Articles in Travel

Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

The jalapeño vs. the serrano: What exactly is the difference between the two most popular fresh chiles in the U.S. and Mexico?

Both are vibrant emerald green, with the larger jalapeño looking like a serrano on steroids. Jalapeños tend to be beefier, while serranos are more slender. Both have a torpedo shape that tapers to a point and curved green stems and smooth skins with no soft spots or wrinkles.

Bigger not always better when it comes to chiles

And as with almost all chiles, the rule of thumb applies: the larger the chile, the milder it is. In this case, the larger jalapeño is milder than the spicier serrano. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Sometimes bigger is just, well, bigger.

Jalapeños and serranos belong to the common Capsicum annuum family of peppers and can easily be found year round in most supermarket produce sections thanks to domestic and imported crops. Jalapeños (named after the city of Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, sometimes spelled Xalapeños after the local spelling of Xalapa) measure about 4 inches long and an inch wide at the stem end. Serranos (translates to “from the mountains” because they were first grown in the high-elevation mountains of Puebla, east of Mexico City) measure about 3 inches long and a half-inch wide at the stem end.

Their flavors are similar, and I find an excellent way to appreciate any subtle differences is to taste them when they turn bright red. That’s when they are at their peak of ripeness and when their spice intensity drops and they become slightly mellow, almost sweet. I always look for red-ripe chiles in late summer at farmers markets.

Make salsas to compare jalapeños and serranos

A favorite way to understand their differences is to make two simple table salsas (see recipes below). Choose either green or red for both chiles, and remove the seeds from both to control the unadorned (no onion, cilantro, etc.) heat.

When choosing between the two for a recipe, decide whether you’re looking for a lot of green flavor or more spice with less vegetable taste. For example, when I whirl up fresh fruit table salsas I choose serrano because I want the specific fruit flavor to be front and center but with plenty of backup chile heat. I choose green jalapeños for tomatillo salsas where a spicy chile with plenty of green bean vegetable flavor adds to the green sauce. Of course, they can be used interchangeably; add less serrano or more jalapeño and you’re all set.

After jalapeños and serranos ripen and turn red, they are dried and sometimes smoked. For size comparison, there are about 8 dried jalapeños per ounce or 11 dried serranos per ounce. A good rule of thumb is 10 pounds of fresh chiles weigh 1 pound when dried. The dried form of each chile has a different name: a dried, red jalapeño is a jalapeño seco and a dried, red serrano is simply called a chile seco.

Fiery hot, the small, 1½-inch chile seco has a slight citrus flavor and is usually found ground (sometimes called tipico and balin) and added to cooked sauces for heat.

A dried and smoked red jalapeño is a chile chipotle. Other dried and smoked chipotles are called morita and meco. The morita is a dark red, almost black, shiny, smoky, leathery chile that can vary in length from an inch to 4 inches. Many smaller moritas are canned in adobo (a chile-tomato sauce) and called chiles chipotles en adobo. The easy-to-use chiles are readily available in 7- to 8-ounce cans. After removing a few for a recipe, you can freeze the rest. The usually larger meco is smoked at least twice as long and turns medium brown with the look of an old, fuzzy brown tobacco leaf. Aficionados relish its spicy, super-smoky qualities.

The prized red-ripe, fresh jalapeño called huachinango (the same name as the famous Gulf red snapper fish because its stripes simulate the fish scale pattern) comes from central Mexico, mostly around Puebla and Veracruz. Usually found during the hottest summer months, it is easy to identify the coveted, 4- to 5-inch beauty, which has thin white lines running vertically on its skin. When dried and smoked, the thick-skinned delicacy becomes an extra-large, expensive chipotle meco grande with a subtle chocolate aroma.

Mail-order sources

Melissas.com: Melissa’s sells fresh and dried chiles. 5325 Soto St., Vernon, CA 90058. (800) 588-0151. Hours: 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays

Spices.com: Spices Inc. is a mail-order company that sells dried chiles. (888) 762-8642

Simple Green Chile Table Salsa Taste Test

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing these salsas. Choose either all green or all red chiles for both jalapeños and serranos.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 1/3 cup of each salsa.

Ingredients

2 ounces (1 or 2) fresh jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

2 ounces (3 or 4) fresh serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

Corn chips or warmed corn tortillas

Directions

1. Put the jalapeño chiles in a blender jar. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into a serving bowl.

2. Rinse the blender jar.

3. Put the serrano chiles in the blender. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into another serving bowl.

4. Taste with corn chips or warm corn tortillas.

Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing this salsa.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes about 2 cups.

Ingredients

1 very ripe Mexican papaya, about 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes, juiced (about 3 tablespoons)

1 medium (3 inches) white onion, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

2 serrano chiles

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves

Directions

1. Cut the papaya in half vertically. Scoop out the black seeds from one of the halves. Peel it and chop it, measuring out 3 cups chopped fruit. Put it into a blender or processor. (Wrap the remaining fruit in plastic and save for another use, such as smoothies or slices with a squirt of lime.)

2. Pour the lime juice on the papaya. Blend 5 seconds.

3. Add the onion, sugar and salt and whirl again 5 seconds. Pour the slightly chunky mixture into a serving bowl.

4. Stem and mince one of the 2 chiles and stir it (with seeds) into the papaya along with the cilantro. Taste. If you want a spicier salsa, stir in more of the remaining minced chile. Adjust salt or lime juice if necessary.

Notes: Don’t process the salmon-colored papaya, green chiles and cilantro together all at once or they will turn into an off-putting brownish mash (although the taste will still be great).

Save the papaya’s black seeds. Rinse and then dry them on a baking sheet in a low oven (200 F) for about an hour. Cool completely. The spicy seeds can be ground like peppercorns.

Main photo: Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright Nancy Zaslavsky

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A traditional Yemeni meal of lahuh and stew. Credit: iStockphoto / lenazap

Yemen is a remote and little-known country, closed to the outside world for centuries and still not very accessible. Not surprisingly, it has a distinctive cuisine.

A bit of cultural background

The Roman name for Yemen was Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia, partly because of its wealth: It stood athwart the main spice and incense routes. Another reason for the name was that Yemen is the only part of the Arabian Peninsula to get substantial rainfall. Located on the Indian Ocean, it’s exposed to the monsoon winds, and the Yemenis make the best use they can of the resulting precipitation. In some places, the hillsides are terraced, as in Southeast Asia. However, even this agricultural benefit is not enough to support the country’s population. For centuries, half of its adult men have worked abroad. (There are a number of Yemeni farmworkers in California’s Central Valley.)

Today, Yemen is the 37th poorest country in the world. It has potential tourist attractions, particularly in its impressive architecture — the Yemenis seem incapable of putting up a dull building, even when they use cinder block — but poverty and, recently, sectarian violence have kept it from drawing many visitors.

Although the country is best known to gourmets for producing coffee, most Yemenis can’t afford to drink it. Nearly all the beans are exported, and the locals instead drink a tea made from the husks, called gishr. It tastes like green coffee beans, I’m sorry to report — which is probably why it’s always flavored with spices — and contains no caffeine. For a caffeine-like kick, the Yemenis chew a local narcotic called qat (also pronounced gat or chat). It’s supposedly addictive, but I’ve chewed with wealthy Yemenis who could presumably afford the best and I found it about as stimulating as an espresso or two. I’ve concluded that people chew qat because it’s the principal social activity. (Women do it too, but in separate rooms.)

The fundamentals of Yemeni cuisine

After its spice and then coffee industries collapsed, Yemen was entirely isolated from the outside world for many years before 1963, when there was a revolution that devolved into the continuing period of instability. As a result, very little has been written about its cuisine, and all that most Westerners know about it comes from the cookery of the Yemenite Jews of Israel. Probably the best-known Yemeni food is a spice mixture/sauce whose name, s’hug, means “ground” in Arabic. There’s no canonical recipe; it can be made with just about any combination of ground, chopped or crushed flavorings. In the country’s capital, Sanaa (where they use the plural form of the word, sahawig), it’s usually chopped tomatoes, chiles and onions — essentially identical to Mexican salsa cruda.

Yemenis retain a medieval tradition of cooking in pots carved from soapstone; they prefer stone to metal because it doesn’t add any flavor to the food. Stoneware takes a while to heat up, much like cast iron (though it doesn’t have to be seasoned); it is also surprisingly sturdy, even amid leaping flames in restaurant kitchens.

Traditional dishes

The most common main dish is stew (marag), often including tomato and potato and usually flavored with fenugreek. The Yemenis are the world’s biggest consumers of fenugreek, mostly known to us from commercial curry powder and artificial maple syrup. They eat so much of this spice (which belongs to the legume family) that it contributes measurably to their protein intake. They prepare it by soaking the seeds in water for a couple of hours to soften them and leach out some of their bitterness, then whipping them to a froth with ground leeks. A dollop of this pale-green foam is often served on top of marag. The result is curious — imagine chili con carne garnished with bitter applesauce — so it takes some getting used to.

Because of the popularity of qat, Yemen is one of the few Middle Eastern countries with a tradition of sit-down restaurants. But these are far from fine-dining places — the customers are all in a hurry to get something in their stomachs before a chew, so the scene tends toward a roiling chaos of people calling out their orders (usually the only choices are beef marag or chicken maragand wolfing down the food.

In homes, you may find a wider range of dishes, such as duqqa, which is chopped meat and onions braised with parsley, or mkashshan, chicken stewed with browned green onions. Because of the country’s poverty, though, the diet is heavily based on grain, featuring lots of gruels and porridges and dishes containing bread.

Fortunately, bread is the cuisine’s strong suit. There’s an excellent flaky bread called mulawwah, which has a curved shape from the way it’s stuck on to the wall of the tandoor. For my taste, the finest Yemeni bread is lahuh (pronounced la-HOOH, with both h’s strongly articulated), a spongy, crepe-like product similar to Ethiopian injera but with an attractive crunchy quality of its own. As injera is preferably made with Ethiopia’s native grain t’ef, lahuh is made with Yemen’s indigenous white sorghum (dhura baida), which accounts for 80% of the country’s grain production. It resembles a cornstalk bearing popcorn balls instead of ears.

So there you go. If you find yourself in Yemen, try to get some mulawwah or lahuh with your marag. And if somebody offers you qat, say, “Oh, heck, why not? But only as long as you’re paying, partner.”

Main photo: A traditional Yemeni meal of lahuh and stew. Credit: Copyright  iStockphoto/ lenazap

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Fresh-squeezed lemonade at The Desert Bar in Parker, Arizona. Credit: Copyright Seth Joel 2015

There may be no better example of a destination watering hole than the one on the site of the abandoned Nellie E Mine outside Parker, Arizona. Ken Wardlow’s Desert Bar is in such a remote location in the Buckskin Mountains that just getting there is an adventure. But it’s no secret to communities up and down the Colorado River from Blythe to Lake Havasu, whose residents party there every Thanksgiving weekend, or to the snowbirds who come from all over the country in January: Pull into the parking lot and you will see license plates from Alaska, Illinois, Washington, Oregon and Nebraska. The accents you hear of German gentlemen cooing over showy 1,000 horsepower ATVs will confirm that this place is an open secret among Europeans, too. Then you enter the bar and meet 300 new best friends.

In 1983, Ken Wardlow had three things: a piece of property he had owned since 1975, a liquor license and a great imagination. He built a 12-by-12-foot shack with three walls and called it the Nellie E Saloon. Customers with a thirst for its Wild West aura began coming in droves, and by 1989 the shack had been replaced by a solid structure. It has been growing organically every year since. Now known as the Desert Bar, it’s a three-level complex with tin roofs, multiple seating areas, bars, kitchens, bandstands and a dance floor that you reach by a covered bridge spanning an actual gulch. It has no address other than its coordinates (34 degrees 12.05.14 North, 114 degrees 08.55.87 West), and it relies on its own wells, solar panels and twin cooling towers. In short, it is entirely off the grid.

The Desert Bar’s curiosities don’t end there. It is rarely open — only on weekend afternoons, before sunset, mid-autumn through mid-spring (that is, when the average temperature hovers below 100 F). To reach it, you have to join the line of Jeeps and pickups that creep along five dusty miles of primitive road. (Unless you have a quad, dune buggy, side-by-side or dirt bike, do not accept the challenge of the treacherous back way. Better to enjoy that drama through some daredevil’s head cam on YouTube.) So why is this bar so wildly popular? Well, there’s cold beer and lemonade that’s squeezed to order. There’s perfectly prepared American comfort food like hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken sandwiches to energize you for the journey home. You can indulge your secret longing for a basket of deep-fried pickle spears, or go all the way with the fritto misto of pickles, onion rings, mushrooms, jalapeños and freshly cut fries unfairly known as the “junk basket.” Try it, just the once…

But in the end it’s the atmosphere, not the menu, that makes all the difference. As the regulars arrive, they grab the shaded table they will occupy until sunset, while the newcomers wander around in awe. Cameras and cellphones capture the abandoned cars and fire trucks strewn around the property, the three bars, and the open-air ladies’ room constructed of rusting metal plates. Women — and, if the coast is clear, the occasional man — linger in here taking photos of the 30-mile view through the glassless picture windows. Hands down, the most-photographed structure is the trompe l’oeil “church.” Constructed from steel plates in 1991, it contains just one room under the three-story, copper-topped steeple, lined in stamped tin with two arched openings. And yes, destination weddings take place there regularly.

The words that customers use over and over to describe The Desert Bar are “fun” and “unique.” For the first-timer, two miles on the bone-rattling road to its door are enough to make you question all the praise. But once you see that steeple up ahead you know it is going to be worth the trip. Fun? Just walk up into the hills behind the bar and listen to the buzz of conversation and laughter filling the canyon. Unique? Without a doubt. Guaranteed you have never spent a Sunday Funday in such a hospitable bar surrounded by such inhospitable mountains.

Main photo: Fresh-squeezed lemonade at the Desert Bar in Parker, Arizona. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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Although they may seem as whimsical as leprechauns, shamrocks hold special religious significance in Ireland. The three-leaf clovers symbolize the holy trinity as taught by the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick. Credit: Copyright Sean Dippold

Think St. Patrick’s Day is all about chugging green beer and minty shakes and sporting avocado-colored sweaters, emerald top hats and Kiss Me, I’m Irish or Erin Go Bragh T-shirts? Think again.

In Ireland, where St. Patrick lived and died, the day stands for far more than carousing in garish clothing. It is a day of cultural and religious significance with nary a dyed beer or milkshake in sight.

As an insatiable traveler married to an Irish-American and fellow redhead, I’ve experienced my share of St. Patrick’s Days in Ireland. Whether I’m in a major city such as Dublin or rural village in County Clare, I never miss a parade. Although New York City receives credit for holding the first St. Patrick’s Day parade, way back in the 18th century, Ireland wholeheartedly embraces this festive event.

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland a family affair

Depending upon the locale, I’ve watched processions of marching bands, costumed dancers and professionally made balloons as well as festooned farm tractors, hand-painted banners and homemade floats. No matter where I am, one thing remains constant: the large number of families in attendance, cheering on the participants.

Along with seeing parades, visiting fairs and listening to live music, families in Ireland go to church services on St. Patrick’s Day. The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick served as the country’s bishop during the fifth century and is credited with helping convert the Irish to Christianity. On the Emerald Isle, the date of his death, March 17, is a religious and public holiday.

In his teachings St. Patrick used the shamrock to represent Christianity’s Holy Trinity. Today, as a symbol of their belief, the devout continue to pin these three-leaf clovers to their clothing. So much for my silly childhood belief that shamrocks went together with leprechauns the way that rainbows came with pots of gold or chips accompanied fish.

Food likewise plays a prominent role on St. Patrick’s Day. In the past, pubs remained closed on this holy day. With the public houses shuttered, family and friends would gather in homes to share simple, wholesome meals.

Then as now, potatoes starred in a variety of dishes, including the pancake known as boxty. They remain the primary ingredient in the mash of cabbage or kale and potatoes called colcannon and mash of scallions and potatoes called champ.

Potatoes also feature in meaty cottage and shepherd’s pies, boiled bacon and cabbage, Irish stew and, a personal favorite, potato soup.

For me, nothing says wholesome, Irish cooking like a bowl of hot, savory potato soup. It’s the perfect warmup for a brisk and damp March day spent outdoors at a parade or fete.

In a country surrounded by water, it comes as no surprise that seafood appears on holiday menus. Although outsiders tend to reduce Ireland’s fish specialties to breaded and deep-fried cod or haddock served with chips and peas, Irish cooks serve far more than this greasy — albeit tasty — mainstay. Cockle soup, seafood chowder, smoked haddock potpie, steamed mussels and cod cakes are among the country’s wondrous seafood dishes.

Contrary to the American custom of drinking green-colored ales on St. Patrick’s Day, in Ireland people usually reach for dark, smoky stouts. Originally just a stronger version of a porter, stout has become a category of its own for many beer connoisseurs. With its creamy texture, full-bodied flavor and rich mouthfeel, it leaves consumers fully satisfied. Drink of pint of hearty stout and you’ll feel as though you’ve consumed your St. Patrick’s Day meal in one glass.

Probably no stout is more renowned or available globally than Guinness. Yet, Ireland does have other stout brands, including the Cork-based Murphy’s and Beamish, both of which have been acquired by the Dutch beer company Heineken.

This St. Patrick’s Day, skip the green clothing, tinted drinks and boozy benders. Instead, celebrate the authentic Irish way — with good food, family and fun.

Potato-Leek Soup

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

7 ounces leeks, washed and sliced

1 pound, 10 ounces russet potatoes, washed, peeled and chopped

7 cups chicken stock

Salt to taste

Ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large stockpot melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and sauté until softened and translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, stir to combine and cook for another 1 minute.

2. Pour in the chicken stock, raise the temperature to medium-high and bring the soup to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 25 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and leeks are translucent.

3. Turn off the heat. Add salt and ground black pepper to taste.

4. Using either an immersion or traditional blender, puree the soup until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. Serve hot.

Main photo: Although they may seem as whimsical as leprechauns, shamrocks hold special religious significance in Ireland. The three-leaf clovers symbolize the holy trinity as taught by the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick. Credit: Copyright Sean Dippold

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Guest and resident chefs at the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival 2015. Credit: Andy Mettler

Why did a handful of British chefs invade the 2015 St. Moritz Gourmet Festival? It’s a nod to the very British pioneers who more than a century ago visited in winter and made the Swiss mountain town a popular cold-season tourist spot.

In September 1864, Johannes Badrutt, a hotelier in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps, staged a neat publicity stunt. At the time, people on holiday — about 75% of them British — ventured to the Alps only during the summer months. In a bold initiative to change the established pattern and persuade them of the beauty of the mountains in winter, Badrutt made a promise to his departing British summer guests: If they returned in December and stayed until Easter, their stay in St. Mortiz would be free of charge, provided the winter experience matched their summer memories.

Toward the end of 1864, a handful of hardy British guests, motivated by the now-famous bet, set off on the long journey from London by horse and carriage across the English Channel and through France to Switzerland. From Chur in Switzerland’s Graubünden, the carriages got progressively smaller and more uncomfortable as the guests traveled ever higher, finally reaching St. Moritz via the winding Julierpass. Piled high on long sledges towed behind the carriages was everything they needed for their two- or three-month stay.

In the spring of 1865 the delighted caravan of guests returned to England, suntanned and singing the praises of St. Moritz in winter. Winter tourism in the Alps was launched.

In recognition of Badrutt’s initiative, and of the key part Brits played in developing winter tourism in the Engadine valley of southern Switzerland, this year’s St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, held annually at the end of January, took on British colors. Just how much the British food scene has changed in the past 20 years — not to mention since that winter of 1864 when the first British guests stayed in St. Moritz — became apparent over the course of the festival, during which a team of nine of Britain’s leading chefs returned in the footsteps of those first British winter tourists. Their job was to showcase the best of what the British have to offer in a series of spectacular dinners, kitchen parties and gala events.

Food festivals are two a penny nowadays. What set this one apart was not just the quality of the cooking but also the surprise element. “Plenty of people still think that British food is just fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding,” said Jean-Jacques Bauer, assistant manager at the Hotel Kulm, where the whole story began and where the final gala dinner took place, with all nine chefs in attendance. “But, as we saw at this year’s festival, it offers so much more than this.” During the week, he said, “the chefs took us on a culinary journey and opened our eyes to the outstanding quality of contemporary British food.”

Chefs highlight multicultural influences in British cuisine

The crack team of chefs was selected first and foremost because each is at the top of their game — most have Michelin stars. Some work in London, others out in the country. More importantly, the festival organizers had understood well what distinguishes the best modern British food: not just superb local ingredients and specialties used with skill and flair, but also the many international and multicultural influences at work, both contemporary and from the country’s colonial past. “Great Britain is a melting pot,” Bauer said. “And so, too, is its food … which has brought together tastes from all over the world within just one country. This is British cuisine today.”

Each chef was assigned to one of St. Moritz’s five-star hotels, where they worked in tandem with the home team, preparing menus with their own personal stamp. Yorkshire-born Jason Atherton boasts a stableful of trendsetting London restaurants (Pollen Street Social, Social Eating House) with outposts in Asia, and further operations about to open in Dubai, Sydney and New York. Guests at the Schweizerhof were treated to what he describes as “real food based on British traditions,” along the lines of Cornish sea bass with a kombu glaze and braised ox cheeks sourced from the estates of the Duke of Buccleuch.

Angela Hartnett, whose home kitchen is Murano in London’s Mayfair, brought a British-Italian perspective to diners at the Carlton with her brand of seasonal, pared down cucina Italiana, which included a virginal buttermilk panna cotta with grapes and candied oranges. Across the lake at the Waldhaus in Sils-Maria, Nathan Outlaw managed to bring a breath of sea air from St. Enodoc in deepest Cornwall all the way up to the Swiss mountains with his seafood-rich menu, including succulent turbot with lobster sauce and seaweed.

And while all the chefs at this year’s festival are currently working in the U.K., not all were born there, yet another reflection of the international flavor of British food today. Take French native Claude Bosi, for example, who found his way to London from his home town of Lyon, France, via Ludlow in Shropshire and now officiates at the double-starred Hibiscus in Mayfair. At Badrutt’s Palace his highly creative and personalized version of French cuisine included a dramatic dish of venison with quince and Sharon fruit, while Atul Kochhar, born in India, educated in Britain and now a star chef with several London restaurants to his name (plus one in Dublin and another in Madrid), dazzled palates at the Kulm with slivers of duck breast cured with Indian spices (“my charcuterie, Indian-style”), a fragrant fish curry and a delicate dessert based on yogurt and dulce de leche.

“People used to poke fun at Britain on the culinary front,” said Atherton, adding ruefully, “If there’d been an Olympics for food, we’d have been at the bottom!”

But a week in the mountains of St. Moritz was enough to show that British chefs are now right up there at the summit.

Zester Daily contributor Sue Style was a guest of Kulm Hotel St. Moritz and Switzerland Tourism.

Main photo: Guest and resident chefs at the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival 2015. Credit: Andy Mettler

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Falafel, a Middle Eastern dish of spiced mashed chickpeas, is formed into balls or patties, deep-fried and sometimes eaten in a pita. Credit: Copyright 2012 iStock/mphillips007

Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, brings a plate of falafel balls out of the Alshami restaurant kitchen to a family of five seated at one of the diner’s nine snug stalls. As he walks, he peeks a glance at the door, where Lebanese and Syrian sweets and platters of pudding called muhallabia tempt passersby.

After delivering the falafel, Al Khdraa pats a little boy on the head. A thin smile protrudes from his veneer of five-o’clock shadow as he returns to the cash register. At his perch, he observes the chaos of pedestrians, cars and street vendors on Avenue Al Maghrib Al Arabi in Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, but keeps diners in his periphery, ready to dash over with extra pita or a napkin.

The Author


Ben Bartenstein
Ben Bartenstein reports for Round Earth Media from Spain and Morocco. His writing also appears on the websites for Minnesota Public Radio and Macalester College. Ben is active in the Asian American Journalists Association.

 

The Photographer


Julia Barstow

Julia Barstow is a junior at Bennington College in Vermont, studying photography, media, and video. She is currently studying journalism in Morocco where she plans to cover issues related to culture and the environment.

When Al Khdraa was a boy in Damascus, Syria, long before the war that has engulfed his country, his family operated a cosmetics shop. He went to school, studying English and French and dreaming of potential studies abroad. But as the Syrian civil war escalated in July 2012, Al Khdraa and his family sold their house, car and other belongings. They each packed a bag of clothes and fled by plane to Lebanon.

“It was the only choice we had,” Al Khdraa says.

Morocco is safe landing spot

After 15 days in Beirut, the family flew to Morocco, one of the few countries that would accept them for permanent residency. In the eyes of Syrians, Al Khdraa says, Morocco is the safest landing spot in the Arab world. Morocco granted about 3,600 Syrian refugees legal status last year, according to a government report. These documents must be renewed annually.

Several months after arriving in Rabat, Al Khdraa got a job at Alshami. Wasim Alkhouga, 35, had just opened up the diner, and he quickly recruited a team of mostly Syrian refugees.

“It’s hard to find each other,” Alkhouga says. He recalls his arrival in Rabat two decades ago when his family relocated for work. He was 10 at the time and spent his first year blundering words in Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, which is quite different from his own, he says. In a city that’s receiving dozens of Syrian refugees by the month, Alshami reminds the city’s burgeoning émigré community of home.

From the lunchtime grab-and-go shawarma sandwich for 18 MAD ($1.88), to the light but filling lentil soup ($1.26), to their “famous” falafel ($2.09), the diner attracts Moroccans, Syrians and tourists. Al Khdraa recommends his personal favorite, the mix grill ($6.17), an array of shish, lamb and chicken kebabs.

Syrian falafels are a popular street food

Although the Egyptians claim to have invented the falafel, the Syrian variety of chickpeas, garlic and spices became a phenomenon, sold by street vendors, fast food chains and restaurants around the world. In what is known as the Levant region (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan), the croquettes are often served with tahini and pita as a precursor to the main course. During Ramadan, the balls are sometimes eaten for iftar, the meal after sunset that breaks the fast.

Alkhouga learned falafel fundamentals from his father. There are only a handful of ingredients, but he says patience is everything. The process begins with soaking chickpeas in water for 10 hours and ends with five minutes in boiling vegetable oil. “Don’t touch it,” Alkhouga warns, “or it will shatter.”

Alkhouga applies this singular approach to all food. He takes traditional ingredients to create timeless flavors known throughout the region. Unlike most restaurants, Alshami barbecues the shawarma meat before cooking, Al Khdraa says, pointing to the rotisserie outside. After garnishing, the shawarma is lightly cooked for 25 minutes and served hot. While it’s a steady process, Alshami makes large quantities to accommodate lunchtime demand, so the wait time is insignificant.

As he attends to a steady stream of customers, Al Khdraa says he carries painful memories of his home city 2,400 miles away. He says that he has adapted to Rabat, but longs for the day when he return. Once the violence stops, Alkhouga also says he’d “return in an instant.”

Both realize that day could be years off, but neither forgets the friends and family who stayed in Syria amid death tolls that have averaged about 150 people per day during the course of the four-year civil war, according to the United Nations. Al Khdraa calls home nearly every week and adds, “They say, ‘We made it for this week.’ “

Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, carries an order of Al Shami’s specialty, falafel. Credit: Julie Barstow

Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, carries an order of Alshami’s specialty, falafel. Credit: Copyright Julie Barstow

Alshami’s Falafel

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 5 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of chickpeas

3/4 to 1 ounce (20 to 30 grams) of garlic cloves

1 tablespoon of salt

Few pinches of parsley

Cumin, pepper, to taste, optional

Soy or corn oil

Directions

1. Put chickpeas in water at room temperature for at least 10 hours.

2. Grind up chickpeas in a blender, or preferably an ice crusher.

3. Add seasonings.

4. Place mixture in falafel scooper to form into balls.

5. Set balls into boiling soy or corn oil for five minutes. Temperature at least 320 F.

6. Serve right away with pita bread and tahini sauce.

Main photo: Falafel, a Middle Eastern dish of spiced mashed chickpeas, is formed into balls or patties, deep-fried and sometimes eaten in a pita. Credit: Copyright 2012 iStock/mphillips007

Ben Bartenstein and Julia Barstow are in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program.

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Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

How many times have you been inspired to photograph a dish only to find that the image captured on your camera’s LCD screen is nowhere near as beautiful, or appetizing, as the dish sitting in front of you? Unwilling to give up you shoot another, and another — until your dinner companion, or a waiter, taps you on the shoulder and says, “You better eat that before it gets cold.”

Great food photography is mostly about technique, and with a little practice you can master the basics. Once you’ve developed technical skills, add inspiration and passion (because every photographer should love his or her subject). You’ll be amazed at the results.

To advance your food photographs, check out the slideshow.

More Zester Daily stories with slideshows from David Hagerman:

» A professional’s tips for shooting photos of markets

» The heart of Lao cuisine

» Food and the open flame

» Endangered Thai treasure

Main photo: Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

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Setting up snack plates in Helsinki. Credit: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day

Burgers grilled over an open flame in Moscow. A five-course meal cooked in a Williamsburg loft. Vietnamese spring rolls served in a Helsinki train station. A Belgian waffle bar set up in Berlin. These are just a few of the concepts behind hundreds of restaurants scheduled to pop up on Feb. 15, for one day only, as part of what organizers call the “world’s biggest food carnival.”

The now-global event sprouted in Helsinki, where a group of friends, frustrated with the red tape required to establish a restaurant, launched a social-media campaign to get people in Finland to join them in creating temporary eateries for a single day. That first Restaurant Day in May 2011 included 45 restaurants. The most recent, in November 2014, encompassed 1,698 in 35 countries (mostly in Western Europe).

“There was such huge media interest in the first event, we knew we were onto something big, and the international potential became apparent very fast,” says Restaurant Day co-founder Timo Santala, who leads a team of volunteers that promotes and supports local restaurant hosts through a “Restaurant Day Ambassadors” network, a mobile app, and a website in 17 languages.

Kathryn Sharaput, a pastry chef in Montreal, learned about Restaurant Day on Facebook, and first participated last summer, serving up homemade ceviche in a local park.

“I really enjoyed actually getting to talk to the people I was cooking for – trading stories about food, travel and recipes,” Sharaput says, adding that the event also helps bridge the “disconnect between people and their food — where it comes from, how it’s made and who’s making it.”

Restaurant Day, held four times a year, is part of a larger trend toward eating experiences that are more innovative, intimate, ephemeral — or all three. Food trucks ply the streets of many major cities, while small supper clubs hosted by chefs are an increasingly common phenomenon. Websites like EatWith and MealTango connect food-lovers with people who want to cook and host meals in their homes.

But Santala says Restaurant Day’s spontaneity, public nature and amateur spirit set it apart. To join in, all hosts need to do is add a short listing to the global map for the next event and prepare some kind of food or drink to sell or give away. Utilizing public spaces is encouraged, and unlike Sharaput, most participants are not culinary professionals.

“Restaurant Day puts the spotlight on ordinary people: Boy Scouts, school classes, grandmothers, anyone who wants to create new experiences around food for other people,” Santala says. “That’s what makes it exciting; it’s a way of democratizing the food business.”

For many hosts, it’s also a way of creating community, whether by supporting local businesses, raising money for charity, advocating for a cause or introducing their neighbors to the tastes of their home country.

One host in Prague who goes by the alias “Psychologie chuti” (Psychology of flavor) decided to sell her Parisian-style macarons – in 15 nontraditional flavors ranging from mulled wine to jasmine – inside a favorite local café. “I always notice almost no one else goes there, which makes me sad,” she says. “So I tried to let other people know about it by setting up shop there and it was awesome!”

For Marte Munkeli, the leader of the Norwegian Vegan Society, Restaurant Day is “a great opportunity to promote veganism in a fun, non-preachy way.” The group has served vegan sandwiches, soups and cakes at previous events and plans to cook meat-free “chili sin carne” in February.

Sasikala Anbarasan, a biotech researcher in Espoo, Finland, says Restaurant Day offers a way for her to show Finns that “Indian food doesn’t just mean chicken tikka masala and naan.” She donates a share of the profits she makes from cooking a “typical Tamil menu” — including South Indian specialties such as idli, a savory cake made from black beans and rice, or sambar, a tamarind-flavored vegetable stew — to an organization that helps orphaned children in that region.

Korea-born SuJin Jung says she finds a cultural element lacking in the Korean restaurants of her adopted home city of Montreal. So when she and her friends decided to make bibimbap for Restaurant Day last November, she says they “didn’t just serve the food, but tried our best to explain the culture behind this dish” – a rice bowl with various toppings, all of which have traditional symbolic meanings.

Living abroad for the past 13 years, Rashmi Ahuja has likewise been disappointed by most Indian food she’s found in other countries. “I was looking for something that reminded me of my mother’s food, something that satisfies your soul,” she says. Ahuja started teaching herself to cook some of the dishes she remembered from home, sharing them first with friends and family, and then hosting her first Restaurant Day in November 2012 in Helsinki, a year after moving there. She has now participated six times, making Mumbai street food, Indian-Finnish fusion and other recipes based on a specific region or ingredients.

Sharing a passion for food culture with the locals

“It’s a way for people like me who are passionate about their food culture to share it with local people,” she says. “The food that we eat gives an insight into our personalities and how we were brought up and tells a lot about us and our cultures.”

For the next Restaurant Day, Ahuja plans to make daal roti (lentils with flat bread), an Indian staple. Around the world, hundreds of other food lovers are also thinking about what culinary experiences they might like to share with their neighbors.

“Even though the basic concept stays the same, the individuals who participate decide what Restaurant Day looks like, so each time it’s completely different,” says Santala. “It’s all about just digging in and enjoying what comes along.”

Main photo: Setting up snack plates in Helsinki. Credit: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day

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