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It was a busy Friday night and the street was packed with vendors – food carts called lahris, and people enjoying a relaxing evening. Music was playing, a different song at each lahri, everything from the latest Bollywood hits to the classics. Oil sizzled in pans and aromas at each lured the hungry. And the price at the restaurants on wheels? Less than a dollar for a hearty portion. A bargain, but a healthy, strong stomach was a prerequisite.

There I was, among the carts and people, fanning my face frantically, as it was getting abnormally warm for the rare, cool night that Vadodara city was having. The pani puri, full of spices and flavors, was the most delicious that I had ever tasted, but it was also the hottest.

“Another?”

“Definitely!” I said and the lahriwala served up another. It was a small bite-sized puri, filled with potatoes, sweet chutney, chickpeas, and doused in a spicy mint water concoction. I had about fifteen of them that night. My nose was running, tears streaked my cheeks, and pictures were snapped to commemorate the time I had my first lahri pani puri.

“This is the best pani puri I’ve had!” I said, caught up in the tastiness of the moment.
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The first thing Azeb wanted to know about me was if I was on Facebook. After that she got to the less important stuff: Where I was from, if I was married, had kids, believed in God — and what was I doing in southern Ethiopia? Azeb, a 25-year-old business student with big glowing eyes and long dark hair, was born and raised not far from where we were having breakfast. We ended up sitting together when we realized we were the only people in the dining room at the Lesiwon Hotel in Yirgacheffe, the namesake town of a region known to coffee cognoscenti for producing some of Ethiopia’s highest-quality coffee beans.

As Azeb scooped up pieces of her omelet with torn-off hunks of bread, as is the Ethiopian custom, I stabbed at mine with a fork and told her about my travels thus far in her country. But it was something I mentioned in passing that seriously broke the ice. Until this trip — specifically the day prior to our chance encounter, when I had driven down from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to the southern part of the country — I had never seen a coffee tree.

Azeb’s mouth fell open, her head tilted heavenward, and she let out a high-pitched laugh. “You’d never seen a coffee cherry before?” she said, and then she just stared at me, her mouth still agape, as if I’d just casually asked her if airplanes drive on invisible roads in the sky.
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Anyone who’s visited Las Vegas knows that the formula is fairly cut and dry. Walk up to a table with 60 or so dollars, briefly allow yourself to be tricked into having a good time, then about an hour later, walk away empty handed and slightly shell-shocked. I don’t even mean gambling. I’m talking about the world-renowned Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffet.

Vegas didn’t invent the casino, and it certainly didn’t invent the buffet. But when Las Vegas’ own Herb Macdonald charged a single dollar for his adaptation of the European tradition of smörgåsbord dining, all-you-can-eat was born and pushed to its furthest, most American limits. While Europeans were perusing modest selections of breads, cheeses, cold fish, and desserts, Las Vegas diners were presented with ever-growing heaps of luxurious-sounding food.

The Las Vegas buffet was marketed as an idealist’s dream restaurant, a place where everyone could win. Dad could have three kinds of steak, the picky eater could have seven different shapes of buttered pasta, grandpa could have two courses of shrimp cocktail interrupted by a slice of triple chocolate cake – all at the same table. The idea is so convincing that families, complete with restless children, are willing to wait two, three, even four hours before spending upwards of $60 a head just to get a coveted table at buffets at the Bellagio or Caesar’s Palace. MORE

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“Two hundred and fifty grams of Bombay halwa for me and amba barfi for your mom,” my dad began on the phone. I was nervous about the task he had assigned me. But there was no way to avoid it; surely my parents would have been incredibly disappointed had I returned without the good stuff.

A trip to Poona city in Maharashtra, India is not complete without a trip to Chitale Bandhu, the premier sweet shop that is always crowded, since it carries the best mithai in the city. I had been there many times before, but always with my mother. Going there alone meant that I was faced with the responsibility of ordering the perfect amount of sweets and battling an impatient crowd of customers.
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In this excerpt from D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients, author and chef Alex Atala explores the role of ants as an ingredient in the Brazilian Amazon. The book is available now from Phaidon Press, in bookstores, and on Amazon.

“Which herbs did you put into this dish?”

“Ants.”

“I would like to know which HERBS you used in the recipe.”

“Son, there’s only ants.”

This conversation took place in São Miguel das Cacheiras in the very north of Brazil. The person asking about the herbs was myself. And the woman answering my questions was Dona Brazi, a member of one of the 23 ethnicities that inhabit the region and who sells delicious food in the town’s central square. She did not speak Portuguese very well and, after trying her food, I thought she had not understood my question. I wanted to know which herbs and seasonings she had used to make her delicacies. But she had understood perfectly what I was asking. And the answer was simple. The seasoning used in that recipe was ants.
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From Mama’s Kitchen

Our photographer's perfect lunch in a tiny, family-run Positano restaurant

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This summer, photographer Rachel Wisniewski found herself careening up the side of a mountain in Italy – toward what turned out to the best meal of her life (so far). Check out her photos below.

“As our tour guide, “Crazy Carmine,” drove us up the winding mountain road in Positano, Italy, I felt my stomach lurch. By the time we reached the mountaintop, I swore that I’d be sick. I didn’t expect Carmine’s next announcement: “It’s lunch time.” He quickly ushered my family into a small, stone home. The sign over the door read “La Tagliata Fattoria.”

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Americans love a blueberry festival. This year, they’ll celebrate the small fruit in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, New York, Washington, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Maine. In states red and blue, blueberry fans will pick blueberries, eat blueberry cakes, drink blueberry milkshakes, watch blueberry pie-eating contests, buy blueberry art, and run blueberry 5Ks to celebrate nature’s synchronous gifts of berries and summer. MORE

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If you are an inmate in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s prison system, and you misuse food items, refuse to return uneaten food items, destroy or throw food items, or use food containers to throw human waste, you may be assigned a Behavior Modified Meal the state calls “Food-Loaf.”

The public recently had a chance to experience Pennsylvania’s Food-Loaf at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. The historic site was the world’s first true penitentiary; with the urging of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the state opened the site in 1829. It aimed to inspire true penitence through isolation and silence. Eastern State closed in 1971, but in 2013, it was back to serving meals, if only for two days.
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A few weeks ago I ate horse. On purpose, while a scandal erupted in Europe regarding the presence of horse DNA in frozen meals and processed meat products. Traveling in Mongolia, my husband, Garrett, and I wanted to eat like locals. So we ponied up to a table in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, scanned the restaurant’s menu, and ordered horse meat soup.

Our first bite of the thin broth wasn’t bad—slightly salty, with a hint of pepper. Not four stars, but serviceable. We stirred, and up popped hunks of yellowish fat, goopier than Vaseline, meant to bestow some flavor. Then we found the meat.
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Few consider the faith of the food writer. And this is probably a good thing. I won’t say that to worship food and drink is to pray to a false god. But even with all the high-minded talk of farm-to-table or Slow Food movements, of molecular gastronomy or urban gardening, of locavorism or fruitarianism or whatever-the-latest-ism, in my experience it rarely leads one down the shining path of enlightenment.

Or at least that’s what I believed until this past spring, when I spent one of the most glorious weeks of my life eating my way through Copenhagen, capped off by a 25-course, five-hour lunch at Noma, considered by many to be the best—and most thought-provoking—restaurant in the world.

“Some people see going to Noma as a religious experience,” said Michael Bom Frøst, a food scientist and director of the nonprofit Nordic Food Lab, which was established by Noma’s owners. This was several days before my own meal at Noma, and we stood in the lab’s shiny test kitchen, inside a houseboat moored across the canal from Noma. The brilliant Nordic sun shone in the bluest Nordic sky as we ate a pink ice cream made from seaweed and looked across the cold water toward Copenhagen’s center. MORE

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When it comes to wine, we rarely consider its journey from grape to glass. Instead, we fixate on describing its characteristics, like fresh and fruity aromas, savory flavors or an elegant finish. Sometimes we complain that the complexity of a wine doesn’t correspond with the amount we paid for it. And far too often, we ponder the perfect food and wine pairings.

We readily use our senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste to evaluate the quality of wine, but we seldom consider the story behind that bottle. Every wine has a specific place where it was made and the greatest ones have the fingerprints of passionate and intriguing workers all over them. Just like knowing the roasted chicken you are preparing for dinner was raised cage-free or the organic apple you’re about to bite into isn’t covered in pesticides, hearing the details of any bottle of wine can absolutely make a difference in your enjoyment of it. At least, it does for me. MORE

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One Nation Under Dog

The best reason to visit New Jersey

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No one escapes high school without internalizing the idea that America is a melting pot. But recently, as I ate my way through New Jersey, I realized there’s a more accurate analogy that describes our national character. America is actually more like a hot dog cart. Look closely at this humble foodstuff and you can see how generations of hungry immigrants and food traditions from the whole world converge on the bun. And there’s no better vantage point from which to examine the hot dog than the annual New Jersey State Hotdog Tour.

The Garden State, so near the hub of Ellis Island, is the hotdog capital of America. Sure, New York’s venders are more visible in movies and the Chicago dog, piled with veggies, gets more attention in the pages of foodie magazines, but a trip up and down the Garden State Parkway reveals the hotdog’s real identity. MORE

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Get Cultured

A glimpse at one of the country's funkiest festivals

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Beer. Cheese. Kimchi. Wine. Sauerkraut. Some of the finest things in life are the handiwork of those beneficent microbes that bring the funk and flavor. The annual Fermentation Festival and “Meet The Makers” event in Kennett Square, Pa., sets out to celebrate this ancient culinary art. This year’s party drew brewers, cheesemakers, vintners and more to demonstrated their craft for the hungry, thirsty, and curious masses. Couldn’t make it? Here are some images captured at the this year’s festival, which happened over the weekend. And take a moment now to set a calendar reminder to check the schedule next September. You don’t want to miss it again.

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Photos by Michael Bucher.

Dispatches

A Toast to History

A new exhibit celebrates wine as art

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Try to imagine a world where flashy labels don’t exist to cloud your judgment and make the simple process of purchasing a bottle of wine far more complicated than it need be. A time when elegant glassware and ornate decanters were cherished almost as much as the liquid they contained.

It’s difficult to envision, I know, but not at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, where the “Uncorked! Wine Objects and Tradition” exhibition takes us back in time and features items that reinforce the importance of the forgotten history, traditions, and rituals of wine.

The collection contains close to 400 English and American pieces–anything from sherry bottles that date back to before the nation’s founding to original trade cards used to first market wines, and many decorated drinking vessels and crafted sets of stemware. Together, they explore how wine was first marketed, consumed, and enjoyed from the 1600s through the 1800s. MORE

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My Endangered Dinner

What happens when a cultural appetite clashes with the ecosystem.

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In the Cayman Islands, there’s chicken, and then there’s what the locals refer to as the “other white meat”: endangered sea turtle.

Most vacationers misunderstand and consequently avoid the native dishes on the island that feature turtle, but I wasn’t an ordinary tourist during the trip I took to the Caymans last month. I was returning to a place where I had lived as a young girl, and I longed for the distinct taste of turtle that marked my childhood. When my family lived there, dishes with turtle in them were a regular part of my diet. I ate the meat in stews and soups, as well as in the form of pan-fried steaks. Consuming turtle was the normal thing to do, and I never thought much of it. MORE