Articles in Travel

Bánh mì from Bánh Mì Phương. Credit: Cameron Stauch

I couldn’t help myself. I licked the meaty, fiery juices from my hand, not wanting to waste them on a napkin. I made eye contact with the woman behind the counter and eagerly raised my index finger, motioning for her to make me one more. I had tasted Vietnam’s most delicious bánh mì sandwich, and I didn’t want this moment to end.

Before moving to Vietnam, I had tasted a handful of bánh mì sandwiches prepared at Vietnamese-owned restaurants. Honestly, none thrilled me enough to prompt a return visit when hit with a craving for a satisfying sandwich. This disappointment continued even upon my relocation to Hanoi. The sandwiches were fine, but by and large they lacked personality and barely filled my hunger. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, has served me a couple of satisfying bánh mì, one from Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, stuffed with assorted Vietnamese charcuterie, pickled carrots and daikon, chilies and fresh herbs, and the other a remarkable vegan version that could stand up to any meat-filled baguette. Yet none, until that finger-licking moment, had reached the point where I would get on a plane with eager anticipation to hold this 7-inch flavor bomb in my hands.

The south-central coastal town of Hoi An is most commonly known as a beloved tourist destination where vacationers soak up the history and architecture of this once-prosperous trading port, but I know it as the Vietnamese town with the best bánh mì vendors.

A recent trip back to Hoi An reinforced this belief, and I have the sandwich-juice-stained shirts from my bánh mì tasting tour to prove it. Happily gorging and investigating these sandwiches, I discovered that the best vendors, Bánh Mì Lành, Madam Khánh and Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, make most of their ingredients in-house, as opposed to the majority of vendors, who rely on ready-made condiments.

For the best of the best: Bánh Mì Phương, the sister of the above-mentioned brother-run Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, is the vendor who sets the bar in preparing Vietnam’s best bánh mì. Knowing that it may be a while before you get to wrap your lips around one of these layered gems, I thought it best to break down and share what sets this bánh mì apart from all the rest — with the knowledge that you may want to try and re-create it in your own kitchen.

Bánh mì bread

The French colonialists brought their love for bread and pastries with them to Vietnam. Vietnamese bakers played around with the recipes, ultimately creating a lighter, fluffier thin-crust baguette — making it a perfect vehicle for flavor delivery. A typical French baguette won’t suffice because the crumb is denser and the crust is thicker, forcing your jaws to work and chew your way through the sandwich. This may be one of the rare times you even consider buying one of those fluffy grocery-store-baked baguettes.

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Bánh Mì Phương's basic storefront. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Phương gently warms her baguettes in a wooden box by the heat of slowly burning coal embers. You can replicate this in your home kitchen by warming the baguettes in a 200 F oven as you prepare the fillings.

Homemade super sauces

Phương forgoes bland ready-made mayo and takes the time to make a rich, creamy and eggy homemade mayonnaise. Mortar and pestle are used to pound tương ớt , a fresh, long red chile sauce. Instead of using basic light soy sauce or Maggi seasoning sauce, she has concocted her own nước siêu, or super sauce. This is one of those recipes Phương definitely will not share. However, from deduction I have concocted my own version. Heat ½ cup water, ¼ cup light soy sauce and ¼ cup sugar and mix until the sugar is dissolved. Then add a shallot and a quarter of a tomato, both roughly chopped, along with a finely chopped red chile and green onion and then sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame seeds. It may be worth playing around to find a ratio of ingredients pleasing to your taste and keep it stored in a small jar in the fridge so it is easily at hand.

Meats and pâté

Her most popular sandwich, bánh mì deluxe, consists of three types of pork: thin slices of roast pork loin, ham and cha lua, a pork sausage loaf.  She also prepares a pork liver pâté that is wrapped in caul fat and sautés some ground pork, which is stored in its fatty juices for added flavor.

Vegetables and herb salad

All the bánh mì stalls use a fresh, vibrant-tasting herb mixture consisting of sprout-sized coriander, mint, rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and green onions. Lightly pickled julienned carrots and daikon and thinly sliced cucumber lengths are also ubiquitous refreshing additions.

Layering of flavors

Phương and her staff don’t just haphazardly stuff the fillings into the sliced baguette; rather, they methodically assemble each bánh mì in identical fashion. First, 1 tablespoon of homemade mayonnaise is spread along the inside of the bread, followed by 1 tablespoon of pâté along the bottom. Two teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce are drizzled along the crumb of the bread. Then, ⅓ of a cup of herb mixture, sliced cucumber and a few pieces of pickled daikon and carrot make a nest to support the three sliced meats. A tablespoon of the warm ground pork mixture is spooned over the top, then finished off with a touch of fresh chili sauce, if desired, and another couple teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce. I believe it is this specific layering that produces the addictive harmony of flavors that brings her such a loyal following.

Note: For those planning a visit, Bánh Mì Mi Phương has moved because of construction at the main market, and she intends to remain permanently at this new location: at 2B Pham Châu Tring St. in Hoi An.

Main photo: Bánh mì from Bánh Mì Phương. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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A bowl of bakso is readily available in most parts of Indonesia. Credit: Aida Ahmad

Finding a hot, steaming bowl of bakso in Indonesia is as easy as finding a slice of pizza in New York City.

During my recent trip to the Indonesian cities of Jakarta, the nation’s capital; Bandung, the capital of West Java; and Yogyakarta, a city in Java, street stalls on every corner were selling this signature soupy meatball dish.

I was tempted to try some bakso (pronounced BAH-so) at one of those hole-in-the-wall shacks, but was advised against doing so for fear of getting food poisoning. It is like being in India; you stay away from the street food unless a native gives you the green light, but even then you contemplate if it is a good idea.

Bakso an Indonesian comfort food

When you are in a new city, it is always good to know a local to show you the good places to eat. Fortunately for me, I stayed in touch with a friend from college, and he took me to a swanky food court at the Grand Indonesia Mall to have some bakso.

“Bakso is what we usually have at home because back in the day, the bakso seller goes around to the neighborhoods with the cart,” explained my friend Dwi Addin Wibowo, who hails from Medan, the capital of North Sumatra in Indonesia. “The ones before are nothing like what we have now. It was much simpler and cheaper.” According to Dwi, people eat bakso because of its comfort-food quality; it is like a solace to make your problems go away.

Basic bakso consists of meatballs, glass noodles and yellow noodles with spring onions and shallots, but the backbone of the soup that determines whether it is good is the broth.

“The bones/carcass of the beef is boiled for hours to get the rich flavor. It is everyone’s comfort food where you go out and buy it rather than cook it at home because it is so readily available,” he said.

Aside from the broth, the tastiness of the accompanying chilli sambal (spicy paste) is also important. One of two types of sambal usually comes with bakso; one is made from unripe green papaya and the other from fresh chillies. The latter is very hot. Some people enjoy bakso because of the addictive sambal.

“From what I have heard, bakso was actually a Chinese street food sold by Chinese vendors during the Colonial era. Of course, back then, they used pork, but now a majority of Muslim Indonesians sell the halal version, which is made from beef,” Dwi said. (Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country and the fourth most populous nation in the world).

The evolving price of bakso

So how much is a bowl of bakso? “I’m from Medan, and I have tried one there that has huge portions of tasty beef and the broth is very tasty. In 2003, it cost about 10,000 Rupiahs (87 cents U.S.) per bowl, but now it is 15,000 to 20,000 Rupiahs ($1.30 to $1.75 U.S.) per bowl.”

At high-end malls like the one we visited, a bowl is 35,000 Rupiahs ($3 U.S.).

Of course, the taste of bakso is tremendously different if you eat it at the roadside stalls. Some street stalls sell good bakso, and a local would be able to tell you where to go. “The street versions are monosodium glutamate (MSG) and preservatives-laden and not good for you. This is where most of our people consume it because of the burst of energy shots from the MSG. It is like how a cup of tea for the British solves all problems.”

I call it a sinful dish because all the MSG makes it bad for you if consumed too often, but it is so delicious. The one I had at the mall was savory and tasty to the last drop.

Tea a perfect complement

Ideally, a bowl of bakso is washed down with sweetened tea (in Indonesian, it is called “teh botol”) because the combination of the savory soup and the sweet tea is what makes the meal complete.

There are different versions of bakso, too, depending on from where in Indonesia it comes. “In Sumatra, they use more spring onions and the broth is thick, whereas in Java, they put in cabbage, bok choy and bean sprouts and the broth is watery,” Dwi said.

If you happen to be on the road in Indonesia and come across a sign reading “Bakso Setan” that is decorated with a chili logo, it literally means “Devil’s Bakso — for chili lovers.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Main photo: A bowl of bakso is readily available in most parts of Indonesia. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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Cherimoya in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman

My mother had a lifelong wish to go to Hawaii, and at long last had persuaded my father to indulge her desire. And so it was that my parents, my sister, and I ended up, long after dark, tired and hungry, tiptoeing into the kitchen of our bed and breakfast on Maui. We switched on the light and saw a basket on the kitchen table overflowing with tropical delights. My eyes greedily consumed the bright papaya, waxy starfruit, and stately pineapple.

But it was the aroma of a pale, brown-tinged, gray-green, oddly shingled, heavy rock of a fruit that grabbed and held me. I turned it over in my hands, feeling its solid heft and the softly yielding flesh under the scaly depressions in the reticulated skin. Then I brought it to my nose to breathe in the heavenly scent.

With the exhale, I turned to my sister, who had spent a high school year among the tropical fruits of the Philippines, “What in the world is this?”

Her eyes widened with delight as she exclaimed, “Cherimoya!”

“Cheri-who?” I asked. But she had already sliced it in half, and words swiftly become superfluous as we dug in to the velvety ivory flesh studded with large black seeds. Our wholly inadequate attempts to describe the aroma and flavors, which included banana, pear, coconut, mango, pineapple, papaya and vanilla,  faded to appreciative grunts and murmurs as we greedily spooned the custard-like flesh into our mouths.

Then I remembered my late-night reading before our trip. A fair number of famous authors have written about Hawaii — Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London, and, of course, James Michener — but I was fairly sure that it was Mark Twain who had waxed eloquent about the cherimoya.

Twain spent four months on what were then known as the Sandwich Islands in 1866, on assignment for the Sacramento Union newspaper. He was only 31 years old, but the 25 letters that he steam-shipped back to the mainland are still fresh and funny. The complete collection of Twain’s articles from the trip can be found in “Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii” (University of Hawaii Press). But it was in “Roughing It,” Twain’s 1872 collection of travel essays, that I found his description of the cherimoya.

“We had an abundance of fruit in Honolulu, of course. Oranges, pine-apples, bananas, strawberries, lemons, limes, mangoes, guavas, melons, and a rare and curious luxury called the cherimoya, which is deliciousness itself,” he wrote.

Cherimoya’s peak of ripeness

The next morning I saw a smashed cherimoya on the ground next to our rental car. Fulminating against the depraved person who wasted such a wonderful fruit, I picked it up and began shamelessly eating it straight out of the damaged skin. Then, looking up, I had a Sir Isaac Newton moment: The vandal in question was gravity, and the source of our midnight cherimoya indulgence was the very tree under which we had parked our car. The lush, low canopy of the medium-sized tree nearly hid the cherimoya fruits, but there they were, hanging like Flintstone-era footballs just above the car.

Cherimoya fruit. Credit: Yuliya Vdikovinku/iStock

Cherimoya fruit. Credit: Yuliya Vdikovinku/iStock

Then I understood why the previous night’s, and the current morning’s, fruits were so scrumptious. They were at their peak of ripeness, literally falling from the tree. A bit of research revealed that the cherimoya has little commercial production because of its short shelf life. Although it seems well-armored, it is actually quite a delicate fruit. The skin bruises and breaks easily, and the moment of perfection is fleeting.

My research also brought to light the origin of the cherimoya, which is not native to the tropics, but to the inter-Andean valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. From there, native peoples spread it throughout the highlands of South and Central America. After the conquistadores arrived, they shipped cherimoya seeds back to Spain in 1757, and to Hawaii in 1790, some 75 years before Twain encountered it there.

The first California cherimoya trees were planted in 1871, with seeds brought up from Mexico.  By 1936, there were some 9,000 trees in the state, but most were killed by the hard freeze of 1937. A few small commercial orchards were reestablished, and the fruits were marketed locally, as they are today. Different varieties ripen from January through June, but in general March through May is the prime time for cherimoya in California. So if you are lucky enough to be there, and see a cherimoya, and it smells good, buy it.

I’ve seen recipes for everything from cherimoya ice cream to cherimoya salad dressing. But you can do no better than to peel back the skin and slurp the ripe flesh, or cut the fruit in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon as I did on my virgin cherimoya indulgence. Deliciousness itself needs no embellishment.

Main photo: Cherimoya in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.

Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.

How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?

Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.

The real Oaxacan food

She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.

What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.

Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.

She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.

A new start for El Naranjo

In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart.  The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.

Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.

“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said.  ”Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”

Velvety smooth moles

She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.

De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.

De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.

“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”

Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

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Poster for the 1949 film

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

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

Asian fusion: From the old country to the new

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

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

Slow and fast food

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

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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

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

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

Cafe El Pópular

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

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

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

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

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

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Chicken chop suey at Cafe Manuel. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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

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

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Illustration of Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

The key to mastering the art of the café lifestyle in Paris is to be vigilant. My Café French™ language system can help. Did your French server just scowl at you because you ordered poison (in French, poison, pronounced pwah-zon) instead of fish (poisson, pronounced pwah-son)? The grammatical rule here is that a single “s” appearing between two vowels — “i” and “o” in the case of poison — is pronounced “zz.” And a double “ss” appearing between two vowels, as in poisson, is pronounced “ss.”

La Vie en Rose

One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture, including:

» Secrets of 'Cafe French': Liver, Faith and Time — Foie, Foi and Fois


More from Zester Daily:

» Following M.F.K. Fisher's Footsteps in Aix-en-Provence, France

» A Coffee Crisis: Paris vs. Berkeley

» Navigating Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto

In Café French, the key to mastering the art of Parisian café life is to be vigilant, especially when considering fish, poisson, poison and James Beard.

Something’s fishy here

There may be reason enough in our polluted world to worry about being poisoned by fish without ordering it that way! That prompts the question: Where does Paris actually get its fish? All 100-mile locavores take note: Paris is a long way from its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Although the River Seine and smaller rivers and streams around Paris were once sources of freshwater fish, this is no longer the case because of industrial waste, especially from nuclear power plants. So even with its spectacular ocean bounty, France is today a net importer of seafood.

But despite discouraging trends in French gastronomy brought on by social, political, environmental and economic stressors — read Michael Steinberger’s book on France’s declining haute cuisine status, “Au Revoir to All That” — much of the gastronomic apparatus that made France the envy of the Western world over the last several centuries remains intact, theoretically, if not always visible on the plate.

The gastronomic reach of Paris

It was the legendary French writer and gastronome Curnonsky — born Maurice-Edmond Sailland in 1889 — who christened Paris a “tentacular” city and the digesting “belly” of France. Gastronomic France was built like a huge wheel with spokes that radiated out from the hub — Paris. And like some gourmandizing Goliath, Paris reached out over La France Profonde (“deep France”) to rake in the regional treasures of its incomparably fertile terroir.

The Gastronomic Reach of Paris. Credit: L. John Harris

Illustration of Paris Gastronomic Reach. Credit: L. John Harris

You might say that culinary Paris was, in the first half of the 20th century, Curnonsky himself. In a 1927 newspaper poll, he was voted by 3,000 Parisian chefs “The Elected Prince of Gastronomy” (Le Prince-élu de la Gastronomie) and was the first modern French food and wine critic powerful enough to make or break important restaurants. It has been claimed that top chefs would keep a table empty just in case Curnonsky should walk in.

The gastronomic wheel of France circa early 20th century was, of course, made of rubber, as in the Michelin tire company. Curnonsky helped usher in the Michelin era and its starred rating system, becoming the company’s first spokesman and the creator of what is known today as gastro-tourism, or back in the day, “motor-tourism.”

Promoting France’s increasingly-accessible regional cuisine was Curnonsky’s real passion. Similarly, a generation later, American food legend James Beard (1903-1985) would advocate for the regional cuisines of the United States, including the new California cuisine that emerged in the 1970s. Curnonsky had divided French cuisine into four hierarchical categories: At the top was haute cuisine (fancy restaurant cooking), followed by traditional family cooking, regional cooking and finally at the bottom, “impromptu” or “camper” cooking. The resemblance of California’s simple, local, fresh-is-best cooking style — discovered and championed by Beard — to the lowest rung in Curnonsky’s French cuisine hierarchy is worth noting.

Forks and rakes

Like Paris raking in the bounty of France, Curnonsky and Beard did prodigious amounts of personal gastronomic raking, as to which their growing rotundity would testify. The French word for a rake or pitchfork is fourche (foorshhh). A dinner fork, fourchette (pronounced foor-shett), is a “little rake.” (Café French™ tip: Don’t forget to emphasize the second syllable in the word fourchette when you ask your scowling Parisian café server for another fork. It’s bad enough you dropped the first one on the floor without asking to replace it with a rake.)

The physical resemblance of our outsized French and American gourmands went well beyond their balding pates, mustaches and signature bow ties. The expansive real estate they each wore around their middles (the French call a paunch a brioche) like suburban sprawl around an urban core, was their professional trademark. Larger than life (obesity became a “problem” only after World War II), Curnonsky and Beard personified the material abundance of the foods and wines they celebrated and gorged on.

There is something both hilarious and poignant in the discovery that at the James Beard Foundation in New York there is a long telescoping extension fork that Beard would use at meals to skewer food from across the table, especially bread I am told.

Historical rakes and rascals

Appearing a century or two before Curnonsky and Beard, the “rake” (in French, un débauché, pronounced day-bo-shay) was a dandy, rascal or libertine whose large, often refined appetites were, from the perspective of a growing bourgeois culture, out of control. Cafés in Paris and tea salons in London of that period were full of rakes.

The character is featured in English artist William Hogarth’s series of devilishly humorous paintings cum lithographs called “The Rake’s Progress.” The social and personal dramas portrayed in Hogarth’s masterpiece reveal the troubles of one Tom Rakewell (a wordplay on “rakehell” from the Middle English “rakel”) whose “… pursuit of pleasure and sensual satisfaction … shows hedonistic, Epicurean, and anti-rationalist patterns of thought,” as Wikipedia puts it.

I wouldn’t necessarily apply the “anti-rationalist” component here, but Curnonsky and Beard certainly shared “rakish” tendencies. Our twin epicures did not hesitate to pursue their “sensual satisfaction” publicly through their gargantuan devotions to the pleasures of the table, and privately, no doubt, through “hedonistic” behaviors not relevant to our Café French™ discourse.

Meanwhile, back at the café

Seated at my favorite corner table at Café de Flore in Paris’ chic 6th arrondissement, I come across an astonishing line in Beard’s 1961 cookbook “Paris Cuisine,” where he comments on the declining post-WWII cafés in Paris and their “ … very mixed crowd of phony artists, haywire poets and every possible nationality of sightseer.”

Muffling my guffaw in a glass of chilled rosé — a Café French™ survival technique — my thoughts shift back to Monsieur Curnonsky. I wonder what he would think about today’s Michelin-endorsed avant-garde cooking and an artsy cuisinier de poisson (fish cook) who serves a purée de poisson poché (poached fish purée) splattered over a sheet of baked parchment paper and calls it “Jackson’s Pollock”?

Top illustration: Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

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ickled carrots, onions and jalapeños to strew over Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

One of the most exciting cities in Mexico is the Port of Veracruz, with its lineage going back to the Olmecs and Aztecs before Hernán Cortés claimed the area for Spain in 1519. Today, two famous cafes sit smack in front of the port and are known throughout the region because of their locally sourced, house-roasted coffee beans and their waiters’ crackerjack pouring showmanship.

Gran Café de la Parroquía sits facing the Gulf of Mexico port like a proud matriarch welcoming one and all; just as Greek Sirens beckon sailors, it sends aromas wafting through thick sea air to summon mere mortals into its belly. The original café opened in 1808 on the zócalo (town square) a few blocks away. About 200 years later, the family split the business and two factions went their separate ways, but today oddly find themselves almost next to each other on the Malecón, Veracruz City’s waterfront walkway. Regulars have their favorite and wouldn’t think of entering enemy territory because animosities last a lifetime when it comes to coffee loyalty.

Stroll into Gran Café de la Parroquía and then La Parroquía de Veracruz simply to soak in the welcoming air-conditioned vibe of each. Mosey on up to the coffee counter and admire a huge, old brass Italian coffee maker at each location’s center stage, and while you’re there, inspect the day’s pastries. Choose your favorite of the two voluminous white-walled spaces filled with loads of natural sunlight and find a table in the noisy crowd. Someone is certainly playing Caribbean tunes on a marimba just outside the constantly opening door, while a local jarocho trio with a classic small harp performs at the room’s opposite end. An old woman wearing layers of aprons and shawls wanders by hawking lottery tickets as a musician winds his way through the activity offering up a güiro, an instrument made from a gourd, for tips. And you still haven’t had a chance to take off your hat and sunglasses.

A waiter in a spiffy white guayabera (a traditional shirt worn untucked, with vertical pleats and front patch pockets) comes by, and the first thing you say besides “buenas dias” is “un lechero.” He brings a tall glass, a spoon and a menu. You notice other patrons tapping the sides of their empty coffee glasses with spoons, but definitely not keeping beat to the music. It takes a while, but then you get it. The clanking beckons another waiter with two big, metal teapots filled with strong espresso coffee in one and hot milk in the other. He starts to fill your glass with coffee but slowly raises the pot to about 3 feet from the glass; he then repeats the action with milk, with the same aplomb. Not a drop spills. Quite a show. Bravo!

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Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Start with a plate of perfectly ripe tropical fruit and a squirt of lime. Pan dulce (sweet rolls, but not buttery rich like Danish pastry) are morning favorites, so ask the waiter for a basket of the day’s assortment. Hungrier? Try Huevos Tirados, “thrown together” eggs. The dish is certainly odd looking but make no mistake, it’s a delicious Veracruz eye opener. A few eggs are scrambled with black bean purée and then rolled into a streaky grayish-golden oval lump that is served alone on a white plate. Strew on a few pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños from the bowl that appears out of nowhere and dig in for a spicy, vinegary, zingy breakfast.

Of course you’ll have another lechero, if only to engage one more time in the charming Veracruz coffee ritual.

Huevos Tirados (Puréed Black Bean Omelet)

Makes 1 tirado

Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion

2 large eggs

¼ cup cooked and puréed black beans, a little on the wet side, seasoned with sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Heat the butter in a small nonstick skillet and sauté the onion until barely golden brown.

2. Lightly scramble the eggs into the onion with a fork. While the eggs are still wet, pour the beans across the eggs in a strip. Delicately drag the fork through at a few zigzag angles to get a loose marbled effect. Cook until done as you wish.

3. Have a plate ready. Hold the skillet by its handle and raise it to an angle. Using the fork, roll the omelet from the top down onto the plate and arrange it into an oval shape.

Top photo: Pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños to strew over Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Meat grilling at Carnes Aldecoa. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

It’s 2 p.m. on a sunny, cool, spring day in Hermosillo, Mexico. I stroll through the meat aisle of the century-old market surrounded by flaming crimson cuts of raw beef. I exit to a shady plaza behind the building. Groups of old-timers sporting Stetsons and pointy cowboy boots wile away the sultry afternoon. Shoeshiners polish, shoppers amble. Indigenous ladies in pleated skirts sell carved wooden animals. Norteña music, accordion-heavy and lilting, emanates from store radios. The mood is placid, amiable.

The capital of Sonora, Hermosillo is quiet, untouched by border violence. The old town center conserves its frontier Old West ambiance. Sonora, in northwest Mexico, borders the U.S. states of Arizona and New Mexico, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Baja California. It’s home to mountains, coastline and desert, people of Spanish heritage as well as the once-nomadic indigenous Seri tribe. Cattle ranching is one of the main industries, and beef raised here is considered the best in the country.

The gastronomy of Hermosillo is unique to Mexico: It is in the middle of the desert but only an hour from the coast, an unusual geographic setting reflected in the food. Meat dishes, principally beef, are consumed in great quantity, but so is seafood. My mission is to investigate the regional cuisine, both high and “low.” So I start with what everybody in the country knows Sonora for: steak.

Sonora Steak House: Classic Mexican

The city is home to several steak houses. The best is the Sonora Steak House. Set up like its northern counterparts, the steak house offers familiar cuts of beef. The context that differentiates it from its north of the border counterparts is classic Mexican: handmade wheat tortillas, house-fried chips, fresh green tomatillo salsa and roasted green chilies accompany the meat.

Sonora Steak House. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Sonora Steak House. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Aged rib eye is the best cut; a whole side is wheeled out and sliced to customer specification, then grilled over hot stones. Grain-fed beef is locally raised, certified Angus and dry aged for 25 to 30 days. The meat is juicy, just tender enough, with a lingering beefy-fatty taste — umami as it should be.

José Luís is a swarthy mustachioed taxi driver of about 30. Sporting a wide-brimmed hat, white button-down shirt, black jeans and boots, he looks as if he’d just stepped off the set of “Gunsmoke.” Norteña plays as I get in his taxi — in Mexico it’s considered de riguer for guys to sit up front with the driver — it’s more macho that way. I open the conversation with the topic of food, a subject that needs no warmup small talk. Wasting no time, we speak of beef. José Luís explains that locals know their meat.

Although the breeds are the same as those raised up north, principally Angus, ranches are smaller; cows are grazed outside the pen longer and fed less grain. So they taste better. “We know when beef has been imported from the United States,” he chuckles, puffing on a Marlboro. “A place here was selling imported meat recently — we know just looking at it — they were shut down and the guy practically run out of town on a rail!” Where did he like to eat beef? “Oh, my mother makes the best; I never eat out,” he replies.

Carnes Aldecoa: On-the-road butcher shop

I enjoy a good steak, and Sonora Steak House doesn’t fail to please, but my ravenous meat cravings aren’t totally satisfied until I find the amazing Carnes Aldecoa. This on-the-road butcher shop both sells and cooks. Buy the meat you want, any kind and quantity. I choose a cut called diezmillo, which is recommended over the much more expensive rib eye. The butcher weighs, you pay, then they grill it for you over mesquite coals in huge outdoor grills. Served chopped as tacos, this is a divinely carnivorous experience. Freshly made tortillas are sold separately out back. While most customers take the grilled meat home, I eat au plein aire at the picnic tables provided.

El Pescadito: Fish tacos at any hour

Moving on to oceanic offerings, I go in search of the best seafood. Semi-outdoor fish taco stands and small restaurants abound. El Pescadito, on a corner in a quiet working-class residential neighborhood is bustling at 8:30 in the morning. Apparently locals don’t see anything strange about having fish tacos for breakfast. Pescado estilo baja is cazón, a small shark, chunks of which are battered, deep-fried and served in a light wheat tortilla with fresh pico de gallo and optional salsas to spike things up. This gold standard of fish tacos is steaming, crunchy, fishy — but not too — and augmented but not overwhelmed by its accompaniments. It’s indeed a winner.

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Fish tacos. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Omar’s place: Cahuamanta

An outstanding local dish, often sold at tacos joints or by itself from pushcarts, is cahuamanta, a hearty soup of manta raya (skate), shrimp and chopped carrots and potatoes, eaten as broth or strained and served as tacos. I had passed Omar’s stand on my way in from the airport, and I just have to make my way back. At 1 in the afternoon, Omar is cleaning up but still has some steaming cahuamanta for my taxi driver and me. We eat this Mexicanized bouillabaisse out of its Styrofoam cup accompanied by tortilla chips and the sound of zooming traffic. I can practically hear the ocean’s roar even though it is nowhere near.

Taquería los Longos: Burritos, the Sonora way

It is 3 p.m., and I have been eating nonstop since sunrise. But Paco, another taxista, portly and gregarious, insists on taking me to Taquería los Longos, where a regional version of burritos is proffered. These burros (really, the diminutive “ito” is all wrong) are in fact spectacularly huge, thin handmade wheat tortillas filled with up to 3 guisados — rich, earthy chili and beef-based stews. Unlike the northern burrito bombs, no rice, beans or kitchen sinks are thrown in.

Paco joins me in a burro, teaching me how to tear off bits of tortilla to scoop up mouthfuls of picante sauce, then when down to the nub, fold it into a wrap, not unlike the experience of downing a dosa in south India.

Bermejo: Tijuana chefs’ creations

I am full to bursting. But there is much more to be eaten, just not enough time to do it. I spend the evening eating and drinking good Baja California wine at Bermejo, the city’s new venue for inventive cooking headed by renowned Tijuana chefs Javier Placencia and Adria Montaño, who take from local traditions and work alchemy — case in point, a barely grilled baja oyster topped with grilled beef and its “au jus” that really works.

Hermosillo may seem provincial, influenced by the culture of Uncle Sam, but its culinary heritage shows no signs of being subsumed into the morass of global or even national food. That’s a good thing.

Top photo: Meat grilling at Carnes Aldecoa. Credit: Nicholas Gilman.

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