A meal at IGNI
Articles on this Page
- 07/28/17--13:30: _Where SAVEUR's Edit...
- 07/31/17--09:00: _The Sacred Journey ...
- 08/01/17--07:30: _Meet the People Beh...
- 08/01/17--15:30: _No Plates or Silver...
- 08/02/17--09:00: _A Meal To Remember:...
- 08/03/17--12:30: _In Kerala, Coconut ...
- 08/08/17--08:30: _Why Does Vietnam Ha...
- 08/08/17--09:00: _This 'Little Ass' i...
- 08/10/17--06:00: _The World's Best Sc...
- 08/11/17--09:00: _Meet the 2017 SAVEU...
- 08/16/17--12:00: _An Introduction to ...
- 08/17/17--12:00: _Is This the World’s...
- 08/18/17--13:00: _How to Make the Ult...
- 07/28/17--13:30: Where SAVEUR's Editors Traveled in July 2017
- 08/01/17--07:30: Meet the People Behind René Redzepi's Noma Pop-Up in Tulum
- 08/01/17--15:30: No Plates or Silverware Allowed at This Massive Indonesian Feast
- 08/02/17--09:00: A Meal To Remember: FaceTime Lunch From Halfway Around the World
- 08/03/17--12:30: In Kerala, Coconut Sap Gets a Boozy Kick
- 08/08/17--08:30: Why Does Vietnam Have a Mid-Day Siesta? I Blame the Bun Cha
- 08/08/17--09:00: This 'Little Ass' is the Unsung Queen of Italian Cured Meats
- 08/10/17--06:00: The World's Best School Lunch Costs $1
- 08/11/17--09:00: Meet the 2017 SAVEUR Blog Awards Finalists: 6 Essential Travel Blogs
- 08/16/17--12:00: An Introduction to Australia's Indigenous Ingredients
- 08/17/17--12:00: Is This the World’s Best Chicken and Rice?
- 08/18/17--13:00: How to Make the Ultimate Shaved Ice
From noodles in Hanoi to a vegan reuben sandwich in Chicago, here's how we ate the world this summer
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 ate our way through the suburbs of Melbourne, down the alleys of Hanoi, and across the beaches of New York. See all our field notes below.
On a recent trip Down Under, I made the hour-long trek out of Melbourne to the suburb of Geelong, where IGNI, one of the most lauded new openings of the last year in Australia, sits in a nondescript suburban strip mall space that was a showroom for electronics in its former life.
Chef Aaron Turner and his team have a short conversation with each customer about their preferences before arranging a tailor-made menu of fermented, cured, fired, smoked, and nitrogen-assisted dishes. My 13-course lunch started off with a bang and these starters: salt and vinegar fried saltbush, grilled zucchini flowers, grissini wrapped in charcuterie, an oyster emulsion sandwiched by lettuce, and a chicken skin cup with roe. — Andrew Richdale, deputy editor
"Meat-free since 1983" is the slogan at The Chicago Diner. That was a radical move for a diner back in those days in a neighborhood of Chicago, a move that not many believed in. But they were proved wrong. The Chicago Diner charms with the classic interior, friendly staff and shamelessly rich, but fresh vegan and vegetarian dishes, which make you wish you could dine for two. Despite the accolades and Michelin Guide recommendations, the restaurant has succeeded in keeping things cosy. The standout sandwich, The Radical Reuben, was a juicy and hefty combination of sauerkraut, corned beef seitan, grilled onions, vegan thousand island and melty cheese—all on a marbled rye. — Pauliina Siniauer, editorial intern
A day in Hanoi requires at least one afternoon in the Old Quarter, a bustling tourist-friendly destination steeped in history. Hundreds of years of Vietnamese culture mingling with Chinese and French colonialism can still be seen in the architecture, where crumbling structures set the stage for street markets and boutique hotels. Yet, despite groups of backpackers and sightseers, the Old Quarter has preserved it's unique old world charm, with back alleys and hidden stairways offering rewards—say, maybe, the city's best pho?—for whoever may venture through them. — Dan Q. Dao, deputy digital editor
Queens, New York
It was the third of July, a Monday with a holiday feel, and having returned to New York after two days in the Poconos, we decided to go to Far Rockaway, a mere two trains plus a bus ride away from the stiflingly hot Upper East Side. My husband had seen a listing for free music at Riis Park Beach Bazaar at 8 p.m. The band, Nikhil P. Yerawadekar & Low Mentality, sounded fresh on YouTube: bluesy, funky Afrobeat dance rock with international flavors.
The boardwalk bazaar’s selection of food vendors ranges from all-American BBQ to Detroit-style coney dogs to Middle Eastern to Bolivian. The late-afternoon sun and sand put us in the mood for seafood, so we hit the Rockaway Clam Bar for a tender fried clam basket with Rock-a-Bay tater tots, a lobster roll, and crispy Brussels sprouts tossed with Old Bay–spiked caramel. Everything was delicious, but there was one problem: no musicians to be seen. The teen clearing picnic tables told us the music had started at noon; the website had the time wrong. Alas, we’d missed it. But at least we still had Low Mentality’s clever YouTube videos, and those clams, to console us. — Donna L. Ng, copy chief
Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania
I have never thought of fruit picking as "fun." As someone who grew up with lots of fruit trees, I cringe when I hear my friends ask if I want to go pay money to drive to someone else's field and pull some kind of fruit off a tree. When I was a kid, apple picking or strawberry picking or pretty much anything picking was a punishment right up there with picking up rocks in the garden. But when I went to my parents' house over the 4th of July, I went straight for the blueberry bushes. I missed the taste of good blueberries, huge and sweet and a little warm from the summer sun, so I pulled them off by the fistful, filling buckets and bags and bowls with my favorite summer berry. I still don't love berry picking, but it may be the best thing I did that weekend. — Katie Whittaker, assistant digital editor
Staten Island, New York
Staten Island gets a bad rap. It has been referred to as "the armpit of the universe" (a bit harsh, in my opinion), it's the only New York borough not accessible by subway (though there is a free ferry and an intra-island railway), and a first glance at the island in Google Maps reveals such geographic gems as "Fresh Kills Park" (formerly a giant landfill) and a neighborhood named "New Dorp."
So when my boyfriend informed me he'd booked a night in a tiny house on a beach in Staten Island, I had my share of concerns. But we took a cab from our apartment in Brooklyn across the Verrazano-Narrows bridge and had our driver drop us off in the Gateway National Recreation Area at the base of the bridge. We settled in at our little cabin before spending the afternoon hanging on the beach and exploring the defunct Fort Wadsworth before we returned to fix up dinner. On the portable two-burner stove we sauteéd some tinned clams in their juices with garlic and pancetta before tossing it with linguine and smothering it all with fresh parsley and Parmigiano. We walked our plates and some cups of wine the 20 steps to the beach and ate while the sun set over the ocean and the lights came up on the bridge. In the morning, we took a 20-minute cab back home to Brooklyn and our weird 24-hour adventure was over. Had any of it really happened or was it all just a dream? I might have to make a return trip just to be sure. — Alex Testere, associate editor
I spent a weekend in July in the Bay Area and like a good New Yorker I spent the entire trip obsessing over the question of whether I would ever live out there. The answer ended up being no, for all the usual reasons—dysfunctional public transit, 50-degree evenings in the middle of summer, billboards advertising stuff like "full-stack cloud optimization." But the closest I came to reserving a U-Haul was after a night at Ordinaire, a wine bar in Oakland. Its selection leans natural, with bottles ranging from Beaujolais OGs like Jean Foillard to up and comers like Brendan Tracey, a guy from Jersey who's now making wine in the Loire.
I'm a wine geek, as you may have surmised by now, but sky-high markups mean I usually dislike drinking wine out—something about seeing a wine listed for triple what I would pay in a store rubs me the wrong way. Ordinare does things much more civilly: they're also a retail operation, and for $10 corkage they'll open anything in the shop for on-premises consumption. I met up with a big group of friends and we worked our way through four bottles of funky, boozy goodness. It was pretty great. But still not enough to make me want to carry a fleece around all summer. — Chris Cohen, senior editor
Once a year, millions of women leave their homes around Kerala to give a sweet offering of rice for their goddess, Attukal Amma
4 P.M. East Fort Neighborhood, Thiruvananthapuram
A railway platform, filling. Men at a fluorescent- lit window, yelling for coffee. A chai wallah dashing toward an idle train, his silver pail a tin moon floating across the tracks. Sleeping bodies lined up, linens swaddling heads, tiffins stacked next to shoes. A woman’s voice, lilting and constant, announcing arrivals and departures in Malayalam, Hindi, and English.
The air is dense, a tropical film slicked across faces and windshields. The banyan trees are heavy with chatty birds.
Down the platform, the women gather. First in twos, then fours, and soon by the dozens. The bags piled by their feet are stuffed with weathered coconut tree bark, banana leaves, rice, and lumps of jaggery, every ingredient neatly wrapped in sheets of Hindi newspaper.
More women. More bags. More coconut bark. A sea of saris, purple, blue, green, and yellow bunching and overlapping against the darkness of early morning.
From down the tracks, a wailing horn, announcing the arrival of the 5:20 train to Trivandrum. The women shuffle toward the platform’s edge, hovering so closely that the train brushes their garments as it slides into the station. Now a crush through the narrow door, a puzzle of bodies slipping past one another and into seats. Faces gaze out of second-class car windows, still and patient, some nodding with sleep. A straggler hurries across the cement, hitching up the hem of her skirt, and hops aboard. As the train lurches forward, another woman stretches an arm out a car door to receive a handful of coins from a man who skips alongside.
The train pulls out into the twilight, carrying the women closer to their goddess.
One day each summer, millions of women from all over Kerala pile into trains, cars, and buses and make their way to Thiruvananthapuram (or Trivandrum, as it was previously named by the British and is still commonly known) near the southern tip of India. They travel for Attukal Pongala, a 10-day festival devoted to the goddess Attukal Amma. On the penultimate day, these women—at the very same moment—place millions of clay pots over millions of makeshift hearths, light millions of fires, and cook pongala, a sweet coconut rice porridge. This dish is a prasadam—an offering of food to the gods, consumed by the devout after worship—and it’s one of the most ancient alms in Hinduism. Pongala, here, is sacred, and made only once a year.
It’s said that Hinduism is a religion of 330 million gods, many of whom are worshipped regionally or called upon for specific needs. Bhadrakali (as Amma is also known) is a ferocious incarnation of Devi, a supreme goddess with many names and forms. Amma’s followers, particular to Kerala, are so devout that they annually travel to offer their prayers and pongala in a massive ceremony that requires a wealth of resources, a city of organizers, and an implicit agreement among millions to maintain order. Though men follow her too, Amma’s pilgrims are almost exclusively women, their daily duties and routines blissfully abandoned, ritually shed.
The result is a crowd with a population as large as Los Angeles, unspooled across the city, patiently awaiting the auspicious moment when each member will take up her matches, light a fire, and cook.
Kerala is called the Land of Parasurama—its existence mythically attributed to an avatar of Vishnu who cast his ax into the sea, from which fertile land rose. Since global sea travel has existed, Kerala has been an agriculturally vibrant port between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, situated just along the spice route. For centuries, Babylonians, Egyptians, Romans, and Chinese all came through Kerala, followed in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English. Over time, this little strip of Malabar Coast has absorbed far-reaching influences, keeping what it desired and discarding what it didn’t.
Thus, Kerala has always been different. The language is different (Malayalam); the government is different (socialist, though Congress, a nationalist party, is currently in power); the food is different (spicier, lots of coconut). For centuries, the region’s social structure was different: Until the early 20th century, many families—including the ruling class—practiced matrilineage, meaning heritage and bloodlines were passed through women. Until the British arrived, taboos of polyandry, divorce, and widowhood, effectively, did not exist. Today, women retain a level of visibility (though not equality) uncommon in most of India. Attukal Pongala is an annual manifestation of the unusual power they wield.
9 A.M. National Highway 66, Heading South Toward Thiruvananthapuram
A tea shack on the side of a two-lane highway. Dusty plastic tables. Black, black crows pecking crumbs. A blue tarp stretched across corrugated metal. An old man with ravaged toes selling lottery tickets. Another, reading the paper, smoking, glancing up at the dense passing traffic. Morning prayers drift from speakers, verses curve-pitched to the gods, trilling through the golden countryside.
Behind a row of steel pots, a man mixes chai, spindly arms moving in arcs, pouring long streams from pitcher to pitcher. He dumps the steaming tea into a row of glasses and hands them across, 10 rupees apiece. On the highway, cars weave around trundling tuk-tuks; a dozen horns mix with the prayers and the birds and the lottery-ticket-hawking men. Every bit of land that isn’t colonized with a temple, a chai lean-to, or a fruit stand is lined with low brick walls hand-painted with advertisements and the Communist Party scythe and hammer. (Kerala was the first place in the world to freely embrace communism, in 1957.) Thousands of bananas—green and red and bruised mustard—hang like surrealist wind chimes from the eaves of every open-air shop.
A line of boxy vans and white Ambassadors—Indian cars that resemble 1950s-era American sedans—parades by the chai stand. They’re filled with women. Coconut bark and crumpled newspapers are crushed against the hatch glass.
A man reclining beneath the café’s sagging roof raises a finger to point. “Pongala,” he says.
Farther up the highway, in front of a roadside shop, a flatbed truck is piled high with hundreds of unglazed clay pots resembling earthen fruits nestled in straw. A mound of hundreds more is spread across the road’s dusty shoulder. A man in a purple shirt, head wrapped in white linen, hooks the pots up with his fingers, six at a time. His lined face perspires in the raw morning sun.
These pots, ready for market, are omnipresent and necessary at Attukal Pongala. Each woman will purchase a new one and give the bottom a flick, listening for a clear, solid chime that indicates sound structure and good rice to come. Made in Tamil Nadu, a state to the east where much of South India’s agricultural production is based, the pots are a mainstay in every kitchen—a new one added to the stack every year. Some women will carry them along with their rice and jaggery to the festival; others will purchase one upon arrival in Trivandrum.
At a bus station farther south, braceleted arms, slender fingers, and gauzy scarves wave from each window of every bus—a fleet of many-armed creatures. More women pile into the pastel blue vehicles whose grilles are hung with chrysanthemums, flowers beloved by Vishnu, the protector god.
A woman hops off her son’s scooter in the station lot carrying a shopping bag. She opens it to reveal small newspaper packages filled with rice and coconut bark, then slings it over her shoulder and boards a waiting bus.
4 P.M. East Fort Neighborhood, Thiruvananthapuram
The hardship these women endure is not a little,” says M.S. Hema, looking out over her porch on the eve of the Pongala ceremony. “But they do it happily because they know it’s for the goddess.” A former English literature professor at the Maharaja’s Government College for Women, Hema—like most citizens here—sometimes hosts upwards of 30 pilgrims.
In 1997, 1.5 million women came. In 2009, 2.5 million came, and a Guinness record was awarded for the world’s largest gathering of women. This year, the Attukal Bhagavathy Trust anticipates 4 million. According to Dianne Jenett, a teacher and researcher in Palo Alto, California, who came to study the phenomenon in 1995 and has been back almost every year since as a participant, Attukal Pongala is a tradition that spontaneously arose during an era when lower-caste citizens were not permitted to worship in or near temples. In rural areas, these “untouchable” or “unseeable” women, as they were called in Kerala, would perform ritual prayer—often culminating with pongala—in kavus, sacred places dedicated to local protector goddesses. Eventually, lower castes began to offer pongala for the higher castes, but today Keralan women of all social and economic backgrounds make the same offering to Amma in the same dusty streets, side by side.
The sun is setting over a neighborhood temple lake, and a dozen or so women gather beneath Hema’s portico, quietly setting up individual hearths, which consist of three red bricks, ends pointed toward one another like campfire logs, ready to cradle a pot. Hema’s guests travel from Mavelikara, a municipality 75 miles north. Christian churches and mosques also welcome the devotees, often providing water, bathrooms, and free lodging.
Some women arrive days before the ceremony to claim highly coveted spaces near or at the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple, but most arrive 24 hours or so before, colonizing whatever public space is available—in streets, over rail-station platforms, in parking lots. They cover the entirety of Trivandrum, dressed in crisp new outfits, calmly organizing their temporary altars. And then they wait. Finally, at 10:30 a.m. on the festival’s ninth morning, a voice from the temple—broadcast over speakers spread across the city—will signal the auspicious moment. And all at once, millions of women will light their hearths and cook pongala for Amma.
They’ll have carried with them a single bag filled to the top with all they need to make the offering. Dried coconut bark, red rice (rice whose husk is only partially removed, giving it a reddish hue), jaggery (unrefined coconut palm sugar, deeply sweet and the color of rich, wet dirt), grated coconut, banana leaves, and spices—cardamom, ginger, cinnamon.
And despite the camplike atmosphere, unrelenting heat, tired eyes, hungry bodies (fasting is common in the week leading up to Pongala), and massive clouds of smoke that will eventually billow from millions of small fires, the devout arrive year after year.
At Hema’s house, one woman, herding a bright-eyed little girl, says she’s been coming for 15 years. Renu Henry, a Christian from the Western Ghats, has attended for at least 18 years, evidence of Pongala as a phenomenon more complex than a religious ceremony. It’s a celebration of “secular and human values,” as Lekshmy Rajeev says in her book Āttukāl Amma. (Attendance is forbidden only to those women who are menstruating or who have had a close family member die in the past year.) In many southern districts of Kerala, the occasion has been declared a national holiday. Train fares are suspended for pilgrims. Men recede into the background, either remaining at home with the boys or quietly cooking for and chauffeuring their wives, mothers, and sisters. It’s understood that everyone aids participants with whatever they might need—water, transportation, shelter—and that in providing it, they’ll also be providing for the goddess.
5 P.M. Chalai Neighborhood, Thiruvananthapuram
A city overtaken. Stacks of orange bricks, a sea of clay pots, carts doing swift business selling red rice, jaggery, camphor tablets for fuel, banana leaves, and cardamom. A remix of “Beat It” glides above a snarl of tuk-tuks. Everywhere, everywhere the eye rests, women are summoning order to the streets. Hearths emerge along a pattern of sidewalks, courtyards, medians—a ghost camp unfurling.
Each trio of bricks has become its own small universe. Some are unattended, chalked with a name; others are orbited by burbling children tiptoeing over sleeping bodies, placid and dreaming amid the din of traffic. On one street corner, a blue-skinned Vishnu reclines. On another, a ferocious, iridescent Bhadrakali fans her arms. Technicolor spices and fruits are laid out at their feet, and speakers boom above with bhajan, devotional Hindu songs.
Along a commercial lane, a thin man in an orange mundu stirs a brass pot the size of a kiddie pool, his sinewy brown muscles straining with the effort. Inside, a small mountain of semolina rice—upma—steams, punctuated with carrots and green chiles. The thin man stops, smiles, and hands a palmful over on a banana leaf. In a plaza near the train station, more men sit cross-legged on straw mats peeling and seeding peppers, shelling beans, stirring pots. Their energy is distinct, slightly raucous against the throngs of solemn women.
All night, these men will cook, anticipating the moment when—pongala offered—women will break fast and line up for their first full meal in days, a provision given free of charge in temporary canteens all over the city. It’s a simple reversal of roles, a submission to the millions of women who feed them daily.
7:30 P.M. Attukal Bhagavathy Temple
A line of thousands of women snakes across a grassy plain and up a dusty road, a human thread winding toward the temple. Hundreds of dusty, forlorn shoes are piled near a turnstile packed with thousands more bodies. Humidity clings to warm skin made warmer by anticipation and nerves.
Nearly 2.5 million pilgrims have waited for hours in the climbing and descending sun to enter the temple. Some cool themselves with makeshift fans; others shoulder drowsy little girls. None, though, appear impatient or disquieted. They simply wait to be in the presence of Amma.
At the temple doors a frenetic tingle ripples forward. As the women advance to the entrance—perhaps a hundred at once—hearts leap into throats and eyes become alert. Ushered through a massive set of doors flanked by pastel-colored deities carved into columns, their bodies become knitted together in one big wave of soft flesh, warm breath, and low, urgent murmuring. Guards gently guide the tide. The crowd pushes through the doors, into the inner sanctum, suddenly releasing into a loose delta. A cloud of cool air licks a hundred faces. A wave of inertia pushes forward toward the shrine.
And there, finally, in the candlelit dark is the goddess. Her hair is golden, filled with serpents. Her four arms are raised and clutching a trident, sword, shield, and chalice. She is nearly veiled with a curtain of flowers.
There’s a sharp collective intake of breath. Her name passes from tongue to tongue. A jostle forward, and she is gone. The women amble out, dazed and ecstatic, smoothing hair and whispering to one another. Some purchase small paper bags of unniyappam, a prasadam of fried, sweet rice dough cakes, from temple vendors, and nibble dazedly.
The legend of the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple is told in various permutations, sometimes twisted up and conflated with other myths. The most common tale centers on a man bathing in the Killi River. One morning at dawn, during his regular puja (prayers), he sees a little girl alone on the bank. Concerned she’s been abandoned, he takes her home to feed her, but she disappears. When he tells his family and neighbors about this mysterious apparition, they refuse to believe him. In a dream, Bhagavathy (a name that can refer to any number of goddesses in Kerala) reveals to him that she and the little girl were one and the same. In thanks for his devotion, she grants him a sacred piece of land on which to build her a temple. It’s said that this is where the first shrine to Amma was erected.
From a simple wooden shelter, the temple has grown into an elaborate city-block-size complex of structures, one wrapped around another like a set of nesting dolls. It’s here, every year, that the ceremony starts: A flame is lit, and the entire city becomes a sanctified kitchen.
March 11, 10:30 A.M. Attukal Bhagavathy Temple
The sun moves over the temple. A drum beats steadily. The crowd chants in unison, hands to hearts, eyes closed. The air is thick with humidity, and breath comes slow and shallow. The chanting—a prostration mantra—grows more urgent, quickening. Stories of Bhadrakali’s vengeance are recited over loudspeakers across Trivandrum. The drums continue, steady and building. Firecrackers pop like a dozen Ambassadors backfiring.
Ululations rise in a single, pulsing thrum. Goose bumps spread over arms. One woman’s face is streaked with tears, her arms pushing against the sky. A small girl hides in the folds of her mother’s sari. Eyes turn upward toward a few puffy clouds. And then a shift.
Inside the temple, the flame has been lit.
The women stop chanting. They bend within their square foot of space and light crackling coconut bark. Men dodge between bricks to bring nearby devotees the flame. Matches spark, camphor melts, and the kindling catches. Smoke drifts in a silky sheet across the city. The women hover over their individual pots, watching for the water to boil. Once it does, a handful of rice is scattered carefully over top; care is taken not to let a grain touch the ground. Three more handfuls are added quickly in succession. Eyes watch pots, and when they boil, they boil over, a white, creamy foam creeping down clay walls, across dirt, cobblestones, crabgrass, and asphalt. Four million pots boiling at once. As soon as a woman’s vessel bubbles over—a gesture necessary to satisfy the goddess—she stands, trills an ululation to the sky, and crouches back down to keep watch.
It’s said that on this day Amma physically manifests and performs her own pongala in the streets among the others. She could be any one of these women praying, stirring, waving smoke from her face. And behind every pot, every gaze is met with a warm, placid smile. In this way, Amma is everywhere.
Up and down neighborhood streets, in the shade of porches, spilling over curbsides, women stir. Ash-scented haze has settled, and still the women stir. Somehow, a breeze snakes its way through the tangled maze of humans.
On one sun-dappled lane, a woman has set up 101 pots (an auspicious number) and dashes between them. “I wanted to thank the goddess for everything she’s given me this year,” she says. Beneath the awning of an optical shop, another worshipper has set up an additional hearth to cook unniyappam in dimpled trays bubbling over with ghee. The batter forms into small cakes almost as soon as it touches the spitting oil. Other women steam therali, soft green cinnamon-scented leaves filled with pats of gingery rice flour and jaggery, flecked with cinnamon and cardamom.
This moment, this hour of prayer, this blissful expression of devotion is awaited all year. “It’s a loss of identity,” says Hema, who completes her pongala under the portico of her home along with her dozen guests. “We come together, so many of us, and we lose ourselves together.”
2:30 P.M. East Fort Neighborhood, Thiruvananthapuram
The afternoon dips into a sleepy lull. The streets are still, speakers finally unplugged and quiet. Stray dogs doze in ditches and sun puddles. After crowding around the open-air canteens, women slump on one another’s shoulders, catching sleep after hours standing vigil. Four million clay pots, hot and burnished, have been covered with 4 million banana leaves. Crushed flower petals, pink and marigold and violet, flick along in the breeze. Ashes smolder. The city smells like an extinguished flame.
And then, a shift.
People appear from behind walls and peek out from front doors. The priest is coming to bless their pongala.
Like a troop of sentries, the women station themselves behind their hearths once more. Quickly, they straighten altars, shuck leaves from their pots. A procession of men parades by, led by a bare-chested priest in a shimmering gold mundu and scarlet flower garland. He sweeps along the street. As he passes, he dips a whip of butter-colored flowers, the size and shape of a pale jellyfish, into a bucket of rosewater and splashes it across the open pots. Pink musk and sandalwood incense swirl through the corridor.
When they disappear around the corner, the afternoon’s hushed membrane is whisked away. Voices rise above a murmur and men appear in doorways. Hema offers her guests a taste of pongala from her fingertips. In turn, one of the women feeds her from a wooden spoon. Another unwraps a therali leaf, breaks off a piece of the steamy cake inside, and pops it into her neighbor’s mouth. Each pongala has its own quality—some thick with creamy bananas and milky coconut, others electrified with nubs of ginger and wild cardamom.
But just as soon as palmfuls of the sweet, sacred rice are tasted, the warm clay pots are quickly wrapped with banana leaves and stowed deep in bags padded with newspaper. And like that, Attukal Pongala is over. The women sail out of courtyards and lanes, into the streets, bags atop heads. A peaceful army marching toward home.
By car and train and pastel blue buses, they trek back toward cities and villages, back to families they will feed from these millions of sanctified clay pots. The lighting of fire, the scattering of rice, the return of the devout—this will sustain Amma and her people for the next 364 days.
Special thanks to Dilip Vasudevan of Evergreen Holidays in Kerala, India.
The chef and his wandering band built a kitchen on a jungly plot of land by the beach and turned it into a seven-week-long experiment in finding deliciousness
"Pop-up” is a goofy term but there’s value in taking the restaurant show on the road. Earlier this spring—between closing the doors of its original Copenhagen location and renovating a new space—Noma moved the entire front-of-house and kitchen staff (and everyone’s spouses and kids) to Tulum. Noma Mexico was an exceptional, built-from-the-ground-up, open-air, wood-fired restaurant serving insanely interesting food to the very lucky few—and then it was gone.
René Redzepi Chef, Co-Owner
From: Copenhagen, Denmark. Age: 39. Has worked at Noma since 2004.
“Routine is comforting, but it’s dangerous too. Routine is how you become an old person on the inside. The success of Noma has been amazing, but success can limit you creatively. You keep exploring the familiar avenues that you know lead to success. Suddenly you have things to lose. You don’t want to fuck it up.
The original idea for taking these journeys was to travel as a kind of training camp for the new Noma. We thought, let’s shake up our lives, our work. We need travel to be inspired. I honestly think any business should, if you can, do this at a minimum of once a decade. Pack up your bags, move your kids, the entire office somewhere else and you will see how much it benefits you. Do the mind trick on yourself. Try it, and remind yourself you don’t know everything.
Most people can really use a change-up. Mads Kleppe, our sommelier, his roots are deep in the Scandinavian soil, so he’s been very stressed and nervous, but even he says, ‘I would never want to be without this.’
Of course, it’s easy to come to a new place and try something and end up looking like an idiot. You don’t want to do caricature. When we were testing out uniforms for the staff, somebody had brought some guayaberas. They looked okay on some of us, but the Danish boys in the kitchen looked like the tour guides in Cancún. Why put on traditional clothes when we’re not traditional?
We tested hundreds and hundreds of dishes, hundreds of variations of each thing. And we got to the point where our team had a very good eye for when something became stupid. I think we’ve figured out how to apply our way of thinking—in essence a Northern European way of thinking—to this different, tropical, spicy place in a way that truly, truly works. In a way that is not Mexican but respects Mexico.
What’s magic about these types of temporary displacements is: It’s this brief moment. It’s pure honeymoon. That’s travel. The world is an open map, and we should all be traveling. I think there’s something incredibly healthy about looking at other people. Can you imagine if Ducasse said, ‘Okay, let’s take my three-star restaurant in Monaco and go to Korea. We’ll study it for a year, read all the books we can, have local guides take us deep into the culture, to forage in the mountains and dive in the ocean.’ It would be extraordinary. You’d want to see what they came up with. They would have changed. You change for the better.
Uprooting yourself, your work, is a big shake-up. It’s analog, not digital. And each time, we come back home and it feels good, we’re happy. I don’t have that if I’m out for two weeks for vacation. In a way you fall in love again with your home. Even all the bullshit is okay with fresh eyes. For a little while at least.”
Katherine Bont Front-Of-House Team Leader
From: Sydney, Australia. Age: 34. Has worked at Noma for six years.
“The Mayan octopus, the sorbet made from native cacao from Jaguar, the dried powder of lima local, hearing the waves crash in the background whilst a wooden spoon dives into a cold broth of masa with frozen lime granité and flowers—each and every bite is etched in my memory in such a special way.”
Santiago Lastra Rodriguez Kitchen Manager
From: Mexico City, Mexico. Age: 27. Has worked at Noma for one year.
“The texture of the melon clam is incredible. I would never have expected such a clam. The culture is alive here. It is not like a museum. You go to the communities and find that they preserve their culture and traditions, things that have been there for thousands of years.”
María Deysi Tamay Yam Tortilla Chef
From: Yaxunah, Mexico. Age: 42.
“It’s incredible to sit down and watch how the chefs move in service. The most interesting thing I tasted here was the baked octopus dish. The sauce is familiar for us, but the taste is so surprising and just very, very tasty.”
Maxine Bird Chef de Partie
From: Hong Kong. Age: 25. Has worked at Noma for one year.
“The fruits here are like a new experience. To learn about the diversity of it, the difference in the types of corn, and what they do with it, has been fascinating. And I am surprised I still love tacos so much!”
Benjamin Paul Ing Head Chef
From: Ottawa, Canada. Age: 32. Has worked at Noma for three years.
“We built this restaurant in the jungle from scratch. Now I feel that nothing is impossible and we could do it anywhere in the world.”
Rosio Sanchez Creative Partner
From: Chicago, Illinois. Age: 32. Worked at Noma for five years before opening Hija de Sanchez, her taqueria, in 2015.
“There is never-ending knowledge in cooking. That and traveling are the ultimate inspiration. We tried fruits and vegetables from all over Mexico, comparing tomatoes from various regions side by side. We didn’t have to follow any rules as it pertained to Mexican culture; we respectfully allowed the ingredients to lead us. But of course there had to be tortillas!”
Simon Bursche Hansen Kitchen Manager
From: Lolland, Denmark. Age: 29. Has worked at Noma for four years.
“Some guests brought in honey ants from Hidalgo once, and we got to taste them. They were very special—almost the size of a black currant—and tasted so incredible.”
David Zilber Director of Fermentation
From: Toronto, Canada. Age: 31. Has worked at Noma for three years.
“The grilled epazote made me grin like a child on Christmas the first time I tasted it. Your mind often seeks to attach new flavors or experiences to things you already know, like a metaphor. It’s the moments when those metaphors break down that make the world new again.”
Eline Haugan Bordvik Chef de Partie
From: Røros, Norway. Age: 21. Has worked at Noma for one year.
“Since I grew up in Norway, we don’t have tacos as we do here in Mexico. We had bad Tex-Mex. I am fascinated that it seems to be the smallest, simplest places that have the most amazing tacos.”
Evelyn Yeung Chef de Partie
From: Long Island, New York. Age: 23. Has worked at Noma for two and a half years.
“The texture and the flavor of the guanabana fruit [soursop] is something that I’ve never tasted or experienced before in my life.”
Thomas Frebel Head of Research and Development
From: Magdeburg, Germany. Age: 33. Has worked at Noma for eight years.
“The most amazing bite I’ve eaten here in Mexico is the Jaguar chocolate in Tabasco. The quality of the chocolate and the balance of fruitiness, bitterness, and purity of flavor intrigued me. One of the most amazing things about Mexico is the diversity in the culture and ingredients: Every little town has its own mole; wherever you go you find new things you’ve never seen in any of the other places.”
Ali Sonko Head dishwasher, Partner
From: Jappineh, Gambia. Age: 63. Has worked at Noma for 14 years.
“The people we’ve met here are so nice to work with that it feels as if we are on a holiday, even though we work. We should be able to bring some of this back to Copenhagen. It is great for us to travel together. We never feel alone here. We are like a modern family. If you have a problem here, you know that your family—your friends and colleagues—will take care of you.”
At a liwetan, a long table is covered with banana leaves, rice, and as many as a dozen different dishes. Roll up your sleeves and dig in
A long table filled with food of all kinds is the very definition of a feast. In this Indonesian version, a tradition called liwetan, that spread excludes two elements: plates and silverware. A long table is lined with banana leaves, then covered with steamed rice and assorted Indonesian dishes, which you eat with your hands—but only your right hand, as per proper Indonesian table manners.
In this video, SAVEUR documents a liwetan organized by the Queens Dinner club, with the fare prepared by New York City restaurant Awang Kitchen. The tables were filled with food to be experienced through both taste and touch. Dishes up for grabs (literally) included crisp and pungent ikan teri petai (anchovies with sator beans), crisp-tender tahu goreng (fried tofu), tempe goreng (fried fermented soy bean), fried duck, and bandeng presto (deep-fried, pressure-cooked milkfish)—all perfect for dipping into spicy sambal.
The Queens Dinner Club, headed by Chef Jonathan Forgash and food writer Joe DiStefano, arranged this dinner in line with their goal to recreate and bring different global dining experiences to its local guests. If you want to try hosting your own, these dishes should get you started.
Photographer Ted Nghiem recounts connecting his Vietnamese family with their emigré relatives in America
The traffic was terrible leaving Ho Chi Minh City in the humid, rainy morning. The 35-mile drive out to the Nhơn Trạch countryside district took nearly three hours. My mom’s cousin, who I call Dì Muòi (dì means “aunt” in Vietnamese), sat next to me in the taxi. We were going to visit my mom’s eldest sister, Ma Hai, who was taking care of my great-aunt, both of whom I’d never met. Dì Muòi told me they still lived a short walk from the house where my mother was raised; just two rights and a left. My mother and father left Vietnam near the end of the war in 1975, but until then the whole family helped to provide for one another. Another uncle, who still lives around the corner, helped pay for my mother’s education.
When we got out of the taxi, Dì Muòi led the way through the mazelike streets to my great-aunt’s home. Despite my never having met this part of the family, the day had the feeling of a reunion. Ma Hai and my great-aunt greeted me, along with some of my mom’s oldest childhood friends. Lunch was offered immediately. An enormous spread was set out on a big stone table: a sweet-and-sour soup called canh chua, rice-paper-wrapped gỏi cuốn, fresh watermelon, fermented tofu, and heaps of rice noodles tossed with herbs and vegetables.
I handed my phone to another of my mom’s cousins, Dì Hę, so they could FaceTime with my mother as she got ready for work in New Jersey. They laughed and reminisced while I ate, and while they might have used up my phone’s roaming data plan, at least I didn’t have to do any dishes.
Inside the south Indian state's toddy shops, the local watering holes devoted to fermented palm sap and the Keralan love of all things coconut
While reporting on India's Attukal Pongala festival for our summer issue, photo editor Michelle Heimerman and I spent an extra few days exploring Kerala. A mix of coast and jungle, Kerala is a long strip of land along the southwest coast of India. It's known for its placement along the spice route where cardamom and black pepper are grown in abundance. Tropical, with a climate similar to South American jungle or Florida's Everglades, the region has historically been a cultivation center for coconuts and other heat-loving crops. ("Kera" means coconut tree.)
Here, coconut palms grow wild, soaring in grand arcs over canals, along highways, alongside airport runways. Every family has at least one in its yard, and every single part of the tree is used. The coconuts are halved and shaved on small stools outfitted with hooks against which the flesh is rubbed to produce finely zested meat. Leftover shells are turned into spoons and cooking utensils. The leaves are woven into baskets, mats, and roofing material. Dried bark becomes firewood and, in one case, we observed children in a small village who'd cleverly transformed them into cricket mallets.
One early evening, while cruising around the backwaters outside of Kochi near Alleppey (also called Alappuzha), our guide pointed out a small cinderblock building dimly lit from within. "Toddy" was carved into a sign above the door, and the guide explained that "toddy" is the sap of coconut flowers. It's also called palm wine.
Every morning and every evening, toddy collectors scale the trees to tap the flowers, under which clay pots are attached to catch the sap. They cart the resulting milky liquid back to the shops where they're left to lightly ferment and gain strength. The longer it ferments, the more alcohol accumulates, but it must be drunk before turning to vinegar—usually within a few days. (The sap is also evaporated and turned into jaggery, a rich, brown palm sugar.)
Inside, a small television blinked with a static-addled game show. Small straw cubicles were populated with a plastic chairs and tables, and bottles of toddy littered the surfaces alongside tin plates scraped clean. Essentially bars with tiny, pop-up canteens hidden in the back, toddy shops are most often found in rural areas, and are gathering place along the region's backwaters or at village perimeters.
They're mostly the domain of men. A dozen of them played cards at the front, occasionally glancing up at the screen. A pot-bellied cook felt his way around ten or so pots filled with some of the spiciest food in Kerala. The hotter the food, the more you need to drink, so toddy shops are known for fiery dishes like meen, a red fish curry, and dry rice dishes laced with chiles and vegetables.
The toddy itself is vaguely sweet, a bit tart as if spiked with apple cider vinegar, and entirely refreshing after a large bite of tingly, red curry. The heat spreads and then the toddy douses, and so each evening passes this way in the quiet Keralan countryside.
The Hanoi specialty of fatty pork with noodles and a funky-sweet broth is best paired with an afternoon nap
2 p.m. is a slow hour in Vietnam: Street traffic comes to a lull, sidewalks are noticeably less crowded, and even the shops close temporarily. It’s the afternoon siesta, a post-lunch naptime that’s not only socially accepted, but encouraged in Vietnamese culture.
I’m not really sure where the tradition comes from. Some say it’s because Vietnam rises so early, while others suggest it’s a cultural response to the midday heat, but I have a theory that we break in the afternoon because our typical lunch foods are just too hearty to eat without taking a nap afterwards.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than Hanoi’s iconic bún chả, a midday feast of round rice noodles (bún) served with grilled pork patties (chả), pork belly, fresh herbs, and a sour-sweet fish-sauce-fortified broth. A long-time staple in the capital, it earned some international spotlight last year when none other than President Obama and Anthony Bourdain were seen enjoying a bowl on an episode of Parts Unknown.
No one seems to know the origin of bun cha, but there's no shortage of spots in Hanoi’s Old Quarter dedicated to the street-food noodles—Obama and Bourdain visited the family-owned Bun Cha Huong Lien, which has, in Vietnamese fashion, been unceremoniously renamed Bun Cha Obama. It's important to note that it's lunch-only fare, typically offered between 11am and 2pm, since Hanoians tend to be persnickety about when and where to enjoy certain things.
In Hanoi, I’m personally partial to Bun Cha 34 on Hang Than, where locals and tourists sit elbow-to-elbow, drawn in by the instantly recognizable and far-reaching smell of the charcoal grill on the sidewalk. Here, the patties are wrapped in xương sông, an herb similar to betel leaves, giving them some nice aromatics to cut the sweet broth, which becomes silky and thick when mixed with the sizzling, melting pork fat. The patties join the grilled pork belly directly in the sauce bowl, along with raw garlic, chiles, and thinly-sliced carrot and green papaya, for crunch. The rice noodles arrive on a separate plate, ready to be dipped one bite at a time.
The dish is also served, as most Vietnamese dishes are, with a plate of fragrant assorted herbs like perilla, mint, coriander, and Thai basil. You can choose to add them directly into the broth or incorporate them into the building of your bowl. It’s also typical to order an accompanying side of crab or pork spring rolls (nem cua bể or chả giò), which you can slice into your noodles, wrap in larger leaves of herbs, or just eat on the side.
Such is the nature of most Vietnamese dishes: There's usually some assembly required, and all are inherently customizable. Take any bun (rice noodle), com (rice), or mi (egg noodle) dish, for example: each is named based on the protein, which range from lemongrass chicken to sweet grilled pork. The herbs mostly stay the same, and you continue pairing, wrapping, and mixing items from the various plates throughout the entire meal. Bun cha, along with its broth-free southern cousin bún thịt nướng, is no exception.
After my most recent lunch at Bun Cha 34, I stand up slowly, submitting to the combination of brutal, windless heat and the inevitable food coma already coming on. Across the street, a motorcyclist is curling up horizontally on his bike for a nap. I think to myself that he’s got the right idea.
Bún Chả 34 Hàng Than
34 Hàng Than
Unlike its internationally ubiquitous cousin, prosciutto, Culatello di Zibello almost never leaves its home of the Po river valley, which is one of the reasons why it tastes so damned good
Prosciutto di Parma may be one of Italy's most iconic foods, but truth be told, I’m more partial to its smaller, uglier, and yes, better-tasting stepsibling. You may not have heard of Culatello di Zibello, but that’s not the ham’s fault; it’s just that this undersized and sweeter ham doesn’t travel as well as its big, bone-in relative.
Culatello is both delicate and bold, with an ephemeral funk that’s difficult to nail down, like trying to remember the name of a long-extinct tropical bird. At times it's smoky, like it's barely been kissed by flame. Locals say it's the flavor of the local fog, an evocation of centuries of history woven complexly into a surprisingly mild, tender piece of meat. But while prosciutto shows up on menus all over the world, culatello is kept close to home, stinking up ancient basements of the Parma lowlands.
Deep in the Po River valley, fog hangs heavy over the fields, blocking the dry breezes needed to make prosciutto. Instead, farmers in this area developed their own cured meat, which is made in only eight local villages. The name culatello literally means “little ass,” because the cut used to make it is only a small section from the pig’s rear leg, with the skin and bone removed. The texture, like thinly sliced lardo, is as if proscuitto took a slow crawl toward lox: it looks and acts like cured meat, but it collapses on your tongue.
It’s a bit disorienting to walk into Antica Corte Pallavicina (ACP)’s modern restaurant, with glass walls and sleek white tablecloths, in search of a cellar that’s been curing culatello since 1320, but underneath the Michelin-starred spot, a dank underground holds a rabbit’s warren of porcine treasure.
The wee ham, about the size of a boxing speedbag and packing a Rocky-esque punch, is rubbed with sea salt, black pepper, garlic, and the local sparkling wine, Fortana del Taro, for the first week. Then it’s wrapped in a clean pig’s bladder and tied up in a handmade net and hung in the cellar. The curing process for culatello hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages: no high-tech tools or machines, and only in season, from about October through February.
The seasonality comes from the traditional method: unlike prosciutto, culatello makers use no climate control beyond the opening and shutting of a few high windows in the cellar, where row after row of culatelli hang, gathering the natural molds that grant the ham its unique flavor, that hint of musk like a drop of porcine sweat among the morning dew.
The 700-year-old cellar of this one-time marquis’s palace has been building up those molds over the centuries, the kinds that can’t survive in the high prosciutto hills. The closer to the Po River, the tradition goes, the better the culatello. The fog rising from the river gets credit for the flavor of the meat. The scars of the Po's former path run next to ACP, less than 20 feet away, though the current river is a short walk away.
As one you enter the basement rooms, the aroma barges out to meet you at the door, a fastball lubed in well-aged cheese. The meat hangs here for a minimum of one year, and up to three. After the first year, an inspector comes by and uses a hammer-like tool to tap the meat and check for any oil or bad fermentation.
The inspection is required to receive DOP certification, which says this is the real stuff made in the right place. But ACP also produces a few other products. When the DOP commission was established, there weren’t black pigs—the historical source for culatello—that were considered pure, so only white pigs could be used. Now, there is a line of black pigs that ACP raises on their own land and makes a similar—though not certified—product. You’ll find it on the tables of restaurants like Osteria Francescana in nearby Modena (yes, where Dev ate on Master of None) and Alain Ducasse restaurants.
The black pigs are smaller and grow more slowly, but the product is, if anything, even more impressive than the DOP-certified version. ACP produces about 5,000 culatelli each year, while 75,000 4-kilo hams are certified around the valley. (They make about 1,000 of the black pig version.) By comparison, a leg of prosciutto weighs a minimum of 7 kilos, and a whopping 8,700,000 are certified every year.
Back upstairs, every table sitting down to lunch starts with a tasting of the culatello. It’s best served alone, hand-sliced and accompanied by the sparkling Fontana used in its making. The chef here, Massimo Spigaroli, comes from a long line of culatello makers, including his great-grandfather, who worked for the composer Giuseppe Verdi.
“When you are born into a family like this,” he says, “you cannot do anything else.” Eventually, the opportunity to purchase ACP, where his family had once worked as sharecroppers, came up, and he turned the 14th-century ruins into the famous culatello producer and restaurant it is now. But his main role is as chef. And as chef, he serves his own star product.
“A podium” of culatello offers three types of culatello for the diner to compare. One option offers an 18-month-old and a 27-month-old traditional version, and a 37-month-aged black pig. The black pig is redder, fattier, richer. But tasting through the plate, the differences become more prominent, both between the ages and from prosciutto, which seems like a pale, plain version in comparison.
Age adds to the velvety-soft texture, nearing creaminess by the final version, the subtle flavors increasing in complexity with each instance. Locals attribute the taste of culatello to the fog of the Po River Valley, and each month of aging seems to pull more from those low clouds.
But those clouds that give the culatello its flavor are also why the true product isn’t available in the United States. Without the ability to control the molds and environment through the entire importation process, it just doesn’t travel.
In the U.S., some salumerias—like Salumi in Seattle (run by Gina Batali, Mario’s sister)—make their own version, though aged in climate control. Chef Sean Brock, of Husk fame, recently Instagrammed what he called a “14-month-aged country ham, culatello-style.” Still, the fact remains, that for a true taste of meat made with the key ingredient of Culatello di Zibello—that lowland Po River fog—you’ll have to cross the Atlantic. But in some ways, that remnant of rarity, that hyper-localness, is a bit of the draw: a flavor so special and innate to just eight specific villages that you can’t find it anywhere else.
But for some rural Vietnamese students, that cost is still one of many barriers to accessing education
11 a.m., Quảng Nam Province, Vietnam
The pot of pork broth burbles on the outdoor stove, clouds of steam billowing into the windless, 100-degree air. “It’s almost ready,” says Suong, a shopkeeper, wiping beads of sweat from her forehead. She’s been up since 5 a.m. buying groceries, chopping vegetables, and making stock on the propane burners in front of her house-turned-corner store. She’s been hired to prepare a feast for 100 students attending a new elementary school across the road, a group that includes her own daughter.
Those students, dressed in the national uniforms of white short-sleeved button-downs, blue pants, and red handkerchiefs, have walked as long as an hour to reach their school. And on most days, they'll have to make the trip back home for lunch, which Vietnamese schools rarely provide. But today's different—an international NGO is hosting a full day of arts, robotics, 3D printing, and English language workshops for the students and their teachers—and Suong has prepared mì Quảng, the famous noodle soup of Quảng Nam. Each bowl starts with wide rice noodles topped with a broth of pork bones, fish sauce, black pepper, shallots, and garlic. Then come a few slices of pork, and, as a special treat, a single shrimp for each.
Some students, like fourth-grader Thuy, have brought their younger siblings to share their bowls.
It's a two-hour drive up a mountain from the provincial capital, Tam Kỳ, to reach the remote Tiên Ngọc elementary school, funded and built by an education NGO called the Sunflower Mission (disclosure: I volunteer with the organization). As with much of central Vietnam, where ground fighting was often the most brutal, the area has never fully shaken off the vestiges of war. A former GI we meet at our hotel in Tam Kỳ has been contracted to decommission still-active landmines; our bus driver tells me he’s got a side gig with a medium, helping families still searching for the bodies of their husbands and sons; elderly townspeople missing limbs congregate in the courtyard of our pop-up medical clinic.
The history of Vietnam is steeped in trauma, but the future is hopeful and bright. The latest World Bank figures show the country’s per-capita GDP to be the fastest growing in the world. More importantly, poverty rates have fallen dramatically, from 60 percent in 1993 to 13 percent in 2014, a difference of some 40 million people. But while the average annual income in Vietnam has risen to $2,200, the figure in rural areas lags behind at less than $1,000.
Poverty in Vietnam is currently defined as making less than $374 a year, with the most vulnerable communities in the countryside and mountains. These are often the homes of the country's ethnic minorities, who make up less than 15 percent of the population but over 40 percent of the poor.
The country's poverty trap begins as early as elementary school for kids like those at Tiên Ngọc. With little assistance from the government—the state policy is to subsidize about 10,000 dong, or 50 cents, a day for poor children—many schools are unable to feed their students during the day, forcing them to make the journey home and back in the sweltering heat for a meal before continuing their afternoon classes (depending on the region, many rural students only attend one session of classes, returning to the fields after lunch).
The consequences are many: At best, time that should be spent learning is lost on commuting; at worst, children who also lack access to nutritious food at home are severely underweight and face a number of health problems. If they’re lucky enough to reach high school, it’s an all-too-common tale for the more conscientious among them to leave their studies and start working full-time to help their families.
Don Tuan Phuong, founder of the Hanoi-based Center for Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS), has worked specifically to advance access to nutrition for elementary school students through lunch offerings. “In the mountainous regions, there are many students who sleep at a state boarding school far from home during the week," he tells me via e-mail. "They are required to take care of their own food, bringing whatever they have at home, so there’s a great need for these children in the uplands."
Phuong admits that there's not much official research to point to yet, but in every project thus far, attendance rates have increased as a result of lunch being provided in school. The World Bank corroborates these findings, having successfully implementing the School Readiness Promotion Project that increased full-day, full-year enrollment in preschools from 66 percent of five-year-olds in 2011 to 84 percent by 2015. One key strategy of the initiative was the “provision of lunch subsidies for poor and ethnic minority children to promote demand.”
The kids' happy shrieks have subsided into a hum of noodle slurping, and I watch Thuy pick up some noodles to feed her younger sister Quynh, who’s squeezed onto a tiny school chair next to her. The bowl the girls are sharing costs just 22,000 Vietnamese dong—about one U.S. dollar—but with some meat and a shrimp, it’s likely more nutritious than the protein-deficient meals they often get at home. Even though it's the region’s most famous dish, mì Quảng is a luxury to these students, who tangle up every last strand as Suong walks around refilling bowls with broth.
After an afternoon break, the kids head back into classrooms for a second round of workshops. We ask Thuy to tell us, in English, what she wants to be when she grows up. “I want to be a teacher,” she says nervously. We, her teachers for the day, smile back. I can't say whether a bowl of noodles every day at school is enough to make her dream a reality, but I hope for a future where worrying about what to eat isn’t preventing her from trying.
We'd follow these writers anywhere
The SAVEUR Blog Awards are here, and from a pool of tens of thousands of reader nominations we’ve selected 72 finalists in 12 categories. Now it’s your turn to vote for a winner. Cast your ballot here early and often; you can vote as many times as you like by September 6th. Today: meet the finalists for our Best Travel Blog category, in their own words.
These six travel bloggers are going to give you serious inspiration for your next big trip. Whether it's a food you've never heard of or a destination you've never seen, our intrepid travel blog finalists are covering it all.
The Blog: Strangertalk aims to tell the travel stories that aren’t being told – the stories of locals passionately fostering their history and traditions, of recipes and crafts being passed down from generation to generation, and capturing the day-to-day moments that exist within any community. From learning about the power of the magical Thai Buddhist tattoos to meeting some of Japan’s last remaining kombu shavers, shaving the paper-thin seaweed with the country’s sharpest knives, this isn’t a blog about their travels or a guide to a particular city—these are real experiences celebrating local culture and their everlasting, although sometimes dwindling, traditions.
The Bloggers: Giving up on the daily grind, food writer Eloise Basuki and photographer Leigh Griffiths left their life in Sydney to explore Asia's food and culture the best way they knew how—talking to locals. After slurping all the noodles and patting every street dog in China, they settled in Bangkok, where traditions are strong, street food is a way of life, and the rest of Asia was at their doorstep. With journalism assignments leading them to Hong Kong, Osaka and Seoul, Strangertalk began in 2017 to share more personal stories about the food, crafts and people they stumbled upon.
The Blog: The Foodie Miles is a sincere attempt to understand the world through its diverse cuisines. Whether it’s breaking coconuts in the tiny kitchen in Colombo, having breakfast prepared by cowboys in the Texas countryside, or taking part in traditional Mexican tamalada, every experience teaches you more about the culture, the people and eventually yourself. Food is the universal language of the world that everyone can understand. The blog is one girl’s journey of learning that language.
The Blogger: Yulia Dyukova is a Russian food and travel blogger who found home first in Sri Lanka, then in Brazil and most recently in Austin, Texas. She is the kind of person who starts a research of the new country by googling “what to eat in…” instead of “what to visit in…”, who spends hours reading about origins of pecan pie before making one and who doesn’t consider waiting in line of 50 people to get a cronut a waste of time.
The Blog: This is the Place I was telling you about likes to focus on the best places to stay, eat, drink coffee, and explore. It’s more into finding the hidden gems of a city—you know, the places that you don’t see a crowd of tourist flocking towards. The bloggers hope their photos, especially their film stories, take you on a journey that will leave you wanting to get out and explore.
The Blogger: R'el Dade and Marcus Lloyd are two Texans living in New York City. A few years ago they fell in love with taking photos and discovering new restaurants, and coffee shops around the city. For a while they would always have places to recommend but could never think of their favorites off the top of their head when it came down to suggestions. They started a list which eventually turned into the blog and vowed to explore more cities in search of charming places they would want to tell people about. They have a ton of fun doing this together and are always down for a great adventure, and if they can tell a story while doing so then, why the hell not?
The Blog: Matt The List is a photography-led website that focuses on food, drink, and travel in London and beyond. He has been sharing snaps and stories since 2013, but the website in its current form has only been live since the summer of 2016 after a much needed makeover. The travel section, Matt The Trips, covers Matt’s adventures outside of London, including city guides, visits to remote breweries and distilleries, and his ongoing search for the most beautiful sunrise spots. It's all tied together by the Map The List maps that are free to use on the website.
The Blogger: Matt is a London-based photographer, writer and musician with a food, drink, and travel obsession. Over the last few years, since starting the blog, photography has become more than just a hobby, and Matt is rarely seen out and about without a camera in his hand. Photography is at the heart of the site, with a definitive style focus on lighting, color, and atmosphere. Matt hopes that readers are drawn in by his photos, stick around for the writing, and are inspired to go out and discover some new places themselves.
The Blog: Potato Chips Are Not Dinner was born out of necessity: 14-hour workdays as a flight attendant, days away from a home and a kitchen, and eating whatever packaged food happened to be rolling around the bottom of her flight bag for dinner. This is perhaps why blogger Paulina Farro became hyper aware of what people around the world were filling their bellies with as she travelled around the world. With not much other than her camera, sketchbook, and curious belly, she is always looking for off-the-beaten path and unique places to see and eat in every destination. Slices of wagyu beef from Japan and octopus tentacles from Greece dance around in her head until she is able to put pen to paper.
The Blogger: Paulina Farro has always loved cooking and bringing people together with food; she grew up watching her grandmother cook beloved Filipino recipes and annoying her with her eager-yet-lackluster lumpia-rolling skills. Potato Chips Are Not Dinner is the ultimate creative outlet and allows her to combine her passion for art, food, travel and photography.
The Blog: Azahar is a journal of stories about food, traditions, life, and travel. It's about sourcing and preparing food the traditional way, living a healthy Paleo lifestyle, exploring blogger Debra Dorn’s home city of Seville, the rest of Andalusia and Spain, and joining her in exploring the world and enjoying all the delectable food along the way.
The Blogger: Debra Dorn inherited her wanderlust. She cannot fathom life without seeing everything the world has to offer. And one of the most appealing features of travelling is trying new flavours, experiencing new cuisines, learning to cook with different ingredients, and then trying to recreate the exotic dishes at home. Food and travel are her two greatest passions.
There's a lot more to the food Down Under than avocado toast and flat whites
“We call this warrigal, but it's also known as Cook’s cabbage,” says Bruce Pascoe. He was harvesting an emerald-green plant with spade-shaped leaves growing under a stand of paperbark trees in Far East Gippsland, a remote coastal region eight hours’ drive north of Melbourne. “When James Cook landed here in Australia, he fed this plant to his crew on the Endeavour. Without it, they would have died of scurvy.”
Pascoe explains that his wife Lyn makes pesto by pairing warrigal, which tastes like spinach brightened with lemon, and macadamia nuts from her orchard. Pascoe, an aboriginal linguist, author, and food advocate, recently launched a crowd-funded initiative called Gurandgi Munjie to encourage the rediscovery of the country’s indigenous food plants and propagating methods. It’s a big challenge, but one Australia is finally embracing.
Given its relative isolation in the southern hemisphere, with climate zones ranging from arid desert to tropical rainforest, Australia has a cornucopia that exists nowhere else in the world; the Slow Food Foundation’s Ark of Taste lists 60 rare and protected entries, some harvested for millennia, others only now gaining attention as more of the continent’s chefs connect with botanists and foragers who source ingredients typical of the First Peoples diet. (Aborigines arrived here approximately 50,000 years before European explorers in the 17th century.)
Bush tucker, or wild food, has evolved beyond survivalist rations, serving as the inspiration for Australia’s next-generation cuisine. Aaron Turner of Igni serves deeply rich wallaby broth made from tails roasted over a blazing red gum wood fire—it’s wilder in character than stocks made from lamb or beef. Jock Zonfrillo, whose Orana Foundation is organizing a continent-wide wild foods database, pairs warrigal with octopus and finger lime at his restaurant in Adelaide. Wattleseed, edible pods harvested from desert-loving acacia species, appears with queen garnet plums at Fleet in Byron Bay. Sour quandong, the native stone fruit harvested from a sandalwood cultivar, brightens aged Pekin duck baked in the brick oven at Brae in rural Birregara.
After meeting Pascoe, Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne started raising yam daisy in his restaurant’s suburban kitchen garden. “Bruce Pascoe's legacy will be that he has helped educate Australians about their true ingredients,” said Shewry. “Not the ones that the first settlers brought, but rather the species that have always belonged here.”
Here are 12 essential flavors from the Land Down Under.
This bush fruit is native to the rainforests of Queensland and northern New South Wales. While it has a superficial resemblance to a European plum, the tropical variety is unrelated to stone fruit from the northern hemisphere; the two-inch fruits grow in grape-like clusters.
The flesh is deep burgundy, the taste is highly acidic and sour, similar to rhubarb, which makes it an ideal sauce base to accompany indigenous game like magpie goose or kangaroo. Botanical soda makers Bickford and Sons add tiny Davidson plum to its sparkling apple cordial.
It doesn’t taste like chicken. Australia’s largest bird, a leggy sprinter with grey-brown plumage closely related to the ostrich, forages mostly on insects and acacia scrub, favors woodland savannah habitats, and migrates over great distances. Their massive eggs are dark green, like something Game of Thrones’ Mother of Dragons might nurture.
At Attica in Melbourne, chef Ben Shewry laser-cuts each thick shell on the diagonal, and then fills it with whipped egg and sugarbag (honey) floss. Aborigines historically prized the wild bird for its meat, but emu also has an important place in their Dreamtime stories, or creation theology, which explains the singular worldview of Australia’s First Peoples.
Cracking open a tangy, acidic finger lime reveals caviar-shaped pulp that bursts in your mouth like citrusy pop rocks. Not a true lime, citrus Australasica may date back 18 million years; the three-inch-long, cylindrical-shaped fruit ranges in color from blood orange to Day-Glo green.
Finger limes are prized as a garnish for oysters as well as cocktails. At Lee Ho Fook in Melbourne, Asian new wave chef Victor Liong pairs them with charred Spanish mackerel and a “Chinese tapenade” of preserved olive vegetable, burnt garlic oil, nori, and Fujian shacha paste.
Marron is as close to lobster as Australia gets. Originally found wild in the streams and rivers of Western Australia, the hairy variety of this freshwater crayfish species was an important food of the Noongar people for thousands of years, but is now endangered thanks to its invasive, smooth-carapaced cousin, Cherax cainli, also known as yabbies, which are milder and sweeter in flavor than most saltwater shellfish, including those ubiquitous jumbo shrimp that dwell on backyard “barbies.” Grilled marron is paired with young coconut and koji butter at Momofuku Seibo in Sydney.
Considered a living fossil, this black-and-white plumed waterfowl dwells in the floodplains of the Mary River near Kakadu in northernmost Australia. The Yolngu people traditionally cook magpie goose (gurrumattji) in a pit oven, smothered in wet leaves, a technique similar to the Maori hangi or Hawaiian imu.
The breast meat is darker and gamier than duck; Adelaide purveyor Something Wild collaborates with indigenous communities to source “open range” meats like magpie, so eventually this rarer bird may edge more domesticated geese as the centerpiece for Christmas dinner.
One of the oldest bush foods, muntries is a key component in the traditional diet of the Narrindjeri people of the Coorong in South Australia. The pea-sized, purple berries have a flavor evocative of spiced apples, and were typically pounded into a paste, then baked into cakes or dried for longer storage.
Also known as emu apples or native cranberries, they are often used in pies, chutneys, jams and sauces. At Brae, chef Dan Hunter pairs ripe muntries with calamari, wild cabbage and fermented daikon during the short season.
High in vitamin C, quandong (Santalum acuminatum) is a stone fruit that flourishes in Central Australia’s semi-arid desert. The astringent flesh clings to a large kernel, and tastes like a cross between apricot and peach. This climbing shrub clings to a host, or as Aborigines say, a “brother” tree, when young.
Foote Side Farm produces tart preserves that will boost a pavlova topping or soy-chili dipping sauce. At Charcoal Lane, a “social enterprise” restaurant in Melbourne that offers kitchen internships to at-risk aboriginal youth, quandong is a bitters ingredient used in the bar’s whiskey cocktail.
Drought-tolerant Old Man saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) thrives throughout arid inland Australia. The grayish-blue shrub produces flowering seeds that Aborigines used to grind and roast for “damper,” a rustic soda bread baked in the ashes of a cook fire. The leaves are highly salty, rich with minerals and proteins, and are most often used as a seasoning. At Igni restaurant in Geelong, chef Aaron Turner turns the dried leaves into a tasty riff on salt-and-vinegar chips.
Australians nicknamed them “Skippy” for a reason. Smaller than a kangaroo, but a close cousin, these marsupials are herbivores, and have been part of the indigenous Australian diet for millennia. Although they’ve only been sold commercially in the last 20 years; before that the meat typically wound up in pet food. The taste is gamey and slightly grassy; tender filets take only minutes to sear on a grill. At Igni, Aaron Turner turns wallaby rump into tartare.
Warrigal is also known as Cook’s cabbage or Botany Bay greens, which grows wild in sandy coastal regions. It was one of the first native Australian plants to be adapted by European settlers. After blanching, the taste is similar to spinach. Chef Kylie Kwong serves steamed vegetable and warrigal dumplings at her Australian-Chinese restaurant Billy Kwong in Sydney.
Wattleseed belongs to the acacia family. This hardy shrub’s seed husk is extremely dense, and only tends to germinate after a bushfire—early aboriginal “fire stick farming” was the most common means of propagation. Roasted and ground, the seeds have an aroma similar to coffee. Saltbush Kitchen makes a versatile spice blend with silver wattle (Acacia Victoriae), Tasmanian pepperberry, and lemon myrtle.
Pulled straight from the ground, murnong, also known as the yam daisy, has a tuft of stalks topped with a buttery yellow bloom and a tuberous root system that resembles a baby parsnip. Aborigines first domesticated this perennial herb in southern Australia; however, the introduction of livestock by European settlers led to its near extinction as pastures became over-grazed.
Traditionally, the yam daisy was either roasted or pit-baked. At Attica in Melbourne, the tubers are first simmered in salt water, then fried until caramelized. The flavor is mildly sweet, almost like a white yam.
Go eat com ga Tam Ky, the overlooked but essential rice platter of central Vietnam
Chicken and rice is an unfussy, elemental combination—a culinary commonality celebrated across the world, from arroz con pollo to Hainan chicken. But the way I see it, one of the world's best plates of chicken rice is also the most overlooked: a dish from the the town of Tam Ky that, like its most famous recipe, gets passed over all too often.
The beachside Vietnamese city serves as the provincial capital of the central Quang Nam province, which is also seat of the well-preserved ancient port city of Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site, and formerly home to the nearby metropolis of Da Nang, which became an independent municipality in 1997. Although it's the region's primary government hub, it's become a sort of flyover town next to its tourist-beloved neighbors.
It makes sense then that com ga Tam Ky, with variations ranging from chicken with rice porridge to chicken with sticky rice, doesn’t get nearly the airtime of Hoi An’s cao lau noodle soup or Danang’s banh trang thit heo in the Vietnamese culinary canon. (Hoi An sometimes even gets full credit for the dish after shops in the city started hawking com ga Hoi An in the '90s).
But this is one chicken and rice well worth getting to know. You can eat it at the well-known Com Ga Ba Luan restaurant, which now even has a location in Saigon, but I sometimes prefer to grab seat at one of the fluorescent-lit, plastic-table joints lining the streets throughout town. In Tam Ky, it gets so quiet so early at night that the chop chop of vendors preparing chicken is likely the loudest sound you’ll hear after 9 p.m., interrupted only by the occasional passing motorbike and the clinking of beer glasses. And when all the town’s restaurants and bars have closed, you can enjoy the three-dollar plate of com ga with your 50-cent bia (sound it out) and feel perfectly happy.
The mix-and-eat com ga platter is built in layers, starting with a mound of soft, yellow-tinted rice, sometimes cooked in chicken broth and fat to double down on the flavor. Next comes slivers of white chicken meat—typically the whole bird’s been boiled with green onions, ginger, turmeric, and salt and shredded by hand—splashed in a light dressing of fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice. For crunch, the plate’s crowned with the usual bundle of aromatic herbs including rau ram, or Vietnamese coriander, as well as raw onions quick-pickled in vinegar and sugar. When jumbled up together, it makes for a combination at once soft and crunchy, spicy and cooling, filling but refreshing.
The origins of com ga are, like those of most foods of Vietnam, destined to remain murky forever; an already sparse written history, much of which is told through the perspective of invaders and foreigners, was disrupted by hundreds of years of war. The skin-on boiled bird with chiles and herbs bears a resemblance to a Chinese dish popular in the rest of Southeast Asia, Hainan chicken, a connection some attribute to the contact of cultures in Hoi An, which was then one of Southeast Asia's most grand, cosmopolitan ports catering to Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Singaporean merchants. And given the Chinese origin of the name "Tam Ky," it's possible that city was inhabited by foreigners who created a new version of their famed chicken and rice—much like European immigrants to America who applied their meat-smoking prowess to pastrami in New York and brisket in Texas.
So is it worth leaving the grandiose shopping malls of Da Nang and the Instagram-friendly backdrops of Hoi An for a plate of chicken and rice in a small town with virtually no tourist attractions? I’d say that rawness is one of the most alluring parts: The city, like the dish, is virtually untouched by outside influences. Tam Thanh beach, with no jetskis or water rockets, is one of the country's most beautiful, free of resorts and overdevelopment. You may be hard-pressed to find an English speaker outside of hotels, but at least no one will try to sell you tourist trinkets.
If anything, eating a plate of com ga in Tam Ky is a reminder that sometimes the most quotidian foods can make for the most unforgettable experiences.
The technicolor technique behind Filipino halo-halo
Whether sold in plastic cups on the street or in fancy decorative glasses in restaurants, halo-halo is always a colorful and cool retreat from the summer heat—especially the hot and humid weather of the Philippines. It’s a sweet and milky dessert made up of different layered textures, with ingredients like Nata de Coco (coconut jelly), sweetened saba (plantains), langka (jackfruit), sweet red monggo (red adzuki beans), corn, and even leche flan (caramel custard) adorning a pile of finely shaved ice. The dish is frequently topped with a scoop of bright purple ube (purple yam) ice cream, though in the Philippines you'll also likely see genuine ube instead.
There is no set recipe for halo-halo. By nature, the dessert is personalized and tailored to individual taste. In some cases, the ingredients are laid out on a table with spoons in their respective containers so guests can pick out which toppings they want to go with their shaved ice.
Grill 21 in New York City serves a classic halo-halo, with all of the typical ingredients you'll find in the Philippines. Most of the ingredients the restaurant uses are prepared in-house, such as the sweetened saba and langka mixture, the red monggo beans, and the sweet beans. Owner Rose Chavez says that they typically cook the ingredients together to allow the flavors of the ingredients to mingle together. And her kitchen drizzles on a special sweet syrup for a unique touch. See how it all comes together in the video above.