Furaha Clavella, 8, her mother Solange Muradi, 40, and her father Francis Muradi, 47, gather around the dining room table for a lunch of ugali, a Burundian dish made with cornmeal cooked into a thick paste that's then rolled by hand and dipped into curries and stews. Also on the table: rice, beans, spinach, and samaki, a smoked fish curry with onions, tomatoes, and green peppers—produce all grown at their local farm.
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- 07/05/17--09:45: _Celebrating the Fou...
- 07/06/17--12:00: _Yemeni Lachuch is W...
- 07/10/17--05:00: _Are Fighting Bulls ...
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- 07/06/17--12:00: Yemeni Lachuch is What Happens When Pancake Meets Pita
- 07/10/17--05:00: Are Fighting Bulls Spain's Next Great Delicacy?
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Two immigrant families, one from Burundi, another from Pakistan, gather friends around the table—and the drum set—for festive meals in their new homes
There’s a playful rhythm on the drums as eight-year-old Furaha and her twin brother Baraka run around their front lawn with wide smiles and mallets in hand. Smoke and spice wisp out from the kitchen as their parents, Francis and Solange Muradi, prepare a typical East African lunch at their home on the northside of Syracuse, New York.
I’ve returned home to Syracuse for my first Fourth of July in nearly ten years, which was just around the time that the Muradis immigrated from a refugee camp in Tanzania, where they had lived since 1990. Before that, they stayed in a refugee camp in Rwanda for 18 years. Francis was 3 when he left Burundi. Now they call Syracuse home.
Since 1970, this upstate city, one of the poorest in the nation, has been home to tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants from dozens of countries around the world. Here is how a few of them celebrated America’s independence.
The best sauce-sopper-upper in the Middle East
When life gives you hummus and shakshuka, make flatbread to scoop and sop it up. And while pita, in all its forms, is the dominant breadstuff across the Middle East, Yemeni lachuch may be an even more effective stuff-sopper-upper. Why? Look to the nooks and crannies.
Like baghrir, ployes, and crumpets, lachuch is made with a yeasted batter that's cooked in a pan without flipping, which causes the already bubbly batter to develop little air pockets that set into a honeycomb-like pattern. The flatbread's spongy and floppy like a pancake but resilient like soft pita, and the naturally leavened dough has a pleasingly mild bready flavor. The best part: and all those little holes drink up sauces, stews, soups, runny egg yolks, and Yemeni hot sauce.
In the video above, reporter Keren Brown and videographer Aviram Frige capture one captivating lachuch maker in Tel Aviv's HaTikva market, who flips perfect lachuch to order. Watch the master work, then try making your own with this baghrir recipe as a template. (The dishes aren't the same, but this'll give you a starting point.) Just don't forget the schug.
As the nation's infamous bullfights plummet in popularity, ranchers—and the historic ecosystems they tend—are suffering. But now a cadre of chefs and activists are trying to convince diners that the meat is as precious as jamón Iberico
The toro bravo, or fighting bull—a hulking ton of muscle bred to fight matadors—doesn’t necessarily sound like an appetizing source of meat. But Mario Sandoval, the co-founder of Madrid’s two-Michelin-starred Coque, thinks it could be the next premium protein of Spain.
“Ten years ago, no one ate fresh Iberian pig meat—they only ate it as cured sausages and jamón,” he says. “Today, you can find pluma or secreto [tender cuts of Iberian pig meat] in any restaurant.”
For centuries, ranchers throughout southern and central Spain have raised toro bravo for bullfighting. But as animal welfare concerns and other factors have sent the sport’s popularity on the decline, those ranchers are now struggling to turn a profit from their once-famed breeds. In 2015, the Spanish newspaper El País, citing the Ministry of Culture, reported that the number of yearly bullfights had decreased from 953 to 398 between 2007 and 2014, and a 2016 online poll by Ipsos MORI for the organization World Animal Protection found that only 19 percent of Spaniards support bullfighting in comparison to the 58 percent against.
Chefs like Sandoval have taken notice, and enticed by the challenge of preparing a hardy cut, the bull’s lean, flavorful musculature, and the low environmental impact of raising the animals, are giving diners a taste of the fighting bull’s prowess beyond the ring.
Eating toro bravo itself isn’t new; people have been doing so for as long as ranchers have bred the animals for bravura, or the driving animus behind a bullfight. But the practice was historically limited to local festivals and agricultural fairs. As Dr. Ismael Díaz Yubero, author of The Gastronomy of the Fighting Bull puts it, consuming fighting bull meat was typically a communal event.
“The most aggressive bulls were the ones chosen to fight in the corrida [bullfighting ring],” Díaz Yubero explains. “For those bulls, after the fight was over and they were killed, they were fed to the entire town.”
Evaristo Castro Lópel, a butcher at Mariscal, a delicatessen in Granada, says today, fighting bull meat is rarely prepared in people’s homes. “It’s a tougher cut, and you need to age it for at least a month,” Castro Lópel notes. The typically low commercial prospects for fighting bull meat’s strong, gamy-tasting cuts are reflected in its price: Castro Lópel claims it costs, on average, 4 euros per kilogram, compared to 9 euros per kilogram for meat from a regular bull, while others state it can run as low as 2.80 euros per kilogram.
While some may be drawn to the appealing price tag, others just enjoy the challenge of the animal’s seemingly prohibitive characteristics. At Restaurante Terraza Carmona in the northern city of Vera, Antonio Carmona runs the annual “Fighting Bull in the Kitchen” festival. For over two decades, this week-long event has drawn chefs from around Spain (and more recently, the world) to experiment with the meat of the toros de lidia, or fighting bulls sacrificed in the plaza. There, chefs have transformed the carcass into tataki-style steak as well as stewed fighting bull “bombones” (ersatz chocolates) with kanafeh.
“The meat is richer, so it can absorb more flavorings,” Carmona says, and goes on to explain that aside from the slight challenge of aging the cut, meat from fighting bulls is surprisingly versatile. “You can use traditional [beef] recipes and make them extra special by adding toro de lidia, adding an extra kick.”
Spain’s fighting bull population is shrinking, from 251,231 in 2010 to 199,662 in 2016, according to census data from Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment. As Fernando Huidobro, president of the Andalucian Academy of Gastronomy and Tourism explains, this isn’t just a problem for ranchers; it also is causing a negative environmental impact.
Unlike commercially raised cattle, fighting bulls are raised on dehesas, the meadows throughout southern Spain and Portugal that also nurture the Iberian pigs destined for premium jamón Iberico. And like those pigs, fighting bulls are an integral part of that ecosystem, along with oak and cork trees and other endangered species. The bulls, Huidobro goes on, roam free to munch on grass, but also other vegetation that could grow unchecked into a thick, undesired brush. Others have argued that the bulls and ranches protect the land and its inhabitants by restricting public access.
Chefs and curious eaters who agree with Huidobro have pushed to popularize the culinary use of the fighting bull meat and, potentially, even increase its value among consumers. Díaz Yubero’s book, which was published in 2013, includes a number of recipes featuring toro bravo meat; the fighting bull ranch Valdellán recently began to produce cecina del toro de lidia, a dried meat similar to jamón Iberico, while more restaurantsare celebrating weeklong festivals featuring menu rife with toro bravo options.
The loudest support has come from Mario Sandoval of Madrid’s Coque. Last year, at the gastronomic forum Madrid Fusión, Sandoval presented his research with the Spanish National Research Council on fighting bull meat. There, he emphasized its health benefits (low fat and high vitamin levels) and environmental merits (organic, ecological, sustainable) and even demonstrated how to transform cuts into cecina and chorizo. Ultimately, he hopes its popularity will bleed into the mainstream, allowing the general public to reap its benefits.
“The fighting bull breeders help support the rural population and boost its economy, especially in the most depressed areas,” Sandoval said. “The breeders are environmental managers. They have a model that’s based on tradition, and they take care of the natural environment like it’s a legacy that is passed on from generation to generation. So with this method of breeding, everyone wins.”
Named for a sweet and spicy Mexican candy, the paleta shot goes above and beyond your college drinking days
When you think of tequila, bygone college days might come to mind. Maybe you think of the classic “one tequila, two tequila” rhyme, or perhaps you try not to think of anything because your last night out with Jose Cuervo left you with only one shoe and a camera full of ill-advised dancing selfies.
The paleta shot is here to the rescue.
Named for the Mexican candy, a watermelon lollipop covered in chile powder, you can find it throughout southern Texas and northern Mexico along the border. Kids from my middle school would get paleta candies from a convenience store across the street and would snack on them all day long. At that age, I wasn’t a fan of the spicy red powder combined with the tart hard candy. Truthfully, I’m still not really a fan, but I’d have one now just out of homesickness and nostalgia (the shot, however, I'd drink till the sun comes up).
Michelle Fierro of The Black Orchid Lounge in El Paso, Texas tells us that nobody knows who invented the shot, but the candy has been around for around 40 years, and the shot appeared around 10 years ago. She also says there are different takes on it in different parts of El Paso.
To illustrate this, she sets out five glasses to prepare the shot five different ways. The one served at The Black Orchid features tequila, mango and strawberry juice, some lime and Tabasco, and a Tajin-lined rim (pro tip: fresh juice will help you avoid a sugary hangover). The next version comes with watermelon schnapps. An east side El Paso take on the shot involves rum, and the next one has vodka. Then, Fierro whipped up a mezcal special, which was nontraditional but a favorite—the smoky taste was a perfect complement to the watermelon.
They're all fruity, spicy, and a perfect throwback to bygone candy and shot-pulling days.
Though many have tried, the elusive morel mushroom refuses to be tamed. Which is why come spring, generations of Wisconsin families head out to secret spots in the woods to hunt their own
For as long as hungry folks have wandered into the woods in search of a meal, people have foraged for mushrooms. Much of North America is temperate enough to support a diverse crop of edibles, and the Midwest and Pacific Northwest are particularly celebrated by mycology enthusiasts. In the state of Wisconsin, it’s all about morels.
Come morel season, generations of families come together to hunt, cook, eat, and celebrate my absolute favorite mushroom. And when I learned the hilly, rural Driftless region had a whole festival devoted to morels, I started looking up flights to Madison.
Strains of morels can be found all over Europe, Asia, South and Central America, and the Middle East, but, according to Britt Bunyard, PhD and editor of Fungi Magazine, the “highly prized culinary mushrooms” originally arose “from a common ancestor in western North America...about 174 to 100 million years ago.” In 2011, Nancy Weber of Oregon State University reported that “since then, morels have evolved into 177 related species.” They can be as tiny as a grain of rice or over a foot tall, and range in color from yellow to grey, brown, or black. Despite these variations, morels are easily identified by their completely hollow body and their honeycomb textured caps.
Since all true morels are nontoxic when cooked, they are an ideal starter-mushroom for budding mycologists. Travel and nature photographer and two time Midwestern Morel Mushroom Hunting Grand Champion Liza Wallner explains that the morel is “one of the easiest fruiting bodies to identify. Their pitted cap exteriors and hollow interiors with the stem attaching directly to the cap make them rather foolproof.”
They’re also ideal to forage because the mighty morel refuses to be tamed. While a patent for cultivating morels has existed since 1986, growers have struggled to produce a mushroom with the same nutty, meaty, slightly smokey flavor as the wild ones, so foraging retains its appeal.
In Wisconsin, morel hunting is a source of both connection and competition. The Wisconsin Mycological Society hosts regular forays: friendly group outings to find and identify morels and other edible fungi. But plenty of members prefer to guard their hunting grounds and techniques. WMS president Steve Shapson tells me that “Group forays are a great way to learn how to forage, but now we go out by ourselves when we're foraging for serious bounty. We still love to forage in groups, as the camaraderie is very rewarding.”
A few days before the festival in Wisconsin, we met up with Shapson, Madison chef Jonny Hunter, and two WMS members, landscape architect Jeremy Holmstadt and environmental scientist Lynn Diener. Sworn to secrecy about their hunting grounds, we set out to poke around the wooded paths in search of those signature rippled caps. After a tense 45 minutes or so of nothing, Jeremey glanced off the path, seized up to squint into the brush, then jumped into the air with a startling “Wup, wup! Right there!”
Ten feet off the trail, there was a path of perky yellow morels, nearly the size of my palm, magically camouflaged but plain as day. As we gathered them up, Jeremy admitted that he’d “been losing sleep all week,” worrying that we wouldn’t find any so late in the season. As we meandered back to the road, it seemed like there were suddenly morels everywhere we looked—nearly four pounds in less than an hour.
The small town of Muscoda, in the hilly Driftless region of the state, takes competitive morelling to another level. During the weeks leading up to the festival, locals watch the weather and obsessively comb the surrounding areas for morels. Volunteers from the local American Legion buy them at a wholesale rate and store them until the annual 3-day Muscoda Morel Mushroom Festival. The festival features a tasting room of morel products (Morel beer! Morel brats!); forager prizes for the largest and smallest morels, most morels on a single clump of earth, and “most unusual”; foraged food cooking demos; butter-fried morels; a steak-fry; and a morel parade. The American Legion sells bags of the morels and the proceeds go to the Legion’s youth scholarship program, baseball league, and upkeep of the town’s Veterans Memorial.
The festival is Muscoda’s biggest event of the year; many locals participate, and morel enthusiasts from all over the state make the pilgrimage. Liza Walner comes in from Milwaukee every year and when she met up with Matt and me there, she was undeterred by the unseasonably cold and rainy day.
After buying several bags of fresh morels at the festival—she tells me they are priced much more reasonably here than they are at morel auctions and farmers’ markets back in Milwaukee—we all get in line in the rain to wait for our little cups of butter-fried morels and cans of Miller Light. The morels are slippery with salted butter, warm and absolutely wonderful, but not nearly enough, and the beer reminds me of my freezing sandaled toes. Fortunately, Liza has the goods on a café not officially affiliated with the festival that serves whole deep-fried morels.
When we walk around the corner into Vicki’s Cozy Cafe, a frazzled waitress tells us the wait for morels will be over an hour, but Wallner lifts her chin and grins with pleasure at her own preparedness. She had put our order in hours earlier, and we are able to sit down to plates of crispy fried morels almost immediately. They are lightly breaded and very peppery; the most delicious, umami-filled chicken nuggets of my dreams.
When I ask Wallner about differences in flavor she has noticed between strains of morel, she tells me that “the younger morels have a more intense woodsy mushroom flavor. Their tissue is more dense as well. A musky tasting version can be found in the black morel. Some people prefer them over the grays... Young fresh grays have a subtle sweetness that is exquisite when fried in seasoned flour. Very old school but very delicious.”
All the Mycological Society, folks we spoke with had their own favorite morel recipes to share. After our earlier foray in Madison, Jonny Hunter had brought us back to his charcuterie commissary, Underground Meats, for a tour; he ground our haul of mushrooms into a batch of pork sausage with spruce tips and ramps. While eating at Vicki’s, Wallner shared that she likes to chop her morels up, sautee them with onions, and mix them into bison meatballs. Holmstad emailed me once I was back in New York to suggest making a simple risotto with morels, peas, and asparagus; Shapson likes a recipe for morel ragout over polenta from the upcoming Mycological Society cookbook.
So long as you’re cooking them thoroughly, there is really no wrong way to use them. I’ve known chefs to suggest soaking them to remove any grit or bugs from the textured caps, but the WMS folks all agreed that that is a silly way to end up with waterlogged, flavorless mushrooms. Instead, they all suggest cleaning them with a soft brush or clean towel.
When I asked Holmstadt why foraging for morels was so popular in his home state, he explained that “the rural, farming, and game hunting cultures in Wisconsin are important to this. Many people are exposed to morels at a young age, and it creates this affinity for them...Morels are common here due to the rainy climate, lime-based soils, and favored tree species. With that abundance combined with their popularity and early childhood exposure, many people...love, and eat them.”
As a busy test cook and recipe developer, I don’t have much opportunity to interact with people outside of the food business, and it was heartening to be welcomed into a new cult of enthusiasts with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. And even better: I hear there are some parks here in New York where I might find some next spring. But I’m not going to tell you where they are.
Tips From the Experts: How to Forage for Morels
Dress the part: When preparing for a foray, The Wisconsin Mycological Society advises, “The terrain will vary so wear appropriate shoes. Not all sites have groomed trails so be prepared for hilly, muddy, rocky, or rough ground. Use a sturdy container such as a wicker basket or plastic bucket to carry your specimens. Use only paper bags, wax paper bags and tin foil for delicate specimens. Do not use plastic bags; use separate bags for each specimen.”
Play it safe: Guidebooks like Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States, The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, and 100 Edible Mushrooms are a great introduction to safe identification, but the New York Times suggests, “In addition to reading books, novices should always hunt with veterans and never eat a mushroom without professional identification. The mantra is: when in doubt, throw it out (and remove it from other discarded foods that a cat or dog might scavenge).”
Look out for imposters:“False morels” is a term that refers to several different species including Gyromitra esculenta, Gyromitra caroliniana, Verpas, and Helvellas. They are mushrooms that look like morels but are not. Most false morels are toxic, but they can easily be distinguished from true morels because they are not hollow all the way through the stem and cap. Don’t eat them!
Avoid polluted areas: Steve Shapson, president of the Wisconsin Mycological Society, reminds foragers that “One doesn't want to forage morels or any mushrooms on roadsides where many motorized vehicles are dispersing poisonous gas fumes.” Stick to the woods!
When and where: Morels tend to grow under and around ash, poplar, elm, maple, sycamore or fruit trees, and they most often appear under trees that are dying or recently dead. Most of the morel fungus exists underground and it only sends mushrooms up to reproduce when its ecosystem—the tree—is somehow threatened. Wisconsin Mycological Society member Jeremy Holmstadt explains that, “with elm, it’s important that the tree is dead for at least a year or two but not “too dead” where the trunk has completely lost all of its bark. With ash, the best producing trees seem to be with clusters of other ash nearby.”
Travel and nature photographer and two time Midwestern Morel Mushroom Hunting Grand Champion Liza Wallner prides herself on her morel hunting skill, but acknowledges that patience is essential:
“When deciding where to hunt, I use areas that I have previously scouted during the summer and fall mushrooming seasons. Finding the right trees is critical. Finding lots of them takes work and long hours on the trail. I am usually out hunting other species but am always mindful of where the dead elms are...
When to hunt is a bit more tricky. This depends on a trinity of factors: ground temperature (50 degrees), precipitation and gentle/slow spring heat (60's-70's). Social media is a great outlet for watching the fruiting as it begins south in Georgia in early March. Folks are proud of their morel finds and post them on many different mushroom sites along with a location. It becomes easy to track the morel progress online nowadays. Depending on the weather morels seem to travel north at about 100 miles per week thereafter. With the unpredictability of temperatures in recent years I have picked morels from early April all the way until early June in Wisconsin. Peak season though is usually around May 15th. I like to go out after a big rain. Usually when humidity is high and lots of little frogs are hopping about the mushrooms will be up.”
Be patient if you don’t find them right away; Holmstadt reassures budding mycologists, saying that “you may need to look at a hundred different trees before you find a morel. Think of it like fishing or hunting, where you may go away empty-handed. When you’re lucky enough to find one, stop and look for others before you carelessly stomp toward it; there are often more mushrooms hiding nearby. And after you see that first one, then you see the rest all at once. I live for that.”
Don’t pull! The morels that poke up above the ground for us to enjoy are only a small part of an elaborate underground “mycelium” system. Yanking at the mushroom can potentially damage the rest of the organism and prevent morels from growing back in that place. Either cut or pinch them at the base of the stem to harvest.
Or does a back-alley journey just make one excellent bowl even more tempting?
The search for the best pho in Hanoi leads me to a nondescript alleyway, as does the search for the best of most things in this ancient, labyrinthine city, where poking one's head behind a storefront and detouring up rickety stairs more often than not yields the reward of discovery. It's a sweltering, windless June day in the Old Quarter, whose colonial French structures stand beside crumbling, millennia-old temples and landmarks. A stark contrast to commerce-driven Saigon, where much of history has been torn down and replaced. Here in Hanoi, the streets are named after the wares hawked in the old days, things like silver and jewelry, candies and dried fruits, and bamboo goods.
Our guide today is Hanoi native and Vietnam excursion guru Tran Thuy Hai, but today, she’s taking a break from swinging through Vietnam's caves (including the world’s largest, Son Doong) to go on a different sort of adventure: locating the sidewalk corner pho joint she'd frequented in years past. She's promised us unforgettable pho, an endorsement that perks up my ears since I've long committed myself to the endless task of seeking out the "world's best pho." (I should detour here to say that the "world’s best pho” isn't a single dish in a specific place, but rather an abstract ideal, a noodle-soup nirvana, its broth found simmering, under the vigilant surveillance of Vietnamese parents and grandparents, in the well-worn pots of Vietnamese kitchen all over the world.)
But if, as goes the age-old Vietnamese adage, rice is a man's wife while pho is his mistress, wouldn’t a little pursuit make that first slurp of broth all the more alluring? I won’t tell you I’ve resolved my quest to find the best pho in all the land, but what I have found is a damn good street bowl that’s hidden in plain sight.
It’s dusty as motorcycles weave in and out of bicycle fruit vendors, narrowly missing each other as well as clusters of tribal-pattern–clad backpackers and elders smoking thuoc lao, or Vietnamese tobacco, out of huge bamboo water pipes. By now, we’ve already wolfed down a bowl of bun cha, Hanoi’s lunch-only noodles with pork cakes, and put away a mound of banh gio, a Vietnamese street snack reminiscent of China’s zongzi, made with glutinous rice and pork steamed in banana leaves. I’m not sure I can eat another bite of anything, let alone pho, a dish I know to be reliably hearty and filling and comforting.
As we pulled up to the intersection of Hang Trong (trong translates to drums, and hang, the market street where they were sold) and Hang Gai (silk street), where Hai expected to find the street stall she’d been raving about, we were surprised to find the corner empty. Disappointed, we begin to walk away, but Hai asks a nearby shop owner if he’d know where to find the pho and the woman who makes it. He nods to a nondescript alley behind the local seamstress. Lo and behold, at the end of the alley hangs a sign that reads: “Looking for pho? This way—>” pointing to a set of stairs.
Standing at the top, my stomach starts rumbling as soon as I catch a whiff of that fragrant beef broth laced with star anise, cinnamon, and Vietnamese cardamom, wafting down a hallway. "It’s not time yet," says a woman sitting over a pot of beef bones in a small courtyard. “Come back at 3 p.m.” We reluctantly shuffle out, our pursuit of pho delayed just a bit longer.
Food writers have long waxed poetic about Hanoian pho, that lightly-garnished, clear-as-consommé bowl of healing powers. If ever I’ve tasted one outside of my grandma’s house, this was it. At 3 o’clock sharp, we’d taken our spots, as we would on a street corner, sitting on red and blue plastic stools at plastic tables perched precariously close to the ground—except we were in Ms. Minh’s living room. The mastermind behind the pho, Ms. Minh herself, explained that after hawking pho on the street for nearly 15 years, she'd been forced by the police to relocate indoors just a few months earlier, as part of a recent country-wide (perhaps region-wide?) move to remove street vendors, the lifeblood of Southeast Asia's cities, from sidewalks.
Ms. Minh’s late ancestors, peeking out from picture frames behind burnt sticks of incense and platters of fruit offerings, watch over us while we eat, and a small child is sleeping on a day-bed across the room. We hardly mind as we noisily stuff our faces. The broth is perfectly clear, so much so that I can see every noodle down to the bottom of the bowl, with the flatter, fresh banh pho noodles that tangle around the thinly sliced sheets of lean beef. A sprinkling of freshly chopped scallions and a duo of Thai chilis crown the top.
As my broth-to-noodle ratio reaches a precariously low level, Ms. Minh swings by, unsolicited, to pour some more of the steaming liquid into my bowl. (In my experience, it’s hardly worth protesting when a Vietnamese woman offers you more food). We ask her how business is going after the meal, and she explains that despite the loss in foot traffic, her repeat customers have remained faithful. “People come from all over to eat my pho,” she proclaims, with a bit of old Hanoian pride. “From China, Korea, they all know the pho of Hang Trong street and they always come back.”
We also ask, sheepishly, how her pho is made, to which the paranoid Ms. Minh waves our camera away for fear of exposing her "secret family recipe." But as we cleaned our bowls, she nodded approvingly, warmed slightly by our enthusiasm, surrendering a few sparse details about her philosophy as we were on our way out: The beef bones are set to simmer a whopping 24 hours before she opens the following day, with all traces of fat skimmed off the top periodically to preserve the meaty flavor while yielding that signature translucence.
That pho, only served from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., is meant to be a Hanoian afternoon snack, according to Ms. Minh: “This pho is a light meal that provides good energy for the day so you don’t have to wait long hours for your dinner.” Sure enough, as we stumbled out from the alleyway into the daylight, having just finished our third lunch, mind you, we hardly felt bloated, as if our stomachs had turned into endless black holes. But I wager you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s had a bite of this pho and not feel that the experience, even in the sweltering heat, was just a little bit magical.
Pho Hang Trong
8 Hàng Trống
How one man brought California berries to Cuba
Ernesto Alpízar didn’t taste a strawberry until after the revolution, when he was 34 and living in Eastern Europe. As a kid in the 1930s, he recalls seeing the fruit from afar in Bauta, the rural village outside Havana where he grew up. A farmer there cultivated them exclusively for wealthy Cubans and expats. Like Coca-Cola and cars, the first strawberries had arrived from the United States in the early 1900s. But the plants didn’t fare well in the tropical climate and remained a rarity.
As a young man, Alpízar taught English in high school. After the revolution, he was given the opportunity to study abroad as part of a Castro-sponsored program to train citizens and reward supporters of the revolution. (Alpízar’s father, the head of a baker’s union, had backed the dictator.) Working in Romania, he was assigned by the Cuban government to cultivate fruits exotic to the Caribbean, including strawberries. At the time, Alpízar was more interested in grapes and winemaking. “I wanted to enjoy the outdoors, the fresh air, and eat to my heart’s content,” he says.
He returned to Cuba in the mid ’60s and grew strawberries on a collective farm in Banao, a mountainous valley of Sancti Spíritus. “I spent so much time with strawberries that I began to talk to them,” Alpízar says. “They were so delicate, they were like babies.” The higher elevation and cool microclimate was conducive to growing strawberries. But the breed—Mission—was too delicate, more akin to raspberries in size and texture, and the project lasted less than a decade.
“Strawberries will tell you when they’re sick,” he says. “If the petals fall, they need water; if the leaves have holes, bugs are bothering them.”
In 1972, the government tasked Alpízar with finding a firmer, more transportable variety. He spent two months traveling around Mexico with Cuban commerce officials, but found that many of the plants there were diseased. Hardier strains (notably the Parker strawberry) were grown in the U.S. To skirt the American embargo, officials made contact with a German-Chilean businessman connected to California growers. “With the embargo, I’m making tons of money,” the man told Alpízar. “Aside from drugs, I can get you anything.”
All Alpízar wanted were the strawberry plants. He arranged to meet the German-Chilean in Santiago and personally accompanied 80,000 of them—frozen, dormant, and bought for a quarter each—back to Cuba on a Russian Tupolev plane.
In San Antonio de los Baños, the small town where he now lives, Alpízar began cultivating them with the help of some 300 high school students. In an echo of the Cultural Revolution in China, Castro had begun sending thousands of students to live in rural boarding schools, where education was divided between the classroom and fields. Alpízar’s program produced enough fruit to supply Coppelia, Cuba’s hugely popular ice cream parlor. In the well-received 1993 Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate, set in the ’70s, fresa (strawberry) appeared as a daring alternative to mainstream and Communist chocolate.
As the Cuban economy went into a tailspin in the early 1990s, an era known as the período especial, government-mandated strawberry cultivation died out. By then, Alpízar had retired from a job at the Academy of Sciences and was living on a plot of land the government had awarded him. When the crisis hit, he and his family could no longer survive on his pension, so he began multiplying Parker plants and carrying the fruit to Havana to sell door-to-door.
At 89, he makes the two-hour journey to Havana—via a mix of horse carts, creaking buses, and rusty 1950s cars—several times a week during strawberry season. Most Cubans still don’t have access to strawberries. At $5 a pound they are an expensive luxury in a country where state employees earn about $25 a month. Few of Alpízar’s clients—mostly paladares, or private restaurants, and a small but growing affluent population—would recognize the retired agronomist as the Johnny Appleseed of the Cuban strawberry.
Even in his older age, Alpízar spends almost every morning working on the several-acre plot of land behind his apartment in San Antonio de los Baños. “Did you know that strawberries are in the rose family?” Alpízar asks no one in particular. “You wouldn’t think it, but they are. They really are beautiful things.”
By challenging myths about indigenous foodways, Bruce Pascoe helps Australians rediscover their true culinary heritage
Bruce Pascoe waded through the shallows at the mouth of Mallacoota Inlet, an estuary in southeastern Australia, on the Tasman Sea. He had a slight frown on his weathered face and a plastic bucket in hand as he lifted tree snags caught on sandbars.
“Not a one mussel left,” he said, climbing back onboard his runabout. “I can’t understand it. There were plenty last week.” Pascoe gunned the boat’s engine and headed for another bed. A lean man in his late 60s, he found more success after digging around with his bare toes, the tip of his long white beard damp as he bent in deeper water to grab up a dozen clams. He passed me the bucket and hauled up the anchor. I looked at the unfamiliar contents—like Pascoe, they were bearded and crusted in mud. “Blood cockles,” Pascoe said. “My people ate them when they were starving.”
Pascoe is descended from the Bunurong people of the Kulin nation, an alliance of indigenous groups that occupied south-central Victoria for some 40,000 years before European settlement in the early 19th century. A writer whose work is based on that legacy, Pascoe has lately turned to the subject of indigenous food. Australia has only recently come to recognize the debt owed to its First Peoples, after nearly two and a half centuries of abuses and land seizures. To Pascoe, food and agriculture are tied to acknowledging sovereignty, and may also create a pathway to reparation for an ages-old culture that thinks of land in metaphysical terms, not as mere real estate.
We cruised farther inland, where the waterway narrowed and turned brackish, cheerfully waving to fishermen casting for bream at the verge of a dense melaleuca forest. “That’s where we get clay for our initiation ceremonies,” he said, pointing to a curve on the riverbank where the soil turned from ochre to rust in hue. For aboriginal people of both sexes, this rite of passage occurs as they approach adulthood, when elders decide it’s time to pass on the mystical aspect of their language group and country. (Intricate body painting with clay is part of this tradition.) Pascoe told me he had helped initiate his own son Jack—a rare honor for both, because another elder belonging to the same clan usually takes on this responsibility rather than a parent.
A sea eagle circled overhead, hunting prey.
Pascoe was born in Richmond, a working-class suburb of Melbourne. As a younger man, he built farm fences, dove for abalone, worked as a bartender and rural schoolteacher. He crewed on a salmon fishing boat in Alaska and was a dog wrangler for a veterinary clinic in the Northern Territory. Now he is a professor in the educational support program for aboriginal students at the University of Technology Sydney. His 30-some books include novels, historical fiction, children’s stories, and a work on aboriginal language. Dark Emu, one of Pascoe’s most recent, refutes the widely accepted idea that precolonial inhabitants were primitive hunter-gatherers wandering the continent in search of sustenance. Rather than being haphazard foragers of witchetty grubs and such, aboriginal people, Pascoe argues, formed a highly sophisticated agricultural society with an ingrained, near-spiritual stewardship of the land. After the publication of Dark Emu, Pascoe took on yet another mission: building awareness of lost foodways through the rediscovery of native ingredients and an appreciation of the continent’s first caretakers. “Our whole culture is about sharing,” he said. “I know how important it’s going to be for the country and for aboriginal people to be involved in the resurgence of old crops, but you can’t eat our food if you can’t swallow our history.”
Pascoe now lives with his wife, Lyn Harwood, in Far East Gippsland, a rural corner of Victoria at the convergence of the Genoa and Wallagaraugh rivers, where cellphones are practically useless and the community newspaper, the Mallacoota Mouth, is stapled together by high school volunteers. It is one of Australia’s untamed landscapes, filled with alpine ranges, old-growth rain forests, coastal heathland, rare orchids, bushfire-scorched stands of eucalyptus that smell alkaline and resinous, and a vast network of rivers and lakes that empty into the Tasman Sea.
A pelican squatting on Pascoe’s dock ruffled its feathers in alarm at our arrival. “Don’t worry, brother,” Pascoe said. “We’ll be out of your way in no time.”
He transferred the cockles to a mesh bag and dunked them in the water to rinse them free of sand. As we headed toward his house, he pointed to lime-green succulents fringing the shoreline. I picked a handful. “That’s samphire,” he said. “It’s salt tolerant.” It tasted like juicer, saltier raw asparagus. In a shaded area next to his steep driveway, Pascoe stopped again, then kneeled to gather dense groundcover atop a compost pile. “We call this warrigal, but it’s also known as Cook’s cabbage,” he explained, offering me a cluster of spade-shaped leaves. “When James Cook landed in Australia, he fed this plant to his crew on the Endeavour. Without it, they would have died of scurvy.” Harwood uses the plant to make pesto with macadamia nuts from the orchard.
In Dark Emu, Pascoe describes the cultural practices of Australia’s indigenous population as a kind of “jigsaw mutualism.” Individuals served as temporal custodians of trees, rivers, pastures, and mountain ranges. Their conservancy of each piece of country was inevitably connected to those in the care of their neighbors. Astonishingly, this communal responsibility extended great distances, with an abiding trust that those elsewhere, in parts unknown, even with different dialects and totems, were upholding the same law of the land.
That balance changed drastically when colonial pastoralists introduced livestock to croplands that had been carefully tended for millennia. Yam daisy pastures in Victoria disappeared within a few years. Vast plains of kangaroo grass, once so abundant that those who harvested it were called the Grass People, turned to dust.
Later in the afternoon, Pascoe and his neighbor Denise Parker tackled his overgrown vegetable garden, patching fences and yanking out end-of-season tomato plants. “Did you hear about the fellow who was poaching mussels?” Parker asked, as she gathered unripe tomatoes in a burlap sack. “Caught trying to sell them up in Pambula, almost 50 pounds’ worth.”
“No wonder I couldn’t find any,” Pascoe said.
The pair were working to make space for native millet, Panicum decompositum, a staple grain of the aboriginal diet that is milled and baked in ashes into a cake. The seeds were delicate, tawny, attached to feathery pappi that aid wild dispersal by wind. Pascoe uprooted one of his yam daisies—the star-shaped dandelion-yellow flower and stalks were attached to a stubby tuber the size and color of a baby parsnip. “I’ll get a decent crop of these next year if I can keep the bush rats out,” he said.
One of Pascoe’s current outreach projects involves a prison work scheme for young offenders willing to participate in the next harvest cycle. It’s hard work, and he could use the extra helping hands. I asked him if he regretted the detour from literature and history into food advocacy and he sighed, trowel in hand. “I resent the time,” he admitted. “But I really can’t let this opportunity go, because I can see so many possibilities for young people, of whatever color, to get involved in looking after the ground.”
Dark Emu was a bestseller and recipient of several prestigious literary awards, but it resonated most with Australia’s leading chefs, including Ben Shewry of Melbourne’s Attica and Dan Hunter of Brae, in Victoria. Thanks to Pascoe’s writing and garden experiments, the yam daisy is about to join other native ingredients—wattleseed, saltbush, finger limes, quandong, lemon myrtle, muntries berries—finally finding their way into the mainstream Australian pantry. Shewry, who became a fishing buddy after reading Dark Emu, raised a test crop at his Ripponlea Estate kitchen garden this year on Pascoe’s urging. He served me a yam daisy for lunch one day in Melbourne. Simmered in salted water, then fried until caramelized, the tiny tuber tasted sweet, almost like a white yam.
“Bruce’s legacy will be that he helped educate Australians on what their true ingredients are,” Shewry says. “Not the ones that the first settlers brought here. I’m talking the plants that belong here, the endemic species that have been here for more than 50,000 years and that aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always known about, cared for, grown, and use as one of the most integral parts of their culture.”
Pascoe’s two blue heelers, Wangarabell and Yambulla, greeted us with joyful barking when we returned to his house. Harwood was proofing bread dough in the kitchen. She paints watercolors of songbirds and drives the Mallacoota fire truck, a red behemoth that barely fits on the narrow road into town. Both she and Pascoe are Country Fire Authority rural wardens. When we sat down to dinner, Harwood cut me generous slices of her spelt and kangaroo grass bread, still warm from the oven. It had a pleasant, herbaceous aroma.
Prehistoric grinding stones excavated at a dig in New South Wales have led Australian archeologists to propose that native grasses were ground into flour almost 38,000 years ago. It’s the oldest evidence of bread baking in the world. Harwood used a simple tabletop hand-crank grain mill to grind the kangaroo grass that Pascoe discovered growing wild in an unfertilized field next to the local airstrip. She showed me how they snapped the stems from the reddish brown seeds, smaller and thinner than grains of wild rice. The amount of labor required—harvesting, winnowing, grinding—for a single cup of flour was daunting.
Reviving these lost traditions has not been easy. “Even if it means separating the seed by hand, we’ve just got to keep going until we can make a loaf of bread,” Pascoe said.
He cracked open a blood cockle and blanched it in a pan with a red wine vinegar reduction. Thanks to the high level of hemoglobin that gives this muscular bivalve its name, the blood cockle is about as unlovely to look at as it sounds. But I slurped, then chewed, and was surprised by the mild briny taste and a texture that reminded me of abalone. Harwood’s warrigal pesto on grilled chicken took less effort to appreciate. The puréed leaves were close in flavor to spinach. Cook’s crew apparently put up a fight when forced to eat this alien superfood. (Not every sailor is a natural Popeye.)
Harwood cleared the dishes while Pascoe tuned into National Indigenous Television to watch the Marngrook Footy Show. The dogs jumped up next to me for couch time, so I scratched Wangarabell’s dappled head as indigenous commentators rehashed the weekly Australian rules football matches. “My neighbors up here to the west, their totem is the blue wren, and the other totem is the emu wren, slightly smaller. And my friends put them on their football jumpers. How cute is that?” Pascoe said. “These big bold men running around in footy jumpers with tiny birds on them and feeling no shame because these creatures represent the power of the earth.”
I asked Pascoe to tell me what the “dark emu” represents. He beckoned me outside to look at the night sky, where we located the Southern Cross. As the constellation defined by dark nebulae came into focus, the distinct outline of a bird resting its head under the cross became clear in the negative space. He explained the myth of an emu totem spirit that left earth to reside in the Milky Way. The story varies in interpretation from group to group, but Pascoe said the bird is linked with the wide grasslands of Australia, because Aborigines used the seasonal movement of constellations to know when to harvest.
“Our people would always choose to sleep outside with a view of the sky if they could,” he said. “We were such great astronomers, because we knew the sky so well. Europeans stare at the stars, but aboriginal people also see the spaces between, where the dark emu resides.” Perhaps that’s how Pascoe knows to look at an overgrown field on the edge of an airstrip and see a loaf of bread in Australia’s past—and another in its future.
An ambitious program in Philadephia is gathering groups in conflict around the dinner table to discuss some deep-seated issues. Drew Lazor reports from the front lines of sharing food for social understanding
“To listen,” Harris Sokoloff instructed the name-tagged onlookers stuffed around the stove, “is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”
That silky strand of page-a-day calendar wisdom, which originates with the spiritual writer Mark Nepo, was the perfect pleasantry to kick off a recent evening centered on cultivating common ground. Hosted inside Philadelphia’s venerable Reading Terminal Market (RTM), “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers” is an ongoing dinner series that encourages communities at odds to connect over food, using what’s on the plate as an on-ramp toward shared understanding.
Made possible by a Knight Cities Challenge grant, “Breaking Bread” is built around a simple but powerful act: relying on the equalizing power of food to build bonds between people who don’t see eye to eye. It’s the perfect undertaking for the 125-year-old market space. In his study The Cosmopolitan Canopy, sociologist Elijah Anderson identifies the Terminal, a Center City destination trafficked by tourists and locals alike, as an “urban island of civility” free of segregation and discrimination.
“[There are] increasingly few spaces where strangers of completely different backgrounds—different ethnicities, different incomes, different races, different geography—come together, intermingle, build relationships,” said RTM general manager Anuj Gupta. This makes his 80,000-square-foot office the ideal proving ground for a big-picture idea like “Breaking Bread.“ The goal is to learn directly from people different from you—first by watching (and often helping) them prepare their food, then by sitting down and eating it with them.
Organizers lean on contacts in the non-profit and community-organizing worlds to recruit diners of all stripes, especially those with documented histories of friction. Much of this conflict falls along racial lines. So far, they’ve tackled relations between Koreans and African-Americans coexisting along 52nd Street, and encouraged longtime South Philadelphia residents to chop it up with their Cambodian neighbors. African immigrants have shared meals and stories with their African-American counterparts. Another month, they welcomed a group of Syrian refugees to the Terminal.
Gupta says he’s heard positive feedback from within the participating communities so far—dinner is not an instantaneous solution to a complex problem, of course, but having real conversations through the prism of cooking is a good place to start.
June’s installment, the sixth in the series, brought together reps from three Philly communities: Chinese, Mexicans, and Mummers, who over the years have managed to piss off Chinese people, Mexican people, and pretty much anyone who isn’t straight and white.
A practice that stretches back centuries, Mummery has its roots in old European folk performance: garishly dressed players recreating historical events to amuse and thrill a crowd. In Philadelphia, this plays out in the form of a city-sponsored parade that’s taken place every New Year’s Day since 1901. The Mummers, a mostly Caucasian, mostly male, and largely Italian-American affiliation numbering in the thousands, show off dance routines, amazing costumes, elaborate floats, and live musical numbers as they hit their signature struts up and down Broad Street. The parade seems to be an absolute blast for the performers, and it’s fun for spectators, too—as long as you don’t end up on the wrong end of a racist and/or homophobic sendup.
As Billy Penn puts it in their detailed timeline of January 1 misgivings, “the Mummers really do provide at least one WTF moment every year.” Performances have featured buffoonish caricatures of Indians (both Native Americans and people from India), cringeworthy minstrel show tributes, children and adults in brownface, and Caitlyn Jenner-themed skits of highly questionable taste, with touches of blatant homophobia. There have been violent incidents, too. And that’s just in the past couple years. Blackface was not officially banned from the parade until the 1960s, but some contemporary participants have decided to sidestep that longstanding decree.
It’s important to note right up front that most Mummers troupes are not this way. But basically, if you are a minority like me, it’s easy to witness the bad stuff, say “fuck the Mummers,” and leave it at that.
It’s this exact attitude “Breaking Bread” aims to address. The Mummers have a large presence in the city. We start our year with them. I’d love to watch the parade, an only-in-Philly undertaking I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else, thrive in perpetuity, as a welcoming event for everyone. But not every Mummer seems comfortable with the idea of change, or willing to hold their ranks accountable for what they put out there.
Some Mummers bristle at any criticism, responding with a chorus of justifications: This is an important tradition, lighten up, you’re too PC and sensitive, it’s all in good fun, people are so easily offended these days. A more forward-thinking element, however, realizes that passing these practices on to the next generation means they must distance themselves from the exclusionary aspects of the culture. That’s how this commingling came about.
Dr. Sokoloff, a University of Pennsylvania prof who directs the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, served as the emcee for the event, which started in the Terminal’s brightly lit open kitchen. Here, cooks representing each of the communities seated at the table demonstrated how to prepare their plato tipico, a dish that represents their culture and cuisine.
Alice Ye of Five Spice Philly talked the crowd through her pork and vegetable dumplings, yanking volunteers from the crowd to pinch dough with her. The audience involvement continued with Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez, the outspoken chefs behind South Philly Barbacoa, as they pressed tortillas from freshmade masa to go with their verdolagas con pollo, chicken legs cooked with purslane. The Mummers, meanwhile, were represented behind the burners by Steven Mastero and Rocco Gallelli, genial caterers who showed off their New Year’s special pork tenderloin, stuffed with roasted peppers, spinach, and cheese, then rolled and tied porchetta-style before slow-roasting in the oven.
After the cooking demos, the food made its way into steam tables, and attendees made plates and found their seats, assigned randomly to guarantee intermingling. Each table was looked after by a moderator to lead the discussion. Ezekiel Mathur, a enthusiastic rep from the city’s Commission on Human Relations, opened our 11-person table’s discussion with a broad talking point: What do you like about culture?
“You might know what’s outlined in a book, but when you talk to people, it’s really, really interesting,” answered John Pignotti, a loquacious full-blooded Italian Mummer from South Philly. “Keep an open mind…sometimes you bump heads and sometimes you don’t.” Jim Ervin, a member of the Avalon String Band, described how much he enjoyed discussing holiday and wedding traditions with coworkers of different nationalities.
This sentiment was echoed by Lorraine Lew, a Chinese-American librarian sitting across the from me: “The more you know about different people, the more you realize that people are basically the same.” Lew went on to describe her childhood, growing up the only Asian kid in a nearly all-white Jersey town. I really related to this. This is cool, I thought. Maybe we can find some real common ground here, internalizing each other’s experiences.
Then they all started talking about gravy.
Gravy is South Philly slang for red sauce, the stuff in a gently bubbling pot Italian cooks like to fuss over for hours before ladling it out to the Sunday dinner crowd. Every Mummer at the table had so much to say about gravy.
“When you walk down the street and you smell that garlic cooking in olive oil, you know somebody’s cooking gravy.”
“Some people make gravy and they put onions and peppers in it.”
“I went to Disney World and ate in Epcot and the waiter had no idea what gravy is!”
Lord, we talked about gravy for what felt like forever. Yes, “Breaking Bread” was meant to be an equal-opportunity exchange. I was very happy to learn about what Mummers love to eat. The problem was that none of the non-Mummers at our table could get their stories to stick the same way.
Yaroslava Camacho, a half-Mexican, half-Russian employee of Philly’s Mexican Cultural Center, offered up anecdotes about both sides of her clan, fondly remembering her abuela’s tamales and her babushka’s tendency to crush all house guests with huge spreads of food. Instead of asking her follow-up questions, the Mummers nodded and started talking to each other about their mothers.
I expressed how much I identified with Lew’s upbringing, as one of just a few minority kids in a mostly white town, recounting aloud how kids would leer at me for brown-bagging Tupperwares of Filipino food as they munched on Lunchables and Capri Suns.
"I remember Lunchables!" one Mummer replied, following it up with a tangent about meatballs.
Much of the discussion went this way—non-Mummers throwing personal stuff out there, Mummers pulling the conversation back to themselves. I’m not exactly sure how it went at other tables, but at mine, we didn’t seem to make much progress. Nearly an hour passed before I even got the chance to broach the topic of long-standing insensitivity among the ranks.
“Seeing those skits on Broad Street and sitting down to eat with you all are two very different things,” I said. “Are there misconceptions out there about Mummer culture?”
“Absolutely,” the Mummers responded nearly in unison, rattling off various ways they’re maligned in the public eye.
To be fair, many Mummers have been making sincere efforts to improve the parade in recent years, attending sensitivity trainings organized by the Philly HRC and encouraging the creation of diverse, non-traditional troupes, like the Vaudevillains. But the pervasive negativity hasn’t left, and not everyone thinks this can just be fixed. “Are there some problems with the parade sometimes?” asked Bill Burke, vice president of the Philadelphia Mummers Brigade Association. “Yes. With people we have no control over.”
That’s not good enough. I believe the Mummers I broke bread with are good people. I don’t believe they are racist. I know that the number of bigoted Mummers pales in comparison to those who work to keep it an inclusive, family-friendly event. But that doesn’t change the fact that very visible rotten element remains, and shrugging that off with a tired bad apple excuse is not helping. Failing to really hear people who are making an effort to explain how bigotry affects them is not helping, either.
“Breaking Bread” is an ambitious operation, and I’m thankful it exists. But after attending, I realized that the process is only as impactful as its participants permit. One Mummer, who was quiet during the table session, pulled me aside as everyone was packing up to leave. “There could be things that could be offensive,” he explained earnestly. “It’s not meant to hurt. It’s an attempt to be funny. Sometimes I’ll say something thinking I’m being funny and I’ll offend someone. It happens. That’s not what the parade’s about.”
Putting myself in his position, I can understand how he’d feel that way. So why can’t he do the same for me? This is the real problem, and no amount of chicken and dumplings is going to change that.
In Texas, cow-nabbing is alive and well. Special rangers like Wayne Goodman spend their days tracking down the bad guys
Tires crackle over a gravel lot and roll to a stop. A rusty latch clangs loose. And amid the manure and mud of a rural, open-air sale barn—a place where beef and dairy cattle are auctioned—in Stephenville, Texas, a 1,300-pound cow ambles out of a trailer, belly swaying side to side.
“See that right there?” Wayne Goodman asks, prodding me in the ribs with his elbow. “That’s your steak in motion.”
A slight, spry 60-year-old with fine white hair and robin’s-egg blue eyes, Goodman is like a character straight out of a Western: He catches cattle thieves for a living.
Cow-nabbing is alive and well in Texas, and as one of 30 special rangers with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), Goodman, a former police detective, spends his days tracking down the bad guys (“No gals, really,” he says) who “rustle” cattle from their rightful owners.
“Can I call them rustlers? Do people still do that?” I ask. Goodman grins. “Of course, kid, what else would you call them?”
Stealing cattle in the country’s largest beef-producing state can prove to be highly lucrative—a single cow can go for a grand on the black market, a bull for closer to $3,000—but the penalties are also fierce. In early 2016, a man was sentenced to 30 years in prison (with Goodman’s help) for two counts of first-degree felony cattle theft, and this kind of weighty sentence isn’t uncommon. Working in tandem with local police departments and district attorneys, the special rangers also solve a host of other agriculture-adjacent crimes affecting cattlemen, from stolen saddles to pilfered farming equipment, and recover a whopping $5 million a year on average through their sleuthing. When it comes to bovines (and beyond), they’re the law.
Goodman, who has family in both the dairy- and hog-farming trades, worked for decades to achieve ranger status. The position is a highly coveted one, and for years before being called to duty, Goodman put in an application each time a slot opened up.
Now, he relishes every minute of it. In his eight-county district just south of Fort Worth, Goodman is constantly on call.
Driving past wildflower-dappled fields, he’s working six cases at once, sipping coffee from a thermos and phoning market inspectors and fellow rangers in pursuit of lost steer and cattle-selling con men. Most phone calls end with a fraternal “Alright, Bubba.”
“I got a call from a woman who thinks her six miniature donkeys were stolen,” Goodman says, rolling his eyes. The TSCRA represents more than 50,000 people in ranching and beef production who manage 4 million head of cattle, but it helps out other types of farmers, too. “You can’t give those things away, but she thinks someone took them, so I’m still looking into it. If anything, the coyotes probably got ’em.”
Goodman’s getup is about as Walker, Texas Ranger as it comes. While his ten-gallon hat, official badge, and boots are impressive, it’s the carved leather, double-buckle belt that steals the spotlight. With a monogrammed holster for his 1911-style pistol (also monogrammed) and a handcuff pouch, it’s the Swiss army knife of accessories.
“When a cow goes missing, I go to the sale barns and say, ‘Watch for these types,’ ” he explains. When a cow is branded, it’s much easier to track, though unlike many states, Texas doesn’t require cows to have a brand. “The ranchers we work with mostly aren’t big, monster producers, so when one or two head of cattle are taken, it really hurts them. If you need more insurance to cover your cattle in case of theft, that’s passed down to the consumer and beef prices go up.”
Goodman asks around after the whereabouts of a rogue bull at the sale barn, where an auction is set to take place at noon, and I watch as dozens of wobbly-kneed calves are led into pens, bumping into one another like schoolchildren on a playground.
“See now, this one doesn’t want to come on out,” a barn worker explains about the runt of the bunch, a black-and-white mottled baby hiding from the others. “Here’s what you have to do to get ’em.” He sticks his pinkie into the calf’s mouth, and she immediately latches on as if it were a bottle—happy now, comfortably following the man toward the other calves.
There’s a level of familiarity, almost intimacy, with the cows that comes naturally to everyone involved. Cow-print couches in offices, walls lined with livestock-judging photos, and display cases full of bovine trinkets are committed kitsch. Cow puns are de rigueur. For those in any part of ranching, working with cattle isn’t just a trade, it’s a way of life—one that will be protected for a long time to come, if Goodman has anything to say about it.
“We’re all in this together to make sure our ranchers, and the cows, are protected,” the special ranger says as he waves toward an incoming heifer-hauling Ford F-150. “What job could be better than this?”
How to eat and drink the best of Ishikawa—and where to buy it even if you can't make the trip
If you love Japanese food, you should know about Ishikawa. A few hours away from Tokyo by bullet train, it’s a lush coastal prefecture where mountains, and farmland meet the Sea of Japan. Those microclimates produce a bounty of ingredients—sea urchin harvested by ama (a long tradition of female divers), rare herbs and mushrooms from the mountains, rice grown in terraced fields framed by snowy peaks. And shokunin (lifelong craftspeople) transform raw materials into sake, fish sauce, and sophisticated ingredients.
Kanazawa, Ishikawa’s most cosmopolitan and best-known city where the train from Tokyo will deposit you, displays local cuisine and crafts at their most refined (it’s one of the few cities in Japan where tea ceremony still holds a strong place in the culture). You can find most of the region’s best things to eat without even leaving Kanazawa Station: the underground souvenir hall sells an embarrassment of riches, from delicate sweets to giant dried fish. Venture a little south to the mountainous hot spring villages of Kaga to pick up local sake and wooden cups (a craft called Yamanaka shikki) to drink it from. If you’re really dedicated, you’ll rent a car to explore the Noto Peninsula, where culinary traditions developed in isolation and remained nearly untouched, even as the rest of the country has sped towards modernization and convenience.
This is the tranquil tradition-rich Japan we idealize, but that’s increasingly hard to find.
You shouldn’t try to take home the winter snow crab that draws gastrotourists from all over Japan, or the 15 colorful designated regional vegetables harvested in Kaga (I did once, unsuccessfully, attempt to smuggle back a bunch of incredibly fragrant mountain mint), but there lots of edible souvenirs that will pack neatly in your suitcase (or ship to your door). Here are some culinary treasures to keep an eye out for.
Japan’s finest fish sauce is made from cuttlefish innards (or sardines) and fermented in ancient wooden vats for one to three years until it mellows into a deeply savory seasoning. It’s less sharp and bright than its Southeast Asian analog, more meaty and earthy, faintly smoky. After that long fermentation, the sauce is concentrated by simmering over a wood fire and clarified by filtering. A tiny bottle of this potent stuff will last you a year, dashed into soups and sauces—anything you’d add fish sauce or anchovy to—for depth and complexity. The most famous use is probably ishiri nabe, a soup made with dashi, squid, nappa cabbage, and other vegetables.
Eaters the world over have begged Flatt’s, a small inn that brews cuttlefish ishiri according to an old family recipe, to ship the stuff abroad, but you’ll still have to go to Noto to get it. In Wajima (the most popular/accessible destination in Noto) you’ll see ishiri (also called ishiru)—in the fish market that’s made with sardines and/or mackeral, or a combination of fish and cuttlefish innards. It has a slightly lighter flavor; the cuttlefish stuff has the highest amount of amino acids (aka umami) of any fish sauce in the world.
Outside Noto, where roadside souvenir stands and food markets sell an assortment, ishiri is hard to find even in Japan. Japanese grocers in the U.S. often sell shottsuru, a more common Japanese fish sauce. There’s at least one ishiri seller on Amazon, and Mutual Trading Company in New York carries some.
Noto’s salt is considered by many chefs to be the best in the world. A drive along the narrow coastal highway through Suzu, at the far tip of Noto peninsula, is a journey through the history of sea salt making. A tiny museum offers salt flavored ice cream (the reason your author pulled over) and concise exhibits about the industry’s progression through the ages. As you drive past various producers you can see the methods in action from historic terraced sand fields, where seawater is raked across until syrupy and the strained and crystallized over a fire, to thoroughly modern factories, and all manner in between.
Shinkai (recommended by Ben Flatt, the chef at Flatt’s) uses a mixture of traditional and modern methods to produce large flaky crystals favored by chefs, and well, anyone with eyes and tastebuds who has the luxury of enjoying good salt. A quick tour of their factory, where cauldrons of concentrated sea water boil over wood fires, is itself worth a trip to this remote peninsula (you can also buy their nigari, the liquid minerals drained from the salt, which is used as the coagulant in tofu making). But if you don’t venture that far, you can find Noto salt all over Ishikawa (as well as salt soda, candy, etc), and via some badly translated links on Amazon, or at an exorbitant price (still cheaper than a flight to Japan) from The Meadow.
Imagine a tea that tickles your nose with grassy, toasty steam, then mellows into a faintly sweet roasted nutty flavor as you sip. That’s the special tea of the region, a perfect example of how Kaga excels in making ordinary material into extraordinary products. Kukicha or boucha—twig tea—is sometimes thought of as a common (in the derogatory and/or proletariat sense) because it’s made from the stems of the camellia sinensis shrub rather than its prized leaves. But in Kaga this tea is refined it into an brew fit for an emperor—to the point that producers now cultivate the plants specifically for quality stems.
The story goes that Emperor Showa (who reigned from 1926-1989) prefered hojicha (roasted green tea), and the first Kaga boucha was prepared for him by Maruhachi tea company during his 1983 visit to Kanazawa. Since then, it’s become a specialty of the region.
Because it’s roasted, kaga boucha is richly nutty and fragrant, yet it’s mellow enough to drink with anything—sweet or savory—or all on its own (it’s easy on the stomach and lower in caffeine than standard green tea). My favorite way is to make ochazuke at the end of a meal: pour it over a bowl of rice with an umeboshi (salty pickled plum) and mix it up into a savory porridge. I got used to drinking it daily while staying in Kaga, and brought back four large packages for gifts; I have to confess, feeling nostalgic I drank up three of them myself.
If you’re passing through Kanazawa Station, stop by Maruhachi’s counter in the Anto souvenir market for brewed or packaged tea. (You’ll also see this tea in any Kanazawa or Kaga gift shop worth its salt.) Can’t get to Japan? Try ordering from Lupicia. If you’re a DIYer, you can toast green kukicha in a dry pan (as you would spices) just until it turns golden-to-reddish brown, making a tasty approximation, and filling your house with the perfume of toasted tea.
Ishikawa Sake: I’m Biased, but it Really is the Best
It seems all but the southernmost regions of Japan (where shochu is the thing) claim sake as a prized product. I’m biased towards Ishikawa, because that’s where I developed my palate for Japanese drinks apprenticing in a small but respected sake bar. It turns out, lots of other people also think this sake is especially good. Ishikawa has the combination of cool winters, good water, and good rice (historically, though now it’s brought in from all over Japan to supplement what each brewery grows in the off-season) that make for good sake.
My favorite brewery (again, I’m biased because of a personal connection, but sake expert John Gauntner lists it as a favorite too) is Shishi no Sato. In spite of pleas from exporters, they refuse to distribute outside Japan—in fact, you’ll seldom see it outside Kaga, where they extract their water from the mountainside under Ioji buddhist temple. But, you’re in luck! My other favorites, Tedorigawa (featured in the documentary The Birth of Sake) and Tengumai, are in sake shops, restaurants and Japanese supermarkets around the US (distribution varies by state).
You have to drive through mountains and across deserts, but the drinks at the White Buffalo Bar in the tiny town of Marathon are worth the journey
Margaritas flow like water in Texas. Some are delicious and refreshing; others gross and hangover-inducing. And there are plenty of signs outside bars trying to convince you they have “the best margarita in the state.” Drinker beware: most are not as advertised.
From decades of living in and traveling around Texas, I've found the best are often where you least expect them. And my personal favorite—don't hate me—comes from the White Buffalo Bar at the Gage Hotel in the tiny town of Marathon.
Over in far west Texas, just north of Big Bend National Park, Marathon is one-horse town so small it doesn't have a single traffic light. But the Gage, which dates back to 1927, is making margaritas that meet any modern standard for greatness.
This corner of Texas is almost otherworldly in its beauty: remote and grandiose, dry and jagged, intimate and enormous all at once. “The stars at night are big and bright” only makes sense once you’ve seen the night sky in West Texas. The first time I saw this part of the state was on a road trip I took with my brother, who was more familiar with the area. So of course, he took me to the White Buffalo and ordered me their house margarita, which was limey and tart and mildly sweet and salty and just the right amount of boozy. Of course I quickly ordered a second. Okay, then a third. Fresh and bright with lots of lime, rounded out by the gentle hum of orange liqueur, and built on a base of fruity, funky blanco tequila, the drinks were pretty close to perfect.
I've never stopped thinking about that trip, and that margarita; it became a kind of legend for me. And on a recent trip around the Texas-Mexico border, I had a chance to stop by the Gage for another drink.
Was it as good as I remembered? Absolutely.
Welcome to Boquillas del Carmen, population 300, that you visit by rowboat across the Rio Grande—unless Washington's border policies change everything (again)
The best way to cross the border to Boquillas del Carmen is aboard the Boquillas International Ferry—a $5 round-trip rowboat ride. A village of about 300, Boquillas is on the south side of the Rio Grande, nestled inside Big Bend National Park, which straddles the Mexican-American border. There are signs at border control discouraging swimming, but some tourists wade through the green water on hot days.
After September 11, the crossing here closed. Until then, this stretch of border had always been fluid, devoid of checkpoints. Tourists seeking tacos at the town’s single restaurant and tequila at its only bar entered freely, and Boquillas residents could run errands in Rio Grande Village (the nearest Mexican town, Santa Rosa de Múzquiz, is 160 miles away). When the United States sealed this corridor, Boquillas, which depended almost solely on American tourism, changed overnight.
The town’s original restaurant, José Falcon’s, opened in 1973. When its owner and namesake died in 2000, his wife, Ofelia, and daughter Lilia took over, serving a small menu of tacos and burritos made with this region’s ubiquitous chewy, fresh tortillas filled with meat, cheese, green salsa, and the occasional diced tomato or potato.
At Falcon’s, locally made beaded jewelry and painted ceramic bowls are for sale, and tables are draped in hues of blue. A framed, weathered photo of José hangs over the cash register. Lilia watches her daughters take orders. Nearly every table is full, and residents reminisce about crossing without security, and the propane trucks that would arrive daily to power refrigerators keeping their beers cold.
“When the border closed, I remember seeing my mom pack the blankets and onyx figures that she and my dad sold here,” Lilia says. “It’s still very hard to think about that day.”
She was no longer able to cross into the U.S. to buy ingredients, and her American customers disappeared. Eventually the restaurant closed, and for 11 years, the town was suspended in a sort of limbo. Its 50 families dwindled to four. Some went to Santa Rosa de Múzquiz to the southeast, and others left for the U.S. to look for work. They didn’t know when, if ever, the border would reopen.
But in 2013 it did, and Lilia’s staff was ready. The work still isn’t easy—once a week she makes the 160-mile drive on a dirt road to Múzquiz to buy basics like eggs and soap—and the present border fluidity feels precarious, but for now, the town has settled back into its routine.
Families have returned, and just past the bar, the church, and a few brightly colored homes, a small garden of solar panels has been installed. Financed by the World Bank in 2015, the panels introduced permanent electricity to Boquillas, allowing the Falcons to run a refrigerator for the first time without propane.
At Park Bar, a Spanish singer croons over crackly speakers and bartender Miguel Valdez chats with customers. Valdez is one of the town’s two ambulance drivers. The town judge is the other.
“Everybody who left started to return, and the town came back to life,” Max, a Boquillas resident, recalls. “Kids born when the border was closed were shocked by the newcomers in their tiny town. They had never seen a gringo before.”
The future is still uncertain, though. Max, like other locals, is worried about the border closing again. “If it does happen, everyone will leave,” he says. “Our economy is tourism.”
More Scenes From Boquillas
Come hamsi season, as they're called in Turkish, the silvery, sweet fish are everywhere on the northern coast
On a bright, brittle January morning in Sinop, Turkey, fishmonger Mert Kanal barked into a headset, “Where are the hamsi?!” Agitated customers milled outside his family’s fish shop and restaurant, Okyanus Balik Evi. They weren’t waiting for the shimmering blue-striped bonito, pink mullet, or gargantuan flounders heaped on the restaurant’s tables. They wanted hamsi—anchovies from the Black Sea that Turks call “the prince of fishes.”
Most mornings between October and February, commercial trawlers on this part of the coast disgorge hills of anchovies at the pier. But for almost a week, violent squalls had prevented them from docking. The previous night, the skies had finally cleared. The big boats were back, and crews worked feverishly, loading crates into refrigerated trucks. Sinop residents wanted their share of the catch—and so did I.
“Hamsi are best when the snow falls on the sea,” Kanal said. This is because the fish develop an extra-thick layer of fat in frigid water. I first met Kanal in front of his shop on my initial visit in 2011 (I have made the pilgrimage for hamsi most years since). “I’ve come to eat anchovies,” I told him, and two hours later I watched as Kanal and his colleagues prepared hamsi tava—anchovies coated in corn flour and fried—in a skillet set atop a single gas canister. They were crackly-crunchy outside, firm-fleshed within, briny like the sea from which they’d just been scooped.
Anchovies are a lifeblood on the Black Sea, employing thousands of idle off-season workers from farms and hazelnut orchards annually. And the fish are an indelible part of local culture: They are said to have inspired the twitchy upper-body movements of a Pontic Greek Black Sea folk dance called the horon. During the season, they’re eaten as many times a day as the supply will allow, and in all sorts of ways—grilled, fried, poached, stewed, stuffed, baked into breads, or piled into pilafs.
So it’s been for centuries. Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi visited the Black Sea in the 15th century and described fishmongers announcing the arrival of a catch by blowing trumpets: “By God’s dispensation, if people praying in the mosque hear it, they will immediately leave their prayer and come running for the hamsi.”
In late autumn of 2011, the catch was so thick that an industrial grinder was brought to Sinop’s pier to turn the fish into fertilizer on the spot. But the next year, warm waters and a surfeit of bonito, which prey on young anchovies, made for a dismal catch. Many fishmongers, Kanal included, were reduced to selling inferior specimens from the Sea of Marmara, inland waters that connect the Aegean to the Black Sea.
Perhaps it’s the disappointing seasons that make anchovies so beloved. “Hamsi is not a fish. Hamsi is hamsi,” say Black Sea dwellers, as explanation for their obsession. As for me, I’ll continue to make the trek as often as I can, no matter the size of the catch.
Saveur’s resident Scandiphile eats and drinks his way through Copenhagen in search of cultural transformation
“What is a good kiss?”
Chef Bo Bech and I are sitting on the canal-side patio of his restaurant Geist talking about what makes a Dane a Dane. He’s greeted me with a steady gaze that makes me feel, too much so, seen. I’ve met him for drinks (lemon-thyme cocktails—he’s decided for us both) so he can help me understand what it is that makes his fellow countrypeople tick.
I travel a lot, but I keep coming back to Denmark. On each trip I’ve noted and envied the invincibly chill vibes of this fine city, and each time I’ve returned home with arms full of asymmetric T-shirts and clean-lined ceramics hoping to infuse my New York life with some semblance of Nordic order and ease.
This time, I explain to Bo, I want more. I’m back in town with the earnest, specific (and probably impossible) goal of going native, of turning myself into a Dane.
What this has to do with kissing I don’t know—but Bo is studying my face, waiting for a reply.
No teeth? Good breath?
“What is a good kiss?” Bo asks again, resolutely unmoved by my attempts to solve his riddle.
When you just know?
Bo nods. It’s thoughtless, organic. Natural. It’s his way of explaining the state of being Danish.
“To be Danish,” Bo says, “is to be present. To go with the flow. Go explore! When I go somewhere, I want an authentic, emotional, punishing experience. I want a fist in the face.”
I do not want a fist in my face, but I see his point. Lesson one: Have a wide open mind.
It’s worth noting that Bo is not a typical Dane (or human for that matter). People here are, stereotypically, humble to a fault. Bo starred in a reality cooking show that loosely translates as “Knife to the Throat.” He’s been called a Danish Gordon Ramsay. I’d liken him more to Oprah if Oprah were a fierce advocate for self-actualization and public urination. But he embodies the Scandinavian ethos of absolute candor—zero patience for idle chatter. He cuts to the chase with a directness that borders on violence.
“So, what have you planned to do this week?” Bo asks, stroking his beard, turning his attention to my concrete efforts.
“Well, to be honest—”
“No!” Bo snaps. “That! That was not Danish. We do not say ‘To be honest’ in Denmark! What you just told me is ‘Oh, now I will begin being honest.’ To be Danish is to not be afraid of saying exactly what is happening at any moment, with elegance and wit.”
I ask Bo how to shake the feeling that I’m a self-conscious visitor passing through a foreign land—how to, instead, feel I belong.
“Do you ever Instagram certain obligatory places or dishes to prove you’ve properly ‘done’ somewhere? I know it’s bullshit but—”
“Andrew! What is this thing you have, this real you and this other you?” Bo asks. “The way you live—you are in danger.”
A bit embarrassed, I ask to be excused, to go to the bathroom “real quick.”
“You can also do it real slow!” he shouts as I walk away.
What is it about traveling that inspires us to become other people? We take home these habits and traditions like souvenirs.
Maybe you’ve gone to Paris and picked up an ironic shrug, a taste for andouillette, and reflexively contrarian views. Or returned from Italy with a tendency for daily spritzes and exaggerated gesticulation.
For me, Denmark’s mind-expanding food and eerily serene design has always been a draw but my love can be traced to this one moment: Out one night at 5 a.m., well after the summer sun had tapped the horizon and drifted back into the sky, I witnessed a band of locals peel off their clothes, let out giggles and roars, and dive into a canal. What fantastic freedom! I thought. To have a perfectly logical drunken whim that wasn’t thwarted by modesty or the absence of towels or a fear of mutant waterborne diseases. I jumped in, too.
To wade into the current of real life here, I’ll need to remember how to ride a bicycle. Fifty percent of Copenhagen residents get to work on two wheels. Instead of renting one, Bo had implored me to buy one (“You will not truly care for it if you don’t own it—I can already tell you are not going to do this”), so I wander into one of the many bicycle shops in Nørrebro, a neighborhood known as much for Turkish kebab joints as stylish bars and canteens. I try to explain to Abdullah, the store owner, why I want to purchase this Scandinavian-gray fellow in the window for my seven-day stay.
“I do not understand what you are trying to say,” he says.
“I want to feel like the bike is truly mine,” I explain.
“But this makes absolutely no sense!” he says. “I cannot allow this. You will rent the bike.”
Worn down by sensible demands, I hand over the money and ride off.
Merging into Copenhagen’s wide, cerulean bike lanes is a trust fall of sorts, especially when the sky is spitting hail, as it is this afternoon. I wobble into a procession of speedy locals and do this move where my front wheel skims the curb, my bike skids to a halt, and I skip along on one foot in search of my balance. A woman in high heels breezes by while lighting a cigarette with both hands.
Eventually, I catch a rhythm in the right-hand slow lane. When you move through the city by bike, it opens up. Pedaling anywhere is twice as fast as a cab, bus, or metro, plus you’ve got the added thrill of moving among locals in the way that locals prefer to move.
It’s Friday, late afternoon, and I’m heading down the central drag of Gothersgade with no particular destination in mind. I take a right at the King’s Garden and point my three-speed Cykelstad toward the first place in the city that really charmed me, Ved Stranden 10, a waterfront wine bar that sits opposite Christiansborg Palace.
As the Danish welfare system has attempted to organize happiness, Ved Stranden 10’s owners Christian Nedergaard and Sebastian Rind Nellemann have attempted to organize another unorganizable state: spontaneity. Situated in what looks like a minimally decorated living room, their wine bar has no list. All that stands between you and the cellar’s thousand or so bottles is a conversation with another person, one trained in the art of wine matchmaking.
“I wanted to create a space where I and other people could function as humans,” says Nedergaard, who served in the Danish army before getting into hospitality. “I don’t hire drones—I hire people with a certain empathy.”
It’s a common complaint that Denmark has chilly service, but I’d wager no one who’s said that has been greeted by Alisa, whose presence is warm and serene. She leads me to a communal table and asks what I’m in the mood for.
I usually, thoughtlessly, fall back on a few preferred varietals and can’t remember the last time I’d considered how wine can mirror your emotions in a particular place and time. Challenge me, I say. I’m open to lots of weird things that aren’t a heavy red.
“Oh, I wasn’t thinking of red for you anyways,” she assures me.
Alisa returns with two bottles: a white that tastes like burgundy but is actually from the Loire and an Austrian pétillant naturel—both pretty but not quite right for whatever mood I’m working to feed. In New York, I’d feel so awful someone had spent 5 minutes rooting around to find something I liked that I would have just faked loving one. In the spirit of Danishness, I pass on both, in a direct and friendly manner. She seems delighted and promptly returns with a third: a viscous, briny, oxidized rosé from a Greek producer, Ligas. It’s bizarre and perfect.
Later, after a tall pour of chalky sancerre made by Sébastien Riffault, whose vineyard Alisa once worked on, I’m buzzed and my phone is nearly dead. It’s 5 p.m. and the bar begins filling up with locals whose precise 37.5-hour work weeks have come to an end. A rowdy group of four joins my table and orders a bottle of pinot noir. Sayeh, one of my new tablemates, a glamorous, self-possessed, shoulder-padded doctor who could have starred in Dynasty, leans over and cracks a joke, in dansk. “Oh, you’re not Danish!” she says.
“Well, 20 percent if you believe a website I mailed my spit to.”
“Oh, she did one of those, too,” her friend Henrik says. “Watch out! She is Russian.”
Before I can refuse the offer, they’ve poured me a glass of their wine.
Where French and Germans cheers to your health, Scandinavians literally yell “skull”—as in pass me the skull of the human we just scalped, the skull that, in Viking times, would have spilled mead between hands. The no-nonsense thing runs deep.
Sayeh’s group invites me to join them for dinner next door. “Come, you’re going with us,” they say while handing me my jacket. I’ve learned there’s not much use in arguing with one, let alone four, resolute Danes. So I go with the flow.
We settle the bill and walk across the street to Christian Nedergaard’s second act, the new Japanese-inflected Admiralgade 26. There, we guzzle plenty more wine, including an orange so coppery and savory it reminds me of a soothing broth, and eat beef tartare and charred leeks blanketed in pecorino.
I’ve spent a lot of time traveling alone and am a fan of eating whatever, wherever, whenever I want. But you know what you can’t do by yourself? Take a heaping bite of delicate lumpfish roe—a short-lived springtime darling that is to Copenhagen what ramps are to the Eastern United States—and turn to another soul, spoon in hand, to affirm your ecstatic delight. Shared food tastes the same as solo food with the added benefit of drawing you closer to other people.
We part ways around midnight but not before they point out, aha!, I’ve got a bike made for women, which, as it turns out, is a very postmodern Scandinavian move. I proudly ride my misgendered bike home. As I pass over Queen Louise’s Bridge, the city lights glitter in the still lakes and a digital monitor clicks. I’m counted among the 27,893 Danes who’ve crossed today.
“Picture an American entering a room,” Kristoffer Albris says, sitting under mismatched curtains and a mounted transistor radio at a bohemian café in the inner city that he has rightly suspected would remind me of New York’s East Village. “They would probably greet someone and proceed with skillful small talk.”
Small talk, like smiling at strangers, is one of the Americanisms I’ll need to shed if I’m going to succeed in my quest to become Danish.
Albris, an even-tempered anthropologist who teaches Danish culture classes at the University of Copenhagen, says Danes don’t have the same switches for casual conversation. “A Dane might feel as if they’re placing a burden on someone to enter into a relationship they didn’t ask for.”
It’s a radical degree of consideration that relates to a national Ten Commandments of sorts. The Law of Jante, as it’s known, boils down to this: Us before You. It’s the opposite of individualism, and while it’s a weak doctrine today in modern cities like Copenhagen, its presence still lingers everywhere.
Later that afternoon, I get some real-life lessons in the Law of Jante while indulging in a peak Danish fantasy: baking lowercase-D danishes, with Danish people, at prolific restaurateur Claus Meyer’s cooking school.
I’m early to class and find a seat at a table with a selection of breads, local cheeses, and beers from nearby brewery Nørrebro Bryghus. Slowly, my 15 other classmates trickle in, all in duos except for one other solo guy at the opposite end of the table. It’s like the first day of school except that here there are no handshakes, no hellos. It’s as though we are a room full of ghosts who can’t see one another. I, lonely ghost in the corner, spread blue cheese on a crusty roll in silence.
Our instructor, in a white uniform and severe platinum hair, arrives. “Hej studerende,” she begins.
I’ve been warned the class would be in Danish but, American privilege, assumed there would be some occasional English-translation sidebars. There are not. Remembering us before me, I keep quiet. At points I even nod—Brød? Hell yeah, we’re making brød!—and, for a brief moment, feel like one of them, too. Until we begin the clockwise introductions: Agnes, Kasper, Christina…
“Hej hej!” I say, savoring my last moment in hiding. “My name’s Andrew, and I have no clue what just happened for the last 20 minutes.”
Yes, there is laughter but also sounds of pure shock. The woman next to me moans and grips her chest. “Why would you do that to us!” She feels terrible I’ve not known what’s going on, and I feel terrible that she feels terrible. Finally a young woman named Benni speaks up: “Don’t worry! We will help you!”
Benni, her friend Sophie, and the other solo baker, Tonni, volunteer to take me under their wing: “Team NY,” Tonni says with a sweet grin. We tie on aprons while the teacher begins a demonstration.
“She’s just telling us to make a basic pastry dough,” Tonni translates. “I’ve made it before and can walk you through it.” We’ll be using the dough to make frøsnapper, poppy-seed twists that have a hint of marzipan but are savory enough, I’m told, to fall under the “breakfast danish” species.
The presentation ends and the other groups sprint to the mixers, frantically cracking eggs and measuring flour. At one point, a woman holding a bowl weaves between stations and shouts “Corner!” “Jesus, I don’t know what they’re in such a rush for!” Benni says, passing me a lager. “We’re not on the Great Danish Bake Off.” (It really exists.) Unlike anything else named after New York, our team moves at a mellow pace. We alternate mixing, kneading, laminating, and chilling the dough with Tonni’s guidance.
I ask Benni if these classes are popular and she shrugs.
“Not really. We just thought it would be fun to do as friends,” she says, as Sophie Snapchats her pounding chilled butter into the dough. “Here, you try. It’s fun,” she says, handing me a rolling pin.
I give it a few whacks. Tonni then shows me how to fold the dough in thirds. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a team of any kind that, with so little negotiation, took such equal turns. When the twists eventually emerge from the oven, we enjoy them, our little quad, in the corner.
Before I leave, the woman I nearly sent into cardiac arrest looks my way, flour rimming her brow, and ekes out something like a smile. I make the same pained face back since I haven’t learned the word for sorry.
Before leaving for Copenhagen, I explained my mission to Ambassador Anne Dorte Riggelsen, Consul General of Denmark in New York. In the gentlest of terms, the ambassador informed me that I had failed before I even began. “I love that Americans have such a playfulness with identity,” she said. “But Danes, we have a strong sense of who we are.”
Though full assimilation would be impossible, she did have some useful, easy-to-follow advice for me.
“Danes are storytellers,” she said. “While you’re visiting our beautiful restaurants, ask ‘What are they trying to say?’ You’ll understand something about us.”
I eat my way through town with open ears.
At Geist, biting into coffee-braised shiitake mushrooms sprinkled with cashews and an assertive wasabi toffee and cream dessert, I can almost hear Bo Bech proclaim: To be Danish is to be curious and bold! Christian Puglisi’s religiously organic Bæst shows me that the story of pizza is not complete. There are still new things to be done, like top blistered pies with preserved pine and housemade ’nduja using Denmark’s exceptional pork. Palægade, a wildly popular new spot for smørrebrød, tells me that the city’s cool kids aren’t too cool for gnarly throwbacks, like towering open-face sandwiches of stinky cheese, raw onion, veal gelatin, and sprinkles of rum. At the popular brunch spot Møller in cool-kid zone Nørrebro, I find there’s no line to order. Instead, I observe a crowd slowly approach the register, one by one, in the order in which they arrived, according to some mysterious system. My silent number is called and I ask for a bowl of øllebrød, a porridge made of dark rye bread crumbs and beer, which doesn’t speak back but does taste delicious, like richer, tangier oatmeal.
One evening, I meet an expat friend, Lisa, a professor and food writer, at the opening party of Apollo, a new restaurant housed in a majestic fortress that faces a row of Crayola-colored townhouses. The chef is Frederik Bille Brahe, whose meatless Atelier September is a hit with the fashion set and René Redzepi alike. There’s no guest list or bouncer tonight, just an open gate welcoming whoever wants to wander in. And an open bar serving natural rosé.
Lisa, it turns out, is friends with Alisa from Ved Stranden 10, who gives me a familiar hug. I’m reminded of a friend of a friend in New York whom I’ve met no less than seven times but who still pretends we’re perfect strangers.
Things Danish People Like
The Read: British writer Michael Booth loved Denmark so much, he wrote The Almost Nearly Perfect People, an ode to the Danish good life. Spoiler alert: He moved there.
The Block: On Jægersborggade, one short but mighty street, you can buy handmade ceramics from Danish artisans at Vanishing Point, pick up a cup of single-origin pour-over from Coffee Collective, and dine on stellar beef tartare and veggie-friendly plates at Manfreds.
The Reservation: Located by a harbor in the heart of the city, Bo Bech’s Geist has a delightfully surprising menu that marries left-field ingredients. Don’t miss the coffee-and-cashew shiitakes.
The Hotel: At SP34, the suites look like a modern Scandinavian design store’s showroom; the breakfast of Danish breads, meats, and cheeses is painstakingly organic; and the central location is an ideal jumping-off point to the city.
The Perfect Picnic: Start at Torvehallerne. Browse the kaleidoscopic wall of offbeat local beers at Mikkeller, grab rosemary Danish hot dogs at Pølse Kompagniet, and pick up local fruit like currants from the produce stands. Then enjoy them by the lakes under Queen Louise’s Bridge.
The Wine Bar: Wine bar Ved Stranden 10 has no list. In a space that feels as intimate and spare as a Dane’s home, wine-obsessed servers assess the tastes of guests and unearth rare natural wines from a thousand-plus-bottle archive.
The Local Gem: On a quiet alley in the city’s Meatpacking District, Spisehuset serves a nightly tasting menu of modernized Danish comfort food that incorporates the season’s best produce.
“I was actually watching the door and didn’t guess that you would be the American,” Klaus Thomsen says, when we meet at the airy, industrial Frederiksberg outpost of his Coffee Collective, which brews distinctive beans that have been traded directly with their producers.
Entering a room in the Danish way means doing the opposite of making an entrance. Trying to acclimate to local custom, I’d walked into the coffee shop gazing down, attempting invisibility, and approached the barista asking for Klaus in a decibel range that was potentially inaudible.
Apparently it worked.
“You seem to be naturally…” Klaus says, but stops short of saying it. “I sense you understand the Danish mentality.”
Shyness, he means, a quality we both share if we’re being perfectly honest, which we are. Klaus may just be the most Danish Dane I’ve met so far. He’s remarkably earnest, self-assured, and infectiously humble.
We talk about coffee (the Danish sweet spot is around 4 p.m.) and the ubiquity of sustainable foods (available even at the most basic of convenience stores) before he shatters a fantasy of mine. No, locals don’t get off work early and casually dine on nasturtium and buckthorn. He believes the most Danish thing one can do in the capital of New Nordic cuisine is actually to eat at home.
“I dine out maybe once a month, but I know people who go out just once a year,” he tells me. “We eat in with loved ones here. Our homes are our nests.”
As it happens, I’ll have a chance this evening to observe life in the Danish nest. On my first night in town, I’d met a guy, Anders. This wasn’t on the syllabus. It just happened. And it was the sort of meeting that would usually be a one-night kind of thing but has grown to become a five-night kind of thing, which is to say I dig him, a lot. I find him refreshing. Unlike American guys, I don’t have to read tea leaves to understand what he means. He’s invited me to dine with his friends because he wants me there.
I pick up a bottle of wine, head to Anders’ apartment for dinner, and am greeted by a kiss and a pile of shoes by the door. Anders and I are both journalists. My circle of friends is 75 percent media. His, I’ve noticed, includes off-duty drag queens, members of parliament, and standing in his kitchen now, Max, a German psychology student, and James, a Canadian expat and dancer in the Royal Danish Ballet. This chromatic assortment makes me wonder how many connections I’ve passively declined over the years.
We pour wine and migrate to the dining room, which is lit with a constellation of candles. The table is set for tonight’s feast: a roasted root vegetable salad of parsnips, beets, and carrots; chickpea frikadeller (pan-fried meatballs); and a lactose-free tiramisu that Anders requested Max make after observing me, lactose-tolerant human, order a soy milk in my coffee the day before. I apologize for the consequences of my silly American affectation.
“Oh, it is okay,” Max says. “I had to add a little cream to it anyways.”
We laugh, skål, and take turns gathering food.
James asks me about my baking class and I explain it went well—besides the part where I sat at a table with 15 strangers for half an hour who didn’t say a word to me.
“This is not normal,” says Anders.
“Oh my god! No, this is the most Danish thing ever,” argues James, who’s spent nearly a decade in the city. “You’re not even supposed to smile at children here!”
“You are not supposed to smile at the children?” Max asks.
“No! It violates the Danish bubble.”
To Anders’ credit, I’m not sure he lives under the same bubble. Just as some Americans are trilingual with low cholesterol, Anders jokes with strangers and makes first moves on first dates. A lot has been written over the past year about hygge, the untranslatable feeling of comfort that Danes cultivate in their homes (which is perhaps better understood by its antonym, uhygge, abject horror). But as the candles burn, and a Nordic R&B singer coos, and Anders grabs my hand under the table for the entirety of our shared meal, I approach an understanding.
“There’s this theory in social science about the front and the back stage,” Kristoffer Albris, the anthropologist, had told me when we met. The front stage, he explained, is the person you aspire to be. The back stage is your true self. I sometimes find the distance between these two exhausting.
“Ah! This is probably why you aspire to be Danish,” he said. “The gap between the front stage and back stage—it’s short here. Perhaps the most offensive act in Denmark is to behave inauthentically.”
It reminds me of my attraction to Anders. This curly-haired Dane, who butters his croissants and holds the most startling eye contact, isn’t bogged down by the tyrannical irony I struggle to evade. He seems profoundly himself. Being with him feels as effortless as being alone.
Before I leave, we spend one perfect day together, which begins with breakfast.
“Don’t forget the candles!” Anders yells from the kitchen.
“For any Danish meal!” I poke around and discover a cabinet full of candles. I light one and then two and then, why not, three. Anders emerges from the kitchen with an expectant smile.
“Try this,” he says, feeding me a piece of toasted rye slathered in butter and piled with razor-thin sheets of chocolate called Kæmpe. “Every Dane eats these as a kid.”
And I get it: the slick of good cultured butter, the ghostly sweet chocolate, the comfort of this hearty, sensible, altogether familiar bread. What’s not to like? Eating it by candlelight at breakfast, I experience an easy equilibrium, an absentminded contentedness that’s maybe, humbly, just a little bit Danish.
How to Eat Like A Dane
Reporting by Stacy Adimando
The wheels on the bus go yum, yum, yum
We may be used to seeing burgers and fries on school lunch trays in America, but elsewhere around the world, the mid-day meal looks a little different. From Asia to Europe, where the EU is funding a large-scale program to provide more nutritious meals, school lunches are as diverse as the cuisines of their nations and the students who eat them. Take, for example, Germany, where the average student might eat German staples like sausage, potato and some veggies, or Vietnam, where lunch consists of rice, leafy greens, and pork or even a noodle soup. Of course, there's no one school lunch for each country—who remembers pizza day at school?—, but we've rounded up a few examples of what types of foods students across the world might eat on any given day.
The United States
No surprises here.
While many schools in Germany finish classes before lunchtime, an average school lunch might consist of potato salad and some type of sausage, or wurst. Fresh fruit and vegetables are some healthy sides. Other options could consist of traditional main dishes like fried fish with potatoes, stuffed potato pockets or potato pancakes, or pasta.
In Argentina and other South American countries, school usually begins and ends before or after lunch. Many children eat at home, but for those who have school lunch, a European-influenced Latin arrangement of breaded meat with starch and vegetables is typical for an average school lunch.
This spread of cucumber-tomato salad, veal marinated with mushrooms, broccoli, cheese, and an apple tart is definitely not what Americans are eating. This looks like something out of our France issue. It's no surprise though, considering France's respect for the long, leisurely lunch, that French children would learn from an early age.
South Korean schoolchildren typically enjoy a balanced lunch that incorporates a soup element, noodles, meat, kimchi, and maybe an egg dish such as pajeon (scallion pancakes). It seems like it’s working—a whopping 93 percent of students graduate high school in South Korea, almost 25 percent more than the United States.
School lunch in Madrid is balanced and delightful. This one comes with eggs, vegetable soup, and a banana yogurt. Banana yogurt makes sure that kids get a serving of fruit before siesta.
The Finns take their health seriously, with vegetables covering half of the average school lunch plate. Fish or other meat share the other half of the plate with some grain, usually potatoes or pasta. Berries come last for a nutritious dessert.
In rural Vietnam, students often go home for lunch. At schools where there is an on-site kitchen, lunch can range from rice with leafy greens and meat to a noodle soup, such as this mi Quang, a pork dish native to central Vietnam.
A journey on the Spargelstrasse—Asparagus Road—to find out
In late May, the medieval German town of Nienburg crowned a new asparagus princess in the garden of the Lower Saxony Asparagus Museum. It was the day after the annual asparagus run, and the winners of other local pageants put on party dresses and sashes to welcome the Spargel Prinzessin to their royal court. There was an herb princess in a green skirt, a harvest princess in a floral headdress, and two rhododendron princesses in red gowns. “I can get used to being around so many beautiful women,” the potato prince, who wore a brown suit and was the only male pageant winner, told the emcee.
The asparagus princess, a shy teenager named Nicole Cybin, had an exalted place among her peers: In Germany, Spargel, or white asparagus, reigns supreme among vegetables. Every year the German people eat 140,000 tons of asparagus, nearly all of it the white variety. German farmers devote more land to Spargel than they do to cabbage for sauerkraut. From April until June, you find white asparagus on the menu of nearly every restaurant, prepared almost always the same way: boiled and topped with hollandaise or brown butter, served with a side of boiled peeled potatoes and a plate of sliced ham, smoked salmon, or schnitzel. What is it about this colorless vegetable that drives Germans crazy?
Nienburg is a good place to find out. The town is along the Spargelstrasse, or Asparagus Road, in Lower Saxony, a 460-mile path that grows more asparagus than any other part of Germany and attracts thousands of pilgrims every spring. Nienburg’s attractions include not only the Spargel museum but also a Spargel fountain in the center of town. This year’s Nienburger Spargelfest fell on one of the first warm days of an overdue spring, and sunshine soaked the museum garden so intensely that the shrubs and flowers seemed to bleed around the edges. Attendees sat at picnic tables among old statuary from the House of Hanover. They proclaimed Nienburg Spargel to be the best in Germany and attributed white asparagus’ popularity to its nutrient content, its local cultivation, and the arrival of the harvest with warm weather every spring. Some lauded the beauty of the white stalks, while a German friend noted their undeniable resemblance to a phallus. “That’s why Germans love it so much,” she said. Many people emphasized the vegetable’s delicate and nutty flavor.
And what did the new princess have to say about the national obsession? Cybin wore a pink dress and carried a basket of asparagus, each stalk pale and slender like a bone. She was easy to pick out in her tiara among all the heads of gray hair. I asked her why Germans love white asparagus, but before she could answer my question, a large man from the Consortium of Nienburg Spargel interrupted with a loud and long-winded explanation in German. Cybin translated his monologue into a few tentative words of English: “Asparagus cleans the body and allows the sun to come in.”
Everyone emphasized the healthfulness of Spargel as they mopped butter and hollandaise off their plates. And they praised the simplicity of a vegetable whose cultivation is actually painstaking. Before the party, a farmer named Ernst August Theisinger took me into an asparagus field. He had buried the asparagus plants in mounds of soil, in order to block out the sunlight that would produce chlorophyll and turn them green. He waited two or three years for each asparagus stalk to mature, at which point he and his workers harvested them individually by hand.
His demonstration reminded me that the popular stereotype of German efficiency is not really accurate. What Germans love even more than efficiency is procedure. White asparagus embodies this trait at every step from farm to table. Markets sort white asparagus into different “choices,” like cuts of meat, with the thickest stalks commanding the highest price. And the straightforward boiled preparation of Spargel belies the fact that every stalk of white asparagus must be peeled. The difficulty of this task has allowed Germans to scratch another national itch: the construction of extremely specialized machinery. The German company Hepro manufactures nine different models of asparagus-peeling machines.
It is hard to imagine such a labor-intensive food really catching on in a country as convenience-obsessed as America, where most people would probably rather stick to frankfurters. The thing about Spargel, though, is that it is worth the effort. It tastes like an asparagus grown on a cloud rather than in the soil. It’s less like eating green asparagus and more like fresh lobster: The flesh is wan and tender, the flavor is sweet and subtle, and everything swims in butter. It is a shame white asparagus is not as iconic as other German foods, like wurst and beer. In a better world, the Nienburger Spargel Princess would be as famous as the St. Pauli Girl.
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.