Articles in Travel
We’ve gathered around a rustic wooden table at Don Alfredo Pollos al Pastor, a country restaurant sitting 7,000 feet in the Nahuatzén Mountains, an hour west of Morelia, Michoacán, in the colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Mexico. The wait for the Mexican food is a torment. Aromas of grilling meat hit us hard and make us pant through the thinner air in anticipation of what’s to come.
I sip an amber Victoria beer and drift into memories of the restaurant in the late 1980s, when the place was nothing more than a roadside shack with a dirt floor and corrugated metal roof. Then we sat at wobbly metal tables on rusted chairs boasting Cola-Cola logos for decor.
More from Zester Daily:
We were there for the food. We didn’t have to think about it. The menu was simple: chicken, handmade corn tortillas, soupy pink beans and a fresh table salsa made with the local heat-packing chile manzano (Capsicum pubescens), onions and sour oranges. If we were lucky and there on a weekend, they’d have a few baby lamb legs over a fire. As time has passed, the lamb has become so popular the restaurant’s simple terracotta serving plates now boast a new hand-lettered name: Don Alfredo Pollos y Borrego al Pastor (chicken and lamb over coals).
Before entering the larger space today — now with a real concrete floor and solid roof — we gape at the main attraction, a trench 20 feet long and 4 feet wide filled with a long, center mound of glowing embers of white mesquite. On either side of the trench are a few dozen 4-foot spiked metal rods, each impaling three chickens, lined up in two neat rows. The bright yellow flesh of the birds comes from their diet of fluorescent orange marigolds. Combine this and the high temperature of the coals, and you have incomparable flavor and beautifully charred crisp, golden skin.
A flamenco twist to a Mexican surprise
The biggest surprise lies at the far end of one row — 10 additional steel rods with a few kilos of marinated pork hanging from each rod, pouring out aromas the way only pork can. The chunks of meat appear dark from the mesquite, but not a speck of blackened pork is anywhere in sight. Roasting meat is in the blood of these cooks; they rotate and swivel the rods like turns of flamenco, flourish and sizzle, flourish and sizzle.
It has been a long, dry season for lovers of flesh in this part of the world. Pork is celebrated after a Lenten stretch and the Easter lambs have all been eaten. I’ve had my share, perhaps more than my share, of succulent carnitas over the years here in Michoacán, the carnitas capital of the world, but this young pork is primal perfection. These pigs are Mexicans, raised to be fat and placed upon a hot fire, not like their American cousins bred to be lean, mean and articulated muscle machines. Their flavor comes from mesquite smoke and bubbling fat-basted meat cooked lowly and slowly to achieve a moist interior and a mahogany-colored, stunningly brittle skin.
As orders fly in, the cooks select chicken or pork from the spikes and transfer it to a chopping block. A few precision hacks with a machete, a squirt of sour orange juice over the crunchy spitting skin, a sprinkle of salt and the platter is on its way to the table. The torture is over, the waiting is complete and satisfaction is imminent.
Not more than 10 minutes and a half bottle of beer have been swallowed since we passed through the doorway, but they were slow Mexican minutes and we have the patience of hungry Americans, which is to say none.
We ravenously descend on our platters. The waiter has brought pork, chicken and warm corn tortillas. There is a growling silence until, one by one, tortillas are piled with copious quantities of meat and that sweat-inducing table salsa to make perfect tacos. One bite says everything; the wait was worth it. Full grinning mouths smile at each other across the table. We are reduced to happy noises, for there are no words worth the pause.
Fresh Chile Manzano and Sour Orange Table Salsa
You may substitute one juice orange and one Mexican (aka Key) lime to achieve a similar flavor to Don Alfredo’s sour orange, a type of Seville orange primarily used in marmalade. A chile manzano, rocoto or perón (Capsicum pubescens) looks like a huge habañero, so to be sure that you have the right chile cut it open, manzano seeds are black.
Makes about 1½ cups
1 white onion (3 inches), peeled and finely chopped
½ chile manzano, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 Mexican sour oranges, juiced
Sea or kosher salt to taste
Stir all the ingredients in a serving bowl. Serve at room temperature.
Don Alfredo Pollos y Barrego Al Pastor, Tanganxuan intersection on the Periférico (aka the lower end of Libramiento, before it enters the Glorieta opposite the Bodega Aurrerá supermarket), Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Telephone: (434) 342-3151. (The original location, and still the best.) A second spot is on the autopista Morelia-Pátzcuaro, Km. 6. Telephone: (443) 132-5975.
Top photo: Pork and chickens over mesquite in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
Communist writing tends to be dry and not food-inspired literature. So it is surprising that Lu Xun, one of China’s most famed 20th-century authors who counted Mao Zedong among his fans, used it as a central element of his popular short story, “Kong Yiji.” (孔乙己).
Words and food have been cultural dancing partners throughout China’s history. Confucius used culinary themes thousands of years ago, for example. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), artists, poets, scholars and other literati gathered to discuss their work in teahouses and over intricate meals. Using seasonal ingredients was valued, as were balanced delicate meals. Even locavorism had an early heyday, as foods focused on nearby regions were preferred to showcase local styles.
Shaoxing’s unique food traditions
Lu was born and raised in Shaoxing not far from an epicenter of Song Dynastic literary and culinary experimentation based in the nearby city of Hangzhou. Lu’s integration of food in his short story, however, is used uniquely as a tool to demonstrate class differences rather than as an extended form of embellishment.
More on Zester Daily:
Whereas nearby Shanghai is known for soy sauce just to the north, Shaoxing is famous internationally for its wine (as recently featured in the popular documentary series, “A Bite of China“) and its stinky fermented tofu. Zhejiang generally is notable within Chinese cuisine as one of the famed “Eight Culinary Traditions” for its light, fresh flavors that are less greasy than Shanghainese cuisine. It is also respected for tea production, especially the green varietal called Longjing that is produced around Hangzhou. Dishes featuring local freshwater fish and a braised chicken dish known as “drunken chicken” similarly focus on local ingredients.
The story, and its historic setting, inspired the creation of a successful chain of restaurants also named Kong Yiji. There are four locations in Beijing and one in Shanghai. These are perennially packed and generally well-respected by locals and expats alike for their food. While a bit pricier than your average dinner spot, they are considered a good bargain for your renminbi. My friend and I decided to check it out and see what parts of Lu’s story made it onto the menu, and if it’s any good.
Dishes from food-inspired literature
Lu Xun never reveals Kong Yiji’s real name. Instead, Kong Yiji is the nickname given to the character by bar-goers and bartenders to poke fun at his educated airs, referencing the name of common Chinese characters used to teach children Chinese calligraphy. Kong himself never passed the Imperial Examinations to become a true scholar, yet he wears the long robes expected of such a position.
When he orders his warmed wine scooped out of the earthen bowl where it is fermented, he uses high-brow language, attracting the ridicule of other customers. I tried the Shaoxing wine at the restaurant and it was dark and savory, an unexpected surprise in a regional cuisine that integrates sweetness in unexpected places.
For example, the stinky deep-fried tofu (zhao chou doufu) was smoky as usual, though less pungent than other varieties I’ve tried in Changsha, Wuhan, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei. It was accompanied by a sweet “sour berry” (suan mei) sauce like a chutney in both flavor and consistency. I have never seen such an extreme a gap between the savory and sweet elements in Chinese food. It was also unusual for the dish to include something in jelly-like form spread atop the main ingredient. It worked well, like a stinky cheese would if paired with quince paste.
In Lu’s story, Kong often orders a plate of aniseed-flavored broad beans (huixiang dou) as his bar snack, so when I ordered it at Kong Yiji as an appetizer, I expected something lowbrow and simple, suitable for pairing with booze as with the salty, deep-friend version sold nationally at convenience shops and offered for free at bars today. Instead, the beans had been steamed and were soft and giving. The flavor was simultaneously smoky and sweet, unfurling slowly so my mouth was entertained as can be expected of sophisticated restaurant food.
I don’t eat meat or fish so I didn’t try the seafood or drunken chicken but my dining partner shared a dish with me mixing chopped bits of steamed shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, green beans and niangao, a chewy glutinous rice cake. We chose it mainly to test the boiled bamboo component, which is the other bar food Kong orders (zhusun) because, Lu stresses in his writing, it costs merely an extra penny when ordered alongside the broad beans (and Kong must be frugal with his money). The dish cleverly balanced the many textures and flavors, but as far as bamboo goes it was bland and slightly overcooked. It was no match for the tofu or broad bean dishes.
Kong Yiji’s restaurant owners took inspiration from Lu Xun to replicate a period and place in Chinese culinary history when high-end food was appreciated by high society. The outlet we went to, near Chaoyang Park’s west gate, has a cultivated river flowing through the dark wood floor, which is separated into island sections where tables and booths provide some privacy. The male waiters run around wearing black suit pants and vests, and the women wear long red qipao dresses, the female version of the floor-length robes scholars wore during Lu Xun’s era. Today, even the servers have a right to dress in refinery. Even more modern, they take your order on electronic handheld devices and wear earpieces used by the kitchen to inform them when food is ready for pickup.
Lu wrote during a period of dramatic societal upheaval in China, often exploring anxieties related to his educated background at a time when shifting class conditions prioritized the masses instead. He most likely would not have been pleased by my Kong Yiji dining experience, but Kong Yiji the literary figure would probably have felt proud.
Top photo: Diners at Kong Yiji restaurant in Chaoyang Park, Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
Ask expatriates living in Malaysia about their favorite things to do there, and more often than not, their answer is eating the local food. As a Malaysian spending six months in the United States last year, I realized the usual exchange of pleasantries involves asking, “How are you?” In my country, it is a little different. We ask, “Sudah makan?” (translation: “Have you eaten?”) and this applies to friends, family and new acquaintances you meet on the street.
For us in a nation of 28 million, food always brings people together, and it’s the same in cultures all over the world. In our capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL), you can find almost any cuisine — Spanish, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, French, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. Despite being a Muslim-majority country, alcohol is widely served, from humble cafes on the street to ultra-posh and swanky restaurants in the city. Good wines, in particular, are readily available. Some will be surprised to know that Malaysia is one of the fastest-growing countries in the Asian market for wine consumption.
The Italian restaurant Svago in Kuala Lumpur is one place where you can treat yourself to fine cuisine and wine while taking in the amazing view of the Petronas Twin Towers, which were featured in the 1999 movie “Entrapment.” Svago’s lounge and bar area is an eclectic space of retro and contemporary decor, with parquet flooring, steel beams and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The low-backed vinyl chairs and terrace encompass modernity.
Planeta wines a perfect complement to dinner
When a chef manages to craft innovative canapés that tantalize your taste buds, it is sacrilege not to have a healthy glass of vino to go with it. That evening at Svago, we were introduced to the five top wines — two whites and three reds — from Planeta, which we were told is one of the premier wineries in Sicily, Italy. The wines we sampled ranged from crisp and light to robust and full-bodied.
Chef Andrea Buson stays true to his Italian heritage but is able to inject Asian influences in his dishes too. The food on the table comprised the likes of Arancini Rossi (a beetroot risotto ball topped with pesto calamari), Smoked Duck Breast With Grilled Ginkgo Nuts, Wagyu Beef Carpaccio on Rocket Topped With Cherry Tomato and Aged Pecorino Romano, Herb-Crusted Lamb Loin prepared Provencal style, and Stuffed Cannelloni With Ricotta and Truffle Mushroom Duxelle.
For our sampling of Planeta wines, we started with the La Segreta Bianco, which takes its name from the wood that surrounds the vineyard at Ulmo. “It is produced mainly from Grecanico grapes and was introduced to Sicily more than 2,000 years ago,” explained Simone Di Domizio, the export manager for the Asian market, who regaled us about the wine’s history and geography and the uniqueness of the flavors. Under the light, this white is clear yellow with slight greenish reflections. It has aromas of citrus, pineapple and white peach. The palate is fresh and balanced, and it is ideal with Mediterranean cuisine and fish dishes.
More from Zester Daily:
Next came the chardonnay. While I more often choose Sauvignon Blanc over chardonnay because I don’t like the high acidity and rich oak texture in the latter, this one was buttery and smooth in all the right places. According to Di Domizio, the chardonnay “illustrates” the changes taking place in Sicilian wines. “Among the five wines, the chardonnay is our flagship wine and has gained the best ratings from reviewers all over the world,” he said. Its fermentation and maturing in French barrels have delivered a graceful and powerful wine. The golden yellow color with lively green glints beckons you, and on the nose there are aromas of peach, golden apple, white figs and vanilla cream as well as hints of hazelnut and Zagara honey. The palate is soft, round, energetic and full.
And enter the vivacious reds. The La Segreta Rosso is a young, fresh wine produced mainly from Nero d’Avola grapes. “This is a perfect approach to Sicilian wine with its excellent relationship between price and quality,” Di Domizio said. It has the brilliant color of ruby red with purple reflections. The explosive aromas of cocoa and tobacco first hit you, followed by bouquets of mulberry, plum and balsamic notes. The palate has ripe tannins with a fresh alcohol structure and is versatile with appetizers and meat dishes.
If you don’t already know, the heat in Malaysia comes with its friend humidity. By this time in the evening, even the air-conditioning was struggling to cool us down, and with the warmth from the wines we were positively toasty. The Maroccoli Syrah made its appearance with its fruity spiciness. “Sicily is a good place for Syrah,” said Di Domizio, because of its sunny dry places. The alcohol strength is subtle, and the aromas you get with this wine are blackcurrant, cinnamon and cloves, making it great with chili or curry. The Syrah would also pair well with the good Indian food in KL, I must say.
Alas, the night had to end, and it did so with a capping of the Sito dell’Ulmo Merlot. We were told it has enjoyed international attention since its first vintage, and the presentation of this noble grape is rich, round and powerful. It is found on the wine lists of some of the most prestigious restaurants and wine bars around the world. The palate is vibrant with a dense texture. “It has a balsamic and chocolate aftertaste which is fresh and complex. It works really well with fusion cuisines as well as mature cheeses and meat,” Di Domizio said.
Origins of Planeta wine
During our dinner, we discussed Planeta’s origins and history. Started by the Planeta family, which has have owned the estate at Sambuca di Sicilia since the 1600s, it is one of the most acclaimed Sicilian winemakers. While Planeta has penetrated the Malaysian market, the dinner was its inaugural wine-pairing event in Kuala Lumpur as an opportunity for consumers to sample the wines .
Planeta has five wineries in Sicily, and a sixth winery is being built. Aside from Malaysia, Planeta is making its mark elsewhere in Asia, including Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Cambodia and Indonesia.
“Malaysian consumers,” Di Domizio said, “have shown the yearning to further develop their wine knowledge” with the increase of international influences.
Top photo: The Planeta wines sampled at the dinner. Credit: Aida Ahmad
Though Colorado is home to two of the nation’s biggest and brightest food-and-beverage events — the Aspen Food & Wine Classic in June and the Great American Beer Festival in Denver each October — I’m always on the lookout for wackier affairs. Case in point: the Stanley Film Festival to be hosted by the Stanley Hotel from May 2 to 5. While dedicated to horror cinema first and foremost, it’s promising to ply its guests with provisions worthy of the legendary Estes Park estate.
I don’t, of course, mean human flesh — though there will be a Zombie Crawl on the Sunday of the festival, organized by the founders of the one of the nation’s largest such events, which lures thousands of the would-be walking dead to Denver’s 16th Street Mall come Halloween. What I do mean, for starters, is the re-creation of another All Hallows Eve institution: the Shining Ball. The Stanley, after all, was the inspiration for “The Shining.” Stephen King wrote the novel after staying in Room 217 and purportedly receiving a visit from the specter of a child.
King’s hardly the only guest who’s encountered paranormal phenomena in the real-life version of the fictional Overlook Hotel. Says general manager Rick Benton, “Every week, I hear from one or two different people who’ve had experiences with former guests and employees long since passed away. I’m very receptive — and believe me, I wasn’t raised that way. The hotel was built on quartz and limestone — very strong, active minerals — and it’s by definition a portal for people to go from one place to another.” Though Stanley Kubrick’s screen adaptation wasn’t filmed here, the TV mini-series was, as have been episodes of the Syfy network’s “Ghost Hunters,” whose crew, Benton swears, “had such a time they picked up and left.” In any case, fans of “The Shining” will recall images of the lavish soirées thrown at the Overlook in the 1920s; on opening night, says festival director Jenny Bloom, they can attend one “decked out in costume, with the staff dressed in red jackets, just like the movie.” One can only hope to sip a bourbon or two à la Jack Torrance (as unforgettably played by Jack Nicholson), served by a look-alike of Lloyd the bartender.
But if bourbon’s not your poison, never fear. Indeed, finding your drink of choice may be the one thing you won’t fear during the festival at the Stanley, whose Whiskey Bar boasts the largest collection of bottles in Colorado, at 500-plus labels — from 40-year Highland Scotches to celebrated local products such as Stranahan’s, Leopold Bros and Dancing Pines. Upper-level pass holders will have the opportunity to dip into the stash while hobnobbing with filmmakers at an al fresco tasting on Friday.
Festival to showcase all the Stanley Hotel has to offer
And then there’s the Bloody Mary Awards Brunch, hosted by the festival’s “chief coroner,” Andrew Novick. Though not a chef, Novick is a one-of-a-kind presence on the Denver culinary scene; his résumé is impossible to account for and delicious to behold.
More from Zester Daily:
For the brunch — where horror-industry multi-hyphenate Eli Roth will receive the Visionary Award — Novick will be serving “Carrie” Pancakes, topped with a prom-queen figurine and accompanied by a “pail” of strawberry syrup for dumping on top, in a nod to the climax of the namesake 1976 classic directed by Brian de Palma. “Here’s Johnny” Breakfast Burritos — the name alludes to Nicholson’s famous catchphrase in “The Shining” — which will be halved with tiny toy axes, oozing salsa. And “Buried Alive” Parfaits, made with cookie crumbs, granola, yogurt, preserves and gummy candy shaped like body parts to suggest, of course, graveyard mayhem.
Novick will be working closely with the hotel’s executive chef, Richard Beichner, who otherwise plans to showcase Colorado ingredients at the festival: lamb, striped bass, mountain trout, and beef, for instance, like the locally raised steak tartare he’ll be serving at a Stella Artois-sponsored paired beer tasting in the hospitality lounge — and says he’s ready for his brush with horror buffs. After all, “I grew up north of Pittsburgh, where they filmed ‘Night of the Living Dead,’” he laughs. “This thing has already taken off so fast — I think it’s going to be huge.”
Top photo: The Stanley Hotel. Credit: Dan Swanson
The Salon du Chocolat, founded in Paris by the aptly named Sylvie Douce and François Jeantet, has a mission that few right-minded people would quarrel with: to promote the understanding and enjoyment of chocolate. Since its first Paris manifestation 18 years ago, countless other editions have been staged in 21 different cities worldwide, from New York to Tokyo to Moscow to Shanghai. It’s a magnificent show, wherever it happens. Each one has its own indigenous flavor and character.
One of the venues for the Salon du Chocolat is Switzerland. This, remember, is the land of Rodolphe Lindt, inventor of the conching process, which involves patient heating and repeated rolling of the cocoa mass to smooth away the gritty particles naturally present. It was here, too, that Daniel Peter, together with his friend and colleague Henry Nestlé, produced the first solid milk chocolate bars that would keep without spoilage. And then, of course, the Swiss are the acknowledged world champion chocolate-scoffers, putting away an impressive 12 kilos (close to 27 pounds) per person per year.
Perhaps the only surprise about Switzerland’s Salon du Chocolat is that it took until 2012 for the first show to be staged in Zurich. The 2013 edition recently closed its doors after three exhausting, exhilarating days starring a cast of about 90 chocolatiers, pastry chefs and chocolate experts from all over the world. “This year’s Salon was another sweet success,” enthuses Kerrin Rousset, a chocolate and confectionery connoisseur based in Zurich and responsible for working with the Salon team in Paris to come up with the program of events for the Swiss show.
From fashion to food, Salon du Chocolat is all things chocolate
Stunning new chocolate creations were presented to (and enthusiastically sampled by) the public. Sylph-like models in chocolate-trimmed designer gowns paraded nonchalantly up and down the catwalk. Chocolatiers and pastry chefs from boutiques and top restaurant kitchens demonstrated in Choco Démo, including Swiss Chocolate Masters David Pasquiet and Claudia Schmid. Conferences in the chocosphere filled up quickly, with the public eager to learn about pairing chocolate with wine, whiskey or even with beer, or to debate issues such as the sourcing and sustainability of cacao.
Any Salon du Chocolat, wherever it takes place, provides an opportunity to apply a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the chocolate world, so I was delighted to do my bit to find out what’s new. Among the many developments visible (and tastable), my favorite — speaking here more as a cook than a chocolatière/pastry chef — is the growing trend for salt in chocolate.
Of course, the salty-sweet dimension is hardly novel. The Bretons have used crunchy demi-sel butter in candy forever, and sweet Scottish shortbread is pleasingly seasoned with salt. Nowadays any self-respecting chocolatier seems to have a salt-speckled chocolate in his/her range. Even Toblerone has joined the game, with a sky-blue packaged bar whose familiar toasted almonds are tossed in crunchy salt crystals. Repeatedly at the salon, I was struck by the degree to which salt — provided it’s added with enormous care and in the right quantity — can enhance fine chocolate, allowing complex flavors to bloom while adding a piquant counterpoint to balance sweetness plus an element of crunch. Two stars for me were Beschle of Basel’s 64% dark chocolate with fleur de sel and pistachios, and their startlingly good Lassi, a white chocolate lifted by the addition of yogurt, lime and a whisper of salt.
Nibbling my way around the Salon, I made a few more discoveries. The first was there’s nothing quite like a chocolate bar (as opposed to truffles, pralines or other composite delights) for getting the full chocolate hit. Every one of the top chocolatiers present displayed positive libraries of bars — square, round, rectangular, large, medium or bite-sized, and all packaged to within an inch of their lives.
Another revelation was that milk chocolate should not be scorned. Chocolate snobs (I have to admit I’m probably one) generally favor the dark varieties and play one-upmanship games on cacao percentages, the higher the better. That was until I discovered Alpenmilch by celebrated Zurich chocolatier Honold — sinfully smooth and seriously chocolatey, amazing depth of flavor with marked toffee notes, a reminder that Switzerland is the Heimat of milk chocolate. (“High as the Alps in flavor” was the proud marketing slogan for Daniel Peter’s original Gala milk chocolate).
And for one who also has been know to purse lips at the very suggestion of flavored chocolates, I made short work of Honold’s dark (65%) Venezuelan Criollo, dusted with a discreet shower of strawberry flakes and crushed pink peppercorns. Not to mention anything from the newly established, Budapest-based ChocoMe, which makes big, bold, beautifully packaged bars bulging with fruit, nuts and spices.
Salon du Chocolat calendar for 2013
Salvador de Bahia: July 6-8
Paris (professional): Oct. 28-30
Paris (open to the public): Oct. 30-Nov. 3
Lyon, France: Nov. 8-11
Cannes, France: Nov. 22-24
More from Zester Daily:
Final mention of another important trend in the choco-world: The increasing interest in where and how chocolate is sourced — “from bean to bar” is the buzz phrase. The same kind of thing that happened with Terra Madre and Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto is taking place within the Salon du Chocolat: Terra Madre, once a colorful sideshow representing grower-producers from the Third World, is now an integral part of the Salone del Gusto. In just the same way, the Salon is broadening its focus beyond the pure hedonistic pleasure of chocolate to embrace pressing themes like transparent sourcing, conservation, sustainability and equitable work practices.
Original Beans (Amsterdam) and Idilio Origins (Basel), present at the Zurich Salon, are widely admired for their ethical business model and emphasis on sustainability. Each sets up long-term contracts with individual cacao growers not only in traditional grower countries like Ecuador and Venezuela but also, in the case of Original Beans, in the war-torn Congo, which has no history as a cacao producer. They pay significantly above fair-trade rates and focus on single-origin chocolate, emphasizing not only on the cacao type (Criollo is king) but also the terroir in which it is grown.
The Salon du Chocolat provides a fabulous showcase not just for the finest chocolate but also for the latest trends. The good news is there’s one coming soon to a city near you.
Top photo: Alpenmilch chocolate bars. Credit: Sue Style
Entering by foot through the main gate, the aura here is clean, fresh, like the docks of a Spanish port. But the sea is hundreds of miles away, and airplanes buzz overhead in this flat, nondescript part of the megalopolis that is Mexico’s capital. This is one of the biggest fish markets in the world, larger than Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji, and it satisfies the oceanic cravings of all of central Mexico. It’s the Mercado de la Nueva Viga, Mexico City’s central wholesale/retail fish market.
The interminably long parallel aisles, at least 10 of them, present about 150,000 tons a year of the fish and seafood, proffered by small vendors whose wares lie in a seemingly disorderly array of size and type.
MEXICO'S LARGEST FISH MARKET
Central de Pescados y Mariscos la Nueva Viga
Location: Prol. Eje 6 Sur No. 560 Piso 1, San José Aculco, Iztapalapa Mexico City
More on Zester Daily:
Noble silvery blue tuna come in all sizes and lie neatly stacked. Next to them are gigantic glowing warm red snappers, the king of Mexican fish, from little gold-striped jewel-sized ones that can fit in the palm of a child’s hand to enormous mammas the size of a seal. Silver mackerel, here called sierra, are long and fat: Their black eyes, which appear to stare in a fixed, knowing gaze, are crystal clear as if they just jumped out of the sea. And then there are squid and prawns and octopus and cuttlefish. The purplish calamari comes from cold waters afar; it’s been thawed, but smells clean and fresh. Mounds of deep magenta octopi have been boiled and are waiting to be sliced into ceviche de pulpo by the vendor. For those who want to take them on, slimy, grey blue fresh pulpos — all eight legs attached — are available as well.
The hazy morning rays of sun enhance the translucent red of the big fishes’ flesh. That light highlights the silvery glitter of the smaller ones’ skins, in varying shades of cool metallic blues. Long narrow cintilla are an astonishingly brilliant chrome, as shiny as the bumper of a restored ’57 Chevy. There are trout, fresh and from the sea; besugo; bonito; ferocious sharks called cazón; and innocuous whitebait named charal. Sting ray are splayed out, their dangerous tails now stilled. Velvety gray pámpano tempt almost as much as the lenguado (aka sole) whose skin is luminescent like a natural pearl.
The aisles become congested with shoppers and vendors. A portly, besmocked porter beseeches the crowd to part so he can wheel his barrow of gigantic whiskered catfish. Another swarthy monger, bare arms muscled and tattooed, holds up a fat 10-kilo (22-pound) extraviado (a type of bass), whose scales glimmer like a set of polished medieval armor.
The eye passes more rapidly over the heaps of severed fish heads with melancholy deep eyes — good for broth. There are low-cost oysters, barrels, sacks and piles of them, big ones and small. They can be shucked on request. Unattractive dirty grey clams, ostensibly for soup, and beautiful rust-colored large ones, called chocolates, for ceviche. Giant white Pismo clams, rare in these parts, weigh upward of a pound, and should be eaten raw, or as a simple ceviche. Blue-black mussels come in neat mesh bags. Live crabs, also scarce, are sold by one proud purveyor. Almost anything that swims in the sea can be found at the Viga, although the best is fresh and comes from the warm waters of the Caribbean or the cooler Pacific.
Seafood empanadas near Mexico’s biggest fish market
Around the corner and along the sides, dozens of merchants prepare seafood empanadas to eat here or take away. They roll out dough, fill it with crab, fish, octopus or shrimp and deep-fry to a flaky golden crisp. Bought by the dozen by hungry shoppers and sellers alike, they can be eaten at the stand: the warm pastry is pried open and filled with avocado and salsa, cream or mayo for those who need.
Meanwhile, in a large open area, workers will patiently and expertly clean, carve and fillet anything for a small gratuity. The slam of cleavers on block, the whoosh of scales being stripped and the murmur of instructions being offered are set to a background of old-fashioned Cuban son emanating from someone’s transistor radio. This is a serious place; nobody has time to fool around or loiter. But proud vendors will pose jauntily with a marlin, offer a taste of smoked sierra, pull some flash-frozen sardines out of the cooler to show them off.
At mid-morning closing time, unsold fish are tossed into ice-filled bins and trucks, buckets of water are emptied onto floors and swept off with large wide brooms, trails of ruby fish blood running off in every direction. The tables, stands, counters and tubs are cleaned and refreshed for this never-ending bounty, always and forever to be replenished.
Top photo: The assortment is endless at Mexico City’s la Nueva Viga fish market. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Susan Feniger, one of Los Angeles’ best-known restaurateurs, is always planning her next food trip, as soon as she comes home. Feniger’s restaurant Street, which opened in 2009, is inspired by the global street-food scene, but her explorations are as much about experiencing the lives people lead as they are about finding travel-inspired recipes.
More from Zester Daily:
Talking about a trip to the Turkish countryside, her eyes brightened as she described going with a friend to meet a farmer he knew. A walk into the fields up from the river led them to a house made of sticks with a cow in front. Inside, the kitchen had a fire pit in the middle of the room.
Sitting on the floor for their meal, Feniger watched with pleasure as the farmer’s wife first made tahini by grinding sesame seeds and then baked the tahini into the bread for their midday meal. The bread was delicious as was the experience.
In her kitchen at Street, Feniger demonstrated one of the popular dishes on the menu, an easy-to-make dish with lots of flavor: Brussels sprouts flavored with goat cheese, apples and hazelnuts, topped with an Italian version of a picada without nuts.
When Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, her longtime cookbook collaborator and fellow chef, were doing research for the dishes they would serve at their second restaurant, Border Grill, they traveled extensively in Mexico. She quickly discovered that the food she loved was the food cooked by street vendors and in people’s home.
As she explained, When you go into people’s homes “they’re so happy you’re there eating their food. People took us into their homes because they wanted us to taste their food. You didn’t get that if you go to restaurants. When you are on the street and you are in a culture that doesn’t usually see [outsiders], they really like that [you are willing to try their food].”
Travel-inspired recipes from around the world
To Feniger, eating the food prepared by people for their everyday lives is how you see the heart of a country. Over the years she has traveled around the world, pursuing her love of culture and eating.
“When I travel, if I don’t see a historical site, I’m OK. The much more rewarding experiences are the ones with people in their kitchens. My memories when I travel are ones with people, not with the monuments.”
On a 14-day trip, crisscrossing India from Delhi to Mumbai to Goa to Kerala (her favorite), Feniger ate on the street or in people’s homes every day. … When she was in Shanghai she was taken by a local on a food tour that began at 4 a.m. so she could watch a man make savory fresh soy milk sticky rice doughnuts cooked in a wok. By 8 a.m., he had finished his breakfast service so he cleaned up and left, allowing a shoe repairman to take over the stall.
Let the ingredients lead you
The menu at Street cherry-picks taste treats she ate during her travels over several decades.
Recently, Feniger revamped the Street menu and gently moved in the direction of vegetarianism, not for policy reasons but because the street food she loves tends to feature produce over animal products.
Hence, the Brussels sprouts dish. Her picada is Italian and illustrates Feniger’s belief that keeping it simple is best. Take a run at flavor, she suggests, letting the ingredients lead you and everyone will be happy.
Brussels Sprouts with Goat Cheese, Apples and Hazelnuts
Cooked quickly, the Brussels sprouts should be crunchy so the dish tastes fresh and inviting. The contrast of savory Brussels sprouts, sweet apples and tart-creamy goat cheese, together with accents of the picada make the dish delicious on its own or as a side dish with a protein such as sautéed tofu, fried chicken, grilled steak or baked salmon.
For the sauté:
½ cup raw hazelnuts
1½ tablespoons olive oil
6 cups whole Brussels sprouts, shaved thinly on a mandolin or with a knife
2 medium sized Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into a small dice
Juice of 1 lemon
6 ounces soft goat cheese, broken into small pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the picada:
⅛ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced raw garlic
2 cups bread crumbs
Salt to taste
zest of 3 lemons
1 bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
For the sauté:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Spread the hazelnuts out on a cookie sheet and toast them for 5 to 10 minutes until they are roasted and slightly browned.
3. Remove from heat and pour onto a clean dish towel.
4. Fold the dish towel over the toasted hazelnuts and roll lightly to remove the skins. Discard the skins.
5. Place the hazelnuts on a cutting board and chop into small pieces, or alternately pulse in a food processor for a brief period of time. Set aside.
6. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil on medium-high heat.
7. Add the Brussels sprouts, apples and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the Brussels sprouts are slightly browned on the edges.
8. Add the hazelnuts, lemon juice and goat cheese.
9. Toss together and turn off heat.
For the picada:
10. In a large sauté pan heat the oil, but do not let it smoke.
11. Add the garlic and stir quickly to release its flavors, but do not brown.
12. As the garlic starts to color, add the bread crumbs and salt to taste.
13. Stir well to combine and toast in the oil (about 5 minutes).
14. When the bread crumbs are browned, remove from heat and place in a mixing bowl.
15. Add the lemon zest and the parsley while the bread is still slightly warm.
16. Toss and then spread out on a cookie sheet to cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container before using.
17. Sprinkle on top of the Brussels sprouts before serving.
Top photo: Susan Feniger in her kitchen at Street, demonstrating making Brussels sprouts with goat cheese, apples and hazelnuts. Credit: David Latt
One of the many things that I love about travel is the chance to eat a renowned dish in its country of origin. In India, I went straight for the curries. In Vietnam, I fell for bánh mì. In Switzerland, I gobbled up fondu, raclette and rösti. You can’t get much more authentic than that.
Of these, it is the Swiss potato pancake, rösti, that I make on a regular basis. Derived from the German word rösten, which means to roast or grill, rösti consists of fried, shredded potatoes. That’s it. That’s the main and often sole ingredient of this easy Swiss specialty. Crisp on the outside yet soft and velvety on the inside, the simple rösti possesses a rich, complex flavor and competing textures that make it a sheer delight to eat.
Originally, rösti served as a filling breakfast for 19th-century Bernese farmers. A shared offering, it was placed on a platter in the center of the breakfast table. Using their spoons, people would cut off a piece of the patty and dunk it into a cup of weak, milky coffee. It may seem like an unusual custom, but it was one that soon caught on in other parts of Switzerland.
Rösti a versatile dish for any meal
Rösti quickly usurped the traditional Swiss farm breakfast of soup or mash, which had fed the hungry since medieval times.
More from Zester Daily:
Today’s Swiss cooks continue to deck out their potato pancakes with a diverse range of ingredients. At Geneva’s Auberge de Savièse, rösti is decorated with strips of red bell peppers and onions. Meanwhile, the Eiger Guesthouse in the Alpine village of Mürren adds a touch of Italy to its offering, adorning it with sliced, fresh tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and a drizzle of pesto sauce.
Some prefer pairing a simple rösti with a savory entrée. This is the case for Geneva resident and United Nations worker Chris Morh. “On a chilly day there is nothing better than to have rösti with Zuericher Geschnetzteltes, veal with cream sauce,” Morh says.
Just as the serving styles vary, so too do the ways that rösti is prepared. The differences start with the potatoes, which can either be cooked and then shredded, or shredded when raw. This is also the case with a relative of rösti, the American hash brown.
Then there is the question of how to cook the potatoes. Although I prefer to boil them in their skins, others opt for steaming. With the latter method, no salt is added to the potatoes and fewer nutrients leach into the cooking water.
In what the shredded potatoes are fried also differs from cook to cook. Some folks swear by vegetable oil while others endorse butter or bacon fat as the best.
Many claim you should fry your potatoes in oil and then add butter in small dabs at the very end of the cooking time. You spread the butter around the rösti’s edges so it melts, drips down into the hot pan and flavors your dish. I’ve found that this step also stops my potatoes from sticking to the skillet.
In spite of the variations, there are some agreements on rösti. You should use firm, cooking potatoes such as yellow or golden. You should also sauté the potatoes first before shaping them into a plump pancake and frying the cake on both sides.
Whether you make it to Switzerland or just to the corner store, pick up a pound of firm, yellow potatoes and treat yourself to an easy, delicious dinner of rösti.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1½ pounds yellow/golden potatoes, boiled in salted water until just tender, peeled and grated
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
⅓ cup grated Gruyère cheese
2 spring onions, whites and 1 inch of greens sliced
1. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon butter and the olive oil over medium-high heat. As the butter is melting, toss together the shredded potatoes, thyme, salt and pepper.
2. Spoon the potatoes into the frying pan and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure that all the potatoes have been coated with the oil.
3. Shape the potatoes into a pancake and fry on one side until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Place a flat plate over the top of the pan and invert the pan onto the plate. Return the pan to the heat, add a dab of butter if needed and then slide the rösti back into the pan, uncooked side down. Allow the potato pancake to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, until that side has also browned.
5. A few minutes before removing the rösti, break off small pieces from the remaining butter and spread it around the edge of the potatoes.
6. To remove the rösti, place a serving platter over the top of the pan and invert it onto the platter. Spread the Gruyère cheese and spring onions over the top of the rösti. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Rösti. Credit: Kathy Hunt