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If there is an egg or two around the house, I would rather eat at home than go out. I love the taste of a good egg, especially my preferred pastured eggs.
I like to make dashimaki tamago, a simple Japanese omelet made with kombu seaweed dashi, or an even simpler dish: cracking a raw egg over a bowl of freshly steamed rice, drizzling it with a little soy sauce and eating it with chopsticks. The hot rice cooks the raw egg to become a creamy, non-fried rice. Either egg dish brings me to my comfort zone, but there is no shortcut for getting good eggs.
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My sources for pastured eggs are my local farmers in Tehachapi, Calif. — Jon Hammond and Kim Durham of Linda Vista Ranch — named by one of Hammond’s great aunts in 1921 because of the great views. (Linda Vista means “beautiful view” in Spanish.)
The great views come from the fact that the ranch is on a gentle ridge that is one of highest points in the Tehachapi Valley. Hammond and Durham have a cooperative venture with neighboring farmer Alex Weiser, who provides the cull produce and leftover plants after harvest from his farm for animal feed. The three farmers raise English pigs called Gloucestershire old spots and chickens for pastured eggs — Americanas, Orpingtons and Black Stars.
For a person like me who grew up in cities for the most part, picking up a carton of fresh eggs directly from a farmer can turn into an adventure. On a recent visit, flocks of gregarious chickens were roaming freely on their pasture, scraping the ground for seed, insects and other critters. I didn’t know chickens eat small animals until Durham told me about a family of mice she found inside the chicken shed. Before she had a chance to trap the mice, the chickens got to them and pecked them alive.
The floor of the chicken hut is covered in fresh hay. It is always clean and pleasant inside, with gentle light coming through the gaps between the aged planks. The eggs laid that morning are waiting to be collected by Durham. A few hens are in the brooding boxes, and a rooster with black plumage and a large red comb on his head crows out loudly, perhaps reminding me who is boss around the farm.
Durham said she doesn’t care much for the roosters because they pick on the hens. “We are actually going to have this one tonight for dinner,” she says. Before long, her friend Jose arrives to prep the rooster, which will be cooked in a pit.
Apparently, the meat comes out especially tender when cooked this way. I realized that the eggs I got from Durham that day would be the last related to this rooster. Sorry, pal.
Authentic flavors for a Japanese omelet
Dashimaki tamago is a light and slightly sweet omelet with a rectangular shape. The rectangle is achieved by using a rectangular or square pan called a tamagoyaki-ki, which can be found in Japanese hardware stores or online. I like the copper pans with tin linings. You can also use a regular round omelet pan or a well-seasoned skillet.
Unlike a Western omelet, butter and cream don’t come into the equation for dashimaki tamago. I use a little stock, usually a kombu or bonito dashi, soy sauce and a little sugar or mirin.
Another distinct characteristic of the Japanese omelet is its beautiful layers. The egg is not scrambled; instead, while it is frying, a fork or pair of chopsticks is used to roll it into a tube. When it is cut into slices, a swirl pattern emerges. The omelet is allowed to cool and then cut into bite-sized pieces. For more color and flavor, you can chop some herbs or vegetables and incorporate them into the swirl.
My grandmother made her dashimaki tamago in a round pan instead of a rectangular one. She got the eggs from a local farmer in Kamakura, Japan. The eggs were wrapped in old newspaper and carried in a hand-woven basket on the farmer’s back. I always wondered how the farmer kept the eggs from cracking. Maybe they were pastured eggs that had strong, resilient shells.
My grandmother would serve dashimaki tamago on a small, wooden cutting board and slice it right at the table. It was one of the signature dishes she made for me while we visited with each other. Grandmother always tried to make the best out of every occasion. The eggs served her well.
Serves 2 to 4
6 pastured eggs
6 tablespoons dashi (see recipe below)
2 teaspoons Usukuchi soy sauce, plus more for serving
2 teaspoons cane sugar or mirin
1 tablespoons chive sprouts (optional)
2 tablespoons grapeseed, walnut or light sesame seed oil
2 tablespoons grated daikon radish
1 square pan or medium-sized round, well-seasoned skillet
1. In a bowl, combine the eggs, dashi, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, mirin or sugar. Do not beat too much; combine just enough to mix the egg yolk with the egg whites. Mix in chives if using.
2. Heat the pan with the oil over medium high heat. Test the pan by dropping a little egg batter on it. The batter will sizzle if the pan is hot enough.
3. Pour ¼ of the batter into pan and cook the eggs, spreading the batter quickly and evenly over the pan.
4. When the batter is cooked halfway (about 30 seconds), lift a far corner of the egg and fold it in. Then push the rolled egg into the corner on the opposite side and add another ¼ of the batter, making sure to lift the egg roll so the batter gets underneath it.
5. Cook the batter and roll it again. Essentially, you are rolling the egg omelet to make layers. Repeat this step two more times, until all the batter is used, incorporating the first roll into the second, the second roll into the third roll and so on. When finished, transfer the tamago onto a cutting board.
6. Using a sushi mat, roll the omelet into a rectangle shape and let rest for a few minutes.
7. Slice the omelet crosswise into 1½- to 2-inch pieces. Serve with grated radish and additional soy sauce.
Makes 1 cup
This is a versatile seaweed stock that can be used as a base for making miso soups and sauces. Store in the refrigerator.
2-inch piece of kombu seaweed
1 cup of water
1. Hydrate the kombu seaweed in water overnight.
2. Use the infused stock, called kombu dashi, to season the dashimaki tamago or other recipes.
Main photo: Dashimaki tamago. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
I couldn’t help myself. I licked the meaty, fiery juices from my hand, not wanting to waste them on a napkin. I made eye contact with the woman behind the counter and eagerly raised my index finger, motioning for her to make me one more. I had tasted Vietnam’s most delicious bánh mì sandwich, and I didn’t want this moment to end.
Before moving to Vietnam, I had tasted a handful of bánh mì sandwiches prepared at Vietnamese-owned restaurants. Honestly, none thrilled me enough to prompt a return visit when hit with a craving for a satisfying sandwich. This disappointment continued even upon my relocation to Hanoi. The sandwiches were fine, but by and large they lacked personality and barely filled my hunger. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, has served me a couple of satisfying bánh mì, one from Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, stuffed with assorted Vietnamese charcuterie, pickled carrots and daikon, chilies and fresh herbs, and the other a remarkable vegan version that could stand up to any meat-filled baguette. Yet none, until that finger-licking moment, had reached the point where I would get on a plane with eager anticipation to hold this 7-inch flavor bomb in my hands.
The south-central coastal town of Hoi An is most commonly known as a beloved tourist destination where vacationers soak up the history and architecture of this once-prosperous trading port, but I know it as the Vietnamese town with the best bánh mì vendors.
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A recent trip back to Hoi An reinforced this belief, and I have the sandwich-juice-stained shirts from my bánh mì tasting tour to prove it. Happily gorging and investigating these sandwiches, I discovered that the best vendors, Bánh Mì Lành, Madam Khánh and Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, make most of their ingredients in-house, as opposed to the majority of vendors, who rely on ready-made condiments.
For the best of the best: Bánh Mì Phương, the sister of the above-mentioned brother-run Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, is the vendor who sets the bar in preparing Vietnam’s best bánh mì. Knowing that it may be a while before you get to wrap your lips around one of these layered gems, I thought it best to break down and share what sets this bánh mì apart from all the rest — with the knowledge that you may want to try and re-create it in your own kitchen.
Bánh mì bread
The French colonialists brought their love for bread and pastries with them to Vietnam. Vietnamese bakers played around with the recipes, ultimately creating a lighter, fluffier thin-crust baguette — making it a perfect vehicle for flavor delivery. A typical French baguette won’t suffice because the crumb is denser and the crust is thicker, forcing your jaws to work and chew your way through the sandwich. This may be one of the rare times you even consider buying one of those fluffy grocery-store-baked baguettes.
Phương gently warms her baguettes in a wooden box by the heat of slowly burning coal embers. You can replicate this in your home kitchen by warming the baguettes in a 200 F oven as you prepare the fillings.
Homemade super sauces
Phương forgoes bland ready-made mayo and takes the time to make a rich, creamy and eggy homemade mayonnaise. Mortar and pestle are used to pound tương ớt , a fresh, long red chile sauce. Instead of using basic light soy sauce or Maggi seasoning sauce, she has concocted her own nước siêu, or super sauce. This is one of those recipes Phương definitely will not share. However, from deduction I have concocted my own version. Heat ½ cup water, ¼ cup light soy sauce and ¼ cup sugar and mix until the sugar is dissolved. Then add a shallot and a quarter of a tomato, both roughly chopped, along with a finely chopped red chile and green onion and then sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame seeds. It may be worth playing around to find a ratio of ingredients pleasing to your taste and keep it stored in a small jar in the fridge so it is easily at hand.
Meats and pâté
Her most popular sandwich, bánh mì deluxe, consists of three types of pork: thin slices of roast pork loin, ham and cha lua, a pork sausage loaf. She also prepares a pork liver pâté that is wrapped in caul fat and sautés some ground pork, which is stored in its fatty juices for added flavor.
Vegetables and herb salad
All the bánh mì stalls use a fresh, vibrant-tasting herb mixture consisting of sprout-sized coriander, mint, rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and green onions. Lightly pickled julienned carrots and daikon and thinly sliced cucumber lengths are also ubiquitous refreshing additions.
Layering of flavors
Phương and her staff don’t just haphazardly stuff the fillings into the sliced baguette; rather, they methodically assemble each bánh mì in identical fashion. First, 1 tablespoon of homemade mayonnaise is spread along the inside of the bread, followed by 1 tablespoon of pâté along the bottom. Two teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce are drizzled along the crumb of the bread. Then, ⅓ of a cup of herb mixture, sliced cucumber and a few pieces of pickled daikon and carrot make a nest to support the three sliced meats. A tablespoon of the warm ground pork mixture is spooned over the top, then finished off with a touch of fresh chili sauce, if desired, and another couple teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce. I believe it is this specific layering that produces the addictive harmony of flavors that brings her such a loyal following.
Note: For those planning a visit, Bánh Mì Mi Phương has moved because of construction at the main market, and she intends to remain permanently at this new location: at 2B Pham Châu Tring St. in Hoi An.
Main photo: Bánh mì from Bánh Mì Phương. Credit: Cameron Stauch
Finding a hot, steaming bowl of bakso in Indonesia is as easy as finding a slice of pizza in New York City.
During my recent trip to the Indonesian cities of Jakarta, the nation’s capital; Bandung, the capital of West Java; and Yogyakarta, a city in Java, street stalls on every corner were selling this signature soupy meatball dish.
I was tempted to try some bakso (pronounced BAH-so) at one of those hole-in-the-wall shacks, but was advised against doing so for fear of getting food poisoning. It is like being in India; you stay away from the street food unless a native gives you the green light, but even then you contemplate if it is a good idea.
Bakso an Indonesian comfort food
When you are in a new city, it is always good to know a local to show you the good places to eat. Fortunately for me, I stayed in touch with a friend from college, and he took me to a swanky food court at the Grand Indonesia Mall to have some bakso.
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“Bakso is what we usually have at home because back in the day, the bakso seller goes around to the neighborhoods with the cart,” explained my friend Dwi Addin Wibowo, who hails from Medan, the capital of North Sumatra in Indonesia. “The ones before are nothing like what we have now. It was much simpler and cheaper.” According to Dwi, people eat bakso because of its comfort-food quality; it is like a solace to make your problems go away.
Basic bakso consists of meatballs, glass noodles and yellow noodles with spring onions and shallots, but the backbone of the soup that determines whether it is good is the broth.
“The bones/carcass of the beef is boiled for hours to get the rich flavor. It is everyone’s comfort food where you go out and buy it rather than cook it at home because it is so readily available,” he said.
Aside from the broth, the tastiness of the accompanying chilli sambal (spicy paste) is also important. One of two types of sambal usually comes with bakso; one is made from unripe green papaya and the other from fresh chillies. The latter is very hot. Some people enjoy bakso because of the addictive sambal.
“From what I have heard, bakso was actually a Chinese street food sold by Chinese vendors during the Colonial era. Of course, back then, they used pork, but now a majority of Muslim Indonesians sell the halal version, which is made from beef,” Dwi said. (Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country and the fourth most populous nation in the world).
The evolving price of bakso
So how much is a bowl of bakso? “I’m from Medan, and I have tried one there that has huge portions of tasty beef and the broth is very tasty. In 2003, it cost about 10,000 Rupiahs (87 cents U.S.) per bowl, but now it is 15,000 to 20,000 Rupiahs ($1.30 to $1.75 U.S.) per bowl.”
At high-end malls like the one we visited, a bowl is 35,000 Rupiahs ($3 U.S.).
Of course, the taste of bakso is tremendously different if you eat it at the roadside stalls. Some street stalls sell good bakso, and a local would be able to tell you where to go. “The street versions are monosodium glutamate (MSG) and preservatives-laden and not good for you. This is where most of our people consume it because of the burst of energy shots from the MSG. It is like how a cup of tea for the British solves all problems.”
I call it a sinful dish because all the MSG makes it bad for you if consumed too often, but it is so delicious. The one I had at the mall was savory and tasty to the last drop.
Tea a perfect complement
Ideally, a bowl of bakso is washed down with sweetened tea (in Indonesian, it is called “teh botol”) because the combination of the savory soup and the sweet tea is what makes the meal complete.
There are different versions of bakso, too, depending on from where in Indonesia it comes. “In Sumatra, they use more spring onions and the broth is thick, whereas in Java, they put in cabbage, bok choy and bean sprouts and the broth is watery,” Dwi said.
If you happen to be on the road in Indonesia and come across a sign reading “Bakso Setan” that is decorated with a chili logo, it literally means “Devil’s Bakso — for chili lovers.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Main photo: A bowl of bakso is readily available in most parts of Indonesia. Credit: Aida Ahmad
My mother had a lifelong wish to go to Hawaii, and at long last had persuaded my father to indulge her desire. And so it was that my parents, my sister, and I ended up, long after dark, tired and hungry, tiptoeing into the kitchen of our bed and breakfast on Maui. We switched on the light and saw a basket on the kitchen table overflowing with tropical delights. My eyes greedily consumed the bright papaya, waxy starfruit, and stately pineapple.
But it was the aroma of a pale, brown-tinged, gray-green, oddly shingled, heavy rock of a fruit that grabbed and held me. I turned it over in my hands, feeling its solid heft and the softly yielding flesh under the scaly depressions in the reticulated skin. Then I brought it to my nose to breathe in the heavenly scent.
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With the exhale, I turned to my sister, who had spent a high school year among the tropical fruits of the Philippines, “What in the world is this?”
Her eyes widened with delight as she exclaimed, “Cherimoya!”
“Cheri-who?” I asked. But she had already sliced it in half, and words swiftly become superfluous as we dug in to the velvety ivory flesh studded with large black seeds. Our wholly inadequate attempts to describe the aroma and flavors, which included banana, pear, coconut, mango, pineapple, papaya and vanilla, faded to appreciative grunts and murmurs as we greedily spooned the custard-like flesh into our mouths.
Then I remembered my late-night reading before our trip. A fair number of famous authors have written about Hawaii — Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London, and, of course, James Michener — but I was fairly sure that it was Mark Twain who had waxed eloquent about the cherimoya.
Twain spent four months on what were then known as the Sandwich Islands in 1866, on assignment for the Sacramento Union newspaper. He was only 31 years old, but the 25 letters that he steam-shipped back to the mainland are still fresh and funny. The complete collection of Twain’s articles from the trip can be found in “Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii” (University of Hawaii Press). But it was in “Roughing It,” Twain’s 1872 collection of travel essays, that I found his description of the cherimoya.
“We had an abundance of fruit in Honolulu, of course. Oranges, pine-apples, bananas, strawberries, lemons, limes, mangoes, guavas, melons, and a rare and curious luxury called the cherimoya, which is deliciousness itself,” he wrote.
Cherimoya’s peak of ripeness
The next morning I saw a smashed cherimoya on the ground next to our rental car. Fulminating against the depraved person who wasted such a wonderful fruit, I picked it up and began shamelessly eating it straight out of the damaged skin. Then, looking up, I had a Sir Isaac Newton moment: The vandal in question was gravity, and the source of our midnight cherimoya indulgence was the very tree under which we had parked our car. The lush, low canopy of the medium-sized tree nearly hid the cherimoya fruits, but there they were, hanging like Flintstone-era footballs just above the car.
Then I understood why the previous night’s, and the current morning’s, fruits were so scrumptious. They were at their peak of ripeness, literally falling from the tree. A bit of research revealed that the cherimoya has little commercial production because of its short shelf life. Although it seems well-armored, it is actually quite a delicate fruit. The skin bruises and breaks easily, and the moment of perfection is fleeting.
My research also brought to light the origin of the cherimoya, which is not native to the tropics, but to the inter-Andean valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. From there, native peoples spread it throughout the highlands of South and Central America. After the conquistadores arrived, they shipped cherimoya seeds back to Spain in 1757, and to Hawaii in 1790, some 75 years before Twain encountered it there.
The first California cherimoya trees were planted in 1871, with seeds brought up from Mexico. By 1936, there were some 9,000 trees in the state, but most were killed by the hard freeze of 1937. A few small commercial orchards were reestablished, and the fruits were marketed locally, as they are today. Different varieties ripen from January through June, but in general March through May is the prime time for cherimoya in California. So if you are lucky enough to be there, and see a cherimoya, and it smells good, buy it.
I’ve seen recipes for everything from cherimoya ice cream to cherimoya salad dressing. But you can do no better than to peel back the skin and slurp the ripe flesh, or cut the fruit in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon as I did on my virgin cherimoya indulgence. Deliciousness itself needs no embellishment.
Main photo: Cherimoya in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman
Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.
Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.
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How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?
Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.
The real Oaxacan food
She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.
What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.
Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.
She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.
A new start for El Naranjo
In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart. The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.
Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.
“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said. ”Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”
Velvety smooth moles
She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.
De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.
De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.
“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”
Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.
You can distinguish the little storefront of Cafe Manuel from a block away by its two red Chinese lanterns hanging over the entrance. Its name is hand-lettered in an “oriental” script no longer deemed politically correct elsewhere. The window on the left side of the door tempts with a display of pan dulce, sweet rolls destined to accompany coffee. On the right, lettering affixed to the window offers comida mexicana y china — Mexican and Chinese food. This establishment, which opened its doors in 1934, is a typical cafe de chinos, a Chinese cafe. Only a few authentic ones remain, scattered throughout older neighborhoods of Mexico City.
Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafes de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, have nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory. The “Cafe de Chinos” 1949 film features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical cafe.
Asian fusion: From the old country to the new
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To the outsider, Mexico might seem like a largely homogenous place, lacking in cultural diversity. Of course the majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mixture of European (principally Spanish) and indigenous. But the fact is that many ethnic groups besides the Spanish have come in to the mix, most notably African, Lebanese and Chinese. Porfírio Diaz, president-cum-dictator of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, made it his goal to bring Mexico up to its northern neighbor’s technological level. Chinese workers, often fleeing officially sanctioned anti-Chinese policies in the U.S. and well-versed in railroad building, were “invited” to construct the country’s rail system. Working under arduous conditions, these people naturally wanted to improve their lives. Many stayed in Mexico, often intermarrying with locals.
In the 1920s, Mexico’s concern over Chinese immigrants’ involvement in organized crime led to the Movimiento Anti-Chino; this anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the murder and deportation of many people of Chinese origin. Some of them, returning to a politically unstable China or a depressed U.S., eventually made their way back to Mexico, decades later. Those who remained, often intermarrying with Mexican nationals, opened laundries, import businesses … and restaurants.
Slow and fast food
Entrepreneurial Chinese, already versed in American-style “quick cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk were the specialty.
Traditional Mexican offerings such as enchiladas and tamales were prepared, as were “American/Chinese” dishes like chop suey and fried rice. These eateries grew in popularity, especially in dense city centers, feeding the new breed of round-the-clock workers who needed breakfast at midnight, or dinner at 6 a.m. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1940s and ’50s. In Mexico City, the streets surrounding the Zócalo, the city’s huge central plaza, were full of them. Calle Madero boasted at least four, as late as the 1960s. Then, inevitably, newer styles trumped old and these small, old-fashioned places, which not only served customers but also provided daytime social centers, began to close their doors. Glitzy chains and U.S.-based fast food venues replaced them.
But traditions die hard, especially in a slower-paced, less-eager-to-modernize Latin America. Cafe Manuel hasn’t changed. It offers two set lunches, one Mexican and the other Chinese. Sweet rolls are made in-house, coffee is fresh, milk frothy and hot. I chose a menú chino, which cost about $5.50. It consisted of a pleasant, vaguely “Chinese tasting” chicken broth with bok choy, flavored with sesame oil. Next came the archetypal fried rice, quickly sautéed with vegetables and egg, its smoky aroma preceding it to table. And the chop suey, the archetypal American-Chinese dish of stir-fried whatever, thickened with cornstarch, turned out to consist mostly of bean sprouts, onion and celery and a bit of chicken in a lightly sweet soy broth. It was all fresh and good, if not authentically Chinese. Dolores, the longtime waitress there, explained during a lull that nowadays customers mostly order the Mexican food. “It’s cheaper,” she reminds me. Few customers are of Chinese extraction; even the cook is Mexican-born.
“But we have many locals who have been coming for years, and don’t expect our menu to change,” she assures me.
Cafe El Pópular
Mexico City’s historic center, now in a felicitous revival, has lost a bit of the old-time quirkiness it had when I arrived in the 1980s. The mid-century past seemed to live: ancient businesses, their facades and interiors unchanged for decades thrived on every block. Today, only a few of the counter-style restaurants served by uniform-clad waiters and waitresses survive.
Cafe El Pópular, was established in 1948 as a cafe de chinos by Luís Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant and his Mexican wife Felícitas. When I started visiting Mexico City, shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1985, I would often arrive late at night and stay in one of the inexpensive hotels near the Zócalo. At that time El Pópular was the only restaurant open past midnight. I would sit at the counter, surrounded by a lively crowd of off-duty working girls and their clients, police officers, drag queens, city workers ending their evening hours, and those about to start the swing shift. The atmosphere was always lively, often raucous — a live-action Ashcan School painting. I didn’t understand the banter, conducted in local chilango slang, but I loved the vibes; I would sit until the wee small hours, savoring a Mexican hot chocolate, while dunking a flaky sweet concha.
The Cafe el Pópular carries on albeit in a newer guise. Run by José Luís Eng, grandson of the founder, his sister Beatriz, a culinary institute graduate, directs the kitchen. No longer offering anything remotely Chinese — the only obvious connection to its Asian past is a Chinese plaque, designed by Eng’s grandmother that hangs over the bar. El Pópular has become a Mexican restaurant par excellence with prices that remain accessible. Ingredients are for the most part local, some even organically produced. The menu reads like a veritable lexicon of “great Mexican classics” — soups, tacos, enchiladas, roast chicken, grilled meats, it’s all here. While remaining a seemingly slick family-style restaurant, Beatriz makes sure the quality is a cut above its corporate neighbors. And, of course, breakfast is still offered around the clock and sweet breads are still homemade.
Nowadays, a new wave of Asian immigrants are arriving. They’re opening more authentic restaurants that attract an increasingly sophisticated public, that cafes de chinos, the fusion-relic of the past, will disappear entirely. They are the remaining evidence of a neglected and little known segment of Mexican society once slighted, that deserves more recognition.
Top photo: Image of poster for the 1949 film “Cafe de Chinos.” Credit: Nicholas Gilman
After a long winter, summer will be welcomed with open arms. Looking ahead to outdoor parties under sunny, blue skies, chef David Padilla’s easy-to-make Drunken Shrimp sautéed in a spicy citrus sauce is the perfect recipe for lunch or an early dinner.
As Padilla describes what he loves about cooking, he remembers his father taking him to the markets in their small town in the Mexican state of Nayarit, on the Pacific coast between Sinaloa and Jalisco. His father would lead him past the fishermen on the beach and ask, “Do you want oysters today, or fish or shrimp?” They would eat what had been in the ocean’s clear waters only a few hours before. And long before farmers markets were fashionable, he and his father shopped in the mercados to buy freshly picked produce from the family farms outside of town.
So when Padilla says he searches out organic, local and seasonal products, he’s not following trends, he’s referencing his childhood in rural Mexico — even if his kitchen is now in a boutique hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills.
Padilla is chef de cuisine at Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel’s restaurant called On Rodeo Bistro & Lounge. As documented in the recently published “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” the wealthy city has dozens of restaurants. Surprisingly, only one of those restaurants is on Rodeo Drive, the city’s internationally known, upscale shopping street.
Chef puts a Latin touch on Drunken Shrimp recipe
Given the hotel’s cosmopolitan clientele, Padilla embraces a California-inspired, fusion cuisine. He describes his menu as “a little bit of Asian, Latin, Mediterranean, a little bit of everything because we’re in L.A. and it’s a melting pot of cultures.”
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At the restaurant, Padilla pulls together Latin, Asian and French influences. The bits and pieces he takes from many cuisines are melded into a balance of flavors and textures. For him, a meal is a journey. As he says, “I want your mind and taste to get lost and then you get to your destination.”
Padilla puts a decidedly Latin spin on Drunken Shrimp. The well-known Chinese dish has many iterations. One decidedly cruel version tosses live shrimp into a pot of liquor. Most commonly, the shrimp are cooked in wine or liquor so shrimp and diner presumably can share the bar tab. The shrimp in Padilla’s dish are flavored with tequila. Citrus sections and freshly squeezed juices give the dish its bright, summery flavor. serrano peppers add fire, and butter mellows and sweetens the dish.
With such a flavorful sauce, Padilla wants every drop to be enjoyed. He serves the shrimp with a thick slice of a soft Italian ciabatta bread, toasted on the grill. He suggests that rice and pasta would be good companions for the shrimp. I think steamed spinach would also be delicious.
Mexican Drunken Shrimp in a Spicy Citrus Sauce
As with any recipe, quality ingredients increase the pleasures of the dish. Use freshly squeezed citrus sections and juice and the freshest raw shrimp available. To sear the shrimp, a frying pan like one made of carbon steel that can tolerate high heat is very helpful. Quick searing is important for flavor and appearance, and also because searing seals in the shrimps’ juices. Because the flavors of the sauce take several minutes to combine, the shrimp simmer along with the other ingredients. Smaller shrimp and ones not seared can dry out and become chewy.
While grapefruit and oranges are available year-round, kumquats are seasonal. When they are available, they are a beautiful addition to the dish.
Taste the sauce and adjust to your palate. You may want more lemon or grapefruit juice or less. Do not season with salt during cooking. The shrimp are naturally salty. Padilla dusts the plated dish with a small amount of sea salt crystals to “brighten” the flavors.
12 raw large shrimp (10 to a pound), washed and patted dry
4 tablespoons blended oil, 80% canola oil, 20% olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
4 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 teaspoons finely chopped shallots
4 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, patted dry and finely chopped
12 tablespoons sweet butter, plus more for bread
4 thick slices ciabatta
8 ounces tequila
1 cup orange or Cara Cara orange juice
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
12 kumquats, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds with the skin on
4 fresh serrano chilies, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds
12 grapefruit sections, membranes removed
12 orange sections, preferably Cara Cara oranges, membranes removed
Sea salt as needed
1. Prepare each shrimp by peeling away the shell, exposing the body. Leave 1 inch of shell covering the tail. Devein and drizzle with 2 tablespoons blended oil, season with black pepper, garlic, shallots and 2 tablespoons parsley. Set aside.
2. Heat a grill. Place a small amount of butter on each side of each piece of ciabatta. Using tongs, grill the slices on both sides. Remove and set aside.
3. Use a large frying pan so the shrimp are not crowded. Place the pan on a burner with a high flame. When the pan lightly smokes, drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons blended oil into the pan. The oil will smoke in a few seconds. Using metal tongs, place the shrimp into the pan.
4. Each shrimp will sear quickly. Turn to sear the other side. This will not take long.
5. From the marinade, add the garlic, shallots and parsley. Sauté to caramelize.
6. Remove the pan from the burner so the tequila doesn’t catch fire when added. Deglaze the pan with tequila. Stir well to lift the flavor bits off the bottom of the pan.
7. Add the citrus juice and sliced kumquats. Stir to blend together the flavors.
8. Add serrano peppers.
9. Place chunks of butter into the sauce. Stir to melt and mix together.
10. Turn the shrimp over to absorb the sauce. Reduce a few minutes.
11. To plate, use shallow bowls. Place four shrimp in each bowl. Portion out the sauce, covering the shrimp. Garnish each plate with grapefruit and orange segments. Place a slice of grilled bread on the side. Dust with a sprinkling of sea salt crystals. To add color, lightly drizzle the grilled bread with olive oil and dust with parsley.
Main photo: Shrimp marinated with shallots, garlic and Italian parsley being prepared for Chef David Padilla ‘s Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt
It’s almost Green Thursday — otherwise known as Clean Thursday, the day before Good Friday and three days before Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 17.
No time to waste. Get out the mop and bucket, dust the furniture, air the blankets, beat the carpet, wash the windows, scrub the larder, polish the pots and pans, bleach the kitchen table, shine the slate, sweep the chimney, black the grate, whitewash the stoop.
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All this must be done before sundown on Green Thursday to ensure happiness and prosperity in the year to come — a more than adequate reward for cleaning behind the fridge.
Green Thursday menu continues with the green theme
And if these chores are not on your list of things to do on Green Thursday, you’d be run out of town with a flea in your ear if you lived in, say, Eastern Europe or rural Germany or in one of the isolated farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale — or indeed anywhere where people still sweep their own doorsteps, plant their own potatoes and maintain a modicum of self-sufficiency. A lesson to us all in these straightened times.
As for the food, well, no one has much time for cooking when they’re cleaning and scrubbing all day. Traditional Green Thursday menus vary from region to region, though the general rule is a generous helping of blood-cleansing spring herbs, preferably gathered from the wild, served either in soup or a salad.
Herb Salad With Eggs and Spring Herring
Green Thursday is traditionally celebrated in Germany by those who have access to the fishing ports with the last of the spring herrings — known as groene, or green herrings, for the sheen on their silvery flanks. When the boats come in, the catch is freshly filleted by the quayside and eaten raw with diced onion or carried home and lightly salted for additional shelf life. Rollmops — brine-pickled herring-fillets — are an acceptable inland substitute.
Large bunch young spinach leaves, de-stalked, rinsed and shredded
Small bunch parsley, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch chervil, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch sorrel, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch chives, chopped
Small bunch dill, chopped
8 fresh herring fillets or rollmops
1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and thickly sliced
4 hard-boiled eggs
For the sauce:
1 crème fraîche, also called soured cream
2 tablespoons chopped dill
2 tablespoons chopped gherkin or pickled cucumber
1. Combine the shredded spinach with the chopped herbs in a bowl.
2. Drain the herrings if roll-mopped, or salt lightly if fresh.
3. Boil the sliced potatoes in plenty of salted water till tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.
4. Shell and chop the eggs.
5. Fold the soured cream with the chopped dill and pickle. Serve each component separately for people to help themselves. Accompany with black bread, sweet white butter and the last of the winter’s pickled cucumbers.
Fromage Frais Aux Fines Herbes (Fresh Cheese With Herbs)
Fresh white cheese beaten with cream and herbs is proper on Green Thursday in the uplands of France, where la cueillette, the gathering of wild greens from the countryside, is the inalienable right of every man, woman and child whether they own the land or not.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound fresh curd cheese (fromage frais or equivalant)
1 cup crème fraîche (soured cream)
2 garlic cloves or fresh green garlics, chopped
1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley
1 heaped tablespoon chopped chives
1 heaped tablespoon chopped chervil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Salad leaves (dandelion, corn salad, bittercress or sorrel, for example)
1. Mix the fresh cheese with the cream in a bowl and beat till smooth.
2. Fork in the rest of the ingredients.
3. Drop the mixture into a glass cloth or square of washed-out cotton sheet, tie the edges corner to corner like a pocket hankie and hang on a hook or suspend on a wooden spoon over a basin to catch drippings. Leave to drain overnight in a cool place — the longer it’s left to drain the firmer it will be.
4. Serve chilled with plenty of warm baguette, a dish of olives and a salad of wild-gathered leaves dressed with walnut oil and salt (no need for vinegar if sorrel is present).
Bavarian Chervil Soup
Bavaria’s Krautelsuppe is a fresh green soup thickened with the last potatoes from storage — an interior spring clean to match the scrubbing and house painting of Green Thursday. Similar water-based soups are eaten throughout Lent in Germany and Eastern Europe as far as Hungary and Ukraine. Measure the herbs by filling a cup and lightly pressing the contents. Each cupful should weigh roughly 3 ounces.
Serves 4 to 6
1½ cups soft-leaf herbs (tarragon, parsley, dill), chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chervil leaves, de-salted, de-stalked and chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 or 3 medium old potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups picked-over salad greens (dandelion, corn salad, watercress, chicory), shredded
Salt and pepper
1. Pick over and wash the herbs and strip out any woody stems.
2. Melt the butter in a roomy pan and fry the onion gently till transparent. Add the chervil leaves, stir over the heat for 2 to 3 minutes till they collapse.
3. Add the diced potato and 4 cups cold water, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat. Salt lightly.
4. Simmer for 20 minutes till the potato is perfectly soft.
5. Add the herbs and salad greens. Reheat and allow to bubble up to collapse the greens.
6. Mash the soup to thicken it a little. Taste and add more salt if necessary and a vigorous turn of the peppermill.
7. Serve with buttered slices of rye bread and radishes.
Main illustration: A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard