2020 in Review: Our Top 10 Stories on Food

Our most drool-worthy food features from the year.

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The dishes of Dishoom (John Carey, courtesy of Dishoom)

The Juggernaut


December 25, 2020


1 min

Here are the top 10 food stories our readers and editorial team just couldn't get enough of.

Here are the top 10 food stories our readers and editorial team just couldn't get enough of.


How Fake Cinnamon Came to Rule the World

Even though empires fought wars to acquire the spice, few today have actually ever eaten the real thing.

by Miles Karp

Cinnamologus (Museum Meermanno)

If you’ve ever wondered where the cinnamon on your toast comes from, here’s some food for thought:

In Arabia, the land of cannibalistic winged serpents who guard spice trees, there lives a species of giant bird who makes its nests on treacherous cliffs out of cinnamon sticks. Cunning traders chop dead oxen and donkeys into large pieces and leave them as bait in the surrounding areas. The gargantuan birds scavenge these heavy pieces of meat, and when they return to their cinnamon stick nests, the structures collapse under the combined weight of the birds and the meat. The traders gather the scattered cinnamon sticks from the ground and then sell them to the Phoenicians for prices that are high but fair given the danger associated with this process.

At least, that’s what the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the fifth century B.C. Aristotle also wrote about the cinnamon bird — or cinnamologus — but suggested that the Arabs knocked down the nests with leaden arrows. But a few centuries later, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder called out Herodotus and his cinnamon bird tales: “These tales have been invented by the natives to raise the price of their commodities.” At one point, he said, a pound of cinnamon was worth 1,500 denarii — over four years’ wages for the average Roman laborer.

Spices in general — and cinnamon in particular — were so valuable throughout ancient and early modern history that they built and broke empires, catalyzed exploration, provoked wars, incited slavery, and revolutionized economic systems.

The modern spice cabinet is not, however, a complete victory. In fact, real cinnamon remains elusive to most of the world. Due to the persistent legacy of a fraught historical spice trade, the brown spicy stuff you’ve most likely eaten your whole life in apple pie, Christmas drinks, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch is, essentially, fake.

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The Evolution of Padma Lakshmi

Her latest show “Taste the Nation” is just the culmination of who she’s always been: food writer, history nerd, and steward of culture.

by Snigdha Sur

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Padma Lakshmi (Shyama Golden for The Juggernaut)

When I was young, I would rush home to watch Food Network. First, it would be Gale Gand, who would make delectable desserts in a show called Sweet Dreams. But once a week, after that, it would be Padma Lakshmi, who’d make warm Indian rice pudding or saffron and preserved lemon-scented shrimp rice pilaf for a show called Melting Pot: Padma’s Passport. It was so strange and exciting to see someone like me up there on the national stage. The year was 2001.

By the end of the year, most Americans would know what Afghanistan and Al Qaeda were. They’d be angry at Brown people that didn’t look like them. In some ways, not much has changed in the intervening years. But more and more people know of Lakshmi.

Since 2001, Lakshmi has gone on to star in a Bollywood film, write a memoir, host a special for Planet Food where she traveled the world, serve as a judge for Bravo’s Top Chef, have a child, write a searing op-ed in the New York Times, show us how to eat tacos gracefully, and now, this: a 10-episode Hulu series, Taste the Nation, which aims to dismantle that age-old trope: who gets to decide who or what is American?

We’ve grown up with Lakshmi, who has seemingly grown up, too, around us. The America we know, too, has changed (“now, [there are] so many Indian stores and vegetables,” her mother Vijaya says in an episode). But what if Taste the Nation has been the essence of Lakshmi all along, finally bursting forth in a show that is all hers, one where we — finally — can see her, in all her authenticity?

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Filter Kaapi is Delicious and Everyone Should Know It

South India’s coffee scene and its signature drink, kaapi, have remained largely in the background.

by Nikhita Venugopal

Filter coffee from Saravana Bhavan.

The bubbles froth close to the edge of the tumbler, so precarious that it’s hard not to worry whether the liquid goodness is about to spill. Fortunately, it rarely does. Instead, you’re left with a beverage for mornings, afternoons, and evenings, a leisurely ritual, and a way of life. It’s a cup of filter coffee, one that’s crucial yet commonplace to many who have lived or grown up in South India.

Not long ago, almost everyone thought that India only drank tea. That’s true in that an overwhelming majority of people drink tea in the country, even among the coffee-producing southern states. India is the nation of tea drinkers, the home of Darjeeling and Assam, the land of masala chai. But, at the same time, coffee in India has evolved from a European drink to a middle-class practice in Tamil Brahmin homes to cafe chains that gave young urban Indians a new kind of coffee culture to a third wave of small-batch and artisanal coffee makers.

India is the sixth-largest coffee-producing country in the world and inextricably tied to India’s coffee story is South Indian filter coffee. Called by many names depending on slight variations — Madras filter coffee, meter coffee, degree coffee, or simply its Tamilized name, kaapi — it’s a drink that’s beloved in several parts of India. Yet even as its counterpart, chai, has captured a devoted audience in the West, kaapi has remained largely unfamiliar and is less readily available to mainstream coffee drinkers outside South India.

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Indo-Chinese Is More Than Fusion

Indo-Chinese food takes the most electric, savory, and often spicy flavors from certain Chinese dishes and dials them up tenfold.

by Priya Krishna

Hakka Chili Chicken at The MasalaWala in New York City. (The MasalaWala)

In my daydreams, there is chili paneer — thick cubes of cheese crusted in a dry, fiery sauce that radiates with cumin, garlic, and ginger. It is one of those dishes that I think about often, but rarely get to eat. There are too many ingredients and steps for me to want to attempt it at home. There are no restaurants near my Brooklyn apartment that serve anything close to what I’m looking for. It is a singular dish, one that fully engulfs my taste buds. And the same can be said about most of the cuisine to which chili paneer belongs — Indo-Chinese.

In India, Chinese cuisine is ubiquitous. But the Chinese dishes served at restaurants in India look vastly different from the ones you’d find in China, or America for that matter. In India, the version of Chinese food that’s most popular is like taking the most electric, savory, and often spicy flavors from certain Chinese dishes and dialing them up tenfold. Deep-fried, batter-coated cauliflower doused in a deeply flavored chili-soy sauce, known as Gobi Manchurian. Tangles of noodles spiked with garlic, pepper, and fresh green chilis — hakka noodles. And yes, that chili paneer.

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Ten Years of Dishoom

Co-founder Shamil Thakrar shares what it takes to build a food institution — deepen, don’t dilute.

by Snigdha Sur

I still remember the first time I went to Dishoom Covent Garden, in 2017. I painstakingly planned my visit as soon as I booked my flight from Boston to London — a table for six, months in advance.

When the day arrived and I got to the venue — Dishoom’s first location, opened in 2010 — my friends were already there. “Do we really have to wait in line?” one of them asked petulantly. The line he was referring to snaked around the corner, no end in sight.

Thankfully, we didn’t. We walked in, got seated in one of the plushest green booths, and proceeded to feast. Multiple orders of chai, akuri, you-name-it. We chatted, we ate, we laughed. That’s what most people feel when they come to Dishoom — an immense, overwhelming sense of giddiness and happiness — it’s no surprise that many of its patrons come from across the pond, too: 15% of credit cards swiped at its U.K. restaurants are from the U.S.

Restaurants are notoriously difficult, low-margin businesses that last three to five years on average — if anything, coronavirus has laid bare the flaws in the business model for most eateries. So how did Dishoom — now eight locations deep — not only survive its first year but thrive for ten?

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Even a Pandemic Can’t Stop the Indian Mango

Nearly 15 years after the infamous “nuclear mango deal,” Indian mangos are still hard to come by in the U.S. But there’s still hope.

by Vandana Menon

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Mangoes (Tim Chow, Unsplash)

George W. Bush, the 43rd U.S. President, may be remembered for a few things: his response after 9/11, leading America into a global recession, and starting a war on terror. But for some South Asians, he’s also remembered for something else: ending a 17-year-long American ban on Indian mangos.

The Indian mango has a complicated diplomatic history. Mangos from India were banned in the U.S. from 1989 until 2006, and have not been widely available since, due to stringent regulations and inspection requirements. While mangos are an extremely popular fruit in South Asia, the fruit is largely ignored in the United States. Americans overwhelmingly prefer fresh bananas and apples, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

This season, on the heels of a poor crop and COVID-19, Indian mangos might not even make it to the U.S. Farmers are estimating a low mango yield — for example, Alphonso mango yield this year is only 50% the usual — citing high rainfall that has damaged crops and the coronavirus lockdown, which has limited the movement of migrant labor

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Nepali Cuisine Comes into its Own

The nation’s cuisine is far more than dal bhat and momos: restaurants are gradually incorporating regional specialties in Nepal — and abroad.

by Rida Bilgrami

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Phalgi is a winter Sherpa dish, pictured at Raithaane. (Rida Bilgrami)

In a courtyard at the end of a narrow alley in Patan, a city in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, lies Raithaane, an unassuming restaurant whose short menu changes seasonally. There are no signs of dal bhat (steamed rice, lentils, and vegetables) or momos — items that have become ubiquitous stand-ins for the richness of Nepali cuisine.

We order an assortment of dishes including phalgi — a hearty radish and potato stew with smoke-dried buffalo meat — prepared by the Sherpa community to provide sustenance in the harsh conditions of the Himalayan hinterland; kanchemba or buckwheat fritters, a popular snack from the Thakali community in north-central Nepal; and taruwa, seasonal vegetables deep-fried in a rice flour spiced batter that are intrinsic to the cuisine of the Maithili community — from eastern Nepal — and the Tharu people — from southern Nepal and northern India.

Raithaane is a rarity in the city’s dining scene — these diverse dishes would typically not be under one roof. Nepal is a country that may be geographically small — about the size of New York state — but is home to over 120 ethnic communities with distinct food cultures. Raithaane sees itself as part of a nascent conversation on the expansive range of Nepali food culture — a movement pushing the perception of Nepali cuisine beyond dal bhat and momos.

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Pakistani Cuisine is on the Cusp of a Renaissance

The diversity of Pakistani cuisine, from slow-cooked mutton roast to Kiamari prawn biryani, may finally be getting its due.

by Maryam Jillani

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Tandoori machli (New Punjab Club)

When Adil Moosajee decided to open The East End, a high-end Pakistani restaurant in Karachi, his friends tried to talk him out of it, citing the classic refrain, “who will pay for Pakistani food?” But when he served a sample five-course menu to potential investors, representing Karachi’s diverse ethnic heritage, from its Gujarati roots to coastal Kiamari culture, the concept was a hit. Following the restaurant’s launch in Karachi’s Clifton neighborhood, you couldn’t get a table for six months. “We were that booked,” Moosajee told me. “We proved everybody wrong.”

At The East End today, guests can find dishes that range from Afghani Rosh with pulao, a slow-cooked mutton roast found in Sohrab Goth in Pakistan’s Sindh region, to Bohra mutton roast with dal chawal and paleeda soup, to traditional Kiamari black peppercorn crabs and fishermen-style prawn biryani.

The East End’s story, unfortunately, is rare. The number of creative, high-end Pakistani restaurants is small. One would think a country with a cuisine that draws upon the rich culinary traditions of Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia and with one of the largest diasporas in the world — with at least 3.4 million Pakistanis living outside their homeland — would be a global culinary powerhouse. But Pakistani cuisine has struggled to find its culinary voice, often overshadowed by its larger neighbor, India, and hampered by an internal lack of understanding and appreciation of its cuisine.

Yet, things may be changing, paving the way for a Pakistani food renaissance.

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Rishi Naleendra, Michelin Star-Chef, Spotlights Sri Lankan Cuisine

A "short brown guy from a small island" shared his native food with the world — and they ate it up.

by Zinara Rathnayake

Rishi Naleendra. (Cheek Bistro)
Rishi Naleendra. (Cheek Bistro)

When Rishi Naleendra was a teenager growing up in Sri Lanka, he remembers peeling onions with his aunt and uncle at a campsite. “That was the only cooking I did,” he told me over a Zoom call in July, reminiscing about his childhood.

Naleendra, now 35, grew up in a household where food was abundant, thanks to his parents’ catering business. The aroma of freshly cooked curries filled the walls of his childhood home in Dehiwala in suburban Colombo. Rice simmered in creamy coconut milk for morning kiribath, a ceremonial delicacy for auspicious and celebratory events, such as the New Year Day or the first day of a new job. Naleendra’s parents caramelized sliced onions to prepare seeni sambal, a popular everyday condiment. His friends visited his home often, mostly to eat his parents’ delicious local fare. On many mornings, Naleendra’s mother would wake him up with a glass of kola kenda, an herbal porridge prepared with leafy herbs, rice, and coconut milk — Sri Lankan mothers believe that kola kenda gives you brain power.

None of this was convincing enough for Naleendra to follow in his parents’ footsteps. He rarely stepped inside the kitchen. Cooking, as he remembers it, was his least favorite thing to do.

Yet, in 2017, Naleendra became the first Sri Lankan-born Michelin star winner in the world.

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Giving Dal Its Due

On the long history of the lentil in South Asian motherlands and its resonance during the pandemic.

by Sarah Thankam Mathews

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A thali of dals (Lai Yuching)

At the end of February, I was watching the COVID-19 news coming out of China and Italy, and decided to build a little stockpile of nonperishable food in one cabinet of my Brooklyn kitchen — just in case.

I was needlessly apologetic about this project, the most self-conscious of disaster preppers. 2020 is bringing out my paranoia, I texted my friend, but am sure all will be chill. Things began to stack up in my cabinet. Cans of corn, carrots, tomatoes, and green beans. Small sacks of rice, both basmati and Keralite red matta — the latter is a royal pain to cook but a single bite takes me back to the motherland in seconds. Tomato paste and shallots for that one Alison Roman dish everyone was talking about, chicken and veggie bouillon, onions, pasta, atta. Smoked tuna, packed tuna in oil, albacore tuna in water. And dal, less from deep fondness than the pragmatic knowledge that it would keep well. Olive-hued moong, red masoor, yellow chana: SWAD brand sachets of these filled the gaps between the stacks of cans, Tetris style.

Months later, I no longer feel like all is or will be chill. I hope to never again in my life look at green beans from a tin. I would like to launch my still-tall stack of tuna cans into space. But it was the pulses that I ran through bags of, that I needed to restock. I fell deeply in love. After a period of lentil hatred as a child, I’d always liked dal as a side but was never truly enthusiastic about it until this year. Before, I bought dal’s singles but never its albums. Now, it has become my quarantine comfort food of choice.

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