Articles in Travel

Illustration of Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

The key to mastering the art of the café lifestyle in Paris is to be vigilant. My Café French™ language system can help. Did your French server just scowl at you because you ordered poison (in French, poison, pronounced pwah-zon) instead of fish (poisson, pronounced pwah-son)? The grammatical rule here is that a single “s” appearing between two vowels — “i” and “o” in the case of poison — is pronounced “zz.” And a double “ss” appearing between two vowels, as in poisson, is pronounced “ss.”

La Vie en Rose

One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture, including:

» Secrets of 'Cafe French': Liver, Faith and Time — Foie, Foi and Fois


More from Zester Daily:

» Following M.F.K. Fisher's Footsteps in Aix-en-Provence, France

» A Coffee Crisis: Paris vs. Berkeley

» Navigating Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto

In Café French, the key to mastering the art of Parisian café life is to be vigilant, especially when considering fish, poisson, poison and James Beard.

Something’s fishy here

There may be reason enough in our polluted world to worry about being poisoned by fish without ordering it that way! That prompts the question: Where does Paris actually get its fish? All 100-mile locavores take note: Paris is a long way from its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Although the River Seine and smaller rivers and streams around Paris were once sources of freshwater fish, this is no longer the case because of industrial waste, especially from nuclear power plants. So even with its spectacular ocean bounty, France is today a net importer of seafood.

But despite discouraging trends in French gastronomy brought on by social, political, environmental and economic stressors — read Michael Steinberger’s book on France’s declining haute cuisine status, “Au Revoir to All That” — much of the gastronomic apparatus that made France the envy of the Western world over the last several centuries remains intact, theoretically, if not always visible on the plate.

The gastronomic reach of Paris

It was the legendary French writer and gastronome Curnonsky — born Maurice-Edmond Sailland in 1889 — who christened Paris a “tentacular” city and the digesting “belly” of France. Gastronomic France was built like a huge wheel with spokes that radiated out from the hub — Paris. And like some gourmandizing Goliath, Paris reached out over La France Profonde (“deep France”) to rake in the regional treasures of its incomparably fertile terroir.

The Gastronomic Reach of Paris. Credit: L. John Harris

Illustration of Paris Gastronomic Reach. Credit: L. John Harris

You might say that culinary Paris was, in the first half of the 20th century, Curnonsky himself. In a 1927 newspaper poll, he was voted by 3,000 Parisian chefs “The Elected Prince of Gastronomy” (Le Prince-élu de la Gastronomie) and was the first modern French food and wine critic powerful enough to make or break important restaurants. It has been claimed that top chefs would keep a table empty just in case Curnonsky should walk in.

The gastronomic wheel of France circa early 20th century was, of course, made of rubber, as in the Michelin tire company. Curnonsky helped usher in the Michelin era and its starred rating system, becoming the company’s first spokesman and the creator of what is known today as gastro-tourism, or back in the day, “motor-tourism.”

Promoting France’s increasingly-accessible regional cuisine was Curnonsky’s real passion. Similarly, a generation later, American food legend James Beard (1903-1985) would advocate for the regional cuisines of the United States, including the new California cuisine that emerged in the 1970s. Curnonsky had divided French cuisine into four hierarchical categories: At the top was haute cuisine (fancy restaurant cooking), followed by traditional family cooking, regional cooking and finally at the bottom, “impromptu” or “camper” cooking. The resemblance of California’s simple, local, fresh-is-best cooking style — discovered and championed by Beard — to the lowest rung in Curnonsky’s French cuisine hierarchy is worth noting.

Forks and rakes

Like Paris raking in the bounty of France, Curnonsky and Beard did prodigious amounts of personal gastronomic raking, as to which their growing rotundity would testify. The French word for a rake or pitchfork is fourche (foorshhh). A dinner fork, fourchette (pronounced foor-shett), is a “little rake.” (Café French™ tip: Don’t forget to emphasize the second syllable in the word fourchette when you ask your scowling Parisian café server for another fork. It’s bad enough you dropped the first one on the floor without asking to replace it with a rake.)

The physical resemblance of our outsized French and American gourmands went well beyond their balding pates, mustaches and signature bow ties. The expansive real estate they each wore around their middles (the French call a paunch a brioche) like suburban sprawl around an urban core, was their professional trademark. Larger than life (obesity became a “problem” only after World War II), Curnonsky and Beard personified the material abundance of the foods and wines they celebrated and gorged on.

There is something both hilarious and poignant in the discovery that at the James Beard Foundation in New York there is a long telescoping extension fork that Beard would use at meals to skewer food from across the table, especially bread I am told.

Historical rakes and rascals

Appearing a century or two before Curnonsky and Beard, the “rake” (in French, un débauché, pronounced day-bo-shay) was a dandy, rascal or libertine whose large, often refined appetites were, from the perspective of a growing bourgeois culture, out of control. Cafés in Paris and tea salons in London of that period were full of rakes.

The character is featured in English artist William Hogarth’s series of devilishly humorous paintings cum lithographs called “The Rake’s Progress.” The social and personal dramas portrayed in Hogarth’s masterpiece reveal the troubles of one Tom Rakewell (a wordplay on “rakehell” from the Middle English “rakel”) whose “… pursuit of pleasure and sensual satisfaction … shows hedonistic, Epicurean, and anti-rationalist patterns of thought,” as Wikipedia puts it.

I wouldn’t necessarily apply the “anti-rationalist” component here, but Curnonsky and Beard certainly shared “rakish” tendencies. Our twin epicures did not hesitate to pursue their “sensual satisfaction” publicly through their gargantuan devotions to the pleasures of the table, and privately, no doubt, through “hedonistic” behaviors not relevant to our Café French™ discourse.

Meanwhile, back at the café

Seated at my favorite corner table at Café de Flore in Paris’ chic 6th arrondissement, I come across an astonishing line in Beard’s 1961 cookbook “Paris Cuisine,” where he comments on the declining post-WWII cafés in Paris and their “ … very mixed crowd of phony artists, haywire poets and every possible nationality of sightseer.”

Muffling my guffaw in a glass of chilled rosé — a Café French™ survival technique — my thoughts shift back to Monsieur Curnonsky. I wonder what he would think about today’s Michelin-endorsed avant-garde cooking and an artsy cuisinier de poisson (fish cook) who serves a purée de poisson poché (poached fish purée) splattered over a sheet of baked parchment paper and calls it “Jackson’s Pollock”?

Top illustration: Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

Read More
ickled carrots, onions and jalapeños to strew over Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

One of the most exciting cities in Mexico is the Port of Veracruz, with its lineage going back to the Olmecs and Aztecs before Hernán Cortés claimed the area for Spain in 1519. Today, two famous cafes sit smack in front of the port and are known throughout the region because of their locally sourced, house-roasted coffee beans and their waiters’ crackerjack pouring showmanship.

Gran Café de la Parroquía sits facing the Gulf of Mexico port like a proud matriarch welcoming one and all; just as Greek Sirens beckon sailors, it sends aromas wafting through thick sea air to summon mere mortals into its belly. The original café opened in 1808 on the zócalo (town square) a few blocks away. About 200 years later, the family split the business and two factions went their separate ways, but today oddly find themselves almost next to each other on the Malecón, Veracruz City’s waterfront walkway. Regulars have their favorite and wouldn’t think of entering enemy territory because animosities last a lifetime when it comes to coffee loyalty.

Stroll into Gran Café de la Parroquía and then La Parroquía de Veracruz simply to soak in the welcoming air-conditioned vibe of each. Mosey on up to the coffee counter and admire a huge, old brass Italian coffee maker at each location’s center stage, and while you’re there, inspect the day’s pastries. Choose your favorite of the two voluminous white-walled spaces filled with loads of natural sunlight and find a table in the noisy crowd. Someone is certainly playing Caribbean tunes on a marimba just outside the constantly opening door, while a local jarocho trio with a classic small harp performs at the room’s opposite end. An old woman wearing layers of aprons and shawls wanders by hawking lottery tickets as a musician winds his way through the activity offering up a güiro, an instrument made from a gourd, for tips. And you still haven’t had a chance to take off your hat and sunglasses.

A waiter in a spiffy white guayabera (a traditional shirt worn untucked, with vertical pleats and front patch pockets) comes by, and the first thing you say besides “buenas dias” is “un lechero.” He brings a tall glass, a spoon and a menu. You notice other patrons tapping the sides of their empty coffee glasses with spoons, but definitely not keeping beat to the music. It takes a while, but then you get it. The clanking beckons another waiter with two big, metal teapots filled with strong espresso coffee in one and hot milk in the other. He starts to fill your glass with coffee but slowly raises the pot to about 3 feet from the glass; he then repeats the action with milk, with the same aplomb. Not a drop spills. Quite a show. Bravo!

Picture 1 of 5

Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Start with a plate of perfectly ripe tropical fruit and a squirt of lime. Pan dulce (sweet rolls, but not buttery rich like Danish pastry) are morning favorites, so ask the waiter for a basket of the day’s assortment. Hungrier? Try Huevos Tirados, “thrown together” eggs. The dish is certainly odd looking but make no mistake, it’s a delicious Veracruz eye opener. A few eggs are scrambled with black bean purée and then rolled into a streaky grayish-golden oval lump that is served alone on a white plate. Strew on a few pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños from the bowl that appears out of nowhere and dig in for a spicy, vinegary, zingy breakfast.

Of course you’ll have another lechero, if only to engage one more time in the charming Veracruz coffee ritual.

Huevos Tirados (Puréed Black Bean Omelet)

Makes 1 tirado

Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion

2 large eggs

¼ cup cooked and puréed black beans, a little on the wet side, seasoned with sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Heat the butter in a small nonstick skillet and sauté the onion until barely golden brown.

2. Lightly scramble the eggs into the onion with a fork. While the eggs are still wet, pour the beans across the eggs in a strip. Delicately drag the fork through at a few zigzag angles to get a loose marbled effect. Cook until done as you wish.

3. Have a plate ready. Hold the skillet by its handle and raise it to an angle. Using the fork, roll the omelet from the top down onto the plate and arrange it into an oval shape.

Top photo: Pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños to strew over Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Read More
Meat grilling at Carnes Aldecoa. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

It’s 2 p.m. on a sunny, cool, spring day in Hermosillo, Mexico. I stroll through the meat aisle of the century-old market surrounded by flaming crimson cuts of raw beef. I exit to a shady plaza behind the building. Groups of old-timers sporting Stetsons and pointy cowboy boots wile away the sultry afternoon. Shoeshiners polish, shoppers amble. Indigenous ladies in pleated skirts sell carved wooden animals. Norteña music, accordion-heavy and lilting, emanates from store radios. The mood is placid, amiable.

The capital of Sonora, Hermosillo is quiet, untouched by border violence. The old town center conserves its frontier Old West ambiance. Sonora, in northwest Mexico, borders the U.S. states of Arizona and New Mexico, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Baja California. It’s home to mountains, coastline and desert, people of Spanish heritage as well as the once-nomadic indigenous Seri tribe. Cattle ranching is one of the main industries, and beef raised here is considered the best in the country.

The gastronomy of Hermosillo is unique to Mexico: It is in the middle of the desert but only an hour from the coast, an unusual geographic setting reflected in the food. Meat dishes, principally beef, are consumed in great quantity, but so is seafood. My mission is to investigate the regional cuisine, both high and “low.” So I start with what everybody in the country knows Sonora for: steak.

Sonora Steak House: Classic Mexican

The city is home to several steak houses. The best is the Sonora Steak House. Set up like its northern counterparts, the steak house offers familiar cuts of beef. The context that differentiates it from its north of the border counterparts is classic Mexican: handmade wheat tortillas, house-fried chips, fresh green tomatillo salsa and roasted green chilies accompany the meat.

Sonora Steak House. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Sonora Steak House. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Aged rib eye is the best cut; a whole side is wheeled out and sliced to customer specification, then grilled over hot stones. Grain-fed beef is locally raised, certified Angus and dry aged for 25 to 30 days. The meat is juicy, just tender enough, with a lingering beefy-fatty taste — umami as it should be.

José Luís is a swarthy mustachioed taxi driver of about 30. Sporting a wide-brimmed hat, white button-down shirt, black jeans and boots, he looks as if he’d just stepped off the set of “Gunsmoke.” Norteña plays as I get in his taxi — in Mexico it’s considered de riguer for guys to sit up front with the driver — it’s more macho that way. I open the conversation with the topic of food, a subject that needs no warmup small talk. Wasting no time, we speak of beef. José Luís explains that locals know their meat.

Although the breeds are the same as those raised up north, principally Angus, ranches are smaller; cows are grazed outside the pen longer and fed less grain. So they taste better. “We know when beef has been imported from the United States,” he chuckles, puffing on a Marlboro. “A place here was selling imported meat recently — we know just looking at it — they were shut down and the guy practically run out of town on a rail!” Where did he like to eat beef? “Oh, my mother makes the best; I never eat out,” he replies.

Carnes Aldecoa: On-the-road butcher shop

I enjoy a good steak, and Sonora Steak House doesn’t fail to please, but my ravenous meat cravings aren’t totally satisfied until I find the amazing Carnes Aldecoa. This on-the-road butcher shop both sells and cooks. Buy the meat you want, any kind and quantity. I choose a cut called diezmillo, which is recommended over the much more expensive rib eye. The butcher weighs, you pay, then they grill it for you over mesquite coals in huge outdoor grills. Served chopped as tacos, this is a divinely carnivorous experience. Freshly made tortillas are sold separately out back. While most customers take the grilled meat home, I eat au plein aire at the picnic tables provided.

El Pescadito: Fish tacos at any hour

Moving on to oceanic offerings, I go in search of the best seafood. Semi-outdoor fish taco stands and small restaurants abound. El Pescadito, on a corner in a quiet working-class residential neighborhood is bustling at 8:30 in the morning. Apparently locals don’t see anything strange about having fish tacos for breakfast. Pescado estilo baja is cazón, a small shark, chunks of which are battered, deep-fried and served in a light wheat tortilla with fresh pico de gallo and optional salsas to spike things up. This gold standard of fish tacos is steaming, crunchy, fishy — but not too — and augmented but not overwhelmed by its accompaniments. It’s indeed a winner.

Picture 1 of 5

Fish tacos. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Omar’s place: Cahuamanta

An outstanding local dish, often sold at tacos joints or by itself from pushcarts, is cahuamanta, a hearty soup of manta raya (skate), shrimp and chopped carrots and potatoes, eaten as broth or strained and served as tacos. I had passed Omar’s stand on my way in from the airport, and I just have to make my way back. At 1 in the afternoon, Omar is cleaning up but still has some steaming cahuamanta for my taxi driver and me. We eat this Mexicanized bouillabaisse out of its Styrofoam cup accompanied by tortilla chips and the sound of zooming traffic. I can practically hear the ocean’s roar even though it is nowhere near.

Taquería los Longos: Burritos, the Sonora way

It is 3 p.m., and I have been eating nonstop since sunrise. But Paco, another taxista, portly and gregarious, insists on taking me to Taquería los Longos, where a regional version of burritos is proffered. These burros (really, the diminutive “ito” is all wrong) are in fact spectacularly huge, thin handmade wheat tortillas filled with up to 3 guisados — rich, earthy chili and beef-based stews. Unlike the northern burrito bombs, no rice, beans or kitchen sinks are thrown in.

Paco joins me in a burro, teaching me how to tear off bits of tortilla to scoop up mouthfuls of picante sauce, then when down to the nub, fold it into a wrap, not unlike the experience of downing a dosa in south India.

Bermejo: Tijuana chefs’ creations

I am full to bursting. But there is much more to be eaten, just not enough time to do it. I spend the evening eating and drinking good Baja California wine at Bermejo, the city’s new venue for inventive cooking headed by renowned Tijuana chefs Javier Placencia and Adria Montaño, who take from local traditions and work alchemy — case in point, a barely grilled baja oyster topped with grilled beef and its “au jus” that really works.

Hermosillo may seem provincial, influenced by the culture of Uncle Sam, but its culinary heritage shows no signs of being subsumed into the morass of global or even national food. That’s a good thing.

Top photo: Meat grilling at Carnes Aldecoa. Credit: Nicholas Gilman.

Read More
Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman

Most cooks acquainted with Turkish food know of borek, a dish of phyllo-like pastry leaves called yufka brushed with butter or oil, layered with meat or cheese, and baked. In Istanbul and other parts of Turkey yufka, when not made at home, is usually purchased fresh and pliable at weekly markets and from specialists called yufkaci.

A few years ago while traveling along Turkey’s central Black Sea coast I discovered yufka’s other incarnation, as a thin cracker-crisp round meant to be rehydrated — or not — before being incorporated into borek.  On the Black Sea, yufka is also rolled, sliced and dried for islama, a dish of yufka spirals topped with chicken or turkey and crushed walnuts and doused with melted butter and broth. And I found that when it comes to filling their borek, central Black Sea cooks go with the season.

Late one February, at a family-owned restaurant 25 miles inland, I feasted on zilbert boregi, a short stack of yufka sheets encasing sautéed borage. Light and crispy, its filling tasting of artichoke and asparagus with a hint of mushroom, that borek hinted at the spring that was beginning to show itself in the region’s budding fruit trees. Six months later in a town a few hours east, I feasted on borek spilling mushrooms foraged from nearby hills, their meatiness foretelling the coming winter.

A sweet deviation

But my favorite Black Sea borek is one that was made for me by Esen, a rare woman in a male-dominated trade who owns a yufka shop not far from the central Black Sea fishing town of Sinop. A short sturdy woman in her late 30s, Esen toils over her big round gas-fired griddle from the wee hours of the morning until late in the afternoon, turning out katlama (stacked yufka rounds with a slick of butter in between) and layered and rolled sweet and savory borek.

Layers of traditional borek. Credit: David Hagerman

Layers of traditional borek. Credit: David Hagerman

One morning I asked Esen what she intended to do with a big pumpkin sitting on a table near her griddle. She smiled and grabbed the pumpkin by its stem, raised it over her head and threw it on the concrete floor where it split neatly in two. After peeling and grating the vegetable she roughly chopped two handfuls of walnuts and measured out a bit of sugar. Then she laid a leaf of dried yufka on her griddle, brushed it with oil and built a borek.

Sparely sugared, it was a delightful departure from the syrup-soaked Turkish pastries I’d eaten up till then, with crunchy walnuts and crispy pastry contrasting beautifully with softened pumpkin.

Pumpkin and Walnut Borek (Kabak ve Cevizli Boregi)

Dried yufka and a hot griddle make for a crispier, lighter borek. Baking sheets and an oven work just as well and fresh phyllo sheets, fused and left to dry, are a fine substitute for dried yufka. Don’t worry if the dough tears or wrinkles as you’re making the borek; imperfections add to the charm of this rustic dish.

Plan to lay out your yufka or phyllo to dry at least six hours before assembly. Once that’s done the dish comes together quickly because the borek is baked flat, in one big piece.

Serve this dish for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. It also makes a wonderful dessert, served (untraditionally) hot from the oven with a scoop of ice cream.

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

10 sheets of phyllo

3 cups grated pumpkin or sweet squash

1½ cups chopped walnuts

4 tablespoons sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

Canola or other light cooking oil

4 tablespoons butter, melted

Directions

1. Lay a single sheet of phyllo flat on a work surface. Using a pastry brush, wet it lightly with water. Lay another sheet of phyllo on top of the wet sheet and then use a rolling pin to fuse the two together. Repeat with the remaining eight sheets of phyllo, fusing them 2-by-2 to make five thick sheets in total. Transfer all to cookie sheets or paper towels and leave uncovered in an airy room to dry for at least six hours or as long as overnight.

2. Once the pastry is dry, place the pumpkin, walnut, sugar and salt in a medium bowl and mix with a fork or your fingers.

3. To assemble the borek, lightly oil a cookie sheet large enough to accommodate the yufka or phyllo (at least 15 by 10 inches). Place one sheet of pastry on the cookie sheet (if the pastry hangs over the sides of the cookie sheet just fold the excess inward) and lightly brush it with butter.

4. Sprinkle one quarter of the filling over the buttered pastry — it will not cover the phyllo completely. Place another pastry sheet on top of the pumpkin-walnut filling, pressing it lightly onto the filling with your palms (don’t worry if it cracks a bit). Butter that pastry sheet too. Top with one quarter of the filling, and repeat until all of the filling and pastry is used up. Brush the top piece of pastry with butter.

5. Bake the borek in a 350 F oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the top is showing splotches of golden brown (if your oven is small reverse the position of the cookie sheet halfway through).

6. While the borek is baking, lightly oil another cookie sheet. Remove the borek from the oven and place the second oiled cookie sheet upside down over its top. Squeezing the two cookie sheets together, flip the borek, carefully remove the first cookie sheet, and return it to the oven to bake another 12 to 15 minutes, or until nicely browned.

7. Cut the borek into 6 or 8 squares and serve hot or at room temperature.

Top photo: Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman

Read More
Humba, the king of a gorilla family living at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

I gaze at the 400-plus-pound silverback in what I hope is a submissive fashion. I was warned not to stare. But Humba, the king of a family of mountain gorillas, is a spectacular animal.

He’s as big as a piano, but somehow able to leap up and grab the top of a slender tree and bend it to the ground like a slingshot. Human-like, but not human. And those piercing eyes. To be within a dozen feet of one of these amazing creatures is a bucket-list experience I didn’t even know existed.

Emmanuel de Merode hopes others will make the long trek to Rumangabo, Democratic Republic of Congo, where Virunga National Park is home for 220 of the endangered beasts. But as the park’s chief warden, he knows only the hardiest travelers are likely to accept an invitation to a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the country, one of the world’s deadliest war zones.

To make the park safe for wildlife and visitors, De Merode and his army of rangers have had to take on gun-toting guerrillas, poachers and illegal charcoal traders. Since 1996, more than 130 rangers have been killed, most of them by poachers or armed rebels.

Can tourism lead to a better way of life in war-torn nation?

The latest and most serious threat is what critics call the “oil curse.” The Congolese government is considering revising its laws to allow oil drilling in Virunga and other protected sites. The World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany and the European Union Parliament have opposed such a move. They fear oil exploration will introduce serious threats to the park’s fragile ecosystem and worsen the regional conflicts.

De Merode believes he can offer the people of the Congo a better life than poachers or oil companies. He has launched an ambitious partnership with philanthropist Howard Buffett, eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett, to turn Virunga into a multimillion-dollar job-creating platform using a combination of luxury tourism, fisheries, agribusiness and energy. But for De Merode and Buffett to win this high-stakes battle, they need others to enlist, starting with the world’s travelers. Call it adventure tourism with a purpose: Visit the Virunga, save a gorilla’s life and maybe a country.

Virunga is “the greatest park on earth and it is something that absolutely has to be protected, no matter what,” says De Merode, a boyish 43-year-old who grew up in Kenya and is a member of the Belgian royal family.

In spite of the damage from fighting and poachers, Virunga remains one of the world’s most biologically rich landscapes: It is home to 706 species of birds as well as 218 mammal species and 109 reptile species. It is the only place on the planet where you can see all three of the great ape species: the mountain gorilla, the lowland gorilla and the chimpanzee. The park is home to a quarter of the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas.

Virunga was closed in April 2012 after the M23, one of two dozen groups battling for territory in the eastern Congo, seized control of the park headquarters. But in November 2013, the rebels agreed to negotiate a peace agreement, and in the past month the Congolese government has launched a major U.N.-backed offensive against the remaining insurgents. I visited Virunga in January as the park’s staff prepared to welcome tourists back.

Safety is De Merode’s top priority. Our gorilla trek began with a hike through villages and terraced fields of vegetables, accompanied by several park rangers armed with AK-47s and two-way radios. Innocent Mburanumwe, a senior ranger, met us at a station several hours up Mount Mikeno. The 38-year-old Congolese native knows each of the park’s seven “habituated” gorilla families by sight.

Picture 1 of 6

Humba is the king of a family of gorillas at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Before we set off through the jungle on a narrow path hacked through the undergrowth, Mburanumwe gave us strict instructions on how to behave. If a gorilla charges, don’t run, he said firmly. “Watch me and follow my lead. If the gorilla shows any signs of agitation, such as chest beating, look down submissively. Do not, under any circumstances, try to touch an animal.”

Mburanumwe took the lead, using grunts and other guttural sounds to let the gorillas know we were coming. As we drew close, we were asked to put on white medical masks to protect the animals from human diseases.

Amazingly, he was able to get us within a dozen feet of Humba and his harem, close enough to see the flies on the giant silverback’s black shiny fur and watch two young gorillas thump each other’s chests before skittering off into the jungle. A $400 permit bought an hour with the gorillas, significantly less than a similar experience would cost in Uganda and Rwanda.

De Merode is offering visitors a high-end experience at a bargain price. Congolese are being hired and trained at the Mikeno Lodge, where visitors  stay in luxurious thatched-roof huts with stone fireplaces. Rangers are building a high-end tent camp on Mount Mikeno so gorilla trekkers can sleep under the stars.

For adventurers willing to endure a rugged five-hour hike, the park is weatherizing eight wooden cabins perched on a ledge high on Mount Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanos within the park’s boundaries.  Their reward will be a night overlooking the world’s largest inland lava lake, lulled to sleep by the roar of the bubbling lava and an occasional whiff of sulfur.

“Every habitat you can imagine except desert and coastline is contained in Virunga,” says De Merode, describing a “best-of-Virunga” tour — yet to be developed — that will encompass all the park’s unique offerings, including a glass-bottomed boat excursion to watch hippos swim in crystal-clear spring-fed pools. “It is exceptional, and it is the window through which a whole economic sector will develop.”

Evelyn Iritani’s trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Top photo: Humba, the king of a gorilla family living at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Read More
The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt

When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.

Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.

Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an  honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.

The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.

Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains

In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.

At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.

Picture 1 of 3

On a highway stop between Fez and Marrakech, Morocco, a take-out cafe serving different tagines. Credit: David Latt

Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.

Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen

Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.

In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.

Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.

Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins

Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.

As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.

This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed

¼ cup kosher salt

¼ cup golden raisins

1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided

3 tablespoons lemon juice

4 garlic cloves, peeled

⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped

1 teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped

1 cup cracked green olives

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

Directions

1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.

2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.

3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.

4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.

5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.

6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.

7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.

8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.

9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.

10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.

11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.

12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.

Variations

  • Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
  • Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
  • Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
  • Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
  • Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.

Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt

Read More
With more than 9,000 small, cobbled streets, the Fez medina is a labyrinth. As dusk falls, shoppers grab a few last-minute items near Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate. Credit: Serenity Bolt

We’ve all heard the warnings that travelers should avoid street food. But doing so means missing the real food culture — the simple, fresh delicacies prepared for locals. With a little common sense, it’s easy to leave your fear of the unknown (or of getting sick) behind and reap one of the greatest rewards of travel.

Moroccan culture buzzes in the ancient medina of Fez al-Bali, the world’s largest car-free area, where Gail Leonard, a British ex-pat, offers street food tasting tours through her company, Plan-It Fez.

For more than three hours, she introduces travelers to the likes of snail soup and cow’s tongue while donkeys trundle along the medina’s narrow, medieval streets, adding their own steady rhythm to the tintinnabulation of men banging copper pots into shape, playing children and the conversational din of the souks, or markets.

Tourists who avoid the food on these cobbled, labyrinthine streets are not only forgoing a culinary experience, but also something intangible, Leonard said. “Vendors are thrilled that you want to taste what they’ve produced. Anyone that doesn’t want to do that misses out on many levels of experience that aren’t just about taste buds.”

Dinner in Morocco is served around 9 or 10 p.m., so street carts are essential to tide Moroccans over between meals. Street food also suits economy-minded travelers. “We were just out of money, so we bought some sandwiches from a cart,” said Bostonian Paige Stockman, 24, gesturing with a thick piece of fresh khubz (bread) stuffed with smoky, slightly charred chicken skewers from a vendor in the Achabine area — prime territory for Leonard’s food tours.

Street food made by lovely hands

Some Moroccans do avoid street food, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Faical Lebbar, owner of Barcelona Café in Fez, abhors the idea of eating standing up. “My father taught me, you eat, you need to sit.” Comparing his restaurant to street food, he added, “The food is the same. It just costs more.”

The higher price may buy the closed doors of a restaurant kitchen, but not necessarily a more skilled chef. And there’s pleasure in connecting directly with the person making your food.

Serenity Bolt. Credit: Courtesy of Round Earth Media

Serenity Bolt. Credit: Courtesy of Round Earth Media

“When food is made by lovely hands, it doesn’t matter whether you got it in the street or in a restaurant — its value is determined by something deeper than price,” said Amine Mansouri, 25, a local who has lived all his life surrounded by the daily rhythms of the Fez medina. The hand that takes your 5 dirhams reaches through time and tradition, inviting you to taste the food that sustains a culture.

What if you can’t afford a tour but want to sample the world of street food? Leonard offers a few recommendations:

1. Look for the busiest carts because they have the most turnover.

2. Be confident. Don’t hesitate to leave and go to another vendor if the food doesn’t look fresh.

3. Make sure the food is piping hot — learn the word for “hot” in the local language so you can ask for a longer cooking time.

4. Ask for a taste to see if you like the food. Vendors will just be excited you’re trying it.

5. Don’t be afraid to say “no thanks.” If you feel awkward, learn some “get out” phrases in the local language, such as, “I’ll come back later.”

6. Eat with your hands, or use bread. You can even bring your own cutlery and cup. Always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer.

If you do run into digestive trouble, Leonard advises cumin. “That’s what Moroccans will do for an upset stomach,” she said. “It has anti-parasitical properties. Just take a spoonful, knock it back with water, and your stomach’s sorted.”

Picture 1 of 6

Evening customers wait for bissara at a busy stand in the old Fez medina. This fava-bean soup, topped with cumin, paprika and a hearty glug of robust olive oil, is served with khubz (bread) baked in a communal wood-fired oven. Credit: Serenity Bolt

When in Fez, widely considered to be Morocco’s culinary capital, head to the Achabine and try these Leonard-tested delicacies: tehal, camel spleen stuffed with camel meat, olives and preserved lemons (baked like a gigantic sausage, then sliced and fried); makkouda, spicy potato cakes mashed with cumin and other spices and then delicately fried; and cow’s tongue steamed to a brisket-like tenderness.

A must-have is ghoulal, or snail soup. An infusion of more than 15  spices gives the broth a kick that complements its almost earthy, mushroomy flavor. Just look for the beaconing clouds of steam. You’ll soon find ghoulal in a huge silvery pot, boiling away atop a wooden cart manned in the medina by the soup-maker himself.

Just make sure to ask for it extra hot — “skhoun bzef!”

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing untold stories for top tier media around the world.

Top photo: With more than 9,000 small, cobbled streets, the Fez medina is a labyrinth. As dusk falls, shoppers grab a few last-minute items near Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate. Credit: ­Serenity Bolt

Read More
Charmaine O’Brien, author of

One of my first purchases upon moving to New Delhi, India, in 2005 was Charmaine O’Brien’s “Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide.” The guide became a favorite go-to as I looked to taste and discover the diverse culinary gems of India’s capital. I was therefore delighted to learn that a recent trip back to India would coincide with the launch of O’Brien’s new book, “The Penguin Food Guide to India.”

Now, having had my own copy in hand for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that each time I pick up this book, I am happily tormented. Her descriptions of regional delicacies, particularly the ones that I too  have eaten from the same stall or restaurant, make my mouth water, often forcing me to put down the book, head to the kitchen and prepare some of my own favorite Indian recipes.

O’Brien, an Australian writer and culinary historian, first visited India in 1995. Since then, she has visited every state in India with the exception of three in the northeast. In essence, the book is her journey of discovery informed by the core truth that India does not have one homogenous cuisine, rather the greatness of its food lies in its enormous variety and subtlety.

Her primary goal — and she can be gratified in her success at its achievement — “was to create a historical and cultural guide to India’s regional cuisine and to recommend places where — domestic tourist or international visitor — can find distinct regional food.” She gives readers the tools to experience genuine, local flavors.

Long history flavors Indian food

This was an ambitious and enormous undertaking. India as a unique country is still relatively young. Aside from the last 64 years as an independent republic, India has, as O’Brien points out, “been occupied as a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and chieftainships, each essentially functioning as an independent country.” Imagine if you drew a line straight down from the top of Denmark to the bottom of Italy and colored over all the countries west of that line, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then decided to write a book about the local flavors and food cultures of all those countries. That gives you a sense of the task she set for herself.

IndiaBookCover

"The Penguin Food Guide to India"

By Charmaine O’Brien

304 pages, 2013, Penguin

Note: Currently, the book is only available in hard copy in India, and soon Australia, but it can be purchased as an e-book.


 

More from Zester Daily:

» Relishing chutneys with endless variations

» Gluten-free finger millet a lifelong health habit in India

» India loves its mangoes

» The unbearable heaviness of cookbooks

The book is divided by geographic region, and within these each regional state is given its own chapter, beginning with a concise and condensed history. The historical details O’Brien weaves and connects through the book make for engaging reading that surpasses many travel guidebooks. We learn that all of these past rulers left a culinary imprint affecting the development and evolution of a region’s cuisine.

O’Brien’s personal encounters and insightful observations keenly illustrate that the prevalence of local and regional food in India is not a new trend or movement prompted by discriminating foodies but is part of an intricate food system born out of necessity and survival that has evolved over thousands of years. She does, however, indicate that as India’s growing middle class increases its appetite for foreign foods, some of the country’s elite has switched their attention to the perceived health benefits of traditional regional cuisines.

There is so much interesting information to digest — among my favorite nuggets are the descriptions and names of dishes or ingredients in Hindi or a regional language. Some of them you want to chew and savor. Yet perhaps due to sheer volume (or poor indexing), they can be a challenge to return to for another taste. Even for someone familiar with some of these terms, I wanted a short glossary of the region’s dishes at the end of each chapter to refer to.

Similarly, while the selected cookbook suggestions are a good place to start for trying new regional recipes, a handful of recently published regional cookbooks would have been welcome additions.

When O’Brien first arrived in India, her knowledge of Indian food was limited to the rather homogenous Indian restaurant menus from her native Melbourne that in many ways continue to dot the globe. She realizes that many readers, whether it is their first or fifth trip to India, want to sample new dishes but are concerned with hygiene at food stalls or restaurants, fearing the dreaded “Delhi Belly.” Aware of this but also eager for you to become a culinary explorer, she offers support with thoughtful and reassuring dining recommendations as you veer off the typical tourist menu road map.

It is interesting that two of the most recent well-researched books on Indian cuisine, this one and “Tasting India” by Christine Mansfield, are by non-Indians. A decade ago, Indian chefs and food writers seemed to be more interested in cooking and writing about foreign cuisines. However, over the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in Indian food professionals revisiting and exploring their culinary heritage.

India’s culinary landscape is so vast and nuanced that there is much more to be recorded. As I believe K.T. Achaya’s historical books on Indian cuisine inspired O’Brien, I hope this book motivates others to investigate and preserve India’s rich diverse cuisines.

Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)

Throughout her travels, Charmaine O’Brien discovered that no matter where she was, Indians love dining on bright, leafy greens. On my own visits to South India, I also found that cooks enjoy adding green and red amaranth leaves to soups, dals or even making fresh chutneys out of them. Here is a recipe of my own that spotlights its flavor.

Along the Konkani coast, blood-red amaranth leaves are typically used to make this quick coconut accented side dish, which is suitable to accompany fish, meat or poultry. Increasingly, farmers markets are selling amaranth leaves. However, if they are unavailable, beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach are wonderful substitutes.

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 cups red or green amaranth (or beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup finely sliced onion

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped

Pinch of turmeric

Salt to taste

¼ cup to ½ cup grated coconut (fresh, frozen or dry unsweetened)

Directions

1. Wash the amaranth leaves a couple of times in running water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain, cut off any of the tough bottom parts of the stalk and discard. Roughly chop the trimmed greens into bite-sized pieces.

2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the chopped garlic and green chillies to the pan and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.

4. Toss in the chopped amaranth and a pinch of turmeric.  Mix well, cover and cook for about 4 minutes until the leaves are wilted and tender. If using spinach, the cooking time will most likely be halved. Remove the lid and continue to cook to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.

5. Add the grated coconut, salt to taste and sauté for another minute. Serve immediately.

Variations

With shrimp: Many Konkani cooks like to toss in some sweet, tiny shrimp close to the end of cooking. Use 1 cup small shrimp (or medium shrimp roughly diced) cleaned and deveined, and add it at the same time as the grated coconut. Cook until the shrimp has changed color and is just cooked through.

With cooked chickpeas: If you have some extra cooked chickpeas, black-eyed peas or kidney beans leftover in the fridge, toss in about a half cup of them into the pan when adding the greens and continue accordingly.

Top composite photo:

“The Penguin Food Guide to India” book jacket, with author Charmaine O’Brien. Credit: Photo of author courtesy of the Australian Consulate in Mumbai

Read More