Food

Peameal Bacon (Toronto, Canada)

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Where to get it:  The most popular and perhaps best place is the St. Lawrence Market (St. Lawrence District), where you can get the famous peameal bacon sandwich at the Carousel Bakery.  The aptly named Three Little Pigs (Downtown) is another well-known establishment, and plenty of diners around the area also offer peameal bacon at breakfast.

What it is:  What they really mean, but never give you, when they say “Canadian bacon.”  Peameal bacon is cured back bacon rolled in cornmeal (I’ll explain), sliced thin, and fried or grilled until crispy outside and juicy inside.

Rant:  Toronto is probably the least Canadian place I know in Canada.  I’m not alone in that sentiment.  The city does have sort of a bad rep for being generic, flat, hurried, and lacking charm.  It routinely gets poked by its older, more beautiful brethren Montréal and Québec City for its infinite, cross-cut streets, its forests of insipid cylindrical glass towers, and its apparently endless construction.  The infamy is not entirely undeserved; the skyline does seem to be dominated by nothing but cranes, a blinding strobe of window reflections, and the CN Tower (which is not exactly a jewel, itself).  If you accidentally passed out on the wrong train and woke up here, you might at first have no idea what city you’re in.

That being said, it occurs to me the more I visit Toronto that it might just seem that way because it just might, in fact, actually be SO Canadian that it somehow seems unfamiliar with what I’ve come to idealize as “Canadian” culture.  What do I mean by that?  Well, my traditional concept of Canadian culture was its older, more – shall we say – stereotypical image.  The ones from the brochures.  My idea of Canada used to be what a 10-year-old or someone from Arkansas would think of it like.  But what is Canada, after all, besides a country of constant change?  All things new in Canada – new immigrant waves, new industry, new ideas – come through Toronto first.  The Kensington Market neighborhood, once part of the city’s Chinatown, is today a promenade of just about every third-world country you can name.  Butter chicken, an Indian dish, is quickly assuming its status a Canadian national dish.  What we may be witnessing in Toronto is the Canada of the future.

Indeed, perhaps most of the criticism comes from conservative types who are just frustrated with how the recent sprout of glass towers and the unstoppable evolution of the city serve as a wall against the “old” charms that still do exist – albeit hidden inside.  In more preserved places like Québec, those charms are all around you.  In Toronto, you have to dig around a bit to find them.  “Old” Toronto, like New York, is fighting a losing battle against the tide of change.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.

At this point in my life, I’m not sure which crowd I belong to.  On one hand, I truly believe change is an inevitable necessity.  On the other hand, I’m a hopeless romantic for tradition.  It’s important to remember, however, that at one point in time, the things we cherish as “traditional” were themselves once “new.”  Those vapid glass towers may well be considered classic architecture someday (though let’s hope not).  Butter chicken may become something kids roll their eyes at when grandma brings it out for Thanksgiving dinner.  Tradition fades away over time, always supplanted by something younger, fresher, and more uncertain.  But while it’s still around, now, you must appreciate what is, before it becomes what was.  Get it while it lasts.

I know what you’re thinking: “OMG WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, MATT. I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR SELF-SATISFYING MUSINGS ON THINGS YOU PRETEND TO KNOW.”  And you’re totally right.  This entire blog essentially serves as a jerk-off zone for my words and thoughts.  I call it “verbal masturbation.” But this is my space.  I can do whatever I want, and if you’re still reading at this point, then you clearly don’t need any apology from me.  And if you do, I frankly don’t care.

Anyway, I live in Buffalo, which is only a couple hours by car away, so I’ve had the privilege of visiting Toronto a few times.  Though they don’t like to admit it, Buffalo and Toronto have a mutual respect for one another.  Toronto owes its claim to decent chicken wings to its proximity to Buffalo, and Buffalo owes its affection for peameal bacon to its proximity to Toronto.

You probably think you’ve had Canadian bacon before.  Like many Americans, you’ve been led to believe that the sad, dry, rubbery mold of reconstituted ham is Canada’s official counterpart to the smoky, greasy, wonderful variety of bacon we eat here south of the border.  You don’t realize for how long you’ve been misled.

I cannot, for the life of me, understand when, where, or why this heretical deviation occurred.  The lifeless, paper-thin slices of ham product we try to pass off here in the States are so unlike the true original, that it’s almost no wonder that Canadians seem to have kept the good stuff mostly to themselves.  It’s very difficult to find true Canadian bacon in the States.  I had never even myself known the difference until I moved to the border several years ago.

Real Canadian bacon is unsmoked back bacon.  Back bacon is the cut of meat from the pig’s back, which includes mostly lean white meat, with only a tiny bit of the fatty belly meat kept at the bottom.  American bacon, by contrast, uses a cut strictly from the belly of the pig, and is typically smoked.  While each bacon comes with its own separate virtues, and are each perfectly wonderful, Canadian bacon has the added benefit of being leaner and thus, arguably, “healthier.”

What they do in Toronto is take that ordinary cut of back bacon and roll it in dried yellow cornmeal.  This was originally done in the days before refrigeration as a means of preserving the meat.  It’s called “peameal” bacon instead of “cornmeal” bacon because when the English inhabitants of Toronto first created the dish in the 19th Century, they originally used yellow peameal.  Cornmeal eventually became more abundant and affordable, and the switch apparently didn’t substantially change the look or the taste of the meat.

I won’t even attempt to compare peameal bacon with American bacon, because any comparison is moot at best.  The two are entirely different species, as far as I’m concerned.  Peameal bacon, however, is certainly heartier, and steals more of the spotlight away from your eggs at breakfast than American bacon does, simply because it’s cut thicker and it has less fat to melt away during cooking.  A preferred means of consumption for Torontonians is the peameal bacon sandwich – it’s just slices of fried peameal bacon on a roll, and that’s it.  Sure, plenty of people like theirs on an egg sandwich, or as a side, but distracting from the meatiness, the juiciness, and the crispy exterior of the bacon seems unwarranted.  Peameal bacon is handled more like a steak than how Americans would handle bacon.  It’s the perfect monument to the Old Toronto – one of the last remaining vestiges of Canada’s pork-obsessed British ancestry, back when Toronto was nicknamed “Hogtown.”  While Toronto may have changed since then, its people seem to keep this humble cut of meat around to serve as a reminder of what Canada was, and to some extent, still is for the time being.  I just hope that in the Canada of the future, I can still get my hands on peameal bacon somewhere.

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Wellfleet Oyster (Massachusetts, USA)

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Where to get it:  If you’re sincerely anticipating the answer to this question, fuck you.  As long as you’re on Cape Cod, or in Eastern Massachusetts for that matter, it really doesn’t matter which establishment you visit; any joint that offers these briny little joys is home.  But, because I customarily name my purveyor of choice, I’ll go with the place where I got my very first taste: The Bookstore & Restaurant in Wellfleet, an 80-year-old establishment that started out as, and still is in part, (surprise!) a used book store.

What it is:  The breed of oyster native to Cape Cod Bay.  Distinguished by the cold, fertile waters of the North Atlantic shielded away from the warm Gulf Stream current, these shellfish are incomparably sweet, mellow, and easy to take down.

Rant:  The Dom Pérignon of mollusks.  The gold standard of raw bars nationwide.  This is the oyster that can turn even the most pallid eater into Andrew Zimmern.  Eating this humble bivalve is a lot, I imagine, like taking LSD for the first time.  It irreversibly changes your perspective on things.  You can’t un-eat it.  I know because it did for me.

I never knew I liked oysters until I went to Cape Cod.  And I grew up on Long Island, where many of my cohorts pledged allegiance to the hometown hero, the Blue Point oyster.  I’d eaten oysters sparingly growing up – in stews and from frozen packages – but admittedly, I’d never really had one the way it was meant to be eaten: raw.  I had plenty of opportunities to do so, but something about the idea of sliding this slimy, extraterrestrial-looking creature down my throat psyched me out.  After I entered adulthood, I figured this fear would evaporate, but to no avail.  I never really could explain why.  I’d considered myself a relatively adventurous eater for most of my life.  I mean, I’d eaten tree worms in the Amazon for crying out loud, and I was going to let myself be taken down by something that grew a few miles from my backyard?  Not a chance in hell.

I came to Cape Cod in the summer of 2014, ready to face my fears.  I really wasn’t sure what might happen; I just knew that I wasn’t leaving without eating a proper oyster.  In The Bookstore, I found exactly what Cape Cod is all about: a soft genuineness, an unforced charm that can only exude from a land miraculously undisturbed by time or tourism, notwithstanding the constant traffic of both.  Cape Cod is, I can infer from the stories my grandparents have told me, what Long Island used to be like before the infestation of suburbs.  I never got to experience that part of my homeland’s history – the time when it was a rural summer retreat for New York’s aristocracy – when the Island was truly an island.  Likewise, when I came to Cape Cod, I immersed myself.  Much as the droves of beach tourists approach the mercilessly cold North Atlantic waters,  I dove headfirst into my fantastic idea of a land not unlike the one my ancestors knew.  I wanted to feel like I was there, a century ago, when things reflected a more conservative, if tragically myopic, mode of life on the East Coast.  So this trip was somewhat personal.

The Bookstore was exactly what I was searching for.  Set across the road paralleling the beach at Wellfleet, in a building that also houses a used book store, it’s the kind of unimposing dinner joint you’d expect in a seaside town.  The kind of place you can just come and have a meal without all the noise.  It’s also worth mentioning that they have a pretty amazing menu, like almost every place on the Cape.  It’s true: you really can’t find bad food here (unless you think all seafood is “bad,” in which case the question begged is: what the fuck are you doing on Cape Cod?).  You’ve got all the classics here: chowder, pasta, fresh fish, Portuguese fare, etc.  Those are all wonderful, but I came here for another reason.  I needed to have the oyster.

The oysters at The Bookstore come at as good a price as you’re going to get anywhere (considering on a clear day you can practically see the boats catching them through the window near your table).  Six oysters on the half shell for twelve dollars is perfectly reasonable, especially because these are, in my opinion, the very best.  But you’re not going to eat just six, are you?  I didn’t.

When my plate of oysters arrived, I utilized the available accompaniments of lemon, horseradish, and hot sauce, that come with every raw bar selection.  Then, hoisting the dripping-wet half shell high in a salute, I said, “Here goes nothing,” and slurped it down.

At that moment, my mind screamed, “WHAT THE FUCK???”  But my body said, “Oh yes.”

I truly, truly did not expect it to happen, but my very first oyster?  I absolutely loved it.  Perhaps the universe was just waiting for me to arrive at the right place at the right time.  Perhaps my long aversion to the Blue Point oyster was just a means of ensuring my very first oyster was a memorable one.  Whatever the reason, I was converted from that moment on.  I liked oysters.  I loved oysters.  And there was no going back.

I cannot plead this more emphatically: if you have never tried a raw oyster, and keep telling yourself you won’t like it, then please, please get your hand on a Wellfleet oyster, fresh on The Cape.  I have a completely new outlook on seafood, and on food in general, since that experience.  The most important things in life are the ones that make you the most uncomfortable, because they teach you things.  Like, for instance, that I never knew I could unabashedly enjoy a live, plucked-from-the-sea oyster, eaten as God intended me to eat it.  Those kinds of experiences are the pure, raw pleasures that help you understand why things are the way they are on Cape Cod.  After slurping down one of these sweet, salty critters, you can’t help but giddily peer around at the sea, the sun, the docks, the houses, and the trees, and begin to get it.  You don’t need to improve on this.  This, well… this is perfect as is.  On Cape Cod, I feel more at home than when I’m home.

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Cider Donut (New York State, USA)

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Where to get it:  Most cider mills around Upstate New York make them, and occasionally donut shops will roll them out as a seasonal item for Autumn, but the two best that come to my mind are Mayer Brothers Cider Mill (Elma), and, if you can catch them, Duke’s Donuts (a mobile company that travels to outdoor markets and festivals between Rochester and Buffalo).

What it is:  A donut made with cinnamon, nutmeg, and – you guessed it – fresh pressed apple cider in the batter, and rolled in cinnamon sugar.

Rant:  During Autumn, New York State transforms into a different place than the one most are familiar with.  A different country, even, than the rest of America.  Sure, the weather turns colder and the leaves change colors, but something happens to people this time of year – something everyone seems to agree with, but nobody tries to explain.  Scarves, gloves, and flannel coats make their appearance way before the air gets permissibly cold.  Pumpkin spice starts infusing every single cafe menu item.  Navigating a corn maze sounds like a viable source of entertainment.  Hundreds of people suddenly become amateur nature photographers.  To put it short, people here absolutely lose their goddamn minds over Fall.  It’s the only time where homeowners actually put up decorations celebrating a calendar season rather than a holiday.  Everyone who lives in New York year-round worships this time of year.  Anyone who doesn’t… well, they just won’t get it.  In my opinion, there’s no place or time I’d rather be.

Autumn, as you know, is the harvest season.  And the biggest harvest of them all comes from New York’s most abundant crop: apples.  We literally have so many apples here in New York that we don’t know what to do with them.  You can only jar so much applesauce, bake so many pies, and press so much cider until you run out of space to store it all.  The apples of New York’s harvest season are not like your ordinary, year-round grocery store apples, either.  They are enormously bigger, crisper, juicier, and distinct.  It’s not rare to find a softball-sized one among a bushel.  There are lots of different kinds – over 40, each with its own flavor and characteristics.  Yet, with all the apples one could dream of, it’s still hard to get sick of eating them, which is why we New Yorkers have come up with just about every way imaginable to use them.  One of our favorites?  Cider donuts.

Cider donuts (or “doughnuts” if you want to get punched in the face) are a fast-growing tradition here.  I don’t know how long they’ve been around for, but nobody here allows Fall to pass without getting their hands on one.  The recipe is not particularly complicated; they’re just your ordinary donut made with the season’s bounty.  In general, the donuts are sweeter and more fragrant than ordinary ones, but that’s about where the differences end.  So what is it, then, that drives people crazy over these little things?

As I mentioned before, it’s the season.  Getting a cider donut is, like getting a pumpkin spice latte (if you want to get punched in the face), simply something you must do while it’s around.  It doesn’t hurt, might I add, that they are really, really good.  The key is to get them when they are fresh out of the fryer.  Do not bother with baked donuts; they’re not “real” donuts in my opinion.  A real donut is fried cake batter – that’s it.  So if you see chains like Dunkin’ Donuts or Tim Hortons (who do not have fryers in their stores) displaying cider donuts anytime soon, walk right past them and try and find a place where you can look behind the counter and see those little beauties swimming in a fizzing tank of hot oil.  If you ask for them straight from the fryer and freshly rolled in cinnamon sugar, trust me; it will change your perspective on donuts forever.  Duke’s Donuts, the elusive market stand/food truck, does this better than anywhere else I’ve tried.  Still sizzling, they’re like nothing else.  They’re oily, sticky, and they just melt in your mouth.  Get a couple of those and a steaming cup of black coffee, and dunk to your heart’s content.  Nothing else, in my opinion, makes the season complete.

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Beef on Weck (Buffalo, USA)

Where to get it:  I know I’m going to get some flak for this, especially since I haven’t exactly completed the course on the sandwich, but some of Buffalo’s (and my own) consistent favorites are Charlie the Butcher (Williamsville), Schwabl’s (West Seneca), and Cole’s (Elmwood Village).

What it is:  Beef on weck is a sandwich native to the Buffalo, New York area that features a mound of thinly carved, rare roast beef served au jus on a type of kaiser roll called a “weck” roll and slathered with plenty of hot horseradish.  The “weck” – short for the German “kümmelweck” – is generously topped with caraway seed and coarse salt.

Rant:  For those of you unfamiliar with the Buffalo area, it would not astonish me if you’ve never heard of the beef on weck before.  As far as most people are concerned, Buffalo’s culinary contribution to the world extends no farther than the almighty chicken wing.  And while it’s true no one is prouder of the chicken wing than Buffalo, the egregious misconception many outsiders make is that Buffalo’s pride ends there.  Buffalonians are proud of many things, and they will fiercely defend those over which they stake claim.  Trust me; I was one of those outsiders once, and I can attest that if you say anything bad about Buffalo here, then you’d better be ready to uphold your statement in a Fox News Roundtable type of debate involving everyone within earshot.

For some reason, no one likes to give Buffalo any credit.  I might just be saying this because I’ve lived here for the past four years, but this town is long overdue.  There are many arcane and wonderful American traditions to be discovered here if you’re willing to come and have a look around.  I did that four years ago, and I haven’t stopped since.  This place is much, much more than chicken wings.

Which brings me back to the co-champion of Buffalo gastronomy:  the beef on weck.  In America, the sandwich is king.  I mean, just look at us – it seems we can’t even glance at an outside ethnic dish without first imagining how to stack it between pieces of bread.  The Hamburg steak?  Hamburgers.  The Vienna sausage?  Hot dogs.  If it can be held in your hands and eaten standing up, we’ll take it.  Almost every city across the country claims a patent over its own version:  Philadelphia has the cheesesteak; Miami has the Cuban; New York has the reuben; New Orleans has the po’ boy – you get the picture.  But while you’ll find each of the above mentioned sandwiches in virtually any state, the beef on weck has never really left home.  That’s just fine with Buffalo, because that just means more for us.

Where did the sandwich come from?  That question has been one of intense debate among Buffalonians for decades, and is at best settled by local legend.  The consensus is that over a century ago, a saloon owner teamed up with a German baker to conceive a salty dish that would keep saloon customers thirsty.  The baker’s idea to top his bread with caraway seed and salt flakes was inspired by a traditional German bread known as kümmelweck, which literally translates to “caraway roll.” The sandwich quickly became popular among the large German immigrant population of the time, and then made its way around to everyone else.

If the beef on weck was, in fact, born as a companion to alcohol, it’s no surprise the tradition of having a beer with your beef on weck holds to this day.  In fact, since its conception, the entire affair of eating the sandwich has developed a tradition of its own.  This takes a good degree of practice before mastering.  From my very first taste, the locals have coached me on the proper ritual for the sandwich, which includes the following:

  1. The beef must be served rare to medium-rare and thinly carved from a roast just out of the oven;
  2. The roll must be locally baked, specifically as a weck roll (no “topping your own”);
  3. The beef must be topped with a heaping spoonful of fresh, hot horseradish (Miller’s brand only);
  4. The beef must be served au jus – the juice is either ladled over the beef or kept on the side for dipping;
  5. The top half of the roll must be dipped in the jus just prior to eating the sandwich; and
  6. The sandwich must be accompanied by a pint of cold beer.

As a lover of horseradish, my advice is to keep spooning on the Miller’s until it hurts.  Horseradish to me is a masochistic pleasure; the more it burns, the better.  In my opinion, if you momentarily lose eyesight after each bite of the sandwich, that’s a good thing.  Of course, it’s all a matter of personal taste.  The rest of the above ritual, however, is resolute.  I’ve heard a few people ask to have their beef cooked well, only to be met with faces aghast and accusations of heresy.

Sandwiches have a special role in American food culture.  They are an emblem of a region’s pride, almost a symbol of identity.  A city’s sandwich is its ambassador.  It is the first thing that the locals want you to try if you’re new in town.  I’ve traveled extensively and tried many, but there are only a few that really stay with me wherever I go.  Having come from downstate New York, I swore an oath to the pastrami on rye.  This New York City signature was my supreme lord of the sandwich kingdom for much of my life, and I will always remain loyal to it, but four years ago, something changed.  I thought it impossible that any others would quash the reign of this almighty, fear-striking mound of meat.  Much to the chagrin of my hometown friends, however, I must confess that the attrition of time has shattered that oath, and so with pain in my heart, I must say it:  the beef on weck is the best.

This sandwich does it all.  It’s as if, four years ago, some vestigial human sense was urging me to come here for the one food that satisfied all of the flavors I was looking for.  Its familial pairing with beer just pushes it more quickly to the top of my list, because for some reason I can never imagine enjoying a pastrami on rye with a beer.  Pastrami on rye has always been a lunch item to me, but the beef on weck can be enjoyed virtually any time of the day or night.  It’s salty, juicy, piquant, and filling.  It’s the only sandwich that, in my opinion, does not require the addition of common condiments like mustard or mayonnaise.  Every time I eat one, I’m still astonished that I’d never even known it existed until I came to Buffalo.  It’s reason enough to come here, and reason more to stay.

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Döner Kebab (Istanbul, Turkey)

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Where to get it:  Finding Kebab (or, “Kebap”) in Turkey is like finding a hot dog in America – you could put on a blindfold, spin around, and walk straight into what you’re seeking immediately without even trying.  It basically is that simple.  My own sample, however, came from the small local Istanbul restaurant chain Tatseven.  The particular location, where I had the best kebab of my life, was the Tatseven across from Eminönü tram station right outside the entrance to Mısır Çarşısı (The Spice Bazaar).  I also got an excellent taste at the famous Çiya Sofrasi on Istanbul’s Anatolian side, aka: “Asian side.”

What it is:  A sandwich made of generously seasoned, roasted meat (usually lamb or chicken) shaved off of a rotating vertical spit (the “döner”), piled together with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, chilies, yogurt, or fried potatoes, and wrapped inside a flatbread known as lavash.  Seasonings are complex and varied, but can include cumin, coriander, sumac, cardamom, garlic, cloves, paprika, black pepper, and vinegar or lemon juice.

Rant:  I have long had an unhealthy crush on döner kebab, bordering on fanboy obsession.  This began nearly 5 years ago during my semester in Milan – a city that, despite owning an unremarkable, generic European quality, atones for its lack of distinct “Italian” culture by boasting a diverse immigrant population.  A large number of these immigrants are Middle Eastern, and many have earned a living in their new home doing what they have known best: food.  As a result, many cafes and and pizzerias in working-class neighborhoods are manned by non-Italians, and the words “döner kebab” are splayed over windows throughout the city seemingly at random.

Like most of the stories in this blog, this one begins with alcohol.  My American roommates and I discovered döner kebab while we were out late one inebriated weekend night after all of the pizzerias and burger shops were closed.  Desperate to scratch the booze-induced itch in our stomachs, we were nearly about to give up when we smelled it.  A heady aroma redolent of spices, meat, and grease, wafting from across the street behind sooty glass doors that read its namesake origin.  That’s like catnip for drunk people.  “What’s döner kebab?” one of us asked.  “It must be like shish-kebab or something,” I think I said.  No, Me-From-Five-Years-Ago, it is not like goddamn shish-kebab, which you only know of as a skewer of random crap grilled at backyard summer barbecues.  It is so much more.

We entered the small, austere restaurant and blindly ordered our kebab from a pair of bored-looking Turkish teenagers behind the counter.  When we saw one of them raise a long knife to the rotating spit in the corner, we understood.  “Ohhhhhhh, it’s just like shawarma!”  This got us excited, because we were all Downstate New Yorkers, and in Manhattan there are shawarma restaurants everywhere.  For those of you who don’t know, shawarma is basically just the Arab version of döner kebab.  It has the same basic look, method of preparation, and ingredients as döner kebab, with slight variations.  If you’ve ever visited a Greek restaurant and noticed the same rotating spit of meat, you may know the dish as gyros.

That night, the universe made everything line up for us.  The drunkenness, the hunger, the desperation, and the serendipitous discovery all made the experience of walking the quiet Milan streets at 2:00 AM slobbering over our to-go orders that much more memorable.  After that night we made it routine to go out for some döner kebab after an evening of wild drinking – so often, in fact, that the dish became one of my brightest memories of that semester.  Now, you might think it’s sad of me to say that a highlight of my time in Europe, while in the prime of my young adulthood, with other Americans my age, partying every weekend with foreign girls, was that I got to stumble home with my regular entourage of guys while shoveling piles of greasy meat into my face before passing out on the couch alone.  And you’d have a point.  You can imagine how many times I’ve had to deflect questions like, “Hey, Matt, did you hook up with any European chicks while you were there?” with, “No, but I did get hooked up with some kickass döner kebab.  Let me tell you all about it.”  This is a food blog, so shut up.

Fast-forward to January, 2015.  I have just checked into a hotel in Istanbul with my wonderful girlfriend, Sara (who is also my travel agent), and we’re famished from the 10-hour flight from New York.  She asks, “Do you feel like getting something to eat?”  Before she can utter the question mark in that sentence, I scream, “DONER KEBAB!!!”  Because here’s the thing:  while döner kebab was one of my favorite things in Europe being prepared by Turkish immigrants with improvised ingredients, we were now in the country that invented the dish and had everything needed to prepare it.  I made a promise when we booked our trip to Turkey that the first and last things I wanted to taste in the country were “döner” and “kebab.”

The first attempt was a disaster.  I hadn’t seen this coming, but apparently there is such a thing as bad döner kebab, even in Turkey.  We were walking towards the Grand Bazaar when Sara finally submitted to my constant whining for a food stop.  I, buying my own theory, turned my head and the very first thing I saw was a glistening, rotating spit of meat behind a counter.  I led us to the counter and hastily ordered two kebabs on pita bread, all the while turning back to Sara and enthusiastically explaining the process to her, as if I was hosting some Food Network show.  The poor girl.

“Here we go!” I exclaimed, and we bit into our kebabs.  And… it sucked.  Both the bread and the meat were dry, and the sandwiches were under-filled.  Sara politely hid her apathy and said, “It’s really good, babe.” As if I had prepared it, personally.  I know she really just didn’t want to see me disappointed.  I, on the other hand, felt like a kid who just found out Mickey Mouse is really an actor in a suit (spoilers).  Not wanting to admit humiliation, especially when it wasn’t being pressed on me, I nodded my head in silent agreement, internally swearing to prove this instance a fluke.

The rest of our time in Istanbul, I scrutinized every kebab vendor in sight, trying to decide whether to take another chance. Out of fear, I kept putting it off, until late one morning towards the end of our trip.  We were returning from our last visit to the Spice Bazaar when we passed a Tatseven near the entrance.  It was barely past 10:30 AM and they had literally just opened for the day; the cooks still pulling squeeze bottles and pans of vegetables from the refrigerators, and the vertical spit of reconstituted lamb just beginning to sweat its fatty juices.  There was nobody else in sight (because who doesn’t eat lunch at 10:30 in the morning?).  Seeing my last good chance, I said, “Fuck it. Let’s do it.”

I ordered mine with every kind of topping they offered: lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise, ketchup, chili peppers, and french fries, and took it to-go (the only way to eat döner kebab, in my opinion) as we walked to the tram that would carry us back to our hotel.  I’ve always said how rude I think it is for people to eat on public transportation, let alone bring strong-smelling food on board.  Consider me a gigantic hypocrite.  I chomped that döner kebab like a wolf eating a deer carcass, in full view of a crowded commuter tram.  But I didn’t care.  That second attempt was a bona fide grand slam.  The best döner kebab I’ve ever had in my life.  And I wasn’t even drunk.  My visit to Turkey was a success.

Döner kebab has a special place in my heart because it’s so universally appreciated that it’s available in nearly every country.  It’s never left my side, really.  Call it shawarma or gyros if you want, but it delivers the same belly-happiness, the same convenience, and the same simple carnivorous satisfaction that all street food ought to.  Just head to a modest-looking counter, grab one neatly tucked into a paper sleeve, and enjoy with a can of Coca-Cola while walking the streets, taking in the sights and sounds.  It’s one of the best memories I now have from Istanbul – a city that, despite being hugely cosmopolitan, is still, at a fundamental level, wholly and wonderfully Turkish.  There’s no better ambassador of that quality than the classic street-treat, döner kebab.

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Montréal  Bagel (Montréal , Canada)

7589508Where to get itSt-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel (Mile End District) are the two most famous purveyors in Montréal, each established by rival bakers decades ago and situated in a historic Jewish community.  They’re not exclusive to Montréal , though; you can get them at B&B Empire (Brooklyn, USA) and Eltana Cafe (Seattle, USA) as well at a respectable level of quality.

What it is:  What some have called “the best bagel in the world.”  Apparently Montréal claims its bagel the chief rival to the New York City bagel.  Though they’re both the same kind of baked good, they are made quite differently: Montréal  bagels are all handmade with egg, malt, and no salt, then boiled in honey-sweetened water before being baked in only wood-fired ovens.  The two most common varieties are poppy seed and sesame seed.

Rant:  Well, well, well.  It just had to be Montréal, didn’t it?  When I first jotted down the idea for this post, it was weeks before I found out that my beloved New York Rangers would be squaring off against the Montréal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final for the chance to play for the Stanley Cup (Did I say “weeks?” Damn, I’m lazy).  Seeing as the New York-Montréal rivalry has been put into the spotlight for the time present, I seized the opportunity to exploit the occasion as a vehicle for my blog.  Do you expect anything less of me?

But cheap as you may call me, I consider the matchup of our two cities to be fate.  Because it’s not just through hockey that we’re competing with each other; it’s through bagels.  Some of you, especially my New York friends, may never have realized that a rival to our bagel even existed.  But, with trepidation in my heart, I must admit that this is true.  While I never actually visited the St-Viateur or Fairmount locations in Montréal when I visited Québec last fall, I certainly did my food research, as I always do before I travel, and I had read a lot of material about Montréal‘s famous bagels, and how they were the best in the world according to many Canadians.  

My first reaction to those findings was a loud, hearty, deep-gut laugh kind of like The Big Show’s laugh in the movie The Waterboy.

But, never one to avoid a challenge, I’d decided to test the claims myself.  Almost by an act of God, I’d stumbled upon the bagels by accident at J.A. Moisan grocery store in Québec City.  No, they weren’t frozen, as many shipped bagels are.  Rather, due to the proximity to Montréal (only 2.5 hours’ road trip), they were delivered fresh almost daily, ready to go in neatly wrapped bags of six.  I had almost dismissed my chance to try the famous baked good until I happily discovered them in the store that day; my girlfriend and I were heading back to Buffalo that afternoon, and I hadn’t been able to find them anywhere on our whole trip.

The first thing I noticed about the bagels was that they were considerably smaller than their New York counterpart, and with a bigger hole in the middle.  They were also spotted sporadically with light char marks on the bottom – no doubt a result of their wood-fired oven baking.  Most bagels nowadays are made with mechanical bagel-presses and cooked in conventional ovens, so the idea that Montréalais are still doing it by hand and using wood to fuel their ovens is really refreshing.  At first bite, I was expecting something very similar to the New York bagel – chewy on the outside, but dense, hearty, and crumbly on the inside, and with a balanced sweet-savory flavor.  But I was surprised; they were softer, fluffier, and much, much sweeter.  No savory profile whatsoever (not a big surprise, since they’re made without salt), but the light char brought on by the wood oven flames gave the bread and the seeds on top a wonderful toasted element to the overall flavor.  It reminded me of buttered toast for some reason.  Not that they tasted similar, but that, unlike the New York bagel, it was less a meal than a side or a snack.  I ate three of them in one sitting – that should tell you everything you need to know.  I don’t think in the history of bagel-eating that anybody has eaten more than two New York bagels in the same 20-minute span.

Immediately upon finishing them, I quoted Anthony Bourdain’s reaction to his first taste of the bagel: “Excellent? Yes.  The very best?  I don’t think so.”  Don’t get me wrong.  These are very, very good bagels.  I wouldn’t have eaten three at once if I’d taken a bite and was like, “Nah, these suck.”  They are, without any shadow of doubt, delicious and satisfying.  But they’re just… different.  Maybe it’s my downstate New York bias, or maybe it’s because of the way they’re made, but I just prefer my hometown bagels over everything else.  Plus, whereas most places that make bagels in Montréal really just do poppy seed or sesame seed kinds, in New York you can have pretty much anything you want on a bagel: poppy seed, sesame seed, kosher salt, chopped onion, chopped garlic, made with egg, made with rye, cinnamon, raisin, blueberry, oatmeal, cheese, walrus, cactus, and cocaine.

Okay, those last few varieties I may have made up.  But they do sound delicious.

So my condolences, Montréal.  Your bagels may be worthy of their fame, but like your hockey team, you’ll just have to settle for second best against New York this time.

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Food

Grana Padano Cheese (Milan, Italy)

Grana-Padano-oltre-16-mesi-81Where to get it:  Though quite elusive in the USA, I’ve been able to find it at some local cheese shops and European delis, but many Wegmans grocery stores (Northeast USA) carry it sparingly – for a worthy price, of course.  In northern Italy, just go to any formaggerie or grocery store and trust me, it’s there.  For much less, too.  But, as always, to get the best, you have to go to the source.  Esselunga is the Stop & Shop of Italy, and was where I did most of my shopping while I lived in Milan.  They have these snack-sized bags of bite-sized cubes that are just about the easiest way to get fat man has ever created.

What it is:  A hard, dense, grainy cow’s milk cheese produced in the Lombardia region of Italy. Similar to Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, it’s slowly ripened for a minimum of 9 months and has a sweet, tangy, nutty, and intense flavor.

Rant:  This is one of the best cheeses on earth.  I just wanted to start with that in case you didn’t feel like reading my entire rant and just wanted the main point of it, in which case you could have saved yourself even more time by simply reading the fucking title of this blog.  I wouldn’t be talking about it if it weren’t good and if I weren’t encouraging you to try it.  But digressions aside.

Seriously, though, I can’t recall many times since I first tasted grana padano where I literally had a mouth orgasm from something so unique and delicious.  While I lived in Europe for my semester abroad, I had the opportunity to taste lots of different kinds of cheese in a part of the world where cheese is a part of life.  People on this continent have just been at cheese making for so long that there really is no questioning their supreme taste for it.  But sadly, cheese was not really at the front of my mind for the majority of my time there.  It’s not like I thought, “Oh, well, I’d really like to try some great cheese, so I think I’ll study abroad in Europe for a while.”  Of course not.  I didn’t even know that grana padano existed until I came to Milan.

I remember the first time I tasted it.  I was living in an apartment that I shared with these two guys from Tuscany and while home alone one day I reached into the fridge for a snack.  Being horrible at managing my money (ok, some of it was my mom & dad’s money), I never really left much for myself to buy groceries, so of course just about everything in the fridge belonged to my two Tuscan roommates except for a bottle of imported American ketchup that I knew they thought was kind of gross and likewise knew they could be counted on to keep their hands off.

But, since I am kind of a moocher and scavenger at times (or maybe sleaze-bag is the right term), I thought, “Well, they won’t notice if I take a few cubes of their parmesan cheese out of this little bag here.”

It wasn’t parmesan cheese, though.  While I’m the first to admit that I’m an idiot, you have to give me some slack for mistaking two cheeses that are practically cousins of each other and produced in the same general region of Italy.  It was an innocent mistake.  They do look very similar at first.

Yes, they looked similar, but once I took a bite… oh my God.  I exclaimed silently to myself that this was the best damn parmesan cheese I’d ever eaten, but then I took a closer look at the bag.  “Grana Padano,” it read.

Filippo, I’m sorry if you’re reading this, but in case you were wondering where all of your cheese went that week, it was me.  Pretty much every day after you left the apartment I’d sneak into your bag of grana padano and steal a few more cubes.  But, seriously, you can’t just do that to me.  You can’t just leave this incredible cheese sitting in the fridge totally defenseless while your poor, starving American roommate sits home alone with direct access to it.  It’s like leaving a recovering junkie alone in a house stocked full of bottles of Vicodin.  I’m surprised you didn’t come home one evening to find the fridge turned on its side next to my comatose body slouched on the floor, covered in white cheese dust.

My roommates also kept a large block of the stuff in our fridge for fresh-grating over pasta each night – big mistake.  I ate almost all of that, too.  But my story is not all unscrupulous; each time I went grocery shopping, I made sure to replenish our supply of grana padano.  Granted, I did end up eating most of what I brought home, but my heart was in the right place, at least.

Since I came back to America, I’ve looked far and wide to get my fix of the stuff, but, as always, what you can get here just doesn’t quite cut it.  The only place here I’ve seen carry true, imported grana padano is Wegmans (which only has locations in the Northeastern USA), but believe me – I’ve tried Wegmans’ grana padano to excruciating disappointment.  First of all, it costs about $18.00 a pound.  And the flavor is just off.  I don’t know why; maybe it’s the attrition of being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean that does something to the taste and texture of the product, but it just isn’t the same.  Since it’s made in Lombardia, literally every single shop in Milan area carries it.  And it’s fresher there, since they don’t have to freeze it or pack it into a cargo plane or do anything else that dries it out or blemishes the quality.  So, naturally, the local stuff is the best you can get.

The fact that they age the cheese for at least 9 months gives it such a complex, powerful, in your face flavor that does so many things all at once it’s really hard to describe with any word besides “complex.”  It’s a sweet, salty, sharp, tangy, creamy, smooth, crumbly, grainy, nutty, and all-around kick your taste buds’ fucking asses good.  I think you can tell I’m pretty passionate about this stuff.  And when I go back to Alpine Italy someday (and that’s not an “if”), I will load up on as much of it as I can, because oh God do I miss it.  Say what you want about Milan being kind of lame; it’s the home of one of the tastiest dairy products found on this planet.

I beg you to look for it here in America, please, because I’d really really love to know where I can get a good quality version.  If you do, and you feel the same way I do when you first taste it, seriously, let me know.

 

 

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