This Week in Latin American Eats

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The realm of mole sauce resists quantification, no matter what the authoritative tourist literature attempts to state. That is one of the takeaways I hold with me from my experience making black mole with Pilar Cabrera, an Iron Chef competitor, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Perceptive Travel just published my account, Crossing the Mole Barrier in Oaxaca, in which I endeavor to separate truth from tall tale in the story of Oaxacan mole.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Guatemala, macadamia nuts have taken root, thanks to the efforts of Lawrence Gottschamer, a retired fireman who moved to Guatemala’s highlands near the city of Antigua. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Gottschamer at his farm some years back to find out more about his sustainable project. The resulting story, in which I almost become hypnotized by macadamia nuts, appears in Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns, and Revelations in the Americas. Gonomad just reprinted the chapter here. If you have been wondering where I took that picture of nuts in this blog’s title banner (on the top of the page), then wonder no more.

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A Medium Rare Vegetarian Burger: Impossible?

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As the title of my blog suggests, I am an omnivore. I eat meat, but I frequently try the offerings of companies that attempt to make meat substitutes, in the interests of sustainability. And, of course, in the interests of an ever-curious omnivore.

The results are usually less than savory. Such lab-created frankenfoods often sport the flavor and texture of wet cardboard, Play-Dough, or dense, chunky tofu.

For me, the best successes in vegetarian meals that can satisfy this carnivore have been the ones in which no one tried to create any fake meat. In other words, the creator of the meal utilized vegetables and grains in their natural forms and enhanced their flavors via kitchen preparation, not by extruding them through a contraption and blending them with ingredients we can’t pronounce. Restaurants like Moosewood, whose chefs make use of quinoa, beans, fresh veggies, and clever combinations of spices, excel with such dishes. For a while I have wondered if fake meat could ever produce as memorable a meal.

A promising contender walked onto the fake meat stage last week. On July 28, Momofuku Nishi, the Asian fusion joint in Chelsea opened by chef David Chang (founder of Lucky Peach magazine), began offering the Impossible burger: a burger that bleeds. According to Impossible Foods, the manufacturer of the burgers (can I call a fake meat company a manufacturer? Or a fake slaughterhouse?), their vegan meat is the result of five years of reverse-engineering real meat—what gives it flavor, color, and texture. But more importantly, the company went after an integral element that makes meat taste like meat: blood.

The blood in Impossible burgers is heme, or hemoglobin derived from plants. That process sounds like an intriguing but creepy science experiment. But how does it taste? Articles praising the burger abound, such as when a writer for Vogue wrote “It Looks and Tastes Like the Real Thing but Is Totally Meat-Free” without any indication that she took a single bite of said burger, and instead just rearranged words from a press release.

So I had to try it for myself. And so was everyone else at Momofuku. And I mean everyone. Luckily, I arrived at the restaurant before they ran out that day. And I was rewarded with a handful of plant meat, as pictured above. As you can see, this burger is pink on the inside. Medium rare. My first bite yielded a vague taste of peanut butter, and I’m not sure why. But subsequent bites were as burger-y as any other burger. Neat trick, I thought.

I wanted to get to know this burger a little better. To isolate it, I broke off a little morsel, careful not to grab a piece with melted American cheese on it, and I ate it by itself. The charring was crunchy and pleasant, but it resembled more of a falafel-like crunch than a charred beef crust. While the meat was juicy (something I had never experienced before in my many jaunts of fake meat exploration) and the texture came close to the fatty chew of ground beef (a second milestone never experienced before in such jaunts), the flavor was missing a note—as if a musician forgot to show up at the meat melody recital—and the burger fell back to the usual dense, chunky tofu routine of some if its predecessors.

But let’s face it—picking a piece of burger out of the bun and eating it by itself is weird. And possibly un-American. So I kept eating the burger as it was meant to be eaten, with big, indulgent vampire chomps. When each mouthful brought a harmony of melted cheese, pickles, lettuce, potato bun, tomato, and a mayo-like burger sauce along with the meatless burger (and let’s not forget the aftertaste of the salty fries served with the $13 burger), the effect was unmistakable: I was eating a hamburger. Not the best burger I’ve ever had, but not the worst either. The effect could be analogous to that of mp3 compression of audio files: some information is lost, but the ear may not notice the missing sounds while hearing other frequencies at the same time, or the loss may be noticed but acceptable. A mind trick. But one that requires only a quarter of the water used to produce the same sized cow-based burger.

For me, the Impossible burger ranks up there with the fake pepperoni pizza at Vegan Pizza in Garden Grove, California, whose combination of oven charring, brightly acidic tomato sauce, and oil may have triggered a similar mind trick.

If you want to try the Impossible burger at Momofuku, be prepared for a line, and also be prepared for getting cornered by a chatty vegan evangelizer at counter (“Do you have Netfix? You should watch Cowspiracy, blah blah blah, etc…”). But the burger is worth the jibber jabber, and it represents an important step in the evolution of plant-based meat.

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Now Serving: Breakfast for Alligators

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It was over nine years in the making. Today, Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns, and Revelations in the Americas has been released!

A sharp-shooting SWAT team, a Venezuelan producer of alcoholic love potions, and an audacious subway rat are among the cast of characters I encounter in this collection of stories from around the Western Hemisphere. Along the way, I expose the health benefits of eating wild-caught jungle rodents and mud turtles. I reveal a lesson in aging, courtesy of the street art of Valparaiso, Chile. I share the pleasures of traveling at the speed of the shoe.

“DuFord has created a series of magical and often humorous travel stories in which no local foods, material realities, or local rituals are off-limits. Breakfast for Alligators is a joy to read.”
  Gregory Hubbs, editor of Transitions Abroad

“Intrepid and chronically curious, Darrin DuFord charges into the more obscure corners of Latin America and brings back revealing, sometimes bizarre details. Warning: may inspire impulse plane-ticket purchases.
  Zora O’Neill, author of All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

“Darrin DuFord’s latest magnum opus vividly takes us from the steamy New Orleans suburbs to the jungles of Guyana to the coffee-covered hills of Nicaragua and beyond. This is more than breakfast: it’s a readable, enjoyable feast, best consumed any time of day or night.”
  David Farley, author of An Irreverent Curiosity

“DuFord captures the best of travel writing—by turn informative and entertaining, often hilarious, sometimes moving… He takes us on one wild ride after another.”
  Tony Perrottet, author of Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped

Several of the pieces have won medals in the Solas Awards and the NATJA awards. Most of the pieces have never been published and make their world debut today.

Breakfast for Alligators is available in paperback and as an e-book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If your local bookstore does not have it in stock, they can order it for you using the book’s ISBN number: 978-0692664438.

You may also order a signed copy via a Paypal button my website here.

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The Benefits of Speaking in Hats

I may be seen in cargo pants and sneakers most of the time, but my fascination with headwear may very well make up for my general ambivalence to fashion trends.

Such a targeted fascination is a good thing. I recently found out that my story about Panamanian hats will appear in The Best Travel Writing Volume 11 (Travelers’ Tales/Solas House), to be released in the fall. I feel blessed—I have been a fan of the series since its inception.

The piece, which was previously published by Compass Cultura last year and won a gold medal in the Solas Awards, was also selected as a Travelers’ Tales Editor’s Choice a few weeks ago.

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A Double Helping of Capybara

Chef Charlie Otero prepares capybara (ponche) at the restaurant La Comunión in Cartagena.

Chef Charlie Otero prepares capybara (ponche) at the restaurant La Comunión in Cartagena.


My quest for uncovering enjoyable choices of free-range, antibiotic-free meat has often led me to species that remain rare or unheard of in the realm of industrial farming. While I’ve roamed deep into the world of edible rodents–from guinea pigs to nutria to dormice–I had never secured the chance to explore the culinary possibilities of capybara, the world’s largest rodent, until I journeyed to Colombia last year.

For Vice, I test capybara’s viability as an main ingredient of a fine dining experience in Cartagena, where the locals call the meat ponche; and for Roads & Kingdoms, I offer a drink pairing for capybara (also known locally as chigüire) in a Bogota barbecue joint. Take your pick, or go for ’em both!

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