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…)

High Hopes

Summer – Sabor Journal

Emiliana Rojas, 29, wakes up every morning at 6am in a distant corner of El Alto, a low-income sleeper city that sprawls dustily over a flat ridge 4000 meters above sea level before tumbling over steep red cliffs into La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital. She prepares a simple breakfast of hot milk and barley for her four-year-old daughter, whom she then wakes, feeds, and takes to school. From there, she spends two hours on crowded tin-can minibuses to reach her job, cooking at a small, pleasant café called Qñapes in the wealthy Zona Sur, 1000 meters closer to sea level. She leaves work most days at 10pm and rarely reaches home before midnight. “I cook all day, every day,” Emiliana told me, “and I love it.”

The full feature story on culinary schools El Alto, Bolivia  appears in issue two of Sabor Journal, ‘Spirulina Dreams.’

From Feeding Gods in the Temple to Mortals in the City

25 April Roads & Kingdoms

My favorite place to eat in Mumbai is A. Rama Nayak’s Udupi Sri Krishna Boarding, a real mouthful of a name for a simple place. Set in a leafy South Indian enclave called King’s Circle, Rama Nayak’s occupies a pair of bright, breezy rooms up a flight of stairs in a nondescript building next to the Matunga Central railway station. Crowded, Formica-topped tables flank narrow aisles patrolled by a small army of lungi-clad kitchen attendants who ladle food relentlessly from small metal pails onto banana-leaf plates until you tell them to please-god-stop. (more…)

The Great, Weird, Largely Unsuccessful Baja Road Trip

5 April – Roads & Kingdoms

Alejandro Cota Maclis looks gravely at the remains of his grandmother’s garden, a five-by-fifteen-foot patch of limestone and churned dirt. At the back, grape vines lean like broken caryatids against a ramshackle fence of sticks and wire. A committee of vultures perch in the high, green tops of date palms. Behind him, an austere limestone church—the Mission of Santa Gertrudis—stands on a lonely rise in the center of the silent village. (more…)

Detroit’s American Dream

21 November 2016 – Eater

(all images are the work of Ali Saloum)

The line that divides Detroit and Dearborn, coterminous cities in the sprawling grid of roads that traverse southeast Michigan, is invisible — but it’s almost impossible to miss. On one side, there’s a city that lost a quarter of its residents between 2000 and 2010, is home to tens of thousands of vacant buildings, and is at its smallest population since 1850. On the other, there’s a suburb where the number of businesses on its main commercial corridor has doubled in the last decade, the median income is nearly twice Detroit’s, and housing demand has seen bidding wars for single-family homes end over a hundred thousand dollars above asking prices. (more…)

Bhopali Cuisine

Autumn 2015 – The Art of Eating

The New Afghan Hotel, owned by Karim Khan, lies hidden down a blind alley in the bazaars of old Bhopal, the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. From the bylane that passes for a main road, the restaurant is completely invisible, blocked by a second restaurant, which is confusingly, and inaccurately, called simply the Afghan Hotel and is owned by Jameel Khan, one of Karim’s ten brothers. The front of that second “hotel,” a word that in India often means a simple, canteen-like restaurant, opens directly onto the street. Bright lights from inside shine on skewers of mutton and chicken that dangle over a row of grills sending banks of smoke like ghosts into the night. The pungent smells of meat, charcoal, and oil from deep-frying would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the historic Muslim quarters of Old Delhi or Hyderabad, cities celebrated for their rich courtly cuisines. The specialty at Khan’s restaurant, a dish simply known as Afghan machli, or Afghan fish, would almost certainly come as a surprise.

The full essay appears in issue 95 of The Art of Eating.

The Unreachable Place

Lucky Peach – August 2015, The Fantasy Issue
Shidi ValleyI first heard about the Shidi valley from my friend Max over drinks one evening in my living room in Mumbai. He said it was the most remote place in India. The people who live there still have to carry anything they want from outside into the valley on their backs. Except for the salt, sugar, powdered milk, and oil, people here eat only what they can grow, raise, or hunt in the forest. There’s no phone and no electricity. Despite the promises of the government, and despite the fact that the valley has been part of India since 1961 when the army marched in and planted the tricolor, there is still no road.

Before Shidi even becomes a glimmer, you’ll travel for two days on two flights and two rickety tin-can buses to reach Miao (pronounced “meow”), a charmless frontier town in the tribal hill state of Arunachal Pradesh, which wraps like a mountainous stole around the floodplain of the Brahmaputra River, where China breaths cold and hard down India’s neck. Miao is where the last dusty road in India ends. From here it’s barely forty-five miles southeast to Shidi as the crow flies, and if you have the means and the patience to wait out the intermittent chopper service connecting Miao to the military outpost of Vijaynagar at the far eastern end of the valley, it will only take you another five hours once the helicopter lands to walk down to Shidi.

Read the full essay in the Summer 2015 issue of Lucky Peach: The Fantasy Issue

Check republic

June 2015 – The Caravan

LIKE MANY AMERICAN KIDS, I read SE Hinton’s angsty Bildungsroman The Outsiders in middle school. First published in 1967, the book features teenage characters with names like Ponyboy, Sodapop and Cherry, who drink and smoke and get into knife fights. The boys belong to two rival gangs, divided along socio-economic lines: the Greasers—the eponymous “Outsiders”—characterised by their long hair and leather biker jackets; and the Socs, short for “Socials,” who have “good grades, good cars, good girls, madras and Mustangs and Corvairs.”

“Madras” here refers to the Socs’ predilection for clothing made of madras check, a fabric that was, and is, a powerful metonym for preppy fashion—that whole peculiar complex of styles and affectations with its roots in the Ivy League and Country Club cultures of the north-eastern United States. The Official Preppy Handbook, an obscenely popular satirical guidebook first published in 1980, used madras checks on its dust jacket, as did Christine Nunn’s Preppy Cookbook, published over 30 years later. The book Tipsy in Madras is not a long-lost Graham Greene novel, but rather, as its subtitle proudly proclaims, “A Complete Guide to 80s Preppy Drinking.” In 2011, a website called Ivy Style launched its summer season coverage with what it called “Madras Week,” and in July 2013, the New York Times published a story titled “Preppy Drinks Never Go Out of Style” featuring a cocktail called—you guessed it—The Madras. (more…)

Café Society

June 2015 – Voyeur (Virgin Australia Magazine)

The Byculla Restaurant faces a particularly furious Mumbai streetscape in the once upscale, now decidedly down-at-the-heel, neighborhood of the same name. One of the city’s many elevated roadways (known euphemistically as ‘flyovers’) touches down at street level here, disgorging its blaring traffic at the feet of once elegant apartment buildings. Across the overpass, behind the faded stepped-pyramid façade of the Palace Cinema and the hawkers selling pomegranates and oranges and watermelons, the corrugated tin roof of Byculla railway station seems to rattle every time a local train screeches through, which is often. Pedestrians cluster together to maneuver their way into traffic, eyes straight ahead, palms stretched defiantly toward the windshields of the cars that have overrun the city like rats.


Penance Food

May 2015 – Lucky Peach

Penance food in Palitana

The most difficult meal I’ve ever eaten involved a sum total of ten ingredients, prepared as sixteen distinct dishes: boiled mung beans and a warm broth made from the cooking water; boiled chickpeas, boiled yellow lentils, and boiled split chickpea lentils; boiled rice, a porridge called kichdi made from lentils and rice, and another made from split wheat; sorghum chapattis and pan-roasted flatbreads called thikara, half made from mung and half from chickpeas; dense, rectangular steamed cakes also made from either mung or chickpeas; bitter, doughy little morsels of mung flour and lentils; a tea made from an ayurvedic herb called kariyata (it tasted like an ultra-bitter yerba mate, which made it far and away the most flavorful thing on the menu that day); and a “chutney” made from chickpea flour and water. Anywhere else, you’d call that a batter, but I was in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat, in a town called Palitana, the holiest place on earth for the Shvetambar sect of India’s small but influential (read: wealthy and highly educated) Jain community, and this was a meal for penitents.

Read the full essay in the “Plant Kingdom” issue of Lucky Peach (Summer 2015)