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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Black Poplar Mushroom dim sum dumplings in Monterey Park, California (2010)
It’s no secret that menu translations can often be wildly inaccurate. This could be for any number of reasons, including the fact that some words just don’t have equivalents in other languages. While traveling, I personally just translate words the best I can and hope people understand what I mean – so I imagine everyone does the same thing with their menus. There’s another thing to consider though, sometimes translations differ so much from the original text for practical reasons. In many cases if we were given an exact, word for word translation it might do more harm than good. Every language has names for things that require interpretation and more often than not such names require knowledge of aspects of the culture a non-native speaker just won’t have. This is just as true of English as any other language. Take the dish from the American South called Hoppin’ John. That name doesn’t convey any of the ingredients in the dish and would likely be pretty confusing to a non-English speaker. Though if you were to just list it as black-eyed peas and rice you lose all the history and cultural significance. That’s pretty much what happens with things like the dim sum dumplings in this photo. They were on the menu in English as Mushroom Dumplings with Meat along with the Chinese name 茶树菇海棠果, which literally translates to Tea Tree Mushroom (茶树菇) Crab Apples (海棠果). The mushrooms turn out to be a special variety known in English as Black Poplar Mushrooms, highly prized in Chinese cuisine as well as others. Crab apples in this case refers to the shape of the dumplings (especially resembling the dried version), in English this shape is often called a Beggar’s Purse. While the name Mushroom Dumplings with Meat might avoid confusion for those of us who don’t speak Chinese, much of the beauty and nearly all the information is in the Chinese name, hiding in plain sight.
Ridged luffa, smooth luffa, opo squash and fuzzy melon in Marina, California (2010)
By far the hardest thing I’ve had to do when it comes to learning about food and cooking is break myself from seeking comfort, particularly when it comes to other cultures. This means going to the market and instead of looking for things I know and love, I buy ingredients I’ve never tasted and have no idea how to cook. When you bring something new home, what you learn from the research alone is invaluable, much less what you learn from the failure when cooking it for the first time. For instance, it used to be that many of the green vegetables and leafy greens in an Asian market all looked similar to me, though since I learned the fundamental differences between things that has changed. The photo above was taken at a farmers’ market in Marina in Central California, a place where everything grows. In the center is ridged luffa (or loofah) and directly to the right is smooth luffa, different varieties of the same plant. The spotted squash on the left is known as fuzzy melon, a very young version of winter melon. The solid light green vegetable in the top left is called opo squash, also known as bottle gourd or calabash. Each of these has many names in many languages. They are eaten everywhere from India to Thailand to Taiwan, but in the U.S. are most often labeled in Chinese. They even eat bottle gourd in Sicily, where they have a very long version called Zucchetta Serpente di Sicilia (Serpent of Sicily).
BTW, the luffa you eat and the loofa you wash with are the same thing. :)
Bolivian empanadas (salteñas) in Washington D.C. (2009)
Along with things you might expect, for me Washington D.C. will always mean things like delicious Ethiopian food in the U Street Corridor, butchers at the historic Eastern Market, vendors at the Capital City Market and the Bolivian empanadas known as salteñas. I went here with a picture in my head of what it would be like and found that picture was missing all sorts of details. It’s funny how your mind plays tricks on you, taking certain aspects of a place you hear about from a distance and pretty much blinding you to everything else. For instance, what comes to mind when you hear the words Bolivia or Bolivian cuisine? If it doesn’t include savory baked pastries filled with ingredients like shredded chicken, boiled eggs, green olives and potatoes… maybe take another look.