Poster for the 1949 film

You can distinguish the little storefront of Cafe Manuel from a block away by its two red Chinese lanterns hanging over the entrance. Its name is hand-lettered in an “oriental” script no longer deemed politically correct elsewhere. The window on the left side of the door tempts with a display of pan dulce, sweet rolls destined to accompany coffee. On the right, lettering affixed to the window offers comida mexicana y china — Mexican and Chinese food. This establishment, which opened its doors in 1934, is a typical cafe de chinos, a Chinese cafe. Only a few authentic ones remain, scattered throughout older neighborhoods of Mexico City.

Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafes de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, have nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory. The “Cafe de Chinos” 1949 film features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical cafe.

Asian fusion: From the old country to the new

To the outsider, Mexico might seem like a largely homogenous place, lacking in cultural diversity. Of course the majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mixture of European (principally Spanish) and indigenous. But the fact is that many ethnic groups besides the Spanish have come in to the mix, most notably African, Lebanese and Chinese. Porfírio Diaz, president-cum-dictator of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, made it his goal to bring Mexico up to its northern neighbor’s technological level. Chinese workers, often fleeing officially sanctioned anti-Chinese policies in the U.S. and well-versed in railroad building, were “invited” to construct the country’s rail system. Working under arduous conditions, these people naturally wanted to improve their lives. Many stayed in Mexico, often intermarrying with locals.

In the 1920s, Mexico’s concern over Chinese immigrants’ involvement in organized crime led to the Movimiento Anti-Chino; this anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the murder and deportation of many people of Chinese origin. Some of them, returning to a politically unstable China or a depressed U.S., eventually made their way back to Mexico, decades later. Those who remained, often intermarrying with Mexican nationals, opened laundries, import businesses … and restaurants.

Slow and fast food

Entrepreneurial Chinese, already versed in American-style “quick cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk were the specialty.

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Traditional Mexican offerings such as enchiladas and tamales were prepared, as were “American/Chinese” dishes like chop suey and fried rice. These eateries grew in popularity, especially in dense city centers, feeding the new breed of round-the-clock workers who needed breakfast at midnight, or dinner at 6 a.m. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1940s and ’50s. In Mexico City, the streets surrounding the Zócalo, the city’s huge central plaza, were full of them. Calle Madero boasted at least four, as late as the 1960s. Then, inevitably, newer styles trumped old and these small, old-fashioned places, which not only served customers but also provided daytime social centers, began to close their doors. Glitzy chains and U.S.-based fast food venues replaced them.

But traditions die hard, especially in a slower-paced, less-eager-to-modernize Latin America. Cafe Manuel hasn’t changed. It offers two set lunches, one Mexican and the other Chinese. Sweet rolls are made in-house, coffee is fresh, milk frothy and hot. I chose a menú chino, which cost about $5.50. It consisted of a pleasant, vaguely “Chinese tasting” chicken broth with bok choy, flavored with sesame oil. Next came the archetypal fried rice, quickly sautéed with vegetables and egg, its smoky aroma preceding it to table. And the chop suey, the archetypal American-Chinese dish of stir-fried whatever, thickened with cornstarch, turned out to consist mostly of bean sprouts, onion and celery and a bit of chicken in a lightly sweet soy broth. It was all fresh and good, if not authentically Chinese. Dolores, the longtime waitress there, explained during a lull that nowadays customers mostly order the Mexican food. “It’s cheaper,” she reminds me. Few customers are of Chinese extraction; even the cook is Mexican-born.

“But we have many locals who have been coming for years, and don’t expect our menu to change,” she assures me.

Cafe El Pópular

Mexico City’s historic center, now in a felicitous revival, has lost a bit of the old-time quirkiness it had when I arrived in the 1980s. The mid-century past seemed to live: ancient businesses, their facades and interiors unchanged for decades thrived on every block. Today, only a few of the counter-style restaurants served by uniform-clad waiters and waitresses survive.

Cafe el Pópular's bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe el Pópular’s bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe El Pópular, was established in 1948 as a cafe de chinos by Luís Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant and his Mexican wife Felícitas. When I started visiting Mexico City, shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1985, I would often arrive late at night and stay in one of the inexpensive hotels near the Zócalo. At that time El Pópular was the only restaurant open past midnight. I would sit at the counter, surrounded by a lively crowd of off-duty working girls and their clients, police officers, drag queens, city workers ending their evening hours, and those about to start the swing shift. The atmosphere was always lively, often raucous — a live-action Ashcan School painting. I didn’t understand the banter, conducted in local chilango slang, but I loved the vibes; I would sit until the wee small hours, savoring a Mexican hot chocolate, while dunking a flaky sweet concha.

The Cafe el Pópular carries on albeit in a newer guise. Run by José Luís Eng, grandson of the founder,  his sister Beatriz, a culinary institute graduate, directs the kitchen. No longer offering anything remotely Chinese — the only obvious connection to its Asian past is a Chinese plaque, designed by Eng’s grandmother that hangs over the bar. El Pópular has become a Mexican restaurant par excellence with prices that remain accessible. Ingredients are for the most part local, some even organically produced. The menu reads like a veritable lexicon of “great Mexican classics” — soups, tacos, enchiladas, roast chicken, grilled meats, it’s all here. While remaining a seemingly slick family-style restaurant, Beatriz makes sure the quality is a cut above its corporate neighbors. And, of course, breakfast is still offered around the clock and sweet breads are still homemade.

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Chicken chop suey at Cafe Manuel. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Nowadays, a  new wave of Asian immigrants are arriving. They’re opening more authentic restaurants that attract an increasingly sophisticated public, that cafes de chinos, the fusion-relic of the past, will disappear entirely. They are the remaining evidence of a neglected and little known segment of Mexican society once slighted, that deserves more recognition.

Top photo: Image of poster for the 1949 film “Cafe de Chinos.” Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Shrimp marinated with shallots, garlic and Italian parsley being prepared for Chef David Padilla's Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

After a long winter, summer will be welcomed with open arms. Looking ahead to outdoor parties under sunny, blue skies, chef David Padilla’s easy-to-make Drunken Shrimp sautéed in a spicy citrus sauce is the perfect recipe for lunch or an early dinner.

As Padilla describes what he loves about cooking, he remembers his father taking him to the markets in their small town in the Mexican state of Nayarit, on the Pacific coast between Sinaloa and Jalisco. His father would lead him past the fishermen on the beach and ask, “Do you want oysters today, or fish or shrimp?” They would eat what had been in the ocean’s clear waters only a few hours before. And long before farmers markets were fashionable, he and his father shopped in the mercados to buy freshly picked produce from the family farms outside of town.

Chef David Padilla in his kitchen at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

Chef David Padilla in his kitchen at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

So when Padilla says he searches out organic, local and seasonal products, he’s not following trends, he’s referencing his childhood in rural Mexico — even if his kitchen is now in a boutique hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills.

Padilla is chef de cuisine at Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel’s restaurant called On Rodeo Bistro & Lounge. As documented in the recently published “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” the wealthy city has dozens of restaurants. Surprisingly, only one of those restaurants is on Rodeo Drive, the city’s internationally known, upscale shopping street.

Chef puts a Latin touch on Drunken Shrimp recipe

Given the hotel’s cosmopolitan clientele, Padilla embraces a California-inspired, fusion cuisine. He describes his menu as “a little bit of Asian, Latin, Mediterranean, a little bit of everything because we’re in L.A. and it’s a melting pot of cultures.”

At the restaurant, Padilla pulls together Latin, Asian and French influences. The bits and pieces he takes from many cuisines are melded into a balance of flavors and textures. For him, a meal is a journey. As he says, “I want your mind and taste to get lost and then you get to your destination.”

Padilla puts a decidedly Latin spin on Drunken Shrimp. The well-known Chinese dish has many iterations. One decidedly cruel version tosses live shrimp into a pot of liquor. Most commonly, the shrimp are cooked in wine or liquor so shrimp and diner presumably can share the bar tab. The shrimp in Padilla’s dish are flavored with tequila. Citrus sections and freshly squeezed juices give the dish its bright, summery flavor. serrano peppers add fire, and butter mellows and sweetens the dish.

With such a flavorful sauce, Padilla wants every drop to be enjoyed. He serves the shrimp with a thick slice of a soft Italian ciabatta bread, toasted on the grill. He suggests that rice and pasta would be good companions for the shrimp. I think steamed spinach would also be delicious.

Mexican Drunken Shrimp in a Spicy Citrus Sauce

As with any recipe, quality ingredients increase the pleasures of the dish. Use freshly squeezed citrus sections and juice and the freshest raw shrimp available. To sear the shrimp, a frying pan like one made of carbon steel that can tolerate high heat is very helpful. Quick searing is important for flavor and appearance, and also because searing seals in the shrimps’ juices. Because the flavors of the sauce take several minutes to combine, the shrimp simmer along with the other ingredients. Smaller shrimp and ones not seared can dry out and become chewy.

Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

While grapefruit and oranges are available year-round, kumquats are seasonal. When they are available, they are a beautiful addition to the dish.

Taste the sauce and adjust to your palate. You may want more lemon or grapefruit juice or less. Do not season with salt during cooking. The shrimp are naturally salty. Padilla dusts the plated dish with a small amount of sea salt crystals to “brighten” the flavors.

Serves 4

Ingredients

12 raw large shrimp (10 to a pound), washed and patted dry

4 tablespoons blended oil, 80% canola oil, 20% olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

4 tablespoons chopped garlic

4 teaspoons finely chopped shallots

4 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, patted dry and finely chopped

12 tablespoons sweet butter, plus more for bread

4 thick slices ciabatta

8 ounces tequila

1 cup orange or Cara Cara orange juice

4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

4 tablespoons freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

12 kumquats, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds with the skin on

4 fresh serrano chilies, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds

12 grapefruit sections, membranes removed

12 orange sections, preferably Cara Cara oranges, membranes removed

Sea salt as needed

Directions

1. Prepare each shrimp by peeling away the shell, exposing the body. Leave 1 inch of shell covering the tail. Devein and drizzle with 2 tablespoons blended oil, season with black pepper, garlic, shallots and 2 tablespoons parsley. Set aside.

2. Heat a grill. Place a small amount of butter on each side of each piece of ciabatta. Using tongs, grill the slices on both sides. Remove and set aside.

3. Use a large frying pan so the shrimp are not crowded. Place the pan on a burner with a high flame. When the pan lightly smokes, drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons blended oil into the pan. The oil will smoke in a few seconds. Using metal tongs, place the shrimp into the pan.

4. Each shrimp will sear quickly. Turn to sear the other side. This will not take long.

5. From the marinade, add the garlic, shallots and parsley. Sauté to caramelize.

6. Remove the pan from the burner so the tequila doesn’t catch fire when added. Deglaze the pan with tequila. Stir well to lift the flavor bits off the bottom of the pan.

7. Add the citrus juice and sliced kumquats. Stir to blend together the flavors.

8. Add serrano peppers.

9. Place chunks of butter into the sauce. Stir to melt and mix together.

10. Turn the shrimp over to absorb the sauce. Reduce a few minutes.

11. To plate, use shallow bowls. Place four shrimp in each bowl. Portion out the sauce, covering the shrimp. Garnish each plate with grapefruit and orange segments. Place a slice of grilled bread on the side. Dust with a sprinkling of sea salt crystals. To add color, lightly drizzle the grilled bread with olive oil and dust with parsley.

Main photo: Shrimp marinated with shallots, garlic and Italian parsley being prepared for Chef David Padilla ‘s Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

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The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

Among the items I brought home with me after my mother’s death were her two recipe files. One was lodged in a long, metal box that I suspect once held part of the town’s library card catalog.  The other was a delicate wooden box that could be hung on a wall.

I was surprised she had squirreled away so many recipes, any recipes for that matter, for she never seemed that interested in cooking, aside from making sweets. She owned only an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking” plus the cookbooks I had written. My mother’s recipe collection was a mishmash of handwritten recipes and a great deal more torn from magazines, mainly Sunset and Gourmet and occasionally Good Housekeeping, which is kind of ironic because my mother, by her own admission, was hardly a good housekeeper.

I’ve mused before about the mystery of handwriting and how it has the power to touch us in a way an email, without its texture and quirks, can’t. But these folded bits of printed paper and yellowed cards, most of them typewritten, introduced me to my mother in a new way, helping me see her as a person I hadn’t known.

Recipe box about the why, not just the how

I had to wonder, why these recipes? And did she ever make them? She didn’t, at least that I know of. Her own handwritten categories weren’t necessarily related to the contents. Filed under “meat,” for example, were recipes for pomegranate jelly, orange jellies, orange breads, cakes, pickles, guava preserves and even a guava chiffon pie — none of them meat and none of them foods we ate. Not once.

The many recipes based on oranges were labor-intensive undertakings that involved taking apart then reassembling the fruit, something my mother would not have had the patience to do. Maybe she wished she had been that kind of person, a woman who would spend hours in the kitchen instead of at her typewriter writing novels or at her easel painting. (I suspect the reason that there were so many orange recipes was because in the 1950s my parents moved from the East to California, where we had orange trees, which must have seemed miraculous.)

But where were the meat recipes? Elsewhere. Here and there. My mother was not a fan of meat and was mostly vegetarian, but perhaps meat recipes were dutifully collected for my Midwestern carnivore father. There was a surprising recipe for roasted lamb neck. That my mother, a person so sensitive to the lives of other beings, would even have such a recipe was shocking. I’m sure we never ate such a thing. The recipe instructs, “Have your meat man cut each neck into 2 or 3 slices about 1¼ inches thick.” Now that butchery is emerging again, perhaps it’s not impossible to “ask your ‘meat man,’ ” or “your meat woman” for that favor.

Meat dishes we did eat were mostly in her “Armenian” file, which also contained Indian recipes — dolmas, shashlik, kebabs a miscellany of curries. There’s a recipe for koefte from the 1950s, long before Paula Wolfert introduced us to more than 50 kinds. One card scrawled instructions for pickled tongue with raisins. Again, I doubt my mother would have made the tongue. We did eat tongue, but my father was the one who cooked it.

A relentless diet

There were menus for dieting that would practically demolish one’s life force, menus that started each day with half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. Ravenous by 10? Then you might want a cup of very lean vegetable broth. (“Guaranteed to help you lose weight, even if you have to eat out,” the introduction promised.)

Simple vegetable dishes were filed with early weight-watcher recipes. I don’t recall that my mother was ever fat, but she must have thought she was. When her doctor cautioned her, in her 90s, that she was awfully thin, her reply was, “Why thank you!” The diet desserts she collected were based on egg whites, gelatin and, of course, oranges. Although Jell-O was our standard dessert, perhaps she really did intend to make that Frozen Fruit Cake and the Shoo-Fly Pie that appears twice in her collection. A great many of my mother’s recipes were for desserts, some elaborate, some of the more quick-and-easy type, and not all of them diet-related. There was her recipe for cottage cheese pie, a dessert we did eat, which my father meanly scoffed at, saying, “So this is what the rich eat?” A cheesecake would have been prohibitively costly, but there was a recipe for that, too. Maybe one day she was able to make it. And eat it. I hope so.

A reflection of progress

My mother’s recipes also reveal something about how times have changed. “Betty’s Armenian Casserole,” torn from a magazine, calls for processed white rice, a  No. 2 can of tomatoes, Burgundy wine and garlic salt. Teaspoon is abbreviated “teasp.” Many recipes from the 1950s and ’60s call for garlic salt, which made me cringe every time I saw it listed, until I remembered that when I spent summers in the Adirondacks in the 1970s, garlic still came packed two heads to a box, and they were always moldy and unusable. So the garlic salt made sense, at least until really great garlic started to appear in farmers markets starting in the 1970s.

There’s a kind of generalization in many of the recipes — Eurasian Eggplant, Egyptian Stew, Victory Garden Meal, curry — that’s hard to imagine today, with so many knowledgeable cooks writing in great detail about food cultures.

My mother may not have cooked most of these recipes, but she was reading about food and encountering, at least in print, dishes that suggested flavors new and exciting to a transplanted New Englander. A frugal New Englander, I might add, which is one reason why, I suspect, these clippings and cards played a greater role in my mother’s imagination than reality. Maybe it was the taste of adventure she sought, and that was enough.

Main photo: The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

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A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

It’s almost Green Thursday — otherwise known as Clean Thursday, the day before Good Friday and three days before Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 17.

No time to waste. Get out the mop and bucket, dust the furniture, air the blankets, beat the carpet, wash the windows, scrub the larder, polish the pots and pans, bleach the kitchen table, shine the slate, sweep the chimney, black the grate, whitewash the stoop.

And when all is shiny and bright, head for the great outdoors and cut yourself a bunch of budding willow or birch or hazel or whatever shows signs of life in the undergrowth and bring it indoors to unfurl its leaves in the warmest room in the house.

All this must be done before sundown on Green Thursday to ensure happiness and prosperity in the year to come — a more than adequate reward for cleaning behind the fridge.

Green Thursday menu continues with the green theme

And if these chores are not on your list of things to do on Green Thursday, you’d be run out of town with a flea in your ear if you lived in, say, Eastern Europe or rural Germany or in one of the isolated farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale — or indeed anywhere where people still sweep their own doorsteps, plant their own potatoes and maintain a modicum of self-sufficiency. A lesson to us all in these straightened times.

As for the food, well, no one has much time for cooking when they’re cleaning and scrubbing all day. Traditional Green Thursday menus vary from region to region, though the general rule is a generous helping of blood-cleansing spring herbs, preferably gathered from the wild, served either in soup or a salad.

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Chervil. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Herb Salad With Eggs and Spring Herring

Green Thursday is traditionally celebrated in Germany by those who have access to the fishing ports with the last of the spring herrings — known as groene, or green herrings, for the sheen on their silvery flanks. When the boats come in, the catch is freshly filleted by the quayside and eaten raw with diced onion or carried home and lightly salted for additional shelf life. Rollmops — brine-pickled herring-fillets — are an acceptable inland substitute.

Serves 4

Ingredients

Large bunch young spinach leaves, de-stalked, rinsed and shredded

Small bunch parsley, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch chervil, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch sorrel, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch chives, chopped

Small bunch dill, chopped

8 fresh herring fillets or rollmops

1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and thickly sliced

4 hard-boiled eggs

For the sauce:

1 crème fraîche, also called soured cream

2 tablespoons chopped dill

2 tablespoons chopped gherkin or pickled cucumber

Directions

1. Combine the shredded spinach with the chopped herbs in a bowl.

2. Drain the herrings if roll-mopped, or salt lightly if fresh.

3. Boil the sliced potatoes in plenty of salted water till tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.

4. Shell and chop the eggs.

5. Fold the soured cream with the chopped dill and pickle. Serve each component separately for people to help themselves. Accompany with black bread, sweet white butter and the last of the winter’s pickled cucumbers.

Fromage Frais Aux Fines Herbes (Fresh Cheese With Herbs)

Fresh white cheese beaten with cream and herbs is proper on Green Thursday in the uplands of France, where la cueillette, the gathering of wild greens from the countryside, is the inalienable right of every man, woman and child whether they own the land or not.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1 pound fresh curd cheese (fromage frais or equivalant)

1 cup crème fraîche (soured cream)

2 garlic cloves or fresh green garlics, chopped

1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley

1 heaped tablespoon chopped chives

1 heaped tablespoon chopped chervil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

For serving:

Baguette

Olives

Salad leaves (dandelion, corn salad, bittercress or sorrel, for example)

Walnut oil

Salt

Directions

1. Mix the fresh cheese with the cream in a bowl and beat till smooth.

2. Fork in the rest of the ingredients.

3. Drop the mixture into a glass cloth or square of washed-out cotton sheet, tie the edges corner to corner like a pocket hankie and hang on a hook or suspend on a wooden spoon over a basin to catch drippings. Leave to drain overnight in a cool place — the longer it’s left to drain the firmer it will be.

4. Serve chilled with plenty of warm baguette, a dish of olives and a salad of wild-gathered leaves dressed with walnut oil and salt (no need for vinegar if sorrel is present).

Bavarian Chervil Soup

Bavaria’s Krautelsuppe is a fresh green soup thickened with the last potatoes from storage — an interior spring clean to match the scrubbing and house painting of Green Thursday. Similar water-based soups are eaten throughout Lent in Germany and Eastern Europe as far as Hungary and Ukraine. Measure the herbs by filling a cup and lightly pressing the contents. Each cupful should weigh roughly 3 ounces.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1½ cups soft-leaf herbs (tarragon, parsley, dill), chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups chervil leaves, de-salted, de-stalked and chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 or 3 medium old potatoes, peeled and diced

2 cups picked-over salad greens (dandelion, corn salad, watercress, chicory), shredded

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. Pick over and wash the herbs and strip out any woody stems.

2. Melt the butter in a roomy pan and fry the onion gently till transparent. Add the chervil leaves, stir over the heat for 2 to 3 minutes till they collapse.

3. Add the diced potato and 4 cups cold water, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat. Salt lightly.

4. Simmer for 20 minutes till the potato is perfectly soft.

5. Add the herbs and salad greens. Reheat and allow to bubble up to collapse the greens.

6. Mash the soup to thicken it a little. Taste and add more salt if necessary and a vigorous turn of the peppermill.

7. Serve with buttered slices of rye bread and radishes.

Main illustration: A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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Barbara Massaad with Syrian children at a Bekaa Valley refugee camp. Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Massaad

When faced with almost 1 million needy people, a bowl of soup — even a large vat — doesn’t go a very long way.

But Barbara Massaad refuses to let the daunting scale of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon deter her from doing her small part to help — one bowl of soup at a time.

“If I were a barber, I would go and cut [refugees'] hair for free. But I write cookbooks, so that’s what I hope to use to better their lives,” Massaad says.

The longtime Beirut resident, founding member of Slow Food Beirut and author of the award-winning cookbooks “Man’oushé,” “Mouneh,” and “Mezze” recently embarked on a new venture: Soup for Syria. The project’s goal is to create a crowd-sourced cookbook of soup recipes and use the proceeds to build and stock a communal pop-up kitchen in the Bekaa Valley, a part of Lebanon that has become home to more than 300,000 Syrian refugees.

“Entire families — of up to 25 people — live in tents where the cold, water and mud seep through,” says Massaad, who visits a Bekaa refugee camp weekly, bringing donated clothing and vats of soup. “Some families have grains and pulses [beans], but people eat lots of potato chips and bread. Meat, vegetables and fruit are scarce. I would like to give parents [in the camp] a tool to feed their children healthy meals.”

With nearly 2.6 million Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt — and an estimated 6.5 million more internally displaced — food insecurity is a growing concern.

According to a World Food Program report last year, 73% of refugees surveyed in Lebanon said they did not have enough money to buy food; about half of the displaced Syrian families residing in the country have cut down their daily number of meals from three to two. UNICEF estimates that 5.9% of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and 4% of those in Jordan are malnourished.

Massaad says she hopes to inspire other people to help Syrian refugees as the conflict in their country enters its fourth year. Indeed, hers is not the only initiative trying to tap culinary know-how and skills to make a difference.

Elsewhere in Beirut, a group of refugee women have established a catering company dedicated to regional Syrian cooking, with the help of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the Lebanese branch of the Caritas charity, and the acclaimed local restaurant Tawlet – Souk al-Tayeb. Trained in professional cooking skills, food safety, and presentation, the women now serve up their culinary history at the Souk al-Tayeb farmer’s market, food fairs and other events.

“I am trying to prepare and sell … traditional dishes to generate an income that my family and I can live on, instead of waiting for the aid that is given to us,” one participant, Samira Ismail, told the regional news portal Al-Shorfa.com.

Before the conflict broke out in spring 2011, Syria — particularly its ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus — was being touted as the next hot culinary tourism destination. Its fertile soil yielded flavorful ingredients and spices for a cuisine incorporating influences from around the greater Middle East, the historic Silk Road trading caravans and the diverse communities of Ottoman times. In 2005, the International Academy of Gastronomy in France awarded Aleppo its Grand Prix de la Culture Gastronomique for “having achieved distinction in the field of gastronomic culture.” Today, though, even staple food products are difficult to find and hard to afford in Syria.

As displaced Syrians in Lebanon and around the region struggle to survive, cooking dishes from home provides additional sustenance and a way to stay connected to their beleaguered country. It also helps to keep alive a once-thriving food culture — one that is at risk in their devastated homeland.

Addas bi Hosrom

A Syrian man from Aleppo named Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj shared this lentil soup recipe with “Soup for Syria” founder Barbara Massaad. “Hosrom,” also known as “verjuice,” is a concentrated sour liquid made from unripe grapes. Fresh lemon juice in season can be substituted for the verjuice.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2 cups red lentils

10 cloves garlic

1 cup vegetable oil

1½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon ground Lebanese seven-spice mix*

2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

½ to 1  cup verjuice (depending on how sour it is)

Directions

1. Boil the lentils in a large pot with 6 cups water until the lentils dissolve into a homogeneous soup. Remove foam from top of liquid as it emerges. Cook the lentils for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until tender.

2. During the last 10 minutes of cooking, add the spices and verjuice to the soup.

3. In a skillet, fry the garlic in the oil until it is browned, but not blackened. Add the oil-and-garlic mixture to the soup while still hot. Mix well, then boil on low heat for a few minutes.

4. Serve hot with toasted-bread croutons. Garnish with a sprinkle of hot red paprika.

* Lebanese seven-spice mix is a blend of equal parts powdered nutmeg, ginger, allspice, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper.

Main photo: Barbara Massaad with Syrian children at a Bekaa Valley refugee camp. Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Massaad

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Forced rhubarb is bright pink in color. Credit: Sue Style

Rhubarb excites mixed emotions. Ambrose Bierce, dyspeptic satirist and author of “The Devil’s Dictionary,” described it as “the vegetable essence of stomach ache.” John Thorne, the pen behind the cult culinary newsletter Simple Cooking, is clearly a fan, fantasizing about those two ideal mates, rhubarb and strawberries, “whose tastes and textures meld into a sort of subtle transcendental oneness.”

You may — like Bierce — despise this curious vegetable (into which botanical category it more accurately falls). Or perhaps you share Thorne’s fondness for it and are currently celebrating its reappearance in markets, shops and gardens after the seemingly endless winter. Either way, you can hardly miss it if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, for its moment is now.

Rhubarb’s color comes from light, or lack thereof

Broadly speaking, rhubarb falls into two categories. Firstly, there is the so-called “forced” kind, which appears in late winter and early spring. It is cultivated in warm sheds in total darkness and in some places is still traditionally picked by candlelight.

Because the plant is never exposed to light, photosynthesis does not occur. The stalks take on a brilliant, lipstick-pink color while the (inedible) leaves are a rather anemic yellow. Rhubarb treated in this way is also the tenderest and most flavorsome. Some of the most celebrated is grown in the Rhubarb Triangle in west Yorkshire, England, which in 2010 received Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, status under the name Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.

The second type is field rhubarb, which appears from late spring through summer, depending on the local climate. Because this kind is grown outdoors in full daylight, the stalks are pale green in color and tinged with only a suspicion of pink, and the texture is noticeably coarser and the foliage deep green.

You can use either sort for this delicious, meringue-topped tart, which has its roots in Alsace, France, but it’s undeniably prettier if you use forced rhubarb. If using field rhubarb, you may need to peel away the outer, fibrous layer before chopping it in pieces.

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Field rhubarb. Credit: Sue Style

To avoid the risk of a soggy bottom to your tart (ever-present with rhubarb because of its high water content), dredge the fruit with sugar and leave it in a bowl for several hours, or better still overnight. This way it will render much of its juice.

The baking then falls into three steps. First, bake the sugared fruit “dry” in its pastry case, then mix some of the juice with cornstarch, egg and cream, pour it over the fruit and bake again. Finally, daub it with the meringue and return the tart to the oven for its final baking. The ground nuts act as extra waterproofing between fruit and pastry, as well as adding an agreeably nutty crunch.

Rhubarb Tart with Meringue Topping

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1¾ pounds (800 grams) rhubarb

10 ounces (300 grams) sugar, divided

8 ounces (250 grams) piecrust or puff pastry

2 to 3 tablespoons ground almonds or hazelnuts

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 egg

½ cup (150 milliliters) crème fraîche or light cream

3 egg whites, plus a pinch of salt

Directions

1. Trim the rhubarb, cut in 1-inch (2-centimeter) chunks and put them in a bowl.

2. Sprinkle with 5 ounces (150 grams) of the sugar, mix up well and leave to macerate for several hours or overnight until the rhubarb releases most of its juice. Stir occasionally to make sure the sugar is well distributed.

3. Tip the rhubarb into a colander set over a bowl. Reserve the juice.

4. Heat the oven to 400 F (200 C).

5. Roll out the pastry and settle it into a 12-inch (30-centimeter) quiche pan with a removable base. Prick the pastry with a fork and scatter a thin layer of ground nuts in the bottom.

6. Arrange the rhubarb on top of the nuts.

7. Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry is beginning to color and the rhubarb is lightly cooked.

8. Measure out half a cup of the reserved juice and mix in the cornstarch, stirring till smooth. Add this to the egg and crème fraîche, whisking well together till smooth.

9. Remove the tart from oven and pour the mixture over the fruit.

10. Return the tart to the oven and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the custard is lightly set.

11. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff, add the remaining 5 ounces (150 grams) of the sugar and continue beating till stiff and glossy and you could turn the bowl upside down without the whites falling out.

12. Remove the tart from oven and reduce the temperature to 325 F (170 C).

13. Spoon the meringue mixture over the top, fluff it up with a fork and return the tart to the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the meringue is firm and very lightly colored.

14. Cool the tart on a rack. Serve at room temperature for maximum flavor.

Main photo: Forced rhubarb is bright pink in color. Credit: Sue Style

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Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

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Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

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A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. To drink, lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The Ayurvedic lifestyle works for me. The practice combines a vegetarian diet and herbal tonics with massages, meditation and yoga.

On my recent trip to India, I visited my favorite retreat, Ayurvedagram Heritage Wellness Center. Although the retreat recommends a seven-day stay for the Panchakarma detox treatment, I could spare only five days. At the end of my stay I felt relaxed and refreshed and dropped four pounds while enjoying delicious South Indian food.

This is my fifth visit to this holistic retreat, which is a 90-minute drive to the outskirts of Bangalore in South India. Leaving the city’s chaos, pollution and dusty roads behind, the retreat includes a tropical garden lush with coconut and papaya trees, a flower-filled garden bursting with colorful marigolds and hibiscus, fragrant medicinal shrubs and potted tulsi plants. Sparrow tweets and a koyal’s serenade fill the cool air. Resident geese and mallard ducks waddle around, while baby lizards leap around the lotus-filled pond.

The 15-acre Ayurvedagram property is operated by the Katra Group, based in Kerala, India. The retreat’s 26 cottages, designed in 19th-century Kerala design, are spread around a spacious garden adorned with various stone deities and brass lamps. The facility includes a gym, a library and an amphitheater.

The intricately carved reception building, once the Queen’s Palace from the Aranamula Royal Family, was transported here from Kerala and restored to its original state. All the cottages, crafted in teak or rosewood, are historical ancestral homes from Kerala that were transported and restored to their original grandeur.

Ayurveda regimens planned to suit an individual’s needs

Ayurvedagram is a healing retreat for specific ailments such as arthritis, obesity, diabetes and spinal and joint disorders. But I am here for its signature Panchakarma, a detox and rejuvenation program. The daily regimen includes two massage treatments, three sessions of yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) and a delicious sathvic (vegetarian) South Indian cuisine that includes a range of six colors in every meal.

Ayurveda, the science or knowledge of life, is an ancient Indian practice that aims for attaining ideal physical, mental and spiritual health through herbal tonics, medicinal massage therapies, yoga, meditation and a balanced diet.

According to Ayurveda, the human body is made of five elements — air, water, fire, earth and ether. These elements wake up a person’s energy, or dosha. There are three doshas (body types) — Vata, Pitta and Kapha — each with a certain function in our bodies. A body can be a combination of one, two or all three doshas.

An initial consultation with one of the three resident doctors at Ayurvedagram establishes the visitor’s dosha, and a food and therapy program is planned accordingly. A typical Ayurvedic food preparation uses turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fennel, coriander and herbs such as tulsi, mint and cilantro.

Ghee (clarified butter) is essential in cooking because it’s the only natural product that is able to permeate all cells, Dr. Man Mohan explained. “It can break blood-brain barrier and it assists in delivery of food nutrients in targeted areas.”

Some of the produce used by chef Nagaraj and his team comes from the retreat’s patch of organic garden. The menu is predominantly South Indian, starting with the traditional breakfast of dosa (rice and lentil crepe), idli (steamed rice buns) served with coconut and mint chutney and sambhar (lentils with vegetables).

Lunch consists of two types of lentils, three different vegetable curries, rice and chapati.

Dinner offers a similar menu with different vegetable dishes. A typical poriyal dish (using assorted vegetables), chutneys, sambhar and rasam (a lentil broth) accompany both lunch and dinner. And there’s always plenty of fresh fruit and warm cumin-scented water with all three meals.

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Chef Nagaraj cooking cabbage and carrot poriyal. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

On my departure, Dr. Nibhan John gave me a tour of the medicinal garden. Leaves, roots, flowers and bark from 60 some trees and shrubs are used in various healing decoctions, powders and pastes. Orange blossoms from the large Asoka tree are used for gynecological disorders. External preparations from the Rasna are utilized for arthritic inflammation. Oil from the leaves of Vitpala Wrightia Tinctoria is good for psoriasis, while an external application of hibiscus flowers and leaves mashed in water helps hair growth.

Some commonly used herbs and spices have healing properties also. Cilantro (as a green chutney) is a good appetizer, and cinnamon mixed in warm milk or water assists in lactation for nursing mothers. Tulsi leaves (Indian basil) immersed in steam inhalers relieve sinus congestion, and turmeric not only has antiseptic properties but is also used to heal cuts and bruises and dental problems and treat asthma.

Garlic as an antioxidant helps lower blood pressure, and ginger is a soothing remedy for digestive disorders. Cloves are generously used in Indian cooking, and its oil, a rich source of anesthetic and antiseptic agents, is used by dentists as an oral anesthetic.

A morning session with Nagaraj enriched me with a handful of recipes. Here are a couple of them.

Carrot and Cabbage Poriyal (Ayurvedagram recipe)

Channa dal and urud dal, shredded dry coconut, curry leaves and ghee can be found at all Indian markets.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or ghee)

½ teaspoon black mustard seeds

½ teaspoon channa dal

½ teaspoon urud dal

3 to 4 whole dry red chilies

2-inch piece of ginger, chopped finely

1 medium onion, chopped finely

6 to 8 fresh curry leaves

1 cup dry coconut, shredded

Half a head of medium cabbage, shredded

3 carrots, shredded

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup water

Cilantro leaves (for garnish)

Directions

1. Heat oil in a wok-style pan and add mustard seeds, channa dal, urud dal and red chilies. This is called tempering, or tadka, and should take a couple of minutes to get the ingredients sizzling and toasty. Mustard seeds tend to pop, so make sure you keep a lid on the wok.

2. Add ginger, onion and curry leaves; stir well for 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add grated coconut and lastly the shredded cabbage and carrots and salt and pepper to taste.

4. Stir the mixture well and add ¼ cup water. Lower the heat. Cover the wok and let the vegetables cook for about 10 minutes till tender.

5. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve as a side vegetable dish or as a salad at room temperature.

Ayurvedagram Herbal Tea

Aids in alleviating cough and chest congestion

Serve 4

Ingredients

5 leaves of lemon grass

6 to 8 tulsi leaves or basil leaves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

5 to 6 green cardamom seeds, crushed

¼ teaspoon dry ginger

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

4¼ cups water

Directions

1. Boil all ingredients in water for 5 minutes with the lid closed.

2. Strain and serve hot.

Top photo: A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. Also, to drink, there’s lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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