Articles in Cuisine
Sara moves around the large kitchen with laser-like focus, filling a tea glass of water to add to a heaping pot of saffron rice with one hand while sautéing a pan of tart, red dried berries, walnuts, raisins and slivered almonds with the other. The resulting dish, zereshk polow (barberry rice), is a popular one in Sara’s home country of Iran, but not so easy to make in neighboring Turkey, where she is living as a refugee.
“Iranian basmati rice is longer than Turkish rice and the grains stay separate better,” Sara says through a translator. (She did not want her last name used while her application for asylum is pending.) The rice has been imported from Iran, along with the barberries, saffron, lentils, dried lemons (limoo amani), dried mint and other ingredients for the traditional Iranian feast she’s preparing for a few hundred curious Istanbul residents.
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The meal, co-hosted recently by the International Organization for Migration’s Turkey office and the food website Culinary Backstreets, was organized as part of an annual event celebrating the culture and cuisine of migrant communities in Turkey.
Food is “a way of [creating] communication among communities and understanding of each other,” says Nil Delahaye, a project assistant at IOM-Turkey, which works on emergency refugee assistance, resettlement programs and other aspects of migration management. While raising awareness about the challenges facing migrants, the organization also hopes to help create a more “positive image of migration for both hosting countries and migrants,” she adds.
According to Ansel Mullins, co-founder of Culinary Backstreets and a longtime Istanbul expat himself, “Refugee communities in Turkey are almost invisible even though some have been here for years. Organizing these events with migrant cooks is a statement, a way to say that migrants are here and have something to offer.”
‘Migant Kitchen’ events
Before the Iranian feast in November, Culinary Backstreets had organized “Migrant Kitchen” events with IOM last year that brought unfamiliar tastes from Cameroon, Liberia, Ethiopia and the Philippines to Istanbul palates. They have also exported the concept to Athens, Greece, where Nicolas Nicolaides, an Istanbul-born Greek who’s working on a Ph.D. in history at the University of Athens, has helped organize a lunch series of free meals cooked by Ghanaian, Congolese and Egyptian migrants.
The financial crisis and high levels of unemployment in Greece have “created new tensions; racist incidents and xenophobic extremism have been steadily increasing recently,” Nicolaides says. “We felt that at a difficult time like this, these [lunch] events provide a strong bridge between the immigrant communities and Greeks.”
Though both Greece and Turkey see large inflows of migrants, foreign cuisines — other than increasingly global foods such as pizza and sushi — are not well known in either country. But for the migrants themselves, foods from home are a lifeline.
“We talk to members of migrant communities about what they do when they get together and it’s always about food,” Mullins says. African migrants in Istanbul’s Kurtuluş and Feriköy neighborhoods have created informal restaurants and supply chains in order to enjoy foods they couldn’t otherwise get in Turkey. “It’s amazing how well organized the food connections are here,” Mullins notes. “When we were putting together the Ethiopian meal last year, the cook made a call and 15 minutes later we were off to buy seasoned, clarified butter [niter kibbeh] and other key ingredients from a mysterious spice vendor who had carried them to Turkey in a suitcase and sold them to us through the window of a taxi cab.”
Sara adds slivered almonds from Iran to the zereshk mixture. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Sara bought many of the ingredients for her Istanbul meal at an Iranian supermarket in the city’s Aksaray neighborhood where, she says, “the prices are twice what they are in Iran, but you can find anything.” The pickings are slim, however, in the southern Turkish city of Adana, where she and her husband, brother and two young sons must live while waiting for their asylum request to be processed. (Turkey requires refugees and asylum seekers to live in “satellite cities” spread around the country, rather than in major hubs such as Istanbul.)
There are no places to buy Iranian food in Adana, and little if any support or opportunities for refugees, Sara says. A group of 20 to 30 Iranian families — all Christians like Sara, who says she left Iran because of her religion — meet each Wednesday for a prayer service that rotates among members’ homes. Afterward, that week’s host serves an Iranian meal for everyone. “I cook different things every time, whatever I have the ingredients for,” says Sara, who hopes someday to open a restaurant and write a book about Iranian food.
Asked what foods she most misses from home, Sara rattles off a long list — reshteh (thin noodles), kashk (a drained and dried yogurt), and the coriander, leek chives and fenugreek harvested in Iran’s mountains and used to make ghormeh sabzi, an herb stew. When her parents came to visit her in Turkey last year, she says, they brought along two bags of hard-to-find ingredients.
“People can be eating on newspapers on the floor, but they’ve got to have those preserved lemons that give the dish its kick,” Mullins says. “Even for migrants in desperate circumstances, some things just can’t be replaced or sacrificed.”
Top photo: Sara prepares zereshk polow (barberry rice) in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Alex Cruz of Quebec retailer Société Orignal isn’t sure which language to use. The Montrealer and I have been e-mailing back and forth for a few weeks, trying to finalize a time that works. Our correspondence has taken place in English and French. That’s the way things are in Montreal, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.
But Montreal and the province of Quebec, Canada, are not known for “a little bit” of anything when it comes to all things culinary. For the longest time, food in Quebec was viewed as cuisine grand-mère: heavy, carb-laden foods made to fill bellies for long days of physical labor. But over the past decade, grand-mère has seen her cuisine turn haute. The province of Quebec, and specifically Montreal, is a city now populated by appetites who still seek full bellies, but with a more refined touch. This is the land of poutine with foie gras, and where salted fatback is no longer seen as a poor man’s food but a gout-inducing luxury.
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Enter Société Orignal.
At first glance, it appears to be just another high-end online retailer of tasty fine goods. But it’s a company on the edge: the edges of history, the edges of the collective palate, the edges of knowledge. First, there is that name, Société Orignal, which is a play on words. “Société” in French is, of course, society, but “Orignal,” the French word for moose, is only one letter away from original. “We wanted to come up with a word that focused on the words ‘society’ and ‘moose,’ because the moose is one of the most imposing creatures in North America,” Cruz says. “But it is imposing by itself, not because it wants to step on anyone.”
Société Orignal’s small but dedicated staff
Société Orignal could hardly be viewed as stepping on anyone, but it is a force to be reckoned with, let alone admired. It has a small workforce; Cruz does research and development, while his friend Cyril Gonzales takes care of sales in the province of Quebec. Gonzales works with another sales agent who takes cares of national and international sales, while Cruz has his own assistant. Together, they sell pantry items you may not recognize but desperately want to know what they are. A perfect example is a product known as Raw Laurentian honeydew. According to its website, “Honeydew is tree sap that has been gathered and transformed by insects and then foraged by bees. It comes from elevated hives diligently placed high in the trees of the forest surrounding the village of Ferme-Neuve.” Another example of their products would be their riff on caviar: cured wild lumpfish eggs, made from the roe of a fish that is known among Quebecers as poule de mer or sea hen. And then there are the ingredients presented in a manner different from what you may be accustomed, such as immature elderberries, salted and preserved in vinegar.
The list of products offered by Société Orignal teeters on the edge of recognizability, a gastronomic palimpsest. Juniper berries are cultivated immature and brined. Herbal teas are made of clover and balsam fir. For Cruz, it’s about pushing the limits in as many places as possible — from the farmer or forager who provides the raw materials to the chefs who plate it up all the way to the consumer who tastes these flavors.
“What we want to do is push barriers in every culture,” he says. “People freak on Thai food and Indian flavors, but we have things we want them to try and to concentrate on, what you think is maybe forgotten or neglected.” But Cruz isn’t some hubris-laden entrepreneur. During the conversation, he is excited by the unknown possibilities available to him in his native province. “We don’t know everything, so we want to do research and development. It’s not just cool, it could be representative of cooking 100 years from now.”
That devotion to research and development isn’t just a question of good business sense, it’s a responsibility to his customers and his clients. “We are a bridge: On one side you have farming and the other the restaurant businesses,” he says. “To have this bridge you need to maintain it. One day we are searching for ideas in restaurants, the next day on farming and figuring out how things grow in both places.”
Société Orignal seems to be able to do both by cultivating close connections with the farmers and foragers who gather the products it sells. “We see that farming is a great business and way of life, once you start to understand it,” Cruz says. “Trying to express the creativity of agriculture is an important factor we like to share.”
Part of that expression comes in the form Quebec’s terroir. This summer, Société Orignal distributed the Laval melon, an heirloom variety from the Montreal region. “For us, it’s trying to find ingredients that grow well in the soil. What is important is to know how (these things) grow. So it’s trying to understand all those features.”
Cruz’s feet are firmly planted in Quebec’s soil, gastronomically and financially. “(We want) to be able to achieve what we want and keep our independence. We don’t want help from large corporations or government, we just need to keep up distribution of the product we create. We want to have a good time and keep our goals.”
Top photo: Honeydew available from Société Orignal. Credit: Courtesy of Société Orignal
Everyone knows the holidays are steeped in culinary traditions, but who says you can’t steal from others? Pickled herring from Denmark, for example, defies the usual U.S. holiday fare that goes something like this: Roast a plump turkey for Thanksgiving. Simmer a pot of cranberries for Christmas. Chill magnums of champagne for New Year’s Eve. What happens, though, when you cannot bear the thought of doling out another spoonful of moist cornbread stuffing or pouring another round of cinnamon-dusted eggnog?
When I reach my limit with tried-and-true seasonal dishes, I look to what people in other countries make and eat during this festive period. Considering that my friends’ and family’s backgrounds are an amalgamation of different cultures, I don’t find it a stretch to include a taste of Scandinavia, Great Britain, the Mediterranean or Southeast Asia on my holiday menus.
Over the years, I’ve incorporated English mince pies and plum puddings; meringue-based Norwegian garland cakes; and the anise-flavored Greek bread Christopsomo. I’ve also introduced the Portuguese Christmas Eve staple buddim do bacalhao, or baked salt cod, and the Czech custom of eating baked carp on Christmas. This year, thanks to Danish friends and a recent stay in Denmark, I’ll add pickled herring to the holiday buffet table.
Pickled herring long a part of Danish culture
A staple of Danish cuisine, pickled herring dates to the Middle Ages, when fishermen caught and preserved massive quantities of small, oily-fleshed, saltwater fish known as herring. The fish became a valuable commodity for Denmark, one so important that it garnered the nickname “the silver of the sea.”
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Herring, particularly pickled herring, remains popular in Denmark. You will come across it in markets; at sidewalk food stalls; on koldt bords, the equivalent of the Swedish smorgasbord; and in tony restaurants. Dinners frequently begin with a herring course, and no smørrebrød platter would be complete without pickled herring.
If you’ve not tried this seafood specialty, you’re missing quite a treat. Velvety soft and delicately sweet, it almost melts on your tongue. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in contaminants and garnering an environmental “eco-OK” rating from the Environmental Defense Fund, it’s tasty, wholesome and relatively guilt-free. Even the most diehard herring skeptics must concede that this is one delectable fish dish.
Pickled herring begins with salted herring fillets. The fillets are soaked in cold water for six to 12 hours to remove the saltiness. They are then placed in a marinade, where they usually steep for at least 24 hours.
The basic marinade consists of vinegar, sugar and spices. However, Danish cooks have crafted countless recipes featuring such ingredients as sour cream, chives, mustard, dill, sherry and tomatoes.
For ardent home cook and culinary hobbyist Gilad Langer, no dish tops karrysild, or curried herring. Here curry paste is combined with mayonnaise, sour cream, sliced apple and spices such as crushed coriander and mustard seeds. The herring macerate in this mixture for at least an hour. The mildly spiced fillets are then served atop a piece of lard-slathered dark rye bread with optional slices of hard-boiled egg.
“For the holiday meals, people typically spend some time on making special marinades, while the everyday meals are kept to the common recipes, red [vinegar and sherry], white [plain vinegar] and curry herring. In any case, Christmas lunch and parties always have pickled herring,” says Langer, a former longtime resident of Hillerød, which is 30 minutes north of Copenhagen.
It’s said that a shot of Danish aquavit should be drunk alongside pickled herring and that it aids in digestion, washing the herring down into the stomach. “The aquavit, which means ‘water of life,’ really brings out the fishy taste and is an important part of the social etiquette of the traditional Danish lunch,” Langer says.
Along with aquavit, the fish marries well with a variety of ingredients. Cold, boiled potatoes, sliced onion, egg, tomato, apple, chopped pickle, chives, crème fraiche and a good, cold beer all complement its smooth taste.
Pickled herring is a common filling for open-faced sandwiches, or smørrebrød. For these sandwiches, cooks typically use rye bread as the base. However, rye crackers and flat or whole-grain breads are delicious alternatives. While some Danes swear by lard, others employ the less-controversial butter as their smørrebrød spread.
I encountered the following pickled herring recipe at a heritage festival in the eastern Danish city of Helsingør. Famed for its 15th-century castle Kronborg, which served as the setting for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Helsingør will also be remembered, at least by me, for its extraordinary herring offerings.
For the first marinade:
1 pound skinless, salt-cured herring fillets
8 ounces white vinegar
3 ounces water
1 tablespoon salt
For the second marinade:
8 ounces granulated sugar
20 white peppercorns, crushed
20 whole allspice, crushed
1 large white onion, chopped
1 large red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 bay leaf, crushed
1 small bundle of fresh dill, chopped
1. Soak the herring fillets in cold water for six hours, changing the water once or twice during this time. When finished, pat the fillets dry with a clean cloth.
2. For the first marinade, whisk together the vinegar, water and salt. Place the herring fillets in a shallow baking dish and pour the liquid over them. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours or overnight.
3. Remove the dish from the refrigerator and drain the marinade into a bowl. In another large bowl, stir together the original pickling liquid and the sugar, peppercorns, allspice, onions, lemon zest, ground pepper, bay leaf and dill.
4. Alternating between layers of herring and marinade, fill a lidded glass jar or container with the fish. Make sure the herring is neatly packed and not floating about. You may need to drain off or withhold a bit of liquid. Don’t skimp, though, on the onion, spice and herb mixture.
5. Seal and refrigerate the container for at least 24 hours or up to three days before serving.
Photo: Pickled herring. Credit: Kathy Hunt
February 1973. My mother and I step out of the plane in the Yucatan. Atop the mobile staircase a blast of hot air slaps my face. I detect the scent of corn, burning wood and flowers. I’m 13 and it’s my first time in Mexico, the country that would become my own.
We’ve landed in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan, a torpid, provincial city of faded glory. Cortez and his conquistadors had little interest in the hot, sparsely populated region where little grew and gold and silver weren’t to be found. Riches were made in the 19th century when it was discovered that henequen, used for rope, could be produced here. Many Lebanese immigrants, versed in shipping skills, arrived and ran the haciendas.
Tips from Zester Daily's Nicholas Gilman
World War II brought acrylics to replace the henequen, and carriages turned back into pumpkins. But Mayan culture endured, as ruins were unearthed and marketed. And a few years ago foreigners found that the glorious mansions of those henequen days could be bought for a song and revamped. Now tourists and locals alike stroll down Merida’s streets, and gussied pastel facades, the colors of Necco wafers, reflect the harsh tropical sun. Palm-leafed plazas provide respite from the heat.
We check into our colonial-style hotel and then walk down the street. The driver of a horse-drawn carriage beckons. We ride up to the Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition, lined with glorious French-style mansions, all faded, some abandoned. Forty years later most are gone, victims of callous development.
The sun is setting and we’re hungry. So we enter a typical white-table-clothed middle class restaurant, with aire acondicionado, promising platos típicos. My mother, an artist who had lived in Mexico, orders sopa de lima and tacos de cochinita in her somewhat clumsy Spanish. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by ethnic cuisine and its purveyors, I’m eager to taste the “real thing.”
Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Discovering sopa de lima
The sopa de lima arrives. A bowl of steaming soup! How illogical, I think, scalding soup in a hot climate.
Little did I know, at that time, how small a part logic plays in Mexican life. The soup is a rich chicken broth any Jewish grandma would be proud of, loaded with shredded meat and perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent, so very Mexican, became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me as Proust’s madeleines did for him. At our meal pallid bread is served (that’s what they thought all gringos wanted), but I request tortillas, which makes the waiter chuckle. But he brings them, my first taste of the real McCoy.
Yucatecan food can be magnificent. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is in a revival. From market stands to highfalutin experimental restaurants, the eating out scene in Merida is hopping. Like all Mexican regional cooking, it is a true fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious.
Pollo alcaparrado is chicken in a caper sauce, direct from Andalucía. Kibbeh (or kibi), Lebanese wheat dumplings, are sold here in markets just like they are in the Middle East. Pan de cazón, tortillas layered with shredded epazote-perfumed shark, refried black beans and chile-tomato sauce, is pure fusion, an adaptation of Spanish cooking style to local ingredients.
And then there’s the truly indigenous: the Mayan pib, a pre-Hispanic method of anointing, marinating and then roasting meat, fowl and fish. The settlers brought pigs, but local cooks quickly substituted them for regional game.
David Sterling, formerly of New York, teaches Yucatecan cooking at Los Dos Cooking School. He explains that “You have to remember that even just 15 or 20 years ago, this was still ‘the provinces’ — folks cooked and ate at home exclusively. The dining scene has changed dramatically during the last several years. There are more and more regional options too. In terms of quality. … in general it’s progressing, albeit at a glacial pace. I think that’s inevitable as Mérida continues to grow and more outside influences come in.”
Cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatecan dish, is suckling pig, slathered with a sauce made of achiote (annatto), sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, allspice and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted, preferably over coals. It is eaten as tacos, in soft corn tortillas, or tortas, on white flour rolls, with fiery habanero sauce. The Yucatan produces the most picante salsas in the country, if not the world. Today, few people make it at home, preferring to buy from the experts.
One locally famous stand appears Friday through Sunday in front of Panadería La Ermita in the plaza of the same name. Neighbors gather to eat there, fragrant meat heaped on fresh baked bread and spiked by pickled red onions. Some buy kilos to go. And everyone knows to come early, since by noon it’s run out.
Tamales, ubiquitous in Latin America, are sold in the market as they have been for centuries. Customers in the know vie for a place at the long table at Jugos Mario for hot tamales. Called tamal colorado, they are the regional variation on a theme. Corn masa is ground to a custard-like consistency and flavored with chile and achiote, then steamed in a banana leaf. A dash of habanero salsa adds fire.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ku’uk is a restaurant whose name comes from the Mayan word meaning “sprout.” It has done just that, sprouting like an experimental lab in a sea of conservative tradition. It’s the venue for young chef Mario Espinosa, an academy-trained veteran of Mexico City’s renowned, avant-garde restaurant Pujol.
Here, old-fashioned Yucatecan cooking is deconstructed and reinterpreted. The kitchen has a traditional pit oven for cooking “pib,” but contemporary molecular gastronomic trends are introduced as well. And although traditional ingredients are incorporated, they are reconfigured with the chef’s creative flair. The market favorite castacán (deep fried pork belly), usually eaten with a little salsa in tacos, is elaborated into “castacán, prawn, string cheese from Tabasco, fava bean broth and dried shrimp.” The breakfast standard chaya con huevo (eggs scrambled with the regional bitter green herb chaya) is refashioned as a “transparency of potato and herbs, egg cream, and chaya.” So, while one foot stays firmly planted in local culinary heritage, the other dances a postmodern rhumba.
As the food-minded public becomes aware of Mexican cooking in its intricate variety, regional adaptations will continue to be unearthed and celebrated. That’s a good thing.
And I, although intrigued by these recent developments, stay admittedly “in search of lost time” as I continue to seek out the best bowl of sopa de lima I can find.
Top photo: Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Think “State Fair,” the quintessential celebration of rural Americana as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous musical film of 1945. That’s where I am for a moment when I enter the provisional arched gates of the annual mega-food event in Mistura, Peru. Missing are the rides, the games, the cotton candy, the stuffed animal prizes. But the atmosphere is familiar. Couples stroll placidly, hand in hand, directionless and contentedly sipping drinks. Spotlights shine on hawkers shouting invitations to passers-by. A joyous tranquility is in the air.
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Mistura is the most extensive gastronomic fair I’ve ever seen. It’s Peru’s most important cultural event, and should make every citizen of this brilliant but poor Latin American country proud. The pet project of star chef Gastón Acurio, it is now sponsored and funded by such diverse backers as the state and one big soft drink manufacturer that wants us to think it’s doing redeemable things as well.
Every September since 2008, several performance stages, a huge market featuring more than 300 stands and more than 100 food stalls are set up on an empty stretch of beachfront south of Lima’s center. Only Peruvian cuisine is featured. There’s also an Encuentro Gastrónomico for serious students: presentations, lectures and demonstrations that address the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society’s relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. It’s a proud celebration of peruanidad, the state of being Peruvian. Everybody from all walks of life goes — at least those who can afford the $6 (U.S.) admission. There were 300,000 attendees in 2012, more this year. And it’s all about food. Nothing makes people happier. Seeing it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.
A welcome message from star chefs
The Encuentro Gastronómico features star chefs and gastronomes from all over the Latino world who expound on their particular culinary identities. This year, the guest of honor was Chef Alain Ducasse, who kick-started the fair with a presentation on the importance of healthful eating, extolling the virtue of quality ingredients and the evils of junk food. We knew that. But it’s good to hear it from the mouth of a gastronomic demigod. Later, Acurio presented his new initiative called “Salsa,” which “aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge.” Preaching to the choir? Perhaps, but necessary in a food world still dominated by Europe and the U.S.
The fair is divided into two main areas, the Gran Mercado and the food stalls. The market, under a huge tent, celebrates all products Peruvian. There are booths dedicated to quinoa (black, red and white), bread, chocolate, olives and, of course, potatoes. Hundreds of them, millions it seems. The vendors are men in brightly colored, hand-embroidered suits and women wearing traditional clothing, hair in braids, topped with what look like hipster hats. They offer purple, red, yellow and white potatoes, little black squiggly ones, large round polka-dotted ones. They’ve schlepped them from the far corners of the Andes in sacks. One proud indigenous lady, her pretty denim-clad daughter looking on, cuts open a yawar huayco to show me its royal purple interior — blue black juice drips down her weathered hand. I want to buy them all; airline/border restrictions hold me back, but I purchase a few kilos anyway.
Eater’s haven at Mistura
A light sea breeze starts to waft through the market tent, carrying with it the incense of the kitchen. The mundos (worlds), as the food stand areas are designated, gently beckon. My heart starts pounding. I need to eat everything. How am I going to do it? There’s no time, no stomach big enough. I’m afraid to blink, fearful it will all disappear. It’s a virtual eater’s heaven. Stands are divided by region. Mundo Amazónico offers various preparations of the freshwater fish paiche, fragrant tamales of rice seasoned with fresh turmeric called juanes, and to wash it all down the hot pink juice of the camu camu, a jungle fruit with a wildflower-like fragrance.
I forget that we’re not in Mexico and norte doesn’t mean the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The north of Peru is warm and heavily influenced by indigenous culture. The signature dish of this area is seco de cabrito, a stew of goat flavored with black corn “beer,” cilantro, oregano, and fresh and dried chilies. The meat is tender and fragrant, like a mild Indian curry.
In the Mundo de Ceviche section I choose the busiest stand and order a classic tiradito de pescado: thin strips of flounder are showered with spiky leche de tigre, perfumy lime juice with a bit of ground fresh ají, a yellow chili. It’s like sashimi, softer and subtler than Mexican ceviche, masterfully made.
In Mundo Limeño I can’t resist sampling Doña Chela’s aji de gallina. The doña smiles maternally while efficiently ladling out Peru’s comfort dish to adoring fans. Chicken, cooked in beautiful hand-polished earthen pots, is bathed in a velvety cream sauce thickened with bread and augmented by mildly picante roasted yellow peppers. At this point I’m no longer hungry, but I get a plate anyway.
Peru’s lexicon of cooking includes what has been labeled Nikkei, the melding of Japanese and home traditions utilizing local ingredients. It is proffered at El Mundo Oriental, several of whose stands combine fresh fish corn, ají peppers, yucca and potatoes in new ways. Another popular food category here is chifa, a simplified Chinese adaptation of stir-frying that is found all over Lima.
A crowd magnet
I skip past the Mundo Oriental in order to leave room for grilled chancho, the most popular dish of all. In the Mundo de las brasas (world of the coals), long lines of hungry eaters wait patiently while workers stoke huge, medieval-looking wood fires to roast whole, midsized pigs. Pork-infused smoke permeated this crowded section — the sweet aroma turning even the head of a near-vegetarian. I wait until shortly before closing when I finally procure a plateful of the divinely tender chopped meat. My stomach says “enough already” but my senses reply, “Go for it!”
Peru is now in a gastronomic boom; its culinary traditions have become known around the world in recent years. Street and market food are unparalleled, comparable in scope and quality to that of Mexico or Thailand, and its burgeoning high-end restaurant scene, with its myriad fusions of deep-rooted traditions, is fascinating.
I leave happy, sated. That’s how a visit to a country fair should be.
Top photo: Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
The global importance of Slow Food — the food activism movement that was born in Italy in 1986 — continues to spread. Its South Korean chapter — in collaboration with the city of Namyangju and Slow Food International — recently staged an ambitious and highly successful event, AsiO Gusto, the first of its kind to be held in Asia. The impressively organized festival hosted 500,000 visitors over six days.
“Our goal was to gather over 400 artisan food producers and cooks from 40 countries within Asia and Oceania under one roof, to celebrate their diversity and to spread the word about the many unique foods we have in Korea,” says Kim Byung-soo, a member of Slow Food’s International Council and one of AsiO Gusto’s main organizers.
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AsiO Gusto (the capital “O” stands for Oceania) took over a large, modern youth sports center on the outskirts of Namyangju, a city southwest of Seoul that is home to the world’s first organic agriculture museum. Three vast tents pitched on pristine artificial turf pitches formed the nucleus of the show. Each pavilion had a subject: South Korea’s featured more than 100 Korean products, including fermented, eco-friendly and local foods. The International Pavilion focused on foods from 32 Asian and Oceanic countries, including marvelous dried fruits from Afghanistan; Rimbàs black pepper from Malaysia; Palestinian olive oil; Nagasaki yuko vinegar from Japan; Indonesian coconut sugar; Tibetan plateau cheese; heirloom rice from the Philippines; raisins from Iran; Georgian wine and taro and yam from New Caledonia. It also housed six international restaurants and a taste workshop. The “Theme” Pavilion showcased some of Slow Food’s most important projects — the Ark of Taste, Presidium seeds and A 1,000 Gardens in Africa — as well as South Korean temple food and local Slow Food educational activities.
Outside, a large, lively area was given over to street-food stalls from South Korea and beyond: vendors cooked everything from barbecued pork and griddled mung-bean pancakes — made from freshly stone-ground soaked beans — to ash-roasted soya beans and Indian naan breads baked on the spot for thousands of visitors exploring the festival’s “streets.”
An organic vegetable garden was grown on the site, with neat rows of rice, amaranth, squashes and beans on display for the thousands of schoolchildren who visited the fair to learn from. They were also encouraged to enter a walk-in beehive — though not before they’d been covered from head to toe in protective netting; their anxious mothers waited outside until they re-emerged, sting-free. A jovial South Korean farmer made narrow baskets for holding hen’s eggs from rice straw, and used his docile brown cow to give children rides on a converted plow.
Elsewhere, in a gym-turned-hall, visitors attended authoritative conferences on the culture of fermented food, animal welfare and food justice; or witnessed the Korean tea ceremony enacted like a synchronized dance by seven beautifully groomed women in long, traditional dresses, accompanied by their distinctive songs. Music is ever-present in South Korea, from the national passion for karaoke to the lively displays put on during the festival by entertainers from the South Korean armed forces who sang everything from pop to opera and even performed magic tricks on the baseball field where families picnicked and rested in the shade of gazebos.
Buddhist monks’ temple cuisine
One of the most fascinating Korean stands was dedicated to the temple cuisine of the country’s Buddhist monks. Under the discerning eye of the Venerable Dae Ahn, this display showed the remarkable diversity of natural foods — cultivated and wild — the monks eat during the year. Their diet is meat, fish and dairy free, and also avoids foods from the onion family (they’re considered too “hot”). Yet the range of fresh and fermented foods the monks enjoy is impressive.
“In our Buddhist practice, we learn how to cultivate and cook our food,” says Dae Ahn, who also runs the Balwoo temple food restaurant in Seoul. “It’s a central part of our daily lives and is connected to our philosophy of harmony and patience. After all, nothing could be slower than the fermented foods — some of them aged for up to 20 years — that we use to complement our fresh, seasonal ingredients.” The monks also make use of hundreds of wild foods, including pine needles, lotus root, burdock, mushrooms, ginko nuts and acorn jelly. “Our lives, livelihoods and the entire universe change according to what we eat,” she says.
Fermented foods still integral to Korean cuisine
Fermented food is a staple of Korean cuisine and was at the festival in all its guises. Fermented ingredients range from soy sauces to bean and chili pastes (doenjang and gochujang) and kimchi. Best-known as a fermented cabbage dish enlivened with ginger, chili and garlic, kimchi can be made from dozens of vegetables and plants. Traditionally, each farm or household stored its fermenting foods outdoors in large, dark brown ceramic jars. Many still do. Kimchi is served at every Korean meal as a side dish and digestive aid. Fermentation was an important way to preserve perishable ingredients in pre-refrigeration times. These foods are still key elements of the country’s rich food culture.
As with all Slow Food events, the message goes well beyond the simple enjoyment of food to learning about its myriad cultures and sources, and to defending our right to food that is good, clean and fair, as Carlo Petrini, the movement’s founder, maintains. For a first-time visitor to South Korea, AsiO Gusto offered a stimulating chance to experience Korea’s complex, delicious foods and to feel closer to the many heroic artisan food producers from Asia and Oceania who attended it. For anyone interested in attending, the next AsiO Gusto is already being planned for 2015.
Top photo: A young girl studies the Buddhist temple food display at AsiO Gusto. Credit: Carla Capalbo
The use in food of true cinnamon from Sri Lanka, or Ceylon cinnamon, is not as common as the more familiar cassia, which is the one mostly used in Scandinavia for baking and hot drinks and in a lot of winter and Christmas dishes.
True cinnamon has a more complex and flowery taste. The aroma is light and complex, not as strong and pungent as cassia. True cinnamon is a rare spice in Scandinavia, and it is also more expensive.
In Sri Lanka, they grow cinnamon on hills and valleys. The cinnamon tree can be seen in many places. Some farms still do not use pesticides to grow cinnamon, and human labor does all the cultivating and processing.
Harvesting cinnamon is a hard and difficult job, and the preparation of the spice takes significant craftsmanship. You must carefully remove the cinnamon bark from the tree’s branches. Only skilled and experienced people can do it well. In the old days, these workers were called “chalias.” European colonizers were not known for treating them humanely; they were treated more like slaves.
Cinnamon has been written about going far back into history. In the Bible, in the book of Exodus, both kinds of cinnamon were described. The Lord gave Moses a recipe for holy oil with cinnamon that he had to prepare.
Cinnamon has played a vital role in European history. It was an important commodity and a source of growth for the European economy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Christopher Columbus went looking for cinnamon in the West Indies, but as far as we know he found nothing. His fellow countryman Lorenzo Almeida had more luck. In 1505, when Almeida arrived in Ceylon, he found cinnamon trees.
In Europe, cinnamon was sold at a high price for decades, but in the 16th century the price fell and it became more accessible for the common man. Thus, cinnamon became the most popular spice in Europe, as reflected in recipes from that era.
In 1795, the British took over control of Sri Lanka from the French. The trade in cinnamon was about the economy and power and, as with a lot of other commodities, played an important role in history.
Cinnamon trees are not tall; they are more like a bush, and they are pruned often. Harvesting is done twice a year, and at each harvest you take three to four branches and leave the rest. You can also pick the leaves and make cinnamon oil because the leaves have a wonderful delicate and flowery scent. A tree can live for about 40 years; after that, cinnamon producers plant new ones.
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To harvest cinnamon, the branches are processed by scraping off the outer bark, which is discarded. Then the workers loosen the inner bark with a special knife. The bark has to come off when still wet. The 1-meter-long bark strips are folded into each other as a stick. This must be done before the bark dries. (The inner wood is sold off separately to households as firewood.) The cinnamon sticks are then left to dry for a few days under a roof, and then they are dried in the sun. The whole process takes about five to six weeks.
Recently, I visited a cinnamon farm in Sri Lanka just outside Galle. The work of making the cinnamon sticks is carried out in a house on the hill in the shadows of the palm trees and only a few meters from where the cinnamon is harvested.
The cinnamon worker sits on the floor on a leather carpet, wearing a leather apron. To see a worker cut, prepare and clean the branches is fascinating — utter craftsmanship. It takes years of experience to learn the trade, and some of the workers have been employed here for more than 30 years. The hand movements are very meticulous and particular. You can really see the care and craftsmanship both in using the knife and in the entire process of folding the layers of bark into the stick.
In Sri Lankan cooking, it was very interesting to see that they used small pieces of cinnamon in many curries. It is a bit like how we in the West and in Scandinavia use bay leaves in stews, soups and broths, which makes sense because the cinnamon tree is of the same family as the bay leaf tree. In small quantities, cinnamon adds a subtle flavor to such dishes as fish curries, dal or beetroot curry.
Cinnamon is called “kanel” in Danish and Norwegian and a similar word in Swedish. It originates from the German “Canelle.” Both powder and stick cinnamon are part of Scandinavian food culture. Besides baking, we use it in Danish, apples cakes, breads, buns and spice cakes. It has been used here since the Middle Ages in many variations.
For the past 100 years, different versions of cinnamon buns have become popular. They are baked differently in each Scandinavian country. In Copenhagen, Denmark, cinnamon buns seem to be rising in popularity. All the bakeries are doing variations on cinnamon rolls or buns in all sizes, and a lot of them are organic.
We eat cinnamon in our legendary cinnamon buns and rolls; in hot drinks; and especially at Christmas in the gløgg. We eat cinnamon powder mixed with sugar on rice porridge and in rømmegrø, a Norwegian specialty; it’s a porridge made from a sour cream called rømmer boiled with wheat flour, and then hot milk is added. We use cinnamon for curing herring and salmon, in aquavit, in preserving and in various cookies. For this time of year, when it is cold, the fragrance of the warm spice in cinnamon buns is a treat I think we should succumb to at least once a week.
Makes 24 buns
For the buns:
2¼ teaspoon dry yeast
2 cups lukewarm whole milk
1⅓ stick softened butter
1 egg, beaten
6½ cups plain wheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
⅔ cup caster sugar
For the filling:
2 sticks soft butter
⅔ cup caster sugar
6 teaspoons ground cinnamon
For the glaze:
1 egg, beaten
Sugar for sprinkling
1. In a large bowl , dissolve the dry yeast in the warm milk using a wooden spoon. Mix in the butter, then add the egg and stir again.
2. Sift together the flour, salt and cardamom and add to the milk mixture with the sugar, stirring to form a dough. Keep stirring until the dough comes cleanly from the edge of the bowl.
3. Knead the dough on a floured work surface for about 5 minutes. Return it to the bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for 1 hour at room temperature.
4. Make the filling by mixing together the butter, sugar and cinnamon.
5. Divide the dough in half and roll it out to make two rectangles measuring about 16 by 12 inches (40 by 30 centimeters).
6. Spread the cinnamon filling over the top of each. Roll each piece of dough into a wide cylinder and cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) slices.
7. Line some baking trays with baking paper or parchment paper. Lay the cinnamon rolls on the paper, pressing down on each one so they spread slightly. Cover and leave to rise for 30 minutes.
8. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C or Gas 7).
9. Brush the cinnamon rolls with the beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar.
10. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, then leave to cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or cold with a nice cup of tea.
Top photo: A worker prepares the bark in the cinnamon house at a Sri Lankan cinnamon farm. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
For weeks I have been incubating ideas about what in my repertoire I might suggest for your Thanksgiving table. With all that’s abuzz in the food press about dry brining turkey and gussying up pumpkin pie and such, I have decided not to go anywhere near the subject for fear of dishonoring the true spirit of Thanksgiving with ideas about Venetian roast turkey with pomegranate or savory speck-flecked pumpkin pie encased in a rosemary pastry crust.
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I’ll admit I’m not entirely certain what that American spirit is because there is no precise record of the menu on the auspicious day in 1621, auspicious, that is, for the newcomers. While I am as fond of the proverbial bird and all the trimmings as anyone, I haven’t yet swallowed my grammar-school lessons about how it all went down at Plymouth Rock between the Wampanoags and the dour lot of newcomers.
Pilgrims getting creative with pasta
For the benefit of those who, like me, are skeptical of the official version of Thanksgiving history, let me quote how my favorite American writer on food topics, Calvin Trillin, crusader for changing the national Thanksgiving dish from turkey to spaghetti alla carbonara, recounted the story to his children, as told in a 1983 essay in “Third Helpings.”
“In England, a long time ago, there were people called pilgrims who were strict about making sure everyone observed the Sabbath and cooked food without any flavor and that sort of thing, and they decided to go to America, where they could enjoy Freedom to Nag. … In America, the pilgrims tried farming, but they couldn’t get much done because they were always putting their best farmers in the stocks for crimes like Suspicion of Cheerfulness.
“The Indians took pity on the pilgrims and helped them with their farming, even though they thought the pilgrims were about as much fun as teenage circumcision. The pilgrims were so grateful that at the end of their first year in American they invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal.
“The Indians, having had some experience with pilgrim cuisine during the year, took the precaution of taking along one dish of their own. They brought a dish that their ancestors had learned many generations before from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as ‘the big Italian fellow.’
“The dish was spaghetti carbonara made with pancetta bacon and fontina and the best imported prosciutto. The Pilgrims hated it. They said it was ‘heretically tasty’ and ‘the work of the devil’ and ‘the sort of thing foreigners eat.’ The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, ‘What a bunch of turkeys!’ ”
The real deal with spaghetti alla carbonara
I feel compelled to make a few comments about Trillin’s account as to the nature of the first Thanksgiving Day dish. Everyone knows that recipes, when they migrate from their country of origin to a foreign kitchen, undergo transformation as much as people do. By Trillin’s account, only a few generations after the native dwellers had gotten their hands on it, they had already embellished it, gilding the lily, so to speak, with characteristic American excess so that it would have been hardly recognizable to Cristoforo Colombo who, like every other Italian, suffered the indignities of name change upon reaching the shores of America.
If we are to believe the account, the Wampanoags’ version included two kinds, not one kind, of cheese, and two kinds of salumi. No doubt the spaghetti wasn’t imported. It’s a good thing Italy’s famous native son wasn’t around to see it, or later incarnations that plied the dish further with cream, wine, broccoli and even caviar. Everything but the kitchen sink was lavished onto the once-humble progenitor that was named, or so some think, for the Roman carbonari, men who worked in the forests burning wood to make charcoal.
Probably there is no dish whose origins are as mysterious. Of course, some say the carbonari invented it. By other accounts, Italian women concocted it when presented with bacon and egg rations by American soldiers during World War II. I am assured by reliable sources that it is an ancient dish with roots in the kitchens of the norcini, famed pork butchers of Umbria. That theory would add a bit of credence to Trillin’s pre-Columbian explanation, which is as well founded as any I’ve seen.
What is undisputed is that the mother recipe was a simple affair born in the porky lands of Rome or Umbria, of strand pasta, guanciale or pancetta, egg and sheep cheese, initiated with extra virgin olive oil.
If we are to entertain Trillin’s tale, by the time the Wampanoag were making it in Plymouth, the dish had evolved into the first example of Italian-American cooking, which, as we all know, is as far from the real thing as Plymouth is from Rome.
In any case, the recipe ingredients and method presented here are considered by Italian historians to be the authentic version. Viva true spaghetti alla carbonara and Happy Thanksgiving to all.
The Authentic Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
As with any Italian recipe for pasta, it is necessary to use imported Italian pasta, which is unequaled for its ability to retain a wheaty flavor and elasticity throughout cooking, thus delivering a true al dente result. The recipe is marvelously simple and a revelation to anyone who has not experienced the true spaghetti alla carbonara, as long as it is followed precisely. That means no substitutions, no straying from the instructions, no ad-libbing and no succumbing to last-minute flights of inventiveness. Even if you were to wind up with something tasty, it wouldn’t be the original. If you’re after authenticity, this is it.
5 extra-large eggs, beaten
¾ cup freshly grated aged pecorino romano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ pound guanciale (unsmoked cheek bacon) or pancetta, thickly sliced and diced
1 pound imported Italian spaghetti
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1. In a bowl, combine the beaten eggs with the grated cheese and season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
2. Select a serving bowl for the pasta and keep it warm.
3. In a skillet large enough to hold the cooked spaghetti after it’s drained, warm the olive oil. Add the guanciale or pancetta and sauté over medium heat until nicely colored and crispy around the edges but still chewy (those bits burn awfully fast, so stand over the pan until they’re properly browned, not burnt). Turn off the heat and set aside the pan in a warm spot on the stovetop.
4. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water and bring it to a rapid boil over high heat. Add the spaghetti and the kosher salt together and stir. Check package instructions for cooking time. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pasta is 2 minutes away from being al dente. Drain it, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer the spaghetti to the skillet with the guanciale or pancetta and toss over low heat. Add ½ cup or so of the cooking water to moisten and loosen up the tangles. Simmer until the water is nearly evaporated.
5. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, and immediately add the egg and cheese mixture while the pasta is steaming hot, tossing vigorously to distribute the egg mixture while making sure it does not coagulate into scrambled egg. The temperature should not exceed 160 F, though it’s not easy to take a reading of it. If the pasta seems to be dry, add more of the reserved cooking water to loosen it up. Serve at once, passing the pepper mill at the table.
Top photo: Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce