A typical Greek cafe scene, naturally full of grumpy old men.
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- 05/11/17--05:00: _A Beginner's Guide ...
- 05/11/17--06:00: _The South African A...
- 05/15/17--09:45: _One of the World’s ...
- 05/16/17--05:00: _Meet the Iranian Im...
- 05/16/17--13:45: _The Burrito Queen o...
- 05/17/17--05:00: _Guatemala is the La...
- 05/18/17--05:00: _A Japanese Wine Com...
- 05/19/17--07:00: _The Dive Bar at the...
- 05/22/17--07:00: _The Brothers Berezu...
- 05/23/17--07:00: _In Search of Alaska...
- 05/24/17--11:45: _Why This Maryland I...
- 05/30/17--08:00: _A Wild Game Dinner ...
- 05/30/17--11:30: _Forget Mediterranea...
- 05/31/17--09:45: _You Need a Canoe to...
- 06/01/17--13:30: _A Trip to the Alien...
- 06/02/17--07:30: _The Cult of the Cal...
- 06/05/17--09:00: _Where SAVEUR's Edit...
- 06/07/17--15:00: _Finland Has Perfect...
- 06/08/17--05:00: _The Boutique Black ...
- 06/12/17--06:00: _How to Hunt an Octo...
- 05/11/17--05:00: A Beginner's Guide to Loving Greek Coffee
- 05/11/17--06:00: The South African Art of Braai
- 05/16/17--13:45: The Burrito Queen of Texas Deserves a Stop on Your Next Road Trip
- 05/17/17--05:00: Guatemala is the Land of Unknown Ancient Food Traditions
- 05/18/17--05:00: A Japanese Wine Community Has Taken Root in the Heart of Burgundy
- 05/19/17--07:00: The Dive Bar at the End of the World
- 05/22/17--07:00: The Brothers Berezutskiy and the New Russian Cuisine
- 05/23/17--07:00: In Search of Alaska's Deadliest Catch: The Sea Cucumber
- 05/24/17--11:45: Why This Maryland Island Town is Called “La Isla de las Mexicanas”
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In Greece, going out for coffee can be a day-long event; here's how the locals do it
When I lived in Thessaloniki, I gained an immediate familiarity with two vocabularies. The first was the swear words; I’ve been to enough soccer games now that I can hurl obscenities like the saltiest malaka. Then there was my coffee order: Ena cappuccino freddo sketo, parakalo. Just like Kitchen Spanish will get you through most restaurant shifts, learning Coffee Greek is critical to navigating a Thessaloniki morning.
The freddo (cold) cappuccino was my jam. I'd order at least one a day, sometimes two when I spent the afternoon downtown. In Thessaloniki, I didn’t have a favorite coffee spot, instead bouncing from place to place, sampling as much coffee as I could.
Conveniently for my coffee habit, Greeks also love their caffeine. Going out for a coffee can turn into a day-long event, shifting to wine after the sun sets and then maybe some more coffee after. And that coffee comes in many forms.
Overseas, "Greek coffee" tends to mean a single thing: a small shot of bracingly strong, sludgy-bottomed coffee you drink neat or with sugar. But Greek cafes sell a wide variety of coffee drinks, all worth trying. Here's a guide to help you order for your own day-long coffee date.
This is the most traditional, and perhaps most contentious, type of coffee in Greece. It's pretty much the same thing as Turkish coffee, but after Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, Greek nationalism and anti-Turkish sentiment prompted a name change. By the 1980s, Greek food scholar Albert Arouh (also known as Epicurus) notes that it was no longer “politically correct” to order a Turkish coffee in Greece, and in the 1990s, with a boost from TV commercials, it became “Greek coffee.”
If it’s your first time drinking Greek coffee, make sure to remember a few things. First, it comes in a mini cup, but you should sip it, not shoot it. And second, the coffee will have some sandy grounds at the bottom. You should stop drinking when you reach that point, unless you want to chew on the rest of it.
Another good reason to leave the grounds? According to one of my friends, some people can read their futures in the remnants of their coffees, but only on Wednesdays and Fridays (for reasons that are unclear but possibly related to Orthodox tradition).
The frappe became the Greek drink of choice in the '60s and '70s, and you can still order it just about anywhere today. You make it by combining water, instant coffee, and possibly some sugar, then either shaking it by hand or using a magical little machine to whip it up for you. You’ll end up with a fluffy froth on the top, so it’s a good idea to enjoy your frappe through a straw. Drop in a few ice cubes and you’ve got the perfect summer coffee drink.
Freddo Cappuccino and Freddo Espresso
The freddo cappuccino and freddo espresso are the newest introductions to the Greek coffee lineup. Espresso and cappuccino both came from Italy in the '90s, and you can find those hot versions almost anywhere, made just about the same way as you can find in an Italian cafe. But if you go to Italy and ask for a “freddo cappuccino,” you’re going to get some weird looks. Freddo is the Italian word for cold, but that combination of words doesn’t equal a drink in Italy.
I finally asked one of my friends, food blogger Kostas Feidantsis, about the freddo drinks. He told me that they “Greek-alized” both of them by giving them the frappe treatment—adding a few ice cubes. Other than that, they are just espresso shots whipped the same way as the frappe, and the cappuccino has a pillow of frothy milk on the top.
In Cape Town, summer means braai—the unifying tradition of good, old-fashioned, gather-round-the-fire barbecue
First a coincidence: 1.8 million years ago, about 500 miles up from the southernmost tip of Africa, in a widemouthed cave dug into an eroded hillside, Homo erectus discovered barbecue. He'd been an ape, not all that long ago. But his teeth had shrunk as his brain grew; he was now having trouble chewing raw meat. He had recently lit his first fire. One day, Homo erectus threw a carcass onto the flame. The burning meat grew tender. He bit in and lived to see another sunrise.
That cave is called Wonderwerk, the Afrikaans word for "miracle," and it happens to be located within the borders of South Africa, a country positively obsessed with grilling meat. Is it a coincidence that meat was first grilled on what would become South African land? Yes, probably. But it's the type of coincidence you dwell on—there's more to it than a country's ephemeral borders and a random cave. There's a deeper truth here. If you stare at it long enough, you could learn something about the way the world works.
I came to Cape Town to eat. And if you're here to eat, you must braai.
The simplest way to understand braai is to call it barbecue. That's a linguistic as well as cultural translation—it's both cuisine and pastime. As with the word barbecue, you can throw a braai and braai a steak. Its usage is fluid, and omnipresent.
"We have 11 official languages in South Africa," Jan Scannell tells me, "and braai is a recognized word in every single one."
A decade or so ago Scannell christened himself "Jan Braai" and embarked on a national crusade to rebrand September 24, the country's Heritage Day, as Braai Day—akin to officially declaring Thanksgiving to be Turkey Day. As improbable as it sounds, it worked.
This is not simply a feat of marketing. Many South Africans already braaied on September 24 (and most other weekends throughout the year; Cape Town's climate is perfect to the degree that residents really only complain about wind). The renaming was a kind of metonymic transfer of energy, from the idea to the way the idea was celebrated. It was also, more importantly, an attempt to draw out what little common ground was shared in a fractured country that still bears the scars of apartheid.
Perhaps that's putting too much pressure on a day, a name, and a style of cooking. No holiday could properly salve a country's racial tension. But it's worth giving credit to the common ground. South Africans—the native tribes, the colonial immigrants, and the descendants of the Asian slave trade—all braai. Somewhere between 15 and 20 million South Africans braai on Braai Day. That's nearly half the population.
"It's a great equalizer in South African society," Scannell says. "The wealthiest people braai with proper wooden fires and the poorest people braai with proper wooden fires. It's a way of preparing food, but it's also a social gathering."
In backyards and on patios; in the suburbs and deep in the bush; atop shining new grills and on beds of thornbrush: To braai is to gather with friends, often on long, lazy afternoons, and grill meat, often over wood. Lamb is popular. Chicken piri-piri—a remnant of Portuguese colonialism now so thoroughly integrated into South African culture that it's spawned a casual dining empire called Nando's—is common, too. There are steaks of all cuts, side dishes reliant on abundant corn, an ingenious variation of the grilled cheese, and sausage—lots of sausage. The sausage—here called boerewors, or "farmer sausage"—is worth dwelling on. In this one sausage, Scannell says, you can find African meat (often beef, sometimes pork and lamb, too), a fondness for sausage-making left over from French and Portuguese seafarers, and spices (coriander, cumin, and nutmeg), carried by slaves from the East.
In other words, boerewors is a bit like Cape Town itself: chock-full of heritage and very delicious.
Anyone who's ever been to Cape Town will tell you it's among the most picturesque cities in the world—a horseshoe of low sprawl built around a jutting peak, bracketed on one side by the frantic, blue South Atlantic, and on the other by the vast false horizon of Table Mountain. Anyone who's been to Cape Town in the last few years will tell you another thing: It's a good time to be hungry here. A network of young, talented chefs has begun to fan out through the city. There are high-end tasting menus and lowbrow street-food geniuses. There are hipster burger joints with nouveau Sloppy Joes and a croissant-slinging bakery obsessed with egg sandwiches. There are wood-fired pizza places and bright, loud sandwich joints, and menuless tapas spots tucked behind cookware shops.
And, of course, there are braais. In Gugulethu, one of the vast townships that abut the city, Mzoli's Place offers tourists and locals alike a kind of daily braai party, with loud music, big grills, and abundant beer. About half an hour from the center of Cape Town, the open-air establishment is presided over by Mzoli Ngcawuzele, who opened the butchery stall in 2003. It's since grown into a bona-fide destination—more a dance club with a grill as its backdrop—one of the few township locations included in Western guidebooks. The relationship here is complicated: African townships, these massive, endless grids of two-room cement houses and steel-sided shacks, are a crash course on the lingering effects of institutionalized racism and economic stratification. That tourists tend to arrive and leave via Uber without so much as venturing off the block is proof of either safe or cloistered traveling, depending on whom you ask.
You can see a braai in its natural habitat without leaving the city center. You must go behind the houses, into the backyards of the people who live here. And once you're here, standing over a pile of burning wood, it helps to know a good butcher.
Out to the Woodstock neighborhood, a 10-minute drive due east from the city center, in an old industrial corridor now converted into a string of trendy stores, restaurants, and lofts, there is a retrofitted garage called Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants. Here, Andy Fenner, one of the city's preeminent purveyors of meat, has reimagined a butcher shop as a contemporary art gallery—all slick and white inside, its hanging carcasses perfectly framed inside a meat locker behind a square of glass. Fenner fetishizes provenance above all else, sourcing his cuts mostly from farms he's personally visited, like a father-son cattle operation called Langside, near the city of Queenstown in the Eastern Cape.
"My beef farmers are hardcore, grass-fed purists," he says. (Fenner scrutinizes the diets of the animals he buys like some people do their own children's.) When it comes to lamb, he buys only Karoo, a regional variation prized in South Africa for its distinct herbal flavor. What Fenner cannot sell in the shop or to other restaurants, he brings to Ash, a restaurant where he is a partner. Ash's head chef Ash Heeger devises her menu partially based on what is available at Fenner's butchery—a smaller-footprint approach to cutting up animals. "We struggled to find ways to use pig heads," Fenner says. "We would make guanciale or a fromage de tête every now and then, but we couldn't sell them fast enough. The heads kept piling up." Ash now features a pig's head scrumpet (nuggets of breaded and fried terrine) that is, according to Fenner, the restaurant's most popular dish.
All of this is to say, for both restaurateurs and everyday Capetonians, Fenner is the preferred middleman for good meat. As it happens, he is also known to throw a hell of a braai.
Fenner and his wife, Nicole, live in a small, old Victorian house in Tamboerskloof, a hillside community of unimpeachable quaintness just off Bree Street, one of the city's main drinking and dining drags. From Fenner's porch—actually, from everywhere in Tamboerskloof—the view is dominated by Lion's Head, the mountain rising just behind it. But even with that backdrop, the focal point of Fenner's home is indoors, in his kitchen, a wide, open room that spreads across the back of the house, all concrete floors and brick walls, with big arched windows framing two sides.
The Fenners had spent the day preparing, and as their friends arrived, they began cooking in earnest. The room filled just as the afternoon turned into evening. Three rambunctious dogs (two of Fenner's, one belonging to a friend) raced through the dining room, crashing into legs as they worked the corners. We drank beer at first, then switched to gin and tonics, then a succession of wines. Leaving guests thirsty is a cardinal sin of proper braaing. The Fenners chopped and cooked, sending waves of food into the group. The first was a platter of quartered grilled cheese sandwiches, called braaibroodjie, prepared over the open flame and served as a kind of amuse. (A proposal: Make all grilled cheese sandwiches this way.) The second: those famous boerewors, cased by Fenner himself, served in bite-size morsels with spicy chakalaka, a local pepper relish. The appetizers slowed to a halt as the Fenners plated the main courses: Karoo-raised lamb rump, as deeply herbal as promised, cooked just a shade north of rare; egg salad, touched with spice; samp and beans, a minimalist's vision of chili, just white beans and dehulled corn kernels, stewed in smoked lard until soft; and mielies, more corn (corn is big here), this time served cold in a simple, pleasing salad. Nicole and Andy took off their aprons as the grill flickered down, and found a seat. By now, everyone was a few drinks in, and the dogs, exhausted, napped on the couch. We ate slowly, lazily, and went back for seconds and thirds.
Set the food aside. Is there a real difference between a gathering like this and a barbecue back in the States? No, not really. But how could there be? To stand around an outdoor flame is as elemental to humanity as anything. To grill was our second eureka moment, after the harnessing of fire itself. Of course it transcends borders. Of course a braai here looks like a backyard barbecue elsewhere. Cooking for, and with, friends is a celebration of community. Cooking with an open flame is a celebration of the will to live.
5 Rules to Braai
1. Seek out wood: "Braais use wood or charcoal to generate heat," says Andy Fenner in his recent book, Meat Manifesto. "Gas braais exist, but they're a cop-out." In South Africa, a local variety of bush willow called hardekool is the top choice. If you can't get that past Customs, look for seasoned hardwood or lump charcoal (not briquettes, which contain chemicals)
2. Think about your meet: At Fenner's shop, whole animals are sourced ethically from farmers he trusts. Likewise, do the research to locate a butcher shop that carries high-quality, humanely raised meat, and can answer questions about its provenance.
3. Consider lamb: In the Cape, Karoo lamb is the champagne of sheep. "In the [Karoo] scrubland, the first thing you'll notice is the smell," writes Fenner. “It's an intense, herbaceous aroma. Wild mint, wild rosemary, and other plants with glorious Afrikaans nicknames like skapbossie and silverkaroo—this unique, indigenous vegetation is what our sheep eat."
4. Take the heat: Braai heat should be varied according to ingredients. Boerewors, lamb rump, or thick steaks can be grilled over high heat; push coals aside, and cook fish and more delicate cuts of meat over indirect heat.
5. Bring Wine: At American BBQs, beer may prevail, but in Cape Town—a city surrounded by vineyards—wine is a braai staple. Look for chenin blanc from Mullineux & Leeu or A.A. Badenhorst, both from Swartland, a region north of the city.
Cape Town on Fire
1. The Butcher: With three locations throughout Cape Town, Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants butchers whole, ethically raised animals. Stop by the Woodstock location for their famous braaibroodjie, a local variation on grilled cheese.
2. The Restaurant: Ash, run by chef Ash Heeger, is the recipient of Frankie Fenner's unused cuts, including pig heads. There, in the spirit of South African braai, almost everything is cooked over open flames.
3. The Braai Spot: Tucked along the coast of Table Mountain National Park, Oudekraal Beach is on a small bay beneath a jumble of boulders. A handful of braai sites with chunky stone grills are scattered along the beach, perfectly positioned for you to watch the waves while flipping boerewors. Gauge the wind before you go because Cape Town is notorious for its gusty weather.
4. The Guesthouse: Run by two hospitable expats from France, the peaceful six-room La Grenadine feels like a tiny slice of the French countryside and is situated near Kloof Street, one of the liveliest blocks in Cape Town. Happy perk: Upon arrival, you'll be greeted with crisp, crumbly, homemade butter cookies.
And other especially tasty street snacks to try on this delicious Indonesian island
If you want to eat the best of the Indonesian island of Bali, skip the shiny tourist restaurants lined along the beach and get yourself to a warung. These small roadside food stalls don’t have signs, printed menus, or even consistent ours, but if crisp-skinned suckling pig and a peanut mix with fried anchovies gets you hungry, warungs are the place to go.
Your best tool for navigating warungs is your eyes. Long lines are a good sign, and when the suckling pig spinning around the fire looks particularly crackly, you know you’ve struck gold. But the eating the best will take some legwork.
The Hunt for Suckling Pig (Babi Guling)
Babi guling is roast pig filled with lots of good stuff: coriander, peppercorn, lemongrass, candlenut, chile paste, turmeric, garlic, ginger, and shallots. It’s then roasted for hours over an open fire until the skin blisters and cracks, then turns a deep golden brown. The dish’s cult following is so strong, people have been known to travel to the island just to eat it. And it’s unique to Bali: While most Indonesians are Muslims that don’t eat pork, many Balinese practice a form of Hinduism that permits it.
After asking around for a few days, the local consensus was that eating Bali’s best babi guling would require trekking to the remote town of Buduk, about 30 miles north of Canggu, to visit a warung that’s only open from the middle of the night to 9 a.m.—or until they run out. I was in for either the best babi guling in all of Bali, or doomed to hungrily wander the streets until sunrise.
Luckily for me, my driver knew the general area to drop me off, and offered this advice: “Follow anyone you see walking the streets—babi guling is the only reason people are out here at this time.”
For a split second I questioned my decision to risk my life for some suckling pig, but then I spotted a group of giggling and tipsy twenty-somethings who seemed like they'd be on their way to the Indonesian equivalent of a greasy spoon at this time of night. With every twist and turn down the narrow alleyways, the wafts of smoke and the smell of burning wood told me that I had to be on the right track. When I was hit with the sharp smell of ginger, chilis, and garlic, I knew I was getting closer, and once I could see the long line that already snaked through the streets, I knew I had actually found it.
The family that owns this warung starts preparing their pork at 3:30 in the morning, so when I got there they had already peeled off the crackling and were cutting through the buttery flesh. If I had wanted the best pieces of skin, I should have left even earlier. I knew what I was missing—I spent much of my childhood lurking at the lechon table at Filipino birthday parties, slyly picking off and eating the crunchiest bits of skin. As I made my way to the front of the line, I wished more than anything that I could do that with the glorious sheet of crackling right in front of me.
For a shack in the middle of nowhere, this place was a well-oiled machine. There’s the tray of pig on one end, and a kitchen on the other, where plates of rice, juice meat, glistening shards of crackling, and lawar come together. Lawar is a traditional salad made of minced meat, spice paste, grated coconut, snake beans, and fresh pig blood. If you look like you don’t belong, the lady serving may ask if you want your salad without the blood. I’ll leave that choice up to you.
Here are five other snacks to try while hunting for suckling pig.
While wandering through the Taman Sari Market in Seminyak I came across a peculiar, egg-shaped fruit that looks just like its name: salak, the snakeskin fruit. Peel away its leathery, reptile-egg skin to reveal a delicately aromatic fruit reminiscent of honeyed pineapple.
Though typically a Javanese specialty, this salty snack makes its way to Bali too; look for the warung near the Ubud Art Market. A mix of peanuts dipped in rice flour batter seasoned with candlenut and anchovies, then deep fried, it becomes a lacy, airy, and deliciously crunchy cracker.
From street stalls to warungs to fancy restaurants, you will find mie goreng in nearly every kind of eating establishment in Bali. Thin curly noodles are stir-fried with shrimp, chicken, pork, and vegetables such as bok choy, cabbage, shredded carrots, tomatoes, and sprouts. Kecip manis, a thick and sweet Indonesian soy sauce, creates a perfect balance of sweet and salty. Mie goreng is usually topped with a fried egg, and garnished with cilantro, limes, and shrimp chips.
On my first day in Seminyak, I took a cooking class where I was introduced to pandan, a grass-like plant used in many Southeast Asian desserts and responsible for kuih ketayap’s neon-green hue. As we cooked the the thin pancakes, the pandan sent out notes of jasmine with nutty undertones. The cakes themselves are slightly chewy and fluffy, and filled with a sticky sweet mixture made of grated coconut and palm sugar. Keep an eye out for them whenever you get a sweets craving.
Sate lilit differs from the usual grilled, and marinated variety of Indonesia satay in that it’s made with minced meat (usually chicken or pork) and mixed with grated coconut, coconut milk, spices, and lemon juice. The coconutty meatloaf mix is formed into round shapes around sticks of sugar cane or bamboo, and then grilled, resulting in a tender and slightly smoky bite that’s full of flavor right to the core.
Fred Razzaghi recreates a taste of home at his Atlanta restaurant
"Ten years ago, I didn't know what a collard green was," says Fred Razzaghi from behind the counter at Fred's Country Kitchen in downtown Atlanta. Construction workers and courthouse lawyers are eating elbow to elbow, their lunch platters loaded up with fried chicken and collards, smoked wings and hoecakes. It's a local's place, where a meat-and-three plate will run you less than six bucks. But there is another item on Fred's menu that his most discerning customers are sure not to miss: a bowl of his homemade yogurt.
Topped with honey, ginger, chopped strawberries, and crushed walnuts, Fred's yogurt is tangy and rich, but it isn't Greek. It was born in Mianeh, an ancient, rural town in northeastern Iran where Farhad Razzaghi—Fred's given name—is from. Growing up in the 1960s, his family lived near a market where craftsmen plied the old trades, blacksmiths and shoe cobblers working among the grocers. Farhad's first job was working for a neighbor named Khalil, who would make yogurt from sheep's milk purchased from farmers in the nearby hills.
"His thermometer was his hand," Fred says. Khalil taught him to make yogurt by the feel of the pot: how long to boil, how long to rest, when to insulate the pots by wrapping them with thick blankets. In winter, it would only take a couple of hours before the milk was cool enough to stir in the cultures. In summer, it could take as many as six. Fred studied Khalil's gestures, committing the practice to memory. Even when he went on to become a physical therapist in Tehran, he continued to make the dish that most reminded him of his childhood.
Fearing that his children wouldn't have the right opportunities in Iran following the revolution, Fred followed his brother-in-law who had fled to Atlanta. With a wife, two kids, a green card, and very little English, Fred's transition to America was tough. His brother-in-law gave him a job at the Italian restaurant he'd opened. "And so, at age 43, I became busboy Fred," he says, recalling the strangeness of starting over with a new life, a new name.
A decade later, he had saved up enough money to buy a tiny sandwich shop on an unpolished block downtown. The restaurant struggled and almost closed. Arlena Barber, a cashier he'd hired who had worked in the neighborhood for more than two decades, suggested he try serving Southern food.
"Miss Arlena told me to get collard greens and turkey wings and turn this place around," Fred says. Learning the ways of the meat-and-three was a group effort, involving everyone from Arlena to a cook hired off the sidewalk, but eventually Fred mastered the finer points of collards and potlikker, how to slow smoke pork ribs for hours.
Fred never planned to put his yogurt on the menu. He'd been making it in the back for himself for years before a friend suggested he try selling it. If you ask to see how he makes it, Fred will reply, "You cannot see. You can only wait."
In the still quiet of the restaurant in the early morning, with his hand to the pot, you may catch a glimpse of the lengths Fred has traveled. He says it doesn't quite taste as it did back in Iran, when the milk came fresh from sheep grazing on the distant hills, but even so, it still tastes of home. The milk finally cool, he'll gently stir in the cultures and remind you, "Yogurt cannot be made in a day."
In the border town of Marfa, Ramona Tejada has turned her home into one of the best burrito spots we've ever visited
Everything at Marfa Burrito is handmade. From the salsas to the tortillas, you can watch everything happen right in front of you in pots and pans that look like they could have come straight out of someone's kitchen.
Well, that's because they do. This restaurant in the Texas border town also happens to be Ramona Tejada's personal kitchen, which she runs with the help of two other women. Known as the burrito queen of Marfa, Ramona's home cooking draws in tourists, locals, and even a few celebrities—there's a framed photo of Matthew McConaughey with his arm around her shoulder, and another of her with Mark Ruffalo. Her burritos measure up: those handmade tortillas make it all, tender and slightly flaky and thrilling enough to eat all on their own. Meaty, eggy fillings don't disappoint.
Despite these famous visitors, Marfa Burrito is calm, quiet, and casual. The menu is printed in marker on a neon pink poster, and there are just seven items, most of which involve egg. You can peer over the counter to watch as Ramona hand-rolls the tortillas into perfect circles, grills them to a perfectly crispy brown, then slathers them in beans and other fillings.
Marfa Burrito is only open for breakfast and lunch, but don't worry—nobody will judge you for stuffing your pockets with a few burritos for the road.
104 East Waco Street, Marfa, TX
On wood-fired griddles, Maya home cooks keep ancient traditions alive with recipes even their neighbors wouldn't recognize
It's getting close to lunchtime at the market in San Juan La Laguna when a vendor named Horacio tells me that I need to try some puchon-ik.
San Juan is a quiet village of around 10,000 people in the highlands of central Guatemala, on the shore of Lake Atitlán and within walking distance of several volcanoes, including one that's spewing puffs of ash on this particular afternoon. At the lakeshore, motorboats zoom up to the wooden dock several times an hour to drop off small groups of European backpackers or local women balancing baskets of food on their heads. A steep road leads uphill to a concrete building with a small indoor market, where Horacio Cotuc works at a chicken stand. I've just arrived in town, and when I mention to Cotuc that I'm here to write about the country's ancestral Maya cuisine, much of which has been prepared the same way for about 2,000 years, he declares that puchon-ik, a chile-spiced dish of small, sun-dried fish, is San Juan's unrivaled favorite. Later, on my own in an empty restaurant on the village's main road, I have what seems like a stroke of luck: The waiter offers to serve me puchon-ik even though it's not on the menu. He comes back with a plate of thumb-size river fish, their heads and tails still intact.
Feigning nonchalance, I begin chewing my way through several mouthfuls of whole pescaditos, but I'm distraught to discover that they are just as spiny and hard-to-swallow as they look. I hide a few half-nibbled fish under a tortilla, offer a polite “gracias” to the waiter, and return to my hotel to do what any hapless foreigner would do—Google puchon-ik. Number of results: zero.
When I recount all of this to Cotuc at the market the next day, he laughs. And not only because I'd ingested a bunch of fish heads and fins. (Except for a few hardcore elders, most locals remove them before eating the flesh.) The funniest part to him is that I'd expected to find any information at all online about puchon-ik. "I bet there's nothing on the internet about it, and there never will be," Cotuc says. It turns out that this dish can be found almost nowhere but in the home kitchens of San Juan. In another lakefront village just 2 miles away, San Marcos La Laguna, whose residents speak a different Mayan language than San Juan's, the people I talk to know nothing about puchon-ik. But they have a lot to say about a thick corn-based drink called atol maatz, which is flavored with ashes from the kitchen fire.
At a time when even the most obscure culinary cultures have been picked over by herds of eager food bloggers, Guatemala remains one of the Western Hemisphere's last true culinary terrae incognitae. Due to centuries of isolation in the volcano-strewn highlands—not to mention a brutal civil war from 1960 to 1996, plus gang-driven crime waves that have discouraged tourism until very recently—many members of the 23 distinct Maya groups in rural Guatemala still speak their own pre-Columbian languages and wear the same outfits that their great-great-great-great-grandparents did. Here, local really means local: You can often tell which village a woman is from by the colors of the birds and flowers that adorn her hand-loomed huipil, or tunic. The same goes for the way she cooks her turkey stew or macuy (a local green) broth.
"There are probably thousands of unique ancestral dishes here,” says producer and documentarian Ana Carlos, whose long-running Guatemalan television series El Sabor de Mi Tierra explored more than 50 indigenous specialties around the country. Carlos says there's been little effort by the media to document or preserve the native cuisine, in part because the ethnic Mayas, who make up more than half the population, are still seen as the underclass. "So it's really in the kitchens and at the table that people are keeping the country's culture alive," she says.
There are plenty of ancient concoctions far tastier than puchon-ik, as I learn in San Juan where Cotuc offers to connect me with a Maya villager employed in one of the textile workshops near the dock. Elena Hernandez Vasquez's house is on a dirt road in the scruffy upper part of San Juan, where the town's Maya majority lives. A few hotels and textile shops and other gringo-geared businesses are down the hill near the shore. Her kitchen walls consist of rough slats of wood, the wide spaces between them allowing sunlight to come in and smoke to go out. As she starts to boil water on the comal—a clay griddle over an open fire that's the focal point of most Maya kitchens—three chickens dart around her feet. She sets out the ingredients for tukun-ik. (The suffix-ik means "chile" in several Mayan languages, signifying that the dish contains them.) Tukun-ik, unique to San Juan, is a soup of corn masa, ground achiote, a couple of eggs, and some fresh green stems of epazote, a pungent local herb.
Speaking in her native Tz'utujil as Cotuc translates into Spanish, Vasquez explains how she copes without running water and cooking oil. "My ancestors never used them, or needed them," she says. (Sometimes she also does without pots and pans: Tomatoes and chiles and even the fish for puchon-ik are browned directly on the comal.) Though some of her neighbors have resorted to shortcuts like instant soup and canned beans, Vasquez says these dishes still thrive for economic reasons (they're simply cheaper to make from scratch), but also because they're a point of cultural pride. Vasquez wants her children to eat like she always did. "Instant soups are threatening Guatemala's unique way of cooking," she says.
The Mayas created one of the great ancient civilizations—stretching across southeastern Mexico and northern Central America—with advanced mathematical, architectural, astronomical, and hieroglyphic systems, so it's no surprise they knew how to eat. Chocolate, guacamole, and tortillas all originated in this part of the world, long before the Spanish colonizers arrived in the 15th century. But today, for visitors and even many urban Guatemalans, the country's culinary heritage can be easy to miss. Most high-end restaurants strive for a Continental or North American vibe; local places tend to serve a handful of well-known platos tipicos such as pepián (a spiced meat stew) and beef enchiladas—dishes whose indigenous components are mixed with things the conquistadores brought over, including rice and cheese. Maya cuisine in its least adulterated form is best sampled in home kitchens and a few of Guatemala's cheap set-menu diners, called comedores.
Holding a squawking black hen, Maria Boror, 77, stands on her concrete patio preparing to snap the bird's neck. On the comal rests a bubbling pot of tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, and four types of chiles, which will eventually be steamed together with the hen's meat and chunks of pork, inside a casing of jumbo emerald green mashan leaves (a local variant of plantain leaves), to make a dish called suban-ik. After dispatching the hen with the assurance of someone versed in six decades' worth of avian butchery, Boror drains its blood, walks to the sink to clean out its innards, and finds a surprise: a white egg, its shell fully formed. "We'll eat it," she says. "It was almost ready to come out."
Ana Carlos, who's showing me around for a couple of days, has brought me to meet Boror and her daughter Marta Hernandez Boror because they're known for the suban-ik they prepare at their comedor in San Martín Jilotepeque. Carlos and I begin the day in Antigua, the supremely scenic, UNESCO-recognized colonial city where most of the country's expats and tourists are concentrated, and we drive 90 minutes to the dusty but lively San Martín. Wealthy Guatemalans in Antigua and the capital of Guatemala City, two hours to the east, often celebrate weddings and birthdays with suban-ik; invariably the elaborate meal is prepared by their cook, who is likely to be a Maya woman. (Maya men have managed to stay out of the kitchen since about 500 BC.) Even in Boror's house, suban-ik is a special occasion dish, since a live hen costs about 70 Guatemalan quetzals, or $10—no small sum in a country where 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the typical wage is $1.50 an hour.
After Maria and Marta tie up the mashan leaves with pieces of strawlike cord called cibaque and stew the packet of meat and sauce on the stove, papillote style, the whole family, including two of Boror's great-granddaughters, gathers around the table for lunch. The unanimous verdict: muy rico. The flavor of the thick vermilion sauce is simultaneously deep and subtle. Marta says some locals can distinguish the taste of each of the four different chiles, yet the distinctive grassy zing from the steamed leaves is just as potent. It can't hurt that the Borors sourced every ingredient a few hours earlier at the daily outdoor market, two blocks away.
Guatemala's raucous local markets provide a crash course on rural life here. Whether in dedicated indoor spaces or in a jumble of outdoor stalls near a bus station, markets tend to function simultaneously as swap meets, social clubs, luncheonettes, and spiritual centers. (You might see a huipil-clad great-grandmother laying an offering of maize at a Catholic shrine in one corner, next to a teenager hawking stonewashed jeans, while in the parking lot an evangelical preacher shouts the secrets to salvation through his megaphone.) Though the Mayas have a reputation for being wary of outsiders, if you speak some Spanish and are up for tasting whatever anyone offers you, barriers quickly dissolve.
One morning while I stroll around the indoor stalls in San Cristóbal Verapaz, a six-hour drive north of Antigua in the lush coffee-growing region near the city of Cobán, someone mentions a local dish called sak-ik, a turkey stew with ground corn and chiles. Since there's a power outage today, the vendors have lit some candles and nestled them in their stacks of raw chickens. Business is slow with the lights off, so we take sips of warm atol from Styrofoam cups and chat about sak-ik recipes. When one spice vendor finds out I'm from California, she asks if that's near Oregon, where her brother lives, and wonders if I want to quit my job and launch a chile import-export business with her.
There's less to joke about whenever conversations turn to the longtime persecution of Guatemala's ethnic Mayas, which reached its peak during the civil war, when thousands were massacred by government troops. Like the multicolored huipils and headbands that women still wear every day in rural areas, the traditional dishes offer tangible links to a culture that's often been neglected or actively suppressed by the country's ruling classes. "Ritual has always been so important to the Mayas," says Carlos, "and you still see a strong ceremonial aspect in so many ancient dishes." Kak-ik, for example, is not just a turkey soup but also a key fixture in christening a new home; the blood of the slaughtered turkey is spread around the floor of the house before the bird makes it to the stove. In the highlands there's a special variety of atol that's prepared to mark the day when a boy gets his first haircut. The foam from the drink is rubbed onto his head, to ensure he'll grow up healthy, with dark and shiny hair.
Throughout Guatemala there's also a deep reverence for chocolate, which the Mayas consumed in liquid form before the Spanish arrived. Cacao bean sellers established some of the Mayas' first trading routes, and beyond its ceremonial and medicinal importance, it was considered a luxury, used as currency, and later consumed by the Aztec elite following meals. In Quetzaltenango, the bustling city of 225,000 in the mountains two hours north of San Juan La Laguna, I hear more about cacao from Mirna Rojas, a sixth-generation Maya chocolatera, who since 2005 has run a local confectionery called Doña Pancha. "In the old days, when a Maya family had a visitor in the house, the highest honor was to serve a drink of chocolate," she says. Rojas' main concession to modernity is an electric mill, which saves her hours of crushing cacao beans at the grinding stone. ("My mother's back was as muscular as a boxer's, and she was tired all the time," Rojas says.) She insists the best chocolate needs only two ingredients—cacao and sugar. Vanilla and chiles are also fine, says Rojas, as is milk. The real enemies are the added fats and soy lecithin found in most industrial chocolate today.
The most essential food of all for the ancient Mayas, of course, was maize—not just a crop but a vital force and, according to legend, the stuff the first humans were made from. Cooks here love to hold forth on the dozens of varieties of local corn and how to cultivate them (essential tip: the cooler the soil that the corn was grown in, the longer the tortillas made from it will last). And maize turns up at every single meal, including in the country's ubiquitous tamales. Many Guatemalans claim that there are more types of tamales here than in Mexico. Popular versions like the rich, smoky pache, filled with potatoes, meat, and three kinds of chiles, are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks and are big enough for a meal.
A few of Guatemala's tastiest dishes prove to be the hardest to track down. Toward the end of my trip, in Quetzaltenango, I hear a few people rhapsodizing about something called choc'a—stewed pork with a musky, mole-like sauce. Surely I can try it somewhere in the city, a restaurant or at someone's house? No, and no: Choc'a is another obscure, one-town-only specialty, so I'll need to head south to the agricultural village of Almolonga and hope for the best.
One morning I board one of Guatemala's notorious "chicken buses," the repurposed American school buses painted in technicolor stripes and driven by men with a tendency to take hairpin turns at triple the speed limit. Soon I'm walking past terraced fields of carrots and radishes toward the food stalls in Almolonga's main square. There's no sign of choc'a anywhere, but a guy selling papayas and sapotes (a soft tropical fruit) tells me to come back at 1 p.m. and ask for Francisca. I do, and there she is at a busy outdoor stall, ladling a thick pinkish sauce over chunks of pork. The ancient Mayas didn't eat beef or pork—both were introduced by the Spanish colonizers—but I overlook that detail as I down spoonfuls of this addictively unctuous dish, which combines the tahini-like creaminess of ground sesame and pumpkin seeds, the sweet tang of stewed tomatoes, and just the right overdose of black pepper. Francisca Siquaná de Cotoc invites me to her house the next day to watch her and her two daughters prepare that afternoon's batch. The secret: toasting the seeds before grinding them by hand, then blending in the tomatoes right on the grinding stone. "Using a blender doesn't just affect the texture but the flavor, too," de Cotoc says.
The spicy Maya soup kak-ik, unlike choc'a, can be found without loitering for hours in markets while waiting for Francisca. It's available in several parts of the country, even in restaurants, and is eminently Google-able. Imagine a triple-strength version of grandma's turkey soup, with gamier meat, lots more cilantro, and a slow-burn jolt from local chiles. I sample it in its city of origin, Cobán, where Ana Carlos connects me to a woman named Carmen Grisela Popchun whose kak-ik is so renowned she once cooked it for the president of Guatemala. The recipe comes from her mother, she says, “who learned it from her mother, and you can guess who she learned it from." Today Popchun has been hired to make enough kak-ik for a 200-person baptism celebration, meaning that her 14-year-old grandson will be killing a lot of turkeys in her cluttered courtyard in the middle of town.
Popchun is a no-nonsense type, her fingers deeply callused from years of moving things around on hot comals, and she has strong opinions about most topics. I figure that she'll have lots to say about some of the other Maya dishes I've tried during the past week. I ask for her thoughts on suban-ik, puchon-ik, tukun-ik, and a few more, but Popchun looks at me blankly. She's never heard of them.
“Most Japanese immerse themselves in something almost until they're crazy. I think Burgundians like that.”
The restaurant Bissoh can be found through a narrow door off Rue Maufoux, a cobblestoned street traversing Beaune's imposing 13th-century ramparts. At a low wood counter, Mikihiko Sawahata serves meaty unagi marinated in soy sauce, mirin and, unexpectedly, red burgundy wine. His sushi rice is another example of local adaptation, tangy with a hard-to-place lilt. Good rice vinegar is in short supply locally, explains Sawahata, Bissoh's chef and owner, so he blends it with cider and balsamic vinegars.
Sawahata, a onetime TV cameraman in Yokohama, met his wife, Sachiko, a former Japanese Airlines flight attendant—now Bissoh's sommelier and co-owner—when he was cooking in Naples and she was studying wine in Dijon. They decided to settle nearby. Before they arrived, Sawahata says, "there were no Japanese restaurants in Burgundy." But much has changed in just over a decade. Despite its conservative reputation, the region has cemented a broader global outlook. Its best winemakers now travel the world and confer knowledgeably about restaurants and wine lists in New York and Tokyo. As their wines have surpassed bordeaux as the darlings of connoisseurs, the Burgundians—and their ancient wine capital of Beaune—have found a cosmopolitan edge. Bissoh's 300-selection wine list would be impressive even at Paris's étoilés: a roster of top Burgundian names like Comtes Lafon and Frédéric Mugnier, joined by natural producers like Pierre Overnoy, Jacques Selosse, and Yvon Métras of Beaujolais (a good pairing with that robust eel).
Beaune has developed a small but growing Japanese expat community, at least 100 strong with another couple hundred living just north in Dijon—not just chefs but winemakers and negociants, all thriving. Japanese vignerons have settled elsewhere in France, of course: in the southern Jura, where Kenjiro Kagami farms the precipitous slopes for his Domaine des Miroirs, or in the Rhône town of Cornas, where Hirotake Ooka tends vines. In recent years, both have become beloved in Tokyo's thriving natural-wine scene. Still, it's Burgundy that holds a special psychic draw for the Japanese.
"The Japanese love to taste and enjoy wine, but they also study wine," says Tomoko Kuriyama, an emerging winemaker in nearby Savigny-lès-Beaune who is originally from Tokyo. "And most Japanese immerse themselves in something almost until they're crazy. I think Burgundians like that."
Kuriyama moved to the region in 2011 when she married Guillaume Bott, a winemaker at Domaine Simon Bize (whose current proprietor Chisa Bize, the widow of owner Patrick Bize, is also from Tokyo). Today they make wine together under the Chanterêves label.
At La Lune, just down the street from Bissoh, Seiichi Hirobe deftly balances French and Japanese flavors: A delicate scallop chawanmushi (or flan salé, savory flan, as the menu has it) is followed by veal sweetbreads sautéed in soy sauce, all paired with a saline Pernand-Vergelesses white from Domaine Pavelot. There's a certain synchronicity between the two traditions: the way the foresty subtleties of pinot noir—in, say, a Volnay with a few years' age—align perfectly with the piney intensity of matsutake mushrooms, or how the umami-bolstered opulence of Burgundian chardonnay echoes the richness of miso. And the two cultures share a profound respect for the nuances of taste, and a near monastic attunement to quiet shifts in the seasons.
Still it took some time for the Japanese to fall for Burgundy. Koji Nakada, who runs the small negociant winery Lou Dumont out of the old Domaine Fourrier property in Gevrey-Chambertin, recalls working at a French restaurant in Tokyo in the 1990s. "All anyone wanted was bordeaux, bordeaux, bordeaux," he says. But Bordeaux's status-obsession gave way to Burgundy's intellectualism, especially as the latter region's wines grew subtler, losing some of the aggressive oak and roasted flavors they manifested in the 1990s. A big boost came in 1998, when the ubiquitous Japanese TV host Monta Mino proclaimed the health benefits of red wine, especially burgundy. "That year was miraculous," says Nakada.
It didn't take long for the parallels between Burgundy and Japan to emerge, and soon the Japanese began arriving—new devotees of a storied region who came not for a stint, but to stay. One night at her home in Savigny, the winemaker Tomoko Kuriyama gathered several winemaker friends around the table for a dinner of marinated mackerel and burgundy, but also a pinot noir grown by friends on the slopes of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. This particular marriage of cultures might not have been immediate, she says, recalling a period of adjustment, "but at the end of the day, we feel quite comfortable here. We feel at home."
In lonesome Arctic fishing towns like Sitka, Alaska, the local saloon becomes a community anchor
700 miles north of Seattle, buildings become scarce and the water gets choppy. For king salmon, halibut, and black cod, this is prime real estate, but few people dare to live this far north.
This is where you find Sitka, Alaska.
Every Alaskan fishing town has a local fisherman’s bar that’s so much more than a bar. In Sitka, it’s the Pioneer.
It’s 1983, and the night that began with a few innocent arm wrestling matches evolves into tables turned over, rowdy fights, and a decent amount of bloodshed at Pioneer Bar, or P Bar as it’s commonly called. Fishermen crush six-packs at the pace one typically finishes a single beer. Then someone rings the great big bell above the bar, and the crowd roars. This is the code for a round of drinks for everyone, courtesy of the proud ringer, who typically is a fisherman that’s just had a seriously successful catch and is ready to cover the three- or four-figure bill.
Except Charlie Bower III, a Florida native who took the Greyhound north in search of a better life as a fisherman, has just rung the bell without knowing what it means. When he sees the tab, he’s forced to hand his gold chain over as collateral until he can pay off the debt.
Now it’s 2017 and Charlie is puffing on a cigarette while gazing out the P Bar’s window on a sunny afternoon. I sit across from him in a retro tan-and-turquoise diner booth patched with duct tape to cover decades of scars.
“Oh it’s nothing like what it was in the 80’s, but I still come here, just about every day,” Charlie explains. Not much has changed in the decor since that fateful night. Dollar bills pinned to the ceiling were recently taken down for a new paint job, but the framed archival photos of ships that have made their way into the harbor are still on display, acting as a maritime historical collection. The bell still hangs proudly, waiting to be rung.
Charlie props his cigarette carefully in the ashtray and takes a long sip of his bright pink non-alcoholic beverage. He isn’t drinking this afternoon, but still appreciates the social refuge P Bar offers in a town as remote and lonesome at Sitka. When you’re this far from most people, and your neighbors are loners by nature, common spaces like P Bar keep community alive.
In the booth behind me, a mother and son from the local Tlingit tribe sip on some coffee. “I gave up drinking 40 years ago and have never felt better,” she tells me proudly. Her son doesn’t drink either. Most people who come to P Bar certainly do, but the place has softened over the decades. Weekend nights still draw a crowd, but there are fewer rowdy brawls, and for every rough-around-the-edges Icelandic fisherman stumbling in, you’ll find a young twenty-something dressed up looking for a fun night out with her girlfriends.
“It’s a struggle here. But there’s no place like it,” Charlie goes on. “You go and you leave this town because it’s shitty and rainy, but all of a sudden you realize how much you miss it, and think, ‘man, I wish I was back in Sitka.’ I don’t know how to explain it. It’s magic.”
Twin chefs Ivan and Sergey—and their full-time herbalist-healer-magician—celebrate their culinary heritage and bring a new lokavorizm to the Moscow dining scene
It's a chilly early summer's day near Gribanovo, a village some 30 miles outside Moscow. A group of young Russians, plus one émigré journalist (me), are ambling through a lyrical meadow fit to inspire Nabokovian reveries. Dragonflies hover and flit. The bells of an onion-domed convent ring in the distance. Fickle northern clouds turn a menacing charcoal and loosen a few fat raindrops, then decide to spare us nature lovers on a brief escape from the pressures of Putin's Moscow. Our Katia, Anna, and Sasha do what Slavic girls have done since pagan times when confronted with a blaze of poppies and dandelions: They make head wreaths while humming a song. I, the misty-eyed exile, pause on a tree stump to fill my lungs with the long-forgotten scent of fresh aspen leaves and make a checklist of the things I've missed about the slow, fitful onset of the short Russian summer. Kerchiefed babushkas hawking the first scallions and dill at the side of the road. The switch from boring hot borscht to Slavic summer soups alive with the crunch and vitality of diced cucumbers and radishes. The season-opening hunt for lisichki (chanterelles), and the layering of glass jars with fragrant currants and oak leaves for the start of the summerlong pickling marathon.
The only ones in our group doing anything remotely purposeful are Ivan and Sergey Berezutskiy—a pair of identical twins in grass-stained sneakers. The 31-year-olds are the chefs of the aptly named Twins, a wildly popular Moscow restaurant. They're gathering herbs for an informal dinner they are throwing tomorrow for friends at the restaurant. Inside a basket improvised from a huge burdock leaf—"its roots make awesome pickles," notes Ivan—lie tender-leaf sorrel, manzhetka (lady's mantle), and an obscure herb called sverbiga—"peppery, kind of like horseradish," suggests Sergey.
"Let's Google sverbiga," Ivan says, "in English."
"Warty cabbage," says Google English.
How do they even know northern sverbiga, these young chefs who grew up amid lush, warm-weather flora in Kuban, a fertile Cossack region a thousand miles south of Moscow? "Well, we actually employ a full-time travnik at Twins," confides Ivan, the chattier one. Meaning, a folkloric herbalist-healer-magician. "A 17th-century job, back in fashion!" says Ivan. "And our dude's real. He whispers funny ditties to the flowers."
Lokavorizm, it needs to be noted, is still a pretty new concept for Russians. A few years ago, average Russian restaurant-goers were forsaking herring for sushi and comparing the merits of various French Camemberts, while Moscow's best chefs were too busy chasing eksklusiv foie gras and Iberico hams to even notice the sorrel everywhere. But then oil prices sank and the ruble's value shrank almost by half. In 2014, he who rules from the Kremlin declared an embargo on most foreign food imports, leaving Russians pining for the Norwegian salmon and Spanish peaches they'd become accustomed to. The embargo sparked a gold rush to discover Russia's own edible treasures.
There was a lot to discover.
"Our country! Gigantic, endlessly fascinating!" exclaims Sergey, the first Russian to stage at Alinea. He sweeps an arm at the meadow indicating how his country spans from the Russian Far East to Finland, from subtropical pineapple guava to subarctic sea buckthorn.
"I was an expert in Parmigiano and langoustines," testifies Ivan, the first Russian to stage at El Bulli, "before I got my brains blown by our ecologically pure muksun, a Siberian whitefish that tastes like delicate salmon, and the giant, succulent king crab of Kamchatka."
From their four annual sourcing and foraging expeditions across Russia's 11 time zones, the twins bring back exotica like whelks that "smell like porcini"; goose air-cured "just like jamón" by an old Tatar babushka; and from the Caucasus Mountains, Adighei cheese, "creamier than any burrata."
The previous night, I'd dined at Twins, where I'd sampled bread flavored with kelp from three different Russian seas. I'd swooned over the Tatar granny's cured goose as it melted so seductively atop warm ramps pirozhki, and savored the pristine muksun fish, frozen-shaved Siberian style and accented by an anchovy sauce. It was all Noma-esque in a cosmopolitan fashion, yet extremely Russian in a fresh, non-clichéd way—summing up, perhaps, the taste of a city that's becoming increasingly nationalistic, while taking its cultural cues from London and Brooklyn. The same was true of the restaurant's vibe; the gnarly chandeliers dangling over cushy banquettes and logs piled up on the patio evoked Carroll Gardens but also felt somehow grounded here, in this historically resonant (and chichi) Old Moscow quarter.
The Berezutskiy boys—heartthrob-adorable and bursting with an earnest enthusiasm so rare in cynical Moscow—became an instant success after opening Twins in 2014. And not just as shtick. My arrival was greeted by the loud popping of corks (Russian bubbly). The reason? Twins had just come in at No. 75 on the 2016 long list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.
"Finally the world recognizes Russia as more than blini and vodka!" Sergey hollered.
"And it's not like we have a 24-karat gold toilet," whooped Ivan. "We're just a modest place with cheapo twig-and-paper décor." He pointed to the cheeky birch tree decorations, puns on the brothers' last name, which stems from beréza, or birch.
Once calmed down, the twins co-explicated their current philosophy while I tasted their most Instagrammed dish: barley kasha slow-roasted inside a whole charred celery root with a puckery counterpoint of shaved, marinated celeriac.
"We're into binaries—showing the ingredients in two iterations." (Sergey)
"'Cause—duh!—we're twins. But with very different tastes." (Ivan)
"He likes vegetables. I'm a chocolate guy." (Sergey)
"He likes big Jeeps. I'm okay with the metro." (Ivan)
"He complicates plates. While I'm into elegant, organic simplicity." (Sergey)
When the twins fight, they divide the kitchen into "Sergey and Ivan zones." But no dish makes it to the menu without both brothers' approval.
It was over more sparkling wine from the southern Russian Krasnodar region and the "creamier than any burrata" cheese from the Caucasus—foamed into a sweetened cloud to accompany dessert grape-leaf dolmas filled with sorbet—that the pair decided, spontaneously, to escape to the meadows the following day and then throw a dinner to celebrate their 50 Best laurels, and the arrival of summer, too.
After we finish picking herbs, we head to the family dacha (country house) of the twins' friend Katia, for a lunch prepared by her mother and grandmother.
We arrive to find the long dacha table already mosaicked with plates of herring, boiled potatoes with pickles, garlicky kholodets (that's jiggly jellied cows' feet), and bowls of rich, meaty shchi, a Slavic cabbage soup. It's the kind of spread that makes every Russian go weak at the knees and instantly lift a shot of chilled vodka. Babushka's dandelion honey recipe ("wash and dry 400 dandelion buds…") sparks the eternal dacha conversation about preserving and pickling. "Cracks me up," says Sergey, "how Scandinavian colleagues get all worked up about the big word fermentation." "'Cause Russian chefs learn pickling on their babushka's lap," adds Ivan. The twins now wax sentimental about their babushka's brined watermelon rind and adzhika, a spicy tomato-and-pepper condiment put up by the gallons in their native Kuban, a region where everything grows in amazing profusion and the cuisine mingles Slavic, Ukrainian, and Northern Caucasian influences. "Happiness for me was the crunch of Babushka's meat grinder," sighs Ivan, "as she cranked through kilos of tomatoes, chiles, purple basil, and juicy red peppers." "Myself," says Sergey, "I only helped with adzhika to get a dessert treat."
The next morning finds us at Moscow's Danilovsky Market, a lokavor Eden comprising a food hall and farmers' stalls overflowing with red currants and gooseberries. Over tea and baba au rhum from Baton, their favorite bakery, the brothers explain how, after working at trendy restaurants in Moscow (Ivan) and St. Petersburg (Sergey), they opened Twins on a kind of dare: They'd launch a joint project if Sergey won the 2014 S. Pellegrino Young Chef award—which he did. Years prior, back in their provincial hometown of Armavir, Sergey had applied to culinary school, and Ivan for an engineering degree, before deciding to follow his twin. "Sergey was the only dude in a class full of beautiful girls," says Ivan, recalling the logic of the last-minute career shift. While on honeymoon in Chicago in 2011, almost on a lark, Sergey walked into Alinea and asked to stage. On this crazy adventure, he blew all his wedding-gift money and endured Alinea's rounds of eliminations. "But my reward," he tells me, "was insider knowledge of how three-star kitchens are run." Ivan meanwhile lucked into the El Bulli apprenticeship and was amazed not just by the spherified olives but by his colleagues' "almost inhuman dedication and discipline—something no laid-back Russian could imagine." Then he adds with a gulp, almost spilling his tea, "There I was, wondering if I was hallucinating when Ferran—Ferran Adria!—asked me for a blini recipe!"
We stroll through the market, past cafes hawking Uzbek pilafs and Caucasian dumplings, past stalls with homegrown sausage and smoked sturgeon, and the menu for tonight's dinner begins to take shape. "Cold borscht with the herbs we picked yesterday?" proposes Sergey. "Nyet," counters Ivan, "okroshka"—another classic cold soup. From kroshit, "to crumble," it's a salad inside a soup: loads of herbs and diced cucumber and radishes afloat in a refreshing liquid. "Northerners favor kvass for okroshka," Sergei annotates, referring to the old Slavic fermented beverage, "while we southerners prefer kefir or whey." Now a rack of grass-fed spring lamb at a butcher stall suggests to Ivan a roast, in a thick crust of adzhika. Whereas yesterday's Proustian dacha adzhika memories inspire in Sergey a yen for a dish of scallops from the Russian Far East ("so lively they bite you when you dive for them") in a clear tomato liquid similar to the juice that drains from adzhika.
That evening, I bundle up against the sudden cold spell and head over to Twins. The guests are already here, some girls in summer dresses, others in woolly cardigans. The hosts are fussing together over an eggplant dish. I take a bite. The roasted eggplant and oozy cheese salad tastes vaguely Mediterranean—except for "that extra Russian umami," says Sergey, courtesy of the eggplant's kvass glaze. The nutty dressing contains konoplya (hemp), another staple straight out of a fairy tale; the cheese is produced by a very Russian farm near St. Petersburg and tastes just like France's Sainte-Maure.
Taking another bite, I wonder if it's finally time to resolve the debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers that has influenced Russian food mores—and Russian identity—since the mid 19th century. Here in modern Moscow, which is both Putin's patriotic fortress and a profoundly hip European metropolis, the oysters, for example, are local while the ur-Russian kasha might be inspired by some new global grain trend. Here too a generation of post-Soviet chefs, unburdened by Russia's tragic 20th-century history—and now actually inspired by sanctions and shortages—is borrowing what they've learned from the West while delighting in Russia's new pride in homegrown ingredients.
My musings are drowned out by toasts with a domestic garage-style viognier from a Swiss-Russian couple. The wine goes surprisingly well with the chicken liver pashtet (or should I say pâté?) slathered on yeasted blini. The twins have thrown off their chef's jackets and joined us at the table, loading their plates with pickles and scallops and pink lamb in adzhika crust. The guests raise a glass to the success of their restaurant—Russia's success—as Johnny Cash calls out from the sound system.
Your Moscow Eating Checklist
Book ahead at the Berezutskiy twins' modern Russian bistro for a degustation menu, with each dish theatrically presented and explained by both brothers.
13 Malaya Bronnaya
Wine & Crab
The Berezutskiys' stylish new spot is all about crab: nine kinds, mostly from the Russian Far East. The crustaceans feature in dishes like fluffy crab and seaweed “baba” or playful crab "churros," and the 900-label wine list contains excellent Russian selections.
Among its many stalls, try the baked goods from Baton bakery, homey Armenian stuffed veggies from Dolmaster, and dusky smoked Russian fish and beef from Schepka smokehouse.
Run by an avid hunter and pal of local farmers and fishermen, this laid-back restaurant with an open kitchen and a woodburning oven serves Russian game (boar patties, venison tartare) and pies filled with burbot livers (Slavic foie gras of yore).
This restaurant's servers will namecheck the farmers who produce the brisket, lard, and sour cream for the borscht, and enthuse about the rye pasta with reindeer, which tastes at once archaic and zeitgeisty.
Now Get Cooking
As a cuke deckhand, your job first and foremost consists of making sure your diver survives
Hunter Mann-Dempster, professional sea cucumber diver, lives on Baranof Island in a house built on cedar pilings, a short ramble to the ocean through a copse of spruce and hemlock. He greets us in long underwear, mug of coffee in hand. Over the years I've come to notice divers in the Great North appear anemic, as if the cold has trimmed fat from their bones. Hunter is no exception. Like a medieval squire readying armor for battle, he lays out hoods, gloves, and dry suits over the lid of his hot tub. It's February. The water is in the 40s.
Hunter dips his head into a neoprene hood, cleans the glass of his face mask. Perhaps we'd have some luck, he wonders, across Eastern Channel at Pirate's Cove? "The otters have been kind of bad, so it might be good to find a place with some current," he says. Farther north, in Peril Strait? To make that work we'd need another 5-gallon jug of gasoline for the boat. If the weather held we'd make it back in time to cook the creatures on the Adak, my World War II tugboat tied up in the channel. But what I'm really thinking about now is a postdive dip in Hunter's hot tub. I know it gets up to, like, 104 degrees, warm enough to melt the ice cubes we will surely become while chasing sea cucumbers.
Here along the state's southeast coast, a place that travel guides call the Inside Passage, Parastichopus californicus—"cukes," affectionately—use tubed feet to anchor themselves to rocks, slipping into trenches, screwing themselves into the sea floor, surviving on sea mulch floating down like snow from above. On Mondays and Tuesdays, from October through December, about 200 permit-holding divers set out in pursuit of the elusive, horned, squishy creatures.
In 2005 I took a job aboard the Heron, a 48-foot Canadian-built seiner. Its skipper had a contract to collect cukes from dive boats and sail them north to the processor in Juneau. We'd leave Sitka in the early hours of the morning, the aurora borealis shivering chartreuse over the mountains, drop the hook, and go on channel 16 to advertise our price per pound. Around two in the afternoon dusk hit. We'd flip on the mast light, throw down the fenders, and unload dive boats with names like Moon Shadow, Chilkat, Wild Alaska. We wore emergency-orange fishing bibs and cotton glove liners that resembled nothing so much as ballroom gloves. After our last boat untied, Grant, the skipper, threw steaks into a cast-iron skillet, made muffins from black bananas, and popped in a VHS. We were kings aboard the Heron.
But if you'd asked me then if I had any interest in eating a sea cucumber myself, I would have laughed. These warty, slimy, sausage-shaped gastropods sloshing around in plastic bins held fast to the stern deck by canary-yellow truck straps? Try cleaning four thousand of them (each one earning me about 38 cents) while keeping a diver alive on the sea floor beneath you. The last thing you want to do when you get home is see another one, especially in the kitchen.
It was a delicacy best appreciated by someone else. The Indonesians, for instance, who began harvesting trepang off the Australian coast in the early 1800s. Or the Chinese, who eat the knobbed creatures smoked, salted, or dried, and powder the skins to use as an aphrodisiac for reasons clear to anyone who has seen a sea cucumber. Or the Japanese, known to enjoy cukes raw or salted and fermented. Some eat the skin, the intestines, the dried ovaries—the list goes troublingly on.
We dropped our product at Alaska Glacier Seafoods in Juneau. Workers in yellow aprons tacked the cukes to scarred plastic boards under fluorescent lights, a nutty stench thick in the air. They used razor knives to slice open the dun-colored bellies, scraping out five strips of ivory muscle running the length of the radial body. Outside, dudes smoked cigarettes in the rain and spoke in hushed tones while stirring cauldrons of boiling skins. I bit into a swatch of skin—curled and yellow. Briny. Spongy. But not bad.
As the tide comes up, and the sun lowers on the horizon, we plow our cove, finning back and forth, scouring the ocean floor. Underwater eelgrass heaves in the surge. Receding glaciers cleaved fjords between the mountains rising on each side, the ice leaving gashes on the rocks beneath us. Cones of speckled limpets and gumboots are stuck on tight. I come up for air, the winter sun white and round through a scrim of clouds. Hunter's got a hot tub, the man has a goddamn hot tub, I keep repeating to myself. Hunter dives deep, this time with oxygen, his progress along the ocean floor marked by boils on the surface as he works the ledge.
After I spent a year on the Heron, Spencer Severson, a mythic diver featured in the documentary Eating Alaska, invited me to deckhand for him. He worked off the Snorkel, a gunmetal-gray 28-foot Radoncraft dive boat. We'd motor out of town, Spencer's straw-colored hair blowing in the wind, sometimes running as far as 50 miles to our spot. As I came to discover, diving for sea cucumbers makes king crabbing in the Bering Sea look like a tea party. It is, by far, the most lethal job in Alaska, perhaps the world.
As a cuke deckhand, your job first and foremost consists of making sure your diver survives. The key to this project is the compressor, which provides surface-supplied air through a yellow hose, a diver's hookah. The hose can get fouled in the flywheel of the compressor. Or the boat propeller can slit it. Or the line tangles and you drag your diver along the bottom of the ocean. Or your compressor isn't properly maintained, and you send carbon monoxide instead of oxygen into his lungs, as happened recently to a cuke diver in Ketchikan. (Charges for manslaughter are pending.) Or a killer whale comes along and mistakes the diver for a seal.
Or your boat flips and sinks. Which is what happened to Spencer, when he was working with a partner. The two men swam ashore and spent the night in the woods in dry suits, keeping warm by using branches as cover, and cuddling. They walked 18 miles before being discovered by a search-and-rescue team.
Perhaps because of this constant proximity to death, divers are a quiet, lanky, whey-faced bunch. There was Burgess Bauder, who drove the Death Barge IV, the grim reaper emblazoned on the starboard side. And there was Blades, who lived with his family in a floating house that switched locations depending on the fishing season. Blades, who died while searching for cukes. "Cold and wet is normal, cold and wet is normal"—this was Spencer's mantra on the Snorkel.
A mantra he passed along (with boat and diver's permit) to my friend Hunter Mann-Dempster. Now we're repeating it—"Cold and wet is normal, cold and wet is normal"—as glacial water floods our hoods, setting off an ice cream headache to the power of migraine. Our bodies are literally reacting as if they're dying, brain telling the heart to slow by half. "A weight belt would probably help," Hunter says as I try to go under.
Although I would like to, I cannot say exactly where we found our quarry. (Hunter would never talk to me again.) I can tell you Hunter emerged, holding two tangles of distended sea cucumbers at either side of his head. Also that we saw a grizzly bear chase a Sitka blacktail on the beach, that the engine on our skiff came close to dying, and I had to suck gasoline to clear ice from the line. That we saw perhaps 50 humpback whales along the way, along with a Zodiac packed full of Coast Guard cadets that pulled us over and gave us a ticket for not having a floating seat cushion. (Thanks guys.) And finally, that Hunter's hot tub did not work.
Sadness. Extreme sadness.
It starts to snow as we walk the docks to the Adak. On deck I drive a 16-penny galvanized nail through a section of plywood and impale our cukes. Slit open the belly, and begin stripping sheets of meat into a glass bowl.
Composer and pianist Erik Satie referenced sea cucumbers in his 1913 piece Embryons desséchés. Food critic Jonathan Gold waxes lyrical over the variations he's sampled at Asian restaurants, including some discovered in a Vietnamese shopping center on the outskirts of L.A. At Saison in San Francisco, sea cucumber skin has been transformed into chicharrones, and their "ribs" grilled over an open fire. In France and across Asia, cukes are thought to be good for the skin, pro-libido, anti-aging. But rarely do these folks praising them actually dive in the water to get the creatures.
Four years back, Scott Brylansky, my mentor in all things subsistence, showed me how to process, prepare, and eat cukes without gagging. Then suddenly I was searching for the creatures at low tide, asking around for recipes. Scott shared a couple of favorites, involving wild parsley, lovage, local greens that sprout in our temperate rainforest. Now, whenever I get the chance, I'll dig around at low tide, with the aim of working them over my molars.
In an ancient Chinese manual of gastronomy, it's said that sea cucumbers "have little to no taste, are full of sand, and are remarkably fishy in smell. For these reasons, it is also the most difficult ingredient to prepare well."
I disagree, but don't take my word. Listen to Colette Nelson. The chef and owner of Ludvig's Bistro here in Sitka, she slices the cukes thin, dredges the meat in semolina, flash-fries and serves it all with a squeeze of lemon. "They're similar in texture to razor clams," Colette says. She should know—she once was employed processing them. She'll also sauté them in olive oil, with garlic, chile flakes, salt and pepper, and finish them with lime juice, cilantro, and bread crumbs.
I follow the rule of keeping wild foods as simple as possible. I cooked our cukes in butter and garlic. And I made a sea cucumber ceviche, cured with local Sitka spruce salt, lemons, limes, and pepper.
Cold tine of the fork, sea salt, and lime—but also the fish-rot smell of whale spume, sweet scent of gasoline, aloe of the Coastie's hand sanitizer. Miles of sea floor, tangle of pink intestines, the long drive home. Scrape as skin and flesh separate, spark of fire on the stove. White muscle crushing between your teeth.
Is it worth the effort and the risk? To an Alaskan, it most certainly is.
For the past 20 summers, Mexican women have migrated to Hooper’s Island to work in the town’s crab industry—doing jobs Americans won’t
There’s a surprising seasonal connection between Hidalgo, Mexico and Hooper's Island, Maryland. Every summer, an estimated 600 migrant workers, mostly women, arrive on the island—which is actually a group of three islands in the Chesapeake Bay—under the H-2B visa program to work in the town’s crab industry.
According to WAMU, the town comes to be known, during these fair-weather months, as la isla de las Mexicanas, or “the island of the Mexican women”, because of these highly-skilled crab pickers that have become a lifeline for the industry.
For the past twenty years, this summer migration has been routine—but that wasn’t always the case. As Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood, told WAMU, “At one time every lady on this island picked crabs.” As he tells it, when stricter child-labor legislation was enacted in the sixties, the American women that lived in Hooper’s Island ventured into other fields, and eventually shied away from crab-picking completely. “That was the beginning of the end for the crab picker—the American crab picker.”
These days local operations rely on the H-2B visa program, which allows them to recruit and train temporary workers from other countries. In order to qualify for the program, employers must prove that there are not enough American workers to do the work and that that employment of migrant workers will not adversely affect the wages or working conditions of U.S. workers in the same field. But in the current immigration-skeptical political climate, lawmakers from both parties argue the program harms American workers in spite of those restrictions.
In Maryland, however, employers cite industry studies that they say indicate every H-2B worker keeps almost three American workers employed in the seafood industry. And it’s not just the willingness to do jobs that sets migrant workers apart—it’s their skill, too. In a real-world Ballad of John Henry, seafood processing companies attempted to supplant migrant workers with an automated crab picker. The Mexican workers defeated the machine, both in the quality of the harvested meat and in the ability to effectively sort high-quality lump meat from less-valuable crab.
For now, the Mexican flag flies beside the Stars and Stripes at Harry Phillips’s plant on Hooper's Island. “Without these ladies,” he told WAMU, “we wouldn’t be in business.”
The annual Field to Table dinner hosted by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is part conservation fund-raiser, part celebration of the wild bounty of the Northern Rockies
The venison haunches were an afterthought, a pleasant surprise found among the elk, moose, and mule deer shanks donated for the osso buco. Rubbed in bear fat and basted with pickled ramp vinegar as they roasted over the flames, they made an ideal late-night meal for the tired, hungry volunteers sipping local whiskey around the fire.
The annual Field to Table dinner hosted by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is part conservation fund-raiser, part celebration of the wild bounty of the Northern Rockies.
Five cooks, amateur and professional, created this feast using game and ingredients foraged, caught, and hunted on the abundant public lands of the West.
That osso buco was served over risotto, made with a stock extracted from the roasted bones of a ram that had lived its life in the mountain range looming behind us. The wild morels in the savory flan were picked by members of the group in areas of national forests that had been burned by wildfires. The flan was served with a rich and complex moose consommé. The moose was shot south of here in the Big Hole Valley. The sweet, fleshy northern pike—poached in olive oil and accompanied by pickled carrots and spring pea purée—was hooked through the ice of frozen public lakes.
Backcountry members' bird dogs were key contributors to a fricassee of apple, sage, and Hungarian partridge. It took hunters and dogs, foragers and fishermen, many miles of exploring public grasslands, mountains, lakes, and rivers to gather these ingredients—a satisfying reminder of the importance of wildlife and wild places, and one of the prettiest and most fun shopping trips you could ever take.
These modern photos of the Greek city could almost as easily come from 60 years ago
When I asked my dad if he had any 35mm film cameras that I could borrow for an upcoming trip to Athens, he laughed at me. “Get black and white film,” was the only tidbit of knowledge I got from him. “It’ll be less visible when you mess it up.”
But I had already been thinking about going the monotone route. I've snapped my way around Greece plenty: as a tourist, a resident, and a reporter. And even though I love Greece's brilliant colors and sun-drenched coastlines, the most striking images I've seen of the country are in black and white. When I worked at the city's Benaki Museum, I used to spend hours scrolling through our social media accounts where we'd post archival photos of old Greece. There was something so familiar about those photos from the 30s and 40s. Perhaps it's the fact that Greece's history is present no matter where you go. And that in a place steeped in so much tradition, today's Athens and yesterday's don't have much to divide them.
Sure enough these photos, shot while ambling around the Acropolis, wandering through the Zappeio, and listening to the Evzones clacking their heels against cobblestones slicked smooth by the years, could trick you into thinking they're decades old—once you get past the modern cars anyway. An Instagram filter is one thing, but there's nothing like hoisting a weighty film camera through a timeless city to send you back 80 years.
So here are scenes from the graffiti-plastered backstreets of Monastiraki, past some of my favorite bars and cafes and murals, and around the Acropolis and Syntagma Square. I shot my way around one of my favorite spots behind the Panathenaic Stadium in Pagrati, and even toted the camera to the fairly new Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center. At all of these places, I was moving more slowly than I would have if I had my digital camera. Everything was more deliberate because I had to be more selective in what I photographed, but it also let me take in more of what was going on around me.
When I got the photos back, I discovered, to my relief, that I hadn't messed it up completely. I also found that I had managed to capture something that I had seen in the Benaki photos. It's not just the aged look and feel. It's the rough edges and ancient urban grit so rarely captured in modern photographs of the city, yet so essential to what it's really like to be in Athens.
Just north of Panama City, the pre-Hispanic Emberá tribe is still building life on the river
The Pan-American Highway is less a road than a 30,000-mile-long spiderweb. Its threads run through 14 countries, from the United States to Argentina. But there’s a 100-mile chunk missing through the border of Panama and Colombia; here, the mountainous jungle terrain is too rugged to be paved.
There is ongoing consideration to build one—connecting Yaviza, Panama to Turbo, Colombia—but it faces steadfast concern that a break in the rainforest would affect Panama’s annual rainfall, putting the Panama Canal (and the country’s economy) at risk. Plus, the jungle is a barrier against drug trafficking and from certain illness reaching North America. The region, known as the Darién Gap, is where the Emberá tribe lives.
The Emberá are an indigenous group native to the Darién Gap, which is comprised of the Choco department in Colombia and the Darién Province in Panama. After the Spanish invasion, they spread west to the jungles near what would eventually become Panama City.
It was here, on the bank of Lake Alajuela in Salamanca, that a dugout canoe picked me up for lunch.
We faced headwinds as we left the shore. The lake’s warm water seeped through tiny cracks in the canoe; one man steered a small outboard motor while another scooped water back into the lake. The boat pointed northwest toward Boqueron, where the Pequeni River narrows and channels into the San Miguel River, the banks of which form the Emberá Purú village of 128 people living among 31 houses.
The outboard motor, along with other more modern commodities like dyed fabric clothing and steel pots for cooking, became realities after the Emberá Purú moved to their current location in 1963. That decade saw Omar Torrijos, Panama’s de facto dictator, push indigenous peoples to settle in communities (opposed to smaller extended family units) in order to gain access to government-sponsored benefits like school and health care. The re-grouped Emberá’s proximity to Panama City provided an outlet to trade their goods—and the opportunity to bring in visitors.
So there I was, on an elevated floor raised two stories above the ground as oil simmered in a caldron. I rinsed my hands in a bowl of water full of vibrant leaves and herbs pulled from nearby plants. As they dried I caught whiffs of orange and lilac and cinnamon. Lunch would be twice-fried plantains and fish, also fried, that we picked up on the way in.
Somewhere along the Pequeni River, in a shallow part near a garden of water lilies, our boat pulled up to another just like it. Only this one was occupied by a lone man throwing a short fishing line from his bare hands, over and over. His boat also leaked, but he left the water in place to hold the impressive collection of small fish he had caught since morning.
The plantains, cut into thick chunks, hit the oil first. A gentle stir ensured none stuck to the bottom and burned. As they frizzled, others bowls from banana leaves torn in half lengthwise, folded, and held together by the stem (previously removed and shaved into a long needle). Smashed plantains and crispy fish came together in the bowls, collected on the wooden tray. We ate in silence save for the still-crackling fire and crunch of plantains.
Chester County, Pennsylvania produces a whopping half of all the mushrooms in the United States, and its spooky farms don't look like anything else on Earth
We’re standing in a dark hut marked #5 wearing squeaky rubber boots and brightly colored hairnets, but looking around, it feels like we should be wearing space suits. In every direction, shaggy brown masses are propped up on cold metal shelves stretching as far as the eye can see, and mist tumbles through the shadows they cast. Upon each mass, thousands of alien creatures have sprung up in clusters, their beady, rounded tops poking into the fog. The air is thick, cool, and downright wet, and it’s filling our nostrils with the deeply earthy scent of lots and lots of fungus.
This is one of the dozens of mushroom houses built by Phillips Mushroom Farm in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania—currently the largest American grower of specialty mushrooms like maitake, beech, and enoki. These caverns produce a whopping 35 million pounds of mushrooms a year, in the middle of the mushroom capital of the United States.
Although 23 different states farm mushrooms commercially in the U.S., Pennsylvania is behind a whopping 44 percent of every... single... mushroom… that lands on grocery store shelves. In 2015, the American total was 946 million pounds, or $1.19 billion worth of fungus. And of the 68 mushroom farms in Pennsylvania, 61 of them are in Chester County, where Kennett Square is located. If you’ve eaten a mushroom in the past week, odds are it came from around here.
Mushroom farms look nothing like other commercial farms—or any human place of work you might have seen for that matter. Mushrooms thrive in dark, damp environments—mesmerizing moon bases of sorts—where the crops are stacked tiers high in wooden beds or grow vertically up tall columns, rooted in carefully maintained sterilized compost. The beds look like the National Archives of fungus; the columns a cat playground from outer space.
Protection from the elements doesn’t mean mushrooms are easy to grow. Quite the opposite: Moisture imbalances and naturally fluctuating seasonal temperatures can throw crop growth completely out of whack, potentially resulting in dangerous contaminations or cripplingly low yields.
Despite the risks, the specialty mushroom market is soaring: The value of the 2015-2016 season totaled $95 million, a 30 percent increase from the year before. But it wasn’t always that way.
“We were practically giving them away at first,” says Jim Angelucci—the manager at Phillips and our guide for the day—of the farm’s first attempts to introduce portobello and shiitake mushrooms into the American market in the 1980s. Today, these two mushrooms are the most popular of the specialty kinds, but the farm’s catalogue has expanded to oyster mushrooms in an Alice in Wonderland array of colors and sizes, pom pom mushrooms (which are entirely stemless and look like plump, headless pomeranians when they grow), and thick and meaty royal trumpet mushrooms, also known as king trumpets.
Mushroom farming has fascinated Pennsylvanians in the area for over a century. Commercial farms in the county have been growing and selling mushrooms since 1896, when legend has it the son of a flower grower used some space leftover from his father’s carnation beds to spawn mushrooms. More and more flower and vegetable farmers began adding ‘shrooms to their greenhouses, using manure and compost from nearby racetracks and horse stables as planting beds. And since then, farmers at places like Phillips have gotten it down to a science.
“Mushrooms breathe just like we do—they take in oxygen and give off CO2,” Angelucci says, as he walks us through the shiitake area. All around us, heavy sets of doors reminiscent of the walk-in refrigerators in restaurants lead to rooms where the fluffy mushrooms grow in their own independent, precisely monitored ecosystems.
The majority look like a quirky cross between Willy Wonka’s factory and a hospital operating room, with pods of supernatural-looking creatures springing up among the perfectly packed compost, folks wearing protective head coverings, and heavy-duty filters constantly scrubbing the air of impurities. Unfiltered air could contaminate the mushrooms in less than a week, and each variety demands its own ambient humidity.
That’s a lot of pampering for a mushroom, but it’s an efficient system. “Everything is grown on agricultural waste,” Angelucci explains. Phillips feeds its mushrooms with sawdust from saw mills, cotton gin byproducts, ground-up (and inedible) wheat straw and stalks, and the like. The room we’re standing in now has 10,000 shiitake logs built largely out of red oak sawdust, millet grain, and wheat bran—which adds nutrients like protein and nitrogen. They look spongy but feel surprisingly firm to the touch. As we creak open more heavy doors and walk through the foggy rooms, a fat droplet of water from the drippy ceiling hits my notepad, making a smear of black ink in the center of the page.
At nearby To-Jo Mushrooms, a large-scale but family-owned operation, the focus is pedestrian button mushrooms, but the production and processing is no less fascinating.
We circle the compost fields, where so much of the important prep work is done. The mounds of around 10 carefully mixed ingredients, from corn cobs to cacao shells to chicken manure, take around two and a half weeks to break down, all the while being turned and aerated for sterilization and uniformity. As we talk, specks of organic compost materials flutter around us like snowflakes.
I’m handed a three-inch flashlight when we head into the growing house. In room #21, the pristine white mushrooms are about two inches tall and two inches wide, right around the ideal size for inspection, weighing, and grading. Though the beds are spawned with literally millions of microscopic seeds, the growers weed them out precisely to allow for the mushrooms to grow without touching each other at all—the only way to maintain the caps’ pure white color and baby-soft texture.
“Indoor grown mushrooms are only seasonal in terms of the demand for them,” says Peter Wilder, director of marketing at To-Jo. “Around the holidays, we ramp up production a bit.” But typically the farm picks and processes 800,000 pounds a week on average, rushing them out the door between 24 and 36 hours of picking to maintain their pristine condition. We walk through the shipping and packing facility, where hundreds of thousands of mushrooms whir through a maze of assembly lines and into colorful crates and packages where they’re then tagged with their origins and shipped to grocery store shelves.
In this chilly area kept at around 40°F, we can see plumes of our breath out in front of us, but we don’t think a thing of it: The creepy-cool vibe is all part of the magic of mushroomland.
How the Middle Eastern date palm became the go-to treat of the high desert
Of the many roadside attractions I’ve been to known to pull over for, nothing compares to “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” The signs for this scandalous film first show up miles away, on Highway 111 in the bleached-out High Desert of Southern California, outside of Palm Springs. They beckon tourists to slow down even before the giant wooden knight appears, pointing visitors to the Shields Date Garden parking lot in Indio.
The gimmick works: Shields is one of the best-known roadside attractions in the region. And as much as the film gets tourists in the door, what keeps them coming back is the dates. Shields sells five varieties, including medium-soft and sweet Blonde and Brunettes, developed and patented by Floyd Shields and sold exclusively in Indio.
Samples are abundant and you can buy all kinds of dates, along with the usual touristy chazerai, but in this writer’s opinion, the best souvenir from Shields is one that shouldn’t leave the parking lot: a date shake.
Date shakes have become something of an unofficial drink of the Coachella Valley, appearing on menus at hotels, restaurants, and other date shops along the road. At Shields, the thick, creamy milkshakes are made using date crystals, another one of Shields’ patented inventions, which are essentially nubbins of dried dates sweetened with date sugar. For the shakes, the crystals are mixed with water to make a thick date paste, which is blended with vanilla ice cream and milk.
They’re a fleeting keepsake, especially in the unrelenting desert sun. But there’s something delightful about the act of slurping a cold, sweet drink in the middle of the barren California landscape.
Shields was founded in 1924 by newlyweds Floyd and Bess Shields, who moved east from Los Angeles to try their hand at the booming date industry in the Coachella Valley. That boom was the result of the USDA’s specially-commissioned Agriculture Explorers, aka “the Indiana Joneses of the plant world,” who brought dates from their native Middle Eastern and North African climes to the similarly hot and dry California desert. These flora explorers coincided with a wave of public interest in the Middle East, mysterious and exotic-seeming at the time, which date growers in the Coachella Valley happily played up to market their fruit.
Tourism in the area took off, as people drove out to the desert for the three-day, Arabian Nights-themed “International Festival of Dates,” complete with camel races. Floyd and Bess needed something to make their date farm stand out from the dozens of others lining the highway. So Floyd, who had trained as an engineer but proved naturally adept at date farming, began giving lectures in his back garden to describe the painstaking process of date cultivation. He eventually collected his notes into a slideshow and called it, rather salaciously, “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.”
Today, the 15-minute doc plays on a continuous loop in the in-house “Romance Theater,” though a few years ago it was turned into a short film that combines the original slideshow with Shields' narration and new footage and audio. The film is currently available on DVD and you can find it on YouTube.
In it, Shields unpacks the nuts and bolts of date farming, a labor- and time-intensive process that involves shimmying up the trunk of 70-foot trees to hand-pollinate the female palms, flooding the root systems (though they are desert plants, date palms need the equivalent of 120 inches of rainfall to thrive), and hand-picking each individual date bunch after a decade of waiting for a given tree to bear fruit.
This is an abbreviated version of the process, which involves no fewer than ten other mind-bogglingly intensive steps. When I watch it, I think of how strange it is for something as resource-intensive as date palms to thrive in the High Desert, which even today is fairly underdeveloped, boasting more than its fair share of forbidding-feeling nothingness beyond the handful of towns that thrive along the highway.
For many, the desert holds a mysterious allure. For me, it’s a reminder of the awesome power of nature to still overrule the will of man. But how delightful it is that our tiny toehold into taming the wild landscape should come in the form of date farms, and how sweet it is to take a bit of them with you in a Styrofoam cup.
Cheese in Wisconsin, hot dogs in Iceland, masa in Oaxaca, and beyond
At SAVEUR, our obsessive quest to unearth the origins of food and discover hidden culinary traditions sends us from our test kitchen in New York City to all the corners of the globe. This month, we went everywhere from the fields of Wisconsin to the English countryside, and ate everything from Danish porridge to crisp stuffed masa in Oaxaca.
There's a word I learned my recent trip to Oaxaca: gordibuena. Roughly: Beautiful curvy girl. I learned it in the context of diving face-first into one of these beauties above, a gordita (less affectionately "little fat girl") from the Gordita Lady in a market just outside Oaxaca City.
Gorditas are one of masa's many miracles: disk-shaped lumps of masa, studded with nubs of pork skin and meat, fried until crisp, then cracked open, stuffed with meat, veggies, and salsa, and eaten piping hot. They're more of a northern Mexico thing, but here, under an orange tarp in the morning sun, this Oaxacan masa master and her all-female crew expertly feed a never-ending stream of market-goers.
That crispy crust has its obvious pleasures, but it's really the custardy interior of a gordita—moist but not mushy, utterly light in ways tamales rarely are—that won me over. It fused with ridiculously tender chicken tinga and offered just enough lettuce and pickled onion for crunch. It's a beautiful foodstuff, distinct from a taco or a tamal or an empanada, despite the similar ingredients and preparations, and it underscores just how many forms and instances of joy masa can take.
It also gives me a greater appreciation for the term gordibuena. Just as we can respect and appreciate masa in all shapes and sizes, so it should be with people, si?
This month, my boyfriend and I took a trip to Chicago for a friend's wedding. There was dancing and drinking and sneaking outside with our wine glasses to lie in the cool grass in the evening, but the best part was brunch the following morning. Another friend of mine lives in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, which puts her right at the heart of some of the city's best restaurants. Lula Café is our usual go-to, with an ever-changing farm-to-table menu from their self-taught chefs, but with just one meal to go before our plane trip back to the city, we decided on something a little more ... boozy.
At Parson's Chicken & Fish, the wait for a table that Sunday afternoon was an hour and a half long, which sounds ludicrous until you remember you can spend that entire 90 minutes sipping a frozen negroni in a sunbeam on their back patio. And then you can sip one of the frozen dark and stormies. And then a frozen "purple drink" made with red wine, port, and orange blossom water. By the time you get officially seated, and you've ordered your fried chicken sandwich and your cream cheese and ham hock–stuffed hushpuppies, it's like no time has passed at all—but then how did I end up with this sunburn?? —Alex Testere, associate editor
Food in Iceland is expensive. But the fish is super fresh, pulled from the North Atlantic’s waters; the lamb, from animals that range free on the highlands. Everything is small-scale, pristine, and organic. My husband and I put 1,000 miles on the odometer circling the Ring Road in 10 days. We’d scrimp on lunch with cold cuts (smoked lamb) or pylsur (snappy lamb hot dogs), then splurge on dinner.
Options were limited in remote areas, especially since we were traveling before the high season, but we had memorable fish soups, peat-smoked Arctic char, and earthy bread that was buried for 24 hours to bake by the heat of the hot springs. I tried guillemot, a seabird that brought to mind dark and minerally venison.
On our final night in Reykjavík, we dined at chef Ylfa Helgadóttir’s Kopar (Copper). Small plates to start included velvety rock crab soup with shrimp, spinach, and an unexpected touch of bean sprouts; blueberry-cured beef tenderloin with a Parmigiano crisp and caramelized walnuts; and fried cod tongues with a sherry-garlic cream cheese and a zingy lemon dip. My husband had a langoustine-crab risotto bathed with shellfish sauce and topped with a fennel salad to cut the richness. For me it was the catch of the day, roasted Atlantic catfish—aka wolffish—with bread crumbs and tartar sauce, accompanied by bok choy, carrots, and pickled red onion. As we walked out of the restaurant and into the city’s old harbor, close to midnight, a fiery sunset lit up the sky, beckoning us to return to the Land of Fire and Ice. —Donna L. Ng, copy chief
Edenton, North Carolina
My mom really loves Campari. Both of my parents do, but my mom has particularly strong feelings for it, and I think that has something to do with how much she loved Italy. She managed to finagle a bottle out of a friend's recent trip to France and brought it with her on vacation in North Carolina. Cocktail hour involved a hefty glass of Campari and orange, perfect next to a sea breeze and the sound of waves. —Katherine Whittaker, assistant digital editor
The Middle of Nowhere, Taiwan
Two years ago, I found myself in the mountains of Taiwan. I wandered around with my delicate tea ware in my backpack knocking on wood with every step. Each breath felt new, crisp, and so clean my chest expanded to catch every bit of mountain air it could hold. My stomach did the same, trying to fit as many mountain vegetables as humanly possible. In between sips of freshly roasted soymilk and my tired breaths as a traveler, I found the time to slowly exhale: "wow."
On my third trip to Taiwan, I said "wow" once again. But this time, it was at squirrels fighting me for my soymilk. I don't blame them. The soymilk there is so good, I'd fight for it too. It's comforting to have food taste homey while traveling. Even more when the people open their homes and world to a distant traveler. As the edges of the mountains were blurred by mist, and the creek sang with the fish swimming upriver, I took another breath and the mountains stole it back again. —Nissan Haque, digital production assistant
All Over Wisconsin
In May, our photographer Matt and I took a food and farm tour of south-central and western Wisconsin. We foraged for morels in Madison with Chef Jonny Hunter and the Wisconsin Mycological Society and stopped in on the Muscoda Morel Festival. We visited artisan cheesemakers in Dodgeville and Clear Lake, cider-makers in Maiden Rock and distillers in New Richmond, and we met with a few of the folks behind Wisconsin's summer pizza farm trend. We consumed our weight in pork products, cheese curds, and frozen custard as we made our way up the staggeringly beautiful Great River Road and enjoyed a sunset cruise on Lake Pepin, one of the widest and calmest points along the Mississippi. —Kat Craddock, test kitchen assistant
Providence, Rhode Island
I went to Providence, Rhode Island for my college reunion, and had planned to spend the weekend eating like an undergrad: breakfast burritos, late night calzones, and only-kind-of-cold Narragansett. But I couldn't resist an impulse trip to check out Oberlin, which opened downtown a year ago, long after I graduated. Providence has always punched above its weight as a restaurant town, thanks to Italian and Portuguese influences and abundant local seafood. Oberlin has updated all of that for one of the most compelling meals out I've had in any city recently: heaping portions of raw fish and smoked mussels, whole wheat penne made in-house from local grains, and an orange wine from Philippe Tessier in the Loire that was just the right amount of weird. —Chris Cohen, senior editor
Right off of Davis Square is Redbones, a down-home-style Southern barbecue restaurant with a history. After walking through Boston Commons and taking a trip to Quincy Market, I followed a few Boston natives on over to Somerville for what they called "the best barbecue in Boston." And they weren't wrong. After plates of delicious fried okra, fried pickles, and corn fritters, we devoured a rack of their fall-off-the-bone Baby Back Ribs with potato salad and slaw. After one slice of the pecan pie we ordered for dessert, Redbones took the top spot on my list of favorite restaurants in Boston. Disclaimer: Come with an appetite—I had to be rolled all the way to Fenway Park. Who knew Boston had such good barbecue?
Complete with a downstairs bar that serves a mighty 29 different types of fresh beers on tap, Redbones is a must-go for those who want to add a little local flair to a Boston trip. Black and white photographs of blues and jazz musicians that used to frequent the famous BBQ joint cover the walls, and the slow blues of Muddy Waters and BB King somehow makes the ribs taste a whole lot better. Wicked good "bah-b-que." —Ian Burke, digital intern
The English Countryside
I've always had fantasies of driving the English countryside: winding flower-lined roads, stops at old inns that had been there for ages, the thrill of driving on the wrong side of the road. The way I envisioned it, it'd be more about the journey than the destination, since of course sheep and cows would wander onto the road from nearby farms, blocking us from getting anywhere fast anyway. A trip to England in early May made my dreams come true.
It was the perfect time of year to go—right when the rains and mists had begun to dry up (however temporarily) and the wild bluebells had recently bloomed. My husband and I lost our cool more than once, our exclamations over the sheer beauty giving us away as nothing more than ogling tourists. We stayed at The Pig at Combe, where we ate lunch from the wood-fired oven between long walks through the neighboring villages, greeted by, yes, cows and sheep everywhere we went, but also pleasant country dwellers who made us remember that seeing the untouched places—where green is a religion and there's still one schoolhouse and neighbors who know each other's names—can be the best way to travel. —Stacy Adimando, test kitchen director
All Over Wisconsin—Again
I got to spend the middle of May road tripping around western Wisconsin with test kitchen assistant Kat Craddock (which, side note, is real fun if you ever get the opportunity) And I have to say the state is magical. We met so many kind warm happy people who took us in and showed us a great time, the land was lush and vibrant green and there seemed to be rivers everywhere. Every meal was tasty. And antiques are CHEAP as hell.
But my favorite place was Lake Pepin. Lake Pepin is the Mississippi river, just farther north of where the river turns into an industrial channel. The river banks are large bluffs covered in trees and bald eagles dive into the waters for fish. The whole experience was so lovely and beautiful I looked at buildings for sale and wondered what business the town needed and how I could make it work. —Matt Taylor-Gross, staff photographer
Recently, while in Copenhagen for an upcoming story in our August/September issue, I watched, day after day, as cool kids lined up for brunch at Møller. One morning, I finally walked in and ordered a bowl of parsley smashed potatoes and something called øllebrød. This is how sacred the nation's precious and nutritious rye bread is: the leftover crumbs are preserved and combined with beer to make a tangy, chocolatey porridge.
Usually it is topped with fruits like orange but Møller's was finished off with sea buckthorn berries. It was delicious so I Instagrammed it, eager to spread the word about my new Scandinavian revelation. Hours later, a local asked me what traditional foods I had consumed during my journey. "Open-faced sandwiches, local perch, Øllebrød," I bragged. Øllebrød?! He laughed. That's what your mom gives you when you're a kid and she doesn't know what else to make. One man's trash porridge... —Andrew Richdale, deputy editor
I spent a few days exploring the Franciacorta region of Italy. Visiting wineries and restaurants, talking to chefs and producers, and eating and drinking more than anyone needs (it was basically heaven). My favorite part, though, was poking around the garden at the Corte Bianca vineyard and finding all the produce they were growing. I plucked peas and cherries and some lettuce leaves (to my gracious hosts: I'm sorry!). Then one of the owners told me they had white mulberry trees, and let me pick them to my heart's content. I've only ever had dried white mulberries, and eating them fresh from the tree was pure joy. I collected a few to take with me, they lasted about 5 minutes. —Kristy Mucci, test kitchen associate
Visiting Boston, Massachusetts for the Boston Calling Music Festival, I decided to make a stop at Little Donkey, the new(ish) globe-trotting Cambridge charmer helmed by James Beard-awarded chef Jamie Bissonnette. With a menu diverse in formats and influences, it's the perfect restaurant to please all of your friends who "can, like, never decide where to eat."
A friend visiting from France, on a mission to try the "best American burgers" was delighted by the house version, with dry-aged beef, Buffalo pickles, onion-soup mayo and, yes, foie gras. Meanwhile, another in the mood for Asian food tried the wok-fried chow fun, a riff on black bean-rice noodle classic with asparagus, ramps, and Calabrian chili. For my part: the Jamaican jerk chicken wings, whispered with habanero and charred pineapple, really hit the spot.
But perhaps the highlights of the meal were the 'gram-worthy and excellent cocktails—get the mezcal number served in a hollowed-out grapefruit—and a safe-to-eat, pasteurized-egg–based cookie dough dessert, flecked with cocoa nibs and served still on the beater. — Dan Q. Dao, deputy digital editor
Traditional Finnish saunas are the perfect remedy for a Sunday morning comin’ down
If there's any science more controversial than climate change right now, it's the science of hangover cures. From raw eggs and coconut water to IV drip therapy (yup) and, of course, more booze, the lines between science and myth seem to get blurred on groggy, post-party mornings. Shouldn’t there be some pill or elixir to get rid of the icepick lodged between your eyes? Well, luckily for the afflicted, the nation of Finland seems to have had the ultimate hangover-cure all along—the sauna.
As recently reported by Munchies, hungover mornings spent sweating out spirits in a traditional sauna are just as ingrained in the Finnish culture as the long nights of drinking that precede them. Sauna is actually a Finnish word, but the sweatboxes in Finland are a little bit different than the wood-paneled steam rooms you might have popped into at the local YMCA—more than 25 degrees different, to be exact.
The Scandinavian saunas have been around for thousands of years. An early alternative to bathing, saunas were used for both hygienic and social purposes. And before the widespread availability of modern medicine, saunas were used as pseudo-sterile birthing rooms. (So don’t challenge any older Finns to a sauna-off—they could have been born in one.)
According to This is Finland, the correct way to enjoy the steam is “to take off all your clothes and… sit, naked, with others for a while and sweat. Then you will go outside and jump (still naked) through a small hole in the ice on a lake, the sea or whatever and refresh yourselves in the freezing water—or roll in the snow instead.” This hot and cold back-and-forth might seem crazy, but not to Finns. A few rounds of plunging into near-freezing waters than retreating into near-boiling air is believed to be the perfect remedy to a night of heavy boozing.
“Actually, the first time i went to a sauna as an adult I was hungover,” said SAVEUR writer Pauliina Siniauer, who moved to New York from Helsinki this year. “Friday and Saturday nights are the most common [sauna times]. Saturday night is the classic sauna time where your whole family goes. Every family does it.”
Siniauer also raves about another hangover-killing Finnish tradition: the sauna beer. “The sauna makes beer taste beautiful. People even have non-alcoholic beers sometimes, just to enjoy the sauna a bit more.”
But while saunas can save you from a killer hangover, one small detail explains how in Finland, they end up becoming the cause of your stomach pain and pounding headache all over again. It’s common practice to drink shots of vodka or Salmari, a nickname for a Finnish liqueur that tastes like salty licorice, during your sauna experience.
Viideltä saunaan ja kuudelta putkaan / Se on sellainen työmiehen lauantai, are lyrics from a classic Finnish folk song titled “Työmiehen Lauantai”, or “Workingman’s Saturday,” which Siniauer translates to mean: “At five you’re in the sauna, at six you’re in the drunk tank—and thats the working man’s Saturday.”
Trekking to the source of Kirishima kurozu, the essential acid behind Japanese and Chinese cooking
In Kagoshima Bay, the very one where Godzilla fought SpaceGodzilla in the mid ’90s, there sits an active volcano named Mount Sakurajima. Just north of this smoldering giant, a small town called Kirishima City is home to hundreds of thousands of tsubo, knee-high black ceramic jars that circumference of an embrace.
Situated in endless rows, they bask in the sun, slowly fermenting three simple ingredients: steamed rice, water and koji (the Aspergillus oryzae fungus which grows on rice and is used in sake making). Over time, the concoction goes through a non-interventionist transformation, barely stirred with bamboo sticks every so often by workers in clinical-looking powder blue uniforms.
Over the course of a few years, the liquid goes from a blonde to a burnt caramel color, ultimately resembling an aged whisky. It’s only then that it can be called kurozu, which literally translates to “black vinegar.” Busloads of Chinese tourists are called to the region by its parables of restorative health tonic.
Babylonians may have been the first to use vinegar for pickling and preserving purposes some 5,000 years ago, but contemporaneously during the Zhou Dynasty in China, vinegar found its way to the table as a condiment. The mahogany-hued liquid known as Chinkiang vinegar is named for the city of Zhenjiang on the Yangtze River near Shanghai. Universally referred to as “black vinegar,” at first glance it looks like soy sauce, and in the Chinese pantry is just as essential; valued like a brilliant balsamico, yet used for everyday dishes like hot and sour stir-fries.
To witness the profound and multifaceted personality of this distinct acid and its Japanese progeny, I took a seven-hour Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kagoshima, the southwesternmost city of Japan’s main islands, to visit the crocks face to face.
Kurozu tastes less acidic than traditional rice vinegars, with a more concentrated, almost earthy flavor and inky black color. It’s also undeniably different from the black vinegars I’ve sampled from Chinese markets in America, which seem a bit watered down, not full-bodied enough to stand on their own, hence their side bowl status for dumpling dunking. It’s great for big meaty braises and sticky rib glazes, as it has an inherent stewed or cooked quality.
Like its Italian balsamic brethren, kurozu comes in a range of ages. I’ve tasted some as old as seven years, which were slightly oxidized and almost tannic, still residually sweet with a soft acidic bite. The older ones have a complexity that I’d reserve for finishing dishes; younger versions are more suited for cooking.
The tasting rooms and gift shops at Kirishima City’s Sakamoto Kurozu (the two-century-old grandfather of the region’s black vinegar), and newcomer Kakuida, (recognized by its golden tsubo logo and photo-ready anime mascot at the entrance) are filled with everything black vinegar: jams, sports drinks, sucking candies. Most black vinegar makers also have onsite restaurants that are known for their sweet and sour recipes, which are more traditionally Chinese than Japanese, ranging from tangy noodle dishes to tart soups, almost always utilizing the local kurobuta black pig in some way.
My last morning there, I had kurozu miruku, a simple a glass of cold milk mixed with a shot of black vinegar that makes a refreshing sort of yogurt breakfast shake, along with a doughnut made to look like the volcano across the way. I ate them staring out my hotel window, waiting for a fictional sea monster to rise from the water.
Check out Michael Harlan Turkell'sAcid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegarin August.
Diving for dinner in the Aegean Sea in search of the three-hearted beast
First, look for their silvery eyes. And the murky holes where they nest, the way their legs sprawl out across the swaying seaweed as they swish from place to place. Danai Kyriaki, Greek zoologist, schoolteacher, and diver, is describing how to hunt an octopus as she prepares to go in after her purple prey. She paddles through the blue-green Aegean, ducking her head below. At first, nothing is visible except a few fish too small to eat and shelled mollusks stuck to rocks.
Kyriaki, 26, lives in Thessaloniki, Greece's second-biggest city, but she returns often to Chalkidiki, a series of peninsulas in the north, to reconnect with the sea. She started spearhunting at 12 when her father, an experienced hunter, handed her the gun for the first time.
Away from shore, pebbles and urchin-coated crevices give way to smooth sand and seaweed forests. Kyriaki makes a slow left turn until she's parallel with the beach, and points out what's living in divots and holes in the sand—a long, brightly striped fish and several graceful purple octopuses that she'll take aim at every so often. She doesn't shoot at anything unless she knows she'll hit it.
Before he instructed her in the art of aquatic hunting, Kyriaki's father allowed her to paddle through the water behind him as he pointed out what was edible (octopuses) and what was not (moray eels). Although octopus is common at the Greek table, Kyriaki doesn't know many hunters outside a few male friends who live in other parts of Greece. She's a rarity in Chalkidiki and most of Greece, as not many people—especially young people—still take to the water in pursuit of octopus. It's particularly labor-intensive work for potentially little gain, and there are easier ways to catch your octopus, like on a fishing line or in a trap.
Even after Kyriaki got her gun, the octopus eluded her—she wasn't an "instinct hunter," as she puts it, and her father continued to be a lookout, swimming alongside, pointing them out, and shooting them for her. Three years passed until she found and made her first kill. Watching her swoop smoothly down upon a hidden octopus, you'd never know she once struggled to find her prey at the bottom of the sea. When Kyriaki brings her catch to shore, her mother prepares it. Sometimes it's grilled, or boiled in water with vinegar and olive oil. Dinner is often served at a table outside overlooking the crystal blue of the Mediterranean.
Kyriaki has been looking at this same stretch of sea and the terrain below for 20 years, and now knows where octopuses are likely to gather—in a hollow brick nestled on the sea floor, for instance. After she floats down and lines up the shot, there's a soft pop that reverberates through the water. She returns to the surface in a cloud of tiny bubbles, octopus affixed to the end of her three-tined spear gun. Soon, Kyriaki is sinking again, this time toward a narrow tire around whose rim purple tentacles are gently spread. The octopus barely has time to move.
Octopuses don't always die when you shoot them, so even if you manage to get one at the end of your trident, the fight is far from over.
Kyriaki pulls the animal from the water, its body stretching to her elbow, and immediately its long tentacles wrap around her wrist and down her arm, shimmering purple and green in the sun. It spews ink, spurting a bloody brown onto her snorkel mask. Once the fight is over, she cuts the head at the crease where its tentacles are attached, flips it inside out, and tosses out a gray mass of guts. When they finally loosen, the tentacles fall away from her wrist to reveal a tendril of suction cup-shaped bruises. She drops her prize into a mesh bag slung around her waist.
This is a particularly good hunting day, Kyriaki says. There are three octopuses in her bag, which is more than she shot in her first seven years of hunting combined. She didn't hit her stride until the summer she turned 21, when her father passed away. That summer, she hunted them more easily and brought her tally up to seven.
To Eat or Not to Eat? We Ask the Experts About the Ethics of Octopus
Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher of science and author of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
After spending so much time observing octopuses and cuttlefish, was your appetite for the creatures deterred?
I don't eat octopuses anymore. I stopped at some stage during the writing of Other Minds. I regard this as a somewhat sentimental decision, though. I am not a vegetarian, and in general I try to avoid eating the products of cruel factory farming. Compared to other kinds of meat, octopuses are not a particularly bad animal to include in your diet, as octopuses are wild-caught, short-lived, and not endangered. They are sensitive animals and I think they often suffer when they die. I am attached to them now in a way that prevents me from eating them.
Dave Pasternack, chef at New York City's Esca, lifelong fisherman, and acclaimed "fish whisperer"
As someone who cooks octopus regularly, are you ever deterred by claims of their intelligence?
I've caught octopus many times, they're spectacular creatures, beautiful to see in the water. I've been cooking it for 30 years and had it on the menu since we opened in 2000. Sometimes you look at octopuses as animals and sometimes you look at them as food.