Chinese Vegetables?

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A vegetable vendor at Sanyuanli Market in Beijing, China (2013)

The first time I had the classic Chinese dish stir fried eggs with tomato (番茄炒鸡蛋) it completely threw me for a loop. I have it on good authority that this dish is so common in China that it could almost be the national dish, the one dish that everyone knows how to cook. So why had I never seen it before? At the time, I wasn’t even aware that tomatoes were really used in Chinese cuisine at all – much less that they were common. I instantly realized I was missing something and had to start looking for things I hadn’t looked for before. There are a couple of reasons I had never seen this dish, first and foremost, I didn’t know to look for it. Second, it’s more of a Chinese home cooking dish than restaurant food. Which brings to mind a question. If so much of our first hand experience with cuisines is based on restaurant food and not home cooking – how much do we really know about those cuisines? It seems obvious that there are whole categories of cooking, in every country, that we may never experience unless a home cook makes the dishes. In my quest to learn everything I could about Chinese cuisine, I had almost entirely focused on cooking you could find in a restaurant. Home cooking was a (big) detail I overlooked. Unfortunately, sometimes we miss things and have to go back and look again. I’m sure you see the smiling lady vendor in this photograph and likely notice all the Chinese vegetables and even the tomatoes, but do you see the fennel? Do you see the asparagus, the cauliflower, the lettuce, the European broccoli? They are all clues that there is more to this market than first meets the eye. Which is true of so many things.

Bottle Gourd in Beijing:

Chinese Bottle Gourds

Chinese bottle gourds (húlu) in Beijing, China (2013)

I spend a great deal of time looking for connections between things in cooking and when I find them it’s like finishing a set of tiles in Tetris, a wall disappears and I’m suddenly left with room for more and different tiles. I try to recognize things that are similar and place them wherever they fit, no matter where they are from. The biggest obstacle to this is language. If you heard all the words for “apple” spoken in every language one after the other you could easily think they are all different things. This can lead to trying to identify the same thing over and over. If you’ve ever done this, it really makes you appreciate something like binomial nomenclature. These days the way I learn is more a process of elimination than a compilation of information. Instead of looking at everything as something new I immediately try to relate it to other things, most of the time it turns out I’ve already seen something somewhere else and just didn’t realize it. Take these bottle gourds for instance, the ones in the photo above are known as húlu (葫蘆) in Chinese but they go by many names; calabash and opo squash, Polynesian hue, Indian lauki (लौकी), Japanese hyōtan (ひょうたん), Vietnamese bầu, Italian cucuzzi and Sicilian zucchetta or Serpente di Sicilia. All different shapes and sizes, all dried to hold water, wine or spice, all used as a vegetable in a number of dishes.

All Lagenaria siceraria.

Mangoes in Hawaii:

ImageLocal mangoes for sale at the Kona Farmers’ Market in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (2013)

When you think of crops that are grown in America, chances are you think of things like corn and soybeans, or maybe those famous Idaho potatoes. Even though places like California and Florida grow everything from grapes to figs to pomegranates, and citrus fruit far beyond oranges, for some reason these things are generally associated with other places. Chances are when you think of things like coffee, cacao, mangoes, jackfruit or lychees you think of places like Southeast Asia and South America. The thing is, all of those things are grown in the U.S., because all of those things are grown in Hawaii. Not only do they grow coffee in Hawaii, it’s arguably some of the best coffee in the world. Go to the right farmers market or fruit stand and you can buy fresh lychees, longans and rambutans, soursop and sapote, even things like local jackfruit, salak (snake fruit), ripe cacao pods and dozens of other fruits you may have never even heard of. All grown right here in the USA and sold to the public just off the tree – no passport necessary. In the photo above are 3 kinds of mangoes for sale at the Kona Farmers’ Market, they had about 10 varieties here, which sounds like a-lot until you consider it’s only a fraction of the more than 50 types of mangoes grown in Hawaii.

Laotian Dessert in Fresno:

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Lao-Hmong three color dessert (kao la song / nab vam) in Fresno, California (2013)

Because it’s sandwiched between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you don’t hear that much about Central California. Which is a shame, because it’s an amazing place. I’m not just talking about the coast, though areas of Big Sur are nearly identical to the Island of Capri in Southern Italy and the area around Monterey could stand in for Lazio with its cypress trees and artichokes, then of course you have the Central Coast wine country inland. Those things are all great, but I’m talking about the small towns many have never heard of, spaced between thousands of square miles of farmland that grow a huge percentage of the food for the whole country. Places like Lemon Cove and Exeter with endless fields of citrus fruit and pomegranates. Earlimart, McFarland and Traver, which are covered by orchards of almond, walnut, pistachio and nectarine trees pollinated in the spring by mobile beehives. The list of towns (and the foods they grow) could go on and on. One of the least obvious attributes of Central California though has to be the Asian enclaves in places like Marina or the town of Fresno, which has a huge Southeast Asian population from Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – particularly of Hmong descent. There are markets in Fresno that look like something straight out of Vientiane, selling things you don’t find in other Asian markets, and all kinds of Southeast Asian food. The photo above is a three color dessert that was marked with its Lao name kao la song, but the Hmong call it nab vam. On the bottom are tapioca pearls and the top has bags of sugar syrup and coconut milk to add – but what is in the middle is what catches your eye. These green rice flour noodles, colored and flavored with pandan, are very common in Southeast Asian desserts like cendol or Burmese mont let saung. Their Thai name is lod chong, Vietnamese call them bánh lọt. Some versions are made with alkaline limestone water for texture, others are not, but they are all related somehow… if not in name.

Koulouri in Athens:

Koulouri bread vendor in Athens, Greece

A street vendor selling koulouri bread in Athens, Greece (2012)

Ten years ago when I began this journey, I had a clear purpose in mind. Instead of going to culinary school, I would travel to learn about the cuisines of the world. I started taking photos for documentation, mostly so I could reference them later. My galleries are like a textbook that I made up as I went, allowing me to study things after the fact. I’m still learning from things I saw in the beginning. For this reason, my photos have been more of things rather than people. I do take the occasional photograph of people though, especially when I find someone with undeniable character. The man in this photo is one of those people, a street vendor selling κουλούρι or koulouri, a kind of Greek sesame bread popular at breakfast time. Where in America you might pick up a bagel or a donut in the morning, the streets of Athens are filled with vendors selling koulouri, especially outside train stations and beside newsstands. This guy had a serious operation going, he looked as if he had been selling this bread on the same corner for his entire life. When I passed on my way to the Agora (Central Market), I held up my camera to ask permission and he smiled and held up a piece of bread. I was honored that he allowed me to take his photo, so I walked up and bought this bread from him and had it for my breakfast.

Like so many other people on the street that morning.

Turkish Coffee in Kusadasi:

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A cup of Turkish coffee in Kusadasi, Turkey (2012)

I drink about 10 cups a day, so needless to say I like my coffee. The thing is, I pretty much like all coffee, truck stop diner coffee, café con leche made with instant coffee, Vietnamese iced coffee, Ethiopian spiced coffee… you name it. There has long been a special place in my heart though for Türk kahvesi or Turkish coffee. I had my first sort of by chance sometime in the late nineties. After a meal of kebabs I ordered a coffee and was asked if I wanted regular or Turkish (you can guess which one I chose). From then on if the Turkish version was an option that is what I had. So when I arrived in Kusadasi, finding a proper cup of Turkish coffee was high on my list. I wanted to find other things too, like the chewy Turkish ice cream known as salep dondurma and fresh-baked lahmacun and found other things I didn’t even know about, like tulumba. Much like every other day of my life though, on this day, coffee was first.

Swordfish in Sicily:

Swordfish and tuna in Siracusa, Sicily

Swordfish and tuna at the Ortigia Market in Siracusa, Sicily (2012)

Tradition is a powerful thing. It connects people over huge distances and over thousands of years. In some places, the foundation of tradition is so strong it supports bridges to the past that seem to lead all the way back to the beginning. Sicily is one of these places and in Siracusa you can take a bridge into the past, to the old city on the island of Ortigia. Here, fishing is one of the oldest traditions. The market is lined with numerous pescherie, with the fishmongers calling attention to the best of the days catch. They sell fish here I’d never even heard of before, like pilot fish (fanfole or nfànfaru) and pearly razorfish (pesce pettine), but when it comes to the tradition of Sicily two fish stand alone… tuna and swordfish. During my visit to the Ortigia Market, this display of pesce spada (swordfish) and tonno (tuna) at Casa Del Pesce Fratelli Cappuccio was hard to miss, in the background the owners are having a rather lively discussion.

If you hear them say pisci spata or tunnu – they’re speaking Sicilian.

Bintjes in Brussels:

Bintje potatoes in Brussels, Belgium

Bintje potatoes for sale in Brussels, Belgium (2011)

Did fries originate in Belgium or France? That’s an argument I wouldn’t get in the middle of. While it would be difficult to avoid French while visiting Brussels (even the street names are both in Dutch and French) calling fries French would be high on a list of things not to do. Yes you can get your frietjes (Dutch word) at any number of friteries (French word), but when in Belgium call them as the Belgians do. You may speak English, but do you eat bangers and mash or sausage and mashed potatoes? I guess it depends on what kind of English you speak. One thing’s for sure, when people feel they have a claim to the origin of something the debate can get heated – sometimes to the point of no return. Some dishes are so beloved that even the slightest deviation from the recipe someone grew up with can inspire outrage, even if the dish itself was born in another place entirely. Fried potatoes exist all over the world, but there is little agreement on the best way to cook them or which potato is best for what. These local bintje potatoes were still covered with soil at a tiny shop in a square known as Bloemenhofplein in Dutch or as Place du Jardin aux Fleurs in French (both roughly translating as Flower Garden Plaza). In Belgium (and France), the bintje potato is the most highly prized for making fries.

So, if you’ve never had a fry made from a bintje potato… have you ever really had a fry?

Farmers in London:

Chegworth Farm Shop in London, England

View outside the Chegworth Farm Shop in London, England (2011)

Making an accurate assessment of anything is pretty difficult without a point of reference. Imagine having to find the distance between two places and not knowing where either of them are… sometimes you just have to find things first. This is especially true when it comes to food, how can you know when you’ve had true Italian or Chinese food, for instance, until you’ve had it made the way it was intended to be made, with the ingredients it was intended to be made with? In Italy the vegetables may have just been pulled from the soil and taste like they were injected with the concentrated flavor of that vegetable, in China the chicken used in your dish may be from an ancient breed and may have been slaughtered right before it went into the pot. In the end, many of the dishes we eat that originated in other places will only be approximations, limited examples that can at the very least give us a point of reference to later compare with other things. For example, before visiting England I had only had versions of things that people called British cuisine – approximations of Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, etc. When I finally got to visit, not only did I find that there is so much more to British cuisine than I ever knew, I found that I had never really even tasted the real thing. The markets here were absolutely bursting with ingredients from small regional farms, lamb from Essex, cheeses from Somerset, pork from Yorkshire, seafood from Scottish waters, aged wild game and beautiful fruits and vegetables to rival any I’ve ever seen. No doubt these are the ingredients that British dishes are intended to be made with, and they didn’t disappoint. One of the biggest shocks to my system were some tiny plum tomatoes from the Chegworth Farm Shop in the photo above, a little place that sells ingredients grown on a farm in Kent. I’ve had tomatoes all over Italy and often straight off the vine on the farm I grew up on. These were some of the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten anywhere.

That was certainly unexpected.

Japanese, American, Breakfast:

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Scrambled eggs, home fries and braised pork (chashu) in Culver City, California (2010)

The more I learn about the cuisines of the world the more similarity I see between them. I used to think that things like Japanese cuisine and the cuisine of the American South, for instance, couldn’t be more different. It turns out that, in many ways, there is less distance between them (and every other cuisine) than meets the eye. Part of the reason for this is that basic cooking techniques all over the world are relatively similar. Another reason is that cuisines are always evolving and this often stems from the introduction of new things brought in from far away lands. Not so long ago there were no tomatoes in Italy, no hot chilies in Sichuan Province. These things are now so traditional that it’s hard to believe there was ever a time that dishes made with them were, for lack of a better term… fusion. People have always traveled and taken root in places far from their homeland and brought things with them that end up mixing with things already there, a perfectly natural progression. After enough time has passed no one even remembers what it was like before. Human evolution may be relatively difficult to watch in progress – but the evolution of world cuisines is something that is happening right before our eyes, and the planet sometimes even seems to spin in reverse. Japan is eating Southern fried chicken at Christmas and loves good whiskey, while Kentucky is making soy sauce in Bourbon barrels. Hong Kong-style cafés are twisting Western cuisine to Asian tastes in much the same way American-Chinese restaurants twist Asian cuisine to Western tastes. Vietnamese from New Orleans are opening Cajun-Vietnamese joints in California, which makes perfect sense once you consider the role of seafood and the heavy French influence in both cuisines. In my travels I’ve seen Filipino restaurants in Rome, Italian restaurants in Japan, Chinese restaurants in India, Indian restaurants in Paris and Korean-French bakeries in America serving Italian coffees. So this breakfast plate from the Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop in Culver City, California seems pretty normal. Yes, that’s the same braised pork (chashu or チャーシュー) found in a bowl of ramen with teriyaki sauce, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and a cup of coffee.

If it was a pork chop with steak sauce would there even be a question?

Hometown Bourbon:

Kentucky Tavern Bourbon in Owensboro, Kentucky

Kentucky Tavern Straight Bourbon Whiskey in Owensboro, Kentucky (2010)

Bourbon has always been a part of my life. I grew up in Kentucky and my first sip of whiskey came from my grandfather when I was pretty young. He hasn’t been with us for a while now, but is still sorely missed. Of course that first sip burned my insides to the point that I wouldn’t touch the stuff again for many years. Now I generally drink it neat with a side of ice, adding a cube at a time so it doesn’t get watered down. Needless to say, drinking Bourbon in Kentucky is standard practice – but cooking with it is common enough that I’d go as far as to call it a pantry staple. It’s used in all kinds of desserts and sauces for meat as well as vegetable dishes like baked beans and yams. In this photo is a bottle of Kentucky Tavern Straight Bourbon Whiskey produced by Glenmore Distillery in my hometown for over a hundred years. This was my grandfather’s Bourbon of choice, it’s hard to find outside Kentucky. He just called it KT.

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