A look into the anything-but-bland origins—and the fiery future—of a famously bland cuisine.

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If you grew up as I did — an American Jew with little faith but lots of historically informed anxiety — you have a “When they come for the Jews” plan. Because, well, at some point, they always come for the Jews, and while you might not get to enact your plan (escaping to Israel, say, or arming yourself to go underground) before they come for you, at least you can say you had a plan. In any case, it gives you something to think about between meals. And at mealtimes. And when you lie awake at 2 a.m., …


Q&A

A new book addresses the chile pepper’s journey

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Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

Chinese cuisine is almost unimaginable without chile peppers. From Beijing to Chongqing to Shanghai to Hong Kong, you find chiles fresh, dried, and pickled, chile pastes, chile oils. Sometimes they dominate, as in the fiery food of Sichuan province; sometimes they’re condiments designed merely to accent delicate steamed dumplings. But they’re everywhere, so ubiquitous that an 18th-century Dutch botanist named one of the five domesticated varieties of chiles Capsicum chinense because he believed it originated in China.

He was wrong. Chiles are a New World fruit, and until 1494 they had never left the Americas. But once they did, they were all over the place. How did this happen in China? How did they not only make it halfway around the world but become so entrenched a part of the cuisine and the culture that even today, Chinese and non-Chinese alike have a hard time believing they’re an import? …


The one big thing that guarantees whether your new habits—from bread-baking to windowsill scallions—will survive the apocalypse.

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Yes, I’m growing chilies, lettuce, basil, and more on my windowsill.

In July of 2006, I wound up in Tirana, the capital of Albania. This was a few weeks into my tenure as the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times, which kicked off with a summer-long trip around the world—an attempt to have an amazing, relatively comfortable adventure on a fairly low budget.

Tirana, I remember, was fun (I met a group of young filmmakers!), weird (streets filled with Mercedes-Benzes and… horse carts?), and hot. Really hot. Specifically, I remember one early afternoon when I wound up walking back and forth across central Skanderbeg Square, searching the streets nearby for… God, what was I even hunting that day? A museum? An art gallery? A shop of some kind? All I remember was that it was hot as hell, and that I could’ve waited out the day in cafe, or hailed a taxi, or even figured out the bus system, and saved myself a ton of misery. …


Can’t stop, won’t stop! But can and will modify my routes and my behavior.

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A typical scene on one of my runs, though usually with even fewer cars (source: Google Maps).

This year started off so well! After a 2019 where I was sick, injured, and frustrated, and finally DNF’d at the Seattle Marathon, I began 2020 feeling awesome. For three months straight I ran at least 4 days a week, almost always topping 30 miles (a good threshold for me) and hitting paces, on workouts and fartleks, that had eluded me the past couple of years. …


Pandemics make people do strange things.

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Nearly 14 years after I started growing my beard, and two years since I briefly removed it, I’ve shaved it off again. This time it’s because of the coronavirus—that is, if I need to wear a mask (N95, surgical, whatever), I want to have a decent seal, and a beard makes that a problem. So, the other day, off it went!

It’s pretty much the same as last time, which you can read about via the link below. The only difference is that I’m keeping my face clean-shaved, and noticing that my facial hair really does, as the legends say, grow in thicker, faster, and more evenly. When I shave in the mornings, there’s that rasp as I drag the razor down my cheeks or under my chin. It’s weirdly satisfying, and it feels, well, manly. …


When I started writing this novel—an inversion of the early 20th-century Jewish-immigrant-to-America story, but set in a post-apocalyptic Taiwan—it was mere fiction. Current events have since overtaken it. Enjoy.

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Spring Morning,” by Meng Haoran.

Translator’s Note

I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t fully know why I did this. Shaggy’s manuscript, which was emailed to me from what appeared to be a spam address shortly after he disappeared, was written in gorgeous Chinese, dense and classical in parts, baggy and colloquial in others, but above all it felt natural, fluent in a way that Shaggy himself could never quite be, except on paper. There was no obvious reason to translate it into English. Who, apart from the dwindling handful of scholars of that language, would ever read it? …


Be afraid of the social media giant because its algorithm is stupid.

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Early last fall, I put an old camera up for sale on Facebook Marketplace. For a very, very long time, it did not sell. By the time 2020 hit, I’d pretty much forgotten about it, and when I did think of it—like when I discovered an extra charger lying around—I certainly never expected it to sell.

But then, sometime in February, I got a Facebook message from a guy named Mike, asking if I’d part with it. Sure, I said; we discussed the price a bit, and I dropped it down from $300 to $200 because of some dust on the lens. Mike took a bit of time getting the money together, but a couple of weeks later he messaged me again, asking for my PayPal account so he could send me the $200. …


With a group of young, wildly creative chefs leading the way, the Taiwanese capital is emerging as Asia’s buzziest culinary destination.
Photographs by
Sean Marc Lee.

Marinated crab at Ephernité.
Marinated crab at Ephernité.
Marinated crab at Ephernité.

In Taiwan, the highway rest stops are destinations in their own right, thanks to the unusually elaborate snacks they serve. Those snacks — congee, tea eggs, roasted sweet potatoes, and other humble, nourishing, everyday delights — have lodged in the brain of chef Kai Ho. At Taïrroir, his elegant, Michelin-starred, three-year-old restaurant in the capital, Taipei, Ho serves a dish called Memory of a Highway Rest Area. The congee is lush; the yolky, yielding, Pu’er-tea-marinated egg comes from silkies, the black-skinned chickens prized for their medicinal value; the broad, crispy buckwheat tuile that lies across the top is dotted with sweet-potato fondant and wisps of green herbs. …


True justice demands the president be appropriately punished for his acts—and the death penalty would let him off easy.

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Image taken from the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice.

Back when I was a kid, growing up in Western Massachusetts, my little brother and I did not always get along. To this day, I do not know what it was, but we fought, physically and verbally, for years and years. (We also played together happily a lot, too.) …


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I really loved these New Balance 1400v5s. Then they updated to the v6, which I didn’t like as much.

When I was a teenager in early-1990s Williamsburg, Virginia, I looked down on runners. I was a skateboarder, addicted to baggy pants, Taco Bell, and rebellion, and runners’ discipline, parental approval, and short-shorts were to me as loathsome as they were mysterious. Why would anyone willingly subject himself to such atrocities?

By the end of the ’90s, however, I found myself living in New York City—a single 24-year-old trying to make it as a writer and, well, trying to make it with anyone who might have me. Part of accomplishing the latter, I quickly realized, required that I get in some kind of shape. I’d stopped skating and loved eating, and I knew my youth would not long protect my relatively svelte figure. So I joined a gym—the Bally’s my friend Tony Bui led me to. There I lifted weights for a while, until I realized my twiglike frame wasn’t designed for acquiring muscle mass. …

About

Matt Gross

Restless & hungry. Writing about travel, food, parenting, and culture all over the place.

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