Author: Michael Snyder

In Bangladesh, Reimagining What a Mosque Might Be

May 9, 2019 – T Magazine

THE AMBER DENIM mosque sits at the back of a factory compound deep in the industrial sprawl north of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s frenetic capital (population: more than 18 million). Its walls are a Tetris grid of concrete blocks that recess in tiers toward open centers, like molds for tiny Aztec pyramids. Pipes left over from a plumbing job serve as pillars. Steel struts branch upward toward the 18-foot roof like the skeletons of umbrellas open against a monsoon. On a hot spring morning, the punishing deltaic sun bounces off the shallow moat that surrounds the structure, drifting over the concrete.

The mosque, completed in 2016, was the second project by the seven-year-old Dhaka firm Archeground to be built at the Amber Denim garment factory, which produces reams of fabric for the garment manufacturers that are the engine of Bangladesh’s new economy. A year earlier, the firm had constructed an open-air loom shed of bamboo, concrete and the same repurposed pipes that would be used in the prayer hall: It was an affordable prototype for humane industrial architecture in a nation plagued by deplorable, sometimes fatal working conditions. The loom shed originally contained a small prayer hall at its western end, but the weavers complained that the clacking from the looms disrupted their prayers, and so Jubair Hasan, 39, one of Archeground’s principals, approached the factory’s owner for another patch of land on which they could build a mosque. “We wanted to create a prayer space that would be connected to our climate,” Hasan says. “So there are no windows, no doors. Light comes in from all sides.” Since its completion, Hasan has encouraged the 1,500 employees who work, and in some cases live, on the compound to make their own adjustments by, say, fashioning bamboo curtains to block cold morning air in the winter. “Really, the people are making their own mosque,” he says.

Read more at the New York Times.

In Chile, Houses as Extreme as the Landscape

March 19, 2019 – T Magazine (Cover story)

AT THE EDGE of Concepción, a small city in southern Chile, a 60-foot tower stands on a hill, a stark concrete rectangle among eucalyptus and pine. Set at the end of a pockmarked road that threads between unassuming two-story homes, the tower looms over the wooded hillside. Square windows of various sizes puncture the walls like the black spaces in a crossword puzzle. All right angles and hard geometries, the building could be a silo or a sentry tower looking south toward the Bio Bio, the river that, for 300 years, marked the border between the Spanish colony and the territories of the unconquered Mapuche peoples to the south. Instead, it is the home and studio of Mauricio Pezo, 45, and Sofía von Ellrichshausen, 42, whose firm, Pezo von Ellrichshausen, is part of a group of innovative Chilean architectural practices that is establishing a regional aesthetic, one that alludes to Brutalism while also respecting the country’s peculiar topography.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Casa Cien, so named because it’s 100 meters (328 feet) above sea level, relies on a limited floor plan, repeating the same square divided by an asymmetrical cross in the seven stories of bedrooms and office space in the tower, which are stacked like an interlocking vertical puzzle. Narrow spiral staircases made from hand-carved blocks of Chilean cypress connect the tower to the kitchen and living room in the podium. The couple cast the exterior in reinforced concrete, then manually chipped away the outer layer in a process that Pezo, who spent his childhood two hours outside Concepción, describes as “aesthetic demolition.”

Read more in the New York Times, and in Spanish here.

The Lost City of Aguachile

March 13, 2019 Eater

I Saturday morning and a crowd of 30 people has already clogged the narrow central aisle of Mexico City’s Mercado de San Juan, the gourmet food market in the historic center. Bottles of Pacifico pass from hand to hand as waiting customers dance to banda music blaring from a precariously placed loudspeaker over chef Luis Valle’s cramped, chaotic kitchen. Flames leap as Valle throws a whole octopus onto the charcoal grill. Plates of crab tostadas, raw scallops as wide as beer bottles, and grilled tacos stuffed with smoked marlin pass over the counter by the dozen.

The dish that made Valle and his eight-seat stall, Don Vergas, famous within months of its opening in February 2018 is aguachile, the unofficial state dish of his native Sinaloa. The backs of six small shrimp crest a shallow pool of lime juice, their tails cozy under a tangle of red onion, cucumber, and cilantro criollo. Valle crumbles a pair of tiny, spherical chiltepín, a wild chile from Sinaloa’s eastern foothills, between his thumb and forefinger, showering the plate in a red flurry of capsaicin. The shrimp, still uncured by the lime (as they would be in ceviche), are slick and sweet and snap like cucumber.

The dish tastes like the sea and the dry inland forest, as bright and dazzling as Valle himself, cracking jokes to customers who, in the span of just a few minutes, have become his new best friends. Among his favorite subjects was the origin story of the dish itself, its beginnings as an indigenous preparation that had drifted out of Sinaloa’s eastern hills and west toward the Pacific, a version of the dish that he’d never actually tasted himself.

Read more at Eater


The Perfect Dish: Bombay Toast

March 8, 2018 – Roads & Kingdoms

There is no perfect dish in Bombay.

You’ll find very good idli and dosa in the leafy South Indian enclave of King’s Circle, but nothing to compare with what you’ll find in Tamil Nadu. There are some outstanding Keralite and Gujarati thalis—at Deluxe and Thacker’s, respectively—but they pale in comparison to what you might eat in Kerala or Gujarat. Chaat—that seemingly infinite variety of snacks made from fried doughs and chutneys, whose mixture of sweet and sour, hot and cold, spicy and sweet is a favorite culinary metonym for the Island City’s hopelessly mixed-up character—is better, though I’m loath to admit it, in the smog-choked alleys of Old Delhi. Even the spicy, seafood-heavy cuisine of the city’s pre-colonial inhabitants is better down the coast where the sea’s not murky with grey water.

But then there is the Bombay sandwich, available on virtually every corner of this cramped metropolis and all but impossible to find beyond the limits of its shockingly compact urban footprint. (more…)

Coming of Age at 1020

November 16, 2018 – Punch

My friends and I had one iron-fast rule about 1020, the bar where we drank nearly every weekend of our four years at Columbia: Never sit at the front table. Bad things happened at the front table.

Of course, we broke that rule frequently. There was the night that my friend Lauren threw her Gin and Tonic in the face of her then-boyfriend and stormed out. There was the night that I confessed my crush on Amanda to our mutual friend Emily, a booze-soaked admission verily dripping with self-pity that, it turned out, had far more to do with my still being closeted than actual romantic interest. Emily nodded indulgently and sipped her drink. (more…)

Our Fish

October 2018 – The Believer

It was sunset along the Lago Mentiroso, or Lying Lake, a narrow bow of water north of the Madre de Dios River, deep in Bolivia’s Amazon Basin. Blue macaws shrieked high over the dark, still water. Fireflies gathered in the water hyacinth that fringed the lake’s edge. Every so often, a deep porcine grunt and a heavy splash echoed out from under the tall, dark naves of half-submerged roots. “Una vaquita,” whispered Jairo Canamari, one of four fishermen from the nearby village of Trinidadcito who’d brought me out to the lake that day—a little cow. It’s one of several names used for the giant, invasive fish that, in the last forty years, has become both a plague and a blessing in this remote corner of Bolivia.

Twenty-six and slight with close-cropped hair, Canamari stood at the helm of our ten-foot canoe, parting the reeds and canes as his older brother Rafael, who sat silently at the back of the boat, rowed us to shore. Gabriel and Ahismed Justiniano Montaño, also brothers, took the middle of the boat, Ahismed with paddle in hand, Gabriel rolling sticky tobacco into graph paper. The hull was already filled with the still bodies of red, yellow, and silver piranhas caught earlier that afternoon for the next morning’s breakfast. At any hint of the big fish, Ahismed’s attention darted like a cat’s toward the origin of the sound. Gabriel blew fragrant smoke through his nostrils: “It keeps the caimans and snakes away,” he explained. He was whispering too. That’s what you do when there are paiche around.

Read more in the October 2018 issue of The Believer, or in Spanish in Gatopardoreporting sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

As the dams rose in Brazil, so did the floodwaters in Bolivia

August 17, 2018 – The LA Times (A1)

No one in the Bolivian village of Cachuela Mamore saw the flood coming.

The Mamore River, which curves along Bolivia’s wildly diverse, 2,100-mile border with Brazil, always rises during the months-long Amazonian rainy season. But the flood in 2014 was different.

Within weeks, the river had reached villagers’ doorsteps, and all 38 families — fruit farmers and fishermen, mostly — fled inland.

For the next five months they returned to their waterlogged citrus, banana and avocado orchards, which had once been their primary source of income, and plucked fruit from the low branches to scratch out a living. When the water finally receded, the fruit trees collapsed, and the native fish in the river’s stagnant waters disappeared.

Now, the families of Cachuela Mamore still live in the makeshift huts of wood, plastic tarps and corrugated metal that they cobbled together after the floods, living alongside the dirt road that connects the village to Guayaramerin, the nearest major town.

The villagers have also come to believe that it was more than just seasonal rains that caused the Mamore to crest its banks. They blame a pair of dams built downstream and worry that two more dams planned in the region could undo their lives and traditions.

Read more in the LA Times; reporting sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

Masala y Maíz

July 16, 2018 – Food & Wine

In June of 2016, while picking out ingredients for a dinner in Mexico City, chefs Norma Listman and Saqib Keval had a revelation.

As they wandered the aisles of the Mercado San Juan, Listman, who grew up in the historic town of Texcoco just outside Mexico City, talked through family recipes with ingredients like tamarind and corn, staples of Mexican cooking. Keval, born and raised in California to a family with roots in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat by way of Kenya and Ethiopia, rattled off his own family’s uses for the same ingredients. “It would be so similar but one degree off,” he recalls, “like two sides of the same dish.”

Though Listman and Keval had cooked together many times before back in the Bay Area, where both lived, they had never developed an entire menu together. “That was an aha moment,” Listman says. That dinner became the first in a series of pop-ups that they called Masala y Maíz.

Did Tacos Win a Presidential Election?

July 2, 2018 – Taste

In December of last year, as Mexico was gearing up to replace its much-loathed president, Enrique Peña Nieto, the three-time presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose party, Morena, won a sweeping victory in last night’s elections, tweeted a brutal insult at his anticipated opponents from the bizarre right-left alliance known as Frente Ciudadano por Mexico, and the establishment PRI, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000: “The posh candidates for ‘the power mafia,’” he wrote, “on top of not visiting villages to understand the feelings of the people, have missed out on eating the succulent barbacoa at ‘El Carnalito.’”

The tweet included an image of López Obrador, better known to his supporters as AMLO, pulling fat-slicked nobs of mutton from the charred surface of an agave leaf, a beneficent smile illuminating his handsome, grandfatherly face. To date, that tweet has garnered 9,902 likes, 3,454 retweets, and 2,105 replies. To know the people, he suggested, is to know their food. The people seemed to agree. (more…)