Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What I am Craving Now: Trishna

After a few weeks in India in early 2007, following the wedding of my friend Saurabh in Pune, Ingo and I were making our way back from Cochin through Mumbai, where we had a five hour layover en route to our respective countries of residence. And I had devised a little plan for those five hours.

R.W. Apple Jr., associate editor of the New York Times, Vietnam war correspondent, political journalist and travel and food enthusiast penned an article shortly before his untimely death as part of what was to be a series entitled, “Journeys: An Epicurean Pilgrimage: Meals Worth the Price of a Plane Ticket.”

One of the ten restaurants he selected was in Mumbai: Trishna. And since we already had the plane tickets, and because we had a five hour layover – I mean, it was obvious, right?

Johnny Apple, as the gourmand was known, was not the first person to make me salivate with his writing, but he has definitely been my personal muse, my foodie crush, of this genre of writing. I use to devour his articles - I may have actually licked printed pages as he described steamed dumplings in Shanghai, Thai spices and English meat pies. And of course, I swooned at his charming and inevitable references to his constant travel and dining companion “my wife, Betsey.”

Both Mr. Apple and Frommer’s refer to the snobby, surly service at Trishna which is known to cater to Bollywood starlets and Mumbai businessmen. I was far from Bollywood glamour or grace and equidistant from looking Mumbai money however as Ingo and I arrived in our old school non-AC white and yellow striped Ambassador cab, windows down, the humid Mumbai air blowing my hair into a Medusa-esque coif, not a trace of make up on my face and a pair of old flip-flops on my feet.

First of all, it’s a miracle we even found the place – going on nothing more that hunger pangs, a less than reliable sense of direction and sheer will, “Trishna restaurant” I told the driver, Kala Ghoda. Blank stare. I said it again this time with an Indian accent and a head bobble. Wrinkling eyebrows, slight recognition - at least of the accent and head wag. “Colaba?” I tried referring to the backpacker area where we stayed while in the city over Christmas. “Ahhhh, Colaba. Ok, Ok.” We set off, through the city, freeways, back alleys, parking lot, short cuts and I began to get nervous – not that he was going to drive us out to the middle of nowhere and cut us open to carve out and sell our kidneys on the organ black market, but that we would never find the place or worse, find it but not have enough time to have dinner.

Eventually (think an hour and a half later), things began to look familiar – the National Museum of Modern Art, the movie theater where we saw “Kabul Express.” “Ok.. I think we’re close.” I motion for the driver to take a left and he bobbles out a no, I guess. It’s a one way street. Around the first roundabout, the second and we are on track. Thrusting my hand into the front seat, I pointed left and right and suddenly, like a vision, that Vegas-cheesy but oh so beautiful hot pink neon sign appeared around the corner that indicates that we have arrived at our destination: Trishna.

We pulled up and before negotiating with our crafty cab driver, I ask Ingo to wait with the bags, just in case. I had been trying to call to make a reservation all day – only to get a perpetual busy signal. It was a random Sunday night – it couldn’t be that busy, I’d thought. Wrong. The place was packed. Disheveled and dirty, I tried not to look as desperate as I felt.

“Good evening, Madame,” one of the six men in suits greeted me.
“Hi. Do you have a table for two?”
“What name is the reservation under?”
“Um, well, I don’t exactly have a reservation.” (Raised eyebrows which seemed to say, “Been smoking crack now, have you?”) “But I have been trying to call all day and I kept getting a busy signal.” (Frown)
“Look we just flew in to Bombay right now. We have about three hours in town before we have to leave the country and we caught a cab straight here. This is the only thing we want to do in Bombay, to have dinner at your restaurant. We have to turn around and head back to the airport in less than two hours and….” I was prepared to tell him that it was my birthday, that we were on our honeymoon, that I live in Afghanistan and subsist on rice and would simply die if we couldn’t have dinner there, but I was interrupted. Another tourist walked in with two friends and asked for a table. “Do you have reservations?” “Ah, no.” “I am sorry. Without a reservation, I cannot seat you.” “Well, we can wait. Will it help if we wait?” The maitre’d looked at them and without hesitating said, “Oh, no sir. I am sorry. Goodnight.”

I watched them leave and prepared myself for the same fate.
“Can you eat fast?” he asked me. Blank stare. “We have one table but it is reserved. You can have a quick dinner but I am going to need that table so if you can eat fast…”
“I can eat really fast!” I said in an unnecessarily loud, excited voice.
“Ok, then come this way..”
“I have bags in the car…”
“Well, bring them in.”
“Um, big bags..”
“Bring them in and sit down.”

I ran out to the car, paid the driver and helped Ingo drag our two large duffle bags and backpacks into the restaurant, shoved them into a corner and sat down at the table while high-fiving each other, shit-eating grins on our faces.

“How did you do that?! I saw that other group walk in and out again. I thought the place was full!”

No matter, we ordered the signature king crab soaked in butter, garlic and pepper; the pomfret Hyderabad, a butterfish barbequed in black pepper and tiger prawn masala washed down with two King Fishers. As the butter dribbled down my chin I looked up across the table a saw my expression mirrored in Ingo’s eyes – ecstasy. We couldn’t speak, we just moaned. Literally. Unbelievable.

We had no problem finishing everything quickly, though we tried hard to make the meal last a little bit longer. As we climbed into the cab to head back to the airport in a food coma, reeking of garlic, we vowed to get to the other nine restaurants on Johnny Apple’s list – by plane, car, boat or bike.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

New York City: Noshing

New York City

When taking on New York City one should really have a plan, or more specifically, a method of attack. Mine generally begins with food. It has been four years since I have been to NYC and I was seriously excited to eat. But again, one can’t go into it willy-nilly or total overload will ensue. The approaches are endless: go Sniff’s route and follow the dreamy plate of nostalgia, follow my friend Sparky’s lead and eat solely from street carts. Another would recommend taking a deep dive in a particular neighborhood.

I would like to say that there was rhyme and rhythm to our meals and constant consumption in between, but the only thread I can find when looking back on our four day trip was pure orgy-like indulgence. We ate when we passed something delicious, regardless of hunger or nutritional balance. Steering our obsessive noshing was my brother Brady and our good friend Sparky. We were in good hands. By the second day, I was shamelessly wandering around the city with a plastic tasting spoon jumping in and out of shops.

With only one reservation for the weekend – lunch at the Boathouse in Central Park – we were set free for spontaneous gluttony. A high point was Carter opening Brady’s hall closet, immediately seduced by the smell of cupcakes wafting up through the air vents from the cupcake shop below. Forgetting that he was looking for toilet paper, he dashed out the door and came back ten minutes later with a cappuccino cupcake, a chocolate chip cookie-dough cupcake and a glass of milk. The bakery in the bottom floor of their building is Crumbs; we are now able to add our two-cents to the classic NYC conversation of who has the best cupcakes. These definitely give Magnolia’s a run for their sprinkles; it can be argued that the frosting is much softer, free of a certain sugary hardness Magnolia’s can have.

If you have ever spent time in NYC you know what I am talking about, and it is NOT cupcakes. Everyone has THE BEST place for EVERYTHING. Best bagels. Best slices. Best burgers. Best sushi. Best mojito. Best dhosa. Best hala. My favorite this weekend was The Best Iced-Coffee in the City (not to be confused with The Best Coffee – that was across town). I can definitely get onboard with obsessive eating and bragging rights to having taken the time to truly get to know your subject, but New Yorkers really do take it to a comical level. Everyone has a place and a guy for everything. New Yorker's passion for proclaiming to know "the best of the best" is completely and totally absurd, bordering on psychotic, but it does make for a rather fun, in a manic sort of way, exploration of all the nooks and crannies in a city dense with discoveries. So, in a seemingly uncharted course ,we ate our way through four of the five burrows; our method of attack: to maintain The Best Stuffed Bellies in the City.

Sparky's Top 8 Best Of.....

Best Falafel - There may better falafel, but at $2.50, the price and quality definitely make Mahmoud's the place to beat.

Best Burritos - The dudes at Calexico have the market cornered on San Francisco- style burritos. Rice, beans, meat and Mexican goodness.

Best Tacos - For a more authentic feel, a trek up to Spanish Harlem to Taco Mix is well worth it. The only place in the city that I have found with actual factual al pastor on the spit. Chorizo is also tested and approved.

Best FroYo - There is much debate over which non-fat, all natural frozen yogurt is the best, but you can't go wrong with either Red Mango or Pinkberry. If you want to mix it up, Sixteen Handles has 16 different flavors and a ton of toppings -- live and active cultures are included. It's all DIY and you get charged at the end by the ounce. I had no idea how much an ounce costs, so my last bill was $100!

Best Halal - Halal has taken over the city. Beginners should start at the beginning -- The Original Famous Halal Cart at 53rd and 6th. Order the chicken over rice with a judicious amount of hot sauce. The hot sauce is like Middle Eastern lava.

Best Ice Coffee - No debate here, Abricos Cart is the only place to get New Orleans ice coffee. Cold filter coffee for a hot day; like a coffee milk shake.

Best Indian - Indian food in burrito form? Brilliant! Go to Birayini Cart and get an aloo gobi, a chicken tika masala and kati wrap and enjoy your ghee induced coma.

Best South Indian - Dhosa or Dosa, no matter how you spell it. This South Indian crepe is a real treat! And it's gluten free! If I lived in a house made of dosa, I would be homeless very quickly!

Friday, July 17, 2009

2 x 1

Hamburg, Germany


A year ago, at exactly midnight on July 15, my water broke. The contractions began in earnest about 3 minutes later and continued every 90 seconds thereafter for the next 11 and a half hours. At exactly 11:11 am, I gave birth to a baby girl. She was beautiful, even though she looked like a little old man who had been in the sauna too long. She was mine, even though she felt strange. I marveled at her tuft of black hair, her caterpillar fingers and her puzzled eyes for the next 3 minutes or so - before she was handed off and I was told to get ready to push when the next contraction came. Right. More contractions and eventually, 19 minutes later, more baby. Henry was blue and slightly confused, as though he expected to come out somewhere else.

So on Wednesday, in celebration of these moments exactly one year ago, we rounded up the troops, put out a spread, poured a few glasses of Sekt – or the German equivalent of Champagne – and turned the front yard into an FKK strand. That is – the mothers got their drink on and the babies got into „Frei Korper Kulture“ literally, free body culture or the infamous German nude beach – i.e. they got into their birthday suits!

The front yard overflowed with: 10 children all between the ages of 1 and 2: Max, Louise, Liv, Felix, Maya, Miko, Anton, Fritzi, Amalia and Henry; plus eight moms, three dads, one babysitter, one neighbor and two grandparents.


There are a few unwritten rules that Germans unwaveringly, religiously and uncatagorically follow with regards to birthdays:

1.) There must be cake. There ABSOLUTELY MUST be cake.

2.) If it is your birthday, YOU bring the cake.

3.) Herlichen Gluckwunsch zum Geburtstag or "heartfelt happy wishes for your birthday" is the equivalent of Happy Birthday. AND it is NEVER UTTERED ALOUD BEFORE MIDNIGHT OF YOUR ACTUAL BIRTHDAY. You are seeing a friend today, but will not see her tomorrow which happens to be her birthday? For GODS SAKE, do NOT wish her an "early happy birthday"! NOOOOO! Germans will look at you as though you have just run your fingernails down the chalkboard, scraped a fork over your teeth, stuck your fingers in your armpits and then smelled them.. you get the picture.


When I play the, „If I were to open a restaruant/café/bar/store, it would be a...“ game, I always come back to one example: an American-style deli in Berlin called Barcomis, created by an American woman, Cynthia Barcomi. She has a real deli counter and real Amercan baked goods: bagels, muffins, brownies, cheesecake. And when I say real American baked goods, I mean they taste like your childhood, like your mom used to make, like the corner bakery; NOT like so many of the Starbucks rip-off chains in Germany who sell something that looks the same under the same name – but leaves the palate more homesick than ever, falling short in what seem like the simplest ways – the blueberries in the muffins have no flavor, the brownies crumble into cakey clumps when you bite into them, the bagels – don’t get me started. Barcomi’s menu includes comfort foods like grilled cheese sandwiches, tuna melts, BLTs and various chowders – again, done right. Barcomi’s is an institution in Berlin with a loyal local following and lots of tourist traffic as well. Ms. Barcomi, after constant prodding from zealous fans, has published two cookbooks including a „bake book“ with her favorite baked goods. I picked up a copy while in Berlin last month and decided that the birthday party was the perfect opportunity to try both her white cake and her chocolate fudge cake recipes - because although they share a birthday, they shouldn't have to share a cake, right?

After a round of "Hoch sollen sie leben" and "Happy Birthday" we helped the kids blow out the candles and then offered our guests their choice of white cake with Henry's handprint or chocolate fudge cake with Amalia's toe imprints. Despite the toes, the chocolate fudge cake was the undesputed champion with 3/4ths of the cake gobbled up on the first round and half of what was left dusted off for seconds. My kids too prefered the chocolate to the vanilla - which is no surprise considering the frosting was made with a large bar of bitter chocolate, a half a pound of butter and a little double cream (which was part inspiration, part improvisation).

Mmmm, finger-licking good!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Bethesda, Maryland

Sitting around the dinner table with a bunch of ex-pats the other night, the question of, “what is the food you crave most?” was posed. With some thought, I realized the answer depends on where I am and perhaps more importantly, where I have just been. After returning from six months in India, I dove into a steak and full-fat ice cream; after two weeks in Indonesia, I emailed a friend, who was going to be joining me, with a request for a couple bottles of red wine. I didn’t even drink much red wine at the time - apparently my body needed the tannins. After four months in South-East Asia, I landed myself in Hong Kong and spent two unforgettable weeks indulging in a craving for fine-dining and unbeatable service. When I moved on to China, I longed for the precious red bean-filled rice dumplings from the Japanese sweet shop tucked into the maze of magic alleyways behind Peel Street. After China, I just wanted food I could identify. Continuing on to Africa, I would have given my right arm for anything Asian, and back in Asia I woke from dreams of the best chicken I have ever had – the garlicky chili goodness of the peri-peri chicken in Zimbabwe - and the tough salty-bite of the biltong in South Africa.

Living in the second largest city in Mexico, I am pleased to say, affords me access to most of what my Midwest upbringing and California culinary-honing has embedded in my salivating glands as things worth longing for. It used to be, days before arriving at my parent’s house from Honduras, I would send a wish list longer than an eight year-old’s Christmas list of food I HAD TO HAVE. This usually included many very stinky, very creamy cheeses, meat other than chicken, palatable wine, fresh vegetables and anything “ethnic”. And yes, every time, I was terribly ill after one day of ferociously eating all that I desired. And no, in the two years I lived in Honduras, and returned to my parent’s house to eat, I never learned to take it easy on my out-of-practice belly.

Heading back to the States, after our first year living in Mexico, I am desperate for a cheeseburger with a side of Bloody Mary. Cheeseburger?! Yep. To me a hamburger is an art and perfection can not be achieved in a home kitchen and as far as my research has concluded has not been achieved at any establishment in Guadalajara. I believe the key to a truly delicious hamburger is the well-seasoned greasy flattop of a restaurant that turns out hundreds of burgers a day. We have tried to add that secret ingredient flavor infusion at home by mixing in crumbled blue cheese, spreading on homemade onion marmalades, saucing it up with chipotle spreads, and yes, all these things do impart their own flair, but we are talking perfection, true love, not a tarted-up prom queen trying to get served at a bar, the real thing. Of course, that is not all it takes, quality meat, adequate fat content, skill at the grill, the perfect pack (i.e. the meat cannot be too densely packed, it cannot be a solid patty, it has to have retained some of its ground beef texture, soft to the bite).

Upon arriving at my in-laws house in the DC area, our request was immediately put forward. I wish I could say that the first burger out of the gates was the fix I was after. It was good, but not perfect. At first glance, the potential was there: it was a popular spot, which most definitely housed a well-seasoned grill -- judging by the spilling-over, spill-over seating, packed with people enjoying burgers. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The salty, meaty, fatty, yet lean flavor in my mouth was not, precisely, that which I sought. Plus, they didn’t have Dijon or yellow mustard – just a variety of sweet grain mustards that simply would not do when seeking perfection. The silver-lining is that I have three more weeks in the States and there are many more burgers in my future. I will not stop until I am satiated.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Postcard: New York

New York City

The 72 hours I spent in New York this 4th of July weekend were both literally and figuratively a blur. The time was made fuzzy around the edges by a seemingly endless parade of my favorite people who filed into the city for my friend Lesley's wedding, lunches that stretched from late morning through til the early evening washed down with a few too many glasses of sparkling wine, and evenings that ended in the wee hours of the morning to a randomly mixed soundtrack.

And though my main objective was to spend quality time with friends, my secret mission was to eat as many bagels and slices as possible without lapsing into a carb coma.

Mmmmm... Murray's Bagels. The personal favorite: Everything bagel with scallion cream cheese and a few slices of tomato. I had one every day I was in town. I meant to do at least one bacon-egg-and-cheese too but when you have a good thing going, sometimes it's wise to just stick with it. And so I did. I also ordered a dozen bagels - half of them Everything - and stuffed them into my carry on. The mixture of garlic, onion and sesame followed me through JFK and all the way to the back of the plane, much to the certain delight of the passengers packed into the surrounding seats - even though I wrapped them in no less than 8 plastic bags.

A few hours later we made an unscheduled stop at Magnolia Bakery for one of their famous cupcakes - white cake, chocolate frosting.

And finally, this cheese slice - followed by many more. The cheese slice is something I learned to appreciate while in graduate school. As a poor student, it was the best $1.75 I ever spent. When eaten at the end of a long night out and followed by a few aspirin, it was also a little preemptive self-defense against hangovers.

I realize that bagels and pizza are found everywhere from Hamburg to Kabul to Guadalajara and everywhere in between these days but I swear, they do not taste as good anywhere as they do in New York. Or perhaps its just the company...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Breakfast in El Zócalo

Cuernavaca, Mexico

“Traveling in Mexico 101” teaches you to head right to the zócalo to establish your bearings in a new town. The zócalo is the central square, often times flanked by government buildings, old palaces turned into museums, cafes and, except in the case of Cuernavaca, it will most definitely be dominated by a church, chapel, convent or cathedral. The zócalo can be found in the heart of the Historic District, if the town boasts one, and always in the middle of the action. An immediate sense of a city and its history can be ascertained by one stroll through the plaza. It is essentially a park-- beautifully landscaped, with benches and fountains, walkways and spaces for people to meet and kids to run.

Our hotel is never far from the zócalo, so first thing in the morning, I walk through the quiet streets towards the z’lo in search of the tamale vendor. So far, I have not been disappointed, he is always there. This morning, we woke up in Cuernavaca. Hunger pulled me from my bed out into the crisp fresh air; like a zombie, I marched towards the z’lo. The tamale cart was parked on a busy street corner of the plaza and was easily spotted by the long line of growling stomachs backed-up behind the steaming vats on wheels. Three types were on offer this morning: green, red and sweet. First, I should explain what a tamale is for those who have not had the pleasure. The only real constant of a tamale is that it begins with corn ground into a dough called masa. The masa is filled with all different muy yum ingredients, depending on where you are in the world, then wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed.

Staying true to the many regional differences found throughout Mexico, I was presented with a new variation of the tamale: I had the option of having my tamale natural or en torta. Served en torta means the tamale was cut in half and put in a freshly baked bun. I bought one of each, unadulterated, piping hot in the corn husk. The green was pork with chili verde and the red was a less spicy version filled with pork and chili rojo. The sweet tamale was a Strawberry-Shortcake-on-crack color from the strawberry puree that was mixed in with the masa. They were all delicious, and with each bite I proclaimed the one in my mouth the favorite.

However, the tamales we ate every morning in the z’lo in Oaxaca City, a few months prior, cannot easily be outdone. After the first morning, we raced back every morning and my ideal Mexican breakfast was born: a hot cup of organic Veracruz coffee alongside a tasty tamale treat. The tamale vendor in Oaxaca served a different kind every day. After the second day, I stopped asking what flavor they were, and relished in the element of surprise that lay inside the greasy wet banana leaves. Unwrap it like a present, then take a bite to really know the gift you have been given. My favorite one was a moist thin layer of masa surrounding a healthy portion of shredded chicken, soupily-sauced in a thick rich Oaxacan black mole. Incredible!

The early-bird gets the tamale. The man in Cuernavaca sells 200 tamales by 9 a.m. and calls it quits for the day, giving up his prime real-estate for steaming cauldrons of boiled corn kernels with chili and herbs, or free-wheeling flat-tops that sear hot dogs wrapped in bacon and cheese – daytime fare. It is obvious to me why the tamale is eaten during festivals: it is laborious and requires days of work. But, why is this (usually) savory meat-filled corn-cake a breakfast food? Hard to say, but it really hits the spot and is a great way to start a day of walking and eating. Perhaps, in the future, I will answer that question while bowing to the early-morning groans of my belly.