• Snapshots from the Mediterranean: The 25 Best Things I Ate in Cyprus

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar unless otherwise noted]

    When I told people I was going to Cyprus for Christmas vacation, I got a lot of blank looks. The small Mediterranean island is a popular summertime destination for European tourists and expats (particularly Brits), but few Yankees make it ashore, which is understandable given the time and expense it takes to get there. Still, I wanted to go someplace quiet, beautiful, and very far away from New York, which Cyprus in the off-season offered in spades. It wasn’t until after I’d booked my flight (with a layover in Moscow, of all places) that I got excited for the gastronomic component of the trip.

    Calling Cypriot cuisine a blend of Greek and Turkish oversimplifies things: yes, there are strong influences from both on either side of the island,* but look at a map, and you’ll notice that Cyprus is geographically quite close to the Middle East, whose flavors moonlight in many meals. Then there are the edible cameos from the country’s immigrant communities: a Filipino enclave in the capital, Nicosia/Lefkosia (the Greek/English name), and Eastern Europeans and Caucasians, too.

    *A brief lesson in Cypriot politics: Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided in two: the Greek-Cypriot Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the Turkish-Cypriot Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. A UN-controlled “Green Line” maintains a buffer zone between the two areas, though residents and visitors are allowed to cross the border with a passport.

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    A typical mezze selection

    All this, combined with the country’s agricultural and coastal riches (think fields of citrus and carob and shores stocked with octopus, sea bream, and bass), and the genuine friendliness of literally every single person I broke bread with make Cyprus a very worthwhile destination for those who travel to eat. Cypriots take mealtime (and coffeetime) seriously—dinners often last for hours on end, with bottles of homegrown wine lubricating conversation. Most of the food is prepared simply, emphasizing the quality of ingredients, almost none of which are imported. Village life is still the norm in much of the country, but even in the cities, tavernas serving home-style dishes are still major gathering points.

    We road-tripped around the country for 10 days, staying in coastal cities and mountainside villages, meeting sincere, welcoming people all along the way. In recent years, Cyprus tourism officials have pushed an agrotourism program, in which traditional stone houses in historic villages are restored into guesthouses, often complete with a kitchen. We stayed in several of these houses around the country, most notably To Spitiko toy Archonta in Treis Elies, whose gregarious proprietor, Androula Christou, took us foraging for wild greens and invited us to her family’s Christmas dinner. And although we didn’t stay with her, Elena Savvides-Doghman of Orexi Catering in Droushia was an invaluable resource in helping us understand Cypriot culture and cuisine, and one of the instrumental forces in turning Cyprus into a food-lover’s paradise.

    I tried to narrow my list down to just a few of the best things I ate; in the end, that “few” turned out to be 25. Included were two—yes, two—of the definitive “best version of X I’ve ever had in my life, anywhere;” while many others were foods entirely new to me. Take a look through the slideshow to see them all.

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  • The Best Things I Ate in Mexico City and Puebla

    Tlacoyitos, a Mexico-City specialty. [Photographs: Daniel Gritzer]

    I’ve been immersed in Mexican cooking for years. As a cook working in New York City restaurants, many of my colleagues were from Mexico, and they cooked Mexican food for the staff regularly. Then, since moving to Jackson Heights, Queens, in January—one of the country’s most diverse neighborhoods with a big Mexican community—I’ve become obsessed with Pueblan specialties like cemita sandwiches. Not to mention the standard amount of Mexican-food-eating we all do in this country.

    But for all my exposure to Mexican foods, I’d never actually been to Mexico, a travel omission that was feeling more and more glaring as the years went by. When a good friend decided to have a wedding in Tulum several weeks ago, my girlfriend Kate and I made sure to tack on our own trip to Mexico City in the days preceding it.

    Here are some of the best street foods, snacks, and restaurant dishes we ate there, as well as a few highlights from an impromptu visit to Puebla.

    Fresh Tortillas

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    I’d argue that one of the main things that separates really good Mexican food from all the rest is the quality of the masa, the corn-flour dough that’s used to make tortillas, tamales, and countless other corn products. At the very least, I think that’s one of the biggest problems with Mexican food in New York City: There’s not nearly enough good, freshly made masa here, and our Mexican food suffers for it. (It’s not an accident that one of my favorite Mexican foods in New York is a sandwich that’s served on bread, not tortillas.)

    I actually have a really weird Proustian memory of fresh-made masa from my childhood (weird, in that you’d sooner expect a guy who grew up in Oaxaca to have a deep-rooted masa memory, not a half-Jewish guy from Brooklyn who’d never been to Mexico before).

    When I was little, I’d visit my bubbe in Silver Spring, Maryland, and we’d frequently go to the Children’s Museum in D.C. The place was really cool: I remember staring in wonder at a wall of license plates from every single state, and dressing up in a real firefighter’s coat to slide down a mini version of a firehouse pole. But one of the most memorable parts of that museum was a small, dark room in an area of the museum dedicated to Native Americans. It had an especially hallowed feel, and on some visits, a woman would be sitting on the floor of the room, pressing freshly made masa into tortillas, and then cooking them on an electric griddle. She’d hand them to the children as snacks.

    To this day, that smell triggers intense memories for me. I don’t know for sure, but I think she was using fresh nixtamalized masa, that is, made from scratch and not from masa harina, because the memory comes back strongest on the rare occasions that I get to eat the real thing.

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    Walking around Mexico City, where plenty of independent mills still make fresh masa daily and sell the tortillas for a song, the aroma pours out onto the street. My mind returned again and again to that recess in the Washington D.C. Children’s Museum.

    What I’d give for these kinds of tortilla-makers in New York.

    Insects

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    I’m just gonna cut to the chase and show you the thing that will gross the most people out: Insects. A lot has been written about the potential for insects to become an important high-protein human food-source, and in much of the world hardly an eyelash would bat at the idea. But here in the States, eating insects is still a troubling idea for a very big portion of the population.

    I’ve always wanted to taste more insects, and while the opportunity has come up from time to time, this trip to Mexico City was my first big chance to go hog wild on bugs. And the thing is, if you haven’t eaten bugs yet, let me tell you: Bugs taste good.

    First, we have the fried worms you see in the photo above. They’re actually not really worms, but caterpillars. More specifically, they’re caterpillars that feed on maguey plants (the agave used to make tequila and mescal); in Mexico they’re called gusanos de maguey or chinicuiles.

    But what do they taste like? To me, they’re like the lovechild of French fries and fried clam strips. That makes them an incredibly delicious food in my book.

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    I’ve eaten ants before, mostly in gag gifts like those silly lollypops with bugs encased in the candy. But I’d never had ant eggs before. They’re called escamoles, and they have a wonderful creamy, almost caviar-like texture (but with less of a liquid-y pop) and a mild, earthy flavor. The ones above were cooked with garlic and maybe a little butter, and we ate them folded into tortillas.

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    My pal Ernesto here is about to take a nice big bite of escamoles, and just look how happy he is! See? There’s no reason to fear ant eggs! (In case you can’t tell by his expression, we were pretty sloshed on mescal at this point.)

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    Apologies for the low light in the photo above: Kate and I were in a mescal bar lit exclusively by candles. Still, I wanted to get a shot of our spread: mescal, orange slices, pumpkin seeds, some baby corn, and a nice big bowl of chapulines—grasshoppers cooked with lime juice and salt, among other things. They’re tart and crunchy and as addictive as pretzels. No, scratch that, they’re definitely more addictive than pretzels. In dark rooms, though, I’d recommend not thinking too much about how they could be mistaken for a bowl of roaches. Roaches are a line I will not cross.

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    One last insect call-out was this dish from the stellar restaurant called Pujol (more on that below). This is a signature dish at the restaurant: fresh baby corn, still connected to their tender husks, smoked in a dried gourd and coated in a creamy sauce made from coffee and red ants. I can’t say I was able to discern the exact flavor of the red ants, but altogether it really is a remarkably delicious dish with an equally striking presentation.

    Milanesa Cemita in Puebla

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    Cemitas were one of the foods I was most excited to eat during our trip. And I’d assumed that Mexico City—a bustling metropolis located just a few hours away from Puebla—would be an easy place to find some truly great ones. But it became pretty clear after a few days that while there are spots in the DF that sell cemitas, the only way I was going to try the real deal would be to go to Puebla. So Kate and I hopped on a bus to Puebla early one morning. In case there were any doubts, yes, I will travel for hours just to eat a sandwich.

    Even in Puebla, though, we had trouble finding a good cemita at first. I was almost in disbelief: Was it be possible that New York actually has tastier cemitas than Puebla, Mexico? Thankfully, the answer ended up being no, though there are some interesting differences between the cemitas I get in Queens and the ones I ate in Mexico. (One day, in a larger cemita piece that I’m planning on writing, I’ll share the story of one of the worst cemitas I ever had, right there in Puebla, the heart of cemita country.)

    As we walked the streets in search of something to restore my faith in the cemita as it’s made in Mexico, we finally came across Cemitas del Carmen (above). It called to me like a mirage in the desert.

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    Inside, I found a man I can only describe as the Dom Demarco of cemitas. He lovingly put my milanesa (breaded cutlet) cemita together, pan-frying the cutlet to order, masterfully shredding the Oaxacan cheese into angel-hair-thin strands, thoughtfully placing the leaves of papalo, and layering each successive ingredient with such care. It was a joy just to watch.

    The result was the beauty above, an example of perfect construction and proportion.

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    He asked us to sign the wall. We were the first English speakers to do so, and I couldn’t help putting a little Serious Eats tag in there, just so it was clear which gringos had wandered in first.

    Travelers to Puebla, be sure to seek this place out (and sign your names next to ours)!

    Tacos Arabes in Puebla

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    Puebla is also home to one of the more interesting taco variations: tacos arabes. A relative of al pastor tacos, tacos arabes also feature marinated pork cooked on a spit, but instead of being served in a corn tortilla, they’re served in pita-like flatbreads called pan arabe.

    It’s like a gyro and an al pastor taco smashed into one. Why haven’t more people started selling these? (Especially places that serve crap tortillas…)

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    Barbacoa Tacos at Arroyo, Al Pastor Tacos at El Vilsito, and Suadero, Longaniza, and Cabeca Tacos at El Borrego Viudo

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    Barbacoa taco at Arroyo

    There’s no way to go to Mexico and not eat an obscene number of tacos. First up, the barbacoa tacos at Arroyo, which, according to Wikipedia, is the largest Mexican restaurant in the world. It certainly did seem huge, so I’d believe it.

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    The barbacoa, here made from sheep, comes as a massive slab of meat that you pull apart in shreds and chunks and stuff into tender tortillas, topping it with whichever of the housemade salsas you desire. I’ve seen several trusted sources that claim that Arroyo is one of the best places to get barbacoa, and while I believe that, the Arroyo experience is about more than just the meat: The dining rooms are packed with families out celebrating birthdays and other milestones, the ceiling rafters flutter with colorful paper flags, and mariachi bands play Colombian hits like Jorge Caledon’s Que Bonita Es Esta Vida*.

    I couldn’t help but sing along when the band whipped that one out. It’s infectious!

    Update: A reader informs me that Jorge Caledon’s track is actually a cover of the original Mexican version by a group called Tres De Copas. I think I’ve found the recording here. Oh, and look, now I’ve found a mariachi version as well.

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    This guy’s face spells FUN.

    For more Mexico-City taco intel, I reached out to my good friend Jordana Rothman, who’s currently writing a taco-focused cookbook with Chef Alex Stupak. They’d taken an insane whirlwind taco tour of Mexico City a few weeks before, so Jordana had eaten at literally dozens of taquerias and sent me her handpicked favorites. Score!

    Jordana’s top pick had been El Vilsito, and I have to agree. Not only are the al pastor tacos great, but the whole scene is worth taking in. Apparently it’s an auto-body shop by day, and then at night they roll up the walls to unveil the taqueria. There’s an electric energy there, and it isn’t because there are shelves of spark-plugs nearby.

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    The taqueros themselves are worth watching. I’ve never seen such deft carving and taco assembly: Holding the tortilla at hip height, these masters of marinated pork slide their knives along the skewered meat, and paper-thin slices tumble into the tortilla below. Then they swipe at the pineapple perched at the top of the skewer, flicking the slices of fruit through the air and catching them in the taco-holding hand. It’s not even showmanship, it’s just pure skill and efficiency.

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    Ernesto makes one more cameo with his al pastor taco. We’d actually already had a full sit-down dinner, and this was the first of several after-dinner tacos we ate the night. It’s what I’d call a Bang-Bang-Bang.

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    After El Vilsito, we headed to El Borrego Viudo, a Mexico City institution that specializes in cabeza (from the meat of beef heads, above) and suadero (a beef cut from near the belly, below) tacos. The longaniza (sausage) tacos there were also pretty great. Bang-Bang-Bang.

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    Breakfasts at Red Tree House

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    On the very strong recommendation of a friend, Kate and I stayed at a hotel called the Red Tree House in Condesa, a great neighborhood for walking and eating.

    I don’t usually put much thought into the places I stay when traveling, as long as they’re clean. For me, a hotel is mostly just a place to store my stuff and sleep, and otherwise I don’t want to be there. The Red Tree House really challenged my thinking. The staff there is exceptional: personable, helpful in a way that goes above and beyond, and frankly, you just kinda want to be pals with them all (we actually did become pals with them—Ernesto, whom you saw above eating the ant eggs and al pastor taco, works there and Kate and I ended up going out with him and his girlfriend quite a bit).

    Anyway, when we first arrived at the hotel, they told us they served breakfast in the morning. That’s the kind of thing I normally tune out. I’m in Mexico City, dammit, and there’s a whole city’s worth of food to eat outside these hotel doors: I’m not wasting one square inch of stomach space on a hotel’s continental spread.

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    Turns out I’m an idiot. I looked forward to breakfast at the Red Tree House more and more every day: fresh tortillas with refried beans and melted cheese, or with flavorful stewed tomatoes, or with salsa verde (and more melted cheese), plus churros, fresh papaya, on and on. It’s worth whatever digestive real estate you can spare. (And no, they’re not rewarding me in any way to write this.)

    Quesadilla at the Lagunilla Market

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    Kate, Ernesto, his girlfriend Sally, and I spent a Sunday wandering the Lagunilla flea market, a sprawling tangle of tents stretching several streets and filled with all kinds of interesting tchotchkes. Ernesto and I got blotto pretty quickly, first on massive paper cups of michelada with sticky chile-infused, cherry-red syrup dripping down the sides, then with a bottle of mescal Ernesto had stashed away in a bag. Only later did we find out that the police had been at the market nabbing people for drinking in public, so I guess I narrowly dodged a trip to a Mexican lockup.

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    This one stand at the market caught my attention with its wide comal (griddle) and buckets of fresh masa, some from blue corn, some from yellow. There were all sorts of things to order, but I went for a Mexican-style quesadilla, which features an ovoid tortilla filled with heaps of melted cheese.

    Tlacoyitos at El Parnita

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    Tlacoyos, which also go by the diminutive tlacoyitos (perhaps only when they’re made in a smaller size?), are a specialty of Mexico City that I had never heard of before.

    The ones pictured here are from a restaurant called El Parnita. It’s a trendy place that makes a lot of good seafood (among other things) and, as we discovered, there can be a bit of a wait to get a table. Everything we had was delicious, but these tlacoyitos stood out in my mind: they’re almond-shaped cakes of masa stuffed with refried beans and topped with melted cheese and avocado, so simple and so good.

    Pretty Much Everything at Pujol

    Pujol’s “aguachile”, an artistic riff on a classic type of Mexican ceviche.

    As I mentioned above and also in my article on aguachile (a style of Mexican ceviche), chef Jose Enrique’s Pujol was one of the most exciting meals I’ve had in a long time. One of the sad side effects of working in the food industry and eating a lot of really excellent food all the time (I know, poor me!) is that it can become harder and harder to feel truly ecstatic about high-end restaurant experiences. At a certain point, it’s rare to encounter great food that you feel you’ve never seen before.

    Pujol was not one of those experiences. Everything felt new to me—unfamiliar ingredients, different flavors, totally refreshing. It’s one of the best things about travel, really. Pujol is tasting-menu only, and it’s hard to choose a favorite dish, so I’ll give you a quick tour of several.

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    This wild mussel was amazingly sweet, backed up by a fresh ocean brine and topped with a broth infused with guajillo chiles and cucumber.

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    Fish taco with longaniza sausage, black beans, and hoja santa (a type of herb).

    Pujol offers three different tacos on the menu, and guests generally each choose one of the three to try. Kate and I opted for all of them.

    They’re the most beautiful tacos I’ve ever seen.

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    Suckling lamb taco with avocado-leaf adobo and guacamole.

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    Smoked mushroom taco in a roasted corn tortilla with tomato seeds and watercress.

    Tuna Tostada at Contramar

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    Our last stop in Mexico City, Contramar, is another excellent spot for seafood, like fish tacos done in the style of al pastor (surprisingly good) and octopus aguachile. But I think the highlight for me was this tuna tostada that the restaurant brought to the table as an amuse-type freebie. Topped with fried leeks and avocado, it managed to be both light and fresh, yet also rich and deeply flavored.

    If you’re only in Mexico City for a day, which places should you go? Sorry, no way to choose. You’re just going to have to make a Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang day of it.

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  • The Best Things I Ate in Taiwan

    [Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

    Less than four percent the size of China’s landmass, the island of Taiwan has always been something of an underdog. Its cities are smaller and younger, there’s no Great Wall, and you’ll find way fewer pandas. But you don’t get a nickname like the Beautiful Island by being a crummy place to live, and while most Westerners are in the dark about Taiwan’s charms, there’s a reason it’s one of East Asia’s big tourism destinations.

    There’s a lot to appreciate in tiny Taiwan: stunning forests, mountains, and coastline with carefully maintained national parks; a rich culture of hospitality; bustling but easily navigable cities and cute agricultural villages. The island is also impressively diverse; though the vast majority of the country’s population is Han Chinese, family ancestries trace back to all over different regions of China, and that’s before you add in an aboriginal population and robust influences from Japan, Europe, and the U.S.

    And then there’s the food. The beautiful, freaking amazing food. Part Chinese, part Japanese, part native, with a gorgeous bounty of local produce, meat, and seafood, Taiwanese cooking has many origins, but nothing else tastes quite like it. Whether you’re scarfing down basil-perfumed pancakes at 4 a.m., slurping soup dumplings for breakfast, noshing on fresh local greens for lunch, or taking your first of three dinners at a streetside roast duck stall, this is a country for anyone who loves to eat. It’s some of the most accessible and delicious cooking you’ll find anywhere in Asia, a high bar if ever there was one.

    Okay, everyone has rose-tinted stories of the amazing meals they’ve eaten abroad, so if you’re wearing your skeptical face, I don’t blame you. Here, then, are 10 (out of a possible hundred) reasons to push Taiwan to the top of your eating list.

    The Produce

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    Western travelers to Asia are usually bowled over by the wok skills of noodle vendors or the superlative spicing of local curries. There’s plenty to be love on that front in Taiwan, but before we get there, consider the local produce itself. You can’t understand Taiwanese cuisine without appreciating the amazing fruits and vegetables that drive it.

    Even in basic urban supermarkets, you can find pineapples so tender you can eat them down to the core. Local fruits sold by street vendors take on an intense tropical sweetness. I recognized only a fraction of the fruits I was eating, but if you’re offered fruit in Taiwan, take it. (Concerned about food safety? While it’s true that you’d do best not drink the tap water, Taiwan’s modern food supply system make fresh fruit a safe bet.)

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    Spring holds a special place in Taiwanese cuisine; that’s when the local delicacy of fresh, young bamboo shoots are ready for harvest, and if you’ve only eaten the canned stuff, you’ll be blown away by shoots that are at once sweet, crunchy, nutty, and creamy. The same goes for young sugarcane, or the hyper-regional greens specific to certain mountain villages. Even plain old cabbage, when grown in the misty hill country, tastes better here; high-elevation mountain farmland means that cabbage and other produce grows slowly and fights for every concentrated nutrient it can muster.

    By and large, the produce dishes you’ll find are pretty simple; vegetables this good don’t need much fussing. So keep an eye out for cold, minimally dressed salads, or simple stir fries, like plate above of mountain greens gussied up with sweet-and-sour pickled berries, tiny dried fish, hot chilies, and plenty of garlic.

    The Dumplings and Buns

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    Buns and dumplings are to Taiwan what sandwiches are to Americans, but I’ve yet to visit an American city with a sandwich track record close to Taipei’s gua bao scene. One of the country’s most famous dishes, these pockets of steamed white flour dough are filled with anise-spiced braised pork belly, fat handfuls of mildly funky salt-preserved greens, and fine shavings of sweetened peanuts. You’ll find them at most every night market, food court, and plenty of fine restaurants, and they’re a brilliant formulation of the always-great pairing of fatty pork and bitter greens. The best gua bao are rich and refreshing in every bite, with a careful balance of sweet, savory, and pungent pickle.

    Taiwan’s soup dumpling game is also strong, and even average ones put the best in most American cities to shame. The most famous place to get them is the international chain Din Tai Fung, but if you’re in Taipei, consider visiting Jin Ji Yuan, a short walk from the vaunted original Din Tai Fung, instead. The dumplings don’t share all of Din Tai Fung’s subtle refinements, but they’re as pork-sticky and tender-skinned as can be, with no two-hour wait.

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    Down in central Taiwan, you may encounter the regional specialty ba wan, a ground pork and bamboo dumpling wrapped in a transparent dough of chewy sweet potato flour that’s then steamed or fried until the pork’s just tender and the dough is deeply soft and chewy. Like many dishes in regional Tainan-area cuisine, ba wan are all about sticky, gelatinous textures, and once cooked, the metroid-shaped blobs get cut up and topped with a little sweet brown sauce, chili sauce, and cilantro. It’s gloop on gloop, but it works beautifully, and it’s one of the most memorable dishes I encountered on my visit.

    The Fried Chicken

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    If Kenji got his act together and paid a visit to Taiwan, he’d scrap his whole list of the world’s greatest fried chickens and replace them all with the obvious winner: Taiwan’s popcorn-style nuggets.

    Served at restaurants and night markets, Taiwanese fried chicken comes in small, heavily battered chunks that fry to a deep, craggly crisp. They’re then dusted with a mix of salt, sugar, garlic, and dried basil, and served on skewers for one-hand eating. (What’s in the other hand? More fried chicken.) Why the spice blend isn’t deployed on popcorn and potato chips the world over is beyond me, but the mix of sweet, pungent, and herbal perfume makes for some of the best fried chicken you’ll ever eat.

    The Roadside Poultry

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    While we’re on the subject of poultry, let’s talk about the Taiwanese propensity to roast crackly-skinned chickens and ducks right on the streets of cities and small towns, where you can order a whole bird to eat on a stool or the curb that rivals anything you’ll get in most fine restaurants.

    Take Peking-style duck from a corner vendor in Taichung City: skin bronzed and flaky, fat well rendered, meat well but not at all overcooked. Place an order and you’ll get a beautifully arranged platter of meat and skin, along with fresh pancakes for wrapping. As a bonus, this particular vendor chops up the remaining carcass, which still has a good amount of meat on it, and stir fries it with some herbs, chilies, and brown sauce, before unceremoniously dumping the whole lot in a bag for you to pick at with your hands. Gloriously messy and gloriously good.

    About an hour outside of Taichung City, over in the villages by Dong Ding and Shan Lin Xi mountains, the local streetside specialty is chicken rubbed with herbs and roasted in hulking clay ovens until their skins turn to candy. No neat carving here, though—instead, your bird may be ripped limb from limb, happily plopped on a platter, and soused with all the fat and drippings that seeped out while it was roasting. Country cooking doesn’t get better than this.

    The Pancakes

    The Taiwanese are pancake-mad; nowhere else, except maybe India or Sri Lanka, will you find a greater diversity of delicious flatbreads. Thank the wide array of regional Chinese cooking represented in Taiwan plus local ingenuity for crêpe-like Fujianese popiah, northern-style puffy griddled shao bing, omelet-pancake mashups reminiscent of jian bing, flaky paratha-like numbers deep fried in oil, and griddled versions layered with basil and deli ham.

    While some street vendors sell savory pancakes at all hours of the night, breakfast is peak pancake time, and you. Do. Not. Miss. Breakfast. In. Taiwan. Taipei is well populated with breakfast shops that buzz all morning, serving simple but hearty meals of assorted pancakes, buns, fried crullers (you tiao), and hot soy milk. Seriously, don’t sleep in.

    And if you just have to have your pancakes sweet, keep an eye out for vendors selling an old-fashioned treat: this ice cream burrito. Now hard to find in Taipei but still available on the streets of the nearby town of Yngge and around Yilan County, a vendor starts with a flexible, slightly spongy crêpe, then shaves peanut brittle off a 10-pound block of candy, scoops on some ice cream in flavors like taro and melon, and, if you’re lucky, dusts the whole thing with fresh cilantro before wrapping. In the country’s warmer months, this is one of the best ways to fight back against the swampy heat.

    The Soy Stuff

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    Fresh tofu in Asia is good enough to make you forget all about the best Italian mozzarella, and on the bean curd front, Taiwan doesn’t disappoint. Sure, there’s no shortage of street vendors selling stinky tofu, and you can go ahead and choke the stuff down if you want, but I’m all about the silken versions that go into dou hua, the most basic of desserts made from fresh tofu with lightly sweetened water and soft boiled peanuts.

    At its best, fresh tofu is glassy-smooth and as rich as pudding, with delicate nutty and vegetal notes bolstering a natural sweetness. It’s a different ingredient altogether from the cooked-tasting stuff you’ll find in grocery stores; the best place to get it is from specialist vendors working small markets.

    Where there’s tofu, there’s soy milk, and the time to drink it is at breakfast, where a steamy bowl moistens freshly fried crullers and griddled pancakes. At breakfast spots like Taipei’s Yonghe Dou Jiang Da Wang, soy milk usually comes two ways: sweet and savory. The former is simply a bowl of hot soy milk, ready for dunking. The latter is my personal favorite: soy milk coagulated with a dash of vinegar to form cloud-like curds of proto-tofu. Part porridge, part creamy soup, it’s garnished with a little pork floss and optional chili for a full-flavored breakfast made from the simplest of ingredients.

    The Noodles

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    Between local innovation and selective borrowing, Taiwan has no shortage of famous noodle dishes, and you’ll find several restaurants devoted primarily to noodle soup. The most noteworthy of these may be beef noodle soup, a fragrant broth of long-cooked beef with garlic, chilies, warming anise, and the buzz of Sichuan peppercorns, and loaded with thick, chewy wheat noodles. Also worth seeking out: zhajiang mian, thick, ropy noodles topped with a sweet sauce of fermented soy beans and ground pork, so thick and rich it’s almost bolognese, but with a pronounced, welcome funk.

    The Tea

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    Taiwan is one of the world’s best producers of fine tea, specifically the partially oxidized style called oolong, and even if tea means nothing more to you than brown stuff in a tea bag, it’s worth sampling what the island has to offer.

    Tea is an essential part of the culture here, from bubble tea to default daily drink to the high-end, crafted stuff as nuanced and delicious as fine wine. Whether you’re staying in cities or venturing out into the countryside, tea shops are everywhere, and local teas range from bright green, fragrant varieties full of creamy floral notes to dark, heavily roasted styles as moody and complex as coffee.

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    New to tea and have no idea where to begin? Doing a tea-tasting tour of Taiwan is much easier than you’d think. If you don’t want to bother with the fancy stuff, consider paying a visit to the inventor of bubble tea instead: Taichung’s Chun Shui Tang, where the boba are perfectly chewy, the tea’s creamy but full-flavored, and the kitchen has a refreshingly light hand with the sugar. Age and fame hasn’t slowed this place down; Chun Shui Tang makes the best bubble tea I’ve ever drank.

    The Seafood

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    As you might expect from an island, seafood plays heavily into the local cooking. Omelets just taste better with oysters in them, especially with the gelatinous chew of some sweet potato starch cooked with the eggs.

    Cooked oysters are the way to go in Taiwan. My favorite preparation? This plate of oysters sautéed with hunks of green onion and black bean sauce—perfect over rice, and treated with a light hand so the oysters are barely warm on the inside. Their brine gets balanced by lightly pungent onion and just enough sweetness in the sauce for something homey and comforting.

    The Night Markets

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    This is going to be a controversial point, but if you’re looking for the best food Taiwan has to offer, the stalls at the country’s many famous night markets might disappoint you. I had far better meals at restaurants, in homes, and at more permanent streetside vendors than from any pop-up stall. But that doesn’t mean night markets aren’t worth visiting.

    For one, as a Taiwanese friend pointed out to me, they’re the essential nightlife, especially in smaller towns where they become major community hubs. That’s why many night markets have whole sections devoted to shopping and carnival games, such as this row of claw machines at one Nantou County market. (Funny thing about Taiwan and claw games: Rather than one or two machines with an array of prizes, each Taiwanese claw game has just one kind of toy, and is then lined up with ten or so other machines, each carrying their own prize.)

    On the subject of carnival games, here’s the strangest I’ve ever seen: a small aquarium filled with live shrimp that children pay to fish from, then take their wriggling prizes to a small grill. The kids then cook their shrimp live over open flames and eat them on the spot, scattering shells, tails, and legs wherever they go.

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    And if you do want to eat well at a night market? The rules are simple: look for the longest lines and the happiest customers, and order whatever they do. Popular vendors at night markets tend to be so for good reasons, and there’s definitely a range of quality to watch out for.

    Perhaps the best thing about night markets, though, is the simple range of foodstuffs you’ll see. It’s inspiring to observe that much dedicated cooking happen in one place, and it’s a good reminder that there’s so much more to Taiwanese cuisine than you’d suspect on a first look. So stroll around, nosh on some fried chicken, and take notes on what you’re going to eat the next day. You have work to do.

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  • Editor’s Picks: The Best Things I Ate in Japan

    [Photographs: Daniel Gritzer]

    Last July, I took a weeklong trip to Japan. It was my first time there—a pretty big deal, given my obsession with the Japanese food I’ve eaten in the United States. But it was also a press trip hosted by a Japanese tourism board, which meant I was beholden to their itinerary. I came home with a handful of recipes I wanted to share and an urgent desire to go back, to experience Japan my way.

    This past January, not even six months later, I was once again on a plane to Tokyo, this time with my wife, Kate, on a very belated honeymoon, and a very personal mission to eat everything I could, everywhere we went. In our case, that meant Tokyo and Kyoto, plus a few stops in the prefectures of Fukui and Ishikawa, just to Kyoto’s north. It was winter, it was cold, and the fish coming out of those icy waters were at their peak fattiness. I’m not sure there’s a better time to be there, cherry blossoms be damned. (Though, of course, the only way to confirm that is to go back again and again, which I’m absolutely planning on doing.)

    In our two short weeks in Japan, we covered a lot of ground, but, given the country’s sheer breadth of dining options, we barely even scratched the surface. I’ve lived in New York City most of my life, and I’m still not familiar with most of the 30,000 restaurants here. Tokyo has about 10 times as many.

    Yet, even with such limited time to explore, our eating experiences delivered on every hyperbolic assessment of the country’s cuisine that I’ve ever heard. There’s a strong argument to be made that Japan is the greatest culinary destination on Earth. Their crappy food is good, their good food is great, and their great food will get your nose and mouth about as close to experiencing enlightenment as possible. On top of that, the Japanese don’t just excel at their own food—the best patisseries in Tokyo rival those I’ve been to in Paris.

    So, with all this in mind, here are some (though not even close to all) of the best things I ate while there.

    Curry Rice

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    There’s incredible food in Japan at all price points. Kate and I splurged on a handful of blowout meals—it was our honeymoon, after all—but we ate plenty of great inexpensive food, too. Anyone who tells you that Japan is a prohibitively expensive place to visit just hasn’t done their homework.

    Take the kare (Japanese curry) pictured above as an example. Well, technically it’s katsu kare, because there’s a breaded and fried pork cutlet on the plate along with the curry and rice, but regardless, the whole thing cost less than 10 bucks. It was from a restaurant called Kitchen Nankai in Tokyo’s Jinbocho neighborhood, which I was tipped off to by Yukari Sakamoto, author of the dining guide Food Sake Tokyo.

    I’d been searching for some great Japanese curry because I knew how beloved the dish was there, but the iterations I’d eaten in New York had left me wondering what all the fuss was about. At best, most of it tasted like fairly soulless renditions of British curry, which itself is already somewhat lacking in character. (The similarity shouldn’t be a surprise, since the Japanese likely learned of the dish from the British in the late 1800s.)

    But this one from Nankai finally gave me a Japanese curry I was eager to dip a spoon into, repeatedly. It had the same basic spice profile of those tame British and Japanese curries that I’m less enticed by—a mix of classic curry components, like coriander, fenugreek, cumin, cinnamon, and more—but with enough depth and heat to break free of being pablum. Gone were those soggy little nubbins of carrot and potato that taste like they come straight from a TV dinner.

    Instead, the curry’s saturated, dark color promised something much more—a deeper, richer flavor. Exactly how they made their curry sauce is difficult to dissect, but that deep brown color suggests a roux cooked until the flour was well past golden, with a more brooding flavor to match, while warm spices like cinnamon softened those dark, bitter notes. It also had enough actual spiciness to leave your mouth remembering it long after you’d left the restaurant, grabbed an afternoon coffee, and browsed a few of the many bookstores in the area.

    Sushi

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    Harutaka Sushi, including tuna (top right) and surf clam (bottom right).

    One of the things that quickly becomes apparent in Japan is that raw fish is everywhere, and, in most instances, the quality is pretty great—it’s extremely fresh when it needs to be; properly aged when that’s called for (yes, some raw fish needs to be aged before it hits its peak); and handled with the kind of expertise that delicate seafood demands. It’s difficult to have a multicourse meal that doesn’t include at least a little sashimi, and this can be true at home as well as in restaurants.

    This fact brings into stark relief something I’ve heard people say for years: Sushi isn’t about the fish as much as it’s about the rice. Spend even a little time in Japan and this becomes a lot easier to understand. Great fish is plentiful, so what distinguishes one sushi place from the next is only partly about that and more about everything else. And, when it comes to sushi, 90% of everything else is the rice—how it’s cooked, how it’s seasoned, how it’s formed, and more.

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    Sushi from Kyubey. The shrimp on the left was still twitching when they served it, while the tuna at right was about as fatty as it gets.

    Two back-to-back sushi meals in Tokyo underscored just how important shari (another word for seasoned sushi rice) is, and the extent to which it can change your perception of the toppings. Kate and I have both eaten our share of high-end sushi in New York, but given that Tokyo is the world capital of the stuff, we needed to calibrate our taste buds to those standards. That meant splurging at a couple of the city’s most highly regarded places—in our case, Harutaka, a small spot run by a former apprentice of Jiro Ono, and Kyubey, a larger, older establishment. Both of these restaurants are in Ginza.

    Each meal followed a typical omakase (chef’s choice) progression, with a succession of small appetizers (cooked octopus, blowfish milt, and more at Harutaka, and a light, flavorful seaweed salad at Kyubey), followed by individual pieces of sushi chosen by the chef. Each piece was dabbed with wasabi and brushed with its own nikiri, a soy-based sauce that’s more delicate and slightly sweeter than soy alone, then set down alone to be eaten before the next one was presented. Neither restaurant felt rushed, but one doesn’t allow the food to linger. While you can request it, there is no additional soy sauce or wasabi offered for dipping. Each piece comes as its own complete and perfect package.

    At Harutaka, the rice had a strong vinegary tang that made each mouthful bracing, yet still balanced, while the individual grains had a distinct bite, just barely holding together and then dispersing quickly but gently in the mouth. At Kyubey, we noticed a more assertive wasabi kick on each piece, with the rice less overtly sour, stickier, and packed more tightly. If money were no object, one could have a lot of fun visiting these and other elite sushi temples, going deep on the finer points of the rice until you’d settled on the style that appealed most.

    Yakitori

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    Kate and I had our first date at a yakitori restaurant in New York City, so hitting at least one great yakitori spot in Japan was a must for us. Our chance came while we were in Kyoto. We had asked Yoko, the wonderful proprietor at Mitsuki, the ryokan where we stayed (highly recommended!), if she thought we could get a reservation at Hitomi, a yakitori restaurant not far away. Despite her doubts, she managed to score one for us for that night.

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    Yakitori, for those who don’t know, is grilled skewered chicken, and, while that may sound mundane, the Japanese have taken it to unbelievable heights. Most Western guides to breaking down a chicken stop at about eight pieces, plus a few odds and ends, like the liver, heart, gizzard, and neck. Yakitori menus present you with a page full of distinct chicken offerings that reflect a radically more advanced level of chicken butchery. You can get just the knee cartilage. You can get one of several muscles from the thigh, each prized for its particular taste and texture qualities. You can eat the skin and the deboned neck muscles, the breastbone, the oyster, and the tail. It makes you realize that most of us don’t have any idea how to really break down, and get the most out of, a bird.

    At Hitomi, the lone yakitori master worked over an impressively small grill right in front of us, the lump oak charcoal called binchotan glowing bright orange and white. He turned out skewered bits for everyone in the restaurant with an effortless dance, shifting pieces around the grill to various heat zones he’d created to get just the right amount of char and doneness on each—some were clustered on the grate, others suspended spit-style by their skewers.

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    One of my favorite bites: chicken ovary, which included the eggs in various degrees of development. Most were tiny, just specks of yolk smaller than peas; a few were larger, but still more delicate and creamy than the yolks that come from laid eggs, with a profound chicken-y essence…probably because there were still parts of the chicken attached. Granted, they’re not the prettiest to look at, but if you can get past any aversion to the sight, the taste is more than reward enough.

    Fake Espresso Drinks

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    Black truffle and caramel.

    Of course, Japan is famous for its teas, but it has a well-established coffee culture, too. We had some great coffee there, no doubt, but far more memorable were two fake espresso-style drinks.

    The first was a playful dessert at Den, run by the impish chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, who humorously riffs on a classic kaiseki multicourse meal. Out comes a coffee cup, complete with a cute Starbucks-like logo. By all appearances, the mug contains a cappuccino. Instead, under that cap of foam is a dark caramel infused with black truffles, earthy and bitter enough to evoke the taste of coffee, but deeper and richer.

    Less cheffy, but equally enjoyable, was a sweet potato latte served from a stand in the new market building at Tsukiji. Thick and frothy, the drink is nothing more than a puréed base of intensely sweet Japanese sweet potatoes and milk. In the January chill, it was just about perfection.

    Endless Ramen

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    Two bowls of ramen (spicy and not) at Afuri in Tokyo.

    If this site is to be believed, there are more than 20,000 ramen restaurants in the greater Tokyo area. It’d take about 20 years to visit them all, and that’s if you ate ramen—and only ramen—every single day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Kate and I had a lot less time to work with.

    On our first day in Tokyo, we ended up at Afuri, a small chain that was recommended to us by multiple friends. Afuri specializes in a chicken-based broth that’s spiked with yuzu, a floral, zesty Japanese citrus fruit. The bowls did not disappoint: both rich and delicate, with a bright citrus fragrance that lifted up all those umami base notes—something I’d never experienced in ramen before. If you live in Portland, Oregon, you’re in luck, because Afuri recently opened its first US location there.

    Another bowl of ramen worth writing about is the tsukemen (dipping ramen) at Fuunji in Shinjuku, famous for its bonito-spiked chicken broth. When we got there late one night, shortly before closing, a line snaked out the door, up some stairs, and down the street. Luckily, it moved quickly. This was a ramen that left my head spinning—I couldn’t decide if it was the greatest thing I’d ever eaten or the worst. Sitting at the counter over my bowl of impossibly thick and creamy broth, in which an intense smell of concentrated chicken broth and rendered fat intertwined with a smoky, fishy pungency, courtesy of the heaping tablespoons of dried-bonito powder stirred into each serving, I began muttering deliriously about how humans were never meant to experience so much flavor at once. This is unnatural, I stammered. I feel like I just tasted God. It was a beauty. A terrible, terrible beauty.

    Unagi

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    One way to get away from the circuit of restaurants visited by tourists is to consult Tabelog, an absolutely terribly designed ratings website used heavily in Japan. There’s nothing user-friendly about it, and if you don’t read Japanese, it’s that much more impenetrable. But I’m stubborn and driven when it comes to food, so I spent countless hours clicking around the app’s map, looking at the rating of each restaurant I selected.

    I quickly learned an interesting thing: Within the context of a star-based rating system, the Japanese idea of what is “good” does not align with ours at all. Here, absolutely shitty restaurants routinely get four- and five-star ratings on Yelp. It’s shocking what people think qualifies as good. On Tabelog, you will literally never find a venue with five stars. Five stars is like the Platonic ideal—one aspires to it, but it cannot possibly exist. No, on Tabelog, even a four-star rating is rare. A restaurant with one of those is exceptional. Pretty much anything above three and a half is pretty damned great, and anything above three is still very good.

    So you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled on Obana, an unagi (freshwater eel) restaurant, in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, with a rating that hit the four-star mark. Kate and I made our way there one afternoon, lined up with others on the quiet residential street outside the restaurant, and waited for them to lift the gate.

    Inside, we found a picturesque garden and the beautiful old restaurant building, which apparently has been in operation since the early 1800s. The seating was all on the tatami-mat floor—really difficult if you’re not used to sitting like that for extended periods.

    The eel, meanwhile, was exceptional. The fillets came in a single layer on a bed of rice in a simple lacquer box. Gone was the muddiness of so many freshwater fish (word of the day: geosmin), and gone, too, was the overly heavy shellacking of sweet, soy-based unagi sauce. Instead, there was just enough to add some richness to the mild-flavored fish without overwhelming it. As is the case with a lot of Japanese food, the experience was about texture just as much as flavor, if not more so. This eel was fatty and rich, with a gelatinous layer under the skin, yet delicately tender and refined.

    If only I could have been so refined when I stood up at the end of the meal. I stumbled onto my dead-numb feet, narrowly avoided crashing onto a neighboring table, and then, in an attempt to nonchalantly recover and walk normally, nearly decapitated myself on the room’s low wooden ceiling beams.

    Wasabi Soba

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    Fast-forward to our time in Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, a short distance north of Kyoto. Kate and I were visiting our friend Ai, whom I’d recently met in New York. Ai had offered to take us around Echizen, the town where she lives, and for lunch we stopped at her favorite soba place—no small thing in a region famous for its soba (buckwheat) production.

    What we ate was the local specialty, wasabi soba. Out came a large plate piled with cold soba noodles, which, Ai told us, were made from 100% buckwheat, with no wheat flour added to make the dough more workable—a point of pride for the kitchen. Underneath was a ladleful of a chilled dashi- and soy-based dipping broth, and, on top, a hefty dollop of nose-clearing homemade pickled wasabi—from actual wasabi root, not the reconstituted green horseradish paste that’s more common stateside. Once the bowl was stirred together, each bite was both cooling and incendiary.

    Soba Custards

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    Another highlight of our day in Echizen: these soba custards at Kura Soba Kodo. I loved them so much that one of the first things I did when I got home was to get my hands on some soba-cha (toasted buckwheat grains, typically used to make tea), infuse them in heavy cream, and then create a recipe based on that. You can read more about this dessert and find the recipe here, but the short version is that they’re nutty and woodsy, with a chestnut-like flavor that pairs incredibly well with the cream and eggs in the custard. I could eat these forever.

    Sperm, Sperm, Sperm, Sperm

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    Clockwise from top left: seared blowfish milt at Harutaka in Tokyo; grilled blowfish milt (with some blowfish meat) at Ichinomatsu in Fukui; fried codfish milt at Flatt’s in Noto; and poached codfish-milt soup at Den in Tokyo.

    Upon arriving in Japan in January, we quickly learned that we were there during peak sperm season. Sorry, I’m just being honest—almost everywhere we went, fish milt was on the menu, usually from either cod or blowfish. The codfish milt comes in smaller, frilly sacs with a brain-like shape, while blowfish milt is larger, smoother, and firmer, allowing cooks to slice smaller portions off for cooking.

    We ate it raw with ponzu sauce, simmered in soup, breaded and deep-fried, and grilled. And it is incredible stuff, with a mild flavor and a silky, creamy texture. It’s difficult to pick a favorite because the milt lends itself so well to so many cooking techniques, but two opposites stand out. One was deep-fried codfish milt at Flatt’s, a ryokan on the Noto Peninsula. It came covered in a feathery shell of crispy panko bread crumbs, with the warm, creamy milt within. This stood in stark contrast to the same codfish milt (photo below, in the “raw fish” section) served raw with scallions and ponzu sauce at the Kanazawa fish market—a milt that was chilled and slippery, meant to be slurped up with chopsticks.

    The only real shame was coming home to a country that doesn’t have any appreciation for the stuff. We should all be eating fish milt whenever it’s available. Plus, you know, it’s probably high in protein…or something.

    Tempura

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    During my July press trip to Japan, I managed to sneak off one night in Tokyo to have a high-end tempura dinner at Fukamachi. It was wonderful, but I left with one regret: I had seen a bunch of people order a fritter of uni (sea urchin) wrapped in a shiso leaf, and, though I wanted one desperately, I was too loopy from jet lag to work up the effort to ask for it.

    I made up for that misstep on a more recent meal at Tempura Kondo in Ginza. Kate and I spotted that same lightly battered and fried shiso-uni number, and we jumped on it. It did not disappoint. The batter was barely there, just a gentle crackle under my teeth, and broke through to the herbal shiso and briny, iodine-y punch of uni, just warmed through but retaining the satiny, creamy texture of raw urchin.

    Endless Raw Fish

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    As I mentioned above, there’s no shortage of excellent raw fish in Japan. It comes one way or another in most multicourse meals. But if there’s a memory that lingers most for me, it’s walking through the large fish market in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. The streets outside were pelted with alternating deluges of hail and sleet, and the cold wind blew through the market arcade. Fishmongers lining the pathways sold hulking crabs, oysters, arrays of sea urchin, whole fish, and more, much of it brought straight in from the Sea of Japan each morning, and available to either take home or eat right on the spot.

    With stiff, numbed fingers, we pointed at massive whole shrimp, little ivory twirls of raw cod milt, oysters, and more, then ate them standing, with cold beers and splashes of condiments like ponzu, soy sauce, and lemon juice. Just us, the most pristine seafood, and the winter storms blowing in off the sea where it came from.

    A Humble Sweet Potato

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    It’s easy to celebrate the obvious stuff—the bowls of ramen, full of broth that’s simmered and reduced for hours on end; the practiced movements of sushi chefs; and the best seafood in the world, prepared more thoughtfully than anywhere else. But it’s important not to let them overshadow the small things, which are sometimes just as great.

    One afternoon while wandering around Tokyo, we saw an old man roasting Japanese sweet potatoes over wood embers on the back of his truck. We didn’t know much about yaki-imo, these roasted sweet potatoes commonly sold as a street food, but the smell of the wood fire and our love of sweet potatoes—particularly the delicately sweet, yellow-fleshed Japanese ones called satsuma-imo—were enough to convince us to hand over a couple bucks for one.

    It’s impossible to describe just how perfect a whole, plain sweet potato can be, but this one wanted for nothing—not salt, not butter, nothing. The potato’s flesh was soft as custard and tasted like it had begun to caramelize in the heat. A whiff of smoke infused every bite.

    As with so much of Japanese food, the brilliance of the potato was in its restraint. That old man had likely been roasting sweet potatoes his whole life, and knew damn well not to mess with a good thing.

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