Table Hopping: Drink Up
Nguyen Do, pouring me a dangerous cup of Vietnamese coffee.
How they wash it down
City Weekly: January 15, 2006
This week, we circled the globe, while staying close to Boston, in search of traditional cultural drinks. Along our route: local restaurants featuring foods from China, Tibet, Colombia, Mexico, Bangladesh, and Vietnam.
479 Cambridge St.
Colombia is famous for its coffee, but java isn't the national drink. (So much for those Juan Valdez ads.) The honor instead goes to aguapanela -- boiled brown sugar -- served either plain or with grated chocolate, milk, lemon, or a small square of cheese floating on top. ''Everybody drinks it. Families have it for breakfast," says Lucas Urrea, owner of El Cafetal, which serves dozens of cups every day. For the full experience I sipped a mug while munching on Colombia's traditional breakfast food, arepa de chocolo con quesito, a thin but dense sweet corn pancake with salty cheese mashed on top. Sampling one ($3.50) made it hard to go back to my plain old morning Grape-Nuts.
Qingping Gallery Teahouse
231 Shawmut Ave.
I associate the words ''kung fu" with martial arts, but in China the expression has a far broader meaning. ''Kung fu is anything done with a lot of effort, a lot of energy, or diligence," explains Han Lee, manager of the South End's tranquil Qingping Gallery Teahouse. ''Serving tea kung fu is a lengthy process. It's a ceremony." Selecting one of his top imported teas, jasmine (a ''real crowd pleaser"), for me, Lee placed a palm full of pearl-sized balls into a special clay pot. A quick rinse with water to ''bring out the flavor" came next. Finally Lee filled the pot with boiling water, covered it, then poured more water on the lid. While kung fu tea is expensive (about $10 a serving), the quality is exceptional, and Qingping's staff will refill the pot as often as you or your companion like.
House of Tibet Kitchen
235 Holland St.
A recent visit to a Tibetan museum -- my first -- led me to the House of Tibet and a glass of kushu changkul, hot apple cider swirling with tiny bits of cottage cheese, resembling flakes in a snow globe. Proprietor Yeshey Palsang confesses that barley or rice-based alcohol, not cider, is traditionally the main ingredient. But lacking a liquor license, she improvises. ''We serve this drink on the Tibetan New Year in the morning," she says. ''People who are sick drink it, or women after giving birth. It's made with butter or cheese so they sleep well and relax." We enjoyed ours with another tasty Tibetan staple, sha momo, minced-meat dumplings flavored with ginger, onion, and garlic. We had leftovers only because so many dotted our plate.
2263 Massachusetts Ave.
After a large wedding feast of goat biryani, Bangladeshis drink borhani to help their digestion. I stood next to Nasrin Imam, who owns Bengal Cafe with her husband, Ali, as she tossed cilantro, mint, a small green chili, a touch of sugar, salt, black salt, white pepper, mustard seed, cumin, coriander, milk, and plain yogurt into a blender to make me a glass. It certainly was as spicy (and effective) as advertised. To cool me off, Imam also mixed me a refreshing glass of mango lassi, a traditional yogurt shake made with mango pulp, milk, sugar and ice. ($1.50)
92 Peterborough St.
Street vendors throughout Mexico peddle agua frescas and horchata, the country's equivalents to iced tea and fruit punch. Horchata is made by soaking rice, almonds, and cinnamon in water overnight. The mash is then strained out, leaving an opaque, thin liquid that one can easily chug. Frescas -- literally fresh waters -- are made with fruits and spices. At El Pelon, a lively neighborhood taqueria with entire walls of customer photos, owner Nate Walker serves homemade horchata and agua de Jamaica, a cold drink made from hibiscus flowers that's tart like cranberry. ''It's very cleansing for the body," Walker says. (Each $1.50)
Pho So 1
223 Adams St.
617-474-1999The coffee shops of Saigon are tiny, but the lines for Vietnamese coffee are long. So men take to the sidewalks, filling their makeshift outdoor cafes by the hundreds as they chat for hours. ''Americans drink beer. In Vietnam men drink coffee. It's cheaper -- only $1," says Pho So 1 owner Nguyen Do, a Saigon native. Vietnamese coffee is far stronger than most American versions, so even Vietnamese restaurants don't serve it unless requested. (Ask for coffee served ''cafe fin" or ''made at the table" as opposed to just ordering ''Vietnamese coffee," Do says.) Made with condensed milk, my coffee was creamy, with a slightly bitter aftertaste, and plenty strong. ''If you have whole cup," warns Do, ''tonight, forget about sleep." ($2)
If you have any tips about a restaurant, bakery, or other eatery worth noting, contact us at email@example.com.