Duck vermicelli soup in Shanghai
Call me a creature of habit or weak-willed, at one point in my life when I lived in Shanghai, I was having duck vermicelli soup almost every day for lunch, even in the summer, unable to resist the temptation of slippery vermicelli and crunchy duck gizzard.
Duck vermicelli soup is probably not the best summer food, as the dish is considered to be a warming food in traditional Chinese medicine. But I grew up in tropical Singapore, where traditional warming foods like hot pot and mutton soup are consumed on a whim all year round.
Legend has it that a poor man in Nanjing had accidentally dropped mung bean vermicelli into a bowl of duck blood he had saved after slaughtering a duck. Not wanting to waste the vermicelli, he cooked it in duck blood. It turned out delicious and he was eventually hired as a chef to cook the dish.
As I’ve discovered the hard way, it is nearly impossible to track down this rich soupy concoction of vermicelli and duck offal outside China. In recent years, duck vermicelli soup wasn’t easy to find in Shanghai either in the wake of the government crackdown on hole-in-the-wall eateries and street vendors.
Of course my usual eatery in Jing’an district has long been shuttered. What remains are chain eateries like Zhouli and Youzi, somewhat sterile, but at least serving up decent vermicelli.
Duck vermicelli soup was the only thing on my mind when I took that red-eye flight to Shanghai this summer, eight years after I’d moved away. Shortly after my plane touched down at Pudong Airport, I made my way to a Zhouli branch near my hotel, on peak-hour public transport with luggage in tow.
An hour and a half later, I arrived just as the place opened. The internet was right; it isn’t the kind of place one stumbles upon, located in an unmemorable building hidden in a neighborhood of equally characterless malls.
The duck vermicelli soup tastes the same as I remember it. A piping hot bowl of vermicelli, duck gizzard, intestines and congealed blood cubes in flavorful, nourishing duck broth, topped with fried tofu puffs and roughly-chopped coriander. I asked for extra coriander and doused everything with excessive, breakfast-unfriendly amounts of Zhenjiang vinegar and chili oil. I blame my Singaporean palate.
I’ve always relished the opportunity to be the invisible foreigner in establishments like this with no English signboards or menus, discreetly tucking into my food at one of the communal tables among middle-aged Chinese clientele.
Nowadays though, with mobile payment applications so ubiquitous in China, my cover is blown the moment I pay cash, a dead giveaway that I’m not local.
Drenched in sweat and my mouth on fire, I have finished my bowl of vermicelli and drunk the spicy-sour broth to the last drop. Even then, I’m still reluctant to admit that I might have been better off eating something else in the depths of Shanghai’s humid summer.
Perhaps in my relentless search for duck vermicelli soup, I wasn’t just looking for comfort food. I was hoping to hold on to my fond memories of the past in a Shanghai I could barely recognize.
Zhouli Laoya Fensi
40-90 Tianyaoqiao Road, Huilian Commercial Building, Level 1
Xuhui District, Shanghai 200030
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Limoncello on Italy’s Amalfi Coast
There’s only one way to get to the best limoncello in the world, and that’s via the Amalfi Road, a one-and-a-half lane road that winds up and down one of the world’s most beautiful and terrifying coastlines. Taking a tour bus on what’s little more than a paved donkey path while trying hard not to think about soaring off that road into the Gulf of Naples one thousand feet below has left me shaken; I’m an acrophobe. I need a drink.
Our bus driver delivered safely us to the town of Praiano, perched on those cliffs. Amalfi coast dwellers live vertical lives; the distance to shops, restaurants and your neighbors’ homes is measured not in kilometers, but in the number of stairs one needs to climb to get there. It’s an unlikely place for humans to thrive. It’s an improbable place to grow lemon trees. But the world’s best limoncello requires the world’s best lemons, which, we’re told, only grow in this particular region.
This seems like a boast, but Valentino Esposito, the owner of limoncello factory Il Gusto della Costa, backs this claim. “The limone Costa d’Amalfi is unlike your lemons. It can stay on the tree for over a year after it’s ripe. It keeps growing. It gets longer, and sweeter.” The lemons are massive, the size of mangoes. Valentino grabs a peeler and quickly shaves one down, producing a handful of rind, with none of the bitter pith that an amateur might leave. “We start making the limoncello with the fresh lemons. A couple of hours after they are picked, we peel them.” There are also no chemicals; the company uses pesticide-free lemons.
Limoncello was first crafted on the Amalfi coast. There’s some debate regarding which of the coastal towns—Sorrento, Amalfi, or Capri—was the first to produce it. What you get here is definitely not the citrus-flavored cough syrup served at your local Olive Garden. Standard limoncello has a grain alcohol base. “Everclear,” says Valentino, “like the American teenagers drink at their parties.” Grappa, he insists, is what makes great limoncello; the stuff’s fairly common here, obtained from local winemakers, an inexpensive byproduct. Pounds of those Costa d’Amalfi lemon rinds—hand-peeled, of course—are added to vats of grappa; the batches sit for three days, then strained and mixed with a sugar syrup.
Valentino pours some shots. “Limoncello is a digestivo, you drink it after you eat your meal,” he says. “It’s best cold, but you don’t need to put it in the freezer.” I sip mine. The sweetness is there, of course, but the flavors are clean, and those lemons really do make a difference. The tartness is front and center, with a slight hint of the lemon oil that’s lost in mass-produced versions.
I buy a bottle to bring back home to the United States. Then I think about the bowels-loosening drive back down that perilous road to my hotel. “Can I get another shot, per favore?”
Il Gusto Della Costa
Via Gennaro Capriglione 24
84010 Praiano SA, Italy
Gentiana Liquor in Abruzzo
We hiked through vast pastures and barren rocks, and then hiked more through a steep gravel path to reach the ridge at nearly 2,400 meters (7,900 feet), where there was a lodge.
At the the end of a long hike, there must be drinks. We went in.
We asked for grape pie and Amaro, an alcoholic herbal infusion popular across Italy. Our waiter paused. He was a young man with hip-length dreadlocks and a southern Italian accent, serving drinks in the middle of nowhere.
“Do you want Amaro, or do you want something typical from here?” he asked.
“Here” is Campo Imperatore—a high plateau in the Gran Sasso national park, a mountain park in the Abruzzo region of central-southern Italy that reaches nearly 3,000 meters (9,842 feet). The views are breathtaking. The plateau bears no trace of humanity for miles. The only exceptions are a few cars and an abandoned hotel a little way downhill from the lodge.
The hotel looks derelict, but has the dignified air of historical sites that have been left behind. When Italy switched sides during World War II, Benito Mussolini was imprisoned here, which speaks to the remoteness of the place. In 1943, German paratroopers came to rescue him with gliders. The war went on.
Our waiter brought the pie and the drinks, which turned out to be Gentiana liquor. It’s an infusion of sun-dried Gentiana roots in local white wine—Pecorino or Trebbiano—with added sugar and pure alcohol.
The taste has the complexity of white wine, the bitterness of the roots and the sweetness of sugar, and it gives you a burning feeling in your throat, as though it contained more alcohol than its 25 percent ABV. At first I didn’t like it, but during the rest of my journey through Abruzzo I couldn’t drink anything else.
While I had a few, I only picked up a few things about it. It was always homemade. The better the wine, the better the final product. Infusion times vary, and everyone thinks they make the best in the region.
Gentiana roots must be bought in pharmacies. Since Roman times, people have believed that these roots have medical benefits, and they are still used in herbal medicine to treat, well, a lot of stuff. Recently, Gentiana became very popular in Abruzzo, and people started picking the roots in the park and went a bit too far. (A local told me that pickers were destroying the park.) This was an exaggeration, but it also explained why picking Gentiana roots was banned. Hence the pharmacies.
Gentiana treated us too. We relaxed. We lay under the sun, contemplating the paradise below. The world looked different at that altitude, in the middle of nowhere, with a weird new drink in hand. Things looked slower.
The wind muffled sounds around us, but we could hear snippets of somebody else’s conversations. A group talked about the importance of losing and how to lose well in life. Another about the imminent transfer of Gonzalo Higuain to AC Milan.
They went on for a long time, and sounded very out of place. We remained silent until we had to move on.
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Spiti Coffee in Himachal Pradesh
Mutton momos are a revelation. The juicy little parcels are packed with flavor, and I eat as many as I can. I’m up in the Himalayas—in Spiti Valley, to be exact—with the boy I started dating about a year ago. This is a far-flung corner of India’s Himachal Pradesh, halfway across the country from my home in Mumbai. It’s our last day in the high-altitude desert, and we’ve just stumbled upon a tiny, homely restaurant in Tabo that dishes out the best mutton momos.
Spiti is not like most other parts of India. The mountains loom large, brown and beige hues dominate the barren landscape, and quite frequently, centuries-old monasteries are markers for villages. The winters are icy and cold, and in the summer, the scenery turns green. Barley is one of the crops that emerge in the fields in the summer. Traditionally grown in these areas, it’s a big part of the local diet too—monastery breakfasts include roasted barley flour that’s mixed into salty butter tea, and locals make alcoholic brews out of the crop. It’s this potent liquor that finds its way into my coffee.
Sipping on the strong concoction, I find myself reflecting on the trip. I’d come prepared for the worst—from mountain sickness to major fights. Travel is a big part of our work lives, but we travel very differently. I’m the sort of traveller who plans meticulously and worries constantly, but he really isn’t.
Looking back, I could’ve eased up on the fretting.We let our moods dictate our days. Earlier this day, we had explored the little town of Tabo. The biggest draw—it’s not the juicy mutton momos or the Spiti coffee—is century-old Tabo Monastery, where we admired detailed murals and intricate clay sculptures. Forty-five minutes away, the 500-year-old mummified monk in Giu is also a treasure. I snapped photographs of apple orchards, and kept an eye out for apricot trees. It was while wending our way through the narrow lanes near Tabo Monastery that we chanced upon Kunzum Top, the cosy café where we’re having pakoras and “Spiti Coffee”.
Much like this trip, the coffee isn’t what I was expecting. It’s an acquired taste—I grimace at first, but it quickly warms my insides. The drink is bitter, but like travelling with no plans, it also makes me feel good. As I sip on my Spiti Coffee, puffy clouds drift along in the sky, Tibetan flags flutter in the wind, and my boyfriend’s reassuring calm stays constant. I could get used to this.
Café Kunzum Top
Near Tabo Monastery
Tabo, Lahaul and Spiti,
Himachal Pradesh – 172113
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Tinto de verano in Melilla
It’s 90 degrees in the shade of a 15th-century Spanish fort. We’re 100 miles from what locals call La Peninsula, sandwiched on a thin strip on Africa separated from Morocco by seven miles of heavily reinforced fence and a dizzying array of bureaucratic restrictions. The tinto de verano—cheap red wine mixed with carbonated lemonade and topped with a refreshing slice of lemon—is almost as satisfying as the siesta that awaits me next.
We’re in Melilla, one of the two Spanish enclaves technically on the African coast. This would be Morocco, except for centuries of history and Madrid’s refusal to consider it anything but its own territory. The town’s borders, legend goes, extend as far as a cannonball could fly from the fortress wall. Morocco has pushed for Spain to give the land back, but locals here say there’s no such thing as “back.” This is Spain, my local guide says, and it has been long before Morocco achieved independence in 1956.
In recent years, Melilla and the towering 20-foot fence of steel and barbed wire that surrounds it have come to symbolize the final obstacles facing migrants trying to reach Europe. It’s more visceral and cruel than the miles of Mediterranean migrants cross elsewhere; here, the two continents are close enough to touch.
This year, the route through Spain became the top pathway into Europe for African and Middle Eastern migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Thousands more now come through Spain than via Italy, Greece or other countries that have historically been the center of the migrant crisis.
At Melilla, Moroccans cross daily to work and shop. Migrants from further afield can buy a fake passport to sneak into Spain for around US$1,000. Others are smuggled in via false bottoms of cars or circumvent the fence via the ocean, by making a semicircle in rickety canoes. Those unable to pay are left to cross on their own by jumping the fence. The odds are better if they go en masse to overwhelm border guards.
The fortress currently protecting us from the summer sun is now a historical site and museum, though it’s anything but dormant. On weekends and holidays, locals wander down to swim in waters that welcomed centuries of Spanish galleons. On the lower levels of the fortifications, teenagers speaking a mix of Spanish and the local Berber language do backflips into the water. And a ground-level room facing the street has been converted to a kitchen with tables across the sidewalk. Waiters run in and out of the sun-bleached stones to deliver trays of drinks and tapas.
Yet in many ways, this is still a fortress city. It relies in large part on commerce with neighboring Moroccan towns, but is defined by the fence. Instead of cannonballs, the border is wherever the tinto de verano stops flowing.
Avenida General Macias
50021 Melilla, Spain
Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation North America.