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Eight years ago, when I arrived back in New York City after living in China for a year, I not only missed the chaos of living in close proximity to 1.5 billion other people — well, in reality, my town was a “village” of just eight-hundred thousand — but I also craved delicious bowls of my favorite street food, lamian.

I had lived on these hand-pulled noodles, and sometimes suspected that the rumors of opium-laced broth were true, as during winter nights, there was little that could take my mind off that delicious meal.

I Googled lamian immediately on my return, assuming that surely, in New York City, there would be an abundance of options. I was thrilled at the prospect of introducing friends to the wonder of lamian.

I was, however, shocked to find that in 2002 the search “lamian+new york” returned no results, so I spent the better part of a year on obscure sites and expat forums.

About six months later I found a brief mention of a hole-in-the-wall that served hand-pulled noodles. Lamian wasn’t specified, but I was hopeful.

I trekked downtown with a hungover friend in tow. We were the only non-Chinese in the restaurant and the other patrons regarded us with a look of surprise, especially when I used my rusty Chinese to order. I requested  lamian, but was corrected by the waitress, nui rou mian (beef noodle soup). The meal was tasty, cheap, and a close approximation, but it lacked the depth of flavor I was hankering for.

About that time, another American teacher, a friend I’d meet in China, called and casually mentioned a new cookbook, The Food of China. “The food actually tastes Chinese,” she noted. I quickly ordered the book and was drawn to the recipe for cinnamon beef noodle soup. While the recipe didn’t specify lamian, the combination of flavors looked right. One test and I was proven correct — I’d found my lamian!

There are now lamian restaurants throughout New York; however, I find many of the broths weak imitations of the first lamian I fell in love with. So here’s the recipe from The Food of China that I believe captures the complexity of flavors I’ve been searching for but can’t always find.

Although about.china.com has thorough instructions on how to hand-pull noodles, my level of coordination isn’t up for the task, but with this recipe I have mastered the broth.

Lanzhou Lamian (Cinnamon Beef Noodle Soup)

Serves 6

1 teaspoon oil

10 scallions, cut into 1″ pieces

10 garlic cloves thinly sliced

6 slices of ginger smashed  with the flat side of a cleaver

1 1/2 t chile bean paste (Togan Jiang)  *****need photo

2 cinnamon  sticks (primarily use cassia in China)

2 star anise

1/2 cup light soy sauce

2 lb chuck steak, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes

thick wheat noodles

chopped scallion and cilantro for garnish

Heat oil in large saucepan. Stir-fry scallions, garlic, ginger, chile bean paste, cinnamon and star anise until fragrant (1 mintue). Add soy sauce and 9 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add beef.Simmer covered for 1 1/2 hours, until beef is tender. Skim foam from surface of broth to remove impurities and fat. Remove ginger and cinnamon.

Cook noodles in broth, serve topped with chopped meat, scallions, cilantro and lajiao.

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Radishes and Carrots

Radish and Carrot Street Food Vendor in Delhi

Radish and Carrot Street Food Vendor in Delhi

Piles of white radishes and garnet-colored carrots, simply adorned with typical Indian flavors, are the simplest of Indian street food and offer a refreshing antidote for a humid summer day. But these basic treats are potentially the most hazardous, as vendors sometimes clean their wears with polluted water, which can cause catastrophic stomach upsets.

Radishes and Carrots

Radishes and Carrots

Only frequent a vendor whose carrots and radishes are not yet peeled. (The vendor in these photos had already peeled her veggies but I wanted to take these photos as her sari was a majestically colored contrast to her wears and the Deli cityscape.) Use your bottled water to wash the vegetables and rinse the vendor’s knife before peeling–most vendors expect this request from foreign visitors. Then watch hungrily as the vendor slices open your root veggie of choice and sprinkles on a mixture of roasted crushed cumin and salt. A slice of lime, expertly squeezed on top, completes this snack.

White Radish with Cumin, Salt and Lime

White Radish with Cumin, Salt and Lime

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Coffee in Pondy

Coffee on the Rocks

When my neighbor on the train from Kolkata to Chennai finally stopped snoring–20 hours into the rain-delayed journey–I wasn’t really in the mood to chat. But within minutes he caught my attention, “The south of India is different from the north,” he said. “We drink coffee down here.”

After traveling across Russia, Mongolia and China, where people are tea drinkers and coffee is at best cheap and watery but generally ends up costing more than a hotel room (and is still watery), those words were magical.

In the US, coffee is the ultimate street food. In urban centers, during rush hour, most people seem to be clutching a coffee-to-go. That doesn’t exist over here. Chai stands (the most ubiquitous morning beverage) are served roadside in glass cups which are then rinsed and reused for the next customer. Questionably hygienic but great for the environment! The morning tea break in India is a stop on the way to work with a few moments to catch up with friends and neighbors rather than a walk-to-work accessory.

Pondicherry (now officially called Puducherry), our destination in Southern India, was a French colony until the 1950s and with locals riding on bikes and chatting in French past the elegant colonnade homes that line the waterfront, Pondicherry’s colonial history didn’t seem that far past. So we felt we were well placed to quench our coffee cravings.

The Pondicherry tourist office runs a cafe overlooking the water selling small plates of food and non-alcoholic drinks. I typically take my coffee plain, but the hot humid heat coerced me into trying the Coffee on the Rocks for 50 rupees ($1) — espresso on ice with lemon. The menu didn’t disclose the secret ingredient, the item that took this coffee from merely refreshing to sublime: cassia.

Cassia bark is thicker and coarser looking than the cinnamon we commonly get in the US, although it’s a related spice and native to parts of Asia. The flavor is sweeter than our traditional cinnamon, but a little still goes a long way.

Coffee on the Rocks

  • 2 shots of espresso
  • 1 t sugar
  • 1 inch piece of cassia bark, broken into quarters
  • 2 2-inch long strips of lemon zest
  • Ice

Brew 2 shots of espresso (or strong coffee): I like mine from my Moka pot

Pour coffee over the sugar and cassia bark. Stir to dissolve sugar and muddle cassia.

Twist the lemon zest and throw it in the coffee along with a handful of ice.

Pondicherry, India

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Pumkpin Bought in a Kolkata Market

Even though we’re in India, and have been eating copious quantities and watching sport (cricket!) each day, we couldn’t let the fourth Thursday in November go by without doing more of the same.

So to thank our friends, Michael, Mina and Munu Anthony, who’d treated us to a week of deliciously home cooked meals, evenings out, restaurant visits and Bengali sweets, we decided to host Thanksgiving in our borrowed flat.

We’d already cooked one meal, a simple chicken (no ground beef in India) bolognaise and learned that no matter how tasty the dish, it wouldn’t fly with our Bengali friends without some amount of pique—the Anthonys chewed on fiery green chilies in between each bite of bolognaise! So we spiced up traditional Thanksgiving fare with chili, cayenne, turmeric and a myriad of other spices.

  • Spiced Sweet Potato Soup
  • Dry-fried Sichuanese-style Green Beans
  • Roast Cauliflower and Pumpkin
  • Chicken Onion Curry

A Kolkata Fish MarketThe day began with a trip to the local market, where Mina haggled over the price and quality of each ingredient on our list, walking us from one end of the market to the other, ensuring our potatoes, cauliflower and chilies were the best available. We bought our veggies and then perused the fish market as Mina needed fresh fish for lunch. It was the only fish market I’ve visited where the fish smells fresh and oceany rather than pongingly fishy.

The fish mongers sat on tables with two-foot-long fixed knives jutting up in front of them and their fish laid out to the side. As they sliced the fish as per their customer’s instructions, they dribbled the fish blood over the other fish to enhance the flavor of the meat as it lay waiting to be bought.

After buying fish steaks we walked to the grains, where dal and rice were stacked in 50-pound, burlap sacks. Mina walked to the corner of a rice stall and waited as though doing some undercover deal, and within moments, a guy wearing a blood-covered shirt approached Mina; she spoke rapidly to him in Bengali, he asked a few questions, which she answered, and then we were off. Did we just buy rice? Contract a murder? We continued our shopping and about 15 minutes later returned to the edge of the rice and grain stall. The man met us again with a bag of bloodied chicken bits, slaughtered, cleaned and cut to our specifications! We returned to the house by rickshaw and began our cooking.

Spiced Sweet Potato Soup

Sweet Potato Soup

Serves 8-10

  • 6 cups chicken stock either store bought or for home-made: 1 onion (we used a red onion as that was the only kind available), veg ends, 2 lbs chicken backs and any other “extra” bits
  • 3 lbs sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1/2 chunks
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 T garam masala * We used Shahi brand garam masala with is a combination of clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, small cardamom, big cardamom, black pepper, taj, and paprika. But there are many variations and many recipes out there.
  • 1 T chili powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups milk
  • Cream for garnish
  • Vegetable oil

We divided the chicken, so fresh it was still warm, into wobbly, boney bits (for stock) and meaty bits for our main meal.

For stock: Heat oil and fry up diced onion and garlic until they release their juices—3-5 minutes. Add chicken bits and brown. The browning of the chicken will determine the end richness of the stock so don’t move too quickly here—10-15 minutes. Once sufficiently brown, add 1 t salt and any vegetable trimmings you have—we used green bean ends and cauliflower trimmings—cover with water and simmer for about an hour until the stock is rich in flavor and strain.

In a fresh pan, heat 2 T of oil over medium-high heat and fry the finely chopped onion and garlic until they begin to brown. Add the spices and cook gently to increase their flavor. Add potatoes and cover with stock. Simmer until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Transfer potatoes to a blender with a slotted spoon and puree in batches with broth. Adjust amount of broth (you will not need all of it!) to create a thick, soup-like consistency. Depending on the starchiness of the potatoes this will vary greatly.

Return to pot and add 2 cups of milk and bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper and serve with a swirl of fresh cream.

*We were only able to find white sweet potatoes in India. The flavor of the soup was still divine and the garam masala brought about hints of pumpkin pie; however, the sludgy grey color left a bit to be desired.

Dry-Fried Sichuanese Green Beans

I love Fuscia Dunlop’s Dry-Fried Green Bean recipe from her brilliant cookbook, Land of Plenty, as seen on Leite’s Culinaria. However, with the constraints of the local Kolkata market, we needed to improvise. Also, we wanted a milder dish so as not to compete with our main spicy chicken dish. We’d been seduced by the smell of the Sichuanese peppercorns in a market in Xian and had bought a bag of them all the way from China (and yes, my scent du jour is eau de peppercorn!) So this is a milder dish than Dunlop’s (and not authentically Chinese) but it maintains that addictive “mala” tang and allows the floral Sichuan pepper corn to really take the lead!

  • 1 lb green beans, trimmed
  • 2 T oil
  • 1 1/2 T Sichuanese peppercorns
  • 1/2 red pepper flakes

Dry roast the Sichuanese peppercorns over a medium heat until they begin to color. Remove from heat and crush coarsely.

Heat oil in a frying pan and stir fry beans over a medium-high heat until they begin to pucker. The beans will be tender but firm. Add crushed peppercorns, red pepper flakes and season with salt and pepper.

Our main course was from Great Indian Dishes, by Rafi Fernandez:

Chickens in Spicy Onion (Murgh Do Piyaza)

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

  • 3lbs chicken jointed and skinnedChicken with Spice Rub
  • ½ t turmeric
  • ½ t chili powder
  • Salt, to taste
  • 4T oil
  • 4 small onions, finely chopped
  • 6 oz (2 bunches) of fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 piece fresh ginger, 2 inches long, finely grated
  • 2 green chilies, finely chopped
  • 2 t cumin seeds, dry-roasted
  • 1/3 cup plain yoghurt
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • ½ t cornstarch

Rub the chicken joins with the turmeric, chili powder and salt. Heat the oil in a frying pan and try the chicken pieces without overlapping until both sides are browned. Remove and keep warm.

Cooking Up Onion and SpicesReheat the oil and fry 3 of the chopped onions and 5 oz of the coriander (cilantro), half the ginger, the green chilies and the cumin seeds until the onions are translucent. Return the chicken to the pan with any juices and mix well. Cover and cook gently for 15 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool a little. Mix together the yoghurt, cream and cornstarch and gradually fold into the chicken mixing well.

Return the pan to the heat and gently cook until the chicken is tender. Just before serving, stir in the reserved onion, coriander and ginger. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.

Thanksgiving Dinner

And in true Indian fashion, the feast wouldn’t have been complete without the finery. Both David and I were dressed up, painted, and adorned in traditional Indian clothes. Me, in an orange, sequin-encrusted saree and David in a traditional Punjabi top.

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I didn’t expect that two weeks after leaving San Francisco I’d find myself making Chinese dumplings from scratch on the side of a Texan freeway.

I-90 Dumpling Stop

Reading through my street food Google Alert, I was thrilled to discover that the theme of The Spice Cafe’s Monthly Blog Patrolling (MBP) was street food, hosted this month by Sia of Monsoon Spice. The task: make a street food recipe from a fellow blogger, write a post, and link to the original blogger. Having only just begun Streats and having a long list of bookmarked recipes to try, I was game—except that I was in the middle of a cross-country roadtrip.

The day after reading the MBP, David and I drove east from Tucson to New Mexico, and then South into Texas along I-10. We spent the night in Van Horn, a dumpy highway town where over half the single-story brick building had long-since been abandoned. Our motel, the Economy Inn, was economy—$41 for a room that reeked of cheap perfume and backed onto the train tracks. It was too unhygienic to even consider making the jiaozi and guotieh recipe I’d been aching to try from the Asian Grandmothers Cookbook blog.

In 2002, I lived in a small town in China and taught English to 5- and 6-year-old xiao pengyou (lit. little friends). I lived on jiaozi, guotieh and other street foods, hence my interest in the genre. Since my return, I’d yet to replicate the crisp, brown bottoms and doughy skins of this Chinese staple, but the Asian Grandmothers Cookbook blog looked set to change that with its insistence on home-made dough.

Economy Inn, Van HornNot certain how I’d participate in the MBP, I doubted the quality of the only market in town, two blocks north of the motel on the desolate road running through Van Horn. With afternoon thunderstorms approaching, we trekkedNew Mexico Chilies to Pueblo Market where I was happily surprised at the variety (if not quality) of its produce and the myriad of local New Mexican chilies. Yet I still refused to cook in the Economy Inn.

Leaving Van Horn on I-90 East, the scenery changes dramatically as the highway cuts through yellowed fields which abut old volcanic hills. Twenty miles on, I saw a shaded picnic spot—that was where I’d cook dumplings.

In Van Horn, I’d bought the ingredients needed for the dumplings but not the dipping sauce as, during my time in China, I became very partial to my own dipping sauce—Zhenjiang Vinegar, a famous, sweet, back vinegar from a neighboring town with chopped chili, ginger and cilantro. As Pueblo’s was lacking in the Zhenjiang Vinegar department, I made my dipping sauce using soy as a substitute. It lacked the sweet tang of the vinegar, but the local chilies gave the sauce its requisite kick.

Cooking in a picnic stop on a propane stove wasn’t easy, but the filling of the dumplings was straight-forward, and my makeshift cooking surface (a cookie sheet I’d bought and washed) worked. The dough kept drying out in the 90+ degree Texan heat as there’s no humidity that far west, resulting in clumsily shaped dumplings.

But, as David and I sat down in our picturesque spot with trucks and Border Patrol rushing past, and dug into freshly made dumplings, I knew I’d found the recipe I’d been craving since I left China.

Dumplings in Texas

Recipe From Asian Grandmothers Cookbook Blog (My photos from Texas)

Ellen Chou’s Pot Stickers

Time: 1 to 2 hours (depending how nimble your fingers are at making the pot stickers)
Makes: about 40

DOUGH:
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 to 1 cup lukewarm water

FILLING:
1 pound ground pork (2 cups)
2 cups finely chopped napa cabbage (half a medium cabbage)
1 stalk green onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger (about 1/2-inch)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons plus pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour with 3/4 cup water. Mix well with a wooden spoon until it starts to come together, adding more water if necessary. With your hands, form dough into a rough ball. You want the dough to be pliable but not stick to your fingers. Sprinkle a little more flour if dough is too wet. The dough won’t feel smooth at this point. Set the dough ball in a bowl, cover with a damp towel and let it rest while you make the filling.Chopping Ginger

Place cabbage in a medium bowl and sprinkle 2 teaspoons salt. Mix well. Taking a handful of vegetables at a time, squeeze water out. Or wrap cabbage in batches in a cheesecloth or non-terry towel and wring dry.

In a large bowl, combine pork, cabbage, green onions, ginger, soy sauce, salt, white pepper and sesame oil. Mix well with Makeshift Workspacechopsticks or a set of clean hands. Set aside.

Make the wrappers. Knead dough for several minutes until it is smooth all over. Divide it into 4 balls. Knead each ball individually for about 30 seconds. Roll each portion into a log about 5-inches long and 1/2-inch in diameter. Pinch off 9 or 10 even walnut-sized pieces. Dust with flour as needed.

Filling DumplingsRoll each piece into a ball and flatten into a disc between your palms. Place flattened disc on a well-floured surface. Starting at the bottom edge of the disc, use a Chinese rolling pin* [I used a Yosemite mug] and roll from the outside of the circle in. Use your right hand to roll the pin as your left hand turns the disc anti-clockwise. So the sequence goes: roll, turn, roll, turn. Roll each disc into a circle about 3-inches in diameter. Don’t worry about making a perfect circle. Ideally, the wrapper will be thickerCrimping Dumplings Shut in the middle than on the edges.

Spoon about 2 teaspoons of filling into the center of wrapper. Fold wrapper in half over filling to form a half-moon pocket and pinch shut.

Repeat until all the dough or filling is used up. Set pot sticker down firmly on a parchment-lined tray seam-side up so that dumpling sits flat.

Heat an (8- to 10-inch) non-stick skillet overFrying Dumplings medium-high heat. Swirl 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into the bottom of pan to coat evenly. Place about a dozen dumplings in a single layer seam-side up in the skillet and brown for 1 minute.Frying Dumplings

Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup water to the pan, depending on its size. Cover immediately and steam 9 to 10 minutes, until all the water evaporates. The bottom of the pot stickers should be golden brown and crisp but not burned. Remove pot stickers with a spatula and serve on a plate with bottom side up.

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Home-made Sauerkraut

Last week I moved from my little cottage in San Francisco, and for two weeks before the move, our cottage stunk of rotten, moldy towels. It would be easy to imagine that the stench was due to a damp towel forgotten in a dark corner of my bathroom during the in the craziness of moving and quitting my job, but truth be told, the stench was emanating from a dish on the top of fridge. I was making sauerkraut.

I’d read that home-made ‘kraut elevated even bland, rubbery dogs and their Heinz-made, generic accompaniments to something worth craving. Clearly I love my dogs, and since I wasn’t about to attempt this forecemeat dish from start-to-finish, I settled on testing out sauerkraut.

The recipe is simple. I modified it from this site:

1. Boil utensils and crock pot (or glass dish as I used) to sterilize.Cabbage for Sauerkraut

2. Slice/chop cabbage and mix with salt at a ratio of 1 1/4lbs cabbage to 1 tbs of salt.

3. Mix thoroughly as the salt will draw water from the cabbage, creating its own brine. If there is not enough brine, mix 1 quart of water with 1 tbs of salt to made additional brine and add to the cabbage. (I needed no extra brine)

4. Once cabbage is ready and the brine has formed, lay a thick plastic bag across the surface of the kraut and then place a plate (sized to rest on top of the sauerkraut) and weights (tins of food work well) on top of the plastic. This weight will ensure the sauerkraut stays submerged in its brine, keeping it from molding.Submerged Sauerkraut

5. Ferment from 1-4 weeks depending on the temperature in your kitchen. Aim for a 65-75 degree kitchen. I fermented for two weeks at about 75 degrees.

I followed the directions, adding sliced organics carrots and two arbol peppers for some kick, yet my kitchen stank.

Two weeks later, when the smell was unbearable, we headed up to Sonoma for a weekend away and decided on grilling–the perfect chance to test the sauerkraut. As I was unsure that my ‘kraut was even edible, I found another “live” sauerkraut at Whole Foods and discovered a jar of Safeway brand in the back of my ‘fridge–enough ‘kraut for a taste test.

3 Sauerkrauts

While the stench of the fermented sauerkraut was overpowering, the flavor was divine. It struck a nice balance between, tart, funky and salty with a satisfying crunch that store-bought brands miss. In comparison, the Safeway sample tasted blandly of vinegar. You’d never have guessed that there was cabbage in the jar of lank, beige strips. The “live” Alexander Valley Gourmet Sauerkraut was so salty it could have been mistaken for seaweed–far from lust-worth. The home-made condiment was the clear winner though I’m not sure how often I can test my boyfriend’s patience with a stinky house.

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Rondon Post CardI was thrilled to receive a postcard from one of my closest friends who, after a few years of being a very successful lawyer, realized that suits and contracts weren’t for her. She quit a year ago, has been traveling round the world and currently lives near a beach in Costa Rica.

Kate and I bonded while living in Paris in 2002, over our shared love of food—dinners with my home-stay mother Victoire, crepes from Costas, extravagant mixed cocktails from our friends’ bars, prix-fix bistro lunches, market specials and the like. When I told Kate about this blog and my attempts to chronicle the street food I eat at home and around the world, she excitedly emailed me about the fresh mango and coconut treats she was buying off the street in Costa Rica. And three days later I received a postcard with a recipe for a traditional Costa Rican and Nicaraguan soup, Rondon.Costa Rican Stamp

Rondon is patois for “run-down” as the cook needs to run-down or chase the ingredients necessary for this fish soup. The ingredients and ratios in this soup are flexible and should be adjusted to suit personal taste and available ingredients. For example, I couldn’t find breadfruit so I substituted potato.

Rondon Recipe

The soup was sweetly flavored, although the combination of coconut milk and so many starchy ingredients was too rich for me. Also, I had misgivings about adding the fish in the first stages of cooking, but I decided to follow the recipe—bad choice. The fish was over cooked and disintegrated into the soup as fish-flavored flakes.

Rondon Ingredients

But the soup still had excellent flavors and with the following modifications it would be an easy dish to make and well worth serving. It would be a chance to impress dinner guests with typically Central American flavors:Rondon cooking

1. Ñame=yam, Ñampi=taro

2. Use a ratio of 1:1:1 for the liquid, coconut milk, chicken stock, water

3. Chop onion in quarters

3. Add few cloves of crushed garlic with the onion

4. Add 5 additional stalks of thyme when you add the liquid

5. A handful of jalapeños, sliced in half, will give the soup a spicy edge (clearly I like my food spicy)

6. Add the fish into the soup at the end and cook ’till just opaque and still tender, 5-10 minutes.

7. Serve with fresh ground pepper and slices jalapeños.

Rondon Soup Served

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