"Pierogi pizza," aka "pagash," at Ferri's Pizza in Moscow, PA
Articles on this Page
- 02/22/17--09:30: _Kanafeh is What Hap...
- 02/27/17--05:00: _You Need to Join th...
- 03/01/17--09:00: _Where We Traveled i...
- 03/02/17--08:00: _The Coconut King of...
- 03/02/17--12:00: _A Brief Guide to th...
- 03/07/17--09:30: _The Crab-Fishing Dr...
- 03/08/17--05:30: _8 Essential Asian S...
- 03/08/17--11:00: _This Classic French...
- 03/09/17--14:00: _Clam Chowder Fries ...
- 03/13/17--08:30: _Ireland's Dingle Pe...
- 03/13/17--12:00: _Watch One of Irelan...
- 03/14/17--08:30: _A Field Guide to Kh...
- 03/16/17--05:00: _In Mongolia, Dinner...
- 03/16/17--14:00: _Making Homemade Phy...
- 03/17/17--09:00: _9 Reasons to Fall i...
- 03/20/17--05:00: _What it's Like to E...
- 03/23/17--05:00: _What It's Like to E...
- 03/23/17--06:00: _The New Tastes of L...
- 03/23/17--10:54: _What’s In a Crawfis...
- 01/26/17--07:30: _A Wedding Feast for...
- 02/22/17--09:30: Kanafeh is What Happens When Baklava Meets Mozzarella Sticks
- 02/27/17--05:00: You Need to Join the Cult of Pennsylvania’s Potato Pizza
- 03/01/17--09:00: Where We Traveled in February
- 03/02/17--12:00: A Brief Guide to the Delicious Sweet and Salty Snacks of Taiwan
- 03/07/17--09:30: The Crab-Fishing Drug King of Everglades City
- 03/08/17--05:30: 8 Essential Asian Street Food Dishes Worth Getting to Know
- 03/08/17--11:00: This Classic French Cake is the Hidden Gem of Louisville
- 03/09/17--14:00: Clam Chowder Fries are the Poutine of the Future
- 03/13/17--08:30: Ireland's Dingle Peninsula Knows How to Eat
- 03/13/17--12:00: Watch One of Ireland's Top Chefs Risk His Life to Get Great Herb(s)
- 03/14/17--08:30: A Field Guide to Khachapuri, the Indomitable Cheese Bread of Georgia
- 03/16/17--05:00: In Mongolia, Dinner Begins With a Whole Lamb and a Bottle of Vodka
- 03/16/17--14:00: Making Homemade Phyllo is as Easy as Pie
- 03/17/17--09:00: 9 Reasons to Fall in Love with Florence
- 03/20/17--05:00: What it's Like to Eat in the Heel of Italy
- 03/23/17--05:00: What It's Like to Eat Breakfast Above the Clouds
- Tins to take home: Look for the myriad tinned fish pâtés from brands like Minerva: sardine and chile, smoked salmon, and spiced mackerel.
- Stay on the central Avenida:Hotel Valverde's elegant rooms are a mash-up of modern and antique décor.
- The classic that needs no updating:Pasteis de nata, a rich, cinnamon-laced egg custard that's baked into a crispy tart shell.
- Visit this cultural hub: The LX Factory, where shops, cafés, and galleries have taken over a row of old warehouses.
- Fly direct: TAP offers nonstop flights to Lisbon from New York City and Boston.
- 03/23/17--10:54: What’s In a Crawfish Boil?
- 01/26/17--07:30: A Wedding Feast for 4,000 in Bangladesh
And it's better than both
Is it sweet or savory? The magic of kanafeh—a dessert popular across the Middle East—is that it's both. A base of gooey, stretchy, and slightly salty cheese is topped with generously buttered kataifi (golden shreds of phyllo), spritzed with spiced syrup, and baked until the cheese starts to ooze and the phyllo topping browns into a mass of irresistible crunch. May the pastry gods strike me down for saying so, but it's a sweet that goes toe to toe with baklava, and as far as I'm concerned, far surpasses it.
Few kanafeh are as magical as the one baked by Wafa Chami, the Lebanese cooking Queen of New York, whose Wafa's has been an anchor of Forest Hills, Queens, since 2008. What began as a casual sandwich shop morphed into a full-service restaurant between 2010 and 2011, dishing out classics like shawarma, spinach pies, and spreads, but also home-cooking specialties like braised baby okra with mint and moussaka (in Lebanese parlance, a ratatouille-like summery stew of eggplant, tomatoes, and chickpeas). Then of course there was the kanafeh—the cheese base just a bit stretchy but also deeply creamy, lighter and fresher and less syrup-drenched than every other version in New York.
Chami closed her restaurant last year, but just a few weeks ago she and her family started the third act in their business: Wafa's Express, a casual counter-service place across borough lines in Brooklyn. Most of the original menu is there, including the kanafeh, which is winning over new fans every day.
We sent reporter Yulin Lou to document what makes Chami's kanafeh so uniquely hers. The kitchen starts with a curd cheese made specially for the restaurant in New Jersey; it then gets mixed with ashta, a thick, luscious substance a lot like clotted cream, and is dosed with both orange blossom and rose water. Then come those delicate strands of kataifi, pulled apart like a nest of pasta, glazed with melted butter, and then anointed with a dash of sugar syrup.
What emerges from the oven is, well, magic. Watch the video above to see how it comes together. And if you want to try your hand at your own, we have you covered with a recipe, too.
Thumbnail image: Alpha
For a little known but booming regional food culture, the craziest time of year is about to begin: gloriously cheesy pierogi pizza is returning to 80-year-old Ferri’s Pizza, just in time for Lent
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.
The cult of Ferri’s Pizza has members everywhere. “People come from Shamokin, Towanda, Athens, Philly, Reading, New York, and New Jersey,” say owners Billy and Janice Ferri. “Potato pizza has even been shipped by a customer to his brother in Kodiak Island, Alaska.” The Pennsylvania restaurant and coal mining museum has a giant map on one wall where people stick a pin to show where they came from. Many cluster around Pennsylvania and the Northeast, but the pins dot all over.
And yes—potato pizza. You can only get it during Lent. It’s one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten. And it’s the core of Ferri’s cult following.
“I only go to Ferri’s during Lent,” my buddy Shawn told me. Every year he does a three-hour drive from Jersey to pick up five or ten boxes of potato pizza. “It’s an interesting spot in the middle of nowhere. A coal mining museum, a women's gift shop, and great food all in one place.”
For those that don’t know much about northeastern Pennsylvania culture (NEPA, in local parlance), a dish called “pierogi pizza” sounds like gimmicky stoner food. Despite Shawn’s years of insistence, I’d never paid it much attention. But last year I happened to be driving through NEPA in early spring and received what must have been the tenth email from Shawn telling me to go. So I went.
The potato pizza turns this year on March 1st. Don’t wait like I did.
Ferri’s is in the tiny borough of Moscow, close to Scranton and 20 miles from the town of Old Forge, the self-proclaimed pizza capital of the world and epicenter of NEPA’s obscure but robust pizza culture. This area’s standard pizza style is thick, square pies sold by the “tray” (pie) or the “cut” (slice), and almost every pizzeria out here does their own version of potato pizza, a.k.a. pierogi pizza, a.k.a. “pagash.” It’s generally attributed to the region’s Polish and Italian Catholic populations, who settled there to work the coal industry, as a meatless dish to eat during Lent.
But Bill and Janice Ferri tell a different story. Their potato pizza legend starts with an old Irish neighbor who arrived at the doorstep of their Archbald location 27 years ago, with a pot of mashed potatoes and a request for pizza. They agreed, and made it for her regularly before other customers caught on and asked for the same. The Ferris adjusted the recipe over the years and so, they claim, potato pizza was born.
“Here’s what we know,” they go on. “We invented potato pizza. We had a big story air on NewsWatch 16 on WNEP TV a few years back, and the popularity of this pizza skyrocketed! After that, everyone started making it!”
You can decide for yourself who to believe. The point is the pizza’s incredible.
The rich potato topping eats more like a ravioli farce fortified with butter, egg yolks, and maybe sour cream. At least three types of onion are layered in and scattered over the cheese and and potato mix, with chives and scallions on top.
This pizza has no sauce, but it’s mounded so high with mashed potato and glistening cheese you can barely see the crust. Genteel Roman potato and rosemary pie this is not; each thick “cut” tips the scales at over a pound. Yet the crust remains magically cracker-crisp, golden brown, and slightly charred—a sure sign of serious technique behind this starchy, cheesy madness.
Ferri’s Pizza began in 1936 in nearby Old Forge, opened by Italian immigrants Francesco and Gaetano Ferri, the current owners’ grandparents. Gaetano worked the coal mines during the day and made pizza at night. They weren’t the first to make pizza in Old Forge, but are credited as the first to offer take-out boxes, borrowed from a nearby dress-maker, until they moved to actual pizza boxes just 15 years ago. Back in the 50s and 60s, Ferri’s was a mini NEPA empire, boasting locations from Dunmore to Scranton. But the current Moscow shop—run by Billy and Janice for the last 20 years—is the last one standing.
Another piece of the Ferri’s puzzle is the coal mining connection. Before you even get to the pizza counter you pass through makeshift anthracite coal museum, Historical mining paraphernalia covers the walls. Hip cocktail lounges would kill for this collection of weathered old signs, photos, and legit mining machinery, but these artifacts are rescued from abandoned coal mines that Billy explores in his free time.
“We grew up in the small coal mining town of Old Forge and both of our grandfathers worked in the mines,” Janice explains. “Billy is the first generation in his family not to be a coal miner and just to have the pizza business.” “I was sick of the jar of peppers and the boot of Italy,” Billy adds.
Even if you’re not particularly fascinated by coal history, it’s done in a fun way that truly adds to the eccentric charm of the place. They also play coal mining videos on multiple televisions in the dining room, although the Ferris’ daughter Sabrina, who also works in the shop, got bored of the coal videos and started putting on classic 80s movies.
Ferri’s is worth a trip for more than just potato pizza; their pepperoni, which is boosted by clumps of ground pepperoni scattered among the crisp slices, is a genius trick for a mindblowing pizza all its own. They’re also known for specialties like hot wing (a NEPA standard), and monthly specials like Reuben- and Thanksgiving-themed trays.
But nothing beats the potato. The Ferris explain that for 40 days and nights of Lent, they go through a literal ton of potatoes; there’s an endless cycle of peeling, soaking, cooking, and mashing them around the clock. One customer special-orders 20 unbaked trays of it so he can freeze it for the rest of the year. After tasting the Ferris’ work, I can see why.
106 Church Street, Moscow, PA
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.
From the open roads of Texas' border country to the tropical climes of Puerto Rico, here are all the ways we ate the world this month
Our editors are always going somewhere: to learn, to eat, and to bring that knowledge back to our test kitchen in New York City. From burritos in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to Greek-inspired Southern in Birmingham, Alabama, here are all the ways we ate the world in February.
This weekend, I was in Birmingham, Alabama for the Southern Foodways Alliance southern media conference. A sleepy city that seems to be waking up after decades of urban hibernation, Birmingham is home to a large Greek population that journalist Eric Velasco documented for SFA. Since the 1940s, Greeks have been running food businesses, including hot dog stands and meat-and-threes, weaving together Southern classics with threads of Mediterranean flavors and techniques. One afternoon at lunch, we were treated to keftedes with grit cakes, cornbread, greens with chickpeas, and yogurt from Johnny's, a local, Greek-owned stronghold that's equally American as it is old-school Hellenic. — Leslie Pariseau, special projects editor
It was summer in Philadelphia.... in February. I enjoyed the 3-day stretch of terrifying and delightful balmy winter weather in down in Philly, balancing a frenzied excitement to drink outside in the sun with February's still-lingering desire for savory, satisfying food. If you're picturing cheesesteaks, think again. Try sexy Izakayas with warm, fried takoyaki (a dish of the recent James Beard nominee Jesse Ito); the modern Jewish comfort food of Abe Fischer; and steaming bowls of Pho soup in a strip mall in South Philly. I love the city for its ability to balance the contemporary with the down-to-earth. Corner gyro shops nestle easily nearby French bistros. Refined aperol spritzes in the sun could very well be followed by divey strip clubs and pounders of Miller High Life. The weekend embodied a city's warm embrace of contradiction, diversity, and charm. — Allie Wist, associate art director
Masaville in the Test Kitchen, New York
Snow, sleet, and schizophrenic New York weather be damned, I've been in southern Mexico in my mind this month. In anticipation of the launch of Nopalito—a Mexican cookbook I recently authored with Mexico-born chef Gonzalo Guzmán from San Francisco—I've been introducing the SAVEUR staff to the art of homemade masa, the foundation of much of Mexico's cuisine, especially in the south. A full tutorial is coming in our April/May issue, but the the gist is this: To make masa, you boil dried corn in a solution of culinary lime, then let it soak overnight. Afterwards, you grind it in a handheld grinder called a molino de mano, which is a sturdy, satisfying machine with a hand crank that functions similarly to a pasta maker. (Purists also use a stone grinder for a finer consistency.) The result is so much more flavorful—and pride promoting—than buying sad store-bought tortillas, and the range of corn colors to choose from is overwhelmingly beautiful. It's a way to connect with the food culture of Mexico, all too important in these strange times in our political landscape. — Stacy Adimando, test kitchen director
Culebra, Puerto Rico
Every winter by the time February rolls around, I find myself desperately missing the beach. Staying cozy and warm inside is fun and all (to a point), but I basically spend the entire season plotting ways to make my way back into the sunshine. So my boyfriend and best friend and I took a trip to Culebra, a tiny island off the east coast of Puerto Rico where the entire perimeter is scalloped with breathtakingly beautiful beaches. After taking a plane to an hour-long taxi to a two-hour-long ferry ride, we arrived at our little beach house, outfitted with a view of the bay and a full kitchen, where could fix our own meals each day. Our first night we cooked black beans with grilled peppers and steak kebabs marinated in lime and garlic, which served as a perfect breakfast the next morning with eggs, and then as a salad with fresh greens for lunch. But the best part of the house was the blender, which meant daily smoothies made with the local tropical fruits, and strawberry-mint margaritas we could enjoy from the comfort of our own little porch. — Alex Testere, associate editor
There’s something that Philadelphia cuisine has that New York cuisine doesn’t. It might be that hometown element for me, or it might be the fact that it’s deliberately unassuming—sometimes, New York food feels like it’s all about the spotlight. While Philadelphia cooking isn’t traditionally viewed as “down home,” that’s exactly how I think of it. This cream cheese, banana stuffed French toast from Sabrina’s Café is the perfect example of that. It’s not posed or styled, or made to fit the food trends of Instagram. It’s just two thick cut slices of Challah bread, doused in sugary syrup and stuffed with creamy cheese. With a side of fresh black coffee and accompanied by my gossipy Italian grandmother, I couldn’t imagine a better brunch. — Alex Tringali, photo intern
Having lived in Manhattan for seven years (yes, I’m spoiled), I rarely leave the comfort of Chinatown (but not too spoiled), what with all its cheap markets and budget-friendly Vietnamese food. When I do venture to Brooklyn, it’s usually Bushwick for the bars and warehouse parties. So getting me to “travel” to Greenpoint for dinner is no small feat. That being said, I’d venture out here any day for Sauvage, the French gastropub charmer from the acclaimed Maison Premiere team. Beyond the seriously on-point decor and beverage selection by Will Elliott, the approachable French small plates menu by chef-partner Damon Wise makes the restaurant worth a stop on its own. The standouts? Veal sweetbreads nestling chestnuts and maitake mushrooms, a butternut squash agnolotti flecked with duck ‘prosciutto,’ and rabbit, presented in a most approachable manner, with roasted turnip, mustard seed, and honey broth. — Dan Q. Dao, deputy digital editor
Beacon, New York
Whenever I'm craving a city escape I tend to hop on Metro North to visit friends in Beacon. A quick and easy commute from our midtown office, it's completely doable for a little weeknight trivia at one of my favorite local breweries, 2 Way Brewing Company. They're known for their Confusion beer which is similar to a Belgian pale, and produced with a proprietary yeast isolated from Hudson Valley black raspberries. By morning I grabbed a scrumptious cinnamon bun from Ella's Bella's and a latte from Bank Square Coffee House before hopping the train back to city life. — Michelle Heimerman, photo editor
I was in west Texas last week for the magazine. My fellow SAVEUR staffer Katie Whittaker and I spent the week eating and drinking our way around west Texas and the border. We got some sun and discovered the origins of burritos (from Juarez) and I (a native Texan) got to teach Katie about mountain lions and scorpions. It was a real hoot. But my favorite part of the trip was a lunch we had at The Capri in Marfa, Texas. We ate a lot of good things but the thing that stuck with me was the epazote-infused gin martini. Epazote is a traditional herb used in Mexican cooking, I would never think of throwing it in with some gin! Rocky, the chef at the Capri, had just started the infusion process, but the epazote had already added an earthy, mustardy, mild minty flavor to the cocktail that mixed with the warm Texas sun and dry desert air was real. — Matt Taylor-Gross, staff photographer
New York, New York
When my friend from Florida was visiting, what began as a search for ice cream resulted in a trek around the streets of SoHo and the discovery of…rice pudding at Rice to Riches. Having never tried it, we didn’t know if we would like it. As it turns out, we’re both a little obsessed now, specifically with the cookies and cream flavor. The texture is so weird and different, but strangely addicting. Now, every time she comes to visit, we make sure to stop at Rice to Riches. — Emma Goodnough, social media intern
Chapel Hill, North Carolina (by way of the James Beard House)
Dinner at the James Beard House brings the food of top chefs from around the U.S. right here to New York City. In this case, I got to go on an Italian olive oil road trip curated by chef Teddy Diggs of Il Palio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, without needing to hop on a plane. Chef Diggs featured extra-virgin olive oils from Italy’s top five producing regions in thoughtful dishes accompanied by wines from those regions.
The standout hors d’oeuvre for me was a crisp fried artichoke with anchovy mayonnaise, but my favorite course was the simplest of all: sweetly hay-smoked crushed potatoes made with Ligurian taggiasca olive oil, topped with an extravagant scoop of Calvisius sturgeon caviar beside a dab of whipped crème fraîche, paired with La Valle Primum Franciacorta Brut sparkling wine. We were also treated to Il Palio’s amazing smoked sea salt and rosemary focaccia, pillowy and smoky and herbaceous and in no need of dipping oil, as the chef already incorporates 2.5 liters of his own house blend of olive oil in each loaf. On second thought, I would absolutely fly to Chapel Hill just to have that bread again. — Donna L. Ng, copy chief
My most recent trip to Texas and Mexico has me obsessed with a good tortilla. I ate more tacos and burritos than I can count, and while the fillings were always different (and often quite spicy), the tortilla was what hit me in the face the hardest. In Juarez, I watched a food truck of women roll them out on tiny counters, and in Marfa, I ate hand-ground masa tortillas plain, or sometimes with a swoop of mole. Even the chain Burrito Crisostomo's tortillas were made in-house and totally amazing. Now that I'm back home, I'm thinking it's time to make everything into a burrito. — Katie Whittaker, assistant digital editor
New York, New York
Stacy and I have been working with Marie C., of My Life in Sourdough, to put together a pop-up fundraiser at Haven’s Kitchen benefitting the ACLU. An amazing group of ladies in food media joined us and contributed baked goods, art, ceramics, and so many other items! These stamped RESIST & PERSIST cookies—and the idea behind them—by Maggie Ruggiero were a favorite. — Kristy Mucci, test kitchen associate
Spiritual, physical, and otherwise. For Coconut Rob in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, this tropical grass is a sweet miracle
For Coconut Rob, sugarcane isn't just the raw material for sugar—it's the water of life. The itinerant fruit hawker and juice presser has long been a fixture of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where he serves a dash of Caribbean cuisine, style, and medicine to the local community. The cuisine in question is perfect tropical produce, including his namesake coconuts, as well as smoothies of all kinds, and, perhaps most excitingly, freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. Never had the stuff? There's no other way to describe the uniquely grassy, nutty, and golden liquid than grin-inducingly delicious. And if you listen to Rob, he'll quickly tell you why he recommends it for your health.
You'd be justified to be skeptical of the nutritional benefits of a sugary juice devoid of its plant' valuable fiber. But in the Caribbean, including Rob's native Trinidad and Tobago, freshly squeezed cane has long blurred the borders between food and medicine. Rob says the sweet stuff will whiten your teeth, help you grow strong, and ensure a safe pregnancy. We'll just say his fresh elixir is indeed wonderful, a rare tropical delight in grey, blustery New York, and sipping it is good for the soul.
Beyond selling fresh fruit and juices on the street, Rob also caters parties and events, where his natural great-host tendencies get a chance to shine. In the video above, reporter Dan Pleck captures Rob at work at a nighttime party, where sugarcane is a crucial ingredient in a fun night for everyone.
The best way to nosh across the island's cities and mountain forests
Taiwan is an island of snackers.
The country built by a merging of cultures—Chinese, Japanese, Aboriginal, and Western—is powered by open-air produce vendors, street stalls, and night markets. And as a wayfaring tea drinker traveling north to south along the island’s oolong tea trail, I was in frequent need of snacks to keep my blood sugar up.
Fortunately, Taiwan is a place where the people are as sweet as the fruit they eat daily, and those I met along the way were more than happy to share their favorite local snacks, which are as varied and regional as the country’s geography. In the dense urban mesh of Taipei, stuffed dishes like coffin breads pack sweet and salty into compact grab-and-go's; down south in the lazy sun of Tainan, thick sweet and savory sauces lace snacks for an extra hit of sugar.
But whether you’re eating up in the misty mountains or down in the lowland cities, Taiwanese food has two commonalities. For one, it’s built on a bounty of incredible ingredients—crisp vegetables, juicy mountain fruits, unique fermented foods, and plenty of fresh seafood. And the most beloved snacks stagger a balance of sweet and salt—such as Taiwanese cane sugar to offset salt-cured funk—to keep you coming back for more.
Here’s how to go on a snacker’s tour of Taiwan.
One of the simplest—and most satisfying—snacks along city corners and mountain roads is the humble sweet potato, roasted right on the street. Perfectly portable, the gooey starch candied by open fire is the perfect showcase of how good the produce on the island is. It’s one of the first things I eat whenever I land in Taiwan, and you can find them almost everywhere.
On this last trip, the jujubes that just came into season were even juicier than I remembered from my Bengali childhood. Yet they still retained a little sourness, which was the perfect excuse to add plum powder. The product of ground sour plums—you can buy it in stores—embellish fruits and raisins as a hit of salt and sweet that enhance Taiwanese fruits’ natural flavors. Walking through a night-market, even savory snacks like fried potatoes have a liberal sprinkling of the addictive powder. A pouch of plum powder along the journey goes a long way.
Minced Pork Rice
Tainan is especially famous for its small eats. Simple dishes like lu rou fan, minced pork rice, can be found anywhere. Deeply caramelized bits of glistening pork, almost jellied in texture from caramelized sugar, sweeten a simple bowl of rice. It’s a common treat in the south, a sweet and savory way to start the day.
Aiyu jelly is a blank canvas for dessert: wobbly and refreshing but subtle on its own. The jelly is made from seeds adorning fig vines. After submerging the seeds in water and deeply massaging them, a tea-colored jelly forms that is then mixed with ice, honey-based syrups, and lemon for a refreshing summery treat. The gelatin dessert is also popular across the Taiwan strait in Malaysia and Singapore, where the vines stretch their roots as well.
Mochi, most commonly known as a Japanese rice cake specialty, has a Taiwanese variant most often filled with red bean paste. A little-known cousin from the Southern city of Tainan skips the flour process of the rice cake altogether. Hawkers sell sticky rice pressed into the shape of muffins and top them with black sesame or peanuts.
Popiah, a spring-roll-like specialty from China’s Fujian province, is made by rolling various fillings in a paper-thin, slightly springy pancake that falls somewhere between a crisped crepe and a flaky paratha. In the south of Taiwan, a popiah simply cannot be without a liberal amount of sugar. It’s eaten with a sweet bean sauce that blankets many Tainanese snacks. Three scoops of ice cream, crushed peanut brittle, and a hit of coriander stalks turn popiah into an the greatest snack creation—the ice cream burrito.
These enormous dumplings with translucent dough are stuffed with sweet and savory fillings and either boiled or slow-fried into a mushy, chewy rice-cake-like consistency. In Tainan, they’re slathered in a sweet and savory sauce topped with a lick of spicy sauce. These gluttonous dumplings are the the kind of gooey, comforting food that fills your cheeks and your stomach in no time.
The pineapple cake is the crown jewel pastry of Taiwan. Buttery sweet, crumbly shortbread encases a moist jam of pineapple of wintermelon that crumbles into happiness on your tongue. Maybe it’s the Taiwan sun, or the regal local pineapples that go into the rich jam. But sharing the little cakes brings with it the condensed warmth of its people and the tender hearts that melt your own.
On a seafood pilgrimage to south Florida, Jamie Feldmar catches wind of drug-runners, false-bottom crab boats, and a tale so bizarre it could only be true. Maybe
Disclaimer: What I am about to tell you is all true...ish, though names have been changed to protect the guilty. I’ve fact-checked where possible, combing through newspaper archives to find evidence that supports the claims made within. But even now, months later, I still find myself questioning whether any of this was real, or if it was some kind of bizarro-world fever dream. So take everything in the account below with a grain of salt; treat it as my attempt to record a memory before it evaporates entirely.
Cruise control is a colloquialism, but it’s also a very real setting on the convertible I’m driving down US 41, also known the Tamiami Trail, which connects Tampa and Miami by cutting straight across the Everglades. It’s empty on the road, so I’m set at 75 and cruising, top down, through the 2,000 square miles of rivers, lakes, and mangrove forests that make up what writer and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas described as a “River of Grass.” There’s not much to see beyond blue and green, and the occasional billboard advertising airboat tours with guaranteed gator sightings!!! (Emphasis theirs.)
My unlikely companion is my mother, and we’re on our way to Everglades City, Florida, a tiny town on the edge of Everglades National Park, population 402. We happen to be visiting south Florida on the first day of stone crab season, and I’m on a mission to eat as many as possible, as close to the source as possible.
Stone crabs are gnarly bastards, and commercial crabbing is a tough gig. Big boxy traps are baited with pig feet, then strung out on lines and hauled in some 24 hours later, ideally filled with angry crustaceans whose claws are strong enough to cause serious damage to unlucky human fingers. Stone crabs aren’t killed when they’re caught; if their claws are large enough to meet state requirements, they’re ripped off by hand, and the newly-disarmed crab bodies are tossed back, where they will slowly regenerate new claws in the off-season.
The fresh “green” claws are kept in seawater, then brought to shore and cooked at 212 degrees for precisely eight minutes before immediately being chilled in cold water to prevent the meat from sticking to its shell. The next day, the claws are weighed and graded by size, then shipped off to restaurants and distributors around the country. Eventually, they find their way to customers like me, who pay a premium to greedily rip their sweet, meaty flesh from inside the rock-hard claws and dip it in honey-mustard sauce.
We’re en route to Everglades City because it is, according to the residents of Everglades City, the stone crab capital of the world. Dozens of crabbers are based there, supplying much of the country from October to May every year. Joe’s Crab Shack in Miami, arguably the most famous crab restaurant in the country, is the town’s biggest customer, and owns multiple crab houses there to ensure a steady supply.
Despite this illustrious reputation, Everglades City isn’t much to look at. It’s what a Yankee like me would call a one-horse town, a drive-by. Residents of south Florida and trivia buffs may have heard of it for other reasons; we’ll get to that in a minute. Point is, I didn’t know diddly-squat about the place except that it was filthy with stone crabs, which is how found ourselves at Triad Seafood, a rickety crab shack surrounded by funky-smelling traps on the muddy Barron River.
The start of stone crab season is kind of a big deal, and I’d called several restaurants only to discover that the first batch wasn’t yet ready, or worse, had already sold out. Triad was one of the few places in town with any left.
Mom and I are interlopers, and it shows. The middle-aged waitress eyes us suspiciously before granting us access to a rickety table with plastic chairs. The menu is printed on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, but we barely look at the thing—we’re here for the stone crab special, listed by claw size on a dry-erase board, with a side of hushpuppies and coleslaw, please.
Two men are at the table adjacent to ours, smoking cigarettes and shooting the breeze over a platter of fried fish. They’re in their mid-50s, both with rawhide skin and shaggy hair, plus baseball caps and heavy working boots despite the 80-degree heat. They notice us. We smile politely but curtly, deferring to our place as both outsiders and unaccompanied women in this rough-around-the-edges seafood joint. We don’t want to talk to them—I can feel my mother’s mental ‘danger’ antenna picking up frequencies in the air. But the taller of the two comes over to us anyway.
“Y’all kin?” he asks, smiling.
No one talks like that where we’re from. People would ask if we were related, sure, but “kin” is a particular regional vernacular, and it catches us off-guard. “I was trying to figure out if you were sisters or mama-daughter,” he continues. We nod in agreement, yes, we are one of those things, and it’s clear he wants to keep talking.
“I’m 10th-generation Evergladesian, part Indian in my blood, and I can tell. I grew up here, went to high school right across the street, fished here all my life. Name’s Will Clarkson—they call me Captain Will—and I run these boat tours if y’all ever want to see the Glades with a real local,” he says, sliding a flimsy business card our way.
I’m relieved—okay, he’s just shilling his tours, no harm, no foul. I figure I should ask him about the stone crabs—how they’re caught, how they’re processed, and so forth, to see if Everglades City has fully earned its reputation. “I worked on crab boats for years,” says Clarkson, motioning to the pile of traps on the riverbank. “Let me show you how it works.” He walks me through the process, demonstrating with his hand how the crabs fall into the funnel-shaped top in search of food, then can’t get out. “It’s hard work, going out before sunrise, out there all day,” he says. His buddy laughs: “That’s why you quit doin’ it!” Clarkson tells us there are 90,000 traps in Everglades City, making it the largest producer in the U.S. Sounds right.
Our claws arrive back at the table and we figure that’s the end of our conversation. But Clarkson pulls up his chair and announces he’s going to show us how to get the most meat out of the claws. Sure, a tip from a local—this will be good for the story I’m already drafting in my head. He places the claw atop his open palm, then whacks it with the back of a spoon. The shell comes splintering off in big pieces, revealing a thick nugget of sweet, juicy meat. I thank him for his service.
Clarkson pulls up a chair. “You ladies know anything about Everglades City in the ‘80s?” he asks. I shrug. My mom, however, apparently does. “I remember reading something about the War on Drugs,” she says. This is the right answer. Clarkson leans in close.
“I have $10 million in movie rights on my name,” he says. “I ran this town. I had condos, planes, a recording studio in Nashville. I had 14 kids—not all of them biological, maybe, but I took them in as my own and supported them. Not bad for a sixth-grade flunkout,” he goes on, slapping his thigh.
It all started, Clarkson continues, when he was 16. His daddy, a fisherman, was too sick to go out on the water, and so Clarkson, who had indeed been kicked out of school in junior high for setting off cherry bombs in the toilet, was out looking for mullet in his stead. As a 10th-generation Gladesman, he knew every curve in the mangroves like the lines on his palm—all the best spots to fish, to take shortcuts through the tall grass, to catch some shade under the unrelenting midday sun.
One day, young Clarkson was out on the boat when a well-dressed man with the nicest sunglasses Clarkson had ever seen motored up to him in a little dinghy. “I need your boat,” said the fancy man. “Well, I need my boat too,” said Clarkson. “If I don’t catch enough fish to make at least $100, my daddy will kill me.” The man laughed. “If you give me your boat for 24 hours, I promise I’ll give you enough money that your daddy won’t even remember the fish.” And so, 24 hours and a manila envelope fat with Benjamins later, Clarkson was officially in the drug-running business.
It worked like this, basically: The big importers were in Miami. The marijuana was from Jamaica and Colombia, loaded onto big ships just waiting to be picked up in the Gulf of Mexico. The importers needed guys like Clarkson, who had boats and knew the knotty waterways in their blood, to run the product between the motherships and back to shore under cover of night. They did it with false-bottomed fishing boats with fast motors—on a good trip, says Clarkson, he could make it to a pickup in Jamaica and back again in 24 hours. He didn’t get involved in the sales or distribution of the drugs, but he did get his brothers, cousins and father in on the transportation racket.
Everyone in town knew about it. Clarkson (whose family name is actually Davis changed his middle name to his surname; more on that in a minute) was far from the only guy the slick-talking dealer had approached. One local policeman estimated that “250 to 300 of the 534 village residents fish for a living, with ‘half, maybe three-quarters'’ of them suspected of taking part in the illegal enterprise,” reported one 1982 New York Times article about the burgeoning Everglades City drug trade.
“But I used my money for good,” insists Clarkson—who is loudly talking at the restaurant in plain view of anyone who cares to listen—“I made sure the church was taken care of, the hospitals. When my neighbor hit hard times, he wanted in on the business, and I told him, you don’t want to get involved in this stuff, but here’s $40,000. Just gave it to him, no questions asked.”
The waitress walks by and rolls her eyes at Clarkson’s friend, who has returned to his table to continue chain smoking, alone. My mother and I are glued to our seats, unsure of what to make of all this. Is it complete bullshit? It has to be bullshit. There is no way what this man is saying is true, but there’s no easy way for us to get out of his story, plus, it’s pretty entertaining (albeit slightly terrifying). And so he continues rattling off a list of his material goods and properties, boasting about “never hurting nobody,” and waxing nostalgic for the (many) women he once knew and loved.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and Clarkson tells us, fleetingly, of getting caught. He’s vague with the details of the bust itself, perhaps viewing it as a personal failure he didn’t want to dwell on. He talks about sacrificing himself so his brothers could get less time, and of transferring his many assets to his many children so his exes couldn’t bleed him dry. Ultimately, he did 12 years behind bars, in federal, state and county jail for tax evasion.
He came home after that, back to Everglades City, where everyone knew what had happened and no one talked about it. He got married, then divorced. He had some more kids. He found religion—not quite God—but a spirituality of some sort, that allowed him to never have a bad day, to let things pass through him without leaving a scar. He took a guest stint on the Netflix series “Chasing Monsters,” about fishing ugly sea creatures in the Everglades. Eventually, he started his airboat operation.
At this point, we’ve finished our crabs, and, having run through polite disbelief, shock, and awe, we’ve just about run out of ways to react to Clarkson’s tale. We’ve been at Triad for nearly two hours and we’ve gotta get out of there. Perhaps sensing our agitation, Clarkson leaves our table by staring directly into my eyes, announcing, somewhat menacingly, that he can see through me, and telling us to check out his boat tours when we’re back in town. Shaken, we skedaddle when he’s in the bathroom, not wanting him to see our license plate number.
Back on the highway, we try to process. I don’t believe anything Clarkson said, but start furiously searching “Everglades City + drug smuggling + Will Clarkson Davis,” just to see what happens. It doesn’t take long for results to start popping up: “Everglades City Shifts from Fishing to Drugs,” reads one 1982 headline; in 1983 and 1984, the DEA executed two highly-publicized predawn raids in the tiny town as part of “Operation Everglades,” which lead to the seizure of 580,000 pounds of marijuana with an estimated street value of more than $252 million, and the arrest of nearly 80% of the adult male population of Everglades City. One article details the Davis brothers in particular, noting that agents seized six parcels of land belonging to the boys: Collier County, land in Tennessee, two condos, two planes, and four boats. I exhale slowly: He wasn’t lying.
At least not entirely.
Further reading reveals that there’s a long history of smuggling in Everglades City, dating to the turn of the 20th century, when residents smuggled in endangered animals, then later rum-running in the Prohibition era, and finally marijuana, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as the National Park Service enacted ever-stricter laws on commercial fishing, the previous mainstay of the local economy.
So it’s far from a black-and-white situation: a working-class town in the middle of nowhere gets squeezed out of its major source of income; tight-knit locals turn to illegal activity to survive; everyone knows, but no one talks. Gives a deeper meaning to the word “kin,” when you think about it.
Luke Nguyen's new book, Street Food Asia, shows the best snacks to get in Saigon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta
For the street food novice, the options in Asia can be overwhelming. Enter: Luke Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Australian chef who was born in a Thai refugee camp following his parents' escape from Vietnam, their home country. His family settled in Australia and opened a Vietnamese restaurant, and this is where Nguyen first became interested in exploring his roots. He is a television personality and runs The Red Lantern restaurant in Australia. But now, he's bringing his in-depth knowledge of Asian street food culture to the page.
In his book Luke Nguyen's Street Food Asia: Saigon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, you'll find all the must-know snacks, and below, we've asked Nguyen to pick out a few of his favorites to tell us about.
Saigon: Silkworm Noodles With Shredded Pork and Coconut Milk (Banh Tam Bi)
On Cô Giang Street in District 1 there is a guy who cooks this dish using just a basic chargrill. Betel leaves are interesting; where the Thais like theirs raw, the Vietnamese love to cook them either in stir-fries or stuffed and chargrilled, as here. The stuffing is a mixture of minced beef, lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce and coriander; it’s rolled neatly in the leaves to make small, tight rolls, which are then grilled. You can eat these little packages in lots of ways; stuffed into baguettes, for example. But my favorite is to wrap them in rice paper with fresh vermicelli noodles, tons of fresh herbs and some star fruit and green banana, for a slightly sour edge. This is a ripper of a dish to cook for a barbecue at home.
Saigon: Rice Paper Rolls With Grilled Lemongrass Beef Betel Leaves (Bo Cuan La Lot Banh Trang)
This is a popular dish in Saigon and across southern Vietnam, though it is not easily found outside of the country. The thick noodles—which resemble silkworms, hence the name—are made from a combination of rice flour and tapioca flour.
Coated in a thick, coconut milk sauce, they are drizzled with generous quantities of Nuoc Cham sauce and served with shredded pork and pork skin, cooked bean sprouts, julienned cucumbers, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables and Spring Onion Oil. Both sweet and savory, somewhere in between an entrée and dessert, I love to enjoy it as an afternoon pick-me-up treat!
Jakarta: Chicken Satay Skewers (Sate Ayam)
In search of what they promise is the best satay, some locals send me down a main road. ‘It’s across from the Pertamina Hospital – just look for Sate Ayam Dankambing, on Jalan Kayai Maja, number 21’, they tell me, making it all sound so easy. It isn’t. I have no idea what I am looking for, only that this satay is completely worth any effort. But after I’ve walked about 20 meters, I see the smoke, smell the aromas and know I’ve found my destination.
I spy two long charcoal barbecues with guys madly fanning coals. They grab around 20 beautifully threaded satay sticks at a time, submerge them in a dark, sticky marinade, and then put them straight onto the grill. Coals hiss, flames ignite, smoke puffs and the meat quickly cooks to succulent, charred perfection. The sticks are plated with sticky rice cakes, kecap manis, crispy fried shallots and a gorgeous peanut sauce. Customers eat right outside, among the smoke and fumes, sitting on wooden benches and watching the world pass by. I buy a serve of the dainty skewers; they’re not huge. I get a mix of chicken and mutton, their specialties.
Jakarta: Smashed Chicken with Green Chile Sambal (Ayam Penyet)
Jakarta is known for its big malls and locals love hanging out in them. They have amazing food courts but I far prefer street food and often you find some wonderful offerings in the laneways and areas just around the big malls. At around 10.30 am near the tree-lined entrance to Citywalk Sudirman, a popular mall, a whole pile of street food carts are wheeled out and start setting up shop. Later, high-rise office workers pour out of their buildings for their favorite dish and the place is pumping by lunchtime. My favorite cart is the one preparing ayam penyet – I love sitting and watching the theatre and fun of it being made.
A popular East Javan dish, ayam penyet (‘ayam’ means ‘chicken’) is cooked using chicken maryland pieces that are marinated in tons of spices and deep-fried until they’re exceptionally crispy. While this is happening, the cook makes the sambal. This involves deepfrying a handful of green chillies until soft, then pounding them in a cobek with some salt to make a vibrant green paste. The cooked chicken goes onto the stone as well and is smashed hard with the pestle, so the meat is torn and softened and becomes easier to eat. Next, the green sambal is slathered over and the chicken is served in a paper-lined basket with coconut rice, fried tempeh, mint and raw cabbage. And even more chilli, of course.
Kuala Lampur: Banana Leaf Rice (Nasi Kandar)
The thing that really blows me away about Kuala Lumpur is how various culinary strands all come together here. One of these is seen in the significant Indian influence and one dish from this tradition I have come to truly appreciate is Indian banana leaf rice. You literally eat steamed rice, plus an assortment of curries and accompaniments, off a large, fresh banana leaf. The go-to place for this is Usha’s, a food stall on Jalan Othman in Petaling Jaya Old Town, not far from Kuala Lumpur’s city centre. Usha is the matriarch-cook and she’s been pulling in the locals for over 20 years with her tasty curries. One of the ‘aunties’ who work here will come and scoop rice onto your leaf then around that go pickles, pappadums, dhal, chutneys, maybe a boiled egg and then the curries.
These are all pre-cooked and you choose the ones you want – Usha is famous for her goat tripe curry, dry mutton curry, chicken korma and salted fish curry. She also cooks mean fried chicken and fried fish and there are some unusual things on her menu, like the finely sliced bitter melon that is battered then deep-fried until it’s really crispy. And her dried salted chillies, which are great. Everything is aromatic with spices and curry leaves and you eat using the fingers of your right hand. Done well, this is a super elegant way to eat. Done clumsily it’s... well, a bit messy, but fun nonetheless (you can opt for cutlery if you really want). Eating here is a really warm experience as you feel like you are a guest in a family home, not at a food stall. When you’ve finished your meal you fold the banana leaf up, from the top down, to cover all the food bits; it’s both a sign of respect and says that you’ve finished (and loved) the food.
Kuala Lampur: Flying Wantan Mee with Roast Pork (Wantan Mee Babi Salai)
Right next to the Seapark Market in Petaling Jaya, you’ll find a guy at a stall making wantan mee. But his aren’t just any old wantan mee because he makes his noodles ‘fly’. Literally. After blanching the noodles for your order, he flings them really high into the air (we’re talking two storeys high into the air!) deftly catches them then keeps on cooking the dish. It’s so much fun to watch and whether it’s just a gimmick, I’m not sure. Some people honestly reckon throwing the noodles like this makes them taste better, imparting a springier texture. I’m thinking it’s a very clever way to get rid of all the water – you don’t want wet noodles for this dish.
Wantan mee is a street food classic in Kuala Lumpur. Basically it consists of thin egg noodles topped with an almost black sauce made from soy sauce, sesame oil and lard. Slices of sticky, sweet, home-made char siu (Cantonese barbecue pork) go over the top with some blanched choy sum (Chinese flowering cabbage). The small bowl of wantan in clear, pork-flavoured soup is to have alongside your noodles. This is considered fast comfort food in Kuala Lumpur and it’s simple but delicious. Here’s a tip if you want to go to the market to see my noodle hurler; he starts cooking at around 6 pm and it’s best to get there early to see him in action while the light is still good.
Bangkok: Boat Noodles (Kuai Teaw Moo Nam Tok)
If you want a really authentic floating market experience, be prepared to get up at 5 am for a long drive; I’d suggest hiring a car and a driver for the day. You have to go to Amphawa Floating Market, about 90 kilometres southwest of Bangkok, where the city’s natives flock during the weekend. It’s vibrant, busy and the food is spectacular, especially the seafood. But I also like eating boat noodles; they’re such an iconic dish. They’re so-called as they originated in the floating markets and canal ways of Bangkok during the 1940s as part of a government initiative to increase noodle consumption – there was a severe rice shortage at the time and it’s believed that many of Thailand’s now-famous noodle dishes sprang up during this era.
Traditionally, they feature a distinctive brown stock that’s colored using pig’s or cow’s blood, which also gives the broth its particular texture. You can still find the dish made this way but not all cooks use blood. Other ingredients and flavors, which tend to be strong, include cinnamon, dark soy, fermented tofu, pork or beef, bean sprouts, water spinach (morning glory), fried garlic, soft-boiled eggs and crisp pork rinds. It’s a powerful tasting dish and one that always comes in a rather dainty portion; it’s more than possible to eat two or even three bowls. The reason the bowl is so small is because decades ago, boat noodle vendors were one-man bands who had to blanch noodles, chop ingredients, assemble and serve soup, take money, give change and wash bowls, practically at the same time. For ease, they kept the bowls small.
Bangkok: Wafer-Thin Sheets With Egg Floss and Dried Shrimp (Khanom Bueang)
I love these things! I don’t just love eating them (although they are a favorite Thai sweet snack of mine), I also love watching them being made. This requires real skill plus perfect timing and to me, they’re the kind of thing I’d pay serious money for in a fine-dining restaurant, rather than a few baht on the hot streets of Bangkok. This dish dates back 600 years so it’s fair to say the Thais have perfected it over a long time. The batter is made using rice flour, pea flour, some palm sugar, eggs, water and a pinch of salt. It’s spread to form small, super-thin discs on a hot plate; they look like tiny tacos.
Once the rounds are brown and super-crisp, they’re topped with an egg white and coconut sugar mixture that’s been whipped until it’s stiff and resembles meringue, or a mixture of dried shrimp, grated coconut and fine threads of egg yolk called ‘foi thong’, or ‘golden strands’, with chopped coriander (cilantro) finishing the whole thing off. Buying a combo of the two, as is normal, delivers a mix of sweet and savory flavors that may sound weird but I promise you khanom bueang taste amazing. They’re not something you could easily make at home; best you get yourself to Bangkok and eat them there. My recommended place for these is near the famous Golden Buddha Temple, on Soi Sukon 1. This little street is a great daytime street food destination, kicking off with all sorts of goodies at around 11 am, just in time for lunch.
Excerpted with permission from Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia: Saigon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, published by Hardie Grant Books March 2017, RRP $45.00 hardcover.
The dacquoise at Buck's may be old school, but it never gets old
I don’t like cake. I never much have. One bite is fine, sure. But after that, the richness, the cloying frostiness—the sheer cakeiness of it all—just gets to me. At my wedding a few years back, we served pie.
But there’s a caveat here. My animosity toward cake does not in any way apply to the dacquoise, the traditional French dessert that consists of crisp disks of meringue made with baked crushed nuts (usually hazelnuts and/or almonds) that provide the structure for a variety of fillings, from buttercream to fresh fruit. While many consider the dacquoise too cakey, it's far lighter; the crunch of the meringue giving texture to the sop of the filling. To me, it's like a cake made of air. Whenever I see one on a menu, I make a point of ordering it. The problem is that I rarely have the opportunity these days.
While dacquoise can be found in French pastry shops all over the country, you don’t see it on restaurant menus too often, even though it’s long been considered the white whale of desserts. Back in 1977, New York Times food columnist Craig Claiborne referred to the dacquoise as “one of the finest and most sought-after desserts in Manhattan,” and shared his elation over its inclusion on the menus of both Coach House on Waverly Place, and Windows on the World.
The best dacquoise I ever tasted wasn’t in Manhattan, though. It was in Louisville, Kentucky. At a quarter-century-old restaurant called Buck’s, which is located on the ground floor of a historic apartment building in the city’s Old Louisville neighborhood. It was around two years ago, and I was on assignment, trying to figure out if the dizzying number of new restaurants opening up around the city qualified Louisville as one of America’s great culinary destination.
My conclusion? Hell yes. While there, I dined on everything from the ingenious tuna old fashioned at Chef Anthony Lama’s Latin-inspired ceviche, to red wine-braised beef shoulder at Proof on Main. From a near-perfect smoked pork chop with a maple bourbon jus at the understated farm-to-table Mecca, Harvest, to a braunschweiger sandwich at neighborhood fave Check’s Cafe. I drank my favorite bourbon (Old Forester) at Doc Crow’s, and had a Seelbach cocktail at the friggin’ Seelbach Hotel.
Despite all of this, three days in, I felt like I was missing out on something. While the restaurants and bars I visited showcased the best and the brightest of Louisville, I was left wondering what people ate here before the likes of Anthony Lamas, not to mention celebrity chef Edward Lee, came to town. Sure, there was the hot brown at the Brown Hotel. Everybody loved that. But what were some of the lesser known places I should try out? Some hidden gems?
“The dacquoise at Buck’s!” Stacey Yates, a friend of mine, who works for the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, cried, before offering to join me there for lunch.
Watch: Making Buck's Dacquoise
In a day and age where Edison light bulbs and salvaged barn-wood walls are still (almost frustratingly) right on trend, the decor at Buck’s is the polar opposite. The dining room is painted the darkest of blues; providing contrast to the hundreds of white flowers that reside in small vases throughout the dining room and bar area. The tablecloths are white. There are chandeliers. There’s even a piano. Sitting at the restaurant's bar, festooned with a Royal Wedding’s-worth of flowers, I felt like a little kid at a fancy restaurant my parents had taken me to because they couldn’t find a sitter.
That sense a long-gone adult world hit me even harder when the waiter arrived with our dacquoise, which looked like something straight out of an old Time-Life series come to life. At Buck’s it's of the mocha variety, with one layer of coffee-infused buttercream, and one layer of rum-infused chantilly, all divvied up by three crisp and crumbly almond disks, drizzled with chocolate shavings and syrup. Digging in, I felt like Buck's knew my palate perfectly. The rich mixture of coffee, rum, and chocolate was delicious, but not overbearing at all; in fact, it was almost refreshing. With the nuttiness of the meringue, it almost reminded me of the chocolate coating of the best ice-cream truck delicacy ever created—the Nutty Buddy. I don’t think I’ve ever wolfed down a dessert so quickly in my life.
“I guess people love it because it’s such a throwback,” chef Colter Hubsch later told me. While customers here often rave about Hubsch’s offerings of coffee and cocoa-encrusted rack of lamb, and southern-style fried green tomatoes served with beef tips, it’s not unusual for them to come here for the dacquoise, and the dacquoise alone. And while it’s a dessert that predates Hubsch's time here at Buck’s, he's not insulted. Like everyone else in Louisville, he knows the dacquoise is something special. Craig Claiborne would agree.
The Darling Oyster Bar in Charleston is serving up the ultimate hangover cure
Anyone who's ever been to a food festival knows: it's an exercise in endurance in terms of both eating and drinking. Such was the case at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival this past weekend, where I, along with SAVEUR Editor-in-Chief Adam Sachs and staff photographer Matt Taylor-Gross, got our share of local culture, cuisine, and booze.
By day three, we all had hangovers that needed curing, and after a recommendation from some locals, headed over the Darling Oyster Bar, a neighborhood charmer serving up freshly-caught oysters and clams washed down with grade-A cocktails. The sleeper hit of the menu, however, was the clam chowder. Yes, clam chowder, which was offered in a game-changing "served over house fries" option.
The chowder, a more or less traditional recipe with thinly-sliced clams, bacon, fennel, and chives, is poured tableside onto a heaping pile of house fries flecked with feta cheese. The melty, gooey result was just what we needed to power through the dinners we had that night. Feast your eyes on the magic of clam chowder fries, the seafood poutine that will change your life.
An eclectic community of chefs, poets, publicans, artists, and ice cream makers have turned a once sleepy seaside village into an unlikely food destination
There's a type of person who travels to the Dingle peninsula to build a village from scratch, one with a schoolhouse and cobblestone streets.
There's a type of person who, after leaving art school, after failing as a tailor and working with at-risk youths, moves to Dingle and, with virtually no kitchen experience, opens not just a restaurant but an ambitious restaurant with menus composed only of food grown or caught on the peninsula and in surrounding waters.
There is a type of person who gives up a successful career in the metropolis of Dublin and moves to Dingle to become a poet.
And there's a type of person who abandons New York to bring his young family to Dingle, to make ice cream from what is arguably some of the best milk in the world.
This last type, Seán Murphy of Murphy's Ice Cream, says, "There's a type of person who wants to go to a place at the end of the world, where the weather's not that good, but who appreciates the deep culture, the landscape. There's a type of person who wants that, and appreciates food. There's a sense of touching something alive and real here."
Such is the strange, ineluctable allure of place.
I'd traveled to Dingle simply because a friend who loves food told me, "I've just been to the most amazing food town." To which I said, "I thought you were in Ireland." To which she replied, "Yup—and it's so beautiful."
Dingle's not easy to get to—a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Dublin, or a Dublin-to-Kerry flight followed by an hour's drive along narrow roads, slowing for hairpin turns through half a dozen one-pub towns. The roads are so narrow that the passenger-side mirror regularly brushes the hedgerows and the festive red, fuchsia, and orange montbretia wildflowers. Lambs, marked with spray paint to distinguish the farmer, bleat and graze all around. Beyond the emerald pastures, sparkling blue bays and mountains.
Ireland, of course, was the country so dependent on the potato for food that when the crop failed countrywide in the mid 1800s, millions left and millions starved to death. A country once so devoid of culinary ambition that aspiring chefs in the 1980s were told to leave. Martin Bealin, a Dingle chef, recalls his cooking-school instructors' advice: "There's no future here."
Watch: The People You Meet in Dingle
But here is present-day Dingle, population 2,000, roughly four short blocks and, in the words of one traveler, "on the road to nowhere but itself." Today it is home to three dozen restaurants, a score of pubs selling craft beers and whiskeys, a culinary school, and a distillery—a town that hosts one of the country's best-known food festivals, which welcomes more than 10,000 people from across Ireland each fall.
How, in this culinarily impoverished country, did such a place come to be?
Because it drew a certain type of person. Many of them, actually. Starting with one Sir David Lean.
By all accounts, the story of Dingle's rise to culinary distinction began when the Lawrence of Arabia director built a stone village on the side of a mountain to serve as the set for his movie Ryan's Daughter. The film's Academy Award-winning cinematography of blue waters crashing against sheer cliffs and green pastures and vast pure beaches was so improbably beautiful that a wave of tourists followed.
At the time, the early 1970s, it was said that Dingle contained 52 pubs and not a single place to eat. A few years after the movie's release, Johnny and Stella Doyle opened Doyle's, showcasing the pristine seafood caught off the Dingle coast.
Lean was not the last Hollywood titan to scout this remote peninsula: Ron Howard directed Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Far and Away here in 1992. And J.J. Abrams chose Skellig Michael, an island off the Dingle coast and site of a Christian monastery dating to the Dark Ages whose beehive-shaped, stone buildings remain intact, to convey that remotest of places, Luke Skywalker's hidden retreat. The next Star Wars is being filmed here, too. Doyle's and the wave of forward-thinking, tourist-pleasing restaurants that followed did away with the cabbage and boiled meats of the past and began looking instead to this fertile peninsula's fabulous seafood, exquisite dairy products, and beautiful sheep that graze all over it.
Martin Bealin and his wife, Nuala Cassidy, opened their restaurant, Global Village, in 1997. It's now the city's primary anchor of extraordinary cooking.
"I was searching the world, searching for the perfect place, the perfect cuisine," Bealin, who grew up outside Dublin, said, seated in his small restaurant before service. "I'd have been quite happy to move to Australia and live there. And I came back here and realized this was it—it was right here. Ireland was the perfect place to be a chef. What about that?"
By the time his restaurant was established, it had become clear to him that not only was the seafood excellent, the mackerel and John Dory and turbot and lobster and mussels—"the boxes of stunning fish I get in through that door every evening, it's as good a quality as anywhere I've worked in the world"—but also the produce that could be grown in this temperate climate turned out to be far more diverse than cabbages and potatoes. "Lettuce and asparagus and onions," he said. "It jumps out of the ground."
All the cattle and lambs grazing on the hillsides are grass-fed, not because that's the trend but because, well, why would a farmer feed them anything else? Look at the grass growing everywhere. It is self-evident. To claim that your meat is grass-fed, or that the butter came from grass-fed cows, simply sounds ridiculous here.
Because it has become an eating destination, you can travel 2,000 miles from New York City to sit in Curran's, one of the most picturesque and pleasurable pubs in the town, only to listen to four young travelers discussing stops on the Port Washington line of the Long Island Railroad. Then again, you might also strike up a conversation with a woman named Dairena Ní Chinnéide, the aforementioned type of person who quit her job as a television producer in Dublin and moved to Dingle to write poetry, working in her native Irish tongue and translating the work into English. Nine volumes of it, plus short stories and radio plays.
When asked, "Why Dingle?" Chinnéide replied, "What can I say? It's just magic."
A few doors up from Curran's, Kennedy's sells County Kerry's most limited local microbrew, made by Adrienne Heslin, the first female microbrewer in the country who is also a publican (and a sculptor). She crafts her beer with local waters and flavors it with local flora: elderflowers, rose hips, blackberries, black currants, and, occasionally, tree bark.
"The idea is to put the geography of here into the bottle," she told me as I downed her fabulous porter, one of nine beers she makes, at her Brick's Pub on the opposite side of the peninsula.
From here, it's just a few minutes' drive to Sophie Seel's small organic farm and garden, exploding with vegetables. Seel created the garden exclusively to serve Bealin's restaurant. And she grows beautiful lettuces, favas, peas, corn, and chiles for one of the town's, if not the country's, most unlikely chefs, Kevin Murphy.
"I had a two-week stage before I even knew what a stage was," said Kevin Murphy (not to be confused with Seán or Kieran Murphy, the ice cream makers, or Mark Murphy, who runs the Dingle Cookery School). A distinction must be made, and it's one that Murphy has tired of, as it's been addressed often in Irish media: his lack of formal training. I've been writing about chefs for more than 20 years, and I've met scores who have had no formal training. What this has always meant, though, is that rather than going to culinary school, they worked their way up through a series of kitchens until they knew enough and had developed the skills and knowledge to open their own place.
Murphy didn't even do this. Pretty much all he had learned was what he'd been able to pull from books and his two weeks as a stagiaire—and not at a Michelin-starred restaurant, but the restaurant of his uncle's brother-in-law three hours away. That brief apprenticeship, plus years of cooking out of books at home and for his friends on beaches and in the mountains, was all he figured he needed to open an uncommonly ambitious restaurant, Idás, which aims, he says, "to put this peninsula on a plate."
Murphy, now 40, opened Idás in June 2014. Word of mouth spread so quickly that within 10 months a Michelin critic paid a visit and included it in the influential guide of recommended restaurants. "I didn't really know what that meant," he said. "It's just what one guy thinks. I care more about what I think." Martin Bealin knew that this was cause for celebration—and he left his restaurant to find Kevin and congratulate him in person.
I can best describe Murphy's approach through a single dish, the first of an eight-course tasting menu: A dashi-like broth made from local seaweed, mushrooms, scurvy grass, and marsh samphire is presented in a bowl made by a local artist using local clay. Beside it rests a plump, raw, local oyster. Our server instructed us to slide the oyster into the hot broth. The broth tastes freshly of the sea, its heat intensifying the sweet-savory flavor of the oyster; the mushrooms counter the sea with their earthiness; and the scurvy grass, foraged earlier in the day in the sandy undergrowth of a nearby beach, adds a subtle, wasabi-like spice.
On the menu, it's simply "Foraged broth of land and sea, Glenbeigh oyster." In your mouth it's much, much more.
As is "Brill, whey, coastline": Crispy-skinned turbot, with tender potato spheres dusted with a peppery dried seaweed, is served on a delightfully tart beurre blanc whose base is the whey left over from the kitchen's cheesemaking. Sweet mussels and the salty rock samphire, which Kevin foraged himself, bending precariously over a 100-foot cliff, added sweetness and spice.
One of the most surprising dishes I ate in Dingle came from Bealin at his Global Village. When the server set the dish down and said, "Mackerel three ways," my toes curled. I am not a fan of oily, fishy-tasting fish, and mackerel is the king of oily, fishy fish. Now I had to eat it in three ways—as a thick velouté sauce; as a pâté; and as a crispy-skinned fillet. I started with the fillet—and was astonished. It was a delight, rich but fresh and clean. I'd never tasted mackerel like it.
Bealin explained that mackerel must be prepared within 24 hours of being caught. But equally important was the month: We were there in summer when warmer waters mean the fish generate lower concentrations of oil. It was a revelation, and thanks to Bealin and Dingle I have now become a seasonal mackerel snob.
Of course there are many more terrific restaurants, such as Out of the Blue, Ashe's, and the Chart House, all within a few minutes' walk of one another. And if you see crab thumbs offered anywhere, don't pass them up. Called órdógs in Irish, which translates as thumbs, these are plump crab claws that arrive shelled, with the small pincer still intact to serve as a kind of handle with which to eat these butter-soaked nuggets. Better than any stone crab I've had—better than any crab I've had, period. And Dingle is a lovely walking town, with a terrific bookstore and Dick Mack's, a pub with an extensive selection of both whiskeys and rain boots, all across from St. Mary's church and around the corner from another pub, Foxy John's, that doubles as a hardware store. Have a sandwich or some cheese from the Little Cheese Shop, then stroll down the road to Murphy's for some butterscotch or gin-and-tonic ice cream, made in Dingle from the raw milk of Kerry cows. It's fabulous. But even the Texaco here has good food. Yet to drive the peninsula is to be reminded that this is an ancient place as well, with ruins and beehive huts dating to the sixth century a.d., and the hillsides are visibly ridged with the former potato rows, now referred to as famine fields.
On one of my final nights, I was invited to a party at the home of a woman who lives part-time in Dingle, Colleen Grace Herlihy. Her backyard looked out over the choppy Atlantic, and in the distance was Skellig island, where Star Wars was filmed. She served local fish and local cheeses, and someone had brought a couple of bottles of superb gin from the Dingle distillery a mile up the road and flavored with local botanicals, rowanberries, fuchsia, hawthorn, and heather. Herlihy, an American, is perhaps the purest expression of the type of person you'll meet in Dingle.
In 1974, traveling with her friend after college, Eurail passes in hand, she planned on spending four weeks on the continent, and two in Ireland. After four weeks on the continent, she arrived in Dingle and stood on the broad expanse of Inch Beach, her breath taken. She called her parents from the town's single phone booth to tell them she wasn't coming home. Here she would stay. And so she did, working at a local pub for six pounds (and one bath) a week, free room and board, and all the Guinness she could drink.
I'm the type of person who travels to a town I'm curious about and then never feels the slightest inclination to go back. Too many places to see in one short life.
But Dingle changed that. I'm already planning to return next summer. Why do I feel this way? I've been wondering. Perhaps because, like filmmakers and chefs and poets before me have found, Dingle and this peninsula, with its deep history, awe-inspiring vistas of mountains and sea, its food and generosity and powerful spirit, has the power to transform.
Now Get in the Kitchen
On the Dingle peninsula, chef Kevin Murphy is cooking some of the country's most ambitious food at his restaurant, Idas. Step one: scale the coast's rocky cliffs for produce
A meal at Idas on the Dingle peninsula might involve dashi made with local seaweed, fresh oysters harvested from an ocean bed so close you can almost hear it, and some funky vegetables called scurvy grass and marsh samphires. The restaurant, which Kevin Murphy opened in June 2014 to little initial fanfare, has since become one of Ireland's most ambitious and exciting restaurants, one more reason this town four and a half hours outside Dublin is becoming one of the country's top food destinations. For Murphy, eating local isn't just a buzz term; it's essential to every dish on his menu.
Murphy obtains many of these ingredients from nearby farmers, but some are too wild to be farmed, which means starting his day by heading out to the countryside's meadows and cliffs to pick exotic plants like rock samphire, pennywort, and chickweed, just to name a few. Back in the kitchen, those plants find their way into broths, dried powders, and edible garnishes.
This is just a slice of the dedication that won Idas a recommendation in the Michelin guide just 10 months after opening. But Murphy, for his part, is more interested in the coastline than the critics. As he told our reporter Michael Ruhlman, "It's just what one guy thinks. I care more about what I think."
Mapping the ooey-gooey stuffed breads of the Caucasus
Imagine a faraway place where cows outnumber cars, organic milk flows in yellowy abundance, and oven-fresh cheesy bread graces every breakfast table. This is the dairy paradise of the Republic of Georgia in the heart of the Caucasus, whose national dish, khachapuri (hatch-ah-POO-ree), is as fun to eat as it is to say.
A cousin to pizza and naan, khachapuri is the Georgian catch-all word for bread filled with cheese, and in Georgia, it’s inescapable. In the two months I spent there, I ate some variation of it every day, often at every meal. (Sometimes, it was the meal; sometimes it was merely a personal pizza served as a side dish.) Whether in the mountains or the desert, at white-tablecloth restaurants or dirt-floored shacks—after a long day of traveling, I could always bank on a cloth-lined basket of hot khachapuri. It became my daily comfort, my 1,000-calorie nightcap.
Khachapuri are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. They can be round, square, or boat-shaped, depending on the region and the cook. Fillings are often made with soft, buttery curds called chkinti, but they might also feature an oozy and elastic cheese called sulguni or, less frequently, a briny sheep’s milk cheese called bryndza. Cooks frequently mix and match cheese types to achieve the desired flavor and consistency.
The dough also varies widely: It can be chewier than pizza crust or as tender as a muffin, the determining factors being the leavening agent (yeast or baking soda) and cooking method (on the stovetop or in the oven). And then there are the add-ins, which range from a whole egg to boiled potatoes to bitter greens. That’s thrill of khachapuri—they keep you guessing.
In fact, some of the best khachapuri aren’t technically khachapuri at all, since the “khacho” (ხაჭო), cheese, is left out altogether. Up in mountainous Svaneti, for instance, home to the highest continually-inhabited settlements in Europe, dough is wrapped around spiced chunks of beef and onion. A few hours’ drive east, in the wild, verdant region called Racha, the filling par-excellence is bacon-scented beans.
Of all the khachapuri variations, the Adjaruli often steals the show, with its voluptuous shape and Instagrammable yolky center. You can even spot it on some trendy New York City menus. But don’t be fooled—every region has its own craveable rendition of this beloved dish. Here are nine of our favorites.
The most straightforward of all the khachapuri varieties, Imeruli khachapuri is a round, double-crusted flatbread stuffed with sweet, curdy chkinti cheese bound with beaten egg. While it’s said to have originated in the hills of Imereti, you’ll find Imeruli khachapuri in virtually every corner of the country.
It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that by monitoring the price fluctuations of its main ingredients—eggs, flour, butter, and cheese—economists can track inflation rates. The data are compiled in a government survey called the Khachapuri Index that forecasts food industry trends. (What’s in store for 2017? Imeruli cheese prices are on the upswing.)
Where to get it: Sormoni Restaurant, Sormoni
Gazing down at a just-baked Adjaruli khachapuri is like peering into the mouth of a volcano, its craggy crusts giving way to a sea of molten, sputtering cheese. As if full-fat sulguni weren’t indulgence enough, the Adjarians—Georgians from the Black Sea region—crown the dish with a cracked egg and a healthy hunk of butter, which get swirled in at the the table. The resulting dish is the ne plus ultra of bread bowls, so gooey and irresistible that I invariably burn my mouth every time I eat it.
Tackling an Adjaruli khachapuri recipe at home? Heed the advice of master baker Giorgi Makharashvili, who slings 400 Adjaruli khachapuri a day at Sakhachapure #1 in Tbilisi: “Try, try, and try again. When it comes to Adjaruli khachapuri, practice makes perfect.”
Where to get it:Sakhachapure #1, Tbilisi
In Samegrelo, a forested province in western Georgia, local cooks have a reputation for their more-is-more attitude when it comes to cheese. There’s elarji, a Megrelian specialty of grits enriched with unthinkable quantities of sulguni and butter that would bring any American Southerner to their knees. And then there’s Megruli khachapuri, identical to Imeruli khachapuri save for one delicious embellishment: slices of sulguni melted over the top crust. You heard that right—in addition to inventing wine, Georgians may have invented the stuffed-crust pizza.
Where to get it:Diaroni Restaurant, Zugdidi
I have a ritual whenever I touch down in Tbilisi: After dropping off my luggage, I make a beeline to the unnamed bakery across from Sioni Cathedral to snack on hot, bean-stuffed pies called lobiani. Perhaps the best hand-held meal in Georgia, lobiani hail from the highlands of Racha, a region known for its smoky ham—which finds its way into the creamy bean filling along with khmeli suneli, Georgia’s answer to curry powder, containing blue fenugreek, dried marigold, and coriander seed.
Where to get it: A nameless bakery located at 13/40 Sioni Street, Tbilisi
These puffy meat pies are a specialty of Svaneti, the mysterious region in northwest Georgia where thousand-year-old towers share the horizon with glaciated peaks. Kubdari is mountain food—the type of stick-to-your-ribs fare you crave after a day of trekking through steep gorges. Filled with chunks of tender beef and onion, whose juices permeate the dough as it cooks, kubdari gets its signature flavor from a garlicky spice blend called Svanuri marili, available Stateside through Georgian food purveyor Kargi Gogo.
Where to get it: Kristina Guesthouse, Mestia
Multi-layered and shatteringly crisp, penovani khachapuri falls somewhere between a croissant and a quesadilla. These cheese-filled turnovers are hard to find outside Samtskhe-Javakheti, the arid region in southern Georgia whose main attraction is the sprawling, otherworldly cave city of Vardzia.
Carla Capalbo, author of the soon-to-be-released cookbook Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus, got a rare peek into the preparation of its ultra-flaky dough: “In a kitchen with no running water, a woman rolled a floury mass over a circular raised board, painted it with brown butter, folded it, and rolled it out once again, throwing it ever so often into the air like a pizzaiolo.” Rest assured, home cooks: store-bought puff pastry is a satisfactory stand-in for the labor-intensive Georgian recipe.
Where to get it: Lagidze Water, Tbilisi
Since the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, the northern region of Ossetia has been a frozen conflict zone, a dangerous nomansland off limits to all Georgians and most tourists. The Ossets are an ethnic minority with roots in Iran, and they’re known for their distinctive language and culinary traditions. One recipe that’s typical of the region is chakhragina (aka pkhlovana), a round khachapuri stuffed with beetroot leaves and salty Ossetian cheese. The bitter greens cut through the rich dairy, making this khachapuri variety taste lighter than its counterparts.
Where to get it: Barbarestan, Tbilisi
A show-stopping restaurant dish with no regional affiliation, khachapuri shampurze is a spit-roasted, cheese-filled bread. To make it, Georgian chefs thread massive hunks of sulguni onto a skewer, swaddle the whole thing in bread dough, and cook it over hot coals. The finished product is a glistening golden cocoon concealing a molten center that’s best eaten within minutes of serving, lest the stretchy cheese firm up.
Where to get it: Tashre, Tbilisi
Where to get it: Alani Restaurant, Tbilisi The ultimate comfort food, khabidzgina khachapuri is a fat, double-crusted pie filled with buttery mashed potatoes and cheese, ingredients that reflect the region’s proximity to Russia. Khabidzgina, too, comes from the cool climes of Ossetia, where potatoes grow in abundance. It’s worth noting that Georgian Jews make a similar khachapuri variation called kartopilani that includes caramelized onions.
Where we're going, we don't need roads
To make khorkhog, first gather stones from a river. Now set the stones over a bed of coals. When they're blazing hot, toss into a large cauldron and add the meat of one lamb, salt, potatoes, a little water, and some vodka.
The animal, butchered and killed that day in honor of our arrival, had hung to dry from the rafters of one of the gers (yurts) belonging to the Bayraa family of Mongolian nomads. The master tent where we would sleep was a wonderland of oilcloths, Soviet garb, and bright cacophonous Asian fabrics.
We'd set out from Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, with our driver and guide, Shatarbal Dugerjav, former diplomat to Bulgaria, and a single cassette tape of Mongolian folk music that sounded like horses whinnying and eagles screaming. At the city's edge, the roads stop and the tire tracks begin.
There are no road signs outside the capital. A guide leads by memory, intuition, and a thoughtful crawl of 15 miles per hour. You rarely see more than a one-story building between minuscule towns. But you do see Mongolian families packed three generations deep into Land Cruisers migrating through the countryside. Because many Mongolians living outside the capital are nomadic, they pay no rent or tax and the government encourages them to preserve this way of life.
After days of driving we arrived at the Bayraa family camp in the Arkhangai region, 330 miles to the west of Ulaanbaatar. Along the way we ate instant Korean noodles and kimchi, both popular here. We saw horses on the flatlands, a vulture feasting on a fallen sheep, a double rainbow after a rainstorm. Beauty and brutality and, for long stretches of the drive, green pastures, blue sky, and nothing more.
Inside the yurt, a woman cut handmade noodles on the bed. Three boys took us to collect rocks from the river. After we'sd gathered a couple dozen smooth stones, the boys' uncle set them over a bed of glowing hot coals to begin the khorkhog.
Once added to the pot, the river stones sizzled, searing the ribs and chops like little cast-iron skillets. Vodka and water were poured in, creating a giant puff of steam. Sealed with a lid weighted down with a wrench, the cauldron of rocks was put over fire, and in an hour, the steam was gone, the meat brown and tender.
We ate this offering with our hands, and after the last rib was picked clean, we drank vodka. The river stones, still warm and slick with lamb fat, were passed from host to guest, thawing chilly hands and feet as we sat, elbow to elbow, communing beneath that big Mongolian sky.
Which is to say...not really that easy at all, but totally worth it
Phyllo isn’t easy to make, but it sure is relaxing.
I learned that first-hand watching my friend Kostas make a savory leek and feta pie. You can find these kinds of savory pies on most Greek tables, but most people don't make their own dough. Kostas, though, is a bit of a phyllo fanatic, and spending a day with him rolling, stretching, baking, and most importantly eating, the difference between homemade and store bought was
Kostas made his dough in two parts: the base layer and the top crust. He rolled it until it no longer stuck to his fingers, and cut it in half to show me the way bubbles had gathered inside. After refrigerating it for a bit, Kostas retrieved the dough and rolled the two halves out using a long, thin rolling pin that he said is common in the villages in rural Greece.
This is the part where time started to slow. Kostas’ movements, always deliberate, took on a monastic intensity as the dough’s edges spread towards the ends of the table. We stopped chatting, his attention turned completely to the dough, the only sound in the room the faint squish of oiled dough meeting wooden rolling pin. The process becomes meditative.
Your mind has room to wander while rolling, but not too fat. There’s the pressure to get the thickness just right. You need to pay attention to how much flour you have on the table. Then you cover it in butter and olive oil (Kostas uses both) and once again shrink it down to a manageable size by folding it like edible origami, then refrigerate it before taking it out and rolling it a second time.
Then, once it’s flat, you gently drape it over your rolling pin and stretch it across the bottom of a pie pan. This means gently rolling the ends of the dough over the pin, hoping that your pie doesn’t tear or break. Then you lift it, sending an extra prayer to the pie gods that nothing bad happens as it goes airborne. Another set of hands will be required to get the pie pan under the dough, and slide it off the pin to create an even pillow of dough at the bottom of the pie. Pile some melty cheesy leek goop, then repeat with your second flattened slab of dough.
Once the pie had turned a golden brown, we served it up for lunch along with hummus, fresh tomatoes, and some salad. Kostas said to me, “See? It’s not so bad.” I couldn’t agree more.
Welcome to the Italian city that loves meaty sandwiches, truffles, and drunken spaghetti
1. Order a Lampredotto
Of all the sensorial delights available in the overstimulating tourist trap that is Florence—making out in the moonlight on the Ponte Vecchio; communing with Botticellis and Donatellos; pairing fire-charred Chianina bisteccas with back vintages of Le Pergole Torte—could it be that a sloppy street snack of stewed tripe ranks among the very finest?
Behold, lampredotto, Florence's preeminent cibo da strada, a Renaissance-era sandwich named for its putative resemblance to boiled lamprey flesh. There's no way around it: The stuff is ugly. Wrinkly, flaccid, grayish beige, it emerges from its vat of indiscernible bouillon, wobbling on the end of the trippaio's (tripe-seller's) carving fork. That such a pile of innards is beloved in such a stylish, wealthy merchant center—and has been for over 500 years—is rendered even more incongruous by the city's pastel-hued elegance. It's like a joke from the Middle Ages whose punch line is still being hawked from street carts in San Marco.
Dante probably ate it while pining after Beatrice. There's a good reason for its ongoing appeal: Lampredotto tastes as divine as it looks infernal.
The first time I tried it was at a street food stand called Sergio Pollini. The vendor's setup wasn't too different from a New York City hot dog cart, only with the everlasting façade of Sant'Ambrogio church on a prehistoric cobblestone piazza as a backdrop. I was with friends, classical painting students, who assured me that as nasty as lampredotto looks, my taste buds would grasp the reality immediately.
“I love lampredotto so much that I think about it as often as other guys think about sex: every six seconds,” confided one of the students, Alex. He recommended ordering it wet, or bagnato, the Florentine term for au jus, in which the bun is moistened with a little of the braising liquid. The deeply flavorful, perfectly textured salsa verde and hot chile-spiked result was superlative and, yes, semi-indecent.
Lampredotto is made with the fourth and final stomach compartment of a cow, the rennet-secreting maw known as the abomasum. This forgotten quadrant of ruminant viscera is rarely used in kitchens elsewhere. But in Florence, eating abomasum is a daily habit for all segments of society, as popular among street workers and leather-goods vendors as it is with pin-striped businessmen and coiffed nonnas in pantsuits.
That a cow's stomach chamber can be morphed into a triumph of the culinary arts is a quintessentially Florentine phenomenon. Upon eating my third or fourth, and discovering that it's available at the Michelin-starred restaurant Il Palagio inside the Four Seasons' palazzo hotel, it occurred to me that lampredotto represents the way Florence has democratized deliciousness. In the same way that Dante argued for vernacular Italian to be accorded equal respect and literary legitimacy as Latin, Florence seems to have understood that expensive food isn't necessarily better food. To succumb to lampredotto's charms is to realize that beauty and ugliness can live in harmony with each other—that they can be unified into a handheld reminder that one cannot actually exist without the other.
Tripe to try:
Sergio Pollini, Via dei Macci, 126
Da Nerbone Mercato Centrale, Via dell'Ariento
Trippaio Albergucci Piazzale di Porta Romana
Tripperia Delle Cure Piazza delle Cure
Drunken Spaghetti is the Italian Hair of the Dog
Thanks to the city's proximity to chianti, that ever flowing fount of inexpensive sangiovese, wine is consumed in Florence the way water is elsewhere. So ubiquitous (and priced to move), it is even incorporated into pasta's molecular structure at Osteria de' Benci near Santa Croce. Their spaghetti all'ubriaco (drunken spaghetti) requires boiling the noodles in wine and a bit of beef stock, a process that stains the pasta vibrant purple. No matter how much bad chianti you drank last night, this dish will set you straight.
3. Drink Espresso like a Florentine
Even in an area as saturated with tourists as the Piazza della Repubblica, a genuine joint like Caffè Giubbe Rosse can still be found. Once a central meeting place for the Futurist art movement, it's been an integral part of the city's cultural and literary landscape. Everything here feels steeped in history. Even the name refers to the red shirts worn by those who fought alongside Garibaldi during the Risorgimento in the 1860s. So, of course, the coffees are also markedly rooted in 19th-century style. While there are certainly excellent options for third-wave aficionados in Florence (namely Ditta Artigianale, on the Via dei Neri), I'd take Giubbe Rosse's simple one-euro espresso over a pourover any day. Drink it standing up. Lounge with a newspaper if you want. Impeccably dressed, gray-haired regulars add to an atmosphere that feels meant for modernist poets and intellectuals.
Everyone Can Be a Buongustaio
This may be the birthplace of gold florins and financial geniuses like the Medici, but many of the best dishes here, eaten by beggars and bankers alike, fall into the category of piatti poveri, poor-person food. Here, truly, anyone can be a buongustaio—a food lover who enjoys fine things.
Stale bread is a key ingredient in many Florentine dishes from panzanella to pappa al pomodoro. At Trattoria Gozzi Sergio, an early 20th-century, lunch-only establishment near the Medici Chapel, you can join elder statesmen and politicians to feast on a six-euro lunch of ribollita, the hearty bare-bones stew starring Tuscan kale and stock-softened, over-the-hill bread.
And bread is the base for any evening spent drinking. After a day at their classical academy, my broke art-student friends do what every Florentine does to unwind: They head to the enoteca. Their spot is Alla Sosta dei Papi, a cramped wine dungeon near the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio that sells cheap vermentino out of large stainless-steel vats. Crostini—topped with paté di fegatini, salumi, or chopped pomodoro—are complimentary alongside the three-euro bicchieri (glasses). This arrangement attracts young artists as well as eccentric older regulars who look even more art-damaged than the painting students. Edith Piaf songs crackle out of tinny speakers, but the music is barely audible over all the raucous laughter. As tipsiness levels increase, orders of coccole ("cuddles"), a local specialty of fried dough topped with stracchino (a fresh, creamy cow's cheese) and prosciutto, come out. Inevitably, more rosso materializes.
As I continued to experience Florence, wandering from monument to museum to sandwich stand, I found that the most memorable things I tried were super cheap, including a stock of wildly underpriced wines at Pitti Gola e Cantina. A simple wine bar run by a young team of passionate wine nerds whose cellar is filled with back vintages of the best wines in Italy, Pitti Gola offers everything from offbeat Friulian orange wine to bottles of Giacomo Conterno to dusty releases of Castello di Monsanto at well below expected prices—with soulful, rustic cuisine to match.
5. Truffles Are an Everyday Thing
Alba may be better known truffle territory, but Tuscany's woods abound with world-class truffles too. The region's soil yields small, intense bianchetto truffles (Tuber borchii) as well as black truffles that thrive beneath hazelnut trees. So locally abundant, the funghi are part of everyday life, folded into everything from eggs to pasta—and even used as a condiment (crema di tartufo) at sandwich shops and street vendors. In the same way that America accentuates fast food with ketchup, Florence does so with truffles.
After stopping into Santa Margherita dei Cerchi, the church where young Dante first spotted and fell forever in love with Beatrice, I headed to a legendary dump next door called Da' Vinattieri. Famous for truffle-and-pecorino coccole (those cuddles again), this window-size slice of a shop also bakes its own bread and stuffs it with salty, herbed, luscious porchetta and a lather of truffle crema. All for four and a half euros.
At Procacci, a delicatessen that has been specializing in truffles amid Dior and Hermes boutiques on ritzy Via Tornabuoni since 1885, truffle panini go for a measly two euros. The bun isn't massive, but slathered with crema di tartufo, each bite explodes with deep, truffle-y aromatics and pairs astonishingly well with the shop's salty umami bomb of fresh homemade tomato juice.
Florentine Classics Always Prevail
Near Santa Maria Novella, Trattoria Sostanza is a 19th-century-era Florentine classic. The spare, cramped room and handwritten menu are indicative of its familiar clientele who feast on well-loved dishes like charred bistecca alla fiorentina, crispy, golden pollo al burro (chicken with butter), and eggy tortino di carciofi (artichoke tart), a custardy scramble of sorts, cooked into a creamy mass over a pile of glowing embers.
Equally satisfying and cozy is Sostanza's tortellini en brodo (tortellini in broth), pockets of pasta filled with ricotta, Parmigiano, and prosciutto, served in a simple chicken broth and tomato purée. It's a testament to the simple pleasures of Florentine cuisine.
7. Good Food and Wine Can be Found Morning, Noon, and Night
From dessert-for-breakfast to wine-braised steak, Florence is the hungry traveler's haven at any time of day.
10 A.M. Start the day at Il Cantuccio di San Lorenzo where the cantucci, soft, biscotti-like cookies, come in a variety of flavors, including lightly sweet almond delicately spiced with aniseseed. At the owner's insistence, wash it down with a glass of complimentary local vin santo. Order an extra dozen to snack on while strolling from piazza to piazza.
1 P.M. For lunch near the Duomo, go for classic Tuscan ragù with homemade pappardelle—or, even better, tortelli mugellani (stuffed pasta in Tuscan ragù)—at L'Oriuolo. Or, from the Pitti Palace, stroll around the corner for fiocchetti—a purselike pasta—with Taleggio and pears at 4 Leoni, a 14th-century trattoria with a patio that spills onto the storied Piazza della Passera.
4 P.M. The liminal hours of Florence are meant to be filled with gelato, and the classic shops continue to please. For scoops of creamy chocolate or pistachio, stop into La Carraia. For a classic atmosphere, Vivoli's old-school décor—worn tiled floors and vaulted wooden ceilings—still charms.
7 P.M. Yes, Perseus and Trattoria Sostanza make famous bistecca alla fiorentina. But you'd be remiss to bypass the humbler al chianti (beef braised in chianti) or flank steak tagliata topped with arugula and pecorino at La Casalinga.
Florence is a City of Sandwiches
Florence is filled with as many historical monuments and decorative artifacts as it is hole-in-the-wall hawkers of fluffy, dimpled schiacciata bread stuffed with the world's finest cold cuts.
You can't come here and not try the salami with garlicky pecorino cheese and fennel spread at All'antico Vinaio, a tiny walk-up shop with a massive line and a lively crew of sandwich slingers. The same applies to their lardo di colonnata with crema di tartufo. Or the prosciutto crudo with artichoke spread and red peppers at Pan Briaco. (As one waiting regular put it: “Why mess with perfezione?”) And then there's the marinated beef carpaccio with porcini and pecorino on a homemade focaccia roll at Mariano, prepared by the eponymous Mariano Orizi, a Henry Miller lookalike in Le Corbusier glasses and a sweater vest.
At Casa del Vino, an ancient enoteca lined with a standing bar and wooden shelves packed with wine, timeless sandwich combinations abound: crisp, drippy porchetta topped with salsa verde and red onions; soft burrata and ripe tomatoes; salty, sleek anchovies with a pat of butter whose sum is certainly greater than its simple parts.
Schiacciata worship is common here, but there is no better altar at which to pray than Semel, across the street from the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio. As the wall-mounted antlers indicate, the theme here is hunter's food. The owner is Marco Paparozzi, a dapper gentleman who sports a silver cinghiale (boar) tie clip. As talented as he is with venison, he also excels at seafood sandwiches—a pleasant surprise in a region so far from the sea—the best of which contains marinated anchovies, orange slices, chile peppers, and thinly shaved puntarelle. It both defied and redefined my expectations of Tuscan food.
Only a few hundred thousand people actually live in Florence, but an annual influx of 16 million tourists impose a big-city clamor. Despite the sea of plastic mini Davids and selfie stick-toting foreigners, it's still the same compact hamlet whose streets Dante and Michelangelo once wandered.
Just how magical and serendipitous this city can be was revealed to me one day shortly before lunchtime, when I returned to Casa del Vino in search of sandwiches. At that early hour, only one other patron was present. Of all the humans on this planet, that other person turned out to be my younger brother Michael, who was coincidentally passing through on his way back home from India, where he'd been researching his Ph.D. Neither of us knew the other would be in Florence. The occasion called for a celebratory glass of Bartolo Mascarello's freisa (a spritzy, leggermente frizzante monument to the traditional Piedmontese viticulture barely available in North America; Casa del Vino offers it for 13 euros a bottle). This in turn led to food, which then led to more wine, which of course led to more food, as usually happens here, even at noon.
We started with the house special: alici con burro. Nothing more than a pat of Tuscan butter and anchovy fillets on a little soft roll, its simplicity is also a creation of wisdom and happiness and, ultimately, serenity. Who needs anything more? What better way can a person possibly spend a single euro? It was so good we each ordered a second one. Then came some crostini with herring, marinated carrots, and celery, followed by a porchetta schiacciata topped with pickled onions and salsa verde. "Madonna!" enthused my brother, waving his fingers around in an appropriately Italianate way.
As we ate, we compared notes on the best things each of us had eaten in Florence, pausing to dwell on several life-changing panini.
After settling our absurdly cheap tab, we stepped out into the glorious sunshine and found ourselves blinded by the sight of the Duomo, its pink, green, and gray-white marble slabs radiating geometric perfection and a sense of predestination.
The true size of Florence was confirmed to me later that day while walking around with Jessica, one of my art-student friends. Strolling away from the Pitti Palace, we came to the Arno River. A dark-haired guy with a beard walked by in a leather jacket and waved to her. "God, it's my ex-boyfriend," she whispered. "That always happens here. Florence is so tiny. Everybody knows everybody and you can't help bumping into people you know all the time."
As she spoke, a vintage Renault 4 zipped by and honked at us. "That's Ricardo—also my ex," Jessica said, with a laugh.
Savoring the synchronicity, we floated along the city's cobblestone streets, oblivious to the tour groups holding things up. Eventually, inevitably, we ended up with the rest of the student gang at their enoteca. As I sat at Alla Sosta dei Papi, sharing coccole and wine, I listened contentedly to the painters' debate about lighting and perspective, as well as about the best tortellini en brodo and the best gelato and the best lampredotto. And it occurred to me that the same disputes and delights illuminating their enoteca were happening at the enoteca down the street, and at the enoteca a block over, and at all of the enotecas the city over.
The more time you spend in Florence, the better it gets, the deeper you enter its radiating circles of pleasure. This is a jewel case of a town, filled with edible marvels resolutely of this place and still relatively undiscovered. It may seem impossibly refined but it is also seething with entrail sandwiches and repurposed stale bread soups and cheap barrel-pulled wine and truffled cuddles. Those fortunate enough to find themselves here, however briefly, know that Dante was right. Pedestrian congestion be damned, this place remains what it always has been: an ideal city.
Now Cook Like a Florentine
Change comes slowly to the southern town of Lecce, but a pair of foraging chef brothers are trying to change that
In Lecce, a singular Italian city of whitewashed dwellings, Baroque architecture, and palm trees near the southern tip of Italy's heel, most restaurants have served the region's comfort food for centuries—peasant dishes like pezzetti di cavallo al sugo, a stew of slow-braised horse meat in sweet tomato sauce, and fava e cicorie, a homey dried fava mush served with wilted, garlicky chicory leaves.
"People don't like change in Lecce," says 26-year-old Floriano Pellegrino, one half of the sibling chef team at Bros', an ambitious modern Italian restaurant in a city that, until recently, had catered mostly to tourists visiting the surrounding beaches. “They want comfort food, lots of food, and food that's cheap.” Floriano and 22-year-old Giovanni trained separately in far-flung fine-dining destinations like Noma in Copenhagen, Lasarte-Oria and Mugaritz in the Basque region, and Yamamoto in Tokyo. Impatient with the slow pace of change and their hometown's lack of creativity, the pair returned to open their restaurant a year and a half ago.
"Cicorie—it's all around us and in season right now," Floriano says on an afternoon foraging trip in the nearby countryside of Scorrano, a sparse, rural town minutes from the bottommost coast of Puglia. "But the restaurants in Lecce buy it frozen from China. They also buy dried fava beans from Morocco and serve them all year long." Though cooking modern haute cuisine, the brothers are attempting to revive the romanticized notion of Italian food as being of a place and a season, a quality that's been lost in Lecce for some time.
Speeding toward Scorrano, Floriano suddenly yanks the Mini Cooper's wheel and exits toward an abandoned, woodsy plot. Having familiarized themselves with the unsung region's wild produce through biweekly foraging trips, the Pellegrinos are planning another restaurant on this family-owned 30-acre parcel of land. This new venture, situated around a hearth, will focus on Mediterranean techniques and a loyalty to the bounty of Salento. But today, Floriano is searching for a formula of 20 herbs and vegetables to feature in a pork dish on Bros' current menu. He hops out of the car, leaving the door open behind him. "Verbena," he says, scanning the ground with the intensity of a hound.
In an adjacent lot, Floriano lights up. "Do you smell the perfume? It's olive trees," he says, pointing to a patch nearly 100 years old, which smells rather like old men do, of oil and musk. He jogs toward a skein of greenery 60 yards ahead, and plunges his tattooed forearms into herbage and bushes, cracking off brittle branches and emerging with a disheveled bouquet. Among the treasures are lentisco, a resinous, pine-scented shrub that will be infused into housemade bread; mirto (myrtle) or murteddhra in the local dialect, a licorice-like leaf that will be wrapped around red shrimp and grilled over charcoal; and malba, a leaf reminiscent of clover that will be steeped in the restaurant's water for subtle fragrance. Floriano begins loading the trunk, the vegetation fanned out haphazardly. The car looks strangely alive, as if trailing a tail of peacock feathers.
At a final stop just up the road, I see a shallow stone depression laid out across the grass like a ballroom floor. Here, Floriano says, his family scatters their farmed buckwheat groats and runs horses over the top to remove the grains' hulls—an ancient process known in the region as aia. Around us, hollow, wild peppercorns or falso pepe (false pepper) dangle from trees, pink and perky. Floriano smashes a few in his palm, and the piquant aroma unfurls. He clips bundles of spicy wild oregano for a lemon tart and grabs a few handfuls of hay from the ground outside a barn for flavoring ice cream.
Back in the kitchen at Bros', I taste Scorrano-raised veal as tender and pink as ahi tuna, and thick spaghetti cooked in buttermilk and sauced with stewed sweet prunes. Floriano stands at the pass, calling out orders for a dining room seated with Australians, Belgians, and New Yorkers. "We came back to Lecce to show people here that change can happen," he says, looking out at the room with paternal pride. "Something new can come along."
Where the Bros Go in Scorrano, Italy
About 30 minutes south of the city of Lecce (fewer if you drive like Floriano Pellegrino), Scorrano is a tiny, mostly locals town, worth a day trip if you’re looking for a piece of untouched Italy.
Bizio Alberto: The town’s best dry goods market sells fine pasta (Benedetto Cavalieri brand is Pellegrino’s favorite), oil-packed tuna and anchovies, and Italian deli meats like prosciutto di suino nero, a fatty, nutty ham made from rare Sicilian black pigs. Via Marco Emilio Scauro, 73020 +39 0836 465053
Angelo Rizzo: This indoor-outdoor fruit and vegetable market also carries a few local specialties like dried beans, shell-on nuts, and moniceddri (municeddhi in local dialect)—sweet land snails. Piazzo Vittorio Emanuele
Schioppa: Traditional, whole-grain breads at this bakery include frizzulu, a lightly risen Pugliese loaf with olives. “We eat this with ricotta scante (a strong, fermented ricotta) and anchovies,” Pellegrino says. Piazzo Vittorio Emanuele
Le Stanzie: An 1890 farmhouse just outside Scorrano, this inn-restaurant is surrounded by fruit trees and adorned with dried garden herbs and flowers. Preserves like caroselle (vinegar-pickled fennel flowers) and dried winter tomatoes are exemplary of their hyper-traditional kitchen. Strada Provinciale 362, km 32.9, 73040 Supersano, Italy
Photographer Klaus Thymann feasts on leftovers on Iran's Mount Sabalan, 15,784 feet above sea level
Just after sunrise on Iran's volcanic Mount Sabalan, the minarets of a mosque peered out over the expanse of clouds, and cups of hot mint tea made their way around the huddle. The mosque was originally built by American soldiers during World War II, but now it serves as a base camp for the intrepid mountaineers making their way up to Sabalan's summit at 15,784 feet.
We'd left Tehran on a Friday, prepared to camp out overnight at the mosque and reach the peak on Saturday. As is traditional, our mountain guide had tins of food for the crew. But as we made our way up along the winding roads, I noticed a handful of markets with brilliant tomatoes gleaming from behind fruit stands, and heaps of ripe watermelons spilling out onto the dusty ground. Dismayed at the prospect of eating dinner from a can in the presence of such abundant produce, I asked our guide if he'd let me fix our dinner. We collected only what we could comfortably carry: a chicken, some rice, chiles, mushrooms, a bundle of fresh tarragon, and a pinch of Iranian saffron. The canned foods might have been more practical, but with a little ingenuity and a handy portable stove, a hot, comforting stew was ready in no time.
The morning of our excursion we shared a breakfast of leftovers, tucking the cold chicken and mushrooms into Iranian flatbreads, and topping it with thick yogurt swirled with herbs. We collected crystal clear water from a glacial spring and boiled it for tea. A day before we'd been below sea level, gazing east over the Caspian Sea. Now, seated on blankets atop one of Iran's several frozen glaciers, energized by the food and tea, and preparing for another ascent, we were looking skyward.
The Portuguese capital is redefining its cuisine with a new openness to foreign flavors and far-flung influences
High up one of Lisbon's interlocking hills in the neighborhood of Mouraria, where many of the city's immigrants reside and the homes lean perilously into one another, I'm eating cracked crab on the jammed cobblestone patio of Cantinho do Aziz. It swims in a delicately scented coconut broth seasoned with piri-piri, a bright red chile common among Portugal's Mozambican community. All around me, diners sit at tables festooned with brightly colored African cloth. Twinkle lights zigzag overhead.
Khalid Aziz's father opened the restaurant 33 years ago, when the family first arrived from Mozambique, a country that, until its independence in 1975, had been occupied by Portugal for over four centuries. His father's patrons were almost exclusively other Mozambican emigrants. Aziz, who shares his father's name, took over three years ago after working in London as an interpreter. One of the first changes the junior Aziz made was to remove bitoque from the menu, a classic Portuguese steak-and-eggs dish that his father had served as a gesture to the native friends his Mozambican customers would occasionally bring in.
Aziz wasn't sure if the young, smartphone-wielding, born-and-bred Portuguese clientele began to come in before or after he and his wife, Jeny, scrubbed the remaining local dishes from the menu. But they came and packed the place—and the accolades followed.
"Something's changed in the last few years,” he told me as I took a bite of a chamuça, a crispy fried sachet of coarsely ground beef seasoned with curry and fresh herbs.
"Young people like the food, so they bring their parents—they want to take them to a place that's trendy. The parents come in and say 'I took you here when you were a kid.' 'No, no!' say the kids. 'It's new!'"
As a general rule, Portugal has launched its people into the world rather than taken wanderers in; in the 18th and 19th centuries, the only immigration to speak of came from Spain and Galicia. But when the dictatorship dissolved in 1974, a first wave of migrants arrived from its former colonies in Africa and India; and when Portugal joined the EU in 1986, Brazilians, Chinese, Indians, and Eastern Europeans joined the ranks of new job-seeking residents. And in the last few years, as the country has made its way back from the 2008 economic crisis, an exuberant, creative food scene has flourished in Lisbon. Though many restaurants still proudly serve a predictable, familiar Portuguese menu—cod-and-potato-based dishes, hearty paella-esque rices, and meat-and-bean stews like feijoada—native chefs are starting to open up to outside influence, and foreign-born ones are seizing on local produce and seafood, featuring them in recipes from home.
"People here tend to evaluate food based on memories of what their grandmothers gave them to eat," said the chef, ex-artist, and onetime punk rocker, Hugo Brito. At Boi Cavalo, the restaurant he opened nearly three years ago in a tiny former butcher shop on one of the vertiginously hilly, skinny streets of Alfama, Brito aims to challenge diners' expectations with surprising takes on those traditional ingredients and grandmotherly dishes.
On my first visit to Boi Cavalo, I ate smoked horse mackerel placed atop a stiff puddle of alvarinho wine gelée; and baby razor clams, a Portuguese classic, served on crispy gyoza filled with acorda, a savory traditional bread pudding. Every dish was, without fail, rigorously interesting, every plate a combination of the expected and deliciously strange.
Brito likes to take beloved Portuguese ingredients—mackerel, lupine beans, and graham crackers, a favorite childhood snack—and give them twists from countries thousands of miles from home. "The question I always ask," he said, "is am I adding something to it or not?"
He often finds inspiration deep in Lisbon's immigrant-heavy neighborhoods—Mouraria, literally the Moorish quarter, and Alfama now abound with residents from across Africa and Asia. He encountered palm oil in Angolan, Bissau-Guinean, and Mozambican restaurants, and it proved to be the perfect, missing ingredient in a dish of pomegranate-marinated hake, buttery graham cracker croutons, and pumpkin purée. And he decided to dress a cockle dish with slices of unripe green mango after learning at Jesus é Goês, a hill away from Boi Cavalo, that tart green mango juice often accompanies oysters in Goa.
Jesus Lee Fernandes—an Indian born in Goa to a Catholic mother and a martial arts-loving father—opened the slip of a restaurant three years ago. At the end of the tiny space, where brightly painted Hindu icons leap across the walls, an altar to Bruce Lee presides over Goan food gone highlighter-bright with Portuguese ingredients: fresh pink shrimp folded into a biryani, stews dotted with green okra. I devoured a plate of golden chickpea fritters served alongside a wildly flavorful paste of finely ground cilantro, coconut, green chile, and tamarind. When there were no more fritters left, I scooped the paste straight from the bowl with my hands. As I licked my fingers, Fernandes described a tasting menu he was cooking up that included fresh clam samosas and oyster curry: Portuguese ingredients, Goan-ized.
In a country that's long been deeply traditional in the kitchen, even the subtlest tweak to an old standby is exciting, a sign of a shift in the way cooks are cooking, and diners responding. At Leopold, an intimate, experimental restaurant in Mouraria, chewy soy-pickled kombu seaweed intensified the tenderness of a slab of seared beef from the Azores; at Taberna da Rua das Flores, I tried a feijoada de lulas that swapped out the pork and beans in the usually black stew for squid, simmered in a hearty red chorizo broth until butter-soft. And one Wednesday afternoon, at Rosa da Rua, a small restaurant in the hip Bairro Alto neighborhood, Brito took me to eat a riff on cozido à portuguesa from Africa's Cape Verde islands.
The quintessential Portuguese stew is often made with beef shin, pork sausages, blood sausage, and a fermented, smoked kind known as farinheira. But to the customary cozido medley, the chef, Maria Pina, added stewed pear and quince. She supplemented the usual white beans with meaty chickpeas and stewed cabbage. She snuck in pumpkin, cauliflower, and sweet potato—hearty elements found in a traditional Cape Verdean stew, cachupa. The combination of pungent flavors, rich textures, and bright colors was surprising. It captivated Brito. The pumpkin, that quince, the restaurant replete with a wine-glass-tinkling lunch crowd—all exciting indications, to those who were paying attention, of the new potential of the Portuguese plate.
Now Go Cook It
From Cajun to Lowcountry, it all depends on who you ask
Know your way around a traditional Cajun crawfish boil? How about a Lowcountry boil? As a Houston native, I’m partial to the lemongrass-and-ginger–laden rendition of my hometown, but that’s just the thing: despite being one of the most storied communal traditions of the South, the crawfish boil is a deeply personal and inherently customizable art. That’s why at this year’s Charleston Wine + Food Festival, staff photographer Matt Taylor-Gross and I decided to stuff our faces at the Cajun Meets Lowcountry crawfish extravaganza, featuring three chefs preparing their own takes on a boil.
From New York City’s Blue Smoke restaurant, Cajun chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois prepared a traditional Louisiana boil of crawfish and shrimp using a method taught to him by his father, with Zatarain’s liquid crab boil and powder crab boil, along with his own personal additions of artichokes, orange, garlic, lemon, and even pineapple at the end for a sweet-and-sour finish. One of the main differences between the Cajun boil and the traditional Lowcountry boil, according to Bourgeois, is the use of seasoning: the former soaks all of it in the water whereas the latter often leaves a dusting of seasoning on the outside of the protein.
French Quarter Boil
Then there was chef John Bel of Meauxbar in New Orleans, Louisiana, who dubbed his boil a “French Quarter seafood boil.” Born and raised in the Big Easy, Bel incorporated ingredients he said are not typically used in a Cajun boil, but rather in the city of New Orleans itself, like Brussels sprouts, one of Meauxbar’s most popular items. Like Bourgeois, Bel grew up boiling through his childhood. His boil featured some of his family favorites, like mushrooms, and a kitchen sink of spices including: allspice, cayenne pepper, clove, fennel seeds, and mustard seeds.
Last but not least was Jason Culbertson of Grill Force One, a roving Charleston-based food rig operating out of nearby breweries and at local events. Though his creation was called a Lowcountry boil, Culbertson wanted to do something a little different by highlighting not only Charleston’s famous shrimp but also some of the city’s locally-sourced meat and organic produce. His boil included Andouille sausage and kielbasa from Meathouse Butcher Shop on Johns Island as well as sweet potatoes he harvested himself at Rooting Downs Farm—all simmered down in a shrimp and corn stock.
Regardless of where or how you enjoy a boil—be that with New England clams or Gulf Coast crawfish—two things will always be true: a boil is best served surrounded with friends and family (or at least some folks who won’t judge you as you throw back a few pounds of messy seafood) and an ice-cold beer to wash it all down.
Photographer Tanveer Badal captures a week-long celebration with curry and rice for a quadruple-digit crowd
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.