Articles in Travel

The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt

When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.

Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.

Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an  honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.

The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.

Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains

In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.

At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.

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On a highway stop between Fez and Marrakech, Morocco, a take-out cafe serving different tagines. Credit: David Latt

Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.

Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen

Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.

In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.

Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.

Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins

Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.

As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.

This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed

¼ cup kosher salt

¼ cup golden raisins

1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided

3 tablespoons lemon juice

4 garlic cloves, peeled

⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped

1 teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped

1 cup cracked green olives

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

Directions

1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.

2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.

3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.

4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.

5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.

6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.

7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.

8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.

9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.

10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.

11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.

12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.

Variations

  • Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
  • Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
  • Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
  • Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
  • Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.

Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt

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With more than 9,000 small, cobbled streets, the Fez medina is a labyrinth. As dusk falls, shoppers grab a few last-minute items near Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate. Credit: Serenity Bolt

We’ve all heard the warnings that travelers should avoid street food. But doing so means missing the real food culture — the simple, fresh delicacies prepared for locals. With a little common sense, it’s easy to leave your fear of the unknown (or of getting sick) behind and reap one of the greatest rewards of travel.

Moroccan culture buzzes in the ancient medina of Fez al-Bali, the world’s largest car-free area, where Gail Leonard, a British ex-pat, offers street food tasting tours through her company, Plan-It Fez.

For more than three hours, she introduces travelers to the likes of snail soup and cow’s tongue while donkeys trundle along the medina’s narrow, medieval streets, adding their own steady rhythm to the tintinnabulation of men banging copper pots into shape, playing children and the conversational din of the souks, or markets.

Tourists who avoid the food on these cobbled, labyrinthine streets are not only forgoing a culinary experience, but also something intangible, Leonard said. “Vendors are thrilled that you want to taste what they’ve produced. Anyone that doesn’t want to do that misses out on many levels of experience that aren’t just about taste buds.”

Dinner in Morocco is served around 9 or 10 p.m., so street carts are essential to tide Moroccans over between meals. Street food also suits economy-minded travelers. “We were just out of money, so we bought some sandwiches from a cart,” said Bostonian Paige Stockman, 24, gesturing with a thick piece of fresh khubz (bread) stuffed with smoky, slightly charred chicken skewers from a vendor in the Achabine area — prime territory for Leonard’s food tours.

Street food made by lovely hands

Some Moroccans do avoid street food, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Faical Lebbar, owner of Barcelona Café in Fez, abhors the idea of eating standing up. “My father taught me, you eat, you need to sit.” Comparing his restaurant to street food, he added, “The food is the same. It just costs more.”

The higher price may buy the closed doors of a restaurant kitchen, but not necessarily a more skilled chef. And there’s pleasure in connecting directly with the person making your food.

Serenity Bolt. Credit: Courtesy of Round Earth Media

Serenity Bolt. Credit: Courtesy of Round Earth Media

“When food is made by lovely hands, it doesn’t matter whether you got it in the street or in a restaurant — its value is determined by something deeper than price,” said Amine Mansouri, 25, a local who has lived all his life surrounded by the daily rhythms of the Fez medina. The hand that takes your 5 dirhams reaches through time and tradition, inviting you to taste the food that sustains a culture.

What if you can’t afford a tour but want to sample the world of street food? Leonard offers a few recommendations:

1. Look for the busiest carts because they have the most turnover.

2. Be confident. Don’t hesitate to leave and go to another vendor if the food doesn’t look fresh.

3. Make sure the food is piping hot — learn the word for “hot” in the local language so you can ask for a longer cooking time.

4. Ask for a taste to see if you like the food. Vendors will just be excited you’re trying it.

5. Don’t be afraid to say “no thanks.” If you feel awkward, learn some “get out” phrases in the local language, such as, “I’ll come back later.”

6. Eat with your hands, or use bread. You can even bring your own cutlery and cup. Always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer.

If you do run into digestive trouble, Leonard advises cumin. “That’s what Moroccans will do for an upset stomach,” she said. “It has anti-parasitical properties. Just take a spoonful, knock it back with water, and your stomach’s sorted.”

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Evening customers wait for bissara at a busy stand in the old Fez medina. This fava-bean soup, topped with cumin, paprika and a hearty glug of robust olive oil, is served with khubz (bread) baked in a communal wood-fired oven. Credit: Serenity Bolt

When in Fez, widely considered to be Morocco’s culinary capital, head to the Achabine and try these Leonard-tested delicacies: tehal, camel spleen stuffed with camel meat, olives and preserved lemons (baked like a gigantic sausage, then sliced and fried); makkouda, spicy potato cakes mashed with cumin and other spices and then delicately fried; and cow’s tongue steamed to a brisket-like tenderness.

A must-have is ghoulal, or snail soup. An infusion of more than 15  spices gives the broth a kick that complements its almost earthy, mushroomy flavor. Just look for the beaconing clouds of steam. You’ll soon find ghoulal in a huge silvery pot, boiling away atop a wooden cart manned in the medina by the soup-maker himself.

Just make sure to ask for it extra hot — “skhoun bzef!”

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing untold stories for top tier media around the world.

Top photo: With more than 9,000 small, cobbled streets, the Fez medina is a labyrinth. As dusk falls, shoppers grab a few last-minute items near Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate. Credit: ­Serenity Bolt

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Charmaine O’Brien, author of

One of my first purchases upon moving to New Delhi, India, in 2005 was Charmaine O’Brien’s “Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide.” The guide became a favorite go-to as I looked to taste and discover the diverse culinary gems of India’s capital. I was therefore delighted to learn that a recent trip back to India would coincide with the launch of O’Brien’s new book, “The Penguin Food Guide to India.”

Now, having had my own copy in hand for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that each time I pick up this book, I am happily tormented. Her descriptions of regional delicacies, particularly the ones that I too  have eaten from the same stall or restaurant, make my mouth water, often forcing me to put down the book, head to the kitchen and prepare some of my own favorite Indian recipes.

O’Brien, an Australian writer and culinary historian, first visited India in 1995. Since then, she has visited every state in India with the exception of three in the northeast. In essence, the book is her journey of discovery informed by the core truth that India does not have one homogenous cuisine, rather the greatness of its food lies in its enormous variety and subtlety.

Her primary goal — and she can be gratified in her success at its achievement — “was to create a historical and cultural guide to India’s regional cuisine and to recommend places where — domestic tourist or international visitor — can find distinct regional food.” She gives readers the tools to experience genuine, local flavors.

Long history flavors Indian food

This was an ambitious and enormous undertaking. India as a unique country is still relatively young. Aside from the last 64 years as an independent republic, India has, as O’Brien points out, “been occupied as a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and chieftainships, each essentially functioning as an independent country.” Imagine if you drew a line straight down from the top of Denmark to the bottom of Italy and colored over all the countries west of that line, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then decided to write a book about the local flavors and food cultures of all those countries. That gives you a sense of the task she set for herself.

IndiaBookCover

"The Penguin Food Guide to India"

By Charmaine O’Brien

304 pages, 2013, Penguin

Note: Currently, the book is only available in hard copy in India, and soon Australia, but it can be purchased as an e-book.


 

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The book is divided by geographic region, and within these each regional state is given its own chapter, beginning with a concise and condensed history. The historical details O’Brien weaves and connects through the book make for engaging reading that surpasses many travel guidebooks. We learn that all of these past rulers left a culinary imprint affecting the development and evolution of a region’s cuisine.

O’Brien’s personal encounters and insightful observations keenly illustrate that the prevalence of local and regional food in India is not a new trend or movement prompted by discriminating foodies but is part of an intricate food system born out of necessity and survival that has evolved over thousands of years. She does, however, indicate that as India’s growing middle class increases its appetite for foreign foods, some of the country’s elite has switched their attention to the perceived health benefits of traditional regional cuisines.

There is so much interesting information to digest — among my favorite nuggets are the descriptions and names of dishes or ingredients in Hindi or a regional language. Some of them you want to chew and savor. Yet perhaps due to sheer volume (or poor indexing), they can be a challenge to return to for another taste. Even for someone familiar with some of these terms, I wanted a short glossary of the region’s dishes at the end of each chapter to refer to.

Similarly, while the selected cookbook suggestions are a good place to start for trying new regional recipes, a handful of recently published regional cookbooks would have been welcome additions.

When O’Brien first arrived in India, her knowledge of Indian food was limited to the rather homogenous Indian restaurant menus from her native Melbourne that in many ways continue to dot the globe. She realizes that many readers, whether it is their first or fifth trip to India, want to sample new dishes but are concerned with hygiene at food stalls or restaurants, fearing the dreaded “Delhi Belly.” Aware of this but also eager for you to become a culinary explorer, she offers support with thoughtful and reassuring dining recommendations as you veer off the typical tourist menu road map.

It is interesting that two of the most recent well-researched books on Indian cuisine, this one and “Tasting India” by Christine Mansfield, are by non-Indians. A decade ago, Indian chefs and food writers seemed to be more interested in cooking and writing about foreign cuisines. However, over the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in Indian food professionals revisiting and exploring their culinary heritage.

India’s culinary landscape is so vast and nuanced that there is much more to be recorded. As I believe K.T. Achaya’s historical books on Indian cuisine inspired O’Brien, I hope this book motivates others to investigate and preserve India’s rich diverse cuisines.

Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)

Throughout her travels, Charmaine O’Brien discovered that no matter where she was, Indians love dining on bright, leafy greens. On my own visits to South India, I also found that cooks enjoy adding green and red amaranth leaves to soups, dals or even making fresh chutneys out of them. Here is a recipe of my own that spotlights its flavor.

Along the Konkani coast, blood-red amaranth leaves are typically used to make this quick coconut accented side dish, which is suitable to accompany fish, meat or poultry. Increasingly, farmers markets are selling amaranth leaves. However, if they are unavailable, beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach are wonderful substitutes.

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 cups red or green amaranth (or beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup finely sliced onion

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped

Pinch of turmeric

Salt to taste

¼ cup to ½ cup grated coconut (fresh, frozen or dry unsweetened)

Directions

1. Wash the amaranth leaves a couple of times in running water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain, cut off any of the tough bottom parts of the stalk and discard. Roughly chop the trimmed greens into bite-sized pieces.

2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the chopped garlic and green chillies to the pan and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.

4. Toss in the chopped amaranth and a pinch of turmeric.  Mix well, cover and cook for about 4 minutes until the leaves are wilted and tender. If using spinach, the cooking time will most likely be halved. Remove the lid and continue to cook to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.

5. Add the grated coconut, salt to taste and sauté for another minute. Serve immediately.

Variations

With shrimp: Many Konkani cooks like to toss in some sweet, tiny shrimp close to the end of cooking. Use 1 cup small shrimp (or medium shrimp roughly diced) cleaned and deveined, and add it at the same time as the grated coconut. Cook until the shrimp has changed color and is just cooked through.

With cooked chickpeas: If you have some extra cooked chickpeas, black-eyed peas or kidney beans leftover in the fridge, toss in about a half cup of them into the pan when adding the greens and continue accordingly.

Top composite photo:

“The Penguin Food Guide to India” book jacket, with author Charmaine O’Brien. Credit: Photo of author courtesy of the Australian Consulate in Mumbai

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Bitter oranges in Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron

A winter stroll through Athens is a joy. The cool, breezy air is filled with an exquisitely heady perfume from the hundreds of citrus trees shading the city’s squares, gardens and boulevards. Dusty, heat-wilted summer foliage is long gone. In its place are lush, deep-green canopies of scented leaves, waxy-white flowers and beautiful oranges.

Throughout Greece’s grim economic crisis of the past five years, these lovely trees have produced their annual bounty for the beleaguered people, with bursts of sunshine in the gloom. So why are the oranges left mostly ungathered, in a country where cooks are well known for their imaginative frugality and their ability to create feasts from foraged foods?

The bitter orange

The highly aromatic bitter orange (citrus aurantium, or Seville orange) that provides Greece’s city landscapes with such color and beauty can’t be eaten without some preparation. Native to Southeast Asia, the bitter orange (nerantzi, in Greek) is a hybrid, a cross between the pomelo (citrus maxima) and the mandarin (citrus reticula), and is thought to have arrived in Europe in the late 16th century. The tree was a favorite of the medieval Italian courts, so it’s possible that it was brought to Greece by the Venetians, who made fortunes exporting Greek fruits, honey and wine. Or perhaps later by the Ottomans, who also appreciated the bitter orange’s perfume and prettiness.

Medieval Greece was no stranger to aromatic oils, fruit-based sweetmeats and the taste of sour. In classical antiquity and later in Byzantium, the citron (citrus medica, native to Persia) provided both. But the bitter orange, with its thinner skin and greater beauty, soon replaced the incongruous-looking citron. It had the advantage too of a reputation as a folk remedy for fevers, an antiseptic and an aid to digestion, and could more successfully cope with colder temperatures than the less-hardy sweet orange.

The powerful fragrance of the tree’s leaves and flowers were, and still are, highly valued in aromatology and the fruits’ peel in confectionery. When dried or candied, it flavors sweets, pies, savories and salads. Best of all, it is turned into a delicious γλυκό του κουταλιού (literally, “spoon sweet”), and offered to guests as a way of saying “welcome, it’s good to see you.”

Tasting a crisis

Artists Persefoni Myrtsou and Ino Varvariti — spurred by their city sensibilities and personal experience with the economic crisis — decided to explore the connection between these plentiful urban citrus trees and the changing landscapes of peoples’ lives. Early in 2013, they collected oranges from trees in locations to which the Greek people feel emotionally linked.

Nerantzi glyko, or bitter sweet orange. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Nerantzi glyko, or bitter sweet orange. Credit: Rosemary Barron

In Athens, they chose Syntagma (the central square); Plaka (the old quarter, below the Acropolis); Mitropoleous (the old market neighborhood); a new, but now-closed shopping mall; and a neighborhood recently settled by immigrants. In Thessaloniki, they gathered the fruits from Ano Poli, or “Upper Town,” the old, Ottoman-era city. Then they prepared a glyko (sweet) from each harvest.

Myrtsou and Varvariti took the sweetmeats to an art exhibition in Berlin and to a gastronomy symposium on the island of Crete, and invited everyone to sample them. The artists found that, although the rituals and symbolism for the Greeks of glyko had to be explained in Germany, this opened a dialogue on both the economic crisis and Greek food culture. In Crete, a relatively wealthy region of Greece, the interest was in the varying flavors and the plight of the city neighborhoods.

Glyko: a sweet hello

Did the sweets taste different from one another? Yes, they did. But the differences were subtle, and reflected only the bitter orange tree’s admirable hardiness (it fruits even in poor soil, and without much care) and ability to change itself (when planted near another citrus variety).

City dwellers are, with good reason, nervous about locally foraged foods, and Athens’ car pollution is notorious. But this alone can’t be the reason the oranges are being left to rot, when so many people are hungry, and need a feeling of community more than ever. For Myrtsou and Varvariti, their work has created new relationships, as the offering of such beautiful sweet treats to others never fails to do, and has given them new avenues to explore in their quest for the taste of the crisis.

Bitter Orange Sweet

Serve nerantzi glyko in a small bowl on a tray, with glasses of water and small cups of Greek coffee. Each guest takes a spoon and a scoop of the sweet and syrup and wishes the host “happiness and good fortune.”

There are plenty of modern uses for these lovely sweets too. Serve them with a classic Greek almond or walnut cake, madeira cake, rice pudding or ice cream, or as a pick-me-up at the end of the afternoon. You can substitute other oranges, tangerines, lemons or small grapefruits for the bitter oranges.

Makes 32 single-piece servings

Ingredients

4 large, organic bitter (Seville) oranges, or other suitable citrus fruits

Sugar, the same weight as the peel

Strained juice of half a lemon

Directions

1. With a hand grater, gently grate the oranges. This removes some of the bitterness of their peel.

2. Cut the peel of each orange into 8 vertical segments. If there is a large amount of white pith, scrape off some of it with a small knife or spoon.

3. Weigh the peel and measure out an equal quantity of sugar; set aside.

4. Transfer the strips of peel to a large saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and repeat the process. Drain, cover with cold water and set aside 2 hours. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.

5. Roll up each strip of peel and secure with a toothpick.*

6. In a heavy saucepan or syrup pan, add the sugar and ¾ of its volume of water and slowly bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer 5 minutes, then add the rolls of peel.

7. Simmer uncovered for 45 of 60 minutes, or until a needle will easily pierce a roll.

8. Remove the peels from the syrup, shaking excess syrup back into the pan. Let cool and discard the toothpicks (the peels won’t unravel).

9. Add the lemon juice to the syrup and boil until it just reaches the light thread stage (220 C) on a sugar thermometer, or coats the back of a spoon.

10. Transfer the rolls of peel to a clean glass jar, or several jars, just large enough to hold them and cover with the syrup. Tightly cover the jar(s).

* If you make a larger quantity of sweets, they take up less room in the pan if threaded on a string. Thread a large needle with thin kitchen string and tie a large knot at one end. Roll up each peel segment and thread onto the string, passing the needle through the roll so it won’t unravel. Thread no more than 16 rolls onto the string, and tie the ends together to make a garland. Simmer until cooked in the syrup, then carefully pull out the string. The rolls will remain intact.

Top photo: Bitter oranges in Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron

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Cooking Iranian food, zereshk polow (barberry rice), for an event in Istanbul celebrating immigrant traditions. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Sara moves around the large kitchen with laser-like focus, filling a tea glass of water to add to a heaping pot of saffron rice with one hand while sautéing a pan of tart, red dried berries, walnuts, raisins and slivered almonds with the other. The resulting dish, zereshk polow (barberry rice), is a popular one in Sara’s home country of Iran, but not so easy to make in neighboring Turkey, where she is living as a refugee.

“Iranian basmati rice is longer than Turkish rice and the grains stay separate better,” Sara says through a translator. (She did not want her last name used while her application for asylum is pending.) The rice has been imported from Iran, along with the barberries, saffron, lentils, dried lemons (limoo amani), dried mint and other ingredients for the traditional Iranian feast she’s preparing for a few hundred curious Istanbul residents.

The meal, co-hosted recently by the International Organization for Migration’s Turkey office and the food website Culinary Backstreets, was organized as part of an annual event celebrating the culture and cuisine of migrant communities in Turkey.

Food is “a way of [creating] communication among communities and understanding of each other,” says Nil Delahaye, a project assistant at IOM-Turkey, which works on emergency refugee assistance, resettlement programs and other aspects of migration management. While raising awareness about the challenges facing migrants, the organization also hopes to help create a more “positive image of migration for both hosting countries and migrants,” she adds.

According to Ansel Mullins, co-founder of Culinary Backstreets and a longtime Istanbul expat himself, “Refugee communities in Turkey are almost invisible even though some have been here for years. Organizing these events with migrant cooks is a statement, a way to say that migrants are here and have something to offer.”

‘Migant Kitchen’ events

Before the Iranian feast in November, Culinary Backstreets had organized “Migrant Kitchen” events with IOM last year that brought unfamiliar tastes from Cameroon, Liberia, Ethiopia and the Philippines to Istanbul palates. They have also exported the concept to Athens, Greece, where Nicolas Nicolaides, an Istanbul-born Greek who’s working on a Ph.D. in history at the University of Athens, has helped organize a lunch series of free meals cooked by Ghanaian, Congolese and Egyptian migrants.

The financial crisis and high levels of unemployment in Greece have “created new tensions; racist incidents and xenophobic extremism have been steadily increasing recently,” Nicolaides says. “We felt that at a difficult time like this, these [lunch] events provide a strong bridge between the immigrant communities and Greeks.”

Though both Greece and Turkey see large inflows of migrants, foreign cuisines — other than increasingly global foods such as pizza and sushi — are not well known in either country. But for the migrants themselves, foods from home are a lifeline.

“We talk to members of migrant communities about what they do when they get together and it’s always about food,” Mullins says. African migrants in Istanbul’s Kurtuluş and Feriköy neighborhoods have created informal restaurants and supply chains in order to enjoy foods they couldn’t otherwise get in Turkey. “It’s amazing how well organized the food connections are here,” Mullins notes. “When we were putting together the Ethiopian meal last year, the cook made a call and 15 minutes later we were off to buy seasoned, clarified butter [niter kibbeh] and other key ingredients from a mysterious spice vendor who had carried them to Turkey in a suitcase and sold them to us through the window of a taxi cab.”

Sara adds slivered almonds from Iran to the zereshk mixture. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Sara adds slivered almonds from Iran to the zereshk mixture. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Sara bought many of the ingredients for her Istanbul meal at an Iranian supermarket in the city’s Aksaray neighborhood where, she says, “the prices are twice what they are in Iran, but you can find anything.” The pickings are slim, however, in the southern Turkish city of Adana, where she and her husband, brother and two young sons must live while waiting for their asylum request to be processed. (Turkey requires refugees and asylum seekers to live in “satellite cities” spread around the country, rather than in major hubs such as Istanbul.)

There are no places to buy Iranian food in Adana, and little if any support or opportunities for refugees, Sara says. A group of 20 to 30 Iranian families — all Christians like Sara, who says she left Iran because of her religion — meet each Wednesday for a prayer service that rotates among members’ homes. Afterward, that week’s host serves an Iranian meal for everyone. “I cook different things every time, whatever I have the ingredients for,” says Sara, who hopes someday to open a restaurant and write a book about Iranian food.

Asked what foods she most misses from home, Sara rattles off a long list — reshteh (thin noodles), kashk (a drained and dried yogurt), and the coriander, leek chives and fenugreek harvested in Iran’s mountains and used to make ghormeh sabzi, an herb stew. When her parents came to visit her in Turkey last year, she says, they brought along two bags of hard-to-find ingredients.

“People can be eating on newspapers on the floor, but they’ve got to have those preserved lemons that give the dish its kick,” Mullins says. “Even for migrants in desperate circumstances, some things just can’t be replaced or sacrificed.”

Top photo: Sara prepares zereshk polow (barberry rice) in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

February 1973. My mother and I step out of the plane in the Yucatan. Atop the mobile staircase a blast of hot air slaps my face. I detect the scent of corn, burning wood and flowers. I’m 13 and it’s my first time in Mexico, the country that would become my own.

We’ve landed in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan, a torpid, provincial city of faded glory. Cortez and his conquistadors had little interest in the hot, sparsely populated region where little grew and gold and silver weren’t to be found. Riches were made in the 19th century when it was discovered that henequen, used for rope, could be produced here. Many Lebanese immigrants, versed in shipping skills, arrived and ran the haciendas.

World War II brought acrylics to replace the henequen, and carriages turned back into pumpkins. But Mayan culture endured, as ruins were unearthed and marketed. And a few years ago foreigners found that the glorious mansions of those henequen days could be bought for a song and revamped. Now tourists and locals alike stroll down Merida’s streets, and gussied pastel facades, the colors of Necco wafers, reflect the harsh tropical sun. Palm-leafed plazas provide respite from the heat.

We check into our colonial-style hotel and then walk down the street. The driver of a horse-drawn carriage beckons. We ride up to the Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition, lined with glorious French-style mansions, all faded, some abandoned. Forty years later most are gone, victims of callous development.

The sun is setting and we’re hungry. So we enter a typical white-table-clothed middle class restaurant, with aire acondicionado, promising platos típicos. My mother, an artist who had lived in Mexico, orders sopa de lima and tacos de cochinita in her somewhat clumsy Spanish. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by ethnic cuisine and its purveyors, I’m eager to taste the “real thing.”

Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Discovering sopa de lima

The sopa de lima arrives. A bowl of steaming soup! How illogical, I think, scalding soup in a hot climate.

Little did I know, at that time, how small a part logic plays in Mexican life. The soup is a rich chicken broth any Jewish grandma would be proud of, loaded with shredded meat and perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent, so very Mexican, became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me as Proust’s madeleines did for him. At our meal pallid bread is served (that’s what they thought all gringos wanted), but I request tortillas, which makes the waiter chuckle. But he brings them, my first taste of the real McCoy.

Yucatecan food can be magnificent. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is in a revival. From market stands to highfalutin experimental restaurants, the eating out scene in Merida is hopping. Like all Mexican regional cooking, it is a true fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious.

Pollo alcaparrado is chicken in a caper sauce, direct from Andalucía. Kibbeh (or kibi), Lebanese wheat dumplings, are sold here in markets just like they are in the Middle East. Pan de cazón, tortillas layered with shredded epazote-perfumed shark, refried black beans and chile-tomato sauce, is pure fusion, an adaptation of Spanish cooking style to local ingredients.

And then there’s the truly indigenous: the Mayan pib, a pre-Hispanic method of anointing, marinating and then roasting meat, fowl and fish. The settlers brought pigs, but local cooks quickly substituted them for regional game.

David Sterling, formerly of New York, teaches Yucatecan cooking at Los Dos Cooking School. He explains that “You have to remember that even just 15 or 20 years ago, this was still ‘the provinces’ — folks cooked and ate at home exclusively. The dining scene has changed dramatically during the last several years. There are more and more regional options too. In terms of quality. …  in general it’s progressing, albeit at a glacial pace. I think that’s inevitable as Mérida continues to grow and more outside influences come in.”

Local specialties

Cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatecan dish, is suckling pig, slathered with a sauce made of achiote (annatto), sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, allspice and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted, preferably over coals. It is eaten as tacos, in soft corn tortillas, or tortas, on white flour rolls, with fiery habanero sauce. The Yucatan produces the most picante salsas in the country, if not the world. Today, few people make it at home, preferring to buy from the experts.

One locally famous stand appears Friday through Sunday in front of Panadería La Ermita in the plaza of the same name. Neighbors gather to eat there, fragrant meat heaped on fresh baked bread and spiked by pickled red onions. Some buy kilos to go. And everyone knows to come early, since by noon it’s run out.

Tamales, ubiquitous in Latin America, are sold in the market as they have been for centuries. Customers in the know vie for a place at the long table at Jugos Mario for hot tamales. Called tamal colorado, they are the regional variation on a theme. Corn masa is ground to a custard-like consistency and flavored with chile and achiote, then steamed in a banana leaf. A dash of habanero salsa adds fire.

Going upscale

At the other end of the spectrum, Ku’uk is a restaurant whose name comes from the Mayan word meaning “sprout.” It has done just that, sprouting like an experimental lab in a sea of conservative tradition. It’s the venue for young chef Mario Espinosa, an academy-trained veteran of  Mexico City’s renowned, avant-garde restaurant Pujol.

Here, old-fashioned Yucatecan cooking is deconstructed and reinterpreted. The kitchen has a traditional pit oven for cooking “pib,” but contemporary molecular gastronomic trends are introduced as well. And although traditional ingredients are incorporated, they are reconfigured with the chef’s creative flair. The market favorite castacán (deep fried pork belly), usually eaten with a little salsa in tacos, is elaborated into “castacán, prawn, string cheese from Tabasco, fava bean broth and dried shrimp.” The breakfast standard chaya con huevo (eggs scrambled with the regional bitter green herb chaya) is refashioned as a “transparency of potato and herbs, egg cream, and chaya.” So, while one foot stays firmly planted in local culinary heritage, the other dances a postmodern rhumba.

As the food-minded public becomes aware of Mexican cooking in its intricate variety, regional adaptations will continue to be unearthed and celebrated. That’s a good thing.

And I, although intrigued by these recent developments, stay admittedly “in search of lost time” as I continue to seek out the best bowl of sopa de lima I can find.

Top photo: Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Think “State Fair,” the quintessential celebration of rural Americana as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous musical film of 1945. That’s where I am for a moment when I enter the provisional arched gates of the annual mega-food event in Mistura, Peru. Missing are the rides, the games, the cotton candy, the stuffed animal prizes. But the atmosphere is familiar. Couples stroll placidly, hand in hand, directionless and contentedly sipping drinks. Spotlights shine on hawkers shouting invitations to passers-by. A joyous tranquility is in the air.

Mistura is the most extensive gastronomic fair I’ve ever seen. It’s Peru’s most important cultural event, and should make every citizen of this brilliant but poor Latin American country proud. The pet project of star chef Gastón Acurio, it is now sponsored and funded by such diverse backers as the state and one big soft drink manufacturer that wants us to think it’s doing redeemable things as well.

Every September since 2008, several performance stages, a huge market featuring more than 300 stands and more than 100 food stalls are set up on an empty stretch of beachfront south of Lima’s center. Only Peruvian cuisine is featured. There’s also an Encuentro Gastrónomico for serious students: presentations, lectures and demonstrations that address the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society’s relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. It’s a proud celebration of peruanidad, the state of being Peruvian. Everybody from all walks of life goes — at least those who can afford the $6 (U.S.) admission. There were 300,000 attendees in 2012, more this year. And it’s all about food. Nothing makes people happier. Seeing it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.

Folk dancers at the Mistura food fair. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Folk dancers at the Mistura food fair. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

A welcome message from star chefs

The Encuentro Gastronómico features star chefs and gastronomes from all over the Latino world who expound on their particular culinary identities. This year, the guest of honor was Chef Alain Ducasse, who kick-started the fair with a presentation on the importance of healthful eating, extolling the virtue of quality ingredients and the evils of junk food. We knew that. But it’s good to hear it from the mouth of a gastronomic demigod. Later, Acurio presented his new initiative called “Salsa,” which “aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge.” Preaching to the choir? Perhaps, but necessary in a food world still dominated by Europe and the U.S.

Quinoa vendors at Mistura. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Quinoa vendors at Mistura. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

The fair is divided into two main areas, the Gran Mercado and the food stalls. The market, under a huge tent, celebrates all products Peruvian. There are booths dedicated to quinoa (black, red and white), bread, chocolate, olives and, of course, potatoes. Hundreds of them, millions it seems. The vendors are men in brightly colored, hand-embroidered suits and women wearing traditional clothing, hair in braids, topped with what look like hipster hats. They offer purple, red, yellow and white potatoes, little black squiggly ones, large round polka-dotted ones. They’ve schlepped them from the far corners of the Andes in sacks. One proud indigenous lady, her pretty denim-clad daughter looking on, cuts open a yawar huayco to show me its royal purple interior — blue black juice drips down her weathered hand. I want to buy them all; airline/border restrictions hold me back, but I purchase a few kilos anyway.

Eater’s haven at Mistura

A light sea breeze starts to waft through the market tent, carrying with it the incense of the kitchen. The mundos (worlds), as the food stand areas are designated, gently beckon. My heart starts pounding. I need to eat everything. How am I going to do it?  There’s no time, no stomach big enough. I’m afraid to blink, fearful it will all disappear. It’s a virtual eater’s heaven. Stands are divided by region. Mundo Amazónico offers various preparations of the freshwater fish paiche, fragrant tamales of rice seasoned with fresh turmeric called juanes, and to wash it all down the hot pink juice of the camu camu, a jungle fruit with a wildflower-like fragrance.

Ceviche. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Ceviche. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

I forget that we’re not in Mexico and norte doesn’t mean the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The north of Peru is warm and heavily influenced by indigenous culture. The signature dish of this area is seco de cabrito, a stew of goat flavored with black corn “beer,” cilantro, oregano, and fresh and dried chilies. The meat is tender and fragrant, like a mild Indian curry.

In the Mundo de Ceviche section I choose the busiest stand and order a classic tiradito de pescado: thin strips of flounder are showered with spiky leche de tigre, perfumy lime juice with a bit of ground fresh ají, a yellow chili. It’s like sashimi, softer and subtler than Mexican ceviche, masterfully made.

In Mundo Limeño I can’t resist sampling Doña Chela’s aji de gallina. The doña smiles maternally while efficiently ladling out Peru’s comfort dish to adoring fans. Chicken, cooked in beautiful hand-polished earthen pots, is bathed in a velvety cream sauce thickened with bread and augmented by mildly picante roasted yellow peppers. At this point I’m no longer hungry, but I get a plate anyway.

Peru’s lexicon of cooking includes what has been labeled Nikkei, the melding of Japanese and home traditions utilizing local ingredients. It is proffered at El Mundo Oriental, several of whose stands combine fresh fish corn, ají peppers, yucca and potatoes in new ways. Another popular food category here is chifa, a simplified Chinese adaptation of stir-frying that is found all over Lima.

A crowd magnet

I skip past the Mundo Oriental in order to leave room for grilled chancho, the most popular dish of all. In the Mundo de las brasas (world of the coals), long lines of hungry eaters wait patiently while workers stoke huge, medieval-looking wood fires to roast whole, midsized pigs. Pork-infused smoke permeated this crowded section — the sweet aroma turning even the head of a near-vegetarian. I wait until shortly before closing when I finally procure a plateful of the divinely tender chopped meat. My stomach says “enough already” but my senses reply, “Go for it!”

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Roasting pigs for grilled chancho. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Peru is now in a gastronomic boom; its culinary traditions have become known around the world in recent years. Street and market food are unparalleled, comparable in scope and quality to that of Mexico or Thailand, and its burgeoning high-end restaurant scene, with its myriad fusions of deep-rooted traditions, is fascinating.

I leave happy, sated. That’s how a visit to a country fair should be.

Top photo: Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Ganache-filled chocolates at Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

Even the most jaded of adults will stand outside the plate glass window of a chocolate shop and stare at the candies inside with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. On a recent trip researching a series of articles about Switzerland, I spent time with chocolatier Dan Durig who has two shops in Lausanne on Lake Geneva.

To celebrate the holidays and the New Year, Durig generously shared an easy-to-make chocolate ganache. He also patiently allowed me to videotape him preparing his signature vanilla-scented ganache-filled chocolates.

Born into a family of Swiss chocolate makers, Durig learned the craft from his dad, Jean Durig. Growing up near Manchester, England, and vacationing with his father’s family in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Durig lived comfortably in England and Switzerland. So when he was ready for a life change, relocating to Switzerland was easy to do.

Having always worked for his dad or other chocolatiers, he wanted to start his own business in Lausanne. In a quiet neighborhood within sight of Lake Geneva, Durig converted a branch office of BCV bank into Durig Chocolatier.

Locals told Durig the transformation of a bank into a chocolate shop changed the neighborhood for the better. The change was good for Durig as well. Within three years, his business was well established, he won several prestigious awards, he married and had a son. Putting together a team to work in the kitchen and in the front of the shop is, according to Durig, easier in Switzerland than other places because of the country’s well-established apprenticeship program. The clerks who work in the shop go through a retail management program. The chocolatiers learn their craft in a multiyear pastry apprenticeship based on the French model, combining four days of work with one day of school.

Made mostly by hand with the help of a few machines, Durig happily demonstrated how he crafts his chocolates. As he worked, two tempering machines that work 24 hours a day can be heard in the background, keeping separate batches of milk and dark chocolate at precisely the correct temperature. When melted without controlling the temperature, chocolate will cool and harden without its characteristic bright sheen and crispness.

Durig knows his chocolates are only as good as the ingredients he uses. To make his ganache, he sources high quality Swiss organic cream from local dairies and vanilla beans from Madagascar. He buys his cocoa and cocoa butter from quality, fair trade producers in Peru, Sierra Leone and Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.

For best results at home, follow Durig’s lead and buy the highest quality chocolate and cream available. Chocolate should be made only with cocoa butter. Cream should not have any chemical additives.

To make the ganache-filled chocolates demonstrated by chef Durig in the video, purchase a candy-making mold in a restaurant or cooking supply store or online. Learning to temper chocolate is not for the faint of heart. Understanding that, Durig’s ganache recipe does not require tempering.

Durig Chocolatier’s Chocolate Holiday Ganache Squares

Using quality ingredients is essential in cooking, especially when making chocolates. After making the ganache, the chocolates should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

If served cold, the chocolates have a pleasing crispness. Allowed to warm to room temperature, they will have a melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. I put the chocolates in individual paper cups for easy serving.

As a matter of taste, I added caramelized nuts to the ganache. A half cup of almond slivers tossed with 1 tablespoon of white sugar and toasted over a low flame added a pleasing crunch to the citrus and herbal notes.

Serves 24 to 36 (about 130 pieces, depending on the size of the squares)

Ingredients

For the mixed spice:

Durig buys his mixed spice ready made. Making your own is easy enough. Once prepared, keep in an airtight container. If ground clove and fennel are not available, grind your own.

1¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground fennel

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground clove

Baking paper

For the chocolates:

500 grams (1 pint) cream

800 grams (28 ounces) organic dark chocolate (68% cocoa content), chopped into small pieces

10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) ground cinnamon

10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) mixed spice (see directions below)

100 grams (3 ounces) chopped organic candied orange peel

Organic cocoa powder for dusting

Directions

For the mixed spice:

1. Place all the ingredients into a small, electric grinder and pulverize into a fine powder.

For the chocolates:

1. Bring the cream to boil and remove from the heat.

2. Add the other ingredients to the cream and stir with a wire whisk until the chocolate is melted.

3. Pour into a 10-inch dish lined with baking paper.

4. Cool in the fridge for 4 hours.

5. Cut into ½- to ¾-inch squares and roll each square in the cocoa powder.

6. Set aside on a wire rack or sheets of waxed paper.

7. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to serve.

Top photo: Ganache-filled chocolates at Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

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Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

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