Articles in Cuisine
Long before I cooked Asian snakehead, or channa, I had heard all the tales about this notorious fish. Dubbed “Fishzilla” and “Frankenfish,” the predatory, freshwater creature consumes not only plankton and insects but also other fish, amphibians and small mammals. Hence the snappy monikers.
As an air breather, it can survive out of water for several days. It also can migrate over land, wreaking havoc on wildlife in its path. With a large, protruding mouth that contains canine-like teeth and a predilection for using them, it is, by all accounts, one tough fish.
In America, the snakehead has become a cause for concern. A non-indigenous predator lacking any natural enemies, it could decimate native fish species and permanently alter our aquatic ecosystems. Because of this concern, most states have outlawed the sale of it. Even so, thanks to live fish markets and anglers surreptitiously stocking their local waters, snakehead keeps turning up in U.S. lakes, ponds, canals and reservoirs.
Frankenfish key source of protein in Cambodia
While it may be viewed as an invasive menace in the U.S., in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, snakehead is considered an essential part of everyday diets.
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By Kathy Hunt
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In Southeast Asia, the snakehead’s toughness serves as a selling point. Because it lives in shallow, murky waters, eats virtually anything and grows quickly, it is a boon to struggling fish farmers looking for a hardy, low-cost, fast-yield crop.
The fact that it can get by for several days outside of water is gift to both farmers and consumers. Because of this unique feature, snakehead maintains its freshness in the worst of transportation and market conditions. While visiting outdoor markets in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Cho Minh City, Vietnam, I was stunned to see 1- to 2-foot-long live snakeheads sitting out in crates and on unrefrigerated metal trays. In spite of the less-than-ideal storage conditions, they looked as healthy as if they’d been pottering about in water-filled tanks.
What do cooks in Southeast Asia do with all these rugged fish? They feature them in soups and stews as well as in poached, sautéed, grilled and fried dishes. The snakehead’s moderately high oil content means it also responds well to smoking and drying.
In Cambodia, snakehead stars in a traditional curry dish known as amok trey. Amok refers to the technique of steaming fish, chicken or tofu in woven banana leaf baskets. In amok trey, the fish is steamed alongside a mixture of coconut milk, fish sauce, eggs and the Khmer flavor paste known as kroeung. Served inside a hollowed-out coconut, the final dish is juicy, fragrant and flavorful.
I got a chance to prepare amok trey with snakehead at the Tara Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap. The fish with which I worked had originated in the nearby Tonle Sap Lake. The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap contains roughly 200 fish species and accounts for 75% of the country’s inland fish production. Snakehead is one of the most popular and economically important species in this lake.
Because I was starting my amok trey with a whole snakehead, I had to clean and then fillet the fish first. To accomplish this, I followed the same technique I would use with any round fish. After a minimal amount of effort, I ended up with two beautiful, white, firm-fleshed fillets.
Although I would slice the fish into thin strips for amok trey, the snakehead fillets could just as easily be pan-seared or grilled. I could then serve them with a grind of black pepper, dab of salted butter or splash of lemon juice. While mild in flavor, this fish needs little adornment to shine.
Back in New York City, I can continue cook with snakehead fish. In spite of a 2002 federal prohibition on the transportation and sale of live snakehead, Asian seafood markets around the city continue to carry this fish. Plus, if recent reports prove true, snakehead has moved into a neighborhood near mine, into the urban fisherman’s oasis of Central Park’s Harlem Meer. Anglers there have been instructed not to release this fish back into the lake.
In spite of snakehead’s growing presence in the U.S., I substitute striped bass or another firm, white-fleshed fish when making amok trey at home. However, should a snakehead happen to slither onto my doorstep, it would star in one tasty and authentic Cambodian meal.
Angkor-Style Striped Bass (Amok Trey)
Taken from my first cookbook, “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013), this recipe features striped bass instead of the traditional snakehead fish. My version of amok trey does, however, use the distinctly Cambodia flavoring kroeung. You’ll find galangal root and morinda or noni leaves in the produce section of Asian markets and jars of galangal root in the Asian section of most supermarkets.
For the kroeung:
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped lemongrass
1 tablespoon minced galangal root
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
For the fish:
¾ cup well-shaken canned coconut milk, plus more for serving
1 morinda or noni leaf, chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 large eggs, whisked
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces striped bass fillets, skinned and thinly sliced
½ small red bell pepper, thinly sliced
3 to 4 cups steamed rice, for serving
1. Fill a large, wide pot with 1½ inches of water. Place a steamer basket in the pot and bring the water to a boil.
2. Using a mortar and pestle, pulverize the garlic, lemongrass, galangal root, ginger, salt and turmeric until you have a thick paste. You’ll have about ⅓ cup. Spoon 2½ tablespoons of kroeung into a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate the rest for future use.
3. Add the coconut milk, morinda leaf, fish sauce, sugar, eggs, salt and black pepper to the 2½ tablespoons of kroueng. Mix the ingredients together until well combined. Add the fish and stir gently to coat.
4. Spoon the mixture into 6 to 8 small, oven-safe ramekins, filling each about two-thirds full. Place them in the steamer basket, cover and allow the fish to steam for roughly 15 minutes. When finished, the fish will feel firm and appear white and cooked through.
5. Carefully remove the ramekins from the steamer. Garnish the top of each with slices of red pepper and a drizzle of coconut milk. Serve hot with steamed rice.
Top photo: Amok trey. Credit: Kathy Hunt
We’ve gathered around a rustic wooden table at Don Alfredo Pollos al Pastor, a country restaurant sitting 7,000 feet in the Nahuatzén Mountains, an hour west of Morelia, Michoacán, in the colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Mexico. The wait for the Mexican food is a torment. Aromas of grilling meat hit us hard and make us pant through the thinner air in anticipation of what’s to come.
I sip an amber Victoria beer and drift into memories of the restaurant in the late 1980s, when the place was nothing more than a roadside shack with a dirt floor and corrugated metal roof. Then we sat at wobbly metal tables on rusted chairs boasting Cola-Cola logos for decor.
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We were there for the food. We didn’t have to think about it. The menu was simple: chicken, handmade corn tortillas, soupy pink beans and a fresh table salsa made with the local heat-packing chile manzano (Capsicum pubescens), onions and sour oranges. If we were lucky and there on a weekend, they’d have a few baby lamb legs over a fire. As time has passed, the lamb has become so popular the restaurant’s simple terracotta serving plates now boast a new hand-lettered name: Don Alfredo Pollos y Borrego al Pastor (chicken and lamb over coals).
Before entering the larger space today — now with a real concrete floor and solid roof — we gape at the main attraction, a trench 20 feet long and 4 feet wide filled with a long, center mound of glowing embers of white mesquite. On either side of the trench are a few dozen 4-foot spiked metal rods, each impaling three chickens, lined up in two neat rows. The bright yellow flesh of the birds comes from their diet of fluorescent orange marigolds. Combine this and the high temperature of the coals, and you have incomparable flavor and beautifully charred crisp, golden skin.
A flamenco twist to a Mexican surprise
The biggest surprise lies at the far end of one row — 10 additional steel rods with a few kilos of marinated pork hanging from each rod, pouring out aromas the way only pork can. The chunks of meat appear dark from the mesquite, but not a speck of blackened pork is anywhere in sight. Roasting meat is in the blood of these cooks; they rotate and swivel the rods like turns of flamenco, flourish and sizzle, flourish and sizzle.
It has been a long, dry season for lovers of flesh in this part of the world. Pork is celebrated after a Lenten stretch and the Easter lambs have all been eaten. I’ve had my share, perhaps more than my share, of succulent carnitas over the years here in Michoacán, the carnitas capital of the world, but this young pork is primal perfection. These pigs are Mexicans, raised to be fat and placed upon a hot fire, not like their American cousins bred to be lean, mean and articulated muscle machines. Their flavor comes from mesquite smoke and bubbling fat-basted meat cooked lowly and slowly to achieve a moist interior and a mahogany-colored, stunningly brittle skin.
As orders fly in, the cooks select chicken or pork from the spikes and transfer it to a chopping block. A few precision hacks with a machete, a squirt of sour orange juice over the crunchy spitting skin, a sprinkle of salt and the platter is on its way to the table. The torture is over, the waiting is complete and satisfaction is imminent.
Not more than 10 minutes and a half bottle of beer have been swallowed since we passed through the doorway, but they were slow Mexican minutes and we have the patience of hungry Americans, which is to say none.
We ravenously descend on our platters. The waiter has brought pork, chicken and warm corn tortillas. There is a growling silence until, one by one, tortillas are piled with copious quantities of meat and that sweat-inducing table salsa to make perfect tacos. One bite says everything; the wait was worth it. Full grinning mouths smile at each other across the table. We are reduced to happy noises, for there are no words worth the pause.
Fresh Chile Manzano and Sour Orange Table Salsa
You may substitute one juice orange and one Mexican (aka Key) lime to achieve a similar flavor to Don Alfredo’s sour orange, a type of Seville orange primarily used in marmalade. A chile manzano, rocoto or perón (Capsicum pubescens) looks like a huge habañero, so to be sure that you have the right chile cut it open, manzano seeds are black.
Makes about 1½ cups
1 white onion (3 inches), peeled and finely chopped
½ chile manzano, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 Mexican sour oranges, juiced
Sea or kosher salt to taste
Stir all the ingredients in a serving bowl. Serve at room temperature.
Don Alfredo Pollos y Barrego Al Pastor, Tanganxuan intersection on the Periférico (aka the lower end of Libramiento, before it enters the Glorieta opposite the Bodega Aurrerá supermarket), Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Telephone: (434) 342-3151. (The original location, and still the best.) A second spot is on the autopista Morelia-Pátzcuaro, Km. 6. Telephone: (443) 132-5975.
Top photo: Pork and chickens over mesquite in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
Communist writing tends to be dry and not food-inspired literature. So it is surprising that Lu Xun, one of China’s most famed 20th-century authors who counted Mao Zedong among his fans, used it as a central element of his popular short story, “Kong Yiji.” (孔乙己).
Words and food have been cultural dancing partners throughout China’s history. Confucius used culinary themes thousands of years ago, for example. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), artists, poets, scholars and other literati gathered to discuss their work in teahouses and over intricate meals. Using seasonal ingredients was valued, as were balanced delicate meals. Even locavorism had an early heyday, as foods focused on nearby regions were preferred to showcase local styles.
Shaoxing’s unique food traditions
Lu was born and raised in Shaoxing not far from an epicenter of Song Dynastic literary and culinary experimentation based in the nearby city of Hangzhou. Lu’s integration of food in his short story, however, is used uniquely as a tool to demonstrate class differences rather than as an extended form of embellishment.
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Whereas nearby Shanghai is known for soy sauce just to the north, Shaoxing is famous internationally for its wine (as recently featured in the popular documentary series, “A Bite of China“) and its stinky fermented tofu. Zhejiang generally is notable within Chinese cuisine as one of the famed “Eight Culinary Traditions” for its light, fresh flavors that are less greasy than Shanghainese cuisine. It is also respected for tea production, especially the green varietal called Longjing that is produced around Hangzhou. Dishes featuring local freshwater fish and a braised chicken dish known as “drunken chicken” similarly focus on local ingredients.
The story, and its historic setting, inspired the creation of a successful chain of restaurants also named Kong Yiji. There are four locations in Beijing and one in Shanghai. These are perennially packed and generally well-respected by locals and expats alike for their food. While a bit pricier than your average dinner spot, they are considered a good bargain for your renminbi. My friend and I decided to check it out and see what parts of Lu’s story made it onto the menu, and if it’s any good.
Dishes from food-inspired literature
Lu Xun never reveals Kong Yiji’s real name. Instead, Kong Yiji is the nickname given to the character by bar-goers and bartenders to poke fun at his educated airs, referencing the name of common Chinese characters used to teach children Chinese calligraphy. Kong himself never passed the Imperial Examinations to become a true scholar, yet he wears the long robes expected of such a position.
When he orders his warmed wine scooped out of the earthen bowl where it is fermented, he uses high-brow language, attracting the ridicule of other customers. I tried the Shaoxing wine at the restaurant and it was dark and savory, an unexpected surprise in a regional cuisine that integrates sweetness in unexpected places.
For example, the stinky deep-fried tofu (zhao chou doufu) was smoky as usual, though less pungent than other varieties I’ve tried in Changsha, Wuhan, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei. It was accompanied by a sweet “sour berry” (suan mei) sauce like a chutney in both flavor and consistency. I have never seen such an extreme a gap between the savory and sweet elements in Chinese food. It was also unusual for the dish to include something in jelly-like form spread atop the main ingredient. It worked well, like a stinky cheese would if paired with quince paste.
In Lu’s story, Kong often orders a plate of aniseed-flavored broad beans (huixiang dou) as his bar snack, so when I ordered it at Kong Yiji as an appetizer, I expected something lowbrow and simple, suitable for pairing with booze as with the salty, deep-friend version sold nationally at convenience shops and offered for free at bars today. Instead, the beans had been steamed and were soft and giving. The flavor was simultaneously smoky and sweet, unfurling slowly so my mouth was entertained as can be expected of sophisticated restaurant food.
I don’t eat meat or fish so I didn’t try the seafood or drunken chicken but my dining partner shared a dish with me mixing chopped bits of steamed shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, green beans and niangao, a chewy glutinous rice cake. We chose it mainly to test the boiled bamboo component, which is the other bar food Kong orders (zhusun) because, Lu stresses in his writing, it costs merely an extra penny when ordered alongside the broad beans (and Kong must be frugal with his money). The dish cleverly balanced the many textures and flavors, but as far as bamboo goes it was bland and slightly overcooked. It was no match for the tofu or broad bean dishes.
Kong Yiji’s restaurant owners took inspiration from Lu Xun to replicate a period and place in Chinese culinary history when high-end food was appreciated by high society. The outlet we went to, near Chaoyang Park’s west gate, has a cultivated river flowing through the dark wood floor, which is separated into island sections where tables and booths provide some privacy. The male waiters run around wearing black suit pants and vests, and the women wear long red qipao dresses, the female version of the floor-length robes scholars wore during Lu Xun’s era. Today, even the servers have a right to dress in refinery. Even more modern, they take your order on electronic handheld devices and wear earpieces used by the kitchen to inform them when food is ready for pickup.
Lu wrote during a period of dramatic societal upheaval in China, often exploring anxieties related to his educated background at a time when shifting class conditions prioritized the masses instead. He most likely would not have been pleased by my Kong Yiji dining experience, but Kong Yiji the literary figure would probably have felt proud.
Top photo: Diners at Kong Yiji restaurant in Chaoyang Park, Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
I love the spring produce and all the fresh new flavors of the season. In the weekend farmers markets in Dallas there is an abundance of strawberries, asparagus, leaf lettuces, spinach, spring onions, radishes, broccoli rabe and kale. At the Indian markets red, green and yellow bell peppers glow next to mounds of brilliantly green chilies, curry leaves and leaf vegetables. Tucked in between purple, green and white eggplants and fresh green peas are baskets of green knobby rough textured bitter gourds. They all turn into beautiful, flavorful spring dishes.
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Bitter gourd, which is also called bitter melon and balsam pear (Momordica charantia), is a very nutritious and healthy vegetable. This green melon that is shaped more like a cucumber has uneven grooves and a rough texture and is unlike any others in the melon family. It is also the most bitter of edible vegetables. Just as chili peppers vary in size and degree of heat, there are many varieties of bitter gourd that differ substantially in the shape and bitterness. The Indian variety is dark green and spiky while the Chinese variety is lighter in color with a bumpy peel. Some Taiwanese, Japanese and Filipino varieties are ivory to white-colored.
Bitter gourds grow on vines in tropical and subtropical climates. They are cultivated in most parts of Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. They have a hollow center with a thin layer of flesh surrounding a seed cavity filled with large flat seeds and pith. Young bitter gourds tend to be bitterer than the ripe vegetable.
When a bitter gourd begins to ripen its color changes to shades of yellow, the interior has a reddish hue and it has less bitterness. When it is fully ripe it turns orange and splits into segments that curl back to expose seeds covered in bright red pulp. Bitter gourd is mostly cooked when green, or when it just starts turning yellow. The young shoots and leaves of the bitter gourd are also edible.
Selling Americans on bitter veggies
Even if its bitter taste does not appeal to you, its health benefits certainly will. It is low in calories and carbs, has high fiber content, and is high in vitamins and minerals. Bitter gourd is a proven hypoglycemic agent, a natural source of plant insulin that helps lower blood sugar levels. Indian herbal medicine, Ayurveda, prescribes it for controlling blood sugar and digestive disorders. It has a long history of use in Chinese and African herbal medicines too. Its medicinal uses are also popular in South American countries.
Bitter and astringent flavors are generally restrained in American cuisine. Bitter gourd is a delicious vegetable when cooked right and the taste buds are given the chance to become acquainted with the most misunderstood of the primary flavors. The healing properties of bitter gourd are becoming more widely accepted in the United States, especially among natural health practitioners. Advocates created the The National Bitter Melon Council in 2004 to build a community of bitter melon fans and advocate for the vegetable. The group hosts events and festivals in various cities in the United States to celebrate the health, social, culinary and creative possibilities of this underappreciated vegetable.
People who enjoy bitter gourd find its bitterness refreshing and palate cleansing. It is a favorite vegetable in Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, South Asian, and South American cuisines. In these cuisines its bitterness is recognized for its place in the flavor spectrum.
In Indian cuisine there are so many ways of cooking bitter gourd. The bitterness is tamed by cooking with of spices, shallots, yogurt, coconut, mango, potatoes, peanuts, tamarind or onions. They are also stuffed with spices and pan-fried. Spiced, sun-dried and deep-fried bitter gourd rings are a common dish. The bitterness can be reduced by salting pieces before cooking or tamed by blanching them for a few minutes.
This recipe makes a good side dish. The bitterness is tamed here by the addition of shallots and spices. Shallots have a pleasant crispness and are sweeter and milder in flavor than onions. They have a really nice way of incorporating themselves more fully into dishes.
Bitter Gourd With Shallots
6 to 8 medium sized bitter gourds
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon ginger powder
½ teaspoon powdered red chili peppers (less for milder taste)
3 tablespoons of oil
3 to 4 shallots, thinly sliced
1. Slice the gourd in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard the pulp and seeds. Rub with salt and set aside for half an hour. Squeeze out the bitter juices and then cut the gourd into ¼- to ½-inch segments. You’ll be left with little C-shaped segments.
2. Combine the salt, turmeric, coriander powder, ginger powder and powdered chili pepper and mix well. Sprinkle the spice mix on the cut pieces to coat them with spices.
3. In a pan heat the oil and add shallots. Keep stirring so that they are evenly cooked.
4. Add the spiced bitter gourd pieces to the pan after three or four minutes. Reduce the heat and cook them covered till tender. Open the cover and stir a few times so that the vegetable is cooked and browned evenly.
Top photo: Bitter gourds. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
It used to be that Asian foods served in American restaurants had to be Anglicized into submission, leading to such hybrid creations as fried chicken coated in lollipop-sweet lemon sauce or California rolls stuffed with avocado, crab and mayo. But nowadays sophisticated diners enjoy the real stuff with a passion, tweeting news of the best Uyghur barbecue or the freshest pho in town.
Even fervent fans of Asian food rarely get to know the comfort food made in the homes of Asians whose families have been in the U.S. for a couple of generations. Other than in ethnically diverse places such as Hawaii, this subject has been strangely overlooked — until this book came along.
“The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” is a compilation of recipes by home cooks whose bloodlines lead back to Korea, Japan, China, Southeast Asia and India. What they cook in the U.S. has often morphed into something new and exciting, dishes that take advantage of American ingredients and kitchens while satisfying the palates of their children and grandchildren. First released as a hardback in October 2009, “Asian Grandmothers” was recently issued in paperback just as the hardback edition was about to sell out.
By Patricia Tanumihardja
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Author Patricia Tanumihardja was born to Indonesian parents and grew up in multicultural Singapore before settling in the States. She has worked as a food journalist and created an iPhone app glossary, “Asian Ingredients 101.” The book, her first, had its origins in a blog, where she recorded interviews with and recipes from grandmothers as well as aunts, mothers, fathers and “anyone who had a family recipe to share,” she explained in a note. “Several recipes were also from my mom and her mom, and a few were mine.” In addition, she found a few of the recipes in old cookbooks.
And so, with this book, Tanumihardja has cracked open the door to some of those mysterious kitchens, allowing non-Asians to finally enjoy all sorts of dishes that rarely appear in restaurants and which — at least up until now — could only be tasted when a friend’s popo or lola or ba ngoai would carry something insanely aromatic to a table surrounded by family and the occasional hungry friend.
That has happened to me over the years. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and then attended the University of Hawaii. An invite home for dinner or a party meant that I soon would be happily munching on chewy fried chicken coated in rice powder, siphoning down slithery japchae noodles, or weeping tears of joy and pain over the insanely hot sausages my Lao friends brought to college parties. (Recipes for all those delights are included in this cookbook, although as might be expected with food designed to feed one’s offspring, this book’s Lao grandma considerably toned down the heat of her sausages.) For someone who was raised on tuna fish casserole and meatloaf, these were revelations of a whole new sensory spectrum.
The author makes the reader feel as if these Asian grandmothers were in the kitchen too, happy to offer the little asides, like “don’t worry if the custard falls a little” or “cilantro changes its flavor when it comes into contact with steel, so pick the leaves off the stems,” that make you feel part of an extended family. And it perhaps is this intimacy that makes me feel as if I finally have a permanent seat at those old friends’ family tables.
The recipes are a smorgasbord of some familiar and not-so-familiar foods, with some wonderful takes on old classics. For example, there’s the perfect recipe for chicken adobo, one that tasted rich and tart as it should, but also mellow and tropical thanks to the suggested addition of coconut milk. We devoured it along with bowls of the garlic fried rice that — as promised — were the perfect accompaniment.
“Asian Grandmothers” is a book to treasure, and all the recipes I tried worked perfectly. On a warm spring evening, following that chicken adobo dinner, I treated some friends to tall glasses of the Vietnamese classic parfait called che ba mau, which layers sweet beans with tapioca, crushed ice and fragrant homemade pandan syrup. We dug down into the colorful layers as we watched the sun set, sucking up the sweet liquid through thick straws. Hot Pakistani chai (the best spiced tea I’ve ever had, by the way) followed, and it would be difficult for anyone not to feel absolute contentment — and for some of us, nostalgia — after a meal like that.
Top photo composite:
“The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.” Courtesy of Sasquatch Books
Author Patricia Tanumihardja. Credit: Mars Tanumihardja
Entering by foot through the main gate, the aura here is clean, fresh, like the docks of a Spanish port. But the sea is hundreds of miles away, and airplanes buzz overhead in this flat, nondescript part of the megalopolis that is Mexico’s capital. This is one of the biggest fish markets in the world, larger than Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji, and it satisfies the oceanic cravings of all of central Mexico. It’s the Mercado de la Nueva Viga, Mexico City’s central wholesale/retail fish market.
The interminably long parallel aisles, at least 10 of them, present about 150,000 tons a year of the fish and seafood, proffered by small vendors whose wares lie in a seemingly disorderly array of size and type.
MEXICO'S LARGEST FISH MARKET
Central de Pescados y Mariscos la Nueva Viga
Location: Prol. Eje 6 Sur No. 560 Piso 1, San José Aculco, Iztapalapa Mexico City
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Noble silvery blue tuna come in all sizes and lie neatly stacked. Next to them are gigantic glowing warm red snappers, the king of Mexican fish, from little gold-striped jewel-sized ones that can fit in the palm of a child’s hand to enormous mammas the size of a seal. Silver mackerel, here called sierra, are long and fat: Their black eyes, which appear to stare in a fixed, knowing gaze, are crystal clear as if they just jumped out of the sea. And then there are squid and prawns and octopus and cuttlefish. The purplish calamari comes from cold waters afar; it’s been thawed, but smells clean and fresh. Mounds of deep magenta octopi have been boiled and are waiting to be sliced into ceviche de pulpo by the vendor. For those who want to take them on, slimy, grey blue fresh pulpos — all eight legs attached — are available as well.
The hazy morning rays of sun enhance the translucent red of the big fishes’ flesh. That light highlights the silvery glitter of the smaller ones’ skins, in varying shades of cool metallic blues. Long narrow cintilla are an astonishingly brilliant chrome, as shiny as the bumper of a restored ’57 Chevy. There are trout, fresh and from the sea; besugo; bonito; ferocious sharks called cazón; and innocuous whitebait named charal. Sting ray are splayed out, their dangerous tails now stilled. Velvety gray pámpano tempt almost as much as the lenguado (aka sole) whose skin is luminescent like a natural pearl.
The aisles become congested with shoppers and vendors. A portly, besmocked porter beseeches the crowd to part so he can wheel his barrow of gigantic whiskered catfish. Another swarthy monger, bare arms muscled and tattooed, holds up a fat 10-kilo (22-pound) extraviado (a type of bass), whose scales glimmer like a set of polished medieval armor.
The eye passes more rapidly over the heaps of severed fish heads with melancholy deep eyes — good for broth. There are low-cost oysters, barrels, sacks and piles of them, big ones and small. They can be shucked on request. Unattractive dirty grey clams, ostensibly for soup, and beautiful rust-colored large ones, called chocolates, for ceviche. Giant white Pismo clams, rare in these parts, weigh upward of a pound, and should be eaten raw, or as a simple ceviche. Blue-black mussels come in neat mesh bags. Live crabs, also scarce, are sold by one proud purveyor. Almost anything that swims in the sea can be found at the Viga, although the best is fresh and comes from the warm waters of the Caribbean or the cooler Pacific.
Seafood empanadas near Mexico’s biggest fish market
Around the corner and along the sides, dozens of merchants prepare seafood empanadas to eat here or take away. They roll out dough, fill it with crab, fish, octopus or shrimp and deep-fry to a flaky golden crisp. Bought by the dozen by hungry shoppers and sellers alike, they can be eaten at the stand: the warm pastry is pried open and filled with avocado and salsa, cream or mayo for those who need.
Meanwhile, in a large open area, workers will patiently and expertly clean, carve and fillet anything for a small gratuity. The slam of cleavers on block, the whoosh of scales being stripped and the murmur of instructions being offered are set to a background of old-fashioned Cuban son emanating from someone’s transistor radio. This is a serious place; nobody has time to fool around or loiter. But proud vendors will pose jauntily with a marlin, offer a taste of smoked sierra, pull some flash-frozen sardines out of the cooler to show them off.
At mid-morning closing time, unsold fish are tossed into ice-filled bins and trucks, buckets of water are emptied onto floors and swept off with large wide brooms, trails of ruby fish blood running off in every direction. The tables, stands, counters and tubs are cleaned and refreshed for this never-ending bounty, always and forever to be replenished.
Top photo: The assortment is endless at Mexico City’s la Nueva Viga fish market. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
One of the many things that I love about travel is the chance to eat a renowned dish in its country of origin. In India, I went straight for the curries. In Vietnam, I fell for bánh mì. In Switzerland, I gobbled up fondu, raclette and rösti. You can’t get much more authentic than that.
Of these, it is the Swiss potato pancake, rösti, that I make on a regular basis. Derived from the German word rösten, which means to roast or grill, rösti consists of fried, shredded potatoes. That’s it. That’s the main and often sole ingredient of this easy Swiss specialty. Crisp on the outside yet soft and velvety on the inside, the simple rösti possesses a rich, complex flavor and competing textures that make it a sheer delight to eat.
Originally, rösti served as a filling breakfast for 19th-century Bernese farmers. A shared offering, it was placed on a platter in the center of the breakfast table. Using their spoons, people would cut off a piece of the patty and dunk it into a cup of weak, milky coffee. It may seem like an unusual custom, but it was one that soon caught on in other parts of Switzerland.
Rösti a versatile dish for any meal
Rösti quickly usurped the traditional Swiss farm breakfast of soup or mash, which had fed the hungry since medieval times.
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Today’s Swiss cooks continue to deck out their potato pancakes with a diverse range of ingredients. At Geneva’s Auberge de Savièse, rösti is decorated with strips of red bell peppers and onions. Meanwhile, the Eiger Guesthouse in the Alpine village of Mürren adds a touch of Italy to its offering, adorning it with sliced, fresh tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and a drizzle of pesto sauce.
Some prefer pairing a simple rösti with a savory entrée. This is the case for Geneva resident and United Nations worker Chris Morh. “On a chilly day there is nothing better than to have rösti with Zuericher Geschnetzteltes, veal with cream sauce,” Morh says.
Just as the serving styles vary, so too do the ways that rösti is prepared. The differences start with the potatoes, which can either be cooked and then shredded, or shredded when raw. This is also the case with a relative of rösti, the American hash brown.
Then there is the question of how to cook the potatoes. Although I prefer to boil them in their skins, others opt for steaming. With the latter method, no salt is added to the potatoes and fewer nutrients leach into the cooking water.
In what the shredded potatoes are fried also differs from cook to cook. Some folks swear by vegetable oil while others endorse butter or bacon fat as the best.
Many claim you should fry your potatoes in oil and then add butter in small dabs at the very end of the cooking time. You spread the butter around the rösti’s edges so it melts, drips down into the hot pan and flavors your dish. I’ve found that this step also stops my potatoes from sticking to the skillet.
In spite of the variations, there are some agreements on rösti. You should use firm, cooking potatoes such as yellow or golden. You should also sauté the potatoes first before shaping them into a plump pancake and frying the cake on both sides.
Whether you make it to Switzerland or just to the corner store, pick up a pound of firm, yellow potatoes and treat yourself to an easy, delicious dinner of rösti.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1½ pounds yellow/golden potatoes, boiled in salted water until just tender, peeled and grated
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
⅓ cup grated Gruyère cheese
2 spring onions, whites and 1 inch of greens sliced
1. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon butter and the olive oil over medium-high heat. As the butter is melting, toss together the shredded potatoes, thyme, salt and pepper.
2. Spoon the potatoes into the frying pan and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure that all the potatoes have been coated with the oil.
3. Shape the potatoes into a pancake and fry on one side until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Place a flat plate over the top of the pan and invert the pan onto the plate. Return the pan to the heat, add a dab of butter if needed and then slide the rösti back into the pan, uncooked side down. Allow the potato pancake to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, until that side has also browned.
5. A few minutes before removing the rösti, break off small pieces from the remaining butter and spread it around the edge of the potatoes.
6. To remove the rösti, place a serving platter over the top of the pan and invert it onto the platter. Spread the Gruyère cheese and spring onions over the top of the rösti. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Rösti. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Lent, the 40 days leading to Easter, is observed with solemnity by the Christian community in Kerala, India. Though there are variations among the different denominations, observant Christians abstain from meat and alcohol during this period. In contrast to joyful Easter celebrations, Maundy Thursday services are typically solemn occasions. On the evening of Maundy Thursday in Kerala, many congregations observe the Pesaha meal, a traditional Passover Seder meal at homes, commemorating the last supper of Jesus. Dishes including Pesaha appam and Pesaha paal are integral to the traditions.
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The word Pesaha is believed to originate from Syriac, and the ritual observances associated with Pesaha indicate its antiquity. “Christians of (the) Aramaic-speaking world, particularly those in Persia, in the early centuries followed a number of Jewish-customs,” wrote G. Rouwhorst in his piece on “Jewish Liturgical Traditions in Early Syriac Christianity.” Since the migration of Christians to Kerala began during the early centuries, perhaps the Jewish customs of West Asian Christians were brought to Kerala by these immigrants.
There are several similarities between Jewish Passover and Pesaha of Kerala Christians. These include cleaning the house, using cleaned or new dishes for cooking the Pesaha meal, singing special songs and feeding the poor. Both traditions also call for a preparation of unleavened bread called Pesaha appam, which is reminiscent of bread from a Jewish Passover meal. Pesaha paal is a Kerala version of the sweet component of the Pesaha meal. It is made with coconut milk sweetened with jaggery, thickened with rice flour and spiced with dried ginger and cumin. In times past in certain regions, new earthenware pots were bought to make the Pesaha appam and Pesaha paal. Some people even destroyed the pot after use and bought new ones every year.
On Maundy Thursday, after the evening prayer, the head of the house recites passages from the Bible about the last supper. He then breaks the ritual unleavened bread Pesaha appam. He gives the bread to the women in the family to soak in Pesaha paal, a sweet dish prepared with jaggery (Indian brown cane sugar) and coconut milk. The bread is then distributed among family members, beginning with the eldest. This bread is also called INRI appam, a reference to the Latin acronym inscribed above Jesus’ cross, translating in English to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”
Kerala makes Easter fare its own
As recipes travel from one continent to another, cooks often substitute or incorporate various local ingredients. Pesaha appam is no exception. South Indian breads are made with fermented batter of rice and a white legume called urad dal (vigna mungo). Other staple ingredients of Kerala cuisine are coconuts and spices. All of them are incorporated in the recipes for Pesaha meal.
But, unlike other traditional breads, the batter for Pesaha appam is not fermented, it is not allowed to stand for more than half an hour or so.
The first loaf is made by transferring batter to a round pan and creating a cross atop the dish with coconut palm leaves blessed by the priest on the previous Sunday.
The recipes, ingredients and cooking methods vary in different parts of the state. One cooking method called for baking the appam by placing the batter in a dish above a large pot of burning firewood and below another pot filled with embers.
Since gas stoves have replaced wood-burning stoves, in some parts of Kerala the bread batter is spread over banana leaves kept inside a round pan and steam cooked.
Pesaha Appam (INRI Appam)
The following recipes for Pesaha Appam and Pesaha Paal are adapted from the recipes of my friend Sany Abraham.
4 tablespoons urad dal
1½ cup freshly grated coconut
1 tablespoon thinly sliced shallots
Salt to taste
2 cups fine rice flour
1. Soak urad dal in water for about an hour.
2. In a blender, grind the soaked dal along with a few tablespoons of water into a smooth thick batter.
3. Separately grind the coconut and shallots to a smooth purée using very little water.
4. In a saucepan, bring 2½ cups water to a rolling boil, and stir in salt and the rice flour. Keep stirring so that there are no lumps. Remove from the stove. Mix the ground urad dal and coconut and shallot purée and mix well. The batter should be thick.
5. Spread it evenly in a round pan, place palm leaves in a cross shape on top, cover and steam for 25-30 minutes on medium high heat. Serve along with Pesaha paal.
2 or 3 cubes of jaggery
1 cup water
2 cups coconut milk
1 tablespoon fine rice powder
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon ginger powder
1. Melt jaggery with water over medium heat.
2. Strain the mixture into big pot.
3. Pour coconut milk into the pot and simmer for a few minutes.
4. Stir in rice powder and keep stirring.
5. Sprinkle cumin and ginger powder and stir well.
6. Place a cross made with palm leaves on top.
Pesaha appam and Pesaha paal. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran