Articles in World

The Test Kitchen's blinissoise, with chilled blini creme, barbecued langoustine

If you’re a globetrotter into fine dining, consider making your next destination Cape Town and its outlying Winelands, where an innovative eight-course tasting menu paired with wines will cost you about $60 to $80 for lunch, and $85 to $105 for dinner. Thanks to the dollar’s strength in South Africa, Americans are in for a feast of value in this scenic foodie haven, ripe with culinary talent and internationally acclaimed restaurants.

As for the tasting menus, you can expect the unexpected. You might find poached oysters with lemon, seaweed and apple at La Colombe; Cape Wagyu tongue with gnocchi, celery, carrots and celeriac at Overture; or light curry glazed kingklip (a local fish) at The Test Kitchen, cooked slowly at the table over curry leaves in concrete charcoal-filled bowls, and served with carrot cashew purée and carrot beurre noisette.

Joining the gastronomic scene

La Colombe, ranked in the World's 50 Best Restaurants, uses local ingredients. Credit: Copyright 2016 Micky Hoyle

La Colombe, ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, uses local ingredients. Credit: Copyright 2016 Micky Hoyle

During the apartheid years, South Africa was shunned and largely cut off from the world, even in a culinary sense. But since Mandela’s presidency, it’s seen an influx of foreign chefs and cuisines. Many South African chefs have also worked in Europe and Asia, and returned all the better for it.

Today, Cape Town is a known pit stop on the gastronomic world map. The Test Kitchen, La Colombe and The Tasting Room have ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, in various categories. Cape Town’s status as a world-class design city has also helped — it was World Design Capital in 2014 — with local talent behind great-looking dining spaces.

Fueling the scene is a flush of small growers and producers, offering chefs great produce, ethically raised meats, wild game, seafood and indigenous ingredients like sour figs, baobab, buchu and honeybush tea, along with a flurry of artisanal products.

“Overall, our fine dining feel is quite natural and organic when compared to other countries, with less rigid styling and a trend towards local ingredients and preparations, giving it a sense of place,” says Scot Kirton, head chef at La Colombe.

Local ingredients paired with wine

The Test Kitchen's pan-seared linefish with potato and snoek medley, black forest ham and fish jus roasted potato skin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

The Test Kitchen’s pan-seared linefish with potato and snoek medley, black forest ham and fish jus-roasted potato skin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

“South Africa doesn’t have a strong food heritage like the French, which means that our cuisine can be eclectic, with lots of people doing different things,” adds Luke Dale-Roberts, the British-born chef/owner of The Test Kitchen, located in the city’s revitalized Old Biscuit Mill warehouse complex. Foreigners also appreciate what Kirton calls “the South African knack for hospitality, in which even in the top tiers of fine dining, guests feel greatly cared for on a personal level.”

While the feeling is relaxed, with lunchtime guests sometimes even wearing shorts, few of these high-end restaurants are taking walk-ins. The Test Kitchen, ranked 28th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2015, is currently taking dinner reservations six months in advance, although in August it will switch over to an online 30-day-in-advance booking system.

Wine is intrinsically part of local dining, with the closest vineyards 20 minutes from central Cape Town. While South Africa has a 350-year-old wine heritage, quality has improved dramatically in recent years, and there is a new posse of young and adventurous winemakers. This means great synergy and camaraderie between winemakers and chefs, who are sometimes even on the same property. Many of the Cape’s best restaurants are on wine estates, which doesn’t necessarily mean they only serve that estate’s wine; most have extensive wine lists, with excellent wines for as little as $15 a bottle.

Simple, seasonal and South African

The Tasting Room's Joostenberg vlakte duck, with boerenkinders puree. Credit: Courtesy of Le Quartier Francais

The Tasting Room’s Joostenberg vlakte duck, with boerenkinders purée. Credit: Courtesy of Le Quartier Francais

Despite global influences, many of the best chefs are expressing their personal experience of South Africa. Bertus Basson of Overture Restaurant, on a Stellenbosch wine estate, describes his food as “simple, fresh, seasonal and South African,” and creates dishes like West Coast Memories, with salmon, octopus, sout-vis (salted fish) and snoek.

In the idyllic Winelands village of Franschhoek, Dutch-born Margot Janse has been the chef at The Tasting Room at boutique hotel Le Quartier Francais for 20 years, and has set the local bar for ultra-creative tasting menus. Her food “celebrates South and Southern Africa through their ingredients and stories.”

Take her Joostenberg vlakte duck dish, for example, which she says “carries many stories.” The duck is farmed in an area where many Dutch settlers grew grapes and produced brandy. Janse steeps mixed fruit in brandy, like it’s done in Holland, but adds buchu — “one of our magical indigenous herbs.” After six weeks, it’s mixed with celeriac in a purée. The duck is baked in a salt crust made of hand-harvested Baleni salt mixed with kapokbos, another indigenous herb. The breast is served with the purée and crispy bits of neck and leg, and a grape jus. “It’s about the duck and its heritage,” she says. One dish of many in a new dynamic dining region.

Note: Prices are based on current exchange rates as of May 2016, of 15 South African rand to 1 U.S. dollar. Fluctuations may occur.

Main photo: The Test Kitchen’s blinissoise, with chilled blini creme, barbecued langoustine “en gele,” and a langoustine tataki with liquorice powder. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

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Café Savoy's eponymous torte is as tasteful and elegant as the restaurant itself. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Not long ago, a visit to Prague’s lovely cafes meant acrid coffee and stale dessert served with a side of surliness. The long half-life of Communist rule long obscured the appeal of Europe’s most gorgeous grand cafes.

It took a generation, but the cafes have experienced a rebirth — their own Prague spring — that make them as worthy a destination as the city’s long-hallowed beer halls. The coffee is good and the desserts are often excellent. You may even get a “thank you” from the server.

Obecní Dům

Touristy but stunning, the Obecní Dům café may be Europe's most beautiful. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Touristy but stunning, the Obecní Dům Café may be Europe’s most beautiful. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

If you visit only one café, it should be the one in Obecní Dům, (“Municipal House”). Before this art nouveau masterpiece opened in 1912, Prague was not in Vienna‘s league when it came to cafe culture. But the locals made up quickly for lost time. The building has not one but three dining spaces, with soaring ceilings flooded with light that reflects and refracts through dozens of mirrors and glittering geometric chandeliers. Key meetings between the government and the opposition took place here in 1989, just before the collapse of the communist regime. Needless to say, the coffee and service have greatly improved since then.

Café de Paris, Hotel Paris

For an almost club-like art nouveau experience visit the Café de Paris at nearby Hotel Paris. Both the cafe and restaurant have been restored to their jewel-like fin-de-siècle splendor. There is a full menu as well as an eclectic mix of central European and French desserts.

Café Imperial

Walk east of the Old Town along Na Poříčí 15, past the ritzy new mall, retailers and fast food joints, until you reach the Hotel Imperial, built just before World War I. The spacious cafe feels like a Hollywood homage to orientalism:
The walls, columns and ceiling are covered with elaborate cast ceramic tiles. After World War II, the hotel was turned into a dormitory for communist union members, and the cafe degenerated into a shabby workers’ cafeteria. Today, the service is as efficient and professional as in any European capital and the cakes are delicious and fresh.

Café Myšák

When the Myšák pastry shop was revived, the architects looked to the sweet emporium's golden prewar past for inspiration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

When the Myšák pastry shop was revived, the architects looked to the sweet emporium’s golden prewar past for inspiration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Sweet-obsessed residents generally head for Café Myšák in Prague’s centuries old “New Town.” When the cafe-pastry shop reopened in 2008 after a hiatus of almost 60 years, the local press was all aflutter: Would the new incarnation could stand up to its prewar reputation? Only fragments of the original decor remained and those have been augmented by a somewhat heavy-handed pastiche of 1930s decor. But luckily the old recipes stood the test of time, whether in the form of the artfully simple cream-filled pastry cylinders or the happy overkill of the signature Torte Myšák, in which layers of caramel and vanilla cream separate layers of a Sacher cake. And, oh yes, a cone of the homemade ice cream is worth grabbing even if you decide not to linger in the leather armchairs upstairs.

At Myšák, you will have to ponder long and hard whether to go with the ice cream or cake. Make life easy and order both. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

At Myšák, you will have to ponder long and hard whether to go with the ice cream or cake. Make life easy and order both. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Café Savoy

As in Vienna, the coffee at Café Savoy is strong and delicious. And always comes with a glass of mineral water. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

As in Vienna, the coffee at Café Savoy is strong and delicious. And always comes with a glass of mineral water. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

If you are still able to walk after exploring the cafes on the right side of the Vltava river, there are several more on the left side worth the detour, particularly Café Savoy. It is one of the city’s oldest, established in 1893 though the current incarnation dates back to 2001. Here, beneath a tall neo-renaissance ceiling, you can peruse international newspapers while sipping on a Viennese coffee topped with a thick dollop of whipped cream. The apple strudel is almost as good as my grandmother made, and the Sachertorte would pass muster with a Vienna native.

Barocco Veneziano Café

Fifteen minutes away through the cobblestone maze beneath the castle walls, in a 16th century palazzo that now houses the exclusive boutique hotel Alchymist, is an adorable little cafe that feels like the sort of boudoir Marie Antoinette would have used to entertain her boy toy. The space is all sinuous baroque curves and suggestive paintings. The espresso is good here, but the sweet treats underwhelm.

Erhartova Cukrárna

Prague is home to many early modernist buildings, but none so sweet as Erhartova Cukrárna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Prague is home to many early modernist buildings, but none so sweet as Erhartova Cukrárna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Not so at Erhartova Cukrárna, on the same side of the Vltava River but far from the usual tourist haunts. Here, you are more likely to see local women of a certain age carefully deconstructing their slice of torte than chattering American expats. This is decidedly a pastry shop first and cafe second, though the space itself is a beautifully preserved example of the severe 1930s modernist movement called functionalism. The vast array of pastries and tortes behind the vitrine seem to have one function: tempt you to order another slice, perhaps with a scoop of the house made ice cream on the side. I’d start with the house specialty, the Erhart torte, a multilayered chocolate extravaganza enfolded in a robe of delightfully garish green marzipan.

The namesake torte at Erhartova Cukrárna is a delightfully gaudy confection of chocolate pistachios and marzipan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

The namesake torte at Erhartova Cukrárna is a delightfully gaudy confection of chocolate pistachios and marzipan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

You may be relieved to know, that from here, most streets lead downhill.

Main photo: Café Savoy’s eponymous torte is as tasteful and elegant as the restaurant itself. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

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Pickler & Co in Midtown East celebrates the deli bacon, egg and cheese with cage-free eggs, Applegate bacon and cheddar all pressed on a buttered pretzel roll. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

I had my first of many New York City breakfast sandwiches nine months ago. I had just left my job in Los Angeles and was subletting an apartment in Chelsea. Still unemployed, I got up around 11 a.m. and faced the city’s oppressive summer heat to search for sustenance. The breakfast cart at the end of the block with images of blue-cup coffee and an illuminated croissant, lo and behold, served a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

It’s a New York thing

Chef Tom DeSimone of Rabbits Cafe packs extra bacon, egg and cheese into his toasted brioche bun for satisfying version that’s available all day long. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

Chef Tom DeSimone of Rabbits Cafe packs extra bacon, egg and cheese into his toasted brioche bun for a satisfying version that’s available all day long. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

After paying $3.50, I unwrapped and took my first bite as I kept walking. It was perfect: warm egg, soft bread, gooey melted cheese. And, of course, bacon. From that moment on, I knew I would have a stake in something all New Yorkers share but rarely talk about: the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

A classic bacon, egg and cheese is made on the skillets of the city’s bodegas and coffee carts. Precooked bacon is reheated, eggs are stirred vigorously in a bowl with salt and pepper, and then dumped onto the skillet. They are shaped into a perfect rectangle and folded into a square with the bacon and the cheese inside, then popped on the roll and handed to you with a deadpan look.

Going upscale

High-quality Fontina envelops the classic egg sandwich at Murray’s Cheese in the West Village. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

High-quality fontina envelops the classic egg sandwich at Murray’s Cheese in the West Village. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

While the deli-style bacon, egg and cheese is a favorite among New Yorkers, you can also find highbrow versions of the sandwich with special cheese, avocado or artisanal bread. At BEC in Chelsea, an entire restaurant devoted to elevating the classic breakfast sandwich, the options are endless. Their Farmhouse sandwich boasts two eggs, pancetta, ricotta cheese, fig jam and honey topped with fresh spinach on a Pugliese roll. Or try the Bistec with eggs, Angus steak, bacon, blue cheese, onion, baby spinach and sun-dried tomato vinaigrette on a ciabatta roll.

Down in the West Village at Murray’s Cheese, they put the cheese in bacon, egg and cheese. A skillet-fried egg is topped, generously, with fontina and thick-cut bacon, and then sandwiched between a buttery skillet-toasted English muffin. The silky, melted fontina saturates the entire thing, creating a sandwich that spills out from its borders without falling apart.

If you can get to Eataly before 10 a.m. you can sample their colazione all’ Americana, or American breakfast menu, which consists of six thoughtful renditions of New York’s favorite breakfast sandwich. Try the Trento with Recla Speck Alto-Adige (fancy Italian smoked ham) and grated Trentingrana cheese (also fancy and from Italy). Wild arugula, housemade aioli, pancetta and locally produced breakfast sausage are just a few more options from the Italian-American-inspired menu.

A few blocks away at Pickler & Co in Midtown East, the bacon, egg and cheese is made on a pretzel roll with cage-free eggs and hormone-free meat and cheese. If you sleep in and miss the breakfast menu, head down to Rabbits Cafe in Soho, where breakfast is served all day and the brioche BEC is stuffed with perfectly scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. Add avocado? No problem.

The perfect quick breakfast

An industrial skillet in New York City shows the sandwich in formation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

An industrial skillet in New York City shows the sandwich in formation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

A breakfast sandwich in any other city would not be the same. Whether you opt for the basic deli version or pursue an upmarket take on the classic, there is something about having a bacon, egg and cheese in Manhattan that you truly can’t find beyond the perimeter of the city.

The heat, speed and convenience of this handheld breakfast item all speak to something that is uniquely New York. People want their breakfast. They want it to taste good. And they want to get on with their day. The bacon, egg and cheese provides just that — something you can grab on the go that will nourish and satisfy until lunchtime.

If you can’t get to the city, but still have a hankering for this special breakfast item, try making one at home. Whether you like your eggs scrambled or fried, let the cheese melt on top, be sure to use plenty of butter and don’t skimp on the bacon. Most importantly, create it on a well-seasoned skillet.

Main photo: Pickler & Co in Midtown East celebrates the deli bacon, egg and cheese with cage-free eggs, Applegate bacon and cheddar all pressed on a buttered pretzel roll. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

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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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