant for the day.
The condensed milk has to be Nestle. “That’s the main brand in Malaysia.” The bread for the kaya toast has to be from Pang’s friend’s shop on Grand Street, because after giving the recipe to 20 other kitchens to test, that bakery made the best. The anchovies that go into her nasi lemak? Those have to be just the right size, which means fish caught at the right age, which means there’s only a small window when Pang can find the properly-sized anchovies. She’ll overpay if she has to—and she just did, she tells me—pulling half a dozen bags of dried anchovies she’d just picked up on Canal Street from her backpack.
Pang has been known to throw out entire trays of kuih talam (a sweet layered cake flavored with pandan and coconut) too, even though it takes two hours to make. “Everything that I serve—the size, the taste—is exactly how I would eat it. If I wouldn’t eat it, I wouldn’t serve it to you.”
Here are three of those pantry essentials Pang just can’t do without.
The Chinese heritage is on Pang’s dad’s side. Her grandfather is from Hainan. It explains the role coffee plays in Malay culture and at Kopitiam (“kopi” means coffee in Malay; tiam is “shop” in Hokkein). “Hainanese are very particular about toast and coffee,” Pang says, “and a lot of people from Hainan get involved in the coffee business.” Malaysians are some of the world’s thirstiest coffee consumers, but the bean is a relative newcomer to the country.
Koon Kee, the Malaysian coffee brand Pang contracts with, was established in the 1950s by accident. Pang tells me the story while I sip a bek kopi peng, iced white coffee mixed with condensed milk.
The brand begins with beans grown in neighboring Indonesia on the island of Sumatra. “It was a Chinese guy that created that style of coffee,” says Pang. “He roasted the beans in fat, first in olive oil, later in palm sugar, and he realized the beans looked a lot lighter after.” Thus was born Koon Kee and a unique Malaysian-style white coffee. It’s ground to a finer form, and the roasting process produces a mellower bean with less caffeine, which is perfect for a coffee culture where it’s not uncommon to have five or six milky cups a day.
Palm sugar (along with coconut milk, pandan leaves, and eggs) is a crucial ingredient in Malaysian cooking. It grows all over Southeast Asia but varies from country to country. “Thai palm sugars tend to be a lot lighter in color,” for example, Pang says. Palm sugar from Malaysia is usually much darker, with a bolder raw flavor and molasses-like edge. (This Indonesian version, called gula melaka, has a similar dark bite.)
Pang uses palm sugar in a few ways at Kopitiam, but the biggest use is in her kaya toast, which is two ambitiously-sized pieces of toasted white bread lightly spread with butter, then covered with a generous smear of kaya jam. “I can’t do anything else for an hour and a half when I make the kaya jam,” Pang tells me.
The jam is made from coconut milk and eggs simmered painfully slowly in a double boiler, with pandan for its green color and unique fragrance. Pang has to stir it constantly in order to get the right consistency. “It needs to be very fine and smooth,” she says. If you stir it too fast it’ll be watery—don’t stir fast enough and it won’t thicken. Pang’s is indeed the perfect consistency: it holds up nicely between thick, chewy-yet-crunchy bread. It’s sweet but not candy-like, the lightest shade of green pulled from pandan leaves, and it’s the perfect match for butter and toasted bread.
Morning Glory Flowers
These pretty blue flowers play an essential role at Kopitiam: coloring the sticky rice Pang uses for the crowd favorite pulut inti, sticky rice and grated coconut-palm sugar topping wrapped in a fragrant banana leaf. “The flowers don’t give you any flavor,” Pang says. “We use them just to dye rice.” If you can’t find morning glory, butterfly pea flowers also do the trick, and Malaysian cooks use them as well to get the same blue hue in their food.
The flowers are responsible for one of the four colors of rice you see in Malaysian cooking: blue, green, yellow, and red. Pandan works as a natural green food dye, but the red and yellow rices are usually artificially colored, which is why Pang doesn’t bother with them. As with everything else, Pang’s particular about where her morning glories come from: they’re sun-dried from her mother’s backyard. “She just sent me three bags, almost a kilogram,” Pang says, holding the shriveled-but-still-pretty dark blue flowers in her hand. “But now she told me her backyard is empty.” Fortunately for Pang, her mom’s neighbor grows morning glory too.
51 Canal Street, New York, NY 10002
Sit down at a Spanish tapas bar, sip a local Israeli beer, and watch observant Jews finish up their prayers. This is Thursday night at Machane Yehuda, where Jerusalem’s many people produce a singularly diverse market.
As Israel took in Jews from all over the world, the market, or the shuk, became the place where immigrants, their food, and their traditions came together: Iraqi amba (pickled curried mango sauce) flanked by Yemenite bread, Georgian khachapuri (loaded cheesy bread) next door to an American burrito. Culinary tour guide “Fun Joel” Haber explains that unlike New York, where immigrants divided into enclaves, in Jerusalem, newly-arrived immigrants intermarried, shopped at the same market, and lived in the same area, weaving their food together.
Like the city itself, Machane Yehuda merges the lives of shoppers and vendors, young and old, wealthy and poor, from all over the world. The traditional market has evolved with the city’s residents, providing as good a home to the elderly men playing backgammon on rickety tables in the afternoon as to the twenty-somethings listening to a DJ spin in the alleyways at night.
Eight years ago, Haber explains, the shuk closed at night. The stalls lay empty, contributing to the neighborhood’s menacing reputation. Since then, street-style artist Solomon Souza received permission to paint portraits and murals on the garage-style doors of more than 150 shops, turning the shuttered businesses into a graffiti gallery (a mostly self-funded project). Bars—many featuring local brews—opened, and each day as the produce vendors, butchers, and spice shops close for the day, the bars open, giving the same space a second shift.
The market centers on the covered pedestrian alley of Etz Chaim and the open path with which it shares its name, but flows out into the surrounding area from Agripas Street on one side to Jaffa Street on the other. The location was first used as a market during the Ottoman period, in the late 19th century, then grew over time, with additions and enhancements every decade. Haber says that some of the stall owners complain about the growth of new sections of the market, mourning the increasing loss of traditional stalls. Produce stands and butcher shops close; restaurants and cellphone shops open in their place—you can even buy a stuffed poop emoji pillow in the market, if you wanted to. But, he points out, the market has been built piece by piece for over a century: each section was new at one time—and the other merchants complained about it then, too. The first covered shops began replacing the open market in the early 20th century, and new sections have been added or covered intermittently since then. As is the case in cities everywhere, change doesn't come without resistance.
Nearly all of the produce sold at the shuk (and in Israel in general) is grown within Israel’s borders. Giant cabbage—as big as an American watermelon—and football-sized eggplants are available year-round. Cherries are a spring specialty, with figs and lychees soon to follow. You can always get cherry tomatoes, though—they were, after all, developed in Israel.
In the '90s, the first restaurant opened in the shuk, and today in and around the market you’ll find every kind of food you can imagine, from Falafel Mula churning out crisp, hot balls of chickpea dough, to Jachnun Bar, serving Yemenite breads all night to hungry bar-goers. There’s wasabi-flavored ice cream at Mousseline (it’s good—more peppery sweetness than singeing heat) and Syrian-Jewish pastries filled with spiced mashed potatoes and slow-cooked meats that won the attention of Andrew Zimmern on a recent visit. Nearby, a restaurant named for the market, Mahaneyuda, enjoys a reputation as the best place to dine in town.
As the sun sets, a stand selling the brightest, most flavorful dried fruit shuts down. The giant mill crushing sesame seeds into tahini slows (you can buy that tahini, and the halvah made from it, across the way at Halvah Kingdom), and the popped-to-order rice cake machine stops shooting out its puffy disks. One by one, shopkeepers pull down the metal grates to reveal Souza’s colorful portraits: rabbis, prime ministers, anti-Nazi heroes, Jewish celebrities, and luminaries like Gandhi, Moses, Meir, and Einstein.
Meanwhile, other doors open, revealing tiny hallways barely wide enough for a person to walk between the stools and the wall. These bars aren’t really meant for sitting at. Rather, they spill tables and chairs out into the market walkways, in front of the now-closed stores. At Beer Bazaar, the tap list and wall of bottles include only Israeli craft brews. On a Thursday night—the beginning of the weekend—it’s hard to believe that this creative re-use of the space came about only in the last decade years. While groups fill tables as quickly as they’re put down and friends shout greetings over the din of the crowd, the last few grandmas shuffle out of the market, their bags bursting with produce.
Machane Yehuda Market
Machane Yehuda Street, Jerusalem
More Must-Visit Markets
Chef Dale Talde grew into his love of Filipino food, thanks to his mother Eva’s persistence in putting traditional Filipino dishes on the table, but in the northern suburbs of Chicago, a growing Filipino community means a surplus of markets and restaurants to get your fix, just in case your mom's not cooking that night. Here are six of Talde's essential places to put on your radar.
From the outside, this strip-mall restaurant in Lincoln Square is unassuming. But inside a young crowd gathers over faithful renditions of Filipino classics: deep-fried milkfish, spaghetti slicked with sweet tomato sauce and topped with hot dogs and parmesan, and sisig, a sort of pig-part hash topped with an egg.
2501 West Lawrence Avenue, Unit D, Chicago, IL
This breakfast joint is run by an Eastern-European Chicago native whose menu emulates his Filipino mother- in-law’s cooking. His customers, who often include Talde’s parents, typically skip the omelets and patty melts in favor of eggs with garlicky fried rice and longanisa (slightly sweet sausage) or Spam.
1700 West Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL
Sariling atin means “for us.” And it’s true that mainly Filipino families gather at this no-frills turo-turo, or “point-point,” which is how grilled and fried meats and stews, like deep-brown dinuguan colored blackish with cooked blood, are ordered from a steam table.
8702 West Golf Road, Niles, IL
Crowds swarm this buffet, which is served out of a Jeepney replica, the flamboyantly decorated trucks-cum-buses common in the Philippines. The regular menu is comprehensive and includes crispy pata (sticky deep fried pig knuckle), kare kare (oxtail stewed with peanut and shrimp paste), and balut (the surprisingly delicious boiled unfertilized duck egg).
6259 McCormick Boulevard, Chicago, IL
Its generic name belies a selection of ice cream flavors geared to the local Filipino community, like sweet young coconut, tangy jackfruit, and buttery avocado. For the truly brave, there’s queso flavor—vanilla flecked with frozen Kraft cheese.
8000 Waukegan Road, Niles, IL
West Oakton Street, Skokie, IL
At this tidy grocery store, you can rent Pinoy rom-coms, exchange Philippine pesos for dollars, and stock up on a vast array of condiments—like coconut vinegar and ginisang bagoong (a spicy seasoning made with fermented shrimp)—rarely seen at most Asian grocers. You can also leave with tasty pancit (stir-fried noodles), deep-fried pork, and lumpia (spring rolls).
More Filipino Food
“I know you didn't want me to cook tonight,” Eva Talde says, greeting us at her home in Niles, Illinois. “But I did. And dinner will be ready in 15 minutes.” Her son, the New York-based chef Dale Talde, wasn't surprised. We'd arrived at his parents' home just outside Chicago with plans to drop our bags and head out to eat a few of his favorite things—tacos from the back of a butcher shop, gyros from a strip mall, pizza topped with gyro meat at a sports bar. Eva had other ideas.
“This is how it is with Filipinos,” he said. “You show up unexpectedly and conveniently someone's pulling a pig's head from the oven.”
Soon we were eating pole beans plucked from vines in Eva's lush garden and sautéed with ground pork, head-on shrimp, and coconut milk. Eva brought out fried fish, sliced green mango, browned sausages that reminded me of kielbasa, and piles of white rice. “Try this,” Dale said, handing me a slice of green mango dolloped with ginisang bagoong, a staple seasoning made from fermented shrimp, chiles, tomato, onion, garlic, and sugar. The combination was bracing—the tart, astringent fruit charged with fire and funk. “This is how my grandma used to get down. It's the Philippines in one bite.”
This unsolicited meal began a three-day crash course on the upbringing that produced Dale's delirious brand of post-post-immigrant cooking. Ever since we started working together on his cookbook, Asian-American, I've wondered what could possess a French-trained chef to invent dishes like sausage-egg-and-cheese fried rice and kung pao chicken wings with ranch dipping sauce—other than perhaps a marijuana habit. Once we'd finished the book, we planned a trip to Chicago to hang with his mother, so he could show me why he cooks the way he does. A courageous reporter, I decided to embed myself completely: I'd stay at his parents' house, sleep in his brother's old bedroom, and eat every meal with the family.
Before Dale was the chef of several New York City restaurants, including Talde and Pork Slope in Brooklyn, he was a kid who refused to eat sinigang, a soup made sour from tamarind and crowded with the fish heads that his mother bought on the cheap. It's not that he disliked the classic Filipino dish—it's that he had begun to resent its presence in his life. Sinigang stood for all the things he wished were different: He wanted kids not to sneer at the school lunch his mom packed. He wanted to eat at McDonald's like his white friends. He wanted to blend in.
As he got older, he formed an alliance of commiserators, friends of motley ethnicities united by their second-generation Asian immigrant experience. Their homes all stank for different reasons—Dale's from shrimp paste, Robert's from kimchi, and Raj's from asafoetida. With their families, they were foreigners. Together, they were Americans, who listened to American music (hip-hop, mostly), wore Jordans and Starter jerseys, played basketball, and ate American food, which for Dale meant burgers and tacos, kielbasa and hot dogs, egg rolls and deep-dish pizza—anything that wasn't sinigang.
While Dale tried his best to escape Filipino food, his mother tried to keep her heritage alive. A nurse by trade, she came to America from the Philippines in the 1970s, part of the wave of Filipino immigrants arriving after the Immigration and Nationality Act passed in 1965, which eased some of the U.S.'s immigration restrictions. Somehow, between 16-hour hospital shifts, she cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner for her three children. At first, she made what's known as Fil-Am (or Filipino-American) food—engineering dishes she knew from ingredients she could find. Her cooking became more faithful as the Filipino and Asian communities in Chicago grew (and as she started planting seeds smuggled from the Philippines in her garden), giving her easy access to milkfish (or bangús, a fish popular in the Philippines), sugarcane vinegar, and long beans. Today, her garden includes, among many plants, plots of malabar spinach, yam (grown in part for the plant's edible leaves), lemongrass, and bitter melon.
His mother has lived in and around Chicago for most of her life, but as Dale tells me, “whenever she talks about ‘going home,’ I know she's talking about the Philippines.” Meanwhile, Dale's home pantry—miso and ranch dressing, kimchi and tahini, garam masala and Sichuan peppercorns—reflects his experiences cooking and eating in Chicago and beyond. Yet as I learned, their food has much more in common than I ever realized.
Here in Niles, and in the nearby towns of Park Ridge, Glenview, and Morton Grove, I expected to see the hallmarks of generic suburban food: diners, throwback-style ice cream parlors, Pathmarks, maybe a Chili's. Instead, I found a parade of businesses geared toward partially assimilated immigrant groups, the kinds that give great American cities their character. Within a few miles of one another, you can find a massive and excellent taqueria, several Polish delis, more than a dozen Korean restaurants, and three Target-size Asian supermarkets. Then there's the Filipino enclave: Ian Mae, a crowded, disheveled store selling packaged Filipino products—an instant version of La Paz batchoy (a noodle soup from Iloilo Province), adobo-flavored fried peanuts, jarred macapuno (the gelatinous flesh of mutant coconut)—and prepared foods like turon, a sweet deep-fried spring roll filled with banana and ripe jackfruit. There's Village Creamery, which serves halo-halo (“mix-mix,” the hate-it-or-love-it Filipino dessert of shaved ice topped with ice cream, evaporated milk, fruit, beans, and flan) and ice cream in a rainbow of flavors like purple yam, mangosteen, corn and, unfortunately, queso—described distressingly as “vanilla ice cream with Kraft cheese pieces.” And there's Sariling Atin, where I joined Dale and his parents for breakfast the next morning.
The strip-mall storefront that houses Sari-ling Atin was once called Franks & Fries, and Dale used to come here for Chicago-style hot dogs, cheese fries, and games of Street Fighter II. Now it's a turo-turo, which in Tagalog, the language on which the national language is based, translates to “point-point,” so named because you order by pointing at an array of dishes set out in steam-table trays. I pointed at many things—among them chunks of deep-fried pork belly; pinakbet, a saucy jumble of eggplant, squash, long bean, and bitter melon with a distinct undercurrent of fermented sea creature; and dinuguan, a rich, vinegary blackish stew of pork and pork blood that goes by the euphemistic nickname “chocolate meat” in a futile attempt by Filipina mothers, according to Dale, to endear it to their children.
After breakfast, we dropped into the Shop & Save, the supermarket closest to his mother's house. “A normal American grocery store, right?” Dale said, smiling, as we walked through the produce section, typical but for a particularly robust selection of fresh chiles, tomatillos, and cactus pads. “Then you hit the deli.” Here was a vast expanse of glass displaying multitudinous varieties of Polish cured meats, fresh sausages, bacons, and headcheeses. Above that, links of cured sausages, some two dozen kinds, hung from metal hooks.
“My mom shops here all the time,” said Dale. “It's close, and more importantly they have a bargain bin.” Suddenly I understood why the sausages we'd eaten the night before had reminded me of kielbasa. They were kielbasa. Polish sausage wasn't the only ingredient I would see Eva borrow from her environs. We'd dipped hunks of that kielbasa in a garlic- and chile-infused vinegar—a condiment so omnipresent in his early life that Dale considers it the Filipino equivalent of salt and pepper—that Eva had made, nontraditionally, with habaneros. The next morning I would wake up to a breakfast of sweet plantains and fried rice but also canned corned beef hash mixed with sautéed onion, garlic, and tomato.
Filipino-American food is renowned for this openness, which manifests itself in a certain kind of wackiness. Halo-halo is often topped with off-brand Rice Krispies. Spaghetti is sauced with shredded cheese, hot dogs, and a ketchup clone made from banana. Dale's grandmother, the same woman who loved green mango with shrimp paste, also adored a concoction of Pepsi poured over white rice. A theme of Dale's cookbook is his affection for melted American cheese, McDonald's chicken nuggets, and Pizza Hut pies, which I'd always seen as part of his rebellion. Now I wasn't so sure.
Dale recognizes the comedy in the Filipino embrace of America's finest processed foods but also the tragedies lurking behind it. Many of these products, from ketchup to Spam, came with the American military, which took over the archipelago from Spain after the Spanish-American War, was booted out by the Japanese during World War II, then returned triumphantly a few years later. “People over there loved America for that,” he said. “There are statues and highways named for General MacArthur.”
Foreign occupation is integral to the story of Pinoy (Filipino) food. The influences are many—noodles from China, coconut milk from Malaysia and Indonesia, and chiles from Mexico—but none is as fraught as that of the Spanish colonizers, who arrived in the 16th century and remained for nearly 400 years. Today, Spanish fingerprints are still visible. The country is named for Philip II, the King of Spain. Filipinos have Spanish names: Dale's father is Salvador; his grandmother was Cresenciana Tibajares. His mother speaks Tagalog, as well as Ilonggo, the language of her home province, yet I heard her greet friends with a variation on “Cómo estás?” Menus are a mishmash of Tagalog and Spanish—ampalaya con carne, paksiw na lechon. Some dishes betray a clear colonial origin—empanadas, arroz Valenciana—and others, like adobo, just have Spanish names. Trying to parse the influences can make your head spin: The popular Filipino dish arroz caldo, for instance, has a Spanish name (“rice soup”) but comes from China, essentially a riff on congee.
This culinary complication was on display later that night at dinner. Eva was almost finished with a marathon cooking session. Dale had just ordered an emergency pizza after learning that I had never had deep-dish from Pequod's, a 46-year-old local favorite. When it arrived, Dale's attention was trained on the Chicago-style marvel, an inch-deep basin of dough, molten cheese, and tomato sauce. But I couldn't focus on anything except his mother's busy stove.
Eva was cooking food from her home province, including approximately zero of the dishes I associate with Filipino cuisine. There was no lumpia, the crunchy deep-fried spring rolls. There was no pancit, the stir-fried rice noodles. There was no deep-fried pork. There was adobo, but it was almost unrecognizable.
As you may expect in a country of more than 7,000 islands, identity and food in the Philippines vary by region. “The saying goes ‘You become Ilonggo before you become Filipino,’” Eva said. In a typical interaction, Dale warmly mocked his mother for her insistence on doubling the name of her native province, calling it “Iloilo Iloilo.” (Filipino languages are big on reduplication—halo-halo, turo-turo, sapin-sapin, and salo-salo.) “Mom, it's just Iloilo, I looked it up,” he said. “Dale, it's where I'm from!” she shot back.
For the Ilonggo version of adobo, she boiled chicken parts in a mixture of water, sugarcane vinegar, and annatto but didn't stop when the meat was tender. She kept cooking until the liquid had evaporated, leaving behind a ruddy slick of chicken fat in which she then fried onion and garlic. The result wasn't the brothy adobo I'm used to but a heap of legs, thighs, wings, and livers that tasted especially sharp from vinegar.
“When I was a girl, we didn't have refrigeration, so we used vinegar to cook meat and help preserve it,” she said. At that, Dale rolled his eyes. When Eva told me that her mother expected her to know how to make rice over a wood fire by age two, Dale chimed in. “She also walked to school in a monsoon,” he said.
As the adobo bubbled away, I watched as Eva dropped two small dried fruits into a pot. “They're called iba and batuan in my language,” she told me. “I don't think they have words for them in Manila.” The fruits are souring agents for a dish that goes by KBL, an abbreviation for its main ingredients—kadios (beans), baboy (pig), and langka (jackfruit). I was disoriented by the color, tinted purplish black from the beans, and the dish's dueling fragrances: the very Latin smell of dried legumes stewing with pork and the very Asian smell of tart fruit. There was a soup made from boiled chicken carcass and finished with horseradish-tree leaves that Eva brought back from a trip to Florida. There was a tangle of long beans sautéed with shrimp paste, and an unassuming but incredible mash of grilled eggplant cooked with onion, garlic, tomato, and egg.
Soon, it was dinnertime and Dale's whole family sat at a table crowded with food. “We ate this kind of stuff every day, but that?” said Dale, motioning to the leftover pizza on the counter. “That was special.” Yet now he sees them both as special. “My mom's an amazing cook and if she didn't feed us like she did, my food would be boring as hell,” he said. Pizza might have been a compelling treat, but it's shrimp paste and chiles that are imprinted on his palate and that give even his most American-seeming dishes their impact.
As they ate, Eva's children discussed the Filipino dishes that they never liked. Dale still doesn't like bony milkfish stewed in vinegar, which is Eva's favorite breakfast. His sister, Aileen, still doesn't care for ginisang bagoong. As a kid, his brother, Rhett, hated bitter melon, just as his mother once had: “When I was a kid and saw lunch was bitter melon, I would cry,” Eva admitted. Now she adores it.
As her kids cleared the table, Eva approached what was left of the pizza and looked at it contemplatively. She picked up a slice and took a judicious bite. “I don't like it,” she said. “It's all bread.” Then she took another bite.
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What’s in a name? When it comes to Southern oysters, well, a lot.
Read More: The New Breed of Southern Oyster »
After several blows to the South’s bivalve populations—2010’s BP oil spill, algae woes, drought—the tide is finally turning for many coastal towns where oysters are an essential aspect of regional identity. For the first time since the 1970s, Southern oysters are being identified by their specific waters of harvest rather than being lumped into a single, broad category like “Gulf” or even “Louisiana.”
As the movement finds its way onto menus, oyster lovers can celebrate the nuance of everything from Alabama’s buttery, creamy Murder Points to Galveston Bay’s grassy, briny Pepper Groves. Furthermore, chefs are no longer simply Rockerfeller-ing or battering every half-shell that comes down the line. Instead, they're paying serious attention to the oyster's natural flavors.
Below are a handful of the restaurants where Southern oysters are plentiful, and the value of their singular identity is downright revered.
State of Grace | Houston, Texas
Ford Fry’s first hometown restaurant arrived with a wisp of nostalgia, imploring diners to “make haste with leisure.” This means lingering over an impressive selection of Gulf oysters, including Southern Pearls from Bayou La Batre in Alabama and Sea Wings from Texas, which are a happy hour steal at $1.45 a pop. Don’t miss the ornate seafood tower gilded with piles of iced-down shrimp, lobster, clams, crabs, scallops, and—yes—oysters.
3258 Westheimer Road
Curious Oyster Co. | New Orleans, Louisiana
Melissa Martin, Curious Oyster Co.’s proprietor, is the granddaughter of an oysterman and an expert on Cajun cuisine. South Louisiana’s brackish water may as well run through her veins. Located inside Central City’s Dryades Public Market, Curious boasts one of New Orleans’ most diverse selections of raw oysters, some of which appear in Martin’s famous oyster stew. Commit to trying all 33 varieties and you’ll be inducted into the 33 Oyster Club with a keepsake journal.
1300 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, Dryades Market
The Owl Café | Apalachicola, Florida
For four generations, the Ward family of 13 Mile Seafood has tonged for oysters in and around Apalachicola, supplying restaurants like The Owl Café with some of the country’s sweetest oysters, which are deep-fried and served with a Dijon horseradish dressing. But, for context, first-timers should experience the region’s crown jewels raw alongside their crunchy cooked counterparts.
15 Avenue D
The Optimist | Atlanta, Georgia
On any given day, The Optimist’s menu lists ten-plus varieties of Gulf, East, and West Coast oysters, which are served raw or wood-fired at the overflowing, octopus-adorned bar alongside a palette of accoutrements: mignonette, cocktail sauce, hot sauce, grated horseradish, and house-made saltines. Be sure to taste the Isle Dauphins from Alabama and Petite Beaches from Virginia.
914 Howell Mill Road
5 Point Public House Oyster Bar | Birmingham, Alabama
A relative new kid on the block, 5 Point is an ideal location for whiling away a weekend afternoon with a pint of beer and a dozen raw oysters, all of which are from Southeastern waters. (Naturally, Alabama appellations are prominently featured.) Dig into the silly, but well-executed Oyster Rock ‘n Roll, a sushi roll filled with fried oyster, bacon, spinach, cream cheese, asparagus, jalapeno, and cilantro sambal mayo.
1210 20th Street South
Kenton’s Food & Bourbon | New Orleans, Louisiana
A stately new restaurant in Uptown New Orleans, Kenton’s seamlessly entwines a top-shelf whiskey list with a lovely seafood-weighted menu. The snug oyster bar provides a steady stream of the plump raw oysters to a crowd of cocktail-drinkers, but it’s the wood-fired iteration adorned with smoked onion, country ham, and salsify that begs notice—and another finger of bourbon.
5757 Magazine Street, Suite A
701 Fish House & Oyster Bar | Elizabethtown, Kentucky
Yes, Kentucky is landlocked. And yes, Louisville’s famous rolled oyster is more a seafood-stuffed baseball glove than an expression of Southern elegance. But at 701 Fish House, the Bluegrass State’s oyster-slurping reputation is being reimagined with a selection of broiled oysters served with bourbon cream or “NOLA-style” with 701’s house butter, Romano cheese, garlic, and herbs.
200 Commerce Drive
The Ordinary | Charleston, South Carolina
Most cities count themselves lucky to have one, maybe two great oyster bars. Other places, like Charleston, play host to a plethora. One of those, The Ordinary—humble in name, but not in stature—is a soaring "oyster hall" located in a former bank building. A happy hour steal at $1.50 a piece, raw oysters draw in the crowds, but it's the crispy oyster sliders and broiled oysters with green garlic, ramp, and Parmesan that makes this institution no-so-ordinary.
544 King Street
On Miami’s Calle Oche, the busy throughway that traverses the heart of Little Havana, nestled between a cigar factory and Latin dance club, there’s a pastel blue building dedicated to Cuba’s favorite food: ice cream. In Havana, wolfing down 15 scoops of ice cream in about as many minutes is commonplace; that’s why ex-banker Suzy Batlle decided to open Azucar Ice Cream Company, Miami’s first store dedicated to Cuban spins on the frozen treat.
“The Latin people want their Latin food,” Batlle says, “and Cuban people love their ice cream.”
Miami has been a home to Cuban exiles since the 1960s, and there are plenty of places around Calle Oche to pick up bechamel- and ham-stuffed croquetas, guzzle a counter-top cafecito, or sit down to a towering frita sandwich. Though if you wanted a cone to keep you cool in the humid Magic City, there weren’t many options.
With a chalkboard menu of more than 50 rotating flavors, Azucar scoops all-American classics like mint chocolate chip and rum raisin, but you’d be remiss to step inside the shop and not pick out a distinctly Cuban flavor. More likely than not, that’ll come in form of the best-selling Abuela Maria—a vanilla base flecked with guava paste, cream cheese, and tea biscuit-like Maria cookies—that pays homage to a classic Cuban mid-afternoon snack. Or you could opt for a scoop of golden mantecado, the island’s version of French vanilla that Batlle put on the menu after men filtered in from Domino Park one afternoon, asking her if she could please supply them their favorite childhood flavor—one she had never heard of. But with her degrees from Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course and St. Louis’ Frozen Dessert Institute, she got to work.
The research paid off. Once late afternoon hits in the shop, Batlle prioritizes testing new flavors, even though the shop always has a steady influx of customers. Mantecado—a term that refers to crumbly, buttery cookies but also a vanilla-though-not-quite-plain vanilla ice cream—was the first. The secret lied in the addition of nutmeg and cinnamon, lending a standard vanilla base more fragrance and nuance, which she found digging through old recipes and interviewing the domino players about how the ice cream should taste.
“I think the men really just liked watching me walk back and forth, though, which I did 20 times a day,” she jokes. But today, mantecado is among the shop’s most popular flavors.
For Batlle, the ritual of eating ice cream started in her early childhood—she remembers eating it every night after dinner. While she’ll argue that all Cubans love their ice cream, the penchant for turning high-fat dairy from liquid to solid actually runs in her family. Because her grandfather worked as a sugar mill engineer, he spent a good deal of time in his native Cuba, but also all over South America. As a consequence her grandmother did a lot of traveling as well, discovering local fruits in unknown lands, and because of that dessert-making penchant, she used them to make ice cream. With ripe fruits like ruby-red guava, custardy mamey, and papaya, she didn’t even need to add sugar.
Battle is also big on far-flung fruit at her little Havana shop, and she’ll continue the practice when she opens two new stores in 2017. She gets avocados, beets, plantains, and the majority of her produce from markets in Homestead, even though it costs her “a fortune”—though she says the trouble to seek out extra-ripe quality fruit makes a difference, as she doesn’t need to add sugar to many of her fruit flavors. While some flavors, like her quatro leches (the fourth leche is the ice cream itself) aren’t dependent on produce, many of Azucar’s daily offerings highlight whatever Batlle found to be extraordinarily ripe at the farmers’ market.
“I’ll buy 1,000 pounds of mamey at a time,” she says. “And if I see beautiful limes, I’ll make something with limes.”
Which is, perhaps, the best way to answer the core question that might be nagging you: what is Cuban ice cream? If you Google this question, you won’t find any recipe formulas; if you ask Batlle, she’ll laugh. Unlike the technical differences between custard, Philly ice cream, or gelato, there is no ingredient-plus-ingredient-equals-Cuban-ice-cream standard. Instead, what makes an ice cream Cuban, if you ask Batlle, is a prioritization of Cuban fruits and flavors—mantecado over vanilla, platanos maduros over strawberry.
Or, as she may put more simply: “What makes an ice cream Cuban is that I’m Cuban and I make it.”