Ode to the Dumpling: History in a Single Bite

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Photo by Neal Santos

This love affair we have with bacon is stupid. Bacon is delicious, but it’s one-dimensionally delicious. The best thing you can do with bacon is have more bacon, and this leads to nothing but a sort of culinary one-upmanship reminiscent of Cold War nuclear proliferation.

Lemongrass was the bacon of the 1990s. We got past it. The recent obsession with cupcakes nearly derailed the upward curve of American cuisine. Thank the food gods that long national nightmare is behind us. Fried chicken worries me a little because in some quarters, it’s worshipped like the Second Coming of flourless chocolate cake — the thing that’s going to save us all, translate across all customer demographics, make any chef who can dunk a bird in hot fat the prettiest stripper in town.

You want to know the thing we all should be obsessed with? The dumpling. The dumpling is the solution to all the (bad, dumb, ridiculous) questions posed by fusion cooking in the days when fusion was huge. It’s the thing that unites all cuisines everywhere — more than the taco, more than fried chicken — because it’s the thing that all cuisines have in common. The dumpling gives comfort to diners in duress as they stare down a menu filled with words they’ve never seen before and ingredients they can’t pronounce. The dumpling is beloved in its innumerable forms and disguises. It’s a tiny, unassuming and awesome hand grenade that can be packed with a virtually limitless spread of culinary ordnance and deployed in a thousand different ways. Lucky for us, they are all over Philly.

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Indian Restaurants and Food in Philadelphia

Chef/owner Rakesh Ramola at Indeblue | Photo by Neal Santos

Chef/owner Rakesh Ramola at Indeblue | Photo by Neal Santos

Indian food has been a part of Philadelphia’s culinary landscape for a long time — so long that there’s no specific neighborhood devoted to it, but rather a spray of outposts scattered around: biryani on Ridge Pike in Eagleville, goat curry in Northeast Philly, Punjabi cuisine in Chester County, dosa just over the bridge in Cherry Hill. The Indian canon is broad and fractious in its variety of regional specialties, so here’s a must-hit list for those looking to expand their tastes beyond tandoori chicken.

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Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Malaysian Restaurants and Food in Philadelphia

Penang and Fish-head curry from Banana Leaf | Photos by Neal Santos and Michael Persico

Penang and Fish-head curry from Banana Leaf | Photos by Neal Santos and Michael Persico

In Philly, Southeast Asian flavors are the gift that keeps on giving. In Point Breeze, South Philly and Chinatown, along Washington Avenue and even out in the ’burbs, there are enclaves whose composition and abstract representation of geopolitical borders are constantly shifting and changing. This means Thai and Laotian food on traditionally Vietnamese-heavy blocks, and awe-inspiring Malaysian food in Chinatown. It also means a deepening and broadening of available flavors, so if you’re looking to explore the subtle differences between Malaysian and Indonesian food, Vietnamese that goes beyond a bowl of pho, or Thai more complicated (and delicious) than a simple plate of pad Thai, there are many options.

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Eat the World: How to Assemble Your Pho


PRO TIP: If you add the cold garnishes a little at a time, they won’t cool the soup too quickly … and the heat plus garnishes will make for a more aromatic soup.

Korean Restaurants and Food in Philadelphia

A Korean BBQ feast at Seorabol | Photo by Michael Persico

A Korean BBQ feast at Seorabol | Photo by Michael Persico

So you got your Korean fried chicken and your Korean street tacos, both of which became fads that cemented themselves in the culinary gray matter of borderless grubniks. There’s kimchi, which is so popular now, it’s surprising Lay’s doesn’t have it as a chip flavor. And yet despite the fact that Philadelphia has a thriving Koreatown right in Olney, this is still a cuisine whose more traditional aspects are foreign to many eaters in the city. If you’re looking to amend that blind spot, start here.

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African Restaurants and Food in Philadelphia

Kilimandjaro owner Youma Bah | Photo by Neal Santos

Kilimandjaro owner Youma Bah | Photo by Neal Santos

There are no two ways about it: African food is tough on dilettantes. It’ll confront you with vegetables you’ve never heard of, meat that runs from tough to tender to straight-up cow skin, and starches that bewilder your attempts to choose a utensil. And for eaters not seeking already-acquired tastes of home, Philly’s African restaurants can be hit-or-miss. But no other realm rewards the adventurous with more fascination and deliciousness.

Start baby-step-style at Kilimandjaro (4317 Chestnut Street, 215-387-1970), which despite its East African namesake serves Senegalese food, including a mustardy, sweet-onion-draped yassa chicken that’s among the best in town. Grilled lamb chops dressed with sweet peppers and onions are what to get at Sahara (6528 Woodland Avenue, 215-727-0812), where the cooking is Malian and the portions are huge. And now that you’re already smack in Philly’s Africana epicenter, try African Small Pot (6505 Woodland Avenue, 267-713-7603), run by a globe-trotting Mauritanian who does right by thiebou dien — which you could think of as paella with twice the concentration and spice.

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Latin American Restaurants and Food in Philadelphia

Dinner at Quetzally

Dinner at Quetzally

Philly’s Hispanic population is mostly made up of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, two Latin cultures that use similar ingredients but totally different cooking techniques. You’ll find the best Puerto Rican food in one neighborhood in North Philly, while Mexican food is more ubiquitous. Look out for a new wave of Mexican chefs who are combining authentic cooking with more attention to detail — the results are game-changing.

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Middle Eastern Restaurants and Food in Philadelphia

Shawarma platter at Hummus; Pastries from Manakeesh | Photos by Neal Santos

Shawarma platter at Hummus; Pastries from Manakeesh | Photos by Neal Santos

Middle Eastern flavors have long been a rich vein mined by chefs working in any number of styles. And Middle Eastern restaurants — whether of the wheeled or brick-and-mortar variety — have been a staple on the Philly scene for decades. But while you might think there’s nothing to this cuisine beyond chickpeas and falafel, here are six places that will prove you wrong.

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How Israel Got Huge

Lunch rush at Dizengoff | Photo by Michael Persico

Lunch rush at Dizengoff | Photo by Michael Persico

You’ve got to understand something about Israeli cuisine right from the start: It’s not something that existed in the American consciousness a few years ago.

Really, it’s not something that exists there now. Not in most places. You’ll find a few spots in and around New York where Israeli dishes get to shine. And there have always been delis where you could get your brisket and your matzo ball soup, but that’s more about Jewish cuisine than it is Israeli. Like the thing about thumbs and fingers, all Israeli restaurants are Jewish but not all Jewish restaurants are Israeli.

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Eat the World: Philadelphia’s World Food Scene

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Philadelphia has a deep well (and a deep history) of restaurants not hewing to the traditional mother cuisines — of neighborhood joints where pierogi, kitfo, roti and kimchi are far more important than red gravy or béchamel. With our ever-changing population comes an ever-changing array of dining choices. And while at this point in the evolution of Philadelphia’s food scene we all know where to get a classic cocktail or a great plate of pasta, it can be easy to forget sometimes just how much more the city has to offer.

So while you might be cool with hitting the counter at Cheu Noodle Bar for cold sesame noodles with tahini and yuba, or digging into the octopus congee at Petruce et al., do you know where the inspiration for these dishes came from?

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