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The driver who took me from Punjab to Kashmir, India, estimated the ride to be around eight hours, 10 if we ran into traffic, which he assured me was inevitable. After spending the past few days wandering through India’s Golden Temple of Amritsar, I was ready to hit the road and didn’t blink at the double-digit journey to Srinagar.
At first I enjoyed the quick stops we made at the dhabas, roadside stands serving hot, homemade meals that are a ubiquitous feature on any road trip in India. As we gained momentum, our speed slowed to a steady but painful crawl up the Himalayan two-lane highways we shared with what seemed like every truck in the nation. The air thinned, and the dhaba stops became more frequent in an effort to break up the monotony. By the fourth egg omelet — a fried egg wrapped around a piece of toast and grilled — my mouth dried up at the sight of them and I declined to get out of the car. We were 14 hours in, and I wanted nothing else but to get there.
It was early November and our anemic car heater didn’t stand a chance against the clutch of an early winter. Then we stopped altogether in a massive traffic jam in the middle of the night on top of a mountain.
The driver, who had not said a word to me in 17 hours, explained that an avalanche had blocked off the road miles ahead and we would need to wait for it to be cleared. Hours passed in the cold, black night with nothing to think about but how much I wished I had not passed up my last opportunity for an egg omelet.
At last we were on our way, climbing and climbing until we finally arrived at my hotel on the edge of Dal Lake, famous for its elaborate houseboats and shikaras, the Kashmiri version of a gondola.
The entrance gate was locked, and no one answered when I rang the bell over and over in what I feared might be a futile attempt to find a bed that night. At last the hotel owner wiped his sleepy eyes as he walked to the gate, then showed me to my room, where I wanted to sleep for days.
Kahwah tea an ancient tradition
A knock on my door late the next morning woke me.
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“I am sorry to bother you ma’am, but would you like some tea?” asked the man who stood before me, wearing a black linen suit buttoned up to his neck.
“I would love some tea. Thank you so much. No sugar, please,” I said to avoid the sugar-bomb chai served everywhere in India.
“Ma’am, if I may invite you to tea at our restaurant? We have a special tea here in Kashmir that will warm and restore you after your long journey.”
I wanted nothing more than to return to my bed, but I couldn’t turn down someone so polite and I reluctantly followed him to the dining room. This was my first opportunity to see Kashmir in the daylight, and even from the vantage point of my hotel, it was glorious. Soaring, snowcapped mountains and the freshest air my lungs had inhaled for ages were already doing a number on my exhaustion; I was now looking forward to the restorative elixir he promised.
“Would you like to join us in the kitchen, ma’am, to learn how this tea is prepared? We read a little about you after you made your booking, curious as to why someone would venture to Kashmir so late in the season. When we saw your interest in food, we suspected you were coming for the saffron harvest. I believe you would enjoy learning about our special kahwah tea. We are very proud of it in Kashmir.”
I was, indeed, there for the saffron festival, and I could not resist his offer. “I would be honored,” I told the man, who later told me his name was Ashish.
Inside the kitchen, several cooks gathered round as the head chef, Kiran, gathered the ingredients he needed. He crushed up cinnamon and cardamom pods, adding them to boiling water that he sprinkled with cloves and threads of saffron. He let it boil for a few moments before spooning green tea into it, the aroma of hospitality filling my nose.
The Kashmiri tradition of kahwah tea is so ancient, its origin was lost long before the conflicts between Kashmir and Pakistan began. Pakistanis drink it too, as do the Afghanis. Some say the Chinese were the first to drink kahwah, but it’s likely that most Kashmiris, whose spirits are infused with the tradition of their beloved tea, would disagree. They greet their mornings and conclude their days with it; finding in it solace from the hardships they have endured.
Ashish led me to an outdoor table that Kiran carefully arranged with a tea cup, saucer, kettle and small bowls of honey and crushed almonds. The kitchen staff gathered around, and I felt foolish drinking on my own. There was enough kahwah to go around, and I asked if everyone could join me.
Additional saucers and cups were collected from the kitchen as Ashish sprinkled almonds into my cup and drizzled them with honey. He poured the tea from high above, a golden line of kindness making its way from his kettle to my cup. The air smelled like cinnamon and the tea warmed my spirit, vanquishing fatigue and filling me with gratitude.
Makes 2 cups
1 cinnamon stick, crushed
2 cardamom pods, crushed
3-inch knob of ginger, crushed
2 cups water
4 threads of saffron
1 tablespoon green tea
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon crushed almonds or walnuts
1. Combine the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 2 minutes before adding the cloves, saffron and tea.
2. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes more.
3. Remove from the heat and cover to infuse for 10 more minutes. Strain through a sieve.
4. Drizzle honey into cups, sprinkle it with almonds and pour the tea.
Top photo: The ingredients for kahwah and a prepared cup. Credit: Sandeep Patwal
The road to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located about an hour from Tucson, leads deep into the cactus-studded tawny hills of the Sonora Desert. By the time I arrived at the museum for the Native American Culinary Association’s 10th annual Indigenous Food Symposium in early December, my spirit felt energized and ready for the compelling conference that was to come.
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NACA’s founder, Apache chef Nephi Craig, organizes the conference each year for indigenous people to exchange information, foster solidarity and inspire one another to reclaim their marginalized food traditions.
Among the topics at the two-day conference was decolonizing the native food diet. Speakers discussed strategies to revive food traditions that existed before reservations were established and nutritionally vapid commodity foods such as white bread and lard forced out traditional ingredients. Indigenous products such as dried buckwheat cholla cactus buds, saguaro cactus syrup, and brown and white tepary beans were what anthropology Ph.D. candidate Claudia Serrato described as “an effort to decolonize our taste buds and change our taste memories.” She pointed out that 46% of Native children are obese and stressed the importance of introducing indigenous foods to children as a means of nurturing them into adulthood.
A return to indigenous foods
Chefs Walter Whitewater and Lois Ellen Frank, who won a James Beard award for their book “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” discussed using indigenous foods for health and wellness and passing on culinary information to the next generation.
Frank discussed the importance of honoring the “traditional ecological knowledge” that we all possess. Whitewater and Frank teach classes to Native children as a means of preserving and often reigniting that knowledge, which they believe exists innately within the young people but has been blunted by a colonial imperialism.
Merging contemporary technology with ancient wisdom is inevitable, Frank said, and one does not exist without the other. Modern and ancient can exist side by side, she contended.
“It’s OK as chefs and people to be hip and embrace the contemporary as long as an abiding respect and knowledge for ancient wisdom remains,” Frank said.
The lunch break featured indigenous foods prepared by Native chefs from around the country. Attendees feasted upon dishes such as traditional Oaxacan sweet and spicy harvest soup, alder smoked salmon and a quinoa Napa wrap blue corn crepe with butternut squash.
Diet of Native Americans can thrive in the kitchen
“The NACA conference strengthens me and the solidarity I experience at it each year reinforces the message that I am not alone,” said Wisconsin-based chef Arlie Doxtator of the Oneida nation. Craig, Doxtator and Chris Rodriguez discussed the role of Native fathers in the kitchen. It’s time to redefine traditional gender roles — with the man cast as the protector and the woman as nurturer and cook — in many Native communities, they urged.
The role of protector doesn’t need to be disregarded bsut instead should be reconfigured as one of a cook who safeguards his children against the onslaught of diseases, obesity and the loss of indigenous food knowledge, Doxtator noted. Craig encouraged the men in the audience to challenge the traditional paradigms.
The final presentation featured Hopi Native Samantha Antone and two of her colleagues from the Natwani Coalition, who discussed their mission to preserve Hopi farming traditions and restore local food systems. They discussed their seven-year research with Hopi elders and other community members to develop a curriculum documenting traditional Hopi agricultural techniques that’s being adopted in Hopi classrooms.
It was an optimistic anecdote to conclude a conference celebrating indigenous food as a means to sustain, inspire and invigorate the minds, hearts and spirits of Native people.
Top photo: Blue corn bread from the Hopi Food Cooperative in Arizona. Credit: Jody Eddy
I was surprised during my first trip to India when the pickles accompanying my carrots with pulao, paneer ki sabzi and papadam looked and tasted nothing like the pickles I grew up canning with my grandmother in Minnesota at the end of every growing season. These Indian pickles were made from mangoes slicked in nutty mustard oil, and they set my mouth on fire. My heat-seeking palate was in love with them the moment the first bead of sweat appeared on my forehead, and I’ve been on a mission ever since to try every variety I can get my hands on.
Indian pickles have been in fashion since the cucumber was first introduced to the nation from Iraq in 2030 B.C.E., and the country has had a love affair with them ever since. Every region of India has countless pickle recipes, including wide-ranging ingredients as mangoes, cauliflower, jackfruit, carrot, radish, pumpkin, lotus, ginger, apples, red or green chilies, and lime.
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Unlike the vinegar brines most commonly used for pickling in the United States and Europe, Indian pickles are doused in mustard oil in northern India and sesame oil in the southern states to destroy harmful bacteria and ensure long-term preservation. Seasoning options are even more plentiful than the ingredients they are flavoring and include a seemingly endless list of herbs and spices, including fenugreek, turmeric, mustard, cardamom, chili powder, cumin, cloves and cinnamon. The spices are combined with a generous amount of rock salt to ensure proper preservation.
Indian pickles a summer project
In India, fruits and vegetables used for pickles are harvested in the sweltering summer months, when the bounty is at its peak. Many of the ingredients, such as mango and lime, are chopped and then sun-dried before being combined with the oil and seasonings and sealed in either airtight plastic, glass or porcelain containers for use throughout the cooler fall and winter months. Their tangy heat is the perfect counterpoint to sweet chutneys, cooling raita and rice that is ubiquitous at nearly every meal. Indian pickles add dimension to even the most humble ingredients, brightening them with their acidic alchemy of complex spices and plucky heat.
Indians become nostalgic about the days when pickle preparation was a beloved ritual practiced by nearly every family throughout the country. It was a time for far-flung relatives to join together to harvest, blend spices and catch up with each other as they assembled the pickle jars that would receive prominent placement in virtually every kitchen throughout India. The days when every extended family jealously guarded their sacred pickle recipes for the next generation are long gone for the majority of busy Indians, but the pickle will never disappear from their thalis. And even though pickles are typically purchased in plastic jars at the neighborhood market these days, their unique flavor will always earn them a place at the millions of tables throughout the country that most Indians would agree would not be complete without the presence of the pickle.
Madhuri Patwal’s Mango Pickle Recipe
This is a recipe that was handed down to New Delhi resident Madhuri Patwal from her mother, who taught her daughter the family’s recipe when she was a child growing up in the village of Srinagar in the region of Uttaranchal.
10 unripe mangoes
½ cup rock salt or sea salt
½ cup turmeric
½ cup red chili
½ cup fenugreek
½ cup fennel
1. Chop the mangoes with a cleaver or sharp, blunt knife, chopping right through the seed and leaving it attached to the flesh.
2. Dry the pieces in direct sunlight for approximately four to five days, or until the segments are dehydrated.
3. Place the mangoes in a large bowl.
4. Combine them with ½ cup each rock salt (or sea salt), turmeric, red chili, fenugreek and fennel.
5. Blend until the segments are well coated.
6. Let sit for one hour.
7. Transfer to a large jar with an airtight lid and add enough mustard oil to cover completely.
8. Seal tightly.
9. Let sit in a cool, dark corner for at least two months before using. The pickles will keep indefinitely as long as they remain submerged in the oil.
Top photo: Mango pickles. Credit: Sandeep Patwal
“Is it a cookbook about rotten shark?” I’ve received this question more than once when people find out I’m writing a cookbook about Icelandic cuisine. But contemporary Icelandic food has nothing to do with putrefied shark or any of the other pickled animal unmentionables so closely associated with this island nation. Today, Icelandic cuisine is about fresh ingredients sourced from one of the most pristine environments on the planet and chefs who are cleverly transforming them into dishes worthy of the global stage.
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I’ve visited Iceland more than 25 times in the past several years. My first trip was on the cusp of the Icelandic economic collapse in 2008, one of the worst financial disasters in world history. If a catastrophe like that could have a silver lining, it was that chefs who once eschewed local products in favor of expensive foreign imports were forced to source closer to home. What they discovered was renewed pride in natural resources, deserving of attention as much as foie gras from Paris or prosciutto from Italy.
Iceland heats its greenhouses using 100% sustainable geothermal energy, sources its fish from immaculate waters, and procures the majority of its meat from free-range animals that spend their lives eating grasses free of fertilizer and pesticide. The benefits of all that reflect in its products.
A burgeoning Icelandic food artisanal movement
Another upside to the economic crisis was the awakening of artisanal food and beverage pioneers who have infused Icelandic staples such as bread, beer, salt, tea and cheese with newfound creativity. There’s Saltverk, the only artisan salt produced entirely from geothermal energy, and Modir Jord, an organic barley company whose owner, farmer Eymundur Magnússon, has almost single-handedly preserved the ancient practice of Icelandic barley production.
Another champion of preserving protecting Icelandic traditions is Johanna Thorvaldsdottir, a woman who saved the Icelandic goat, a unique species on the planet, from extinction. Through her tireless efforts, Thorvaldsdottir is returning to her nation products such as goat cheese, sausage, milk, butter and ice cream that were once on the verge of disappearing.
Beer is another Icelandic product undergoing a transformation. Prohibition of alcohol was in full effect in Iceland until the 1990s. When beer was finally made available, it emerged in the form of fairly generic pilsners and ales. Today, craft beer companies such as Einstock are transforming the once-lackluster beer industry. Considering that the beer is produced 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle from some of the planet’s most pristine water, it’s clear why brews such as their white ale with hints of orange and cardamom are so palatable.
Spirits are also in the midst of a makeover in Iceland. Staples such as vodka and schnapps are being reworked into ambrosial specialties such as Foss Distillery’s liqueur and schnapps infused with birch, Iceland’s national tree.
One might assume that a nation undergoing something of a culinary renaissance would discard its traditional ingredients in favor of innovation. That is not the case. Contemporary Icelandic chefs such as Gunnar Karl Gislason strive to preserve ancient Icelandic ingredients such as bacalao, smoked Arctic char, skyr and smoked lamb by fostering deep and lasting relationships with producers who might otherwise disappear without the support of chefs like him. Gislason is a master at transforming these traditional ingredients into their more contemporary version at his restaurants Dill and Kex. Other restaurants in Reykjavik adeptly celebrating Iceland’s natural resources are Icelandic Fish & Chips and Slipbarrin in the Marina Hotel, a fun, centrally located place to stay when exploring Reykjavik’s culinary scene.
Another way to experience the food culture of Iceland is to sign up for a cooking class at Salt Eldhus in Reykjavik. In a well-stocked and beautifully designed classroom, owner Tilefni Audur Ogn and a revolving roster of local and international guest chef instructors explore traditional and contemporary Icelandic cooking as well as cuisines more further afield.
Touring the Icelandic food scene
Top photo: Icelandic butter and pickled herring. Credit: Sandeep Patwal
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Note: Zester contributor Jody Eddy will be teaching a summer class at Reykjavik’s Salt Eldhus from her cookbook “Come In, We’re Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants,” and she will be leading a culinary tour in August 2013 with Kjartan Gislason.
I was invited to be a judge at the International Culinary School’s Tapas Competition in Valladolid, Spain last month. I didn’t think it could get much better than sampling tapas from 13 nations around the world in the heart of the Castile and Léon region of the country. But it did. After our first day of judging, our crew of chefs and other assorted culinary-obsessed people piled into a bus and set out in the frigid night for dinner in the most unexpected place.
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After a long, bumpy drive over unlit roads through countryside that included a castle backlit by moonlight, we stopped in what felt like the middle of nowhere and were told that we were there. “Where?” I thought as I looked around in the inky night, trying to decipher recognizable objects in the shifting shadows. The wind swirled around our tightly huddled group of about 20 mystified people who were wondering, as I was, what was in store for us. And then the creak of a door opening sliced through our trepidation, and a shaft of bright light beckoned us inside.
We descended down a long staircase buffeted by thick, whitewashed limestone walls. With each step, a spicy aroma and the sizzling only fat frying on hot metal can make grew more intense. At the base of the stairs we discovered our host, Paco, grinning at us through his silver beard as he tended to the pork and rice dish he was cooking for the evening’s feast.
Food and history on the menu at Spanish cave dinner
While Paco busied himself with dinner, Angel Moreton, one of the directors of the culinary school hosting the competition, gave us a tour of the 17th-century cave. Furniture just right for lounging, wool blankets, colorful paintings and warm terra cotta tiles created an inviting atmosphere belying one of the cave’s past roles as a wartime shelter. At times throughout the centuries, the cave has also been used for storage; at other times it was abandoned altogether. When it served as an actual wine cellar, its thick, porous walls provided a welcome respite of coolness during sweltering Spanish summers and an oasis of warmth in unforgiving winters.
Miraculously hungry even after indulging in so many tapas earlier in the day, we found our way to two long tables awaiting the traditional Castilian meal to come. Paco reserved a few minutes between tending to the many dishes he had grilling, sautéeing and roasting in his multi-room kitchen to demonstrate what I soon discovered was the rather challenging technique of drinking wine from a perón. I learned that a perón is a vessel suited for not only distilling wine but also drenching an inevitably white shirt in it. I realized that it’s also ideal for eliciting laughter from all those ill-fated attempts to actually land the thin stream of wine into a mouth gaping like a goldfish tossed out of its bowl.
After everyone brave enough to attempt drinking from the perón had their shot, dinner was served. My favorite course emerged between the salad and rice dishes in the form of a blood sausage called morcilla, a mixture of onions, rice and spices thickened with blood before being stuffed into casings. Its rich, heady flavor was the perfect counterpoint to the levity that ensued once Paco began a sing-along, complete with song books, of traditional Spanish love songs surreally peppered between classics like “Hey Jude” and “Twist and Shout.”
A glorious way to expel evil spirits
Paco concluded the evening with a ritual designed to expel evil spirits that involved a bottle of moonshine poured into a terra cotta bowl before being set alight in a blackened room. Sugar was slowly added to caramelize the alcohol, which Paco lifted with a ladle in a dramatic blue, flaming ribbon before pouring it back in the bowl. As the flame intensified, Angel read a spell to cast away the spirits; once the fire had subsided, a glass of the mystical brew was poured for each of us.
Warm from both the moonshine and Paco’s hospitality, I ascended the stairs renewed. I wasn’t sure whether Paco’s elixir had managed to expel any evil spirits that night, but I was certain it had expelled any doubt I had that descending two stories into a cave in the middle of a cold Spanish night was a good decision.
Top photo: Morcilla, or Spanish blood sausage, served during the dinner. Credit: Jody Eddy
An hour west of the thriving culinary mecca of Copenhagen is an 800-year-old castle clinging to the shore of the frigid North Sea. Unlike so many of the country’s castles that have been transformed into museum pieces, the fortified white walls of Dragsholm Slot envelope a thriving industry that includes a hotel and two restaurants.
One restaurant is a casual bistro called The Eatery that serves traditional Danish fare, the other is a fine dining establishment overlooking acres of land from which nearly all of the tasting menu’s ingredients are sourced. It’s an idyllic place for chef Claus Henriksen, 31 and the former sous chef of Noma. There he oversees both restaurants and the castle’s robust catering and events division.
Henriksen eschews meat-heavy dishes in order to showcase the intensely flavored vegetables he harvests from his garden each day: Grilled asparagus and garden sorrel with crispy rye bread croutons and garden herbs; glazed lamb brains and new potatoes with onions, pickled tapioca and lovage; and thyme and mint granita with fresh goat cheese meringue strike a perfect balance between protein and produce.
The extraordinary surroundings of electric green hills spilling into rich fields, ancient orchards and hedgerows populated with beehives sustain his frenetic seven-day work week and remind him to slow down and absorb the sublime energy reverberating around him. In this interview with Henriksen, we discover why visitors to Copenhagen who invest the time to journey to Dragsholm are justly rewarded by an experience that not only stimulates their palettes, but ignites their spirits.
What do you like most about working at Dragsholm Slot?
It’s the quietness. If you have free time here you can walk outside and enjoy everything that’s around you. The only thing you can do in the middle of a city is step out your door and drink. If you need ten carrots here, you can go and get ten carrots instead of calling a producer and telling them you need ten carrots.
Where do you think this New Nordic obsession came from?
Until around twelve years ago the only thing Danish chefs desired was to purchase everything from France. It’s the way the chef was brought up. We didn’t understand the meaning and significance of our own surroundings. And then we started to look more internally. When you’re growing, there comes a point when you want to do something different than what you’re parents are doing. That’s what happened to Danish chefs. We wanted to rebel against the status-quo and use Danish products instead of imports. A lot of our chefs went out in the 90s and the beginning of the 2000’s to work abroad. They started to see that in other areas of the world, chefs only used local products and we started to think that we could do the same thing. [Chefs cooking] New Nordic cuisine focus on the ingredients and listen to the environment in order to truly understand it. These principles can be applied anywhere in the world.
I asked a chef many years ago why we were using asparagus and cherries all year long. He said, “I don’t care. It’s in season somewhere in the world.” Twenty years ago that was the philosophy. I think this is what inspired Danish chefs to cook differently. The way we cook now in Scandinavia is fresher and more thoughtful. Twenty years ago everything revolved around a prime piece of meat such as tenderloin, and supporting it were truffles, foie gras, lobster, langoustines. Now we are more focused on flavors. If you spend more time coaxing out the flavor of something simple, you will be rewarded. It’s more challenging to do this, but it’s more fulfilling too.
Is it an exciting time to be a chef in Denmark at the moment?
If you don’t look at it as an exciting time, you might as well quit. You have to appreciate the challenges and the virtues in every season and find virtue in your work each and every day. If your interest wanes, stop and reassess. If you’re happy, then your guest will be happy, because your happiness comes through in your cuisine.
What are the fundamental principles that guide you when cooking?
For me the most important thing is to have a contented guest who understands what I’m doing. If my cuisine sometimes get a little too crazy, I will dial-it back and begin all over again. You have to be willing to do this. I think that one problem in kitchens all over the world is that people are afraid to start over.
The cooking here is very personal. It’s about integrity. It’s about using, producing, showing the produce in its best light ,and then you can always add something for a final flourish. I want it to be balanced. Sometimes people say it’s a little too powerful and that’s true, because it’s filled with flavor. This doesn’t mean that we’re adding a lot of elements, it tastes so intense because the natural flavors are so fresh. We are showing here the best of what the farmers and fishermen are doing. You can do fancy things but if you don’t have the best ingredients, it won’t work. And vice versa. There has to be a balance and this balance must include the best of everything.
Top photo: Claus Henriksen of Dragsholm Slot. Credit: Sandeep Patwal
Slide show credit: Sandeep Patwal