Food & Drink

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.

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…)

Mennonite Cheese is Mexican Cheese

December 2018 – MAD Dispatches

It is seven a.m. in the Mennonite colonies, dead in the center of the northern Mexican state of Durango. In the Mexican settlement across the highway, where they observe daylight savings, it’s already eight and but nothing will open for another two hours. Here in the Mennonite colonies, it’s a different world: the morning still starts with the sun and work stops for no one but god.

Abraham Klassen started his day at five am, colony time, milking his eighteen cows then sitting down with his wife and , three children, and in-laws for a silent prayer and breakfast of coffee and homemade bread spread with homemade butter and homemade jam. Just before seven, he hitches a rickety wooden cart to the back of his brother-in-law’s faded orange tractor and heads out to collect milk from the neighbors.

Last night, giant storm clouds walked in on tall stilts of rain, leaving the oat fields drenched. Low stalks of corn, just a few weeks into their summer flush, were neck deep in standing water; the rutted dirt roads, cut with Teutonic rectitude past white fences and white churches, were totally waterlogged.

“Days like today, it’s too muddy to work in the fields,” Klassen tells me in Spanish as he hefts steaming metal canisters onto a rickety wooden cart hitched to the back of his brother-in-law’s orange tractor. He squints up at the clouds, rolling in like gauze to bandage the huge frontier sky. “There’s always something to do. You get a break from one thing, it’s just a chance to do another.”

Read more in the book You and I Eat the Same, published by MAD Dispatches

The Lady of the Istmo has no patience for earthquakes

November 26, 2017 – Saveur

On October 4th, the Saint’s day for St. Francis, the village of Santa María Xadani in southern Oaxaca should have been thronged with devotees. The narrow streets should have been lined with vendors selling sweet buns and crisp rounds of masa called totopos, pulled straight from the hot clay walls of a tandoor-like oven called a comezcal. There should have been paper flowers hung between the houses, cases of beer to stave off the afternoon heat, and music late into the night. Instead, a small crowd gathered at 11 a.m. under a covered patio alongside the church of St. Francis. A somber mass echoed through an empty nave. The streets were lined with piles of rubble and empty lots and makeshift encampments, the scars of an 8.2-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of the neighboring state of Chiapas on the night of September 7th, bringing down half the houses in Xadani and decimating much of the surrounding area, a region of Oaxaca state called the Istmo de Tehuantepec. (more…)

The Prawn War

25 October 2017 – Roads & Kingdoms, Slate, CNN’s Explore Parts Unknown

(text and photos by the author)

Victos Fernando had been missing for four days when his body washed up, bruised and salt-soaked, off Sri Lanka’s northern coast. He’d disembarked with three other fishermen on April 2, 2011, from the crowded harbor of Rameswaram, a small island off India’s southeastern coast, to sail for the fertile breeding shoals on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, the narrow body of water that separates the two nations. The day before, the governments of India and Sri Lanka had both issued warnings against going out to sea. The two countries were slated to play a cricket match that day and tensions would be high.

Someone, after all, would have to lose. (more…)