Broadly speaking, there are two categories of Italian food. There are the pseudo-fresh meals overpriced restaurants hawk to tourists in the city center, which offer a greatest hits list of the country's cuisine and conveniently ignore regional differences. Then there are the places your average Italian eats that are a bit further out and have plastic menus studded with asterixes, indicating the last time they served fresh food was pre-1950.
Personally, I'm always ready to emabrace the latter. Not that I did all that well on my most recent trip to Italy last July. We stayed mostly in Puglia, with a few daysin Basilicata (Matera) and Campania (Naples). Here is, more or less, everything I ate on the trip. Not all of it was great, and that's the point. I'm most eager to eat Italian food when there's something a bit strange about it, a taste or a flavor that's all too similar to the packaged foods you find back home. Italian food is in constant evolution, here's what I found in Puglia in summer 2017.
I went to Puglia this summer. Like seemingly the rest of the blog and travel and media world who have saturated your Instagram feeds and Feedly backlog with photos of turquoise water, orecchiete studded with broccoli rabe and crumbling churches.
Why Puglia? On one hand, it seems to be the last safe not-Tuscany-but-will-be-soon. Last summer Umbria suffered a catastrophic earthquake, from which they're still rebuilding. Nearly a decade ago, L'aquila in Abbruzzo suffered an earthquake as well. And so we go to Puglia, which, for now, seems safe. (We're ignoring last summer's train crash, after all, what anglophone media outlet cares about Italy's crumbling train infrastructure? Rent a Fiat or an Alfa! Rent a Vespa!).
I took the train. I took the train and went to Alberobello and Lecce, but also to Bari and Taranto and Matera because even though it's not in Puglia, it's close enough. Here are some of my favorite photos.
Getting a job has convinced me to spend less money. More books from the library, less clothing, more meals at home—the usual. Or my usual. It’s not the usual for the characters in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. The novel follows Singapore’s über-rich. It is an homage to consumerism and conspicuous consumption. And this makes it compulsively readable, Kwan’s ability to describe the relationships between Singapore’s various groups and how they perceive the world will keep even frugal folk flipping pages.
The story broadly follows Rachel Chu and her boyfriend Nick Young as they head to Singapore for the summer to attend the wedding of Nick’s childhood friend. What strikes Rachel as an innocent-but-terrifying trip to meet Nick’s family turns out to be a trial-by-fire as she learns that Nick’s family is an old-school wealthy Peranakan clan. They’re hostile to outsiders, especially ABC—or American Born Chinese (Rachel immigrated to the US from China as a child, but this distinction is lost on Nick’s family). Throw in a smattering of Malay phrases, Cantonese words and arguments over Singapore’s best satay stall and the story tempts us poorer readers with the delights of a trip to the steamy city-state.
Having grown up in this world, Kwan writes about it with authority and sympathy. This allows him to keep even the most Hollywood-villain characters from appearing as pure histrionic horrors. As the gossipy characters collude and collide, Kwan sprinkles in facts and phrases that offer the equivalent of intellectual tattle. Footnotes highlight clever phrases and explain names and locales the characters drop. It’s like getting a foreign copy of Vanity Fair, annotated so you don’t miss out on the gravity of the scandals.
But like most scandals, the gravity is illusory. It’s hard to feel anything other than irked when Rachel attends a bachelorette party filled with Mean Girls worthy pranks. Or when Nick’s cousin Alistair brings home Kitty Pong, Chinese soap star who wears see-through dresses sans underwear to family events. In The Guardian, Patricia Park argued that Kwan presents caricatures with the same bounty as he describes these limitless parties. But I wonder if these cartoon-worthy hijinks don’t demonstrate Kwan’s skepticism toward his countrymen’s behavior? Rachel becomes the book’s moral compass and her distance aligns her with the reader, encouraging them to question how modern consumption conditions our lives. Like watching satirical late night shows helps people cope with political chaos, reading about these personalities helps the frugal reader cope with the roller coaster of modern consumption.
The quick process of reading Crazy Rich Asians also parallels modern consumption, demonstrating to the reader the evanescence of material desires. Start the book on Monday, finish or Friday, or Sunday if deadlines keep you late at the office. Each chapter is a quick escape, no more than a few sitcom-esque pages. You don’t need to go shopping for an adrenalin jolt, just read. Crazy Rich Asians succeeds because it becomes the modern consumption it depicts.
Crazy Rich Asians offers an entertaining, pop culture imagination of Singapore’s upper-crust. It’s Gossip Girl, by way of Asia. While the reader realizes that these depictions are over the top, it’s still easy to come under their spell. And that spell is entirely delightful—whether we’re comfortable with that or not.
Ines introduced me to soup dumplings. Specifically, she introduced me to Georgian soup dumplings, called khinkali, which are richer, meatier and sturdier than their Chinese cousins and, in my opinion, more delicious. Unlike thin xiao long bao, you grab khinkali with your hands and douse them with pepper, before biting a hole to slurp up the rich, meaty broth. They’re big and satisfying and easy to fall in love with.
Needing to make up for years of missed khinkali eating, I devoured them London, found them in Budapest and unearthed them in Kiev. New York, I figured, would continue the romance. After all, this is a city where you could easily embrace a dumpling-only diet without hopping on a subway. Unfortunately, apart from a smattering of restaurants stranded out in Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach, Georgian cuisine is woefully underrepresented. There are, however, a few places that serve them. At Apani you can order them by the piece to takeaway. If you prefer to sit down there’s Mtskheta. Not that I can vouch for either of these places—I haven’t made it out there. When the khinkali cravings strike, I make my own.
But let’s back up a bit. How did my friend learn about Georgian soup dumplings? Ines’s longtime boyfriend is from Georgia and he introduced her to them. In Paris, her hometown, she gets her khinkali fix at the city’s Georgian restaurants. France, and Paris in particular, has one of the highest percentages of Georgian immigrants in Europe—in 2013, there were approximately 10,000 living there. In Europe, only Turkey, Ukraine, Greece and the UK have more (admittedly, approximately 500,000 Georgians live in the United States,). When Ines wants khinkali, she doesn’t need to convince her boyfriend to make them. She just books a meal at one of the city’s smattering of Georgian restaurants and shows up with some friends to feast.
Although the precise ingredients vary across the country—Georgia is, after all, huge—the recipe for khinkali follows the basic dumpling formula: wheat-based wrapper (no egg) and a meat-y filling with a smattering of spices. Fillings range from lamb with a pinch of cumin to beef and pork with cilantro, chili and onion. The latter version is particularly popular in Tbilisi where they are called kalakuri, or city style. You can also find vegetarian versions with potatoes, mushrooms and cheese.
But you won’t know what’s inside until you try. Part of what makes khinkali khinkali and not pelmeni or xiao long bao is their distinctive top knot. This piece of pinched dough is called the kudi, hat, or k’uch’i, stomach. Whether or not this bit should be eaten and why is a hotly debated topic. Some argue that it’s undercooked, while others contend that not eating the top prevents you from overeating these delicious dumplings as you can track how many you’ve had. Personally, I’ll often toss back even this bit, the comparatively bland doughy chew serving as an antidote to the rich meaty filling.
Yet I find myself languishing in a soup dumpling-less world until one weekend in March when I decided to break out my rolling pin and make them myself. I was intimidated. My dumplings are gnocchi and ravioli or ordered out from the local Chinese restaurants. How could I make this recipe that was the domain of Georgian restaurants? Did people even make them at home? Turns out the answer is yes. And so, I decided, I could take on the mantle of preparing these doughy little beasts myself.
Preparing them is relatively simple. You start with the wrapper, a simple combination of flour and water, kneaded until smooth and left to rest for a bit. While that’s happening you make your meat filling, which is no more complicated than tossing together a meatball. Combine the meat of your choosing with some spices—I chose lamb because it’s my favorite and threw in some chili, parsley and pepper for good measure. The hardest bit is rolling out the wrappers, even bundling them up is easy as the top knot requires no more than a generous pinch.
As dumplings become a trend against a rise of populist sentiment, Georgian dumplings seem uniquely poised to help Americans better understand the nuances of Russian-inflected cultures. After the conflicts with Russia in 2008, Georgia has stayed out of the minds of most Americans. But the region has much to offer us, even if we never make a trip to Tbilisi or Batumi. Georgia boasts one of the world’s most ancient wine cultures, they have a rich folklore tradition—to say nothing of their amazing food. Georgian soup dumplings deserve a wider audience and you should make them and invite everyone over to discover the delights of khinkali.