Articles in Travel

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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Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Each year on Easter Monday, residents of Fanano, a picturesque hill town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, arm themselves with hard-boiled eggs to do battle in the village square. Young and old alike participate in this centuries-old tradition that started in the sixth century as a way for townsfolk of all social levels, nobility and commoners, rich and poor, to compete on a level battlefield for a day.

Eggs have long been a symbol of Easter and even back in pagan times were associated with new life and springtime. Eggs were especially highly valued as food in medieval times, so winning an egg was considered quite a prize, with the poorer folks hoping their winnings might feed the family for several days.

Cracking Contests

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Young and old alike today compete in this ancient “Cracking Contest” — Coccin Cocetto. How do you play? Each participant puts an egg onto a long wooden board and gathers round. A designated person randomly selects eggs from the row and distributes them to the first two contestants, who square off and bang their eggs together. The person whose egg cracks first loses. The winner takes possession of the broken egg, and then battles the next opponent. One contestant must hold his egg still, while the other hits it. Who gets to hit is determined either by a coin flip or by shooting odds or evens.

“It isn’t about luck,” explained Massimo, a dapper resident who has been playing, and often winning, for over 60 years. “You can win if you are the one holding still or hitting. Each has a technique.” He then went on to beat this author six times in a row, alternating between being the hitter and the hit-ee!

Most locals bring their own hard-boiled eggs to the event, but the town graciously provides colorful eggs free of charge for anyone who didn’t bring their own.

While in Fanano, you can continue the medieval theme with a visit to the town’s lovely 11th-century Montefiorino Fortress and exquisite ninth-century Romanesque church. There are also lovely trails for hiking and biking nearby. After you’ve worked up an appetite, be sure to stay for lunch or dinner.

Like all food in Emilia-Romagna, the local fare is indescribably delicious. Traditional dishes include crescentine, the area’s famed flat bread; gnocco fritto, fried squares of dough; and rosette, rolls of fresh pasta filled with cheese and topped with meat sauce.

The day after Easter, called Pasquetta or Il Lunedi dell’Angelo, “Angel’s Monday,” is a day off throughout Italy, and Italians traditionally go on picnics. Typical picnic foods include raw fava beans eaten with pecorino cheese and casatello, savory bread filled with proscuitto and cheese topped with hard-boiled eggs still in their shells. Celebrate spring with basotti, a traditional Emilia-Romagna dish made with egg noodles

Basotti (Crunchy-Tender Pasta Squares)

An easy to assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

An easy-to-assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

This recipe is simple to assemble, but must be made with egg pasta, either fresh or dried. You’ll only need 1/2 pound of pasta, as egg pasta expands as it bakes and absorbs the cheese and broth. Speaking of broth, since it provides most of the flavor, it’s best to use homemade.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

10 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs

1/2 pound egg tagliolini or another very thin egg noodle

About 2 cups grated Grana Padano or other aged cheese

Nutmeg

4 cups rich pork, beef or chicken broth, preferably homemade

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Generously butter an 8 x 15-inch metal baking pan and sprinkle with bread crumbs.

2. Put half of the uncooked pasta in the pan and top with 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter, 3/4 cup of the grated cheese and 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg. Add the remaining pasta, in a thin scattered layer, on top. Top with another 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter and more nutmeg.

3. Bring the stock to a boil. Ladle over the pasta until just covered. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup grated cheese. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until firm to the touch.

4. Raise the oven to 475 F.

5. Top pasta with 1/2 cup grated cheese, and bake for a few minutes until crispy on top.

Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Havana is back in the news. For more than half a century, Cuba has been off limits to Americans. With the reopening of the American Embassy in August 2015, tourists are flocking to Havana. The city is bustling with new restaurants, hotels, clubs, bars and paladars, the uniquely Cuban restaurant created in a family’s home.

The paladar movement began after the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing Cuba in what is called the “Special Period,” when the economy suffered greatly. The government experimented with private enterprise and allowed a few private citizens to turn their homes into restaurants.

In 1999, we ate at La Guarida, a paladar on the third floor of a dilapidated building with an auto repair shop on the bottom floor. Walking up the curved staircase, we passed tiny apartments, their doors open to allow for the circulation of air.

Made famous as the location for the classic Cuban film, “Strawberries and Chocolate” (“Fresa y chocolate”), La Guarida was a restaurant created inside a small apartment. Customers ate in what had been the living room. Another room had also been cleared of its furniture to make way for a dozen small tables and chairs. Plates of chicken with rice and vegetables were served, and I remember we were charged for bread. All in all, the food was good but not special except that by 1999-Havana-standards, the quality was very good.

Fast forward to 2015 and a return to La Guarida found the restaurant in the same peeling, dilapidated building. Cars were still parked inside the building on the ground floor and the restaurant was still reached by climbing up the broad staircase to the third floor.

But La Guarida no longer looked like a family’s apartment. The restaurant now takes up the entire floor with a large kitchen, sleek modern bathrooms and large, expansive rooms decorated with crystal chandeliers and quality paintings. Sitting in any of the dining rooms or the small bar, you could imagine you were in London or New York. The menu no longer has home-cooked favorites such as chicken with rice and vegetables. La Guarida’s fine-dining cuisine would be easily found in Paris or Berlin with prices to match.

A dining room at La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

A dining room at La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Like La Guarida, many paladars no longer look like private homes. Paladar Vistamar is in an upscale neighborhood of 1950s modernist houses. Located on the second floor, the restaurant occupies what was once the living room and terrace. The dining areas are framed by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on the ocean-facing side of the building. Eat outside on the covered terrace and you will have the best view of the ocean and the pool below.

When we had lunch on a sunny, clear day, the ocean still churned from a storm that had passed over the island the night before. Waves crashed against a concrete retaining wall and swept across the pool.

Pork, chicken and rabbit were on the menu, but given the proximity to the ocean, we chose seafood. A red snapper ceviche was fresh and bright. A green salad with freshly cooked shrimp and lobster was beautifully presented, although foreigners were advised to avoid eating leafy greens because of problems with the quality of the water. On the advice of the waitress, we ordered sides of the delicious, soupy black beans and steamed rice or as they are called here Moors and Christians (“moros y cristianos”). To finish the meal, a light flan with fresh fruit was served as dessert along with cups of Cuban espresso.

For Americans, a stay in Havana always involves conversations about the current state of relations between the two countries and what will happen when the embargo ends.

Walking around the tourist areas of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), you might be tempted to believe that Cuba has returned to a capitalist culture. That would be a mistake. Havana is a city living in two worlds. In the tourist sections of the city, capitalist-socialism is very much in evidence. Wide boulevards have been recently paved. Hotels are being constructed within sight of José Martí Square in Old Havana.

Chef Boris Panta in the kitchen at Paladar Vistamar platting red snapper ceviche. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Chef Boris Panta in the kitchen at Paladar Vistamar platting red snapper ceviche. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The other Havana is a few blocks from the neighborhoods visited by foreigners. On those streets, the pavement is potholed and the buildings are in a state of decay. Of course there are beautiful suburbs outside of the Old City and Central Havana. But most of Havana suffers from the effects of poverty and the consequences of the embargo.

Part of a larger complex, El Cocinero is next door to one of Havana’s cultural sensations, Fábrica de Cubano Arte, known locally as F.A.C. or Fábrica. An artist collective originally subsidized by the Cuban government, Fábrica is the ultimate hyphenate. Café, art gallery, screening room, lecture space, dance hall and bar, the expansive former peanut oil factory has dozens of rooms that are filled every night by hundreds of young Cubans. When you visit El Cocinero and after you have eaten and enjoyed one of their delicious, light-as-air piña coladas, definitely follow the music to Fábrica where you can dance until 3:00 a.m.

Since the “Special Period,” paladars have blossomed into a subculture and have transformed the Havana culinary scene. Now the paladar is an iconic feature of the new Havana as much as the 1950s American cars that are everywhere in the city. As you make a shortlist of paladars you must visit on your trip to Havana, Ivan Chef Justo deserves to be at the top of your list along with La Guarida. The handiwork of two chefs who used to cook for Fidel Castro, Ivan Chef Justo is a soulfully curated vision of a traditional paladar. Family photographs line the walls along with portraits of 1950s Hollywood celebrities. Relying on small private farms for their ingredients, Ivan Chef Justo, like many paladars, is pursuing a farm-to-table program long popular in the United States but new in Cuba.

The sign on the outside of the paladar La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The sign on the outside of the paladar La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

When we ate at Ivan Chef Justo, we were part of a large party. We were served family style with large platters filling the center of the table. Lobster stew with carrots, mashed yucca, Moors and Christians, roast chicken and, my favorite, roast pork with crispy lacquered skin, were eaten with relish.

During our week-long stay in Havana, we ate most of our meals in paladars. Talking with other travelers, we heard about their favorite paladars and we told them about ours. If you have friends traveling to Cuba, ask them which paladars they enjoyed and check La Habana online (www.lahabana.com). Because the more popular paladars are booked months in advance, email the hotel concierge to request reservations so you don’t miss out. And bring a lot of American dollars to exchange for the local currency called C.U.C.s (“cukes”) because, as of this writing, American and European credit cards are not accepted inside Cuba.

Paladars of Havana:

  • El Cocinero Paladar (Calle 26, Vedado, between Calle 11 and 13,  +53 7 832 2355)
  • Fábrica de Cubano Arte (Calle 26, between Calles 11 and 13, Equina 11, Vedado,  +53 7 838-2260)
  • Ivan Chef Justo (Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon, close to the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, +53 7 863-9697 and +53 5 343-8540)
  • La Guarida (Concordia. No. 418, between Gervasio and Escobar, +53 7 8669047)
  • Paladar Vistamar (Avenida 1, 2206, between Calles 22 and 24, Miramar, +53 7 203 8328)
  • Rio Mar (Aveneda 3rd and Final # 11, La Puntilla, Miramar,  +53 7 209 4838)

 

Main photo: Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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A traditional potjie is made with tough cuts of meat, then layered with hard vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

South Africa’s potjie — the country’s iconic three-legged cast iron pot and culinary workhorse — is a centuries-old piece of cooking equipment experiencing a contemporary revival now in its fourth decade.

In recent years, the potjie has almost taken on the power of a magic cauldron in South African society: It’s the place in which a hearty one-pot meal (called potjiekos) is cooked over an outdoor fire and over which people of all backgrounds enjoy being together outdoors. Yet while potjiekos is today a beloved ritual that even inspires contemporary chefs, for generations it was significantly overlooked.

Iron pots a tradition

South Africa’s potjies, being sold at a market, are centuries-old pieces of cooking equipment. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

South Africa’s potjies, being sold at a market, are centuries-old pieces of cooking equipment. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Outdoor cooking was a tradition in South Africa before colonial times, with the country’s indigenous people cooking in clay pots over open fires. According to author and potjie expert Dine van Zyl, “The Dutch settlers brought iron pots to South Africa from Europe, where they had been hung from hooks over fireplaces. These Afrikaners hung the pots from their wagons when they trekked … the potjie was their whole kitchen. When they camped, they’d make a fire and cook whatever they had; some salted meat and maybe some dried apricots. They’d also use what was available … seafood if near the coast, or game if they were in the interior.”

Everything changed with the advent of the stove, about 100 years ago. “People could easily cook in their kitchens and no longer needed potjies. The pot was used only nostalgically, on hunting, fishing or camping trips, or it sat on a front stoep (veranda), planted with a geranium.”

Then, in the ’80s, Van Zyl had an aha moment. While living on a farm without electricity, she was forced to turn to a potjie pot over an indoor fireplace. One night, friends joined her and they made a potjie outside. “I looked at my friends singing, dancing and cooking under the stars and I realized that potjiekos gives South Africans exactly what they want and need. It’s much more than cooking,” she said. “If you want to only cook, you do it on the stove.”

Van Zyl wrote the first book on potjiekos in 1983, which led to a popular revival that hasn’t stopped. “One wonderful thing about potjies is that they got men cooking. For the first time ever, men and women sat around the fire together, cutting up the meat and the vegetables.”

A potjie is traditionally made with tough cuts of meat, often lamb or beef neck or shin, or oxtail. The meat is seared first in the hot pot, then onions and spices, followed by a small amount of liquid are added. Then the layering up begins: first the hard vegetables like carrots and potatoes, then those requiring less cooking time, like green beans and cabbage — all vegetables that have been collectively cut up around the fire. The lid goes on and the pot simmers and steams unstirred for several hours, while everybody socializes.

As for the no-stirring rule, Van Zyl says it’s a tradition based on sensible cooking. “While the different components should all be perfectly cooked, which is why it’s layered, it’s nonsense that it must look like a cassata,” she said. “While you don’t mix it, toward the end you can ‘pull it through’ — place your spoon at the bottom of the pot and gently lift some of the meat and gravy to the top. Otherwise it becomes a mess when people start digging.”

Tradition gets a modern twist

Chef Bertus Basson judges a potjiekos during a competition of "The Ultimate Braai Master." Credit: Courtesy of "The Ultimate Braai Master."

Chef Bertus Basson judges a potjiekos during a competition of “The Ultimate Braai Master.” Credit: Courtesy of “The Ultimate Braai Master.”

Now, the tradition is fueling one of South Africa’s hottest chefs. In his mid-30s, Bertus Basson is chef patron of acclaimed Overture Restaurant in the Cape Winelands. His tasting menus are sophisticated and distinctly modern South African, rooted in local flavors and sensibility. While Overture and a second restaurant, Bertus Basson at Spice Route, are indoor kitchens, Basson’s creativity is stoked by outdoor fire and smoke. He often hits the road with outdoor pop-ups, and he is a regular judge on The Ultimate Braai Master, a grueling 60-day outdoor cooking reality TV show going into its fifth season.

Which is why it’s not surprising that potjie will soon be on Basson’s menu. When an easy dining annex to Overture is completed, it will feature open pit cooking with an installation of potjie pots. Basson is also hitting the festival circuit with a mobile spit fitted with potjie hooks.

“I grew up with potjies. My favorite was my father’s lamb shin pot braised in a little Worcestershire sauce and beer,”  Basson said. He is quick to point out that when talking potjies, the layering method is the traditional Afrikaner way; it’s only one way to use a potjie pot. “South Africans of all backgrounds are cooking with potjie pots, whether Afrikaans, black African, or other, and what they cook and how they cook it differs. In addition, there are three-legged pots and also flat-bottomed pots, which are used for baking — my mom makes a kick-ass apple tart in hers. Potjies have survived generations. In fact, it’s traditional to pass on the pots, which just get better with age.”

In a country with a history of division, shared traditions are important. “Chefs have a responsibility to help South Africans celebrate our food and what we are, which can ultimately break down barriers,” said Basson.

Main photo: A traditional potjie is made with tough cuts of meat, then layered with hard vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

 

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