Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

When you visit the Smithsonian, you see Julia Child’s kitchen literally enshrined. It is surrounded by plexiglass, but you can see all of it and even “step inside” at places, while the kitchen itself is surrounded by videos of Julia. You get a sense of the real Julia, while you are also awed to be in the actual space inhabited by the First Lady of Food Television. Her seminal series “The French Chef” has just been re-released on the online TV site Twitch — bringing Julia once again into the public spotlight.

I was reminded of the cultural status of chefs at the Smithsonian’s Food History Gala. It was a public event to present the first ever Julia Child Award to Jacques Pépin. Taking place in the grand hall of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the location made it clear where chefs stand today in the pantheon of American greats. They stand right next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Literally.

Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, felt the space was appropriate. “It was very meaningful to be in the flag hall,” he said “under the image of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”

An ‘anonymous labor’

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” reminded the distinguished guests that “being a chef was an anonymous labor for a long time.” Their high-flying cultural status is newfound. Even the evening’s celebrant, Jacques Pépin, spent the early part of his career as the corporate chef for Howard Johnson’s.

And it’s not just food stars, but food itself that has become a cultural touchstone. The Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, kicked off by the gala, was followed by two more days of events and workshops that showcased innovation in American food culture. And the conversation didn’t stop with the weekend. The Smithsonian has embraced food history with the American Food History Project. It features monthly events that place food culture on the same level with such celebrated icons as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers.

But there was a wistfulness underpinning the gala dinner. Many of the speakers of the evening — including the celebrated Chef Pépin — remarked on the strangeness of being cultural superstars. They all seemed to feel a sense of concern: being “enshrined” can also mean losing touch. A classic artifact like Julia’s Kitchen must be preserved by plexiglass. But a chef shouldn’t be. Superstars can find themselves living in a bubble, and it takes work to avoid this fate.

A sense of fun

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Most of the pantheon at the gala seemed to be deeply aware of this. Sara Moulton pointed out that Julia’s real métier was television — the great leveler. In Moulton’s first job in television, Julia Child told her: “smile for the camera.” Now on her own television series, Moulton keeps that smile and counsels her guests to “smile constantly and for no particular reason.” It’s not an act — it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the joy of food. While setting up a food demo on a set, Julia said to Sara: “Aren’t we having fun?” Moulton had to think about it, then the truth dawned: “Yes, she said, “Yes, we are!”

It’s the sense of fun, the sheer joy of preparing food, which made Julia Child an icon — the first food superstar of our culture. The joyous face of Jacques Pépin as he accepted the Julia Child Award made it clear that he is a fitting inheritor. Perhaps there’s no better recipient than the man who has been creating food television since 1997. As Marcus Samuelson put it: “Julia started it. Jacques caught the baton.”

I got a sudden shock of the humanity of our great chefs on the last day of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend. I was leaving the American History museum when I ran into Anne Willan and Todd Schulkin coming in the doors. Willan, of course, is the founder of the iconic cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne and author of “La Varenne Practique.” I was delighted to see them, and Willan explained she was coming to the Smithsonian to experience Julia’s Kitchen. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. Then she stopped with a frown, “Well, I have, of course, when I cooked in it with Julia. But I’ve never seen it…” She stopped again. “I’ve never seen it behind glass,” she finished.

The Smithsonian and the Julia Child Foundation are well aware of the danger of putting something behind glass. “Enshrining” both preserves — and distances. So on the same floor as Julia’s Kitchen, children can now interact with a miniature version of Julia’s Kitchen at the “Wegmans Wonderplace” exhibition, allowing them to grab pans from the famous pegboard wall and whip up a hollandaise sauce on the pretend stove. Events like Food History Weekends, and awards for populists like Jacques Pépin, can keep food culture personal, intimate and connected.

Main photo: Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

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In Italy, there's a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce

Between revelations by Italian police in December linking organized crime to 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, and an estimated four-fold increase in adulterated extra virgin following the dismal 2014 olive harvest, there is no denying that fraud remains rampant. With 72 percent worldwide sales of olive oil at stake and all eyes on industry practices, Italy is fighting back.

EU and Italian government and trade organizations, including members of parliament, the Italian Trade Agency, UNAPROL (a consortium of Italian olive oil producers), and even an emissary of the Vatican, met last month to both address the problem of olive oil fraud and to outline their plans for a comeback.

“We must recuperate our damaged reputation,” said Colomba Mongiello, an Italian senator and president of the Counterfeiting Commission. She was responding to a survey conducted at Expo Milan 2015 in October, showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors involved believed that Italian olive oil was adulterated and that the consumer was being cheated. “Our objective is to reach the U.S. market and make them understand the difference between what looks Italian and what is Italian,” she said.

Officials meet

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

The conference, billed “Extract,” is part of a larger Italian effort to promote the country’s food and wine in the U.S., where imitation products labeled with Italian names, or colors of the Italian flag, are often mistaken for genuine imports. The strategy is two-pronged: legislating tougher penalties for fraud by going after Italian producers who don’t follow regulations, and launching the largest marketing effort ever made to inform American consumers how to taste and use extra virgin olive oil.

“We have to do the same thing we do with wine to get people to understand olive oil,” said culture guru Franco Maria Ricci, who spoke. “Four-year old children in France are taught that wine is an angel. Italy is an olive oil culture and [its] significance needs to be transmitted in the same way …. If we don’t understand its qualities and terroir, we won’t understand its value.”

Crime has always been associated with olive oil, a substance so precious and prized in Mediterranean culture that its production and trade has invariably had a dark side. Merchants have been known to cut extra virgin with cheap oil to increase their profits since ancient times, and farmers had to fear brigands waiting in ambush as they transported oil to market.

Today there is a different kind of criminal on the olive oil trail. It is the unscrupulous producer who intentionally mislabels oils to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying genuine Italian virgin olive oil when they are not. These murky practices have both hurt ethical producers and confused consumers. As journalist and Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” told me recently, “The problem … is that there are two kinds of olive oil in the world: commodity oil and excellent oil, which is usually estate-bottled and always very carefully produced …. [but] we keep trying to judge excellent oil as a commodity and vice versa.”

World’s best olive oil

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If Italy, which arguably produces the best olive oil in the world, has been a hotbed of fraud, it is also at the forefront of combating crime in the business. Where else are police trained to sniff out fakes at every stage of the supply chain? And who, but the Italians, have a system–IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the more stringent DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin)—that regulates the way it is made and that can lead us to the very trees it came from, and practically, the humans who crafted it?

From the terraced slopes and soft valleys of Italy’s central regions and the microclimates of Veneto and Liguria, to the expansive southern plateaus and sun-drenched islands, come some of the most sublime olives oils, produced by artisans who have the passion for making it in their bloodlines. Like the country’s new breed of winemakers who focus on quality over quantity, they are making delicious oils with the flavor peculiarities of their particular landscape. Utilizing the benefits of modern technology for cultivation while practicing sustainable growing and traditional picking methods, they are no doubt making better oil than their ancestors did.

How to buy good olive oil

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

That said, not all well-made olive oil carries the DOP seal. If we were to limit ourselves to those alone, we would miss out on many fine extra-virgins. As with “USDA Organic,” the rigorous and costly bureaucratic process discourages many a small ethical producer from applying.

Assuming you are not an expert, the best approach to finding good olive oil is not unlike that for choosing good wine: Find a knowledgeable retailer to guide you. If such a place doesn’t exist in your neighborhood, you can order online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of these retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is ethically produced from the current harvest:

Gustiamo in New York City, New York (www.gustiamo.com)

Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (www.markethallfoods.com)

Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.zingermans.com)

Main photo: In Italy, there’s a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

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Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Each year on Easter Monday, residents of Fanano, a picturesque hill town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, arm themselves with hard-boiled eggs to do battle in the village square. Young and old alike participate in this centuries-old tradition that started in the sixth century as a way for townsfolk of all social levels, nobility and commoners, rich and poor, to compete on a level battlefield for a day.

Eggs have long been a symbol of Easter and even back in pagan times were associated with new life and springtime. Eggs were especially highly valued as food in medieval times, so winning an egg was considered quite a prize, with the poorer folks hoping their winnings might feed the family for several days.

Cracking Contests

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Young and old alike today compete in this ancient “Cracking Contest” — Coccin Cocetto. How do you play? Each participant puts an egg onto a long wooden board and gathers round. A designated person randomly selects eggs from the row and distributes them to the first two contestants, who square off and bang their eggs together. The person whose egg cracks first loses. The winner takes possession of the broken egg, and then battles the next opponent. One contestant must hold his egg still, while the other hits it. Who gets to hit is determined either by a coin flip or by shooting odds or evens.

“It isn’t about luck,” explained Massimo, a dapper resident who has been playing, and often winning, for over 60 years. “You can win if you are the one holding still or hitting. Each has a technique.” He then went on to beat this author six times in a row, alternating between being the hitter and the hit-ee!

Most locals bring their own hard-boiled eggs to the event, but the town graciously provides colorful eggs free of charge for anyone who didn’t bring their own.

While in Fanano, you can continue the medieval theme with a visit to the town’s lovely 11th-century Montefiorino Fortress and exquisite ninth-century Romanesque church. There are also lovely trails for hiking and biking nearby. After you’ve worked up an appetite, be sure to stay for lunch or dinner.

Like all food in Emilia-Romagna, the local fare is indescribably delicious. Traditional dishes include crescentine, the area’s famed flat bread; gnocco fritto, fried squares of dough; and rosette, rolls of fresh pasta filled with cheese and topped with meat sauce.

The day after Easter, called Pasquetta or Il Lunedi dell’Angelo, “Angel’s Monday,” is a day off throughout Italy, and Italians traditionally go on picnics. Typical picnic foods include raw fava beans eaten with pecorino cheese and casatello, savory bread filled with proscuitto and cheese topped with hard-boiled eggs still in their shells. Celebrate spring with basotti, a traditional Emilia-Romagna dish made with egg noodles

Basotti (Crunchy-Tender Pasta Squares)

An easy to assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

An easy-to-assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

This recipe is simple to assemble, but must be made with egg pasta, either fresh or dried. You’ll only need 1/2 pound of pasta, as egg pasta expands as it bakes and absorbs the cheese and broth. Speaking of broth, since it provides most of the flavor, it’s best to use homemade.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

10 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs

1/2 pound egg tagliolini or another very thin egg noodle

About 2 cups grated Grana Padano or other aged cheese

Nutmeg

4 cups rich pork, beef or chicken broth, preferably homemade

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Generously butter an 8 x 15-inch metal baking pan and sprinkle with bread crumbs.

2. Put half of the uncooked pasta in the pan and top with 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter, 3/4 cup of the grated cheese and 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg. Add the remaining pasta, in a thin scattered layer, on top. Top with another 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter and more nutmeg.

3. Bring the stock to a boil. Ladle over the pasta until just covered. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup grated cheese. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until firm to the touch.

4. Raise the oven to 475 F.

5. Top pasta with 1/2 cup grated cheese, and bake for a few minutes until crispy on top.

Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, with a dish of pickled fish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit for the flavors to develop,” she says. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

In Cape Town, South Africa, Easter is all about chocolate eggs, hot cross buns and pickled fish, a local turmeric-hued, sweet and sour favorite, flavored with spices from the Cape of Good Hope’s Malay culinary heritage.

Although pickled fish is closely associated with Easter, the sweet and sour curried dish has little to do with the Christian holiday. Naturally preserved with vinegar, it’s a make-ahead dish that can span South Africa’s four-day Easter weekend, when no matter what your religion is, socializing and relaxing still reign supreme.

In South Africa, pickled fish is most closely linked with the Cape, where it’s on hand in many households as casual food for drop-in visitors and picnicking. Its spicy roots lie in the Cape’s Muslim population, whose ancestors were brought by the Dutch as slaves from the East Indies: from India, Indonesia and Malaya. As author and Cape Malay caterer Cass Abrahams says: “The slaves knew all about spices; and fish is also a big part of Cape culture.”

An Easter staple

A much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

A much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

In cuisines across the globe, pickling fish was a common and necessary practice before the advent of refrigeration, and each preparation reflected its cuisine’s unique set of ingredients. There are differing opinions about its South African genesis. The earliest written reference that cookbook author Jane-Ann Hobbs has seen comes from Lady Anne Barnard, the Cape’s “First Lady” in the late 1700s, who after visiting a local farm in 1798 wrote that she was served “fish of the nature of cod, pickled with Turmarick.”

While today it’s a much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade and an Easter staple, both for Muslims and Christians. Easter falls at a time of year when fish is both readily available and in great demand, with many Catholics eschewing meat during Lent.

The golden color of curried pickled fish is everywhere at the 150-year-strong Easter weekend gathering at Faure outside the city, where the annual Sheik Yusuf Kramat Festival takes place. Hundreds converge for the long weekend to camp, socialize and visit the shrine to the sheik, credited with establishing Islam in South Africa. While some cooking is done on site, most campers bring covered glass dishes of pickled fish. “We eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with bread thick with butter, rice or rotis,” says Cape Town resident and cook Zainap Masoet, who starts setting up camp at Faure for her extended family five days before the Easter weekend.

One method, many ingredients

A melody of spices, and onions, are used in the spicy preparation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

A melody of spices, and onions, are used in the spicy preparation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

As for its preparation, there’s little disagreement about the method, which involves browning fish seasoned with salt and pepper, then cooking onions with spices, before adding vinegar and a little sugar. The mixture is poured over the cooked fish and the dish is refrigerated for two days before eaten. Once pickled, it will last for days outside the refrigerator, say local cooks.

On the other hand, there is definite banter about the ingredients. In her recipe, Abrahams uses snoek, a meaty and somewhat bony local fish, as does Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, whose aunt taught her how to make the dish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit, for the flavors to develop,” she says.

However, Cape Town tour guide Shireen Narkedien, who regularly takes visitors around the Bo-Kaap, the Cape’s historic Malay Quarter, says the traditional fish is yellowtail, which is what most older people still use. Narkedien only uses bay leaf, turmeric and curry powder and says that the onion should be cooked through and “not too oniony,” while Abrahams uses additional spices as well as garlic, and says the onions should still have some crunch.

The appeal of pickled fish lies as much in the generosity of spirit behind preparing a dish for unexpected visitors as much as it does in its sweet and sour spicy taste. “When I was a child, my mother used to always tell me: ‘You cook for the person who is coming,'” said Narkedien, who describes a time when doors were always open. “When I asked her who that was, she’d say, ‘I don’t know, but it will be someone.'”

Pickled Fish

Pickled fish is usually served with buttered bread. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Pickled fish is usually served with buttered bread. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Recipe adapted fromCass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay.” Used with permission of author.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 ¼ pounds snoek, firm-fleshed white fish or mahi mahi, cut into portions

Salt

Vegetable oil

2 large onions, sliced

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 cup vinegar

½ cup water

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon masala

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 bay leaves

4 cloves of whole allspice

4 cloves

¼ teaspoon peppercorns

Sugar to taste

Directions

1. Salt fish and fry in vegetable oil until cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside in a separate bowl; retain oil.

2. Place the rest of the ingredients except sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down heat and simmer until onions are transparent but haven’t lost their crunch.

3. Add sugar to taste and stir to dissolve. Pour warm sauce and oil over fish, making sure that each portion of fish is covered. Allow to cool and refrigerate.

4. Serve with fresh bread and butter.

Main photo: Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, with a dish of pickled fish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit  for the flavors to develop,” she says. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

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Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gillman

I never dreamt the busy chef and owner of the finest Chinese restaurant in Mexico would want to go back to China with me. I had invited Luís Chiu on a guided culinary tour of Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province of China, sponsored by www.foodiehub.tv. But Luís, who is Mexican of Chinese ancestry, was eager to expand his knowledge of the country and cuisines of his ancestors — so he accepted my offer.

There has been a Chinese community in Mexico since the 19th century, when workers came to build railroads; others arrived in search of a better life. Entrepreneurial Chinese, many versed in American-style “fast cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light, quick meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk, were the specialty. And faux Chinese dishes, such as fried rice and chow mein, were also offered. These cafes de Chinos became an important part of Mexican urban lore — a few remain today. Luís Chiu’s family owned several of these cafes through the years, and he grew up in and around the food business.

Eating in China

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

The first dish we ate, at a humble stall, was spicy beef meatballs, bathed in a brick-red oily sauce made aromatic by fresh, numbing Sichuan peppers, dry red chilies and bean paste. We quickly got used to this ubiquitous flavor combination. We later gorged on handmade noodles, ma po tofu with pig’s brains, spit roast rabbit, mutton kebabs, and oily, fiery hot pot. All were astounding.

We visited the local wholesale spice market. Piles of Sichuan peppers in varying shades from brownish green to deep brick red perfumed the air with their particular aroma — they made my eyes water but Luis´ tears were real. He was overjoyed to be in the midst of this epicenter of a cuisine he loved.

I interviewed chef Chiu back in his kitchen in Mexico City, after he’d had time to reflect on his experiences in China.

Nicholas Gilman: Do you feel more Mexican or more Chinese?

Luís Chiu: I’ve taken the best of both Mexican and Chinese culture. I feel more Chinese with the family, our customs, the way of being with each other. When I go to China I feel I don’t quite belong: The way of acting and thinking is totally different. I know I’m not Chinese, but I feel close to the culture, traditions. But when I’m with my Mexican friends, I’m 100 percent Mexican — I love going to soccer games, for example.

The best of both worlds

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: How did you become interested in traditional Chinese cooking?

L.C.: There were no regional Chinese restaurants in Mexico, so I saw an emerging market for more sophisticated people who were ready for “the real thing.” I went to Shanghai to study, and in 2011 I opened Asian Bay.

N.G.: What was your impression of Chengdu?

L.C.: I had been to other places in China, which were more westernized. I was impressed by how much old stuff was preserved. I loved the teahouses, markets and how there’s even street food. What struck me about Sichuan is that the people are very warm, as if they were Latino. They smile, greet you, chat with you, ask where you’re from. And especially, they are so proud of their culinary traditions. It’s like Mexico in that way. I was especially impressed by what love people have for their food. How there were lines of people to buy those bao, (steamed pork-filled buns) or to eat dumplings, noodles. How they look at you when they serve the dishes — they’re not so used to seeing foreigners, so I really think they wanted to impress us.

N.G.: Would you tell us something about what you ate?

L.C.: The ma-la was so strong, like nothing I’ve ever tasted! (He was referring to the combination of “ma,” the numbing of the peppers, and “la,” the spiciness of the chilies.)

Lessons from the trip

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: And what about the spice market?

L.C.: I was so impressed with that market because we wanted to see the “raw China,” and there it was — nothing Western, another world. Spices we’d never seen. And those chilies that came originally from Mexico. I really had no idea what all these things taste and smell like because imported products are of such low quality. Here it was the epicenter of this food.

N.G.: What, ultimately, did you learn from this journey?

L.C.: I left with more questions than I came with. It makes me want to delve even deeper into this complex cuisine. It’s kind of like Mexican cooking in the sense that ingredients are combined to create totally new flavors, like alchemy. They’re powerful, exciting. The journey made me realize that to cook food even if it comes from your own tradition, you have to know that culture from the inside. So to attempt to reproduce something when you are home is a real challenge. It can’t come from the heart if it’s superficial, if you don’t know the original.

Main photo: Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

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Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Italian-Americans will tell you flat out that linguine accompanies seafood. Well, at least Long Island Italian-Americans will tell you that. My grandfather, who was from a small village 85 kilometers east of Naples, immigrated to New York in the early 20th century and lived there the rest of his life. He took my mother fishing in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and they brought home bluefish, porgies, flounder or fluke on the subway back to their Manhattan tenement. Many different preparations would be made, but if it were to be a pasta dish, the pasta was linguine.

The array of pastas you will encounter in a market aisle look innumerable. There are many more pastas, and perhaps you haven’t thought what you could do with them. This is a wonderful time to start experimenting. The Italians are said to have invented about 700 pasta shapes. This includes specialty pastas made for certain occasions. I still have my box of Menucci brand 1776-1976 pasta made for the U.S. Bicentennial and am still trying to figure out if I should put it in a living room shadow box or the kitchen pantry.

One problem faced by the cook is what sauce for what pasta. Books have been written on this, but let’s keep it simple here. In the 1960s when I first started working in restaurants, I began cooking. I was mostly influenced by the cooking of my Italian grandfather and by my mom who made Italian food at home. I was also greatly influenced by my travels to Italy, by the restaurants I worked in, which were staffed by Italians, and by the cookbooks of Ada Boni, a famous mid-20th century Italian author.

The matching of pasta shapes with sauces is something of an art. There is usually some logic to it, but not always. Tubular pastas such as cut ziti or rigatoni are great in baked dishes and with thick ragouts that can get stuck in the tubes. Seashell pasta and chickpeas make sense because the shells capture the peas. Wide, flat pastas such as fettuccine and pappardelle are nice with sauces that cling to their wide surfaces.

If there was one thing I learned from my grandfather it was that seafood always went with linguine, the flat filiform pasta about 2 millimeters wide. Here are three great linguine and seafood recipes that would have made my grandfather swoon:

Linguine alla Pescatore

Linguine with swordfish, shrimp and oysters. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Linguine with swordfish, shrimp and oysters. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Preparation and cooking time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Linguine alla pescatore means linguine in the style of the fishermen. I’ve always doubted these dishes are actual fishermen’s dishes as implied by the name. The various “pescatore” dishes in Italy always struck me as trattoria dishes. In any case, this is a simple preparation with flavors that bely the simplicity. The secret, besides the freshest seafood, is the marinade the seafood sits in made with saffron, chile flakes, garlic and parsley. Once you’re ready to serve, the cooking happens quickly.

Ingredients

¾ pound swordfish, cut into ½-inch cubes

12 oysters, shucked, with their liquid

½ pound medium shrimp, shelled

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Pinch of saffron, crumbled slightly

½ teaspoon red chile flakes

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

Salt to taste

3/4 pound linguine

Directions

1. In a bowl, toss the swordfish, oysters, shrimp, anchovy fillets, parsley, garlic, saffron, chile flakes, black pepper and 4 tablespoons of olive oil together. Leave to marinate for 2 hours.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.

3. In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over high heat, then cook the seafood mixture, stirring frequently, seasoning with salt, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer the pasta to the pan and toss several times, letting the pasta cook and absorb some of the juices. Serve immediately.

Linguine With Salmon, Basil and Mint

Linguine with salmon, basil and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Linguine with salmon, basil and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

This is a subtle dish and since everyone loves salmon it is delightful with the fresh herbs.

Ingredients

1/2 pound linguine

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 pound salmon, cut into bite-size pieces

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Juice from 1/2 lemon

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.

2. Meanwhile, in a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the salmon, onion, garlic, basil and mint until the salmon is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle the lemon juice on the fish. Transfer the fish and pasta to a serving bowl, toss well and serve immediately without cheese.

Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans

Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

When my children and the children of my friends were little, before their palates became adventurous, we adults who cooked for both adults and young children faced a dilemma. The adults didn’t want boring “kid food” and the children were finicky, all to a different degree. I refused to slave over two separate meals, so I relied on this quick preparation that fit the gustatory bill, pleasing all kinds of palates.

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

12 ounces tuna, canned in water and drained

1/2 cup loosely-packed fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 pound linguine

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths

Directions

1. In a flameproof casserole large enough to contain all the pasta, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat with the garlic, tuna, and oregano. Once it begins to sizzle, cook for 2 minutes then remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta and green beans to the casserole and toss with the tuna. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

 

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Bengali Yogurt Fish Curry (Doi Maach). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Indian cooking gets a bad reputation for being daunting and almost too difficult to fit into your everyday repertoire. This misconception may be gradually changing, but not quite fast enough. But on the contrary, everyday Indian cooking is flavorful, practical and filled with all the health benefits from spices that we all want to incorporate into our lives.

A core component of the essential taste of Indian food is ensuring the flavors are fresh and bright and not bogged down by unnecessary reheating and refreshing, something often the trademark of the average restaurant fare. In addition to emphasizing the simplicity of preparation, I also am a big proponent of cooking with practical and readily found ingredients, minimizing the need for multiple visits to grocery store.

The key to Indian food is in the spices

If you are intimidated by Indian spices, a fair number of the typical seasonings are available in a well-stocked grocery store, and the rest can be kept stocked by an annual or every-six-months trip to an Indian specialty store. Shortcuts and practical cooking are not uncommon in the Indian home kitchen; after all, the Indian home cook is as time-strapped as anyone else.

Stocking a basic spice pantry can go a long way toward cooking your favorite Indian meals on short notice. The basics for me would be the essential Indian spice kit from my “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors” cookbook: turmeric (sold in powdered form), red cayenne pepper, whole cumin seeds, whole coriander seeds, fresh cilantro, ginger and garlic.

To add to the basics, you can include dried fenugreek leaves, green cardamoms, cinnamon, cloves, whole black peppercorns, whole mustard seeds and fresh curry leaves. It’s nothing terribly daunting if you give the list a fighting chance and open your horizons to a world of Indian flavors.

A note of advice and caution: While we can simplify the list of ingredients, it is important to use fresh spices.They are the soul of a flavor-based cuisine and cannot be substituted using a jar of ready-made curry, something that really is a misfit in most Indian kitchens.

The next step beyond stocking the spices is learning to use them. I personally use spices to create the foods of my childhood: simple, nourishing flavors that have sustained me every day. However, through teaching people how to cook Indian food, I have learned most people rush to the kitchen to replicate the flavors that have tantalized their taste buds in the last festive meal they savored. This is sometimes their first blush with the cuisine and often what captivates their imagination and what they want to re-create in their own kitchen.

Keeping this in mind, I offer you practical versions of three classic Indian dishes and suggestions for a few others. In these dishes, I have simplified the cooking techniques and used everyday ingredients to conjure up practical variations of dishes that will take you to three diverse parts of India.

Creamy, Well-Seasoned Black Beans

Creamy Well-seasoned Black Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Creamy, Well-Seasoned Black Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

This recipe for black beans is inspired by the classic Indian black lentil recipe, found in restaurants called Dal Makhani. Other than using everyday black beans, I have lightened the recipe significantly and developed it for a slow cooker, where it happily cooks into perfection. If you do not have a slow cooker, you can do this on the stove top in a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid.

Prep time: 2 to 3 hours (to soak the beans)

Cook time: 4 hours in a slow cooker

Total time: About 7 hours, mostly unattended.

Yield: Makes 8servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups dried black beans

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 4 cloves)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

2 red onions, finely diced

1 tablespoon freshly ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground coriander

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon red cayenne powder, or to taste

4 tomatoes, diced, or 1 cup canned chopped tomatoes

1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves (optional)

3 tablespoons sour cream

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Diced or sliced red onions for serving

Directions

1. Place the black beans in plenty of water and soak for 2 to 3 hours or overnight. Drain and set aside.

2. If your slow cooker has a saute function, turn it on and add the olive oil. Otherwise, you can do this in a skillet on the stove.

3. Add in the onions and cook for about 5 minutes, add in the ginger and the garlic and saute until the onions are soft and golden.

4. Add in the cumin, coriander, salt and red cayenne pepper and cook for a minute.

5. Add in the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes. If using a skillet, move the mixture to the slow cooker. Once the tomatoes are soft and pulpy, add this mixture to the slow cooker, add in the black beans with 3 cups of water and cook on low for 4 hours.

6. Remove the cover and stir in the fenugreek leaves, sour cream and cilantro before serving.

Note: You do want a fairly thick gravy for this dish. If your sauce is too thin, remove to the stove top and thicken for about a half hour before adding in the sour cream.

Bengali Yogurt Fish Curry (Doi Maach)

This signature fish curry is often a wedding dish, a beautiful meal reminiscent of a korma. The traditional version uses fish steaks deep-fried and immersed in a delicate yogurt sauce that is slow-cooked to perfection. My version uses salmon fillet, which offers a rich, dense flesh without the need for deep-frying. I use Greek yogurt to ensure a thick gravy without the precision and care of low and slow simmering in a heavy-bottomed copper pot, which is traditional for cooking Bengali food.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds salmon fillet (or any other firm-fleshed fish)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

3 green cardamoms

1-inch piece of cinnamon

6 to 8 cloves of garlic

3 tablespoons canola oil

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon sugar

3/4 cup Greek yogurt, beaten

1 tablespoon raisins

Whole red chilies and slivered almonds for garnish

Directions

1. Cut the salmon into 2-inch pieces and set aside.

2. Combine 1 teaspoon of the salt and the red cayenne pepper and sprinkle over the fish.

3. Combine the cardamoms, cinnamon and garlic cloves in a bowl and break a few times using a mortar.

4. Heat the oil and add in the broken spices and the onion. Cook the seasoned onion low and slow until wilted, soft and crispy. This should take about 10 minutes.

5. Add in the grated ginger, cumin and coriander and mix well. Stir in the remaining salt and sugar and mix in the yogurt with 1/2 cup of water.

6. Cook until the yogurt is well mixed and gets a pale ivory color.

7. Add in the fish pieces in a single layer and mix in the raisins.

8. Cook the mixture until the fish is cooked through (about 15 to 20 minutes).

9. Garnish with the chilies and slivered almonds and serve.

Kerala Chicken Stew

Kerala Chicken Stew. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Kerala Chicken Stew. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

This delicate and subtly spiced stew is a signature dish on Sunday mornings, usually served with lacy and flavorful appams. The stew is usually cooked with layers of freshly made coconut milk and develops its flavor from local produce such as green plantains and taro root. In this recipe, I have used practical stewing vegetables such as fresh carrots, baby potatoes and corn to create a dish that is just as good for your cool Sunday table.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 to 3 tablespoons oil (You can use coconut oil)

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

10 to 15 curry leaves

1 red onion, diced

2 to 3 cloves of garlic

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 large cinnamon stick

2 to 3 pods green cardamom

2 pounds of chicken, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium-sized tomatoes, diced

3 to 4 carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 to 3 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and quartered

1 cup coconut milk

1/2 cup frozen green peas

1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Heat the oil and add in the mustard seeds, then wait until the seeds begin to crackle. Add in the curry leaves and red onion and cook for about 6 to 7 minutes, until the onions are soft and beginning to turn pale golden.

2. Add in the garlic and ginger and stir well, cooking for about 1 minute.

3. Stir in the black pepper, cumin, coriander, cinnamon stick and cardamom and mix in the chicken with the salt. Stir and cook the chicken for about 10 minutes, until the liquid has evaporated and the chicken is well seared.

4. Add in the tomatoes and mix well.

5. Stir in the carrots and potatoes and the coconut milk and simmer the mixture for 25 minutes, until the chicken and vegetables are tender.

6. Add in the green peas and simmer for 2 minutes.

7. Garnish with cilantro before serving.

Main image: Bengali Yogurt Fish Curry (Doi Maach). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

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Gemma Wardle is the voice behind the blog

South Korea is in the middle of a food revolution. Led by expats, returning Korean-Americans and Koreans who have fallen in love with food overseas, once unheard-of dishes are now being served up all over Seoul. Spinach and artichoke pizza, pulled pork sandwiches and Spanish paella were just exotic dreams 10 years ago, but today they’re widely available, though price and quality can vary enormously.

Gemma Wardle, 31, is the self-described “fat girl” from England (though she lost significant weight two years ago). She is dedicated to documenting the Korean food revolution through her blog, A Fat Girl’s Food Guide to Eating in Korea. In four years, the Fat Girl’s Guide has become the go-to resource for foreign food in the Korean capital.

“I have been fat all my life,” Wardle says, tucking into a slice of macaroni and cheese pizza at Maddux, a new by-the-slice pizzeria near her apartment. “And I’m a person who loves to eat.”

The beginnings of a blog

Wardle reviews a restaurant; here, she holds a shrimp with sauce and pickling spices. Credit: Copyright 2016 Gemma Wardle

Wardle reviews a restaurant; here, she holds a shrimp with sauce and pickling spices. Credit: Copyright 2016 Gemma Wardle

Wardle began running the blog four years ago, after eating and shopping her way through the city. “I had this wealth of information, and people were always asking me, ‘Oh, how did you make this?’ or ‘Where did you buy this?’ or ‘Where’s a good date restaurant?'” Wardle says. “And I was just sick of saying the same things over and over again. So I started writing it down.”

Today it gets over 100,000 unique views a month, and advertisers are flocking to it. Wardle describes the blog as a “kimchi-free zone” that focuses on the influx of foreign food into this once isolated, now rapidly diversifying country. Though blogs covering Korean food are legion, there is little that focuses on the expanding foreign food market.

“I felt, as a Westerner living in Korea, I didn’t need to find Korean food. It’s everywhere you look,” Wardle says. “For those people coming up to Seoul a couple times a year, I wanted to say look, come here, this is the place you need to eat at.”

An international city

Pizza, including pizza topped with macaroni and cheese, is one of the latest offerings in South Korea. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dave Hazzan

Pizza, including pizza topped with macaroni and cheese, is one of the latest offerings in South Korea. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dave Hazzan

Though Wardle covers the whole of Seoul, she focuses mostly on the central neighborhood of Itaewon. Located near the gates of Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison, for decades it had a reputation as a sleazy, U.S. Army camptown, the place only soldiers, and the prostitutes who served them, would visit.

But beginning in the late 1990s, Itaewon started to gentrify — the number of soldiers was drawn down, and those left were put on tighter leashes. Foreign businesspeople, English teachers and migrant workers began hanging out and opening businesses. Finally, Koreans themselves, eager for an “authentic” foreign experience in their own country, started visiting and investing their money. Today, it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.

“It’s become more of an international kind of city,” Wardle says, a phenomenon she attributes to Koreans traveling more and developing more of an international palate.

Cocktails — which Wardle adores — have also become popular, in a country where a few years ago the only way to get liquor at most bars was by the bottle. Wardle says today’s other big trend is American comfort food, like barbecue, meatloaf and hamburgers.

A boom in restaurant growth

South Korea's restaurants include all types of foods, such as this paella in a Spanish restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Gemma Wardle

South Korea’s restaurants include all types of foods, such as this paella in a Spanish restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Gemma Wardle

There has also been a liberalizing in trade laws that allows you to get nearly any ingredient you want, provided you can pay for it. A lot of the blog used to be recipes to make hard-to-find items from scratch, like cheese and yogurt. Today Wardle does much less of that, since almost everything is available on the shelves.

“I will still do a recipe now and again,” she says. “And I used to do a lot more where-to-shop posts, and I will still throw one in if there’s something worth doing. But I’d say the bulk now is restaurant reviews, where we used to be a bit more evenly split.”

Every week there is at least one, and often up to four, new restaurants to review, a rate of growth unimaginable a few years ago. There are currently at least 300 restaurants listed on the blog — Wardle doesn’t know exactly how many.

Wardle continues to teach English part time. She’d like to only write the blog, but the money just isn’t there yet. In the meantime, she plans to stay in Korea at least two more years before contemplating a return to the UK.

“I’ve loved living here, and I’m very happy writing here,” Wardle says. “I just wish I’d started it sooner.”

Main photo: Gemma Wardle is the voice behind the blog A Fat Girl’s Food Guide to Eating in Korea. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dave Hazzan

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