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    In Colombia’s Valle de Cauca, where cane grows year-round, sugar is more than a business—it's a generational tradition

    Sugarcane has been a critical crop in Colombia’s Valle de Cauca for 500 years. At this point, it's more than agriculture—it's the seed that's spawned the region's economic growth.

    Back in the 1500s, the Spaniards who came to Calí made what at the time seemed like a miraculous discovery: Sugarcane, which is native to New Guinea and struggled to grow in parts of the Mediterranean, thrived in Colombia all year round. And just like that, Colombia became sugarland.

    Of course, the history of sugarcane in Colombia is fraught with the problems that follow the crop everywhere it goes—forced relocation, violence, slavery, and political power struggles. Between 1946 and 1958 alone, two million Colombians were displaced to make room for expanding sugarcane farms.

    Sugar Mill, Valle de Cauca Colombia

    Allie Wist

     

    But the industry has brought much to Colombia in terms of prosperity, and the importance of sugarcane for Colombians' livelihoods has caused the industry and the government to intentionally keep many farms un-modernized, preserving the jobs of traditional sugarcane cutters who harvest the grass by hand.

    Colombia's oldest sugar mill is Manuelita, a company still owned by descendants of James Martin Eder, who purchased land in Valle de Cauca for sugarcane in 1864. Manuelita was the first company to modernize sugar production in Colombia, hauling enormous wooden machines by donkey 100 miles from Cartagena through jungles and over mountains.

    Sugar Cane Cutter Colombia Valle de Cauca

    Allie Wist

    A cane harvester at work

    The company remains a huge force in the region, employing thousands and processing 4.2 million tons of sugarcane per year. These photographs are of Manuelita's sugar cane farms in the heart of Valle de Cauca, south of the mountainous city of Calí.

    The sugar from Manuelita is used both for food and for ethanol production, which is part of a push to create renewable energy out of sugarcane—a move that the government hopes can increase the economic security of Colombia's rural, post-conflict regions.

    Sugar Cane Cutter Colombia Valle de Cauca

    Allie Wist

     

    While mechanical harvests are the norm for most large sugar cane operations around the world, Colombia retains a huge workforce of skilled cane cutters that manually harvest the plant. A staggering 85% of Colombia's sugar is still harvested by hand. The New York Times reports that farms are intentionally not modernized—industry leaders are wary of instigating mass unemployment in a region scarred by the country's prolonged civil war.

    burnt sugar cane stalks

    Allie Wist

    The burnt cane

    For the parts of the field that must be harvested by hand, the fields are set on fire the night before the harvest. They burn the ground to soften the stalks and make the cane cutter's work easier.

    The next day, cane cutters wield long, wide machetes to hack at the bottom of the stalk, slice off green grassy tops, and collect the cane into large piles.

    Sugar Cane Valle de Cauca Colombia

    Allie Wist

    Mechanical harvesting in action

    Many of the cane cutters in Valle de Cauca are part of a long generational tradition—their fathers and grandfathers were also employed in the sugar fields here. Some remember childhood sweets born of their families' proximity to sugar cane fields, like colorful decorated lollipops made of hard-packed sugar, enjoyed on religious holidays. Their children often remain in the sugar business, though some move into companies like Maneulita as engineers and chemists.

    Sugar Mill, Valle de Cauca Colombia

    Allie Wist

    The refinery

    While the region's smaller farms are often harvested by hand, large, modernized farms like Manuelita also perform a mechanized harvest. Machines like this one swiftly cut rows of sugar cane, leaving walls of bent stalks throughout the field. Valle de Cauca is one of the only places in the world where there are no sugarcane seasons—the crop can be harvested year-round, making it one of the most prolific sugar production regions ever known.

    Once the sugar is brought back to the mill, it's processed in giant machines to sort out the cane from grass, leaves, and dirt. The first several steps of processing yield a thick, dark molasses-type product which gets refined further and further throughout several days worth of processing. The refining at Manuelita is not done by bleaching chemicals; instead they use filters and centrifuge machines, which results in a fine white sugar.

    cane refining

    Allie Wist

     

    Aside from fears of unemployment, industry leaders are also concerned about global warming's on sugar cane. Harold Eder, CEO of Maneuelita, observed that the climate in recent years has become more volatile—dry seasons are much drier and wet seasons are much more intense.

    Sugar Mill, Valle de Cauca Colombia

    Allie Wist

     

    Companies like Manuelita are using more and more of their sugar cane to produce ethanol, hoping that renewable energy can become a growing sector for Colombia. The image below shows their modern ethanol production facility, nestled in next to the sugar refinery in Valle de Cauca. A sure sign of how the future of Colombia's sugar business is rooted in its past.

    More From The Sugar Files


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    Malaysia's smoky caramel- and toffee-edged gula Melaka is sugar worth a plane ticket

    palm sugar doughnuts

    David Hagerman

    Kuih keria, doughnuts slicked with smoky gula Melaka, Malaysian palm sugar.

    About a month after I moved to Malaysia in 2005 a new friend took me hawker stall hopping. “One more stop,” she said, after we’d stuffed our faces with laksa, fried noodles, and nasi lemak. We joined a crowd clustered beneath a blue and white umbrella. Sharp-elbowed aunties jostled with office workers and university students, all trying to catch the eye of the elderly Chinese vendor who’d been selling kuih (bahasa Melayu for ‘cake,’ though the word describes a range of sweet and savory snacks) from the back of his motorcycle for over 20 years.

    Ah Mun, as he was known, was legendary for using the best ingredients. He made his own coconut milk, it was said, and colored his sweets with fragrant pandan leaves instead of green food coloring. And he had a secret supplier of gula Melaka (‘Malacca sugar’—Malaysia’s version of coconut palm sugar), essential to sweets like the pandan-flavored glutinous rice flour balls filled with shredded coconut called onde-onde, and pulut inti, pretty little pyramids of coconut rice cloaked in banana leaf, tops left unwrapped to reveal a crown of shredded, palm sugar-moistened coconut.

    Before I tasted Ah Mun’s kuih I hadn’t known that sugar could be anything but sweet. But I bit into an onde-onde I tasted caramel and smoke, while the pulut inti suggested butterscotch and coffee. Even after tasting three (okay, maybe four) of each, I didn’t feel the usual saccharine slickness on the back of my tongue. I had no sugar high. And I wanted more gula Melaka. More, more, more. I was smitten. So began my love affair with Malaysia’s ancient sweetener.

    Long before Europeans introduced cane sugar to Southeast Asia (and South Asia), there was palm sugar. Made in almost every country in the region, palm sugar is produced by boiling down the liquid collected from the cut stem of immature palm inflorescences, or flower stalks. After the liquid is reduced it is poured into various molds—four- or five-inch lengths of bamboo, halved coconut shells, circles formed from strips of rattan.

    Depending on the type of palm from which the liquid is collected and the means by which it is processed, palm sugar can evince hints of sourness, smoke, chocolate, caramel, butterscotch, or coffee, or some combination of those flavors. It can range in color from golden (like most Thai palm sugars) to dark brown or almost black (like Indonesian gula aren, which is made with liquid collected from the aren palm). In Malaysia palm sugar is made primarily with liquid collected from coconut palms. Gula Melaka is named after the the former Dutch, Portuguese, and British colonial trading port of Malacca, on peninsular Malaysia’s southwest coast.

    I can’t imagine Malaysian cuisine without gula Melaka. Its complexity lends depth to sweets like Ah Mun’s kuih, and richness to the beloved shaved ice treat cendol, a marriage of melted palm sugar, fresh coconut milk, pandan-flavored mung bean flour noodles and sometimes, red beans and/or coconut rice.

    Malaysians love their tau foo fah: warm, fresh soft bean curd doused with melted ‘black sugar’ (as opposed to ‘white’ cane sugar—the tau foo fah’s euphemism for palm sugar) and their dodol, a sort of caramel made by stirring gula Melaka and coconut milk continuously for hours over a low fire.

    Kopitiam Rice

    Craig Cavallo

    Pulut inti, stained purple with morning glory flowers, gets a topping of dark toasty coconut sugar.

    And the award for Malaysia’s most ethereal palm sugar treat? That’s a tie between kuih ketayap, ethereally light pandan-fragrant crepes rolled around shredded coconut and palm sugar, and kuih keria, chewy sweet potato donuts that are first fried and then—wait for it—boiled in bubbling palm sugar, which both penetrates and flavors the dough and cloaks it in a crackly caramel-flavored glaze.

    Gula Melaka plays well in savory dishes too, from Malay-style pineapple curry to ayam pongteh, Malaccan Nyonya (Peranakan) braised chicken with potatoes. Kelantan’s small Chinese community celebrates temple festivals by cooking pork and chicken with pounded garlic, toasted star anise, soy sauce, and local coconut palm sugar for hong bak, a dish that is also an essential for ancestor worship during Chinese New Year and Qingming celebrations.

    In a Malaysian Hakka dish, pork trotters are simmered in local black vinegar, whose flavor is reminiscent of Worcestershire sauce, palm sugar, and lots of ginger. And where would the country’s national breakfast of nasi lemak be without a healthy dab of spicy-sweet-fishy sambal tumis?

    Perhaps gula Melaka’s most endearing trait is that it’s good for you, at least compared to most others: the unrefined sugar has one of the lowest glycemic indices of any sweetener. (A quality gula Melaka contains no added cane sugar.) The good stuff is soft enough to shave easily with a carrot peeler or a sharp knife, and evinces enough depth of flavor to invite eating straight, like candy.

    Where to Get Your Own

    Unfortunately, short of hopping a plane to Malaysia there’s no way to procure the real thing. But Indonesian gula jawa, a close relative, is available online, though purists should note that while it's palm sugar, it's not necessarily made from coconut palm. For an easier-to-use sweet alternative, seek out the organic coconut palm sugar from Bali’s Big Tree Farms, which is produced in a similar fashion to gula Melaka and comes granulated, not in dense blocks.

    What to Cook With It

    More From The Sugar Files


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    You need to try heather honey, the sweet miracle of Scotland

    heather honey toast

    Alex Testere

    Heather honey's unique flavor is best enjoyed in the simplest preparations; lathered generously on a piece of sourdough toast.

    For just a couple weeks in early September, Scotland’s wide and rolling moors are awash in bell-shaped magenta flowers. The ubiquitous heather shrubs, often the only plant to truly thrive in these barren environs, suddenly burst into life, and every year the vigilant Scottish beekeepers are poised and ready for their one shot at a honey harvest.

    The result is a honey so strange, so mesmerizing and mercurial, that those Scots will go to extraordinary means just to collect a small batch.

    Intensely aromatic, pure heather honey smells a bit like lying face down in a hay-filled barn, if that hay were also slathered in toasty caramel and scattered with bundles of fresh mint and sage. The taste is milder, but with a powerful herbaceousness that lingers long on your tongue.

    It’s an incredible thing. But given just how hard it is to make, it’s a miracle there’s any heather honey at all.

    A Botanical Labor of Love

    heather blossoms scotland

    Heather's purple, bell-shaped blossoms last for only a few days, so Scottish beekeepers have to work quickly.

    While relatively common throughout northern Europe, heather holds a unique cultural significance in the UK, and particularly in Scotland where Calluna vulgaris covers somewhere around 80 percent of the landscape. During September, you’d be hard pressed to find a honeybee in the entire country that hadn’t just been nuzzling up against a heather blossom.

    The Scottish moorlands, which occupy the liminal space between low, cultivated farmland and the tops of the highland mountains, are a difficult terrain for plant growth. Resilient heather, however, does remarkably well here, and the local farmers couldn’t support their grazing livestock without it. But in the hustle to get the most out of their land, many farmers keep bees as well, even if the heather only blooms for a few days each year.

    Heather’s fickle flowers are only the beginning of the challenges these farmers have to face. Not only are the blossoms short-lived; they also but they appear much later than those in the rest of the country; by the time Scotland’s chilly September is underway, most bees are already huddled in their hives preparing for winter.

    To delay this, many beekeepers, who spend most of the year farther south where temperatures are relatively warmer and bee food abounds, will stimulate the hive’s production sometime in July, to keep the bees active through August and September. Then, when the heather is just about to bloom, they’ll pack up their dozens of hives—bees inside—and schlep them up north for a few weeks of purplish pink indulgence. And when the flowers fade, it’s back south again for several months of peace and quiet.

    Assuming temperature, weather conditions, colony health, and any number of other factors have come together favorably to net the beekeeper a honey harvest at all, harvesting it is an equally laborious task, in part because of its peculiar texture: In the hive, heather honey is nearly solid. It’s thixotropic, a fancy physics term that means the honey becomes more liquid as it’s stirred or agitated. This presents a unique problem for getting the honey out of the honeycomb, since it can’t be spun in a centrifuge like most honeys can. Instead, it must be scraped and pressed through a sieve, or else kept in the honeycomb. Some beekeepers have even developed an advanced extraction system that features a plate with hundreds of plastic needles, arranged in a honeycomb pattern, that individually agitates the honey within each comb, allowing it to then be spun out as a liquid.

    The dedication to the craft comes from a centuries-long local tradition, and in an environment often inhospitable to anything more than low-lying shrubs like heather, it’s no surprise that farmers go through such great lengths to utilize it. Between honey production and the local livestock that graze almost exclusively on Scottish heather, it’s become an indispensable part of both the country’s economy and its local ecosystem.

    The Sweetest Taste of Scotland

    Tom Lewis heather honey

    Monachyle Mhor

    Chef Tom Lewis of Scotland's Monachyle Mhor hotel shows off his heather honey harvest.

    But to the average honey lover, the appeal of heather honey lies largely in its remarkable, intensely fragrant flavor. Tom Lewis, the foraging chef behind Monachyle Mhor, a bubblegum pink 18th-century-farmhouse-turned-boutique-hotel nestled deep within Scotland’s Trossachs National Park, has kept bees on the grounds since 2009 to provide honey for his hotel’s guests. “You find yourself talking to the bees in the morning with your cup of coffee,” he tells me. “They’re interwoven with everything in life.”

    At breakfast in the morning, I stir some of their local honey into my oatmeal; its aroma is heady and earthy and unmistakable, even as I smell it on my hands hours later. Scottish moors are occasionally burned to encourage new heather growth, and in Tom’s heather honey, and other heather honeys too depending on the year they were harvested, a subtle, a lingering smokiness comes through too, a delicious remnant from the fiery fields.

    Tom encourages caution when cooking with it, as it can often overpower more subtle flavors, and so his favorite application is a simple one: “sourdough toast spread with heather honey and lightly warmed brambles [blackberries, to us Americans], and a dram of 21-year Glengoyne whisky.”

    Where to Get It

    heather honey bees

    Monachyle Mhor

    A swarm of honeybees is being prepared for transport to the fields of pure heather in the Scottish highlands. Don't try this at home.

    For a taste of Monachyle Mhor’s own honey, you’ll just have to take a trip out to Perthshire (you won’t regret it), but the budget-conscious adventurer can find heather honey from other beekeepers online: Scottish Gourmet USA imports the “Rolls Royce” of honey (named so for its superior quality and luxury status) from Scotland’s beloved Struan Apiaries, and is likely the most reliable and affordable way to purchase some stateside, unless you come across it in your local specialty foods shop. A few other brands are periodically available on Amazon as well, including John Mellis Apiaries and Heather Hills Farm, but be sure to look for “Pure Heather” on the label for the most pronounced flavor.

    More From The Sugar Files


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    Two Sugar Land natives explore the sweet—and not-so-sweet—history of their hometown

    I can’t complain about growing up in Sugar Land. Our tiny rural-meets-urban Texas ‘burb has been voted one of the best places to live in America, lauded for its top-tier public education, and recognized as the single most ethnically diverse county in the nation.

    As a kid, it would have been hard to imagine a time when life in this lazy town wasn’t so sweet. It wasn’t until my family relocated directly across the railroad tracks from the site of the now defunct Imperial Sugar factory that I started digging around to find out how the city got its name.

    Railroad tracks

    Jake Wiley

    The railroad tracks facing the Imperial Sugar Complex are part of the oldest rail route in Texas.

    The story begins in 1823, when pioneer Stephen F. Austin settled 300 American families in modern-day Fort Bend County via a Mexican land grant. (Not insignificantly, the land was likely previously occupied by the Karankawas, a Native American tribe.) In the following decades leading up to the Civil War, sugarcane became the region’s bread and butter, and Fort Bend County, and its surrounding counties, collectively became known as the Texas Sugar Bowl.

    Sugar Land water tower

    Jake Wiley

    The Sugar Land water tower

    One of the most taxing crops to harvest, sugarcane was cut, pressed, boiled, and packaged almost entirely by slaves working in inhumane conditions, according to Texas Monthly. University of Essex historian Sean Kelley tells the magazine, “People got sick, they died. Women’s fertility rates plummeted. Europeans quickly discovered that you couldn’t get people to work in this voluntarily, which is why there’s a strong historical linkage between sugar and slavery.”

    Imperial Sugar char house

    Jake Wiley

    Inside the Imperial Sugar char house, built in 1925 to increase refined sugar output. It was named after the animal bone char that was crushed and charred to turn tinted sugar syrup clear. This char house in Sugar Land is the last of its kind in the United States.

    In 1865, the South’s defeat in the Civil War and the subsequent outlawing of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment dealt a fatal blow to the Texas economy, shuttering the vast majority of sugar plantations, which could not sustain production without the free labor. But one critical clause in the amendment left a loophole: forced servitude would be allowed to continue only “if used as punishment.”

    Char house

    Jake Wiley

     

    Thus, in 1878, businessmen Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Ellis, who had together purchased one of the area’s last surviving sugar plantations, struck a deal with the State of Texas to lease its entire prison population, made up overwhelmingly of African-Americans who once again found themselves enslaved. The brutality of this plantation—which boasted a chilling mortality rate of three percent annually—is thought to have inspired the song “Ain’t No More Cane,” a traditional prison work tune that was later officially recorded by Alan Lomax and performed by Bob Dylan at the Gaslight Cafe.

    Sugar silos

    Jake Wiley

    The iconic Imperial Sugar Company silos were used to deposit and store granulated sugar.

    Then, around the turn of the century, prominent businessmen Isaac H. Kempner and William T. Eldridge bought the land from Cunningham, founding the Imperial Sugar Company. In favor of free labor, Kempner ended the legacy of convict leasing and established Sugar Land as a forward-thinking company town, building levees to prevent dangerous floods, erecting good homes for workers, and providing schools for children, who were notably prohibited from working in the factory. In an interview with Houston Public Media, Kempner’s living grandson Denny Kempner says, “My grandfather and Eldridge decided that if they were going to have decent people working for them they had to have decent conditions for them, which was a pretty progressive point of view in those days.”

    Warehouse

    Jake Wiley

    Inside the three-bay warehouse, where workers would have unloaded and processed raw sugarcane grown in Texas.

    Sugarcane was no longer grown along the Brazos River by 1928, forcing Imperial to ship it in from a Galveston port to be processed at the inland refinery. The company continued to prosper through the 20th century: a $4 million renovation at the end of World War II allowed it to produce two and half million pounds of sugar daily. But as government policy shifted to benefit growers over refiners and the company changed hands out of the Kempner family, Imperial began to slowly incur debt. In 2001, it filed for bankruptcy protection and in 2003, the refinery facility was closed.

    Sugar silos

    Jake Wiley

    Inside the sugar storage silos where workers would have sat in an assembly line, packaging sugar by hand. When these facilities closed, the last Imperial Sugar workers simply boarded the doors and left. Recently, when the silos were re-opened, developers discovered traces of sugar still preserved in all of the equipment.

    Today, vestiges of Sugar Land’s sugar-producing history still remain: Imperial Sugar is still headquartered in Sugar Land, photographer Jake Wiley and I both attended Isaac H. Kempner High School, and those original company-owned homes, along with the entire production complex—including the char house, warehouse, silos, and smokestacks—are still standing today.

    Smoke stacks

    Jake Wiley

    Two smoke stacks sit behind the char house.

    The complex was recently purchased by the Texas Real Estate Fund, Inc., which will develop a lifestyle and retail center called Imperial Market. That iconic char house is set to become a hotel, the three-bay warehouse once used to unload sugarcane shipments will house an Urban Outfitters and upscale bowling concept, and each of the cylindrical silos will be home to restaurants. We were kindly granted access to the space to capture these photos before the transformation, which is slated to begin this year.

    For lifelong Sugar Land residents like myself, it may be jarring at first to grab a burger in one of those iconic silos or see our beloved Char House—where casually trespassing has always been a right of passage for high school students—refurbished as the Char House Hotel. But despite these changes, I'm grateful that the buildings will not be demolished like so many others, and will continue to stand as a testament to our dark, complicated sugar history. And if the tale of Imperial Sugar Company tell us anything, it's that Sugar Land is a town whose strength relies on the ability to change and evolve for the better.

    Char house at night

    Jake Wiley

    Starting in the 1960s, the Char House would be illuminated with an image of a cross or Christmas tree during the holiday season, a tradition that holds strong today.

    More From The Sugar Files


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    Ma Chaw Su Kyaw feeds hungry and homesick expats with incredible to-go meals prepped in her own kitchen

    burmese food nyc ma chaw su kyaw

    Matt Taylor-Gross

    Burmese expat and food club cook Ma Chaw Su Kyaw prepares to package her week's subscriptions, including long-simmered stews and soups.

    One Saturday in Elmhurst, Queens, Ma Chaw Su Kyaw was busy sautéing chile catfish in her home kitchen. Not yet noon, she had already been cooking for five hours, neatly packing clear plastic containers for the 30 or so people who would arrive to pick up soft tofu salad, cold chicken garlic noodles, and sweet coconut tapioca cake. Kyaw runs one of New York's underground Burmese food clubs, a handful of home cooking operations that were born of demand for the elusive cuisine—so elusive the clubs' audiences are almost entirely Burmese. Unlike Thai, Laotian, and Malay cuisine, Burmese has yet to enter the city's restaurant scene successfully, so home cooks have stepped in to fill the stomachs of nostalgic expats.

    Kyaw's front garden brimmed with roselle, an herb prized in Burmese cooking for the sour kick it gives to soups. Her kitchen was pungent, perfumed with fish sauce, garlic, ginger, and shallots. Before relocating from Yangon in 2002, Kyaw had never been much of a cook. “All I could do was fry an egg,” she said, balancing on a tiny footstool and leaning over a massive pot brimming with diced catfish she bought in Jackson Heights' Little India. “Now my dream is to open a restaurant.” Like many Burmese in New York, Kyaw arrived here following a family member with a visa—in this case, her mother. Using recipes she found online, Kyaw taught herself to make countryside-style Burmese dishes like beef tripe curry and lemongrass noodle soup.

    burmese rice noodle soup with fish cakes

    Matt Taylor-Gross

    A traditional Burmese breakfast of rice noodle soup with lemongrass and fish cakes

    On the threshold of legal, these clubs require a bit of research to uncover. I found them via Ye Lin, who organizes an annual Burmese food festival benefiting Burmese orphans. A Metropolitan Transportation Authority supervisor, Lin came to the United States in 1992 in search of opportunity. “It's the most authentic Burma food you can find,” said Lin of the clubs, “not just in New York but in the U.S.”

    There's a woman in Rego Park who specializes in large orders; a family in Elmhurst that cooks Karen dishes, food from ethnic groups residing mostly in southern Myanmar; and a woman in Woodside known for dry dishes, like spicy fried anchovies. A woman called Aunty cooks famously spicy food for a membership of 140-plus. At one of her pickups, I sampled frog curry, spicy shrimp salad, preserved catfish in tomatoes, sour dandelion soup, and pae kyaw (chickpea fritters big as a dinner plate that double as curry scoops), each packaged up in takeaway containers, labeled in neat Burmese script—all for $38.

    Where Aunty's membership is communicated by word of mouth and the texting app Viber, Kyaw manages hers through a closed Facebook page called “New York City Burmese Community.” There, she publishes a weekly handwritten menu from which patrons can order. If she introduces a new dish, she'll test it with her family and post photos for feedback. Occasionally, she takes requests.

    burmese tomato fish curry and beef tripe

    Matt Taylor-Gross

    Tomatoes in fish sauce and beef tripe curry are ready for members to pick up.

    While Kyaw packaged dozens of portions and nestled them into bags, she checked her work against orders written in a spiral notebook. “It's a very small, close-knit community,” Lin, who had come along, said. Kyaw's kids wandered in and out of the living room, and customers greeted her in Burmese. Kyaw had also prepared big portions of northern pork curry, chicken liver and gizzard curry, sour leaves and bamboo shoot soup, and sautéed eggplant. I ordered them all, despite Lin's warning that I'd be eating Burmese for a month.

    The food lasted 48 hours, and I'd be back next weekend.


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    Economy Candy on New York's Lower East Side has barely changed since it opened in 1937, and it sells nearly every candy you can imagine

    Zotz. Black licorice. Betty Boop Pez dispensers. A wall of jelly beans. Another wall of malted milk balls. An animal kingdom of gummy creatures. So. Much. Halvah.

    Just another day (and about one aisle) at Economy Candy, the sweetest Depression-era business in New York. This year it's celebrating its 80th birthday, and frankly the old shop has never looked better. We couldn't do The Sugar Files without paying a visit to stock up.

    In the video above, reporter Dan Pleck digs into the candy store's family history, dating back to its early days as Moishe Cohen's hat shop, which set up a pushcart selling roasted nuts outside to draw in customers. Eventually, the nuts did better than the hats, and the store evolved into a full-on sweets shop. Today, Economy Candy specializes in the forgotten confections of yesteryear (Howard's Violets, anyone?) as well as foreign candies that are hard to find most anywhere else (seriously, best selection of Haribo in America). The nuts remain, except now they're also candied and chocolate-enrobed and joined by an excellent stock of dried fruit and halvah and Turkish delight.

    Throw in some vintage lunch boxes and trading cards, and the ability to shop for your candy by color online (yes, they ship), and you have a bona fide sweets destination. So go take a peek, won't you?

    If you really want to feel like you're there, go poke around in our 360 video below. Load it up on your phone, put on your virtual reality specs, and take your own private trip to the best sugar high.

    More From The Sugar Files


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    Each island in the Azores has a love affair with sweets. In São Miguel, it's the fofa

    pastry archipelago illustration

    Joohee Yoon

     

    We don't set our alarm clocks in Povoação. Church bells clanging nearby or one of the neighborhood's many vocal backyard roosters do the job.

    Sleepy-eyed, we cross the jardim—the cobblestoned center of our waterfront village on the island of São Miguel where benches and gardens surround a gazebo—to Restaurante Jardim for galãos (lattes) and one of Maria de Deus Rebelo's decadent fofas da Povoação, éclair-like pastries full of vanilla custard. In the Azores, the mountainous mid-Atlantic archipelago belonging to Portugal, every isolated island has its own locally beloved pastries, each with its own history.

    On São Miguel, where my father is from and where we often visit, there are several: slightly sweet griddled bolos lêvedos (Portuguese muffins) made with the pungent mineral waters of the hot springs in Furnas; dense, intensely sweet queijadas de Vila Franca do Campo, which for decades were made by cloistered nuns and have little in common with the custard cups also called queijadas or their Continental cousins, pastéis de nata; and fluffy suspiros, or “meringue kisses,” which are ubiquitous throughout the Azores and melt on the tongue to reveal slightly chewy centers.

    My family, however, is loyal to Maria and her fofas.

    Around the 1930s, fofas appeared as an elegant dessert reserved for dinner parties thrown by the wealthy. They were distinct from the rustic, simple sweets most islanders made, and became so popular with visiting revelers that they gained the surname of our little town. The recipe for these rich, delicate pastries, likely adapted from the éclair, was a closely held secret, guarded by matriarchs who'd mix the batter and only allow maids into the kitchen when it was time to pipe and fill them. When that generation of women passed, fofas fell out of fashion. But one woman, a maid named Almerinda, wrote down her observations and bequeathed them to her friend Maria de Deus Rebelo upon her death. In 1990, Maria brought the fofas da Povoação back to life.

    Maria pipes thick pâte à choux into two bulbous strips, which puff into airy caverns of eggy layers. Once the pastries are baked, she slices and fills them with a half cup of yolk-rich custard laced with vanilla. The top gets a quick swipe of chocolate buttercream made with powdered sugar, butter, and cocoa powder for a sweet and slightly chalky frosting. One bite of the massive puff, and the entire thing collapses into a mess of pastry flakes and cream.

    “It gives me such pleasure to see the way people enjoy them,” says Maria, who has owned Restaurante Jardim with her husband, Carlos Rebelo, since 1984. Today, tourist buses make stops for her fofas. On a good day, she can sell up to 300—significant for a small restaurant in a tiny town on a remote island that otherwise hasn't changed much in decades. She jokes that she now earns her living from fofas alone. “Just to see the joy on their faces gives me a tremendous amount of pride. Furnas has bolos, Vila Franca has queijadas, and Povoação has my fofas.”

    Eat These Other Essential Azorean Pastries

    Dona Amélias: King Carlos and Queen Amélia, the last Portuguese Queen consort, toured the Azores in 1901. On Terceira, the queen so loved the chewy little teacakes served to her—fragrant with ground island corn flour, cinnamon, molasses, and raisins— that they were named in her honor. Today, bakeries, cafes, and restaurants proudly bake up the island’s now-infamous Dona Amélias. Some restaurants even serve them as a complimentary bite to end a meal.

    Suspiros: The vanilla-laced “meringues kisses” come in all shapes and sizes throughout the Azores, sold packaged in grocery stores and individually at cafes. When piped large and served fresh, the delightfully thin, delicate exterior opens to reveal a chewy, eggy texture inside, reminiscent of taffy. When piped into quarter-sized bites, they pop on the tongue and instantly melt—the perfect accompaniment to a strong coffee.

    Queijadas: The Azorean equivalent to the continental Portuguese pasteis de nata, many kinds of queijadas dot the islands, but the two most beloved least resemble classic custard cups. On Graciosa, queijadas da Graciosa take a filling of sweetened condensed milk mixed with egg yolks and cinnamon, and pour them into an unbelievably thin and flaky butter pastry crust for little star-shaped treats. On São Miguel, cloistered nuns in the town of Vila Franca do Campo originally made Queijadas da Vila Franca do Campo with a dough of fresh farmers cheese, eggs, butter, and sugar, wrapping it in pastry dough for compact little cakes that last a long, rainy winter. Two rival families make and sell the “original recipe” queijadas da Vila today.

    Bolos Lêvedos: The Azores islands were thrust out from the Atlantic by volcanic force, and open caldeiras (hot springs) still boil in the town of Furnas on São Miguel today. In the summer, locals cook corn in the rolling boils, and the pungent mineral waters flavor bolos lêvedos year round. A cake-bread-muffin hybrid, the large round griddled pastries are only a touch sweet and uniquely tangy when compared to their American “Portuguese muffin” counterparts, and best devoured hot and slathered in butter. When in Furnas, make sure to pick them up when the sign says quente (hot).

    More From The Sugar Files


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    Pu-erh is the Helen of Troy of tea that gets aged like whiskey, dosed like drugs, and coveted by millionaires. And it only comes from this one mountainous corner of China

    At 4,000 feet, the paved part of the road stops. It's fall, the rainy season in Yunnan, so the dirt trail that follows is more quicksand than pathway. Deep rivulets formed by rain creep along the 40-degree incline; get your leg caught in one and you're liable to break an ankle on the fall.

    Short of an army Jeep, nothing on four wheels will make it up quicksand hill, so we leave our truck in the village and hop on the backs of motorbikes driven by locals who've agreed to take us the rest of the way. The ascent is slow, the driver kicking at boulders and bushes with his flip-flopped feet to keep us upright. Me, I'm just hanging on for dear life, leaning hard into the mountain and this stranger's hips because if I slump back, the bike's engine stalls.

    pu-erh cake

    Palani Mohan

    For centuries, pu-erh, pronounced poo-err or poo-ahr (and also spelled puer or pu’er) has been pressed into dense cakes (above) for easy transport; pressing also helps the aging process.

    There's no guardrail in sight, and the uninterrupted view leaves me dumbstruck with its primeval beauty. Mist cloaks the mountains sprawled across the horizon; up close, all you see is reedy bamboo, gnarled trees, gemlike wildflowers, and a near total absence of human settlement. Left to its own devices, Xishuangbanna Prefecture in southern Yunnan is jungle territory, and the sheer biodiversity here is awesome in the classical sense of the word.

    At 5,500 feet, the road part of the road ends altogether. We walk, single file, along a trail I can just make out by following the footsteps of Paul Murray, the American tea dealer. The villager in the lead unhooks a machete from a bungee cord belt to hack his way through the bamboo overgrowth.

    A few slips, falls, and dead branches conking on heads later, we finally reach a clearing. Close your eyes and imagine what Eden looked like. Got it? Here it is: a grove of knobbly, ancient trees dotted with fragrant pure-white blossoms. Dragonflies the width of my palm race through the air over sun-dappled banana leaves as wide and floppy as green blankets.

    “Here,” says Paul, plucking a bud off the end of a tree. “Try this.” The taste is bitter and untamed—electrifying.

    This is naturally grown, high-altitude, old-arbor pu-erh. The Helen of Troy of teas that's become synonymous with luxury and power but is only grown in this remote and mountainous corner of China. The precise location of which I've been sworn to secrecy about because Paul doesn't want anyone to know where he procures the really good stuff for White2Tea, his online company.

    If you're hardcore about pu-erh, soon enough you'll hear about Paul. To some he's an enigmatic ambassador for a community of Western tea enthusiasts that trade brews and bravura in chat rooms and forums. To others he's a recalcitrant asshole who refuses to release enough details about his products and charges too much for them. In the world of pu-erh, such lacunae are more common than you'd think. Because while tea has drinkers, pu-erh has addicts. And here, in this magical grove on a mountain in Yunnan I'm not allowed to name, is a taste of the lengths those addicts will go to get their fix.

    Dabu tends to pu-erh trees in China

    Palani Mohan

    Dabu tends to the century-old trees in the grove her family has owned in Yunnan since the 1800s. Old-arbor bushes like these are the cream of the crop, prized for yielding leaves with exceptional depth of character.

    On the southwestern border along Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, Yunnan Province is not what you think of when you think of China. Culture and food blend seamlessly into the nations of Southeast Asia. The Hani and Lahu people, two of the 20-plus ethnic minorities that have called the mountains home for thousands of years, could pass for Burmese or Tibetan. Much of the architecture looks Thai. The food wouldn't be out of place in Hanoi.

    For all the wealth China has accumulated over the years, Yunnan has seen little of it. For decades that's meant relatively modest urban expansion outside the capital city of Kunming and crushing poverty in some rural areas where mining or cash crops of tobacco, rubber, bananas, and sugarcane can't pay the bills. Tea has been in Yunnan forever, but it's only in the past couple of decades that anyone's wanted to pay anything for it.

    Scholars suspect Camellia sinensis—the bush all tea comes from—first originated in what's now Yunnan over to modern-day Assam in eastern India. And for hundreds of years growing, selling, and drinking pu-erh has been a daily staple of Yunnan life—a cheap local product pressed into dense bricks for portability, wrapped in bamboo, and laden high onto the backs of mules and men to be traded along caravan routes to equally poor places. Hardly the stuff refined elites even wanted, let alone lusted after.

    pu-erh cakes

    Palani Mohan

    Ripe Pu-Erh

    An alternative to green “raw”-style pu-erh is “ripe” pu-erh, made from leaves that compost in big, humid piles for a few months, which accelerates the aging process to mimic the taste of vintage tea. It's generally less expensive than raw but also less complex.

    Then something happened. Starting in the late 1990s, tea farmers noticed an influx of well-to-do buyers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, willing to trek all the way to the mountains and pay unheard-of amounts for their pu-erh. In the mid '80s, pu-erh sold for pennies a kilo. By 2006 prices had climbed high into the hundreds of dollars.

    Seemingly out of nowhere, this regional bittersweet brew became an object of Chinese national obsession, a modern luxury with a cult following and a horde of investors thirsty to cash in on a gold rush. Faraway speculators paid top dollar for production lots they never bothered to taste. Crafty smugglers schlepped tea to famous mountains so they could sell it for higher prices. And forgers started blatantly copying successful brands' packaging to dupe unsuspecting consumers. The bubble burst in 2007, sending a rampant futures market spiraling downward out of control. Now prices are climbing again with no sign of falling. Pu-erh's rise has turned many of Yunnan's farmers and merchants into overnight millionaires. It draws tourists not just to the tea mountains, but to the entire province, and it's helped spur a new era of development in tea-trading urban centers.

    Beyond Yunnan's borders, pu-erh is a shibboleth of sophistication, a battlefield on which self-styled masters come to blows over tiny details of cultivation, terroir, and storage. But here in the mountains, for people long used to picking, processing, and selling the tea for pennies, its unlikely success is simply a green miracle.

    “This place is not all typical of pu-erh production today,” Paul says as we clamber over ferns and errant roots. We're joined by Dabu, whose family has owned the land for 200 years. By Dabu and Paul's estimates, many of the tea trees are well over a century old.

    Dabu sports faded green highlights beneath a traditional pink Hani headscarf, and her pin-striped blouse and dark blue jumper would look at home on the streets of Shibuya or Soho. She comes from a family of tea farmers, but at the age of 23 she's branched out in new directions, launching successful businesses selling honey, sugar, and modern variations on traditional Hani clothing. “I used to be afraid of this place when I was younger,” she says of their secret grove reachable only by treacherous hike. “But now it brings me to tears, it's so beautiful.”

    chinese tea leaf harvester

    Palani Mohan

    Picking tea is tough work even on flat land. This picker makes the 1,500-foot climb up the mountain twice a day during tea season, hoisting a bamboo basket full of leaves on a wooden shoulder yoke.

    On a standard tea plantation, row after row of verdant bushes sweep over hillsides with geometric precision. It makes for great photos but not necessarily great tea. Tea planted as a dense monoculture saps soil fast, and the shallow root systems of young bushes can't drink up the deeper layers of nutrients that older trees can access.

    Here the trees have room to breathe, to grow into hulking sinister things, their bark crusted over by lichen, their roots entrenched in the earth. Smaller plants sprout up between the trees, adding critical layers of biodiversity lacking on plantations.

    “It's not just about the age of the trees,” Paul says. “It's the whole environment, that nothing's been interfered with.”

    All this wildness produces a tea with more energy and intensity than the plantation stuff, though at the cost of a much lower yield and a much higher price. But Paul doesn't care. “I tell Dabu's family, ‘It doesn't matter what it costs me. Just keep selling your tea to me, not other people.’ Finding this place has taken years of searching and building relationships, and I don't want anyone to know where it is.”

    It's time to head back to the home of Dabu's aunt and uncle below. By now they're processing the day's haul of leaves and we don't want to miss it.

    On the way down the mountain we pass two women hoisting massive bamboo baskets on their backs. They're on their way up to pick leaves from a nearby grove, then take them back to the village where the tea will be wok-fired, rolled, and dried, then sold either on-site to itinerant merchants like Paul or at larger markets. We saw these women before, casually ambling down the mountain on foot while we struggled our way up by bike. Two hauls a day are typical for them, one of them tells us after taking a deep drag on her pipe.

    er lu shaking wok-fired tea leaves

    Palani Mohan

    Er Lu rolls, kneads, and shakes wok-fired tea leaves before laying them out to dry on bamboo mats.

    Dabu's aunt Er Lu grabs a load of fresh leaves and uses her hands to toss them in a massive wood-fired wok.

    The tea sizzles and sputters, giving off aromas of wilted greens, caramel, and incense. “She's cooking the leaves for longer than usual,” Dabu says, “to drive out some of the extra humidity.

    “This time of year, with this much rain, all bets are off,” Dabu goes on, explaining that too much rainfall means there's no guarantee the tea will be any good, and too much moisture in the air means it takes extra skill to dry it properly. “You really have to know how to work with the leaves.”

    Getting this step right is crucial for good pu-erh. You have to cook the leaves enough to break them down and drive away moisture, but not so much that you completely shut off the enzymes that cause oxidation, as you would if you were making green tea. Processed properly, the tea will slowly oxidize and ferment after it's dried, transforming over the years and decades from a sprightly green into an earthy brown with layers of dried fruit, leather, petrichor. Over time, the fresh top notes of the tea fade into something deeper, almost medicinal. Brackish bitterness becomes a mellow sweetness that lingers in your throat. The brew turns silky in the mouth and its warmth slinks through your body. It's rib-sticking.

    It's this capacity for aging that's made pu-erh such an object of desire, that's driven prices up a thousandfold over the past couple of decades. Some old-school drinkers in Hong Kong won't even touch the stuff until it's been aged for 10 to 30 years—anything younger is too green, they'll say, too rough on the stomach.

    The weird thing is, in Yunnan, almost no one ages their tea. Until the pu-erh rush of the past few decades, most locals didn't even know you could age pu-erh. Ask producers today if they have any interest in the stuff and they mostly respond with a shrug. “I prefer tea that's bitter first, then hits you with sweetness later,” one tells me. “Aged pu-erh is only sweet.”

    Dabu's family has a meal

    Palani Mohan

    Dabu’s family digs into a restorative meal.

    Once Er Lu finishes cooking the leaves, she rolls and kneads them by hand to squeeze out even more moisture. Then she spreads them out onto mats to dry for hours in the tropical sun. The timing for all of this is critical: Wait too long to fire the leaves after picking and they may oxidize too much; knead them too little or too long and the taste won't be right; dry them on a too-humid day and the day's production may brew up cloudy or bland.

    Paul gives some of his farmers specifications for how he'd like them to process their tea; for other sources he buys the loose tea as is. From there, he tastes and tastes and tastes, brewing fresh tea well into the night, as he composes blends of material from multiple sources for each of his productions. Once he's settled on a blend, he'll take his haul of maocha—“rough” loose tea—to one of Xishuangbanna's many factories where workers in hot, hazy rooms portion out leaves, steam them for a few seconds until soft and pliable, and press them into dense disks called cakes for easy transport and, ultimately, long-term aging.

    After working through a few rounds of tea, Er Lu sits down with us and the rest of the family for a lunch of wild herbs dipped in prickly chile sauce, a deeply satisfying chicken and rice porridge, and refreshing pork and winter melon soup. And moonshine, of course: the preferred drink of tea farmers everywhere, cheaper than water and as good for killing stowaway ticks as for toasting every five minutes, as you do in Yunnan.

    paul murray pu-erh broker

    Palani Mohan

    Meet your pusherman, Paul Murray, the American tea dealer behind White2Tea, which hawks boutique blends—and strong highs—to Western tea obsessives.

    Like most pushers, Paul doesn't talk much about himself. But you already know him. You went to high school together, where his uniform was band T-shirts, baggy jeans, and giant headphones. There was that one party senior year when you spent hours getting blazed while he spoke at length about Titian and Nirvana—then you graduated and never heard from him again.

    After getting his degree in fine arts, Paul moved to China to study Chinese in 2005. He wasn't a tea drinker then—a brief stint as marketing director for an Italian wine company and an obsession with poker kept his attention elsewhere—and later he only adopted a tea habit as a source of caffeine to keep him up during hours-long online gaming sessions. But as he drank his way through the world of tea, he noticed how he kept getting sucked into pu-erh's gravity well.

    “The first time someone introduced me to really high-quality old-tree material was when I saw that other teas just couldn't hang,” he says. Eventually he amassed more than he could drink in a lifetime and in 2011 started selling some of his stash to buy even more. In 2014, White2Tea became his full-time business. In 2015 he moved from Beijing to Guangzhou in part because he prefers the latter's climate for storing and aging pu-erh.

    Twice a year, in spring and fall, Paul swaps home in Guangzhou for a flophouse in Menghai, a small city of 63,000 in Xishuangbanna that thanks to its proximity to a number of tea mountains has become one of Yunnan's major pu-erh trading centers. It's a big but concentrated business: Pu-erh only comes from Yunnan, and only from the big-leaf assamica variety of the tea plant processed in a particular way. While you can buy cakes of pu-erh all over China and across the internet, you never really know if you're getting what you think you're getting unless you buy the maocha yourself and watch over its production. And even then, farmers and middlemen may swap one lot for another right under your nose.

    And like many dealers of intrigue, Paul prefers not to show his face on camera. He only agreed to take me around Yunnan on the condition that we keep him under wraps. Why the secrecy? “Maybe it's a Wisconsin thing,” he says. “But I feel like my face isn't the point. It's a conscious decision to keep me out of the brand.”

    That choice reflects his broader frustration with the tea industry—both Chinese and Western—that privileges self-described experts, origin statements, and Orientalist exoticism over raw product quality, especially considering how many of those experts exaggerate the rareness of a tea or the age of the trees, or flat-out lie about where it really comes from.

    “There are statements some companies make about their tea that if you spend any time here you know can't be true.” Paul's normally a pretty chill guy, but here his gentle Midwestern cadence turns to rancor. “They say these leaves are from 800-year-old trees or from that super-rare area. If you know the market prices for that material, it's obvious there's no way. But I can't say anything about it, because if you try to be truthful, there's a thousand vested interests rooting for you to fail.”

    So where most tea descriptions are choked with tasting notes and questionable histories, Paul' are maddeningly spare. This year he hit peak obscurantism with a production he calls the Treachery of Storytelling Pt. 2, which costs $369 for just 200 grams and features a label scrawled with purple text shouting, Magritte style, this is not old arbor puer.

    compressed pu-erh tea cakes

    Palani Mohan

    Stones compress steamed leaves into dense cakes.

    Published in 2013, Dr. Jinghong Zhang's book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic is the definitive English-language text on the subject. Zhang's chief metaphor for describing the tea's complexities, controversies, and contradictions is jianghu, which translates literally as “rivers and lakes” but refers to a storied literary and cultural concept of a “non-governmental space…[with] its own chaos, full of dangers and contests” where martial artists and rogue knights converge and “bandits…declare their tough resistance to authority.”

    Those bandits are literal as well as metaphorical. In 2015, Chinese officials arrested five people for counterfeiting eight metric tons of tea under the famous Dayi brand, which they would have been able to sell for almost a million dollars, a roughly 40-fold profit margin. But for every fraudulent tea shipment caught by authorities, countless others slip through the cracks.

    Compared with most teas, sold anonymously through layers of middlemen, it'd seem that understanding pu-erh—which has established brands and recognizable labels—should be more objective. If two people brew two separate pu-erh cakes from the same production, they should, in theory, be drinking the same thing. But it's that very presumption of authenticity that makes pu-erh so confounding and ambiguous. Separating a pu-erh from the stories built around it comes down to each and every drinker. Who do you believe, what can you believe, and how much can you trust your own senses about what's true?

    It's strange to think that for all of pu-erh's history—its primordial heritage in Yunnan, the centuries of human life built around it—these modern cultural constructs and obsessions are only a few decades old. When I talked to Dr. Zhang by phone she told me, “Before the 2000s, the very definition of pu-erh wasn't clear to most people in Yunnan.” Even now, she said, “the so-called art of making pu-erh is still on the road of being invented.”

    Paul's not interested in helping anyone understand what pu-erh is or what it really means. “I'd be thrilled for someone else to take that up,” he says. The innate vitality of the tea matters to him far more than the fluttering factual details we're trained to focus on as consumers. Drill too far down into that stuff, and soon “you're carrying around so much baggage that you're more focused on what something should be than what it actually is.

    “I think people think about this stuff too much,” Paul goes on. “It's like trying to think about sex while you're having sex—can't you just enjoy the sex? If you ever try to describe a high to someone, the words always fall short.”

    chinese pu-erh factory haul

    Palani Mohan

    Some of Yunnan’s tea factories focus on smaller boutique clients, like Paul. On the other end of the spectrum is this enormous tea factory in Xishuangbanna, which can handle multiton pressings.

    A couple days later we're hanging out at Paul's office, a buddy's no-frills white-walled tea shop in Menghai.

    The word shop suggests a place where you can actually buy tea, which is a bit of a misnomer in this case, as Paul's friend Ge already sold his entire season's harvest before it was finished being picked. Ge is from Lao Banzhang, a remote village on Bulang mountain in southern Xishuangbanna that produces some of the most sought-after—and counterfeited—pu-erh in Yunnan. So, while you can't buy tea at this Menghai storefront, it makes a nice place for friends and family to hang out and drink. Ge can spare the rent. Paul suspects his tea brings in half a million dollars a year.

    Pu-erh from Lao Banzhang is prized less for its taste than for its strength of somatic character, what Paul calls “body feel” and some tea people refer to as qi, literally “breath” or “energy flow.” When it comes to Chinese tea, especially high-end pu-erh, taste is only the beginning. A tea's qi hits you deeper than any flavor. It flows to your shoulders, your chest, your belly. It can creep between tight joints and turn your muscles into jelly and make your skull feel like it's being caressed under your skin. There's pleasant qi and unpleasant qi; this Lao Banzhang we're drinking delivers bombastic qi. A few sips in and I'm already sweating. A few more and my chest feels like a furnace. My knee pits are drenched—did you know knee pits could sweat?—which I only register by reaching down and touching them, because I can't feel my legs anymore.

    I have to turn a fan on my face because the high is getting too intense. Everything is sunlight and the world tastes ecstatic and someone in the distance is saying something fascinating and I want to write it down but the pen keeps slipping out of my fingers.

    Paul and his buddies are used to this kind of juice. I'm not. Very little genuine Lao Banzhang makes its way to the Western market. Even in China, most of the good stuff is scooped up fast by plutocrats with money to burn.

    Fortunately a street vendor is passing by with rods of bamboo stuffed with sticky rice that he grills over a portable charcoal stove. We take a breather and eat for a while. The rush slows, but half an hour later the tea is still dancing in my throat. We move to another tea and carry on drinking time. The hours taste like minutes.

    I know how all this sounds. There's a lot of dreamy language that makes its way into tea culture, but good pu-erh really is drugs. You do have to practice the high, though. Pay close attention to what's happening to your body. The effect is different for everyone, because you need to meet the tea halfway, open yourself up to what it's telling you. But when it hits you, you know. I've drunk pu-erh as soft and warm as a down comforter on a winter morning; another as exhilarating as that first deep breath of mountain air on a hike through the woods. One bad trip sent me spiraling into a panic so severe I had to pop a Xanax to calm down.

    wang hong ying drinks pu-erh

    Palani Mohan

    Wang Hong Ying savors a pu-erh processed by her brother, Hong Cai. Paul sells their tea in a Sister Brother set, so customers can compare the siblings’ processing styles.

    Paul's friend Xiao Chen runs another tea shop in Menghai. Business has been slow this week, so he's agreed to drive Paul and me around to eat noodles and shop for water buffalo meat while pointing out all the edible fruits, plants, and bark you can find along the road. Today we're making a trip to visit his girlfriend's family in Ya Kou Lao Zhai on Nannuo mountain.

    Tea has been good to Nannuo. An hour away from Menghai with decent roadways, it's one of the more accessible mountains in Xishuangbanna. The pu-erh grown here commands only a fraction of the price of Lao Banzhang's, but in Ya Kou Lao Zhai, the second highest village on Nannuo, the street is lined with solar-powered lamps and McMansions all built within the last decade. Xiao Chen's girlfriend Wang Hong Ying greets us by the door of one.

    In the past, Hong Ying's family grew more corn than tea, but as the pu-erh boom took off, they, like many families, changed their priorities. Hong Ying is just 21 years old, but she brews tea with studied grace and precision. She, her brother, and her father are all practiced tea producers; the tea we're drinking now was processed by her brother, Hong Cai, who's all of 24 but already making impressive tea with a deep sweetness and calming energy. “What do you think of your brother's tea?” I ask. She smiles, demure. “It's…a little more aggressive than the way I make it. More masculine.” Hong Cai breaks a sheepish grin to take another sip. He's the tea maker who likes his pu-erh bitter first, then sweet; Hong Ying is after more softness and elegance. “We're each other's teacher,” he says.

    For lunch, we move from the patio to a small wooden shelter on stilts connected to but dwarfed by the giant modern house. Up until a year ago, this creaking one-room dwelling was what three generations of Hong Ying's family called home. Five decades of soot and smoke are baked into the walls from the bonfire in the center of the floor. Hong Ying is cooking with her mother, Li A Zhen, a feast of greens from the mountain, sour preserved bamboo, and some especially delicious grubs fried as crisp as potato chips.

    I ask Mom what she thinks of her kids getting into pu-erh. “I want them to make their own choices and do whatever makes them happy,” she says. Hong Cai admits he's young and that he doesn't know what the future holds for him yet. But even in his lifetime he's seen how much his village has to gain from the tea—as well as what it might lose. “We worry about the pollution from the cars,” he explains. Just a few generations ago, mules were still the dominant mode of transportation around here. Now there's a car in every driveway and more on the road from tourists looking to buy tea and hike through the forest. “The more money people here make, the more they drive.”

    What's in a Label?

    Pu-erh labels often offer frustratingly little information, and what they do share is often inaccurate. There's no regulation about origins, age statements, even what brand produced a tea.

    You might see a sequence of four numbers on a cake, like 7542. Pu-erh people call these codes recipes, which refer to specific factory blends. The first two digits correspond to the year the blend was introduced (not the year the cake was pressed)—in this case, 1975. The third digit corresponds to the size of the leaves (graded 1–9). The fourth refers to the factory; 2 is the Menghai Tea Factory, and 7542 is their most prestigious recipe.

    But a recipe is far from a guarantee. Quality varies by year and season; it even depends on where the tea is aged. So the best way to read a label? Ignore it and taste the tea on its own terms.

    We return to the patio after lunch to drink more tea and snack on cucumbers as fat as grapefruits and as sweet as melons. Then we spot Quezi, a relative of the family who's also in the tea business, ambling down the street with a bundle of greens under his arm.

    Quezi doesn't like pu-erh that much, he says. He'd rather drink hot water. “And I like to have a smoke and some alcohol every day,” adds the 74-year-old. I ask him what's changed in the village since pu-erh took off. “Look around you,” he says, laughing and gesturing toward the road and the basketball hoop in the neighbor's driveway. “Everything. They repaired the roads and we make more money. But now we feel like what we have isn't enough, that we need to do better. The next generation can do better.”

    On the other side of the table, Hong Ying is rinsing out her gaiwan—a 4-ounce lidded bowl—for the next batch of leaves. The idea is to brew t*he tea briefly with a lot of leaves, then re-brew the leaves again and again. The flavor and character evolves from the first to the fifth to the 10th brew. It's all part of an unceremonial but meticulous process that' not at all native to Yunnan. When buyers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere on the mainland came to the province to buy tea, they brought the style of brewing with them; now it's ubiquitous.

    Quezi remembers a time when everyone was more casual about the whole thing. “We'd set a big kettle over the stove and throw in some tea leaves and let it all boil,” he says. “You didn't need to measure or anything. And after we drank the tea we'd add more water and boil it again, and do that at least five times. The more you do it, the sweeter the tea gets.”

    Hong Ying pours water into the gaiwan, then decants the brew into a pitcher, then pours into thimble-size cups. At this point we've been drinking for well over an hour and I'm a little high again. Paul's sipping silently, looking out onto the road, and I'm chewing on the central contradiction of drinking pu-erh at its source: that as much as it is central to life here, the one thing you won't hear is any kind of dogma about what tea is or how it should be consumed.

    One idea does persist. As Dr. Zhang, chronicler of pu-erh's allure and culture, puts it: “There's a sense that once you drink pu-erh, all other tea is useless.”

    How Pu-Erh Becomes Pu-Erh

    Depending on how you look at it, processing pu-erh from fresh leaves to finished tea takes as little as a day or as long as decades. Here's a cheat sheet to understanding the life of pu-erh, from tree to cup.

    yunnan tea

    Muti - Folio Art

     

    All tea is made from Camellia sinensis, but to be pu-erh, the leaves must be from the large-leaf C. sinensis var. assamica, grown in Yunnan Province, and processed to encourage oxidation and microbial fermentation.

    tea plantation

    Muti - Folio Art

     

    You'll find pu-erh bushes densely packed on plantations, but many obsessives go after tea made from old-arbor trees in wild, spread-out forest groves. Ancient trees—some centuries old—draw more complex nutrients from the soil for a tea with richer character.

    pu-erh

    Muti - Folio Art

     

    First, the leaves are picked by hand, then laid out on long beds indoors to wither.

    wok

    Muti - Folio Art

     

    The withered leaves are then tossed in massive woks by hand. This “kill green” step drives out moisture from the leaves and moderates enzymes that would cause excessive oxidation.

    sun

    Muti - Folio Art

     

    The leaves are then rolled and kneaded to develop flavor and aroma while driving off additional moisture. Finally, they're sun-dried.

    stone pressing

    Muti - Folio Art

     

    Most pu-erh is then compressed into dense cakes with heavy stones or hydraulic presses. People originally pressed the tea to make it easier to transport over long distances. Now they continue the practice to facilitate better storage and aging.

    pu-erh cake

    Muti - Folio Art

     

    The tea can be pressed into a number of shapes, and the degree of compression also impacts how the tea will age. The tighter a cake is compressed, the slower it ages.

    Mushroom = jin cha
    Cake = cha bing
    Brick = cha zhuan
    Bowl = tuo cha

    planes

    Muti - Folio Art

     

    Now the tea is ready for its journey across the world for drinking or aging. A pu-erh's storage climate influences how it ages: A cake stored for 10 years in Hong Kong will taste different from one in Seattle. Naturally, pu-erh nerds obsess about where and how their tea was stored as much as how it was grown.


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    Photographer Tanveer Badal captures a week-long celebration with curry and rice for a quadruple-digit crowd

    bangladeshi wedding kitchen

    Tanveer Badal

     

    Charail, Bangladesh, February 21, 2015: It was a balmy Saturday, and red and green twinkle lights were strung up on my cousin Shawon's house and all along the length of his block. For a week, my uncle, a prominent political figure in this village in central Bangladesh, had been throwing a wedding for Shawon, his only son, and today was the biggest celebration of them all. Nearly 4,000 guests were expected.

    Bangladeshi weddings are traditionally huge, weeklong affairs. The seventh day is always the grandest with nearly the whole village partaking in festivities. Drivers were hired to transport family and friends in luxury vans to the reception. A team of men, known in Bengali as baburchis, prepared the gigantic meal over the course of several days. The dry, warm weather at this time of year means three or four such celebrations might take place every week—and that's just in the village of Charail. Every day, all season long, these cooks and servers expertly execute enormous feasts, some helpers even sleeping at the venue overnight in between frantic, daylong sessions of dicing onions.

    The feast began with richly spiced curries, chicken, and piles of rice flooding the tables. This was only the beginning. The baburchis are quick with turnaround, serving food and clearing plates in shifts so that everyone gets a chance to sit and eat—even those few interlopers who feign a connection to the bride and groom so they can be admitted. When my cousin and his bride, Anika, finally arrived, the immediate family sat for an even more extravagant feast: fried fish, colossal prawns, and whole roasted goats served alongside salads, biryani, and sweet fried gulab jamun for dessert.

    It can all seem a bit excessive—the endless food, the elaborate decorations, the teams of baburchis—but it's a point of tremendous pride to hold a celebration that the community will remember for generations to come. And for that, there's no expense too great.


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    What it takes to find, make, and sell pu-erh, the Helen of Troy of tea gets aged like whiskey, dosed like drugs, and coveted by millionaires

    "I can't really describe this place—people just have to see it."

    This is what I kept saying to Palani Mohan on our reporting trip to China's Yunnan Province in October. Palani was photographing the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers of the local tea business as we followed American dealer Paul Murray as he scored water buffalo meat for noodles and pu-erh for his company, White2tea.

    Pu-erh is a specialty of Yunnan, and it's a tea like no other that's best grown in wild, ancient forests and is typically aged for years or even decades to develop layers of flavor and profound depth of character. It's a fascinating thing on its own, a product with thousands of years of history that stretches across China and Southeast Asia. But what we really wanted to show was how the tea is a vivid reflection of Yunnan itself. Pu-erh is resonant. It's primordial. Hike your way up Yunnan's mountains and you see why it could only come from this tiny yet ridiculously lush part of the world.

    This southwestern chunk of China has always had a distinct identity, populated with dozens of ethnic groups that also live across the borders in Myanmar and Vietnam. The food is different. The plant life is different. There is so much plant life and so much culture to see and so, well, here it is. Take a peek at the video above for our visual foray into the magic of pu-erh and the majesty of its Yunnan birthplace.


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    It’s a dying craft that has us, well, blown away

    As SAVEUR’s exploration of all-things sugar—aka #thesugarfiles—gets into full swing, we’re celebrating the sweetest sugar-bending skills from all over the world, from near-impossible Scottish honey harvesting to Hungarian cookie decorating. Next up on the list is the Chinese folk-meets-street art of “sugar-blowing.”

    An increasingly rare practice, Chinese sugar-blowing resembles glass blowing, with the artist using their mouth to inflate a ball of caramelized sugar, then sculpting and shaping a 3-D figurine out of it. According to Atlas Obscura, animals are the most popular shapes. This particular video, taken in Beijing, shows an older gentleman producing a stunningly lifelike bunny and rooster in a matter of minutes. It's awesome.

    If you're now obsessed (like we are), check out this clip from Xi’an, China of a man sculpting a traditional dragon, or this one of a vendor in front of the Great Wall at Simatai creating cats and tigers.

    h/t Atlas Obscura


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    Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan is home to a fantastical rising skyline, rose-scented markets, and cooking influenced by everything from the Ottoman Empire to the USSR

    Mehriban Kazimova, the 69-year-old mother of my Baku friend Zulya, is sticking long iron nails of the hardware variety into a pomegranate the size of a baby's head. She then lowers her spiky work into a pot bubbling with a slurry of ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. Then she heats a horseshoe over a burner. A horseshoe. Grabbing oven mitts, she screams an incantation in Azeri and drops the red-hot horseshoe—splosh! clunk!—into the pot, leaving the whole fairy-tale brew to simmer just short of forever, until it's time to strain out the metal.

    And that, dear comrades, is how you concoct fisinjan, the Azeri version of a chicken, pomegranate, and walnut stew of Persian origin that hereabouts comes black as the blackest Oaxacan moles and just as layered and rich. “Screaming scares the stew into blackening,” Mehriban explains matter-of-factly. And if it doesn't do the job, why, oxidation from the horseshoe and nails will.

    mosque in baku azerbaijan, mehriban kazimova

    Jason Lang

    Left: A re-creation of the original 13th-century Bibi-Heybat Mosque, destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936. | Right: Mehriban Kazimova is a skilled home cook who doesn't shy away from old Azeri cooking techniques—like yelling at her stews to help them color.

    Welcome to Azerbaijan, a onetime Soviet republic, where you'll dine on fisinjan and other saucy (though un-nailed) stews called khurush, along with ethereal pilafs bejeweled with dried fruits, nuts, and barberries. Where the table is always laden with lavish sprays of whole opal basil and tarragon. Where you'll wrap briny village cheeses in flatbreads, dab tart homemade yogurt on fluffy omelettes called kükü, and savor lamb so flavorful it doesn't need salt. Then, over quince compote (or vodka), you'll gossip (surely) about another Mehriban—Mehriban Aliyeva, the current first lady of Azerbaijan, who looks like Gina Lollobrigida and loves launching eye-popping new cultural projects.

    herbed lamb stew (sabzi govurma)

    Jason Lang

    Sabzi govurma, a lamb stew loaded with herbs.

    The tarragon, the saffron-stained rices, the sexy accents of unripe plums and verjus, the gigantic stuffed meatballs bobbing in broth—they are one reason my boyfriend, Barry, and I have returned for the second time in a year to Baku, the windy capital of this Caspian country of close to 10 million people wedged in between Iran and Russia in the easternmost corner of Europe. This most fascinating of places has a Turkic language, heavy Russian cultural baggage from its years attached to czarist and then Soviet empires—and the world's last great undiscovered cuisine, mostly indebted to sophisticated Persian palace cooking but with enticing inflections of Georgia, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey.

    As a former Muscovite born in the USSR, I've brought my own family baggage to Baku. During World War II, my grandfather Naum, then a dashing Soviet intelligence chief, was stationed here to help prepare for the Tehran Conference—the first meeting of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, held south across the Caspian Sea. His family, including my 7-year-old mother, joined him here.

    Mom still describes Baku as an Orientalist mirage amid the devastation and hunger of wartime. Fishing in the Caspian was Naum's spy cover. His aides, she recalls, would haul in a sturgeon the size of a sailor, split open its stomach, and scoop out the caviar. To this day, she can't look at fish eggs without feeling guilt at her family's luck while the rest of our ravaged country was starving. Equally vividly, my mother remembers Baku's stench of petroleum.

    driving in baku azerbaijan

    Jason Lang

    Driving on the beach near Baku.

    Oil. It was why Hitler veered calamitously toward Baku, but his Luftwaffe held off bombing. The Führer wanted the city's vast energy reserves intact. Since ancient days, oil and natural gas have fueled the unexpiring flames of Azerbaijan's Zoroastrian cults, and now they underwrite post-Soviet Baku's futuristic high-rises, malls, and Dubai-worthy starchitect showstoppers—while the city's ornate fin de siècle facades testify to the late 19th-century heyday when Azerbaijan pumped half the world's crude and local peasants turned overnight into oil barons. On my previous trip here I'd ogled the fantastical architecture, toured a Zoroastrian fire temple, and filled a plastic bottle, amazed, from black oil pools oozing in the arid moonscape outside Baku. And then I met Zulya, cousin of an Azeri friend in New York and such a fiercely formidable cook that the trip turned into my own Ottolenghi-esque mirage of charred eggplants, yogurt swirls, and dried rose blossoms.

    So now I'm back, to pry out Zulya's and her mom's kitchen secrets. In between dolmas and pickles and syrup-drenched sweets, I'll try to untangle Baku's complicated cultural layers.

    Mehriban, Zulya's mother, lives between Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana boutiques in a graceful 19th-century quarter—not the kind of hood, you'd think, where folks ritually scream at their pots. Entering her building, Barry noted the tomato-red Maserati parked across the street outside Z-style, a chic takeout food shop Zulya owns with her husband, Rufat. Mehriban belongs to a caste of old Soviet-educated elites. A former engineer, she's married to Azerbaijan's retired traffic-police chief. I prod her now about the horseshoe in the simmering fisinjan stew. She shrugs. “It's how they do it in Lankaran,” she informs me, “my birth city of amazing cooks down on the Iranian border.” Soviet times, though, were very different, annotates Zulya. “Then Mom mostly cooked borscht and stroganoff. My parents vacationed in Moscow.” But the folkloric foodways held fast in Azeri DNA—and I'm now primed for Mehriban's plov, or pilaf.

    Anyone familiar with Iranian cooking will recognize the basic pilaf technique: Dump aromatic basmati rice in a huge pot of water. Drain when half done. Steam again long and slow under a towel-swaddled lid until each grain is as eloquent as an Omar Khayyam quatrain. Most crucially, line the pot with lavash or a layer of rice mixed with butter and yogurt to create that addictively crunchy bottom crust called kazmag (tahdig to Iranians).

    “In Azerbaijan we have perhaps 200 plovs,” proclaims Mehriban. “I know at least 50.” For now, she's showing off the borani pilaf, steamed with pumpkin cubes drizzled with sweet condensed milk and eaten with smoked kutum, a Caspian whitefish. The funky contrast of sweet pumpkin, buttery rice, and salty shreds of kutum is reason enough to fly to Baku. Ditto the stuffed cabbage Zulya supplies, not the leaden Slavic variety but delicate pouches elegantly filled with meat, dried fruit, chestnuts, and herbs.

    horseback riding in baku azerbaijan

    Jason Lang

    Left: Riding horseback on a public beach | Right: Maiden Tower, built in the 12th century, in Baku's Old Town.

    As I watch Mehriban reach for enormous jars of preserves—white cherries, rose petals, and feijoa, the intoxicatingly fragrant pineapple guava—to accompany our sage tea, I try to unpack the Azeri obsession with preserves and compotes: Ottoman influence or Soviet-era fixation with putting up everything dictated by shortages? Mehriban's household is its own cultural mash-up. Turkish soap operas blare on her Azeri-channeled TV, while beyond a flimsy partition, her husband, the ex-traffic-police chief, watches old Soviet films on his own TV.

    khan plov (chicken pilaf in a lavash crust)

    Jason Lang

    Khan Plov, chicken pilaf in a lavash crust for extra crunch.

    The next morning Barry and I survey Baku's architectural mix from our 18th-floor window at the Marriott Absheron, our glossy high-rise hotel near the Bay of Baku. The Government House, a Soviet-Gothic relic of Stalinist gigantomania, hulks right below. In the distance, the Flame Towers, a trio of wavy 2012 glass-and-steel skyscrapers, loom like friendly earthworm monsters from a Miyazaki film. Closer, Beaux-Arts oil-boom mansions line Baku Bulvar, the leafy promenade running along the crescent-shaped Caspian waterside. Just inland, the UNESCO-protected walled medieval Persian Old City has been pristinely restored, a stage set of honeyed-sandstone hammams, caravansaries, and carpet shops. Its highlight is the squat Maiden Tower, a marvel of 12th-century brickwork that looks uncannily art deco.

    Then again, not even an architect could tell which layer is which, because recently the whole city center has been sandblasted, refaced, and melodramatically lit to resemble Haussmann's Paris—by way of Vegas—at the whim of first lady Mehriban, a 24-karat Francophile. And yet Baku isn't an artificial desert folly like Dubai. The history behind its faux-French facades is real and resonant.

    Zulya now swings by in her praline-colored Mercedes to whisk us to Yal Bazar, her favorite market. Tanned, coiffed, and sporting torn skinny jeans over Gucci wedges—a vision of Baku by way of Beverly Hills—Zulya had never planned to become the city's premiere food diva. She trained as a concert pianist. But as a teenager, she says, she was more seduced by the frilly Soviet tortes baked by Valya, their Russian neighbor, than by sonatas and nocturnes. She begged Valya for recipes, surprised her parents with perfect éclairs, pestered Mehriban to recall old Lankaran dishes. In 2000, on a whim, she opened Z-style in her father's former garage space. “On opening day I stood mortified,” she recalls. “Customers swiped every last piroshki from my lovingly arranged display!” That night an earthquake shook Baku—but the next day Z-style was even more mobbed. Now with five Z-style shops, a thriving catering business, and a new Caspian-side restaurant about to open, Zulya aspires to be Baku's Ottolenghi (her hero).

    mehriban kazimova dinner baku azerbaijan

    Jason Lang

    Dinner at Mehriban Kazimova's dacha near Baku.

    Like everything in Baku, the Yal market is extremely clean, more boutique than souk. Black and white mulberries are arranged in precise checkerboard patterns; pretty baskets overflow with fava beans and thin wild asparagus. In a spice row Zulya sifts bejeweled fingers through artful pyramids of plump, tart zirinc (dried barberries) and sumac in every shade of purple and burgundy.

    eggplant and walnut frittata (badimjan kükü)

    Jason Lang

    Badimjan kükü, a frittata enriched with eggplant and walnuts.

    “What decadence!” she gasps in the preserves and pickles shop, where for one jam they stuff each yellow cherry with walnuts. Farther on a lady is selling fig vinegar, abgora (verjus), homemade rose water, and narsharab (pomegranate molasses) under a portrait of Lenin. At each stall Zulya schools me in Azerbaijan's fruity-tart-herbaceous seasonings. “These flavor levenghi, the walnut paste for stuffing chicken or fish,” she says of the sundried fruit leathers that shine like sheets of edible fabric in flavors such as cornelian cherry. These plums? Puckery green alycha brings zing to herbed stews; amber dried albukhara commingles with chestnuts in a khurush called turshu govurma, or fills giant soup meatballs that Zulya plans to prepare. We stop at the verdant sabzi (greens) counters loaded with some 20 species of herbs.

    “Herbs are essential to our Azeri table, as palate teasers by themselves,” says Zulya, “and as elements in our dishes.” Here's tarragon for chopping into dovga, a refreshing cold yogurt soup, and kever (garlic chives) and cilantro for a green stew called sabzi govurma. “Ours is the world's greenest cuisine!” Zulya declares. A strange thought, given that Baku sits on a diabolically parched, dusty peninsula.

    After the market comes a quickstep food crawl: some gutabi to start, floppy filled flatbreads singed on convex griddles inside the Old City; then a whole Caspian fish, crisp-fried then braised in a luscious sour plum sauce at a waterside fish restaurant on the southern edge of town; then a pastry high at Zulya's nearby catering kitchen—where smiling white-coated dames brush syrup over 14 layers of pakhlava, stencil elaborate herringbone patterns on pastries called shekerbura, and shape mutaki (dainty sweet rolls) around cardamom-scented walnuts.

    Heading back, we stop at the Bibi-Heybat Mosque, perched above a hauntingly ugly-beautiful graveyard of rusting old oil derricks and tankers. The mosque is a venerated 13th-century shrine that was destroyed by Soviet atheists in 1936, then resurrected with showy sleekness in the '90s with the blessing of Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's monumental ruler, now dead and succeeded by Ilham, his (less monumental) son. Azerbaijan is a paradox: a predominantly Shiite country whose citizens love Russian vodka. Another paradox: Heydar Aliyev, who was an atheist, communist KGB chief before he started blessing mosques.

    In Baku, Aliyev père is immortalized not by a somber stone mausoleum but by a swooping, quasi-extraterrestrial fantasia of white curves that, from some angles, resembles whipped cream piped in from the cosmos. I mean the Heydar Aliyev Center, one of Zaha Hadid's most breathtaking buildings. Here in this white apparition conjured by power and petro-fortune, we behold Heydar Aliyev's vintage cars, Heydar Aliyev's many medals, Heydar Aliyev's manifold gifts from other world leaders. (Putin gave a macho rifle; Romania's president, an old-ladyish tea set.) There's some space for international art exhibitions, too, and a pretty swell ethnographic museum.

    azeri sweets and pakhlava

    Jason Lang

    An array of Azeri sweets, including a starburst of almond-cardamom pakhlava.

    “At least someone's willing to spend a country's billions for global cachet,” Barry quips the next day, as Zulya's husband, Rufat, threads sweet nuggets of sheep's tail fat onto skewers. We're gathered at Mehriban's dacha, a short drive east of Baku, for a multigenerational family feast to celebrate Azerbaijan's Independence Day. By late afternoon, Mehriban's airy bourgeois kitchen is a green, aromatic blur of parsley and chives sautéed for the sabzi govurma, of dill bouquets snipped for the herbaceous pahla plov, a delicate pilaf studded with fava beans. Eggplant whirs in the food processor for the baked kükü omelette textured seductively with walnuts and barberries. Mehriban is stuffing softball-size meat orbs with dried fruit. These will be floated in saffron broth with chickpeas and chestnuts in küfta bozbash, a soup garnished with a zesty flourish of sumac-dusted onions.

    Because one pilaf is never enough, Zulya now brings her celebratory rice tour de force out of the oven. It's called khan (also shah or something else royal) plov, and it's rice baked inside a golden lavash pastry case bathed with a truly indecent amount of butter. Whoosh! Zulya inverts the royal pilaf onto a platter. Crunch! She slices open its casing. And a fragrant cargo of saffron rice, barberries, candied lemon peel, dried fruit, chicken, and nuts—Zulya's modernized take on the classic—cascades out of the pastry. Toasts ascend to the sky. I marvel at the bright bowls of trompe l'oeil cherries and grapes decorating the table; they look fresh but are actually pickled. As a Muscovite with homes in New York and Istanbul, I feel as if all my life I've belonged at this generous Turco-Russian-Persian table. Rufat refills our glasses with vodka. I think of the complicated Soviet past we all share, of my small mom finding a brief wartime paradise in Baku, of the natural resources and geopolitical forces that have separated our former “fraternity” of Soviet republics into the haves and have-nots…of all the Azeri dishes I still haven't savored.

    Zulya taps my shoulder, as if reading my mind. “Anya…Anyechka,” she cajoles. “Next time you come to Baku, we'll make you a whole huge Caspian fish stuffed with walnuts!”

    Get Whisked Away to Baku


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    At New York's Sockerbit, sweets aren't just a snack—they're a portal to a beloved family tradition

    One of the world's greatest words may be lördagsgodis—"Saturday candy" in Swedish. It refers not just to a food (in this case smågodis, or "little sweets), but also a tradition—that of kids heading over to the candy store on Saturdays to fill up paper bags with as many candies as they can. Really, it's a frame of mind. Saturday morning cartoons, meet Saturday candy.

    You don't need to visit Sweden for your taste of lördagsgodis. If you're in New York, head on over to Sockerbit, a pristine white-walled minimalist space devoted to Scandy candy in every color of the rainbow. That includes rabarberbitar, the rhubarb-flavored gummy that dreams are made of, and of course the sinister salty bite of salmiak, a.k.a. salt licorice. See more essential Scandinavian sweets in the video above, and if you like what you see but aren't near New York, good news: Sockerbit ships all over.

    Dive in With Our 360 Video


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    For a small donation, New Yorkers will receive curated listings and personalized food tours of businesses selling food from the seven countries now under restriction from the Department of Homeland Security

    Chickpeas with Pita and Spiced Yogurt (Fattet Hummus)

    James Oseland

     

    If President Trump’s Muslim travel ban is making you eat your feelings, consider this a ray of good news. In addition to participating in massive nationwide protests and supporting impromptu legal aid at airports, New Yorkers can now participate in an act of resistance simply by going out to eat.

    That’s the mindset behind Breaking Bread NYC, which for a small donation of $10 will provide diners listings of restaurants across New York City that represent the cuisines of countries impacted by the new travel ban. Listings of participating restaurants will be distributed each Friday to new donors, just in time for weekend excursions to Muslim communities across the five boroughs and Long Island. All proceeds from the project will go to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which engages in policy advocacy and representation for Muslims across America.

    Starting this Saturday, Breaking Bread NYC will also lead tours of restaurants in Muslim communities. Saturday’s tour will feature a stretch of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, home to dozens of restaurants, bakeries, and groceries run by Yemeni, Syrian, and other Muslim immigrants.

    Organizer Scott Wiener hopes to expand these tours with more volunteer support. “The goal is to get a dream team of New York tour guides, food journalists, and other experts,” he says. So far, restaurants that he and co-organizers have approached have welcomed inclusion in the program. “It’s been really great,” he goes on. “So many [restaurant owners] have been around for so long they think of themselves more as New Yorkers than people with New York accents.”

    Wiener, a pizza obsessive who leads comprehensive tours of New York City’s pizza scene, is also the creator of Slice Out Hunger, an annual event that since 2009 has raised $160,000 for hunger relief efforts. As with that event, which aims to brings like-minded people together through their shared love of pizza, Wiener doesn’t see Breaking Bread NYC as a political act. “You can take action in so many different ways,” he says. “This isn’t political. It’s about community, and learning about people through their food.”

    But hey, even protesters need to eat, so why not kibbeh and mujaddara? “New Yorkers are such a loving and accepting people,” Wiener concludes. “This is just a chance to get them to meet and support their neighbors at a time when they really need it.”


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    At Fu Run in Flushing, NYC, the house specialty is a coating of molten sugar that you transform into dessert

    Act fast: once it arrives at your table, the clock is ticking. Those little chunks of tender taro, glistening in the light beneath their coats of caramelized sugar, will start to stick together, and in just a few minutes, they'll solidify into a single immovable clump.

    So grab a piece with your chopsticks, twirl it high into the air until the trail of molten sugar spins into delicate threads, and dunk it in the nearby bowl of ice water. Count to three. Do not skip this step. Then pull the taro out and pop it in your mouth. The caramel will have cooled into a crunchy candy shell, giving way to the sweet, nutty taste of taro underneath. Relish the way the caramel starts to melt in your mouth again, then go back for another. Hurry. The taro is cooling.

    This is dessert at Fu Run, a northern Chinese restaurant in Flushing, Queens, New York City's most bustling Chinatown, where dinner includes a rack of lamb ribs buried in cumin and deep fried, as well as the hearty vegetable and pancake dishes classic to the region of Dongbei. The dessert also comes in options of apple or sweet potato, but taro's unique, almost floral flavor does best with the caramel, enough to make the dish an attraction that's drawn food bloggers and curious eaters from all over the city to try it.

    In the video above, reporter Yulin Lou shows just how it's made. Go watch it, but if you can, try the dish for yourself. This is one you need to experience first-hand.

    Fu Run
    40-09 Prince Street, Flushing, NY 11354
    (718) 321-1363


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    Now’s the time to feast on the truffle of the sea on Spain’s Costa Brava—but you better hurry

    Spain Costa Brava

    Jeff Koehler

    Can Gelpí (with the green awaning) is one of the beachside bars in Calella de Palafrugell to serve garoines.

    In January, when the Mediterranean is cold and calm, sea urchin season opens on Spain’s Costa Brava. During the next few months, Catalans flock to a trio of picturesque fishing villages along the Baix (Lower) Empordà near Palafrugell—Calella de Palafrugell, Llafranc, and Tamariu—to devour these unlikely delicacies.

    From calçots (fat spring onions) to snails and chestnuts, the gastronomic calendar in Catalunya is replete with feasts and festivals celebrating the region’s seasonal offerings. Fittingly for a place that appreciates nearly any sea creature that can be caught, dug, or prized from its rock, the first of the year focuses on the seemingly inedible sea urchin.

    On January 13th, the seaside village Palafrugell and its neighbors kicked off the 26th edition of their annual garoinada, or gastronomic festival centered around sea urchins. It runs until March 30th. So on the first sunny weekend of the temporada (season), my wife and I made the 90-minute trek north from our home in Barcelona for our annual sea urchin binge.

    Palm-sized and spherical, with prickly, inky-purple spikes, urchin go by a handful of names on the Costa Brava, including garoina, garota, and, fittingly, eriçó de mar (“hedgehog of the sea”).

    Urchin Cutter

    Jeff Koehler

    Cleaning sea urchin at El Didal in Calella de Palafrugell.

    After cutting away the flat underside of a fresh sea urchin with a pair of sturdy scissors or specially made table-mounted cutter, the dark viscera gets cleaned out and the shell dunked in a bucket of seawater. Clinging to the inside of the globular shell are five brilliant orange strips. Some call these soft sacs roe, but they are actually the urchin’s gonads.

    Uni is a popular Japanese ingredient, a favorite for Sicilian cooks to toss with spaghetti (spaghetti ai ricci di mare), and, up the coast at elBulli, was key to some of Ferran Adrià’s most dazzling creations, including his first foam in 1994 (white beans served on sea urchin), turnip couscous with sea urchin, grapefruit caviar, and edible flowers, and lamb brains with sea urchins and sea grapes.

    Cleaning Sea Urchins

    Jeff Koehler

    Cleaning sea urchin at El Didal in Calella de Palafrugell.

    But along this stretch of coast it is traditionally enjoyed alone and unadorned—raw, fresh, and, at most, on bread.

    Pillowy and lusty in the mouth, a mere spoonful packs a wallop that can only be likened to an underwater white truffles. Whereas truffles harness deep, loamy flavors of the forest, sea urchins are intense distillations of the Mediterranean: briny, minerally, metallic, clean.

    For the garoinada, ten participating restaurants are offering traditional multi-course lunch menus that include an appetizer of a dozen garoines for around 40 euros. La Llagosta, in Llafranc, is serving them with two traditional local accompaniments that pair well, a plate of botifarra negre (blood sausage) and tender green garlic shoots. Following this is a choice of either fideus a la cassola amb llagosta (short fideo pasta in a cazuela with lobster) or pigs’ feet with crab and wild black “trumpets of death” mushrooms. There are inclusive weekend packages, too.

    Sea Urchins

    Jeff Koehler

    Sea urchins ready for cleaning in Calella de Palafrugell.

    Like most people, though, my wife and I tend to skip set menus and just head to one of the beachside bars with a sunny terrace for a platter of garoines on the shell. In Calella, the largest of the three villages, that means Sol i Mar; El Didal, on the tiny Plaça de Port Bo edged by wooden fishing boats drug up on the sand; or the classic Can Gelpí, established in 1912.

    “The season started poorly,” said the waiter at Can Gelpí, with its triangular terrace hovering just above the sand. “But now”—two weeks in—“it is really good.”

    Word spread quickly, and demand on that brisk but clear Sunday soon outstripped supply.

    Sea Urchins

    Jeff Koehler

    A plate of sea urchin at El Didal.

    Can Gelpí brought in two big sacks in the morning and halfway into the lunch service they were already gone. The garoines at El Didal didn’t even last long. At one o’clock they started cleaning them on the square, and within 15 minutes there were none to be ordered. “All reserved,” the waiters kept repeating to prospective customers.

    Expect to pay about 20 euros for a dozen cleaned garoines.

    But go now. And go early.

    Jeff Koehler is the author ofSpain: Recipes and Traditions. His bookDarjeelingwon the 2016 IACP Award for literary food writing.Where the Wild Coffee Growswill be published in autumn by Bloomsbury. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


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    How a simple Italian pudding became a restaurant essential with a big following

    budino

    Matt Taylor-Gross

    L.A.'s most iconic dessert, the butterscotch budino at Pizzeria Mozza, is essentially caramel and whipped cream–topped pudding.

    There’s something about Los Angeles and budino.

    On other cities’ menus, where you might find pot de crème or straight-up pudding, in L.A. that jar of creamy chocolate (or butterscotch, or salted caramel) greatness is often called budino, a word whose fat, tactile syllables conjure the way the dessert feels in your mouth, smooth and round and creamy and rich.

    There’s the chocolate budino at Angelini Osteria a bustling but elegant pasta-focused restaurant on Beverly. There’s the caramel, sea salt, and olive oil–topped budino at Jon & Vinny’s, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s ode to Italian-American cuisine on Fairfax. There’s pastry chef Genevieve Gurgis’ bittersweet chocolate budino tart with salted caramel at Bestia, the modern Italian Arts District powerhouse that’s perhaps the hardest reservation in town.

    Then, of course, there’s the butterscotch budino at Pizzeria Mozza. Most people’s first guess is that Mozza co-owner and chef Nancy Silverton is to blame for L.A.’s budino preoccupation, and they’re partially right: Mozza’s version has become one of L.A.’s most iconic desserts. But Silverton takes very little credit for its creation. “The history, at least from my perspective, goes back before Mozza,” Silverton says. While she was preparing to open the pizzeria in 2006, their pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez was biding her time and honing her skills at Jar, a restaurant owned by Silverton’s friend Suzanne Tracht. Jar had a butterscotch pudding on the menu, and, according to Silverton, “Dahlia turbocharged that,” by adding a layer of caramel and a sprinkling of sea salt. “My main contribution was the pine nut rosemary cookie that accompanies Pizzeria Mozza’s—and also now Chi Spacca’s—butterscotch budino.”

    budino

    Matt Taylor-Gross

    The chocolate budino from Jon & Vinny's in Los Angeles is topped with olive oil, sea salt, and caramel.

    The first mention of budino I was able to find in an American newspaper appeared in San Fernando Valley Living in 1963, in an article describing the 32nd dinner of the Wine and Food Society of the San Fernando Valley. Seven Iberian wines were paired with dishes from “six foreign lands,” culminating in Budino Maltais, a dessert, reportedly, from Malta.

    But in the modern culinary era, budino may have been introduced to Angelenos by Evan Kleiman, chef and host of KCRW’s “Good Food.” A 1990 Los Angeles Times profile of Kleiman and her longtime cookbook collaborator Viana la Place includes a recipe for ricotta budino from their third cookbook, Cucina Rustica. The profile was written by none other than Ruth Reichl, and her lede tracks the relationship between Californian and Italian cooking: “California cuisine started in France and began a gradual glide towards Italy.”

    Kleiman also served budino regularly at her restaurant Angeli, which opened in 1984. “We were the [budino] pioneers no one remembers,” Kleiman says.

    When I wrote to a pastry chef friend in San Fransisco to ask about the budino factor there, she replied: “Budino is just pudding! People use the word on their menus to make them sound more Italian.” She’s right, of course—budino is literally and simply the Italian word for “pudding,” and can refer to anything that might fall into that category, from thick custards to pudding-like cakes. Even Nancy Silverton admits there’s really no difference between budino and its less lovely-sounding American counterpart.

    “I was probably about four years old, maybe even younger, when I had had my first budino,” Silverton says. “It was chocolate, and back then, in the San Fernando Valley, we called it pudding. And just for the record, my mom made it like every other mom in the ‘50s and ‘60s: out of a package.”


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    A Peckham local’s tour of the yet-to-be-gentrified neighborhood where Italian pasta restaurants share a block with African gospel choirs, nightclubs, and cocktail bars

    Traveling from New York City to London, it’s easy to draw comparisons between the two, from the dining destinations to the art meccas and fashion hubs. There are also some clear neighborhood parallels: Midtown and The City of London, Union Square and Covent Garden, Williamsburg and Shoreditch. In my quest for an across-the-pond equivalent of Bushwick—Brooklyn’s up-and-coming food, drink, and nightlife capital—, I asked London natives living in both cities, many of whom pointed to Peckham Rye, located south of river and generally considered to be off the beaten path.

    Like Bushwick, Peckham’s longtime grit and relatively low cost of living has inevitably come under siege by the money-hungry forces of gentrification in a tale that’s been well told on both sides of the pond. To really understand the neighborhood’s identity and its emergence as a cultural and food destination, I linked up with born-and-bred Peckham resident An Nguyen who, along with her five siblings, mother, aunts, and cousins, own and operate Bánh Bánh, a modern Vietnamese restaurant located on Peckham Rye.

    turmeric coconut pancakes

    Courtesy of Bánh Bánh

    The banh khot at Bánh Bánh are so cute.

    On a recent Thursday night, the restaurant was packed to the seams with Londoners looking for an alternative to Shoreditch’s formidable “pho mile,” a bustling stretch of home-style Vietnamese restaurants near the Hoxton station. Nguyen, who works in media by day, says she’s optimistic about the culinary evolution of the neighborhood that’s made that possible: “I’ve lived in Peckham my whole life, so I’ve seen quite a lot of change in the past 32 years. It’s really become a destination for lots of upcoming chefs, restaurants, and a breadth of cuisines.”

    It’s easy to see why. After slurping down a bowl, we headed down Rye Lane, the main shopping street, grabbing fruits from an open-air African market before crossing the street into an arcade dive bar complete with a second floor for old-school video games. Then there was the multi-purpose Bussey Building—a former sporting goods factory that’s become a central piece in the fight against further encroachment—which housed a dizzying mix of mostly creative tenants: nightclub-concert space, café-meets-record store, African gospel church, pottery studio, co-working spaces, and crossfit gym. A developers’ buzzword-friendly gold mine of “edginess” and “culture,” the neighborhood also boasts a very real sense of energy and down-to-earthness worth loving and preserving.

    As a Peckham native, Nguyen thinks the neighborhood speaks for itself, but she welcomes visitors to come and see for themselves. “Peckham’s always been a melting pot of cultures,” she explains. “There’s lots of hidden gems here—and it’s definitely worth a visit.” From arcade bars to Italian restaurants, here's a quick look at some of those gems. There's plenty more we couldn't get to, but I'd like to think this was a good start for one evening.

    Bánh Bánh

    Nguyen’s family restaurant, opened in April of 2016, is fast becoming a critical darling in town. While most of London’s Vietnamese restaurants found in Shoreditch’s immigrant enclave more closely resemble the no-frills, fluorescent-light mainstays of American Chinatowns, the Nguyens’ establishment opts for a more polished approach, offering a craft cocktail menu and small-plates selection in a dimly lit space filled with lush greenery. The food, however, is traditional: the main-attraction bowl of pho soaks fresh flat rice noodles in a piping hot, spice-forward broth with a fan of tender, thinly-sliced beef. The menu also includes hard-to-come-by regional staples like bun bo Hue, a spicy noodle soup, and banh khot, savory turmeric-coconut cups with tiger prawns.

    Bánh Bánh
    46 Peckham Rye, London, SE15 4JR, UK
    +44 20 7207 2935

    Pedler

    pedler

    We'd have brunch here any day.

    A few doors down from Bánh Bánh lies Pedler, a gastropub that checks off all the boxes for a day-to-night standby: lively brunches, cozy dinners, and a bustling bar slinging cocktails into the night. Run by a duo of Peckham residents, it was one of the first restaurants in the neighborhood to offer a more upmarket setting to drink and dine. One of Nguyen’s go-tos when she’s not on the floor, the bar menu anchored around the Peckham-produced, grapefruit-accented Little Bird Gin. And as it turns out, the house’s totally non-traditional but totally delicious Peck’em Martini—playing up the gin’s citrus notes with swirls of Aperol and fresh grapefruit—is the perfect thing to sip while listening to a through-the-decades rock playlist.

    Pedler
    58 Peckham Rye, London, SE15 4JR, UK
    +44 20 3030 5015

    Four Quarters

    arcade games

    Courtesy of Four Quarters

    Game time.

    Four Quarters serves as reminder that a night playing video games is never a bad time, and especially not when alcohol’s involved. At the bi-level arcade bar, you’ve got The Invaders, Pac-Man, Tron, and Street Fighter II—all perfect activities for consuming beer, cocktails, and you betcha, American bar food. And though the original is a Peckham icon, a new location, Four Quarters East, will open in Hackney this month.

    Four Quarters
    187 Rye Ln, London, SE15 4TP, UK
    +44 20 3754 7622

    Rye Wax

    taco queen

    Taco Queen (@tacoqueenldn)

    Here are the pork verde tacos from Taco Queen, the delicious pop-up at Rye Wax.

    It’s a little tough to nail down exactly what Rye Wax is. Housed in the basement of the Bussey Building, the self-described vinyl-and-comic book emporium could also qualify as a café, bar, and lounge. It seemed to be functioning as all of the above when Nguyen and I stopped by—a bartender was pouring out some brews while a DJ set up his equipment nearby. Hungry? The space is now also host to Taco Queen, a pop-up taqueria serving globe-trotting tortillas filled with everything from gochujang-sauced chicken to cornflake-battered avocado. And it’s perhaps a testament to London’s advanced cocktail culture that you can order some serious drinks—think a sarasaparilla-hinted old-fashioned or kaffir-laced pisco sour—at cafe-bar-record store, but hey, we’re not complaining.

    Rye Wax
    133 Rye Ln, London, SE15 4ST, UK
    +44 20 7732 3176

    Il Giardino Restaurant

    pizza

    What a pie.

    Nguyen tells me that Il Giardino is one of the oldest restaurants in the ‘hood, one that she can actually recall from her childhood. Open since 1987, the wood-paneled charmer spotlights home-style Sardinian cooking with Peruvian flair, thanks to the South American heritage of the current owner. Nestled on an unassuming side street near the Peckham Rye Station, the restaurant is a reliably cozy spot for the standards: meatballs, whole-fish entrees, pasta, and pizza.

    Il Giardino Restaurant
    7 Blenheim Grove, London, SE15 4QS, UK
    +44 20 7358 9962

    Ganapati Restaurant

    ganapati

    Have you tried chemmeen thoran?

    An early arrival on the scene, this laidback South Asian spot opened in 2010, bringing Indian cuisine—specifically that of the Southwestern state of Kerala—into the spotlight. With boho-chic design and a non-Indian chef to match, the restaurant surprises with authentic preparations of dosas, parathas, and curries, inspired by the chef-owner’s trip to India.

    Ganapati Restaurant
    38 Holly Grove, London, SE15 5DF, UK
    +44 20 7277 2928

    The Begging Bowl

    begging bowl

    We'd beg for another bowl of this chicken.

    When this Thai spot opened in 2012, it helped pioneer the new culinary landscape for Peckham, offering then lesser-known Thai street food snacks. These days, it’s still a favorite on Bellenden Road—considered the “posh-er” bit of Peckham (am I using that right?)—for its small plates and endless rice bowls. The straightforward menu reads like a street-market greatest hits, with laab tod minced pork, crispy squid, and nahm prik pork belly all making appearances. To cap off a savory, spice-forward feast, we suggest their famed banana fritters with turmeric custard.

    The Begging Bowl
    168 Bellenden Rd, London, SE15 4BW, UK
    +44 20 7635 2627

    Artusi

    pasta

    Pasta la vista, baby.

    One of my personal favorites was Artusi. The brightly lit but otherwise unassuming Italian spot serves up a simple, seasonally-rotating menu of pastas, meaty mains, and olive oil cake or ice cream for dessert. But what really brought it all together was the quality of service—friendly, enthusiastic, and not at all stuffy.

    Artusi
    161 Bellenden Rd, London, SE15 4DH, UK
    +44 20 3302 8200


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    For generations, Muslim craftsmen in Jaipur have been pounding silver into gossamer sheets to decorate desserts for a city with a serious sweet tooth

    At first, the ambient noise in Panigaron ka Rasta, a dusty side street in central Jaipur, was jittery. But then the tap-tap of mallets issuing from open-air workrooms synchronized as the pannigars picked up on each other’s beat. These Muslim craftsmen spend all day painstakingly pounding pure silver and gold into chandi ka vark, foil so thin it can be spread or rolled over mithai, the richly diverse delicacies beloved by Indians everywhere, but particularly the sweets obsessives of the desert state of Rajasthan.

    silver

    James Fisher

    Thinner-than-paper sheets of silverleaf

    Some men beckoned me into their stalls to demonstrate how each piece of precious metal is slipped between translucent sheets of paper, which are stacked in worn leather booklets, and then whacked repeatedly until the prized metal flattens. It’s like pounding a scallop of veal for Milanese, but with far more finesse and speed, although I did note that some of the men wore protective bandages on their forefingers.

    jaipur

    James Fisher

     

    The culinary use of decorative foil in cities like Jaipur dates to the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, when a good chunk of the Indian subcontinent was ruled by Turco-Mongol conquerors from Central Asia. Mughal cuisine was strongly influenced by Persia, so courtly recipes tended to be sumptuous and complex, enhanced with cream and yogurt, exotic fruits, and nuts. It was also common for these dishes to be garnished with fragrant flower petals and edible slivers of gold and silver. (At the time, it was also believed that eating metal was good for your health and sex drive.)

    silver

    James Fisher

     

    Much of the traditional artisan work in India is still organized by caste or sect. Vark craftsmen, like their Mughal ancestors who introduced the use of edible foil, belong to a minority religion. As the caste system limits upward mobility, the silver-pounding tradition has long supported a Muslim community in a predominantly Hindu state. Though these days, the livelihood of these humble metalworkers is threatened by automation and impure imitations, such as sheets of toxic aluminum pressed to pass for silver.

    elephant

    James Fisher

     

    For now, their artistry still has an important patron. Across the city, in one of the main shopping districts, families crowded in front of the display cases at Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar (locals call it LMB for short), the venerable pastry shop and tea room that specializes in vark-covered sweets. When the maharajah of Amber moved his capital to Jaipur in 1727, he invited a caste of confectioners to set up business in Johari Bazar. One of their descendants opened LMB in 1954.

    mithai

    James Fisher

     

    All sorts of mithai were neatly piled on trays. They were elaborately composed of ghee and cream and rose-scented syrup, liberally coated with nuts, chocolate and candied fruits. Sticky gulab jamun, laddo, lassi, halwa, supari (mouth fresheners). So many unfamiliar to me, all prepared daily for a city with a sweet tooth as big as a temple elephant. Uniformed staff attended to orders, weighing out treats and composing gift boxes, as children smeared fingerprints on the glass and mothers argued the merits of each variety. Vark-covered sweets are popular to serve at weddings or during a festival period like Holi and Diwali, but Rajasthanis often don't wait for a special occasion to indulge.

    mithai

    James Fisher

     

    By the time my turn in line came, I was still undecided. “Which ones, miss? Do you like pistachios? Almonds, perhaps?" Tongs hovering, the attendant pointed to his favorites.

    Customers behind me grew impatient, so I hastily chose a few silver-coated candies because they looked pretty. On the street, I bit into one. The silver stuck to my fingers, and not surprisingly, tasted metallic. I still found flakes on my clothes days later, but felt richer for it.

    mithai

    James Fisher

     


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    It's not pizza and it's not pie. But this delicious object of hyper-regional obsession reaches its apotheosis at an upstate New York sausage shop

    roma tomato pie utica

    Hawk Krall

     

    Welcome to Hawk’s Illustrated America, a monthly series following illustrator Hawk Krall’s journeys through the back roads of the U.S. in search of our country’s most obscure and delicious regional specialties.

    A lot of people don’t get tomato pie, the hyper-regional, served-cold, thick-spongy-crust-pizza-bread more commonly sold out of bakeries than pizzerias. But for those of us who grew up with it, it’s a magical thing: a masterful balance of pillowy dough, slightly sweet sauce, and a savory dusting of parm or romano cheese, best eaten cold out of the box, maybe even on the hood of your car.

    Growing up in the Philadelphia area, tomato pie was one of those things that was just always around, and everyone had a strong opinion about who made the best. Later in life, I was shocked to learn that what I called tomato pie was virtually unknown across the country, save for a few scattered regions like central New York and parts of New England. Tomato pie is seemingly everywhere and nowhere; I’ve tried it in Delaware, New Jersey, and 90-year-old bakeries in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. I’ve had “pizza strips” in Rhode Island (virtually the same thing, but cut into strips), and oddball variations like Florida’s Cuban-influenced scachatta, a specialty of Tampa.

    After a lifetime of eating it, I can honestly say the tomato pie at Roma’s, an out-of-the-way sausage shop on an industrial strip of Utica, New York, is the best I’ve ever had.

    For such a simple product, tomato pie is made in wildly different ways across the country. Some doughs are thick and almost undercooked. Others are charred and blistered, which is delicious, but takes away a bit of the definitive sponginess that differentiates tomato pie from a Brooklyn grandma slice or Sicilian pizza. Sauces vary from savory and herb-centric to some so sweet they’re rumored to contain grape jelly.

    Roma’s crust is nice and thick, with a nice crispness, but not charred or oily. It’s still light and airy in the middle, with just enough sponginess, but not raw or doughy in the least. And the sauce is incredible, layered on thick—half an inch in some spots—where lesser bakeries slap on a layer so thin you can see the dough underneath. Roma isn’t shy with the “shake cheese” either; the mix of Romano and Parmesan liberally covers every slice.

    Like a lot of the best spots down my way, Roma Sausage & Deli looks more like a warehouse than a pizzeria, on a semi-industrial strip of rust-belt Utica. It’s half retail store, half commercial sausage purveyor, with a line of delivery trucks outside. They sell a standard variety of Italian-American products, with the bakery counter on one side, where boxes of the magical tomato pie are stacked 25 high, ready to be instantly passed into the hands of waiting customers.

    This is not a pizzeria; there are no tables or chairs. The only dining option is al fresco, on the hood of your car (not an uncommon sight in front of Roma), because if you open that box before you get home, there is no way you are not eating a slice of that beautiful tomato pie.

    roma tomato pie utica

    Hawk Krall

     

    Maria Broccoli, who runs Roma with her husband Steven, gave me a rundown of the shop’s history. Steven grew up in a meat packing family and spent most of his life in the food service business before branching out on his own with Roma in 1999. It started as a sausage maker and distributor for the Utica region, but two years later branched out into bread and baking as well, and decided to add tomato pie to the repertoire. As Maria puts it, tomato pie has “been around [the Utica area] forever,” and the business took off like crazy.

    Maria also filled me in on what makes Roma’s pie so special. Rather than relying on a standard recipe, Steven did his homework; experimenting with different doughs, sauces, and techniques for about a year before settling on what he thought made the best tomato pie. Lesser pies can feel sort of haphazardly thrown together—not a shocker for a product that was likely originally just a use for scraps of dough and extra sauce. But Steven perfected a fairly complicated process for the dough that involves specific proofing times and several separate trips into the oven. The sauce is also tweaked to shine at room temperature and stand on its own as the main flavor of this simple product. Roma doesn’t distribute their tomato pie to other shops or retailers like a lot of bakeries do. They don’t deliver or ship. The only way you’re getting it is by walking in the door.

    Even in tomato pie hot spots, people don’t know much about its history or where it first appeared in the U.S. I asked Maria if she knew who made the first in Utica, and she laughed. “I have no idea” she said, but she did point me toward Oscungizzi’s, which started making five-cent slices of tomato pie in their basement in 1910, but now is more of a pizzeria that serves hot “upside down pizza” (square, with cheese under the sauce, a related but very different product that we also have here in Philadelphia).

    My theory has always been that tomato pie is an American version of Sicilian sfincione, a similar flatbread sold on the streets of Palermo at room temperature, dusted with breadcrumbs and anchovy. Swap a few ingredients but keep the general sense of thrift and you have a simple, cheap street food staple of the Italian-American communities of the early 20th century.

    Regardless of exactly how tomato pie got to Utica, Roma cranks out their stellar version like there’s no tomorrow. The shop often runs out before closing time at 4:30, and long lines form during holidays and sporting events such as the Super Bowl.

    Maria says they are looking into a way to ship their tomato pie all over the country. “We get TONS of requests for this on Facebook,” she says. “But we would only do it in a way that would maintain the integrity of the product. Keeping the quality is the most important thing.” They are also looking into some T-shirts for fans, much easier to ship than food. Maria also stresses that anyone coming in for tomato pie should try their sausage. They do standard hot and sweet italian, as well as a Sicilian sausage made with provolone cheese and red wine. I tried both when I was there, and they are indeed delicious. One more reason to head back.

    Roma Sausage & Deli
    2029 Bleecker Street, Utica, NY 13501
    (315) 792-1445

    Hawk Krall is an artist, illustrator, and former line cook with a lifelong obsession for unique regional cuisine, whose work can be seen in magazines, newspapers, galleries, and restaurants all over the world. He focuses on editorial illustration, streetscapes, and pop-art style food paintings.


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