Insider Food: Soups of the World
"A great chowder is like love," says Boston chef Jasper White, the dean of American chowderheads. "You can't exactly describe it, but there's no mistaking it when it hits"—the potatoes melt in your mouth, the fish falls apart into big, silky flakes, and it seems as if you're inhaling sea air as you eat. A good chowder is improvisational, embracing anything from chicken to corn to tomatoes, and has a legitimate place on tables as far from Cape Cod as Bermuda and the Pacific Northwest. Still, real chowder should be dense and creamy, with each ingredient tasting only of itself (it's not a bisque). It must contain salt pork—a relic of its seafaring heritage—and you want it sturdy, modest, and direct. Great Yankee chow. Best in the U.S.: You can taste White's chowders at his Summer Shack in either Massachusetts (149 Alewife Brook Pkwy., Cambridge; 617/520-9500; dinner for two $60) or Connecticut (1 Mohegan Sun Blvd., Uncasville; 860/862-9500; dinner for two $60), or make your own from recipes in his book 50 Chowders (Simon & Schuster).
Have you had laksa lately?I didn't think so. But in Malaysia and Singapore, it's something close to a cult. A baroque feast of noodles and seafood in a multi- spiced coconut-milk broth, laksa is more entertaining than any Chinese noodle dish, as complex as a great Oaxacan mole. No two laksas are ever the same. In Penang, I marveled at a version lively with tamarind, pineapple, and fresh ginger flower. So-called spaghetti laksa, from the Malaysian state of Johor, is based on fish and Italian pasta. And in the Singapore suburb of Katong, I counted at least four different stalls claiming to serve the original Katong laksa (shrimp, heaps of minced cockles, and minty "laksa leaves" in a broth fortified with condensed milk). There are even legends of a Hokkien rendition garnished with pickled sea worms. Best in the U.S.: Stanley Wong, the chef at New York's new TanDa (331 Park Ave. S.; 212/253-8400; dinner for two $80) is so enamored of laksa that he almost named his restaurant after it, then reconsidered: "What if people start asking for bagels?"
Jackson Heights, New York, the vibrant Pan-Latino barrio in Queens where I live, is the sancocho capital of the world: hen sancocho on Monday, oxtail on Wednesday, and always fish on Friday. Protein, broth, and soft chunks of tropical tubers crowded into one bowl, sancocho might be the ultimate post-Columbian hot pot. The essence of motherly love, it also shows up in every restaurant. While sancocho transcends national boundaries, a number of countries claim it as their plato típico: in Panama it's a humble chicken soup; the Dominicans might add seven meats. Eat it with rice, pile on the cilantro and avocado slices, and don't stint on the hot sauce. Best in the U.S.: The sancochos of Jackson Heights are great; greater still are those served by chef and Latin food historian Maricel Presilla at Zafra, in Hoboken, New Jersey (301 Willow Ave.; 201/610-9801; dinner for two $50).
Think of pho as Vietnam's power breakfast: a vast bowl of beef or chicken, noodles, and broth, tinged with the sweet smokiness of charred onion and ginger and redolent of star anise. The slithery rice sticks are made to be slurped with abandon; the meats run the gamut from polite brisket to sundry innards. But the ultimate fun of pho is taking control of the final creation: a squirt of lime, an incendiary sliver of chili, a crunchy shower of bean sprouts. How much do the Vietnamese cherish their national dish?Mai Pham, author of Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table, cites a traditional saying: "Life without my beloved is like pho without its broth." Best in the U.S.: There are hundreds of pho parlors, but it's worth paying a visit to Lemongrass, Pham's restaurant in Sacramento (601 Monroe St.; 916/486-4891; dinner for two $70), for that refined but resolutely homemade taste.
Dark, brooding soupe à l'oignon remains a stalwart icon of ancien régime cooking, resonating with memories of the vanished Les Halles. In Zola's proverbial belly of Paris, cauldrons of this high-octane potage revived vendors working before dawn. These days, soupe à l'oignon seems to have fallen out of favor, a cholesterol-laden cliché. Yet even militant food snobs must fantasize every once in a while about breaking through the bubbling crown of cheese to sink their spoon into that sweet puddle of caramelized onions. Best in the U.S.: The version at San Francisco's Absinthe Brasserie & Bar (398 Hayes St.; 415/551-1590; dinner for two $70) has as much soul as anything at Pied de Cochon in Paris.