About a decade ago, when I was living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I found the imported foods in the sterile, Western-style supermarket to be prohibitively expensive, while meals from fragrant, enticing (and questionably hygienic) street carts, market stalls, and roadside restaurants were ridiculously cheap.
This meant that, for a fraction of the price of a box of cereal and a carton of ultra-pasteurized, shelf-stable milk, there were bowls of spicy, steaming-hot soup, or stir-fried noodles scrambled with vegetable and eggs, or a savory, egg-y crepe stuffed with fried vegetables and fresh herbs.
So began my love for the alt-breakfast - and I don't mean a lazy, midafternoon brunch of dim sum or huevos rancheros (though I'll take that, too) but a 7 a.m. wake-up-call on a plate.
The good news is, it's not just Cambodians who like an early morning jump-start with soups, salads, and stews featuring ingredients not found in your average diner bacon-and-eggs meal. In home kitchens and in restaurants around Philadelphia, you'll find palate-provoking breakfast delicacies that go far beyond familiar breakfast fare.
You may be familiar with shakshouka, the spicy tomato stew with poached eggs that shows up on the Israeli breakfast table alongside such other decidedly un-breakfast-like things as hummus and salads. If not, a good option is Fishtown's Soup Kitchen (2146 E. Susquehanna Ave.), where the stew is spiked with jalapeños and crumbled feta. But what about ful, the North African stew of crushed fava beans? The Ethiopian version has tomato, and hot peppers, topped with diced onion and tomato, or a dollop of yogurt or perhaps a chopped hard-boiled egg.
Habtamu Kassa, owner of Kaffa Crossing (4423 Chestnut St.) in West Philadelphia, said ful, spiced with cumin, garlic, and ginger, is the top seller on his breakfast menu, which also includes fir fir, pieces of spongy injera bread mixed into a spicy stew, and quanta fir fir, a similar dish made with strips of dried beef.
Kassa said that, in his native Ethiopia, it is typical to soak the dried fava beans overnight and then cook one's ful fresh in the morning.
"Everybody does it differently," he said. It's a dish traditionally cooked at home, since it's cheap and filling. "If you need high protein, if you want to really fill yourself up, that's ful."
An even spicier way to start your day is at Barbacoa South Philly, with a cup of consommé and a side of lamb tacos - offal, blood, feet, and all ("though some things are hard to get through USDA," co-owner Benjamin Miller said).
The truck, parked at Eighth and Watkins Streets on Saturdays and Sundays only, carries on a tradition from Capulhuac, the Mexican hometown of Miller's wife and co-owner, Cristina Martinez.
"Everyone in her family and in that town is dedicated to barbacoa. The only ones who don't cook barbacoa are the doctors," Miller said. The lamb is traditionally cooked over coals overnight, and sold fresh first thing in the morning - hence, Barbacoa's 6 a.m. start time.
Breakfast crowds in Chinatown tend toward Heung Fa Chun Sweet House, where the Taiwanese breakfast offerings include house-made soy milk, sticky rice, fried crullers, and soft tofu.
But for Cambodian breakfast, your best bet is to head to South Philadelphia for the classic: an early-morning bowl of kuy teav, rice-noodle soup.
It's so iconic (and delicious) that Cambodia's ambassador to the United States used to serve it at brunch to dignitaries. He called it "noodle diplomacy."
You can get it at New Phnom Penh (2301 S. Seventh St.) or order it off-menu at the new I Heart Cambodia (2207 S. Seventh St.), where it's available (though not advertised) every morning.
Rosa Ly, niece of I Heart Cambodia owner Polly Lang, said that the house kuy teav is made from pork-bone stock cooked for two to four hours, with ground pork, shrimp, and "fish tofu" - a tofu-like soy- and fish-cake. It's served with a pile of bean sprouts and jalapeño slices, and a wedge of lime.
One of my favorite Cambodian breakfasts, though, is something I've never been able to find in this country: a fresh-made noodle salad that, as I remember it, was prepared in seconds by a market vendor who layered a slaw of cilantro, mint, Thai basil, and cucumber with thick rice noodles, chopped spring rolls, sautéed pork, dried shrimp and peanuts, and then doused the whole thing in fish sauce and coconut milk.
I've re-created it at home a few times, based on my best guess as to the ingredients. (After a long, fruitless hunt for a recipe, I finally found one in Luke Nguyen's new book, Greater Mekong [Rizzoli]. His version, which appears on this page, can be adjusted by adding spring rolls, sautéed pork, tofu or other toppings.)
Ly said that I Heart Cambodia staff had considered putting it on the menu. Then they decided not to.
"But we might go back to it in the springtime," she said.
If so, I'll be there.
Makes 4 servings
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 can (12.5 ounces) butter beans, drained, or 3 cups home-cooked
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 medium tomatoes, diced (about 4 cups)
1/2 cup water
1. In a large ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, and saute until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic, and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the green pepper, and saute until it has softened, about 5 minutes. Add the beans, paprika, turmeric, cumin, cayenne, and salt. Gently mix to coat all the ingredients evenly with the spices. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 2 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes, any juices that may have accumulated when dicing them, and the water. Increase the heat to high, and bring the liquid to a boil. Immediately return the heat to medium-low, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Uncover the pan, and simmer until the juice has thickened somewhat, about 5 to 10 minutes. It will have turned a darker shade of red.
3. Preheat the oven to 425.
4. Remove the pan from the heat. Carefully crack the eggs - trying not to break the yolks - one at a time over the beans and sauce, spacing them evenly. Transfer the skillet to the oven, uncovered, and bake for 3 minutes. Rotate the pan (to ensure that the shakshouka cooks evenly), and bake until the egg whites begin to firm up, but the yolks are still runny, about 3 more minutes.
5. Remove the pan from the oven, and let sit for 1 minute to settle the eggs. (Possible garnishes: avocado, feta cheese, and cilantro. Spread them evenly across the surface of the shakshouka.)
6. To serve, use a large spoon to scoop out the eggs with the beans, sauce, and garnishes, keeping the eggs on the top, unbroken. Season with pepper, and serve with bread for dipping.
- From "The Convenant Kitchen"
Per Serving: 390 calories; 20 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams sugar; 21 grams fat; 327 milligrams cholesterol; 438 milligrams sodium; 9 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 3 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for garnish
11/2 cups minced onion
11/2 cups cooked fava beans, or 15-ounce can, rinsed, drained
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon harissa
1 teaspoon tomato paste
3 medium-size plum tomatoes, seeds removed and flesh chopped
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Ground black pepper Optional toppings: sliced hard-boiled eggs, plain yogurt, feta cheese, diced tomato, peppers, scallions, parsley, cucumber, jalapeno
1. Heat a medium-size pan over medium-high heat for two minutes, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, wait 30 seconds or so, then swirl to coat the pan. Reduce heat to medium, add the onion, and saute for five to eight minutes, or until very soft.
2. Add the beans, garlic, cumin, ginger, harissa, and tomato paste, and stir gently. Lower the heat, cover, and cook five more minutes.
3. Add tomatoes, stir, cover, and cook for about five minutes.
4. Stir in the salt and lemon juice. Cook only a minute or two longer, then dish into bowls. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, a grind of pepper, and a sprinkling of your preferred toppings.
-Adapted from Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Cafe
Per Serving: 354 calories; 22 grams protein; 55.8 grams carbohydrates; 11.8 grams sugar; 6.6 grams fat; 1 milligrams cholesterol; 633 milligrams sodium; 21.2 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons dried shrimp
31/2 ounces vermicelli noodles
3 iceberg lettuce leaves, finely shredded
3 1/2 ounces bean sprouts
1 Lebanese (short) cucumber, cut into thin batons
1 handful mixed mint, Vietnamese mint and basil leaves
2 tablespoons roasted, crushed, unsalted peanuts
For the sweet fish sauce dressing:
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 small red chili, chopped
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 cup lime juice
For the thickened coconut dressing:
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/2 scallion, finely sliced
1/2 cup coconut cream
cornstarch mixed with 1 teaspoon water
1/2 teaspoon liquid
palm sugar or
shaved palm sugar
1. To make the sweet fish sauce dressing: Pound the garlic, chili, sugar, and a pinch of sea salt together using a large mortar and pestle. Add the fish sauce and lime juice, mix well, and set aside.
2. To make the thickened coconut dressing, heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the scallions, and saute for 30 seconds. Now add the coconut cream, corn starch, palm sugar, and a pinch of sea salt. Stir for 30 seconds, until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens slightly. Remove from the heat, and set aside.
3. Soak the dried shrimp in a little boiling water for 5 minutes, then drain. Pound the shrimp using a mortar and pestle until it begins to break down.
4. Meanwhile, cook the noodles in a saucepan of boiling water for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat, and stand the noodles in the water for 5 minutes. Drain well, rinse under cold water, then drain well again.
5. Divide the lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, and herbs among four individual bowls. Top with the noodles, then the shrimp, then toss the salads separately.
6. Now add 2 tablespoons of the sweet fish sauce dressing and 2 tablespoons of the thickened coconut dressing to each bowl. Garnish with the peanuts, and serve.
Greater Mekong: A Culinary Journey
from China to Vietnam (Hardie Grant)
Per Serving: 226 calories; 7 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; 13 grams fat; 16 milligrams cholesterol; 742 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText