Articles in World

Fish dishes are a staple in Bengali cuisine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

This year, for Bengali New Year, I decided to do something very intrinsic to Bengali cuisine — explore the dimensions of cooking fish.

Shadowed by the rivers, fresh fish is essential and intrinsic to the culinary heritage of the food-obsessed Bengali community. What is most impressive is the sheer diversity of fish preparations that are different and distinct from almost any other part of India.

On the Bengali table, fish is cooked together with the assortment of regional specialties indigenous to the wet, fertile region replete with greens, citrus and coconuts. Coconuts are plentiful and a much-loved ingredient — and for Bengali people, almost anything tastes better with some coconut.

When cooking with fish, all parts of the fish are used — from the head to the tail. Different treatments and preparations are used for different parts, showcasing the various tastes and textures. Fastidious Bengali home cooks like to shop for fish daily, usually in the early morning, returning home proudly with the catch of the day and tales of how they managed to get it before it was all gone.

Fish can take diners from starters to the main course without any problem. A traditional meal often commences with an assortment of vegetables and small shrimp, and fish heads or tiny fish are usually added to regular vegetable dishes to add a touch of sweetness, boost the protein and transcend the ordinary into something festive or more formal.

Fish heads are a coveted part of the fish, because their rich omega-3 fatty acid content is associated with promoting intelligence. Although it’s not as popular as it once was, a true Bengali household will reserve the fish head for the children or a new son-in-law. Adding it to lentils elevates it to a celebratory dish.

Needless to say, a fish head cannot be savored without using your hands, so to this end Bengalis enjoy eating fish by gently separating the bones from the flesh.

Curries are, of course, the mainstay of the table, and these range from gentle, nigella-scented vegetable and fish stews to common fish curries enriched with pungent mustard, creamy coconut, rich yogurt and sometimes even lemon.

To showcase the diversity of cooking fish for the Bengali table, here are four traditional but simple recipes that are practical enough for everyday meals.

Gandhoraj Maach (Bengali Lemon Coconut Fish)

Gandhoraj Maach (Bengali Lemon Coconut Fish). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Gandhoraj Maach (Bengali Lemon Coconut Fish). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

This delicate fish dish is traditionally made with the Bengali lime, called Gandhoraj. I have adapted this recipe using lemons and Kaffir lime leaves, offering a delicate and simple dish perfect for spring and summer.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup freshly grated coconut (about 1/2 regular coconut)

1 cup hot water

1 piece fresh ginger, 1 1/2 inches long, peeled

1 or 2 green chilies

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

3 fresh lemons

2 Kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced

1/4 cup coconut milk

1 teaspoon nigella seeds

2 to 3 dried red chilies

3 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon chopped coriander

2 pounds halibut or any other firm-fleshed fish

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Banana leaves (if available) for steaming

Directions

Place the freshly grated coconut in a blender with the hot water and blend until smooth.

Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve.

Return the coconut mixture to the blender, with the liquid strained off. Add in the ginger, green chilies and turmeric and blend until smooth. Pour the mixture into a mixing bowl.

Zest 2 of the lemons and add the zest to the coconut mixture. Cut one of the zested lemons in half, remove the seeds and squeeze in the juice. Set aside the other zested lemon and thinly slice the third lemon for garnish.

Add the Kaffir lime leaves to the coconut milk and stir well.

Stir in the nigella seeds, red chilies and coriander leaves. You should end up with a pale yellow sauce flecked with nigella and coriander. Salt the fish, then add it to the coconut milk mixture and mix well.

Heat the oven to 300 F and prepare a large baking dish with about 2 inches of water.

Line a heat-proof casserole dish with banana leaves and pour in the fish mixture.

Cover with a piece of foil and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the fish is cooked through.

Cool slightly, remove and taste the sauce. It should be smooth and gently tangy. Depending on your preference, add in a little more lime juice.

Garnish with the remaining coriander and the lemon slices and serve hot, ideally with steaming rice.

Macher Muro Diye Moong Dal (Yellow Split Lentils With Fish Head)

Macher Muro Diye Moong Dal (Yellow Split Lentils With Fish Head). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Macher Muro Diye Moong Dal (Yellow Split Lentils With Fish Head). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Recipe from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

This traditional recipe — a festive dish reserved for special lunches — is adapted from my mother’s culinary collection. I recently discovered my fish seller will cut fish heads into two or four parts for me, which is very helpful for a large fish head you only want to use part of. I realize the fish head is not for the uninitiated. If you want, you can add in sliced boiled eggs sautéed with spices instead of the fish head.

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 50 to 55 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable or mustard oil

1 medium fish head (preferably from a whitefish)

2 teaspoons turmeric

2 teaspoons salt

3/4 cup dried split yellow lentils (moong dal)

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder

1/2 teaspoon cumin powder

1/2 teaspoon coriander powder

1 teaspoon sugar

Juice of 1 lime (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Directions

Place 1/3 cup oil in a wok and heat over medium flame for about 2 minutes, until very hot and almost smoking. Rub the fish head with half the turmeric and half the salt and place in the oil and fry over a steady, medium-low flame until nice and crisp, turning once during cooking, about 10 minutes.

While the fish head is cooking, place the lentils in a heavy-bottomed pan and dry roast lightly until they turn very pale golden and are very aromatic.

In a separate saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons oil on medium-low and add the onion and ginger. Sauté for about 5 minutes, until the onion wilts and begins to curl and crisp lightly on the sides.

Add the cayenne, cumin, coriander, sugar, roasted lentils, 3 cups of water, the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and remaining 1 teaspoon turmeric. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes, until the lentils are almost cooked through.

Break the fried fish head into 2 to 3 pieces (it should break quite easily if you have cooked the head right) and lower into the lentils. Simmer the lentils with the fish head for another 10 minutes, gently breaking the fish head further until the pieces are fairly small.

Squeeze in some lime juice, if using, and sprinkle with the cilantro before serving.

Chingri Badha Kopir Ghanto (Curried Cabbage With Potatoes and Shrimp)

Chingri Badha Kopir Ghanto (Curried Cabbage With Potatoes and Shrimp). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Chingri Badha Kopir Ghanto (Curried Cabbage With Potatoes and Shrimp). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

The first time my mother visited me after I had moved to the U.S. was when I was graduating from business school. Mom stayed with my lovely host family — the first Americans who made me feel like family. She wanted to thank them for their hospitality by cooking for them one evening, and one of the items she made was this cabbage. Noticing they liked coleslaw, my mother felt this would be a good transition. She was spot on. To keep this recipe completely vegetarian, you can use green peas instead of shrimp.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

For the shrimp:

1/2 pound medium shrimp, shelled and deveined

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup oil

For the cabbage:

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 medium potato, peeled and cubed

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1/2 teaspoon coriander powder

1 or 2 bay leaves, broken into pieces

2 green cardamom pods, lightly bruised

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tomato, finely chopped

3 cups finely shredded green cabbage

Directions

Toss the shrimp with the turmeric, red cayenne pepper and salt and set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium wok or skillet on medium heat for about 1 minute, until very hot. Add in the shrimp and cook in batches (if needed) for 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the shrimp from the oil and set aside.

In the same wok or pan, add the onion slices and sauté, stirring well, until they wilt and turn a very pale gold. Add the potato, salt and turmeric and lower the heat and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes. Cover and cook for another 5 minutes, until the potatoes are almost done and a nice golden yellow color.

Add the ginger, cumin and coriander paste and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add the bay leaves, cardamom pods and cayenne pepper and mix well. Then add the sugar and tomato and stir well.

Add the cabbage and the cooked shrimp and mix well. Cover and cook for about 7 minutes, until the cabbage is fairly soft. Mix well and cook till dry.

Taste and adjust seasonings before serving.

Chingri Bhuna (Shrimp in a Spicy Caramelized Onion and Tomato Sauce)

Chingri Bhuna (Shrimp in a Spicy Caramelized Onion and Tomato Sauce)

Chingri Bhuna (Shrimp in a Spicy Caramelized Onion and Tomato Sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Recipe from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

A bhuna is a preparation of fish or meat in a thick, dry tomato-based sauce. This style of cooking, particularly using shrimp, is a Bangladeshi or East Bengali tradition. As with other foods, in this style of cooking, the generous use of green chilies is essential. This recipe is for my cousin Sharmila, who enjoys this dish and often asks for it.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield:  4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds shrimp, shelled and deveined

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided

3 tablespoons oil

1 large red onion or 2 medium red onions, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 or 3 bay leaves

1-inch cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

2 green cardamom pods

2 cloves

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 tomatoes, cut into eighths

1 tablespoon Greek yogurt

4 green chilies, coarsely chopped into small pieces

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Directions

In a bowl, mix the shrimp with the turmeric and 1 teaspoon of salt and set aside.

Heat the oil in a wok or skillet on medium heat for about 30 seconds. Add the onions and cook for 3 to 4 minutes until softened and pale golden at the edges.

Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and cloves and stir and cook for 2 minutes.

Add the sugar and remaining ½ teaspoon salt and mix well. Add the tomatoes and cook for 4 minutes, until they soften and begin to turn pulpy.

Add the seasoned shrimp and continue to simmer until the sauce dries out and the oil resurfaces on the sides.

Stir in the yogurt and cook for 2 minutes, then stir in the green chilies and cook for 1 minute.

Serve garnished with cilantro.

Main image: Fish dishes are a staple in Bengali cuisine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

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Maple trees primed for sugaring. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner

2016 has been an excellent year for maple syrup. In Vermont, the largest producer in the United States, sugaring started during mid-December in some places and mid-March in others — and it seems to be running still.

The sugaring process

Sugaring is one of the delights of late winter in the northeast and heralds the coming of spring. Sugar is made in the leaves of maple trees during summer, stored as starch in the trunks and root tissues with the coming of winter and, finally, converted to the sap that begins to drip after a good freeze followed by a thaw. Sap is mostly clear water with 2% sugar. You need an average of 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, but it can take as many as 100 gallons. The sugar content must be 66.9%. It’s a wearing and complicated job. You can see why, in our household, we call maple syrup gold.

Just as the indigenous peoples did hundreds of years ago, sugar makers carefully drill taps into maple trees that measure at least 10 to 12 inches around and then hang their steel buckets to wait for the thaw that causes the sap to drip. The old-fashioned way is to use plastic drip lines connecting one tree to another. The syrup is emptied by hand from each bucket into larger containers spread at convenient spots near the trees and then transported to the sugarhouse at the end of the day.

The production method

Boiling syrup in the sugarhouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner

Boiling syrup in the sugarhouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner

The sugarhouse is where the evaporation process happens and the boiling is done in a long, rectangular stainless steel pan, which sits on top of a firebox that needs to be filled with wood every five minutes. (The wood may be cut as much as two years in advance to ensure optimal dryness.) It’s an exciting activity to be part of, and the smell of the sap as it thickens is delicious. The sugar maker tests the syrup’s caramelization by pulling a metal scoop through the syrup and watching as it drips. When the temperature of the syrup reaches 219 F, the syrup is ready to draw off. Then it needs to be filtered and graded for color.

Syrup grading

The richness of flavor is graded on a scale from lightest to darkest.

Grade A Golden: Made earlier in the season when it’s colder, this has the lightest color and perhaps the most delicate flavor. Use it on ice cream and for cooking.

Grade A Amber: Made as the temperatures warm, this is slightly darker yet relatively subtle. Use in tea and coffee.

Grade A Dark: Both the color and the taste are stronger, more intense. Use for glazes and pancakes.

Grade A Very Dark: This has the strongest flavor and is good for baking.

What better sweetener than one that comes from our North American woods? Katie Webster’s wonderful “Maple: 100 Sweet and Savory Recipes Featuring Pure Maple Syrup” (Quirk Books, October 2015) answers that question with an overview of the history and science of sugaring as well as a complete guide to grades and recipes from breakfast through dinner. I recommend it highly. Here are two of my favorite recipes incorporating maple syrup. Both are delectable and gluten free.

Blue Corn Pancakes With Grade A Amber

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: About 10 minutes

Total time: About 25 minutes

Yield: 2 to 6 servings

Ingredients
Grade A Amber maple syrup

2 eggs, separated, yolks beaten wildly and whites beaten until they peak

1/4 cup butter or oil, melted

2 cups sifted blue-corn flour (or one cup blue, one cup yellow if you prefer)

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 teaspoon salt

2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice

Butter for greasing your pan

Directions
1. Gently warm the syrup in a pan over a low burner.

2. Add the beaten egg yolks to a medium bowl and stir in the butter. In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients; add them to the egg mixture alternately with the orange juice. Blend well. Fold in the egg whites.

3. Heat a buttered griddle over a medium flame or burner. When it’s hot, spoon the batter onto the griddle, roughly a quarter-cup per pancake. Cook each until bubbles begin to form on the surface, then flip and repeat.

4. Generously pour syrup over the pancakes and serve.

Maple-Ginger Roasted Cod

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: About 15 minutes

Total time: About 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients
1/2 cup Grade A Dark syrup

2-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced

Salt and black pepper to taste

1/8 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

4 nice pieces fresh cod (I get mine at the farmer’s market), about 2 pounds total

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. In a small bowl, mix together the syrup, ginger and spices and spoon equal amounts onto the fish. Place the pieces into a casserole dish and pop into the oven.

3. Cook for 15 minutes or until fish flakes with a knife and serve.

Main photo: Maple trees primed for sugaring. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner

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Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

As the Korean palate becomes more adventurous, a whole new meat has become South Korea’s next big culinary craze — lamb.

For years, lamb and mutton were considered unpalatable by Koreans — too strong, too smelly, not to mention too cute while prancing through the fields. Meat consumption was limited to beef, chicken, pork, sometimes duck, and very occasionally dog. But a booming Korean-Chinese population has got the country into the swing of lamb.

“When it started we aimed for Chinese people, but then they brought their Korean friends to the restaurant,” says Lee Hang-yung, a Korean-Chinese worker from Heilongjiang Province who lives in Seoul. “And people’s tastes slowly changed, and that’s what’s happened here.”

Chinese food booms

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Lee helps operate Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the first Chinese lamb restaurant in what is now a small Chinatown outside Konkuk University. The street is end-to-end with Chinese lamb restaurants, some that Lee derides as “imitators.”

Lee speaks Korean with a Chinese accent, and though he is ethnically Korean, he is, like most of the workers and owners on this street, a Chinese national, born and raised in the People’s Republic.

He is part of a growing minority in South Korea called — sometimes derogatorily — Joseonjok, a name that references a former Korean kingdom. Like ethnic Koreans from the former Soviet Union, Korean-Chinese are not granted automatic right of return in South Korea the way Korean-Americans, Korean-Japanese and many other ethnic Koreans are.

Still, since the re-establishment of ties between South Korea and China in the early 1990s, Korean-Chinese have come in large numbers, usually to work the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs local Koreans won’t do. Like immigrants the world over, some open restaurants, and Chinese lamb has proved to be the safest investment.

Serving up lamb

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South Korea; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

The flavors are a bit different, but the dish is basically the same as in China.

Yanggochi, meaning lamb skewers, are cubes of skewered lamb barbecued at the table over hot coals. Holding the skewers together while turning them is quite a skill, and as a result, most restaurants now have a machine that automatically rotates the skewers.

“In China, the yanggochi is prepared with the fat and the meat together,” Lee says. “But here it’s more like galbe,” referring to common Korean barbecue, with the fat trimmed from the meat. The meat and the seasoning is much less strong than in China, to cater to Korean tastes.

Once the skewers are cooked, they’re placed on a rack above the heat to cool, then dipped in a seasoning of red pepper, cumin, parilla, mustard seed and other spices. There is a bevy of side dishes that can go with it, including steamed dumplings, mapo tofu in hot and sour sauce, peanuts, cubes of radish kimchi, and thick sliced tofu with chili sauce. The lamb can be wrapped in ggotbbang — literally, “flower bread,” or mandarin rolls — a rolled, steamed bun, along with zha cai, pickled mustard plant stem.

For drinks, Chinese Tsingtao beer is a must for most patrons — a series of ad campaigns and clever product placements have made yanggochi and Tsingtao inseparable. Goryangju, a very potent clear Chinese liquor, is also popular, as is Korean soju.

Trying new flavors

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Korean lamb restaurants can be found all over this restaurant-dense city. The trade magazine “Meat & Livestock Australia” noted in a report this February that Australian mutton and sheep exports to Korea have risen sharply year-on-year over the last six years.

The report says that despite a continued “general negative perception” toward lamb, “the market’s younger generation is more willing to try new flavors, and there has been an emergence of Chinese-influenced lamb barbecue and skewer restaurants in Seoul, commonly frequented by male consumers in their 30s to 40s.” Australia is the source of 94% of South Korea’s sheep meat.

Yanggochi recently also got a boost when celebrity TV chef Baek Jong-won recommended it on his TV show a few months ago.

“In the past, our customers were all Chinese, but now it’s 80 to 90% Koreans,” says one young woman who works at Kondae Yanggochi, and declined to provide her name. “I think they’ve been trying yanggochi, have gotten used to it, and now they really like it.”

Main photo: Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

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Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea

Yunnan may not be on most Western foodies’ radars, but for those in the know, it’s one of the most exciting food spots in the world.

The province, which sits in a mountainous area that borders Tibet, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou and Sichuan, is the most biodiverse region in all of Asia. It’s also the most culturally diverse part of China.

For a quick tour of the region’s specialties, all you have to do is get to Kunming. The city is a lovely stop on any trip to China — it’s famous for its mild weather, its flowering trees and its laid-back way of life. A few meals in the city will give you a taste of all the best that Yunnan has to offer.

Here are seven particularly fascinating (and delicious) dishes to try when you get there:

Shaguo mixian

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Rice noodles are one of Kunming’s most popular foods — but you won’t find them in fancy restaurants. They are served at little hole-in-the-walls and streetside stands. The most popular are shaguo mixian, or “sandpot rice noodles.” These noodles are put into individually sized glazed clay bowls with stumpy handles, topped with broth, ground pork, pickled mustard greens and dried ground chile, and cooked on a high stove. The dish is often eaten right from the pot. Try them at the unnamed noodle spot on Jieshao Alley, just off Qingnian Road.

Mushroom hotpot

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city's mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Yunnan produces 400 tons of mushrooms every year, and foragers crisscross the mountains looking for matsutakes, porcinis and summer truffles to sell to exporters. The most prized specimens end up in restaurants and stores in Japan, Korea and the United States, but much of the bounty is eaten right in Yunnan. Every restaurant in Kunming offers a few mushroom dishes, but the best way to try the local fungi is to head to one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. On Guanxing Lu, near Baohai Park, there are three to choose from in just two blocks: Laozihao Wild Mushroom Restaurant, Junshuyuan Wild Mushroom Restaurant, and Wild Mushroom Emperor.

Grilled rubing

Grilled rubing, a type of firm cheese, is grilled with thin slices of local ham, or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Grilled rubing is a type of firm cheese grilled with thin slices of local ham or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

China is not known as a good place to eat cheese. But cheese has a long history in Yunnan. Different minority groups around the province have long eaten grilled, stir-fried, and toasted cheeses. The most delicious version is grilled rubing, a type of firm cow’s milk cheese. You can find it at Lao Fangzi, where it is grilled with thin slices of local ham, and at 1910 La Gare du Sud, where it is served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into.

Chrysanthemum greens

A tasty salad is made with feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

A tasty salad is made with chrysanthemum greens, a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Han Chinese also shunned raw foods, but many raw dishes can be found in Yunnan. One of the most surprising and delicious dishes in Kunming is a simple salad of feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. It can be found at any restaurant specializing in Yunnan specialties (including Lao Fangzi and 1910 La Gare du Sud).

Ghost chicken

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Yunnan’s most famous minority cuisine comes from the Dai people who live along the province’s borders with Laos and Burma. The Dai are part of the same ethnic group that populated Laos and Thailand, and their food is reminiscent of those cuisines, with lots of fresh chiles, herbs and chile-based spice pastes. Perhaps the most representative Dai dish  is “ghost chicken,” a bright combination of silky black-foot chicken, fresh chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. To try it — and other Dai specialties like pineapple sticky rice and vegetables grilled in banana leaves — head to Yinjiang Dai Restaurant, which has three branches in central Kunming.

Liang fen

Liang fen is made with slick, cool jello that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick "noodles." Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Liang fen is a slick, cool jello-like food that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

If you’re looking for quick snack — or just an entirely new and delightful eating experience — try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” These “noodles” are actually a jello-like dish that is made like tofu but uses ground chickpeas instead of soybeans. The slick, cool jello is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles,” and dressed with vinegar, soy sauce, ground dried chiles and fresh herbs. Sometimes it’s even topped with chopped nuts and a slice of freshly made tofu. The dish can be found all over the city, including at food stalls in Cui Hu Park.

Yiliang roast duck

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing's famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Since the Qing Dynasty, the small town of Yiliang, just 90 minutes outside of Kunming, has been producing remarkably delicious roast duck. The recipe is based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks until their skin is crisp and their meat is moist. But this version uses a local breed of ducks and roasts them over longs twists of pine needles, which gives the meat an exceptional flavor. If you’re heading out to the Stone Forest, a famous tourist spot, make sure to take the time to stop at Xue Cheng Restaurant.

Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

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Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

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At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Vineyard tours were once reserved for people in the industry along with members of the media and wine clubs. Now, though, a handful of wineries in Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast are redefining the wine-tasting experience and making such tours available to visitors by appointment. Among them, Adelaida Cellars, Halter Ranch, Alta Colina and Steinbeck Vineyards will immerse visitors in the region’s terroir and wines.

Visiting the vineyards in spring catches bud break on vines, signaling the end of winter dormancy. The fields are a riot of color, with mustard flower, lupine and cover crops such as clover and barley planted between vine rows, creating a picture-perfect vineyardscape.

An opportunity to showcase the vineyards

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

At Steinbeck Vineyards, tours were initiated by fifth-generation farmer Cindy Steinbeck in 2003 to showcase the family’s ranch.

Since the 1880s and for seven generations, the Steinbeck family has been the steward of a 600-acre property, 520 acres of which are planted with 13 grape varieties sourced by such noted wineries as Eberle, Justin and J. Lohr. The Steinbecks started bottling their wine in 2006 with a small production focusing on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Viognier.

The one-hour “Crash Course” tour (named after the B26 aircraft that crashed on the property in 1956) with Steinbeck and her 3-year-old Yorkie, Cri-Cri, is a roller-coaster journey through the vineyards. Tours change with the seasons.

“In fall we encourage visitors to walk around the vineyards, give them clippers to taste the fruit,” Steinbeck said.

The winery from top to bottom, inside and out

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Bob Tillman’s two-hour Top-to-Bottom tour of Alta Colina starts in the hillside vineyards and works its way down to the tasting room, where the groups savor the Rhône blends. “This is not a produced tour, no tours are the same,” he said of the exploration of the 130-acre ranch, which has 31 acres planted with Rhône grape varieties.

Heading up to 500 feet elevation, tour groups see the exposed calcareous-rich hillside and learn about different types of trellising in the vineyards while trekking knee-deep in wildflowers dotting the organic Grenache vineyard.

“This gives you a vague idea of behind the scene of what goes in the bottle,” Tillman said.

Under an old oak tree, Tillman poured the 2012 Baja Colina, a white Rhône blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. “We are actually tasting wines in an environment where they are grown,” he said. The wine tastes delicious, laced with aromatics filling the air — and some debris from the nearby oak tree.

It’s a heady experience tasting Adelaida Cellars’s silky Pinot Noir standing amid the legendary HMR Pinot Noir vineyard. Or the minerality of Zinfandel at the foot of Michael’s Zinfandel Vineyard planted at 1,800 feet elevation, rich with rocky limestone soil.

Tailgating too

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Adelaida Cellars’ Tour, Taste & Tailgate (TT&T) takes visitors through such iconic vineyards as Viking, Anna’s and HMR. (Planted in 1964 by Beverly Hills cardiologist Stanley Hoffman, HMR is regarded as the oldest Pinot Noir-producing vineyard on the Central Coast).

Glenn Mitton, the winery’s ambassador, begins the tour at the newly remodeled winery and hospitality center, where visitors taste a white and red Rhône blend from Anna’s vineyard and the inky Syrah Reserve, among others.

Rising to 2,300 feet, the vast 1,900-acre estate is planted with 700-plus acres of organic walnut orchards and 157 acres of vineyards.

Mitton pointed to owl boxes and raptor perches used for pest control and rows of neatly tucked netting under the vines. “We pull up the net over the vines like panty hose,” Mitton said of the bird-control practice used in the summer.

Dating back to the 1880s, the 2,000-acre Halter Ranch Vineyard is nature’s haven, with a mere 280 acres planted to Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. The rest of the ranch is dotted with redwood and oak trees and home to some 52 species of birds. The ranch is lush with gardens, a 5-acre holding pond and the seasonal Las Tablas Creek, which also functions as a wildlife corridor.

At Lion’s Point, the tour includes a taste of the refreshing 2015 Rosé of red Rhône varieties and, further up the hill, the 2013 Ancestor, a rich blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  A gentle breeze blew in some debris from a massive, ancestral oak estimated to be 500 years old and known as the largest coast live oak in California.

Upon returning to the winery and its 20,000-square-foot caves, visitors finish with a tasting of Rhône and Bordeaux blends that reflect the history and terroir of the ranch.

Trekking through Paso Robles’ scenic hillside vineyards offers a wine experience well beyond the swirl-sniff-sip scene of the tasting room.

Main photo: At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

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Fresh eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

“My girls are laying so fast I can’t keep up with them,” Martha says.  She has arrived at my door with another dozen eggs, fresh from her henhouse, no doubt laid within the past 24 hours.

In Italy an egg that fresh is a treasure. It’s called a “uova da bere,” a drinkable egg, and it’s often turned into something called zabaglione, which is not perhaps what you think it is because it is not cooked at all. For this kind of zabaglione you use the freshest egg, preferably one still a little warm from the hen’s body, and a good heaping teaspoonful of sugar. You beat the egg and the sugar together in a small bowl, using a fork or mini whisk, beating it steadily for about 10 or 15 minutes until the mixture is thick and syrupy. Sometimes a few drops of Marsala wine get beaten in as well. And then at breakfast you simply sip the lush, gooey mixture with a spoon, emitting little sighs of pleasure as you do so. (The egg-and-sugar sauce called zabaglione goes one step further and beats the mixture over — but not in — boiling water until it is thicker, almost like a runny pudding. It’s delicious served with fresh seasonal berries, so keep it in mind for strawberry season, not many weeks away.)

Martha, however, is a down-to-earth Maine girl like me, and the very idea of a breakfast of sugar and raw eggs is not on her cultural horizon. Nor on mine. Leave that to the Italians.

A Mediterranean-inspired egg dish

Spring chickens and their hen house. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Spring chickens and their henhouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Instead, I decided to use the spring bounty of eggs to make a seasonal favorite from another part of the Mediterranean, the island of Crete.

Quick timeout for a food iconography lesson: Do you ever wonder at the association between Easter and eggs? When you think about hens and their lifestyle, it’s pretty obvious. Hens stop laying in winter, when the daylight hours grow short, then start up again in spring. In the natural rhythm of things, eggs become plentiful precisely at this time of year, when the light is growing stronger day by day. So Easter, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is symbolized all over the Mediterranean by eggs as icons of rebirth. So why in our modern supermarkets do we have eggs all year round? Because our hens are exposed to artificial light, often 24 hours a day, and that keeps them going strong. Or not so strong, because they must usually be replaced after 18 to 24 months.

Make this recipe your own

Wild greens for sale at a market in Crete. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Wild greens for sale at a market in Crete. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Back to Crete, where sfougata, a combination of eggs, cheese and vegetables, somewhere between a soufflé and a frittata, is popular for all those times when household cooks are strapped to come up with something cheap, filling and delicious. In spring, that combination usually includes greens, but I could equally imagine doing this in the autumn with mushrooms or slivers of winter squash toasted in olive oil, and at the height of summer it would be delicious with fresh roasted peppers and little chunks of eggplant. But for spring, I did it with some delicate new spinach I picked up at the farmers market along with sliced zucchini. Quintessential to the flavor, it seems to me, is a handful of finely minced dill added at the very end, so the taste stays forward.

My advice? Make this once the way I’ve detailed below, then start to experiment, using leeks instead of spring onions, or a mixture of foraged and cultivated greens (dandelion greens, beet greens, chard, maybe even a little Chinese broccoli), or adding a couple of small diced potatoes to the skillet with the other vegetables. Another great spring vegetable combination, and very much in the Mediterranean spirit, would be asparagus and fava beans, if available, or fresh peas if not.

Let your imagination play with the recipe, and you’ll find all sorts of uses for what could become fundamental to your repertoire — and a savior for all those times when you simply have run out of time and inspiration.

Although the total time listed is 1 1/2 hours, this can be broken down into manageable chunks. Make the vegetables ahead of time (even a day ahead), taking about 45 minutes, then mix up the eggs and cheese just before the meal, stir in the prepared vegetables, and bake for 25 minutes.

Sfougato of Zucchini and Spinach

Sfougato of Zucchini and Spinach. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sfougato of Zucchini and Spinach. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Prep time: About 30 minutes.

Cook time: About 1 hour.

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours.

Yield: 4 servings as a main course, 6 as a starter.

Ingredients

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

5 or 6 spring onions, about 1/2 pound, including green tops, chopped to make 1 1/2 cups

1 pound zucchini (2 medium zucchini), thinly sliced, to make about 2 to 3 cups

6 ounces to 8 ounces fresh spinach, slivered (about 4 cups)

1 cup finely chopped fresh dill or finely chopped fresh mint, leaves only

6 eggs

1/2 cup whole milk

About 1 cup coarsely grated Cretan graviera cheese or Swiss gruyere (or use a mixture of gruyere and parmigiano reggiano)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of Middle Eastern red chili pepper

Directions

Heat half the olive oil in a big, heavy skillet over medium-low heat and gently sauté the onions until translucent, about 5 or 6 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook briefly. As soon as the zucchini slices start to soften, stir in the spinach, mixing thoroughly. If the pan seems a little dry, add 1/2 cup of water, cover the pan and cook gently until the spinach is softened and the zucchini slices are tender. If there are excess juices, raise the heat and cook rapidly to evaporate the extra liquid. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the dill, mixing well.

Use the remaining oil to grease the bottom of a rectangular oven dish that is approximately 11 inches by 8 inches. Heat the oven to 375 F.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the milk. Add the grated cheese and fold in the vegetables. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with a pinch of Middle Eastern red pepper flakes.

Pour the mixture into the oven dish and transfer to the hot oven. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the eggs are set and the top is nicely browned.

Remove from the oven and let sit for 10 or 15 minutes before serving. This dish can also be served at room temperature — a nice suggestion for lunch on a hot day.

Main image: Fresh eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Main caption: Gino Sorbillo, Italy's famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Seganv

Fried street foods are popular in every region of Italy, where you’ll often hear: “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Neapolitans in particular have a cult-like devotion to fried fare, especially pizza fritta.

After World War II, the city found itself in crisis, and the materials needed for pizza — the mozzarella and even wood for the ovens — became a luxury. Fried pizza, a less-expensive alternative nicknamed “pizza of the people,” was filled with “poor” ingredients — pork crackling, pepper and ricotta. Housewives sold it on the streets to supplement the family’s income. Times were so hard, customers could even buy pizza fritta on credit: Called pizza-at-eight, pizza a otto, it was eaten on the spot but paid for eight days later.

Simple, homemade food

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Naples-born Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, made one for me recently explaining, “Pizza fritta comes in different shapes. Round, called montanare, or half moon calzone.” For the dough, which is the same as for classic oven pizza, Sorbillo uses only a minuscule pinch of leavening to create chewy, never spongy, dough. He stretches a round, fills it and pulls the ends into a whimsical mimicry of the clown Pulcinella’s hat. Sorbillo flash-fries at just the right temperature for a crisp, non-greasy outside and warm, gooey center.

“Pizza fritta is a simple food, easy to make at home because unlike classic pizza you don’t need a wood-burning stove, just a frying pan,” Sorbillo says.  It’s very versatile and can be filled with virtually anything: a traditional ricotta, provolone and Neapolitan salami combo; mozzarella and ham; or sautéed broccoli rabe or other greens. And it is great plain or served with a side dipping of tomato sauce.

When you’re in Naples, be sure to have a classic wood oven-baked pizza at Gino’s famed restaurant on Via dei Tribunali. But if the lines are too long to get in, which they always are, enjoy a piping hot pizza fritta at his small fried pizza spot just a few doors down.  If you can’t get to Naples, make Sorbillo’s fried pizza at home with the recipe below. Use his excellent dough recipe or use store-bought pizza dough.

Gino Sorbillo’s Pizza Fritta

If you can't make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

If you can’t make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 8 hours passive

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

A tiny pinch, 0.07 ounces, brewers yeast

2 cups, about 1 pound, organic “0” or pizza flour

3 teaspoons salt

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

Sorbillo’s suggested fillings: sheep’s milk ricotta, thinly sliced ciccioli  (Neapolitan pork salami), diced smoked provolone cheese, diced fresh peeled tomatoes, black pepper

Directions

1. Dissolve the yeast in 1 1/3 cups of warm water in a bowl, and then sift in the flour and salt. Knead on a floured work surface until smooth, 10 to 12 minutes.  Divide the dough into 4 balls and let rise at room temperature, covered in a clean cloth, for about 8 hours.

2. Heat enough oil in a deep-sided skillet to cover one pizza at a time. Heat to 400 F.

3. Stretch each section into a flat circle, pressing down with your palm to flatten it. Put the ricotta, salami, provolone and a tablespoon of diced tomatoes in the center. Season with black pepper, fold over and pinch the edges closed, taking care to leave an air pocket in the center.   Pull on the two ends a bit and slowly lower into the hot oil. Fry in the hot oil, about 1/2 minute per side, until golden. Drain on absorbent paper and repeat with the other three pizzas. Eat while warm.

Main photo: Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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