Articles in Travel

Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea

Yunnan may not be on most Western foodies’ radars, but for those in the know, it’s one of the most exciting food spots in the world.

The province, which sits in a mountainous area that borders Tibet, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou and Sichuan, is the most biodiverse region in all of Asia. It’s also the most culturally diverse part of China.

For a quick tour of the region’s specialties, all you have to do is get to Kunming. The city is a lovely stop on any trip to China — it’s famous for its mild weather, its flowering trees and its laid-back way of life. A few meals in the city will give you a taste of all the best that Yunnan has to offer.

Here are seven particularly fascinating (and delicious) dishes to try when you get there:

Shaguo mixian

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Rice noodles are one of Kunming’s most popular foods — but you won’t find them in fancy restaurants. They are served at little hole-in-the-walls and streetside stands. The most popular are shaguo mixian, or “sandpot rice noodles.” These noodles are put into individually sized glazed clay bowls with stumpy handles, topped with broth, ground pork, pickled mustard greens and dried ground chile, and cooked on a high stove. The dish is often eaten right from the pot. Try them at the unnamed noodle spot on Jieshao Alley, just off Qingnian Road.

Mushroom hotpot

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city's mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Yunnan produces 400 tons of mushrooms every year, and foragers crisscross the mountains looking for matsutakes, porcinis and summer truffles to sell to exporters. The most prized specimens end up in restaurants and stores in Japan, Korea and the United States, but much of the bounty is eaten right in Yunnan. Every restaurant in Kunming offers a few mushroom dishes, but the best way to try the local fungi is to head to one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. On Guanxing Lu, near Baohai Park, there are three to choose from in just two blocks: Laozihao Wild Mushroom Restaurant, Junshuyuan Wild Mushroom Restaurant, and Wild Mushroom Emperor.

Grilled rubing

Grilled rubing, a type of firm cheese, is grilled with thin slices of local ham, or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Grilled rubing is a type of firm cheese grilled with thin slices of local ham or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

China is not known as a good place to eat cheese. But cheese has a long history in Yunnan. Different minority groups around the province have long eaten grilled, stir-fried, and toasted cheeses. The most delicious version is grilled rubing, a type of firm cow’s milk cheese. You can find it at Lao Fangzi, where it is grilled with thin slices of local ham, and at 1910 La Gare du Sud, where it is served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into.

Chrysanthemum greens

A tasty salad is made with feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

A tasty salad is made with chrysanthemum greens, a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Han Chinese also shunned raw foods, but many raw dishes can be found in Yunnan. One of the most surprising and delicious dishes in Kunming is a simple salad of feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. It can be found at any restaurant specializing in Yunnan specialties (including Lao Fangzi and 1910 La Gare du Sud).

Ghost chicken

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Yunnan’s most famous minority cuisine comes from the Dai people who live along the province’s borders with Laos and Burma. The Dai are part of the same ethnic group that populated Laos and Thailand, and their food is reminiscent of those cuisines, with lots of fresh chiles, herbs and chile-based spice pastes. Perhaps the most representative Dai dish  is “ghost chicken,” a bright combination of silky black-foot chicken, fresh chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. To try it — and other Dai specialties like pineapple sticky rice and vegetables grilled in banana leaves — head to Yinjiang Dai Restaurant, which has three branches in central Kunming.

Liang fen

Liang fen is made with slick, cool jello that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick "noodles." Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Liang fen is a slick, cool jello-like food that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

If you’re looking for quick snack — or just an entirely new and delightful eating experience — try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” These “noodles” are actually a jello-like dish that is made like tofu but uses ground chickpeas instead of soybeans. The slick, cool jello is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles,” and dressed with vinegar, soy sauce, ground dried chiles and fresh herbs. Sometimes it’s even topped with chopped nuts and a slice of freshly made tofu. The dish can be found all over the city, including at food stalls in Cui Hu Park.

Yiliang roast duck

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing's famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Since the Qing Dynasty, the small town of Yiliang, just 90 minutes outside of Kunming, has been producing remarkably delicious roast duck. The recipe is based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks until their skin is crisp and their meat is moist. But this version uses a local breed of ducks and roasts them over longs twists of pine needles, which gives the meat an exceptional flavor. If you’re heading out to the Stone Forest, a famous tourist spot, make sure to take the time to stop at Xue Cheng Restaurant.

Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

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Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

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At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Vineyard tours were once reserved for people in the industry along with members of the media and wine clubs. Now, though, a handful of wineries in Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast are redefining the wine-tasting experience and making such tours available to visitors by appointment. Among them, Adelaida Cellars, Halter Ranch, Alta Colina and Steinbeck Vineyards will immerse visitors in the region’s terroir and wines.

Visiting the vineyards in spring catches bud break on vines, signaling the end of winter dormancy. The fields are a riot of color, with mustard flower, lupine and cover crops such as clover and barley planted between vine rows, creating a picture-perfect vineyardscape.

An opportunity to showcase the vineyards

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

At Steinbeck Vineyards, tours were initiated by fifth-generation farmer Cindy Steinbeck in 2003 to showcase the family’s ranch.

Since the 1880s and for seven generations, the Steinbeck family has been the steward of a 600-acre property, 520 acres of which are planted with 13 grape varieties sourced by such noted wineries as Eberle, Justin and J. Lohr. The Steinbecks started bottling their wine in 2006 with a small production focusing on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Viognier.

The one-hour “Crash Course” tour (named after the B26 aircraft that crashed on the property in 1956) with Steinbeck and her 3-year-old Yorkie, Cri-Cri, is a roller-coaster journey through the vineyards. Tours change with the seasons.

“In fall we encourage visitors to walk around the vineyards, give them clippers to taste the fruit,” Steinbeck said.

The winery from top to bottom, inside and out

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Bob Tillman’s two-hour Top-to-Bottom tour of Alta Colina starts in the hillside vineyards and works its way down to the tasting room, where the groups savor the Rhône blends. “This is not a produced tour, no tours are the same,” he said of the exploration of the 130-acre ranch, which has 31 acres planted with Rhône grape varieties.

Heading up to 500 feet elevation, tour groups see the exposed calcareous-rich hillside and learn about different types of trellising in the vineyards while trekking knee-deep in wildflowers dotting the organic Grenache vineyard.

“This gives you a vague idea of behind the scene of what goes in the bottle,” Tillman said.

Under an old oak tree, Tillman poured the 2012 Baja Colina, a white Rhône blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. “We are actually tasting wines in an environment where they are grown,” he said. The wine tastes delicious, laced with aromatics filling the air — and some debris from the nearby oak tree.

It’s a heady experience tasting Adelaida Cellars’s silky Pinot Noir standing amid the legendary HMR Pinot Noir vineyard. Or the minerality of Zinfandel at the foot of Michael’s Zinfandel Vineyard planted at 1,800 feet elevation, rich with rocky limestone soil.

Tailgating too

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Adelaida Cellars’ Tour, Taste & Tailgate (TT&T) takes visitors through such iconic vineyards as Viking, Anna’s and HMR. (Planted in 1964 by Beverly Hills cardiologist Stanley Hoffman, HMR is regarded as the oldest Pinot Noir-producing vineyard on the Central Coast).

Glenn Mitton, the winery’s ambassador, begins the tour at the newly remodeled winery and hospitality center, where visitors taste a white and red Rhône blend from Anna’s vineyard and the inky Syrah Reserve, among others.

Rising to 2,300 feet, the vast 1,900-acre estate is planted with 700-plus acres of organic walnut orchards and 157 acres of vineyards.

Mitton pointed to owl boxes and raptor perches used for pest control and rows of neatly tucked netting under the vines. “We pull up the net over the vines like panty hose,” Mitton said of the bird-control practice used in the summer.

Dating back to the 1880s, the 2,000-acre Halter Ranch Vineyard is nature’s haven, with a mere 280 acres planted to Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. The rest of the ranch is dotted with redwood and oak trees and home to some 52 species of birds. The ranch is lush with gardens, a 5-acre holding pond and the seasonal Las Tablas Creek, which also functions as a wildlife corridor.

At Lion’s Point, the tour includes a taste of the refreshing 2015 Rosé of red Rhône varieties and, further up the hill, the 2013 Ancestor, a rich blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  A gentle breeze blew in some debris from a massive, ancestral oak estimated to be 500 years old and known as the largest coast live oak in California.

Upon returning to the winery and its 20,000-square-foot caves, visitors finish with a tasting of Rhône and Bordeaux blends that reflect the history and terroir of the ranch.

Trekking through Paso Robles’ scenic hillside vineyards offers a wine experience well beyond the swirl-sniff-sip scene of the tasting room.

Main photo: At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

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Main caption: Gino Sorbillo, Italy's famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Seganv

Fried street foods are popular in every region of Italy, where you’ll often hear: “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Neapolitans in particular have a cult-like devotion to fried fare, especially pizza fritta.

After World War II, the city found itself in crisis, and the materials needed for pizza — the mozzarella and even wood for the ovens — became a luxury. Fried pizza, a less-expensive alternative nicknamed “pizza of the people,” was filled with “poor” ingredients — pork crackling, pepper and ricotta. Housewives sold it on the streets to supplement the family’s income. Times were so hard, customers could even buy pizza fritta on credit: Called pizza-at-eight, pizza a otto, it was eaten on the spot but paid for eight days later.

Simple, homemade food

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Naples-born Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, made one for me recently explaining, “Pizza fritta comes in different shapes. Round, called montanare, or half moon calzone.” For the dough, which is the same as for classic oven pizza, Sorbillo uses only a minuscule pinch of leavening to create chewy, never spongy, dough. He stretches a round, fills it and pulls the ends into a whimsical mimicry of the clown Pulcinella’s hat. Sorbillo flash-fries at just the right temperature for a crisp, non-greasy outside and warm, gooey center.

“Pizza fritta is a simple food, easy to make at home because unlike classic pizza you don’t need a wood-burning stove, just a frying pan,” Sorbillo says.  It’s very versatile and can be filled with virtually anything: a traditional ricotta, provolone and Neapolitan salami combo; mozzarella and ham; or sautéed broccoli rabe or other greens. And it is great plain or served with a side dipping of tomato sauce.

When you’re in Naples, be sure to have a classic wood oven-baked pizza at Gino’s famed restaurant on Via dei Tribunali. But if the lines are too long to get in, which they always are, enjoy a piping hot pizza fritta at his small fried pizza spot just a few doors down.  If you can’t get to Naples, make Sorbillo’s fried pizza at home with the recipe below. Use his excellent dough recipe or use store-bought pizza dough.

Gino Sorbillo’s Pizza Fritta

If you can't make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

If you can’t make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 8 hours passive

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

A tiny pinch, 0.07 ounces, brewers yeast

2 cups, about 1 pound, organic “0” or pizza flour

3 teaspoons salt

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

Sorbillo’s suggested fillings: sheep’s milk ricotta, thinly sliced ciccioli  (Neapolitan pork salami), diced smoked provolone cheese, diced fresh peeled tomatoes, black pepper

Directions

1. Dissolve the yeast in 1 1/3 cups of warm water in a bowl, and then sift in the flour and salt. Knead on a floured work surface until smooth, 10 to 12 minutes.  Divide the dough into 4 balls and let rise at room temperature, covered in a clean cloth, for about 8 hours.

2. Heat enough oil in a deep-sided skillet to cover one pizza at a time. Heat to 400 F.

3. Stretch each section into a flat circle, pressing down with your palm to flatten it. Put the ricotta, salami, provolone and a tablespoon of diced tomatoes in the center. Season with black pepper, fold over and pinch the edges closed, taking care to leave an air pocket in the center.   Pull on the two ends a bit and slowly lower into the hot oil. Fry in the hot oil, about 1/2 minute per side, until golden. Drain on absorbent paper and repeat with the other three pizzas. Eat while warm.

Main photo: Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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A selection of dessert offerings from Bettys. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

To understand about Bettys, the legendary, Swiss-born, Yorkshire-based café-tea rooms, celebrated for their exquisite chocolates and classy cakes, you need to go back to at least 1907. This was the year when an impecunious young baker named Fritz Bützer set off from his native Switzerland across France in search of work in prosperous Edwardian England.

From Calais, France, he made the rough crossing over the Channel to Dover, England. On arrival, exhausted, seasick and with a sketchy command of English, he discovered he had lost the precious piece of paper on which he had scribbled the name of the town where a job had been promised. All he could remember was the name sounded something like bratwurst. He tried this out forlornly on a few passers-by, before an elderly gentleman came to the rescue. “Oh, you mean Bradford!” cried his savior, and the man promptly took Bützer to King’s Cross station, where he put him on a train up to Yorkshire. In Bradford, the young baker tracked down a chocolate shop owned by a fellow Swiss, where he found work.

Bettys born in England of Swiss roots and inspiration

The Bettys in Harrogate, England. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

The Bettys in Harrogate, England. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Within a few years, the ambitious baker — by now also an accomplished chocolatier — had set his sights on opening a high-class tea room of his own. For this he realized that the refined spa town of Harrogate, which lay some 20 miles to the north, was going to be a better bet than coal-stained, industrial Bradford. Bradford was where the money was made; Harrogate was where the spending power resided. He also understood the disadvantages, in this post-World War I period, of having a German-sounding name, so he changed it to the more French-sounding Frederick Belmont. In 1919 he opened his first café in Harrogate. Bettys was born.

Today, Bettys is a household name — though the question of “Who was Betty?” remains unanswered. The Harrogate café has been joined by others in York, Ilkley, Northallerton and at the stately home Harlow Carr. They’re magnets for discerning customers from all around north Yorkshire and far beyond, lured by the promise of exquisite chocolates and magnificent iced or seasonal cakes, or in search of coffee, brunch or lunch and a break from a strenuous day of retail therapy. There’s also a thriving mail-order business.

A signature brand

A Bettys delivery van. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

A Bettys delivery van. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Harrogate remains the center of Bettys operations. At the Craft Bakery on an industrial estate just outside the town center, every single bread, bap, cake, pikelet, scone, muffin or iced fancy destined for the various café-tea rooms is freshly made and baked daily. These are then dispatched to Bettys branches around the county by a fleet of cream-colored vans, each one proudly bearing the Bettys name inscribed in curly script on the sides.

In the bakery, white-coated employees, looking more like lab technicians than bakers, bend low over trays of supersized, raisin-speckled scones known (and trademarked) at Bettys as Yorkshire Fat Rascals, carefully placing on top of each one a pair of glacé cherries and a couple of blanched almonds. At the other side of the bakery, a batch of freshly baked loaves — between 20 and 30 different kinds are baked each day — are plucked, crackling and chuntering, from the jaws of a massive wood-fired oven.

Sweet treats

A dark chocolate Easter egg from Bettys. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

A dark chocolate Easter egg from Bettys. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Chocolate is huge at Bettys, and the link with Switzerland has endured: All the couverture, the raw material for the vast selection of Bettys chocolates, comes from Felchlin, the famous, family-owned chocolate specialist in canton Schwyz in the heart of Switzerland. Easter is similarly huge in the Bettys calendar, rivaling Christmas as their busiest time of the year. (A 1932 poster from the company’s archives solemnly reminds customers that “there is NO present quite as appropriate at Easter Time as a Bettys Easter Egg.”)

Eggs, pralines and assorted truffles aside, Bettys is famous for its chocolate novelties: There’s a new one born every year. The large Bettys family of badgers, hares, Gloucester Old Spot pigs, hens, rabbits, piglets and lambs was recently joined by a romp of milk chocolate otters, reflecting the theme (appropriately, given the waterlogged state of much of Britain this winter) of river banks.

Almost 100 years on, Bettys cafés seem to go from strength to strength. Elegant and understated, warmly lit and buzzing with life, they are the kind of places where you almost expect Lady Mary from “Downton Abbey” to sweep in with her shopping and settle down to smoked salmon sandwiches and pink Champagne.

Beaming waitresses in crisp white aprons recite the day’s specials, notebooks poised in midair. A recent menu featured local sausages from a butcher in the Vale of York served with Rösti, followed by a seriously decadent dark chocolate and raspberry torte filled with fresh raspberries and a silken chocolate buttercream: Yorkshire bratwurst with Switzerland’s signature potato dish and a magnificent Swiss chocolate creation. Fritz (alias Frederick) would have been proud.

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Bengali Yogurt Fish Curry (Doi Maach). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Indian cooking gets a bad reputation for being daunting and almost too difficult to fit into your everyday repertoire. This misconception may be gradually changing, but not quite fast enough. But on the contrary, everyday Indian cooking is flavorful, practical and filled with all the health benefits from spices that we all want to incorporate into our lives.

A core component of the essential taste of Indian food is ensuring the flavors are fresh and bright and not bogged down by unnecessary reheating and refreshing, something often the trademark of the average restaurant fare. In addition to emphasizing the simplicity of preparation, I also am a big proponent of cooking with practical and readily found ingredients, minimizing the need for multiple visits to grocery store.

The key to Indian food is in the spices

If you are intimidated by Indian spices, a fair number of the typical seasonings are available in a well-stocked grocery store, and the rest can be kept stocked by an annual or every-six-months trip to an Indian specialty store. Shortcuts and practical cooking are not uncommon in the Indian home kitchen; after all, the Indian home cook is as time-strapped as anyone else.

Stocking a basic spice pantry can go a long way toward cooking your favorite Indian meals on short notice. The basics for me would be the essential Indian spice kit from my “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors” cookbook: turmeric (sold in powdered form), red cayenne pepper, whole cumin seeds, whole coriander seeds, fresh cilantro, ginger and garlic.

To add to the basics, you can include dried fenugreek leaves, green cardamoms, cinnamon, cloves, whole black peppercorns, whole mustard seeds and fresh curry leaves. It’s nothing terribly daunting if you give the list a fighting chance and open your horizons to a world of Indian flavors.

A note of advice and caution: While we can simplify the list of ingredients, it is important to use fresh spices.They are the soul of a flavor-based cuisine and cannot be substituted using a jar of ready-made curry, something that really is a misfit in most Indian kitchens.

The next step beyond stocking the spices is learning to use them. I personally use spices to create the foods of my childhood: simple, nourishing flavors that have sustained me every day. However, through teaching people how to cook Indian food, I have learned most people rush to the kitchen to replicate the flavors that have tantalized their taste buds in the last festive meal they savored. This is sometimes their first blush with the cuisine and often what captivates their imagination and what they want to re-create in their own kitchen.

Keeping this in mind, I offer you practical versions of three classic Indian dishes and suggestions for a few others. In these dishes, I have simplified the cooking techniques and used everyday ingredients to conjure up practical variations of dishes that will take you to three diverse parts of India.

Creamy, Well-Seasoned Black Beans

Creamy Well-seasoned Black Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Creamy, Well-Seasoned Black Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

This recipe for black beans is inspired by the classic Indian black lentil recipe, found in restaurants called Dal Makhani. Other than using everyday black beans, I have lightened the recipe significantly and developed it for a slow cooker, where it happily cooks into perfection. If you do not have a slow cooker, you can do this on the stove top in a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid.

Prep time: 2 to 3 hours (to soak the beans)

Cook time: 4 hours in a slow cooker

Total time: About 7 hours, mostly unattended.

Yield: Makes 8servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups dried black beans

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 4 cloves)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

2 red onions, finely diced

1 tablespoon freshly ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground coriander

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon red cayenne powder, or to taste

4 tomatoes, diced, or 1 cup canned chopped tomatoes

1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves (optional)

3 tablespoons sour cream

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Diced or sliced red onions for serving

Directions

1. Place the black beans in plenty of water and soak for 2 to 3 hours or overnight. Drain and set aside.

2. If your slow cooker has a saute function, turn it on and add the olive oil. Otherwise, you can do this in a skillet on the stove.

3. Add in the onions and cook for about 5 minutes, add in the ginger and the garlic and saute until the onions are soft and golden.

4. Add in the cumin, coriander, salt and red cayenne pepper and cook for a minute.

5. Add in the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes. If using a skillet, move the mixture to the slow cooker. Once the tomatoes are soft and pulpy, add this mixture to the slow cooker, add in the black beans with 3 cups of water and cook on low for 4 hours.

6. Remove the cover and stir in the fenugreek leaves, sour cream and cilantro before serving.

Note: You do want a fairly thick gravy for this dish. If your sauce is too thin, remove to the stove top and thicken for about a half hour before adding in the sour cream.

Bengali Yogurt Fish Curry (Doi Maach)

This signature fish curry is often a wedding dish, a beautiful meal reminiscent of a korma. The traditional version uses fish steaks deep-fried and immersed in a delicate yogurt sauce that is slow-cooked to perfection. My version uses salmon fillet, which offers a rich, dense flesh without the need for deep-frying. I use Greek yogurt to ensure a thick gravy without the precision and care of low and slow simmering in a heavy-bottomed copper pot, which is traditional for cooking Bengali food.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds salmon fillet (or any other firm-fleshed fish)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

3 green cardamoms

1-inch piece of cinnamon

6 to 8 cloves of garlic

3 tablespoons canola oil

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon sugar

3/4 cup Greek yogurt, beaten

1 tablespoon raisins

Whole red chilies and slivered almonds for garnish

Directions

1. Cut the salmon into 2-inch pieces and set aside.

2. Combine 1 teaspoon of the salt and the red cayenne pepper and sprinkle over the fish.

3. Combine the cardamoms, cinnamon and garlic cloves in a bowl and break a few times using a mortar.

4. Heat the oil and add in the broken spices and the onion. Cook the seasoned onion low and slow until wilted, soft and crispy. This should take about 10 minutes.

5. Add in the grated ginger, cumin and coriander and mix well. Stir in the remaining salt and sugar and mix in the yogurt with 1/2 cup of water.

6. Cook until the yogurt is well mixed and gets a pale ivory color.

7. Add in the fish pieces in a single layer and mix in the raisins.

8. Cook the mixture until the fish is cooked through (about 15 to 20 minutes).

9. Garnish with the chilies and slivered almonds and serve.

Kerala Chicken Stew

Kerala Chicken Stew. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Kerala Chicken Stew. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

This delicate and subtly spiced stew is a signature dish on Sunday mornings, usually served with lacy and flavorful appams. The stew is usually cooked with layers of freshly made coconut milk and develops its flavor from local produce such as green plantains and taro root. In this recipe, I have used practical stewing vegetables such as fresh carrots, baby potatoes and corn to create a dish that is just as good for your cool Sunday table.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 to 3 tablespoons oil (You can use coconut oil)

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

10 to 15 curry leaves

1 red onion, diced

2 to 3 cloves of garlic

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 large cinnamon stick

2 to 3 pods green cardamom

2 pounds of chicken, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium-sized tomatoes, diced

3 to 4 carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 to 3 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and quartered

1 cup coconut milk

1/2 cup frozen green peas

1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Heat the oil and add in the mustard seeds, then wait until the seeds begin to crackle. Add in the curry leaves and red onion and cook for about 6 to 7 minutes, until the onions are soft and beginning to turn pale golden.

2. Add in the garlic and ginger and stir well, cooking for about 1 minute.

3. Stir in the black pepper, cumin, coriander, cinnamon stick and cardamom and mix in the chicken with the salt. Stir and cook the chicken for about 10 minutes, until the liquid has evaporated and the chicken is well seared.

4. Add in the tomatoes and mix well.

5. Stir in the carrots and potatoes and the coconut milk and simmer the mixture for 25 minutes, until the chicken and vegetables are tender.

6. Add in the green peas and simmer for 2 minutes.

7. Garnish with cilantro before serving.

Main image: Bengali Yogurt Fish Curry (Doi Maach). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

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At The Vegetarian Butcher in Netherland’s The Hague, the only thing they sacrifice is your prejudice. It’s a snappy marketing slogan and deliberately provocative in its contradiction, but it lays it on the line: As the downside of meat-eating is increasingly understood, this is an alternative for the concerned carnivore who still wants the sizzle without the self-reproach or sacrifice.

The guys at The Vegetarian Butcher, the first of its kind in the world, have taken fake meat to a new level. Their success is measured in part by an expanding international market, a large new factory to manufacture their innovative plant-based products and a wave of successors in Canada, Australia and, most recently, Minneapolis.

Imitation may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery in the field of imitation meat, but it would be hard to beat The Vegetarian Butcher’s meat-alike products. As research and development chef Paul Bom emphatically says, “We are producing food that tastes really good. Even Ferran Adria was convinced he was dealing with high-class chicken thighs. We are not a vegetarian butcher, we are The Vegetarian Butcher.”

A fresh take on a butcher shop

The exterior of The Vegetarian Butcher's shop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The exterior of The Vegetarian Butcher’s shop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

At their flagship “concept” store, designed to reference a traditional Dutch butcher’s shop with blue and white tiles and marble tops, art nouveau logo and classic delivery bike propped outside, do not expect to see rows of pink lamb chops or hefty ribs of beef. The art of replicating meat does not stretch to include bones and joints: instead products, both raw and ready-made dishes, are neatly packaged in chilled containers. The range, from chicken shawarma to smoked bacon strips, minced “meat” to fish-free prawns, is largely based on lupini (or lupin), a legume that grows well in the Netherlands. Other components in their unique formula include soya (free of genetically modified organisms) and other pulses, grains and vegetables. Most products are organic, some vegan; others may contain egg whites.

The firm was started in 2010 by Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer, in the wake of various food disasters such as swine fever and mad cow disease. Last year, he won the title of Best Dutch Entrepreneur, and he and his staff have also gained awards in the national “golden meatball” competition and for their vegetarian smoked eel salad.

Reasons to not eat meat are well documented: health, environmental damage, animal welfare, agricultural sustainability and the like. What is refreshing, however, is the acceptance by The Vegetarian Butcher that you can have your steak and eat it too.

Many of their customers are not hard-core vegetarians or vegans. They simply want to cut down on their meat intake and satisfy a craving without actually eating animals. As Bom says, their aim is to “infiltrate” the normal world. “We want to take vegetarian food out of the green corner and make it gourmet and sexy.” They also, I might add, make it fun.

After initial resistance, Dutch butchers now sell their products alongside “real” meat to encourage people to eat better quality, albeit less often. It also solves the common problem of feeding the one vegetarian at the dinner table — especially when it’s hard to differentiate. In fact, it is not the genuine independent butcher who has to worry but the large industrial food producers responsible for the reconstituted rubbish that goes into many mass-produced meat products.

Should veggies, however, be perpetuating a meat-eating practice? There are those who believe faux meat encourages the acceptance of the unacceptable, or who prefer to simply replace meat with grains and greens.  “Yes, some vegetarians have a problem,” Bom acknowledged, “but in our experience it’s a very small percentage. We’re only giving them another eating option, a way of eating more protein in their diet.”

All the feel of meat, without the meat

Paul Bom, the research and development chef at The Vegetarian Butcher. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Paul Bom, the research and development chef at The Vegetarian Butcher. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Meat analogues are not new, but previous products have largely tasted awful or simply functioned as a vehicle to carry other flavors. As for tofu and tempeh, they were never meant to fill in for meat, Bom said. At The Vegetarian Butcher, the mind-set is altogether different.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course. And when put to the taste test, I was truly amazed. I cannot swear I would never be able to mistake it for heritage breed, slow-reared chicken and meat, but it was certainly was a more than acceptable everyday substitute.

Starting with The Vegetarian Butcher’s new line in development, teriyaki beef strips made — astonishingly — with carrots, potatoes and yellow peas, I was immediately won over by the succulence and satisfying chew. The MC2 Burger was juicy and savory and the sausages disconcertingly good. The Fish Free Tuna was a piquant spread, although more crab-like to my mind. The realistic, fibrous and juicy Vegan Chicken Chunks — they even have a touch of bronzing — are the flagship product, best used in salads, pita bread, stir-fries and curries.

The Vegetarian Butcher has modest ambitions — to be the biggest butcher in the world. It’s typically tongue in cheek. Veggie tongue in veggie cheek, of course. And, judging by the brand’s success to date, it’s going to be a plant-based future.

Main photo: The Vegetarian Butcher’s MC2 Burger. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

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Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gillman

I never dreamt the busy chef and owner of the finest Chinese restaurant in Mexico would want to go back to China with me. I had invited Luís Chiu on a guided culinary tour of Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province of China, sponsored by www.foodiehub.tv. But Luís, who is Mexican of Chinese ancestry, was eager to expand his knowledge of the country and cuisines of his ancestors — so he accepted my offer.

There has been a Chinese community in Mexico since the 19th century, when workers came to build railroads; others arrived in search of a better life. Entrepreneurial Chinese, many versed in American-style “fast cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light, quick meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk, were the specialty. And faux Chinese dishes, such as fried rice and chow mein, were also offered. These cafes de Chinos became an important part of Mexican urban lore — a few remain today. Luís Chiu’s family owned several of these cafes through the years, and he grew up in and around the food business.

Eating in China

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

The first dish we ate, at a humble stall, was spicy beef meatballs, bathed in a brick-red oily sauce made aromatic by fresh, numbing Sichuan peppers, dry red chilies and bean paste. We quickly got used to this ubiquitous flavor combination. We later gorged on handmade noodles, ma po tofu with pig’s brains, spit roast rabbit, mutton kebabs, and oily, fiery hot pot. All were astounding.

We visited the local wholesale spice market. Piles of Sichuan peppers in varying shades from brownish green to deep brick red perfumed the air with their particular aroma — they made my eyes water but Luis´ tears were real. He was overjoyed to be in the midst of this epicenter of a cuisine he loved.

I interviewed chef Chiu back in his kitchen in Mexico City, after he’d had time to reflect on his experiences in China.

Nicholas Gilman: Do you feel more Mexican or more Chinese?

Luís Chiu: I’ve taken the best of both Mexican and Chinese culture. I feel more Chinese with the family, our customs, the way of being with each other. When I go to China I feel I don’t quite belong: The way of acting and thinking is totally different. I know I’m not Chinese, but I feel close to the culture, traditions. But when I’m with my Mexican friends, I’m 100 percent Mexican — I love going to soccer games, for example.

The best of both worlds

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: How did you become interested in traditional Chinese cooking?

L.C.: There were no regional Chinese restaurants in Mexico, so I saw an emerging market for more sophisticated people who were ready for “the real thing.” I went to Shanghai to study, and in 2011 I opened Asian Bay.

N.G.: What was your impression of Chengdu?

L.C.: I had been to other places in China, which were more westernized. I was impressed by how much old stuff was preserved. I loved the teahouses, markets and how there’s even street food. What struck me about Sichuan is that the people are very warm, as if they were Latino. They smile, greet you, chat with you, ask where you’re from. And especially, they are so proud of their culinary traditions. It’s like Mexico in that way. I was especially impressed by what love people have for their food. How there were lines of people to buy those bao, (steamed pork-filled buns) or to eat dumplings, noodles. How they look at you when they serve the dishes — they’re not so used to seeing foreigners, so I really think they wanted to impress us.

N.G.: Would you tell us something about what you ate?

L.C.: The ma-la was so strong, like nothing I’ve ever tasted! (He was referring to the combination of “ma,” the numbing of the peppers, and “la,” the spiciness of the chilies.)

Lessons from the trip

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: And what about the spice market?

L.C.: I was so impressed with that market because we wanted to see the “raw China,” and there it was — nothing Western, another world. Spices we’d never seen. And those chilies that came originally from Mexico. I really had no idea what all these things taste and smell like because imported products are of such low quality. Here it was the epicenter of this food.

N.G.: What, ultimately, did you learn from this journey?

L.C.: I left with more questions than I came with. It makes me want to delve even deeper into this complex cuisine. It’s kind of like Mexican cooking in the sense that ingredients are combined to create totally new flavors, like alchemy. They’re powerful, exciting. The journey made me realize that to cook food even if it comes from your own tradition, you have to know that culture from the inside. So to attempt to reproduce something when you are home is a real challenge. It can’t come from the heart if it’s superficial, if you don’t know the original.

Main photo: Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

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