The Union Square Green Market in winter, Manhattan, New York (2009)
I’ve been to New York a few times now, beginning somewhere around 2003. The first couple of times I was pretty much a typical tourist, checked out Chinatown and Little Italy – walked through Soho and the like. I didn’t really have the frame of mind back then to dig into the details, but these “overview” trips and the other traveling I’d done after them prepared me to go back in 2009. Most definitely, living in Los Angeles and hunting down places by car spread out over an area of thousands of square miles made once overwhelming places like Manhattan feel far more condensed and easier to navigate, the same is true of my old home of Chicago. One of the places I finally made it to in 2009 was the Union Square Green Market, it was December, just a few days before the New Year and extremely cold. I was surprised to find this farmers market was still operating. Not only was it open, but the variety of produce here in the dead of winter was pretty unbelievable – everything from leeks and celery root to apples, turnips, potatoes, carrots, onions and even several types of seasonal leafy greens. What I like most about the photo above is the contrast, these small temporary structures selling things like pasture raised heritage pork from Shushan, NY and items from biodynamic farms in Columbia County against the backdrop of structures of concrete, glass and steel. Like plants sprouting through cracks in the sidewalk.
A vendor of Mexican ingredients in the Grand Central Market, Los Angeles (2008)
During my first couple of years in Los Angeles I discovered the wonders of regional Mexican cooking. What I once thought of as a singular cuisine revealed itself to be just as location based as Italian food. Dishes from places like Oaxaca, Jalisco, Veracruz and Baja are now among my favorites along with specialties typical of places like Mexico City and Guadalajara. In Southern California, if you added up all the Mexican street vendors, markets and restaurants they would easily number in the tens of thousands. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering California was once part of Mexico, but it still amazes me what can be found here. I’d say something like if it exists you can probably find it here, but the truth is if something isn’t here you’ll just never know – there are just too many places to check and not all of them officially exist. There are some places though where you can find all sorts of things side by side, like the Grand Central Market in downtown LA. There are dozens of vendors here selling hundreds of classic ingredients. The stall in the photo above offers dried jamaica (hibiscus flowers) which you see on top of the jar of camarón seco (dried shrimp), dried guajillo chiles, ancho chiles and cumin (comino) line the shelves topped with jars of chía seeds, amaranth (amaranto), ground barley (cebada) and powdered pico de gallo. There are two mole pastes for sale on the counter, the well-known mole poblano plus mole Teloloapan, named for the city in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
There are also great places to eat in the GCM, some of the vendors have been in operation for decades.
Finocchiona and Fontina on Focaccia in Florence, Italy (2008)
I take some things for granted. Like that I didn’t have to harvest wheat to make bread or butcher a pig for curing meat or have the skill it takes to make a good aged cheese. Only occasionally do I think about all the work that goes into these things. If you go to the right places in Italy, it’s certain that multiple people with generations of wisdom paid attention to every ingredient you’re eating, from the moment it first walked or sprouted from the ground to the time it landed on your plate. Taking ingredients this seriously is a common practice here. Things like Florentine-style steak (Bistecca alla Fiorentina) in Tuscany and fresh buffalo milk mozzarella (mozzarella di bufala) in Campania owe so much to the farmers, butchers and cheesemongers that produced them, long before they ever reach the cook. Besides, when ingredients are this good, you really need only slice and serve... which puts this sandwich into perspective. It’s just 3 ingredients, fennel salami (finocchiona), Fontina cheese and olive oil focaccia bread. Simple right? Yeah, not really. It’s humbling to think that, while I certainly could have made this sandwich, there’s no way I could have made the individual ingredients, not even the bread – not this well. The fact that there are people who can make these things and grow the wheat, butcher the pig and make the cheese reminds me how far I have to go to catch up with the knowledge of the past.
Simplicity is one of the most difficult things.
The Rialto Fish Market in Venice, Italy (2008)
Venice was the first city in Italy I ever visited. It was as beautiful as I had ever heard, more so even. Though there were things of beauty other than canals and architecture I found in Venice… like the seafood. My knowledge of Italian seafood dishes was pretty limited before traveling here and I knew even less about traditional Venetian dishes or the bounty of the sea they represent. Here, for the first time, I experienced pasta with an entire sauce of fresh squid or cuttlefish ink. The little snacks known as cicchetti served in the bàcari (cicchetti bars) like creamed dried cod (baccalà mantecato), fried sardines with pickled onions, raisins and pine nuts (sarde in saór), fresh anchovies – not salted or canned – marinated in vinegar (alici marinati) and octopus salad (insalata di polpo) were all revelations. Partly because these dishes were so different from the ones I knew and partly because the seafood from these waters was of incredible quality. Having visited Tsukiji in Japan, I thought my days of being blown away by fish markets were over, not so. The Rialto Fish Market in the photo above was an amazing place, filled with everything from branzino to scorpion fish, live eel to mantis shrimp – all pristine and key to the local cuisine. Known as the Mercato del Pesce al Minuto in Italian or simply La Pescarìa in Venetian, this is the place I would send anyone who wanted to see the heart of Venice.
Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich in San Gabriel, Los Angeles County (2007)
One of the first things you notice when getting to know Los Angeles is its sheer incredible size. You quickly learn that Los Angeles really means Los Angeles County in which the City of Los Angeles is just one of more than 90 cities, not nine… ninety. I saw a map once that showed you could fit Manhattan, Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Cleveland, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh within the borders, and still have room left. Of those 90+ cities more than 30 are in the San Gabriel Valley and of those about 5 entire cities have a population that is overwhelmingly Asian. The largest segment of that population is Chinese, but the SGV has more than its share of Taiwanese, Indonesian, Burmese, Korean, Thai, Japanese and other Asian nationalities – including numerous Vietnamese. Though it’s no Little Saigon (located in Westminster, Orange County) the SGV also has more than its share of Vietnamese restaurants serving everything from noodle soups like phở and bún bò Huế all the way to the elaborate 7 courses of beef known as bò 7 món. The photo above was my first bánh mì sandwich in Los Angeles, in the city of San Gabriel. I’d had these before in the Uptown area of Chicago, but here in L.A. is where I learned the most about them. I had no idea before this that “bánh mì” could refer to just the bread alone or to the sandwich made with the bread. I also previously didn’t know that the baguettes were made with rice flour or that the tins of liver pâté and butter used in them were often literally imported from France. Thanks to the SGV I quickly learned to appreciate the harmony of cold cuts and pickled vegetables in a whole new way.
Who knew a sandwich could hold so much information?
Peruvian-Chinese Saltado de Pollo in Hollywood, California (2007)
Before I moved to Los Angeles in 2007, some things had completely different meanings to me. Hollywood meant movie stars and people trying to become movie stars and Peruvian Cuisine meant little more than roast guinea pig. My perception of so many things has changed since then, experience so often proves that what I thought I knew was almost completely wrong… or at the very least incomplete. These days, Hollywood means Thai Town, Little Armenia and Filipino food with Oaxacan, Guatemalan and Salvadoran joints just a few streets above Koreatown and Little Bangladesh. Peruvian cuisine now means delicious roast chicken (pollos a la brasa), spicy and colorful sauces made from chilies like aji rocoto, amarillo and verde along with heavily Chinese influenced Chifa dishes. The one in the photo above is called Saltado de Pollo, which is basically a stir fry of chicken and French fries (likely made with Peruvian soy sauce). The soda in the background is Peruvian Inca Kola which is flavored with lemon verbena, an herb known as cedrón in Peru.
One of the first meals I ever had in Hollywood.
Lady street vendor on an island in Mumbai, India (2006)
Street food is a way of life in India and Mumbai is no exception. There’s no shortage of restaurants in Mumbai but food still ruled the streets. From block to block you could get anything from fresh sugar cane juice to donut shaped vada fried on the spot to fresh young coconut. Street vendors also blanketed the coastal areas around places like Chowpatty Beach selling things like the fried potato sandwiches known as vada pav. Most of the street vendors were men, but the lady in the photo above was one of the exceptions. Mumbai has a number of islands off the coast and on the one I visited this lady street vendor had a stand setup selling grilled corn. The little cow in the background seems to be waiting for a chance to wander in and have a taste. I’m sure the vendor wouldn’t mind though, I’m told it’s considered good luck for a cow to visit your place. For this reason owners of shops often have food ready and waiting especially for them.
Baked khichdi in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India (2006)
A visit to Gujarat shattered any notion I had that I knew anything at all about Indian cuisine. Up to this point I had been eating dishes in Rajasthan that were somewhere within my realm of understanding. Experiencing Gujarati cuisine was the first time I really understood how different the regional cuisines of India could be from each other. First of all meat all but disappeared from menus (Jain vegetarianism is widespread), despite this Gujarati dishes were packed full of flavor from the use of various spice mixtures along with lentils, rice and pulses. That may sound something like the dishes at your favorite Indian restaurant – but the food in Gujarat was noticeably different in a number of ways from what most us know as Indian food. Ordering a Gujarati thali, sort of like a circular bento box filled with several individual dishes where vegetables take center stage, is probably the best way to understand what I mean. In Ahmedabad I had so many dishes that I had never seen nor heard of before, to say that I had a hard time identifying some of the ingredients is an understatement. In the photo above is a classic Gujarati dish known as khichdi (ખીચડી) made of mostly rice and lentils, it is usually served with a side of sour yogurt sauce known as kadhi, but in this case a version of that sauce has been baked on top. On the side are some classic accompaniments – chilies, lime, onion and achar (pickles).
Tandoori chickens hang from spikes at a restaurant in Jaipur, India (2006)
Before visiting India, I really thought when I got there I’d be eating mostly vegetarian. I thought that meat would be difficult to find or simply not served in most places… I couldn’t have been more wrong. While it wasn’t so common to see raw meat for sale anywhere, I did pass a few butcher shops that had various animal parts hanging from hooks for sale to the general public. More often than not though, animals used for meat were sold still alive only to be slaughtered when it was time for them to be eaten. Cooked meat on the other hand was a common sight, nearly every place I ate there were at least a few meat dishes on the menu – except in places like Ahmedabad where vegetarianism is more the rule. The photo above was taken in Jaipur, just walking down the street. This restaurant (like many others) had no front door – or even a front wall for that matter – it was just open to the street. It specialized in chicken cooked in a tandoor oven, you see the chickens on display hanging from ceiling spikes almost like roast ducks in the window of a Chinese BBQ joint. One of the men at the counter catches your attention by flipping bread around with long skewers – he’s pretty good at it.
A cooking class in the village of Madhogarh, Rajasthan, India (2006)
Of all the cooking classes I’ve taken in other countries, the one in the tiny village of Madhogarh way out in the desert outside the city of Jaipur was one of the most interesting. There is only one place to stay, the 400 year old fort that towers over the village like a castle was turned into a hotel of sorts by the Singh family that owns it. Madhogarh is literally like a green oasis, surrounded by fields of crops and herds of goats roaming the land – they pretty much grow everything they eat out here. In the photo above the wife of the owner is conducting the cooking class, she simply went by the nickname “Cutie” – her real name was rather long. On the tray are ingredients for making a Rajasthani-style masala, a spice mixture used later in the cooking of a dish. Her assistant in the turban is measuring things into a bowl. Everything is cooked over fire here, the fuel for which are patties of dried grass that have made a pass through a cow first – don’t worry there is no smell as there is really nothing but 100% grass in the fire. There’s no firewood in the desert.
A street vendor fries jalebi sweets in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India (2006)
After a visit to Jama Masjid (aka Friday Mosque) you walk out into the markets of Old Delhi known as Chandni Chowk and the streets become increasingly crowded, with street vendors everywhere you look. Some are selling food cooked on the spot, others are selling spices, fruits and vegetables, tea, coffee, cookware - just about anything you can imagine. As you walk through, the market seems to go on forever, with something new every few feet. The cook in this photo is making sweets known as jalebi (जलेबी) by drizzling batter into hot oil and then carefully watching over them as they cook. The fried batter is then soaked in sugar syrup until saturated. The final product is somewhere between a doughnut and funnel cake. In the background you also see a wide pan of sweetened milk boiling, you’ll see this all over the place, the large surface area of the pan allows the milk to evaporate and thicken more quickly. In the end it becomes a dessert in and of itself, nothing but milk and sugar boiled down to a white paste.