Irish Fare and More at the Hibernian Cafe

photo Irish market Hibernian Cafe Drexel Hill PA
Irish market inside the Hibernian Cafe

“Once upon a time…” The Journey Begins

The story of our journey to the Hibernian Cafe in Drexel Hill began way back in 2008 in Australia. That was when Mark first tasted Vegemite.

Mark worked in Melbourne for six months, which was more than enough time for him to develop an affinity for this strong-flavored and distinctive concoction. Vegemite is not popular in the USA and so, he has not been able to feed the occasional craving since his return. A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, we did an internet search for local sources.

We found an obscure blog comment which mentioned that Marmite could be purchased at the Hibernian Cafe. Marmite is the progenitor of Vegemite and is consumed more prevalently in the UK, whereas Vegemite is eaten in Australia. Both are made from the yeast by-product of beer production and are similar in flavor, but by no means identical. It seemed that Marmite was going to be as close as Mark was going to get. Destiny was set in motion. Fueled by the draw of Marmite and the growing taste for a bit of Ireland, off we ventured to Garrett Road in the heart of Drexel Hill.

photo exterior Hibernian Cafe Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania
Hibernian Cafe Drexel Hill Pennsylvania

The Destination: The Hibernian Cafe

The Hibernian Cafe is easy to find. The stuccoed front of their row-style building is pained turquoise-green. On-street, metered parking is convenient in front. Inside the entrance of the store is the Irish market. The market consists of a few shelving units, stocked to the hilt with an orderly array of canned, boxed and jarred foods imported from the British Isles, (including the elusive Marmite!), and a refrigerator.

Behind the market is a long, narrow room, enclosing a row of booth tables. On the brightly painted walls are hung photos of interesting destinations around Ireland, complete with typed descriptions and historical information.

photo interior Hibernian Cafe Drexel Hill PA
Interior of Hibernian Cafe, Drexel Hill, PA

The Food

The menu includes, as expected, Irish/British items; both breakfast and lunch/dinner. There is a respectable array of American fare; hoagies, burgers, steak sandwiches, etc. But most surprisingly of all, there is a selection of Mexican dishes (more on this later)!

Our tastebuds were primed for the taste of the Eire, so we perused the Irish items. Mark chose bangers and colcannon and I chose the fish and chips platter with Irish peas.

photo colcannon and bangers platter Hibernian Cafe Drexel Hill PA
Colcannon and bangers platter

The star of the bangers and colcannon was definitely the colcannon. Colcannon is a traditional Irish potato dish composed of potatoes mashed with either cabbage or kale, (in this case it was cabbage). Many recipes call for spring onions, leaks and/or onions. The greens may be cooked or raw when added to the potatoes. The potatoes are lightened with butter and/or cream. Although in this version, I thought there was a hint of sour cream, or perhaps, creme fraiche. It was perfectly seasoned; rich and very comforting to eat. The colcannon reminded us of another mashed potato based dish we ate in Amsterdam called stamppot. In the case of stamppot, you might find cabbage, kale, fennel, carrots or even fruit.

The fish of the fish and chips was a thickly battered cod. It was crispy, golden brown on the outside and fresh and flaky on the inside. The potatoes were beautiful to look at due to having been irregularly hand cut and fried to a light golden brown.

photo fish chips peas Hibernian Cafe Drexel Hill PA
Fish and chips and peas platter

The most fascinating part of the plate for me however, was the Irish peas. They were served simply boiled. The peas were larger and sweeter than I expected. According to Wikipedia, Irish peas are marrowfat peas which are “green mature peas that have been allowed to dry out naturally in the field, rather than be harvested whilst still young like the normal garden pea….Marrowfat is a traditional, starchy, large-seeded variety of pea, (Pisum sativum var. medullare.)”. I can’t wait to purchase some of these to cook for myself. They are available in cans in the market at the front of the cafe (Batchelors brand).

The Magic Elixer

Another new discovery for me was the malt vinegar that was served as a the traditional condiment for the fish and chips platter. Tarter sauce and ketchup are of course available if you prefer.

photo bottle malt vinegar Hibernian Cafe Drexel Hill PA
Bottle of malt vinegar/alegar

A quick survey of the internet about malt vinegar turned up this page on The page describes the process of malting barley as the base for this vinegar. Essentially, malt vinegar is vinegar made from beer instead of wine, and therefore can be termed alegar instead. It has a subtly nutty flavor and its acidity is a perfect foil for the fried fish and potatoes. I also liked it on the peas and was excited to add an alternative condiment to my repertoire.

The Story Within the Story

Probably the most delightful aspect of our visit to the Hibernian Cafe was our conversation with the front half of the proprietor team, Andrea Garcia. Smiling warmly, she came to our table in response to our request for answers about these fascinating and tasty new foods. She welcomed our questions and patiently gave explanations until we were satisfied.

We were curious about the origins of the cafe and also about the presence of the Mexican items on the menu. In part, the answer could be found in Ms. Garcia’s name. She and her husband, who cooks the food, are Mexican immigrants. She told us that they had lived in Brooklyn, New York where her husband had worked in an Irish pub. There he learned to make the Irish specialties.

When they became pregnant with triplets, the Garcias decided that it was too expensive and difficult to raise children in New York. Mr. Garcia had visited friends in Drexel Hill and thought it would be a nice place to raise his family. So, they picked up their lives, moved to Pennsylvania and started their new lives.

The Hibernian Cafe became popular and successful in the 11 years since the Garcias arrived. Increasingly, patrons would ask for Mexican dishes. Within the last year, these items were added to the menu. Ms. Garcia explained that they keep the Mexican menu limited because the Cafe’s mainstay is the Irish food. Also, some of the Mexican foods are more complex to prepare and so, it is not as efficient to serve them regularly.

Truthfully, there are a number of good Mexican restaurants in the surrounding towns, but not so many Irish cafes. We can’t wait to return to try out other offerings and to partake of the warm and welcoming atmosphere.

The Moral of the Story

You never know where your craving for Vegemite, or some other such unique and rare food can lead. It might just lead you to the wonderful new world right around the corner from your own familiar neighborhood.

Buckwheat Sourdough Pancakes – The Brass Pelican

photo buckwheat sourdough pancakes
Buckwheat Sourdough Pancakes from The Brass Pelican restaurant, Sugarloaf, PA









The Brass Pelican – Buckwheat Sourdough Pancakes

Last week, Mark (Linkins), and I drove up to his cabin up in Sullivan County, PA for a long weekend getaway. We usually take the Northeast Extension and get off at Rt. 80 to head west. But this time Mark suggested we go a different way, up through Wilkes-Barre and on the back roads. He thought maybe we could stop at a restaurant called the Brass Pelican that his good friend Dave told him about.

Dave told Mark that this restaurant serves buckwheat sourdough pancakes made with the oldest starter on the East coast, or something like that. Mark asked if I was interested and I was all in. I was hungry and I never had buckwheat sourdough pancakes before. Although I have to admit that the idea of eating the “oldest sourdough on the East Coast” skeeved me out a little bit.

Driving the winding country roads was so much more pleasant than Rt. 80. We looked up the restaurant’s address and plugged it into our GPS.  Our route took us a short distance past Rickett’s Glen, to the middle of nowhere, otherwise called Central, PA, in Sugarloaf Township.

The Brass Pelican is a well kept, single story, red, tin-roofed building with a gravel parking lot. The entrance is shaded by a roof overhanging the built-out entry foyer with a welcoming, neon “OPEN” sign shining from the front window. We entered into the dining room. It was a homey, open space with many long, family-style tables and some smaller ones, each with a green, plastic table cloth.

The waitress brought menus and silverware rolled inside a napkin. The printed menu had breakfast on one side, available until 2:00 pm, and lunch and dinner on the other. In addition, there were a couple of white boards with the day’s specials listed and one with the available side dishes. Some of these were very enticing, like, blueberry pancakes for $5.95 or ham, string beans and potatoes, for $7.95. But we were there for the sourdough buckwheat pancakes. So Mark ordered the pancake platter, for $9.95 which included the pancakes, sausage, and home fries. I got just the pancakes for $4.99 and a side of eggs, over-easy.

As we waited for our food with anticipation, we watched the goings on in the dining room. There were a few other parties there. One was a family group, with grandparents, parents and an animated grandson, maybe two years old. There was another, an older couple, with white hair. The restaurant staff and customers seemed to know each other, chatting familiarly and catching up on the latest news and friendly gossip.

In short order, our oblong plates arrived. Mark’s was impressive, with a couple of pancakes, a flattened slice of griddle-fried sausage, and a huge pile of freshly-sliced hash brown potatoes. My plate had three of the buckwheat pancakes, which looked like golden brown lace doilies, thinner and larger in diameter than I expected. They certainly didn’t look like the oldest buckwheat sourdough pancakes on the East Coast. They looked very fresh and appetizing with a trace of steam rising off of them.

I wanted to taste them without any dressings, to get the full, naked effect. I gingerly cut a small piece with my fork. The taste was like nothing I had ever eaten before. It was strong and sour, like chevre cheese or beer, yet buttery. Just like the memory of my first taste of beer, or seaweed, at first I was taken aback. I couldn’t say that I liked it, but couldn’t say that I didn’t either. I was at once repelled and attracted….

The taste was complex and compelling, so I went back for more. I ate a few more bites to become acclimated. Then, with gusto, I tried some toppings. I spread a thin layer of butter across the top and drizzled some pancake syrup around in circles. The syrup enhanced and balanced the sour flavor perfectly. I also used pieces of the pancakes to sop up the loose yolks from my over easy eggs and this was equally satisfying.

I tasted the sausage and potatoes from Mark’s platter. These were also delightful, perfectly seasoned and cooked. They had just the right amount of salt. The potatoes were slightly firm and the sausage was springy with the slight crunch of roasted herbs.

Getting the Inside Scoop

I wanted to know more about the “oldest buckwheat sourdough” on the East Coast. The waitress brought out the proprietor, named Monica (Diltz), who would be able to answer our questions.

Monica seemed tentative as she approached our table. I said I loved the pancakes and planned to write a blog post about them hoping this would help her feel more comfortable. She told us that she first made the starter for this recipe 30 years ago this coming November 12. It was made from a recipe shared with her by Esther Vincent of the Mill Race Golf and Camping Resort.

Not having any knowledge of sourdough or starters, I wondered if the batter tasted any different now than it did 30 years ago. She said that it didn’t, but that the longer it is left to ferment without adding fresh buckwheat flour, the more sour it became. She said that she likes the batter fermented for about 5 days, but that that is too sour for most folks. The pancake batter she serves to customers is fermented for only one day.

I asked Monica about how the locals generally ate the pancakes, with what sorts of toppings and accompaniments? She said that she knows a man who likes to eat his covered with liverwurst gravy and topped with ketchup, and a woman who likes hers with mustard. She said most people eat their pancakes with maple syrup or jam. Her preference is butter and brown sugar (yum!).

She said that locals eat these pancakes for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and that years ago, the farmers used to send their children to school with rolled-up buckwheat sourdough pancakes for lunch. (This got me to thinking about the nutritional and cultural aspects of these cakes in, particular, and sourdough in general, but that is a subject for another post or two!). She also said that if it weren’t for this particular item on their menu, her restaurant would probably not still be in business.

I didn’t ask to confirm if hers was indeed, the oldest buckwheat sourdough starter on the East Coast. But 30 year old starter certainly seems like a great contender! In my mind, I wished Monica many more years of sourdough to come.

I am sure that people come from miles around to get a taste of this aggressive yet subtle delicacy. Mark and I will surely be back for more!

P.S. They don’t accept credit cards, cash only.

Facebook page for The Brass Pelican

Information about the Endless Mountains, PA

More photos and video:

photo buckwheat sourdough pancake platter, The Brass Pelican
Buckwheat sourdough pancake platter, The Brass Pelican
photo The Brass Pelican restaurant interior
The Brass Pelican restaurant interior.
photo of the specials menus The Brass Pelican restaurant
Specials menus at The Brass Pelican restaurant


Long time, no see – Return to the world of blogging

Eggs - Return to Blogging

After a long hiatus, is happy to return.

Although we haven’t been writing, we certainly have been eating and thinking. So, now we are back and ready to start posting again.

From the start, one of the main inspirations of blog creator, Mark Linkins, was to create a community of like-minded foodies with an interest in the people and their foods in Pennsylvania, (and beyond!), (see our About page). Toward that end, you will notice that some of our upcoming posts will be composed by new contributors. The first new post is by Bernice Goll, (Berni).

Also, if you have foods or stories that you would like to share, we encourage you to email them to

Mad About Mushrooms

Kennett Square’s 29th Annual Mushroom Festival

What crops, vegetables, and fruits do you associate with specific Pennsylvania regions? While certain products, such as field corn and soybeans, are ubiquitous across the Keystone State, many other food items are specific to certain locales. Adams County, for example, is not only the leading producer of apples and peaches in Pennsylvania, it is the fourth largest producer of these fruits nation-wide. The tiny village of Washington Borough, nestled on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Southern Lancaster County, has long been recognized for its exceptional tomatoes. Pennsylvania is also home to the self-proclaimed “Mushroom Capitol of the World”: Kennett Square, in Chester County. The mushroom houses in the Kennett Square vicinity produce 400 million pounds of mushrooms annually, which account for just over 50% of all mushrooms consumed in the U.S.

Among the list of regionally-specific crops, Kennett Square’s association with mushrooms is somewhat unique. If a plant-based crop is associated with a certain region, you can assume that the region’s climate is particularly well-suited to that crop. For example, the topography (piedmont) and weather patterns of Adams County are ideal for growing fruit trees. Similarly, Washington Borough’s river micro-climate is conducive for producing very flavorful tomatoes.

Unlike the apple, peach, and tomato, Kennett Square’s signature crop is not a plant at all, but a fungus. While plant crops rely on natural growing climates, commercial mushroom production occurs within artificial man-made environments: massive cool, dark concrete buildings filled with acres and acres of “substrate”: a compost comprised of horse manure, ground cocoa shells (waste from Hershey’s Chocolate, another PA foods icon), corn cobs, hay, and other organic matter. Mushroom production, therefore, has nothing to do with Kennett Square’s climate or topography. Kennett Square’s proximity to plentiful sources of substrate material (horse manure, corn cobs, etc.) is certainly a plus, but commercial mushroom production could easily occur just about anywhere. Why then did mushroom houses spring up like…um…mushrooms…across southern Chester County? (Sorry…I couldn’t resist.)

It turns out that Kennett Square’s mushroom industry is the result of historical happenstance. More than a century ago, two enterprising Quaker flower growers from Kennett Square considered what they might do to utilize unused space beneath their carnation beds. Their quest took them to Holland to explore mushroom cultivation. They returned to Kennett Square with spores, thus spawning a successful mushroom harvest and a fledgling venture that would grow to become one of the region’s most important industries.

This weekend marks the 29th Annual Mushroom Festival in Kennett Square. For two days, the town’s main street (State St.) is closed to traffic for the span of nearly a mile. The event offers opportunities to purchase a wide variety of fresh mushrooms at a significant discount. We picked up 3 lbs. of button mushrooms for $8 and a cluster of the highly prized maitake for $5. The proceeds from these sales go to benefit a wide range of Chester County area charities.

The event also features a wonderfully conceived grower’s exhibit which explains the various techniques and processes used in commercial mushroom operations. The exhibit includes live displays showing a wide variety of mushrooms growing in various substrate configurations. The button mushrooms and shitakes, for example, grow in horizontal substrates (flats), while some of the specialty mushrooms (which grow on trees in the natural environment) are grown on vertical substrate cylinders. See the accompanying photos. (Thanks to Bernice Goll for the photos!)

While the event offered rich educational opportunities, the main attraction for me was the opportunity to sample some the many mushroom-based foods offered by a diverse mix of food vendors (ranging from carnival vendors to 4-star restaurants). I promised myself that I would scope out all of the possibilities before making any decisions about what to sample.

The offerings were seemingly endless. There were countless cream of mushroom soups, and several tomato-based mushroom soups. There were mushroom-based versions of chili, two of which were vegan. There were many mushroom salads, fried mushrooms, mushroom fritters, and dried mushroom chips (a snack item). There was 5-mushroom risotto, mushroom crepes, and mushroom mac and cheese. One vendor offered a full line of mushroom-based teas. There was whole category of dishes in which mushrooms (usually portabellos) functioned as a meat substitute. There were countless portabello burgers (which seem to have become very popular in the past few years). There were also meatless portabello cheese steaks. For dessert, there was cream of mushroom ice cream.

I felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store; the world was my oyster (or, more accurately, my oyster mushroom). In the next PAFoodways post, I will recount my efforts to eat my way from one end of State St. to the other end.

Button mushrooms
Shitake mushrooms
Oyster mushrooms

Peruvian Cuisine in Upper Darby (Part 2)

Papa Rellenas with Salsa Criolla
Papa Rellenas with Salsa Criolla
Traditional Peruvian empanadas served with salsa criolla
Traditional Peruvian empanadas served with salsa criolla


This is second in a series of posts featuring Upper Darby’s Inka Wall, a Peruvian restaurant located in a neighborhood that has become an international food hub.

In advance of my visit to Inka Wall, I had decided to order two of the most typical traditional foods: Peruvian-style empanadas as an appetizer and seco de carne (a cilantro-flavored beef stew) as an entrée. As it turned out, my dining partner also ordered two popular traditional dishes: papa rellenas (stuffed mashed potatoes) for an appetizer and aji de gallina (a pepper-flavored chicken stew) for the main course. This initial session of “Peruvian Cuisine 101” would, at the very least, provide a basic introduction to traditional Peruvian gastronomy.

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed a specific trio of ingredients that turns up repeatedly in Peruvian recipes: raisins, black olives, and hard-boiled eggs. It occurs to me that this combination of ingredients may be to Peruvian cookery what mirepoix – the trio of celery, onions, and carrots – is to French cooking, or what the holy trinity – celery, onions, and green peppers – is to Cajun cooking. These particular ingredient combinations provide the flavor base for a wide range of dishes within their respective cuisines. As it happened, both of the appetizers that we ordered included this uniquely Peruvian melange.

The papa rellenas was an oblong mashed potato ball stuffed with the raisin-olive-egg mixture. It was lightly fried until golden brown, and served with salsa criolla, slivered red onions and paper-thin slices of cherry tomato soaked in lime juice and chili. The salsa, alone, was an explosion of bright flavors – intense fresh lime balanced with lively chili notes. Add to this the satisfying crunch of the sweet onions and I was ready to consume this stuff by the forkful.

The salsa criolla proved to be the perfect complement to the fried mashed potato concoction. Even if the potato ball hadn’t been stuffed, the combination of mashed potato and salsa criolla would have been delicious. The addition of the raisin-olive-egg stuffing, however, added depth and complexity to the dish. Within this family of ingredients, it seems that the hard-boiled egg plays a pivotal role. As the briny olive and sweet raisin compete for dominance, the neutral egg serves as mediator, providing the medium for both flavors to mingle and happily co-exist. This “Peruvian mirepoix” provides a surprisingly subtle blend of sweet, salty, and savory notes…a perfect addition to the rich, buttery potato flavor. (I don’t know which of the 3,800 varieties of Peruvian potato was used in this dish, but the taste and texture were similar to the popular Yukon Gold.)

The ultimate appeal of this dish comes from the marriage of two very different, yet complementary, flavor and texture profiles: the understated flavors and creamy texture of the papa rellenas combined with bold intensity and crisp crunch of the salsa criolla. The effect is simply sublime!

The second appetizer was empanadas. Unlike the Central American and Caribbean empanadas, which are familiar to many Americans, Peruvian empanadas are baked, rather than deep-fried. Another unique characteristic of the Peruvian version is the inclusion of the raisin-olive-egg mixture, along with cumin, in the meat filling. While Peruvian empanadas are sometimes served with a light coating of confectioner’s sugar, I was pleased to learn that this not the practice at Inka Wall. Like the papa rellenas, the empanadas were served with salsa criolla. The version served with the empanadas, however, was made with finely chopped (rather than slivered) onion and without tomatoes.

The empanadas were baked until golden brown. The pastry had a nice consistency…not too heavy, which I’ve found to be the case with some of the deep-fried versions. The combination of beef, raisin, olive, egg, and cumin was very satisfying. The savory and spice flavors of the cumin, olive, and beef were most prevalent, with just a subtle hint of the raisin’s sweetness.

In Part 3 of this post, we’ll move on to the main course, dessert, and the pisco sour (a cocktail so popular in Peru that it has its own national holiday).

Peruvian Cuisine in Upper Darby (Pt. 1)

The third destination on my tour of Upper Darby’s international restaurants was Inka Wall, one of only three Peruvian restaurants in the greater Philadelphia area. Despite the dearth of Peruvian eateries in the Delaware Valley, Peruvian cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the US and around the globe. This trend is due, in large part, to the efforts of chef Gaston Acurio, Peru’s unofficial culinary ambassador to the world. Acurio has opened 34 restaurants in 14 cities worldwide.

My prior knowledge about Peruvian food was limited to potatoes and chicha. Potatoes are native to the Andes (and were first introduced to Europeans by the returning Spanish explorers). More than 3,800 varieties of native potatoes are grown in Peru. For photos and descriptions of 16 of the most commonly used varieties, click here.

I must admit that I initially had some trepidation about trying Peruvian food and beverages. This all had to do with my limited knowledge about one particular Peruvian specialty: chicha (corn beer). I knew that the traditional preparation of some types of chicha involved the brewer moistening the grains of corn in his or her mouth. The enzymes found in saliva apparently serve to activate the fermentation process. This information was enough to make me wary about the whole scope of Peruvian gastronomy. I realize that this may seem narrow-minded, but I’m squeamish when it comes to bodily fluids. I realized that FDA regulations would almost certainly prohibit the sale of foods prepared in this manner, but still I was a bit nervous.

In advance of my visit to Inka Wall, I reviewed the menu and did some additional research. My intent was to sample common dishes that are most representative of traditional Peruvian cuisine (rather than novel creations by the chef). I was pleased to find that most of the items included on the main menu are traditional Peruvian dishes. The list of daily specials does include several of the chef’s creations (which I look forward to sampling on future visits).

Several things struck me as I perused the descriptions of various dishes. Multiple dishes included one of the following ingredients: aji amarillo (a mild yellow pepper) or aji mirasol (a powder/seasoning made from the sun-dried aji amarillo). While the number of Peruvian potato varieties is in the thousands, the number of Peruvian chili peppers is a bit more modest…a mere 300 varieties. The aji amarillo and aji mirasol are two of the most ubiquitous ingredients in Peruvian cooking. The raw pepper has a complex, fruity flavor and the sun-dried version has a rich, savory flavor. Both versions are used as the basis for various sauces. For more info about Peruvian chilis, click here.

One of the things that struck me as most unusual (as a newcomer to Peruvian food) was a particular combination of ingredients that appeared in multiple dishes: raisins, black olives, and hard-boiled eggs. This trio of ingredients is frequently used as the filling for papa rellenas, stuffed mashed potato balls (surely one of the all-time greatest comfort food concoctions!). The same trio, when combined with beef and cumin, forms one of the traditional fillings for Peruvian empanadas.

While it is usually easy for me to imagine various flavor combinations, the combination of raisins with olives and eggs defied my gastronomic imagination. Even more perplexing was the fact that the empanadas are oftentimes served with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. The reference to confectioner’s sugar on an empanada brought to mind one of my relatively few negative food memories. As you might have guessed, I’m sort a Will Rogers kind of foodie. I’ve very rarely met a dish I didn’t like. One exception, however, is a dish that I sampled nearly three decades ago in a Moroccan restaurant in Philadelphia.

A group of us ordered a traditional multiple-course communal meal. Following several very satisfying appetizer courses, a main dish was served, with quite a bit of fanfare. The dish – chicken bastilla – was the house specialty, sure to be everyone’s favorite. To the best of my recollection, the dish was a pie filled with a mixture of scrambled eggs and chicken, flavored with savory spices. The pie was then doused with confectioner’s sugar. One bite was all that I could stomach. To this day, I remember that most unhappy marriage of savory and very sweet flavors. This was one of the very few times that I left a restaurant hungry. (Admittedly, I was in the minority. My dining companions seemed perfectly happy with the dish.)

Curious about the similarity between Peruvian empanadas and Moroccan chicken bastilla, I did some research on the cultural influences on Peruvian cuisine. It turns out that Peru has one of the most diverse cuisines in the world. The country includes three distinct geographic regions, each with its own indigenous foods and food traditions: coastal, mountain, and jungle. Add to this mix the influence of the dominant immigrant groups (Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and German). The introduction of meat pies (empanadas) to Latin America is a Spanish/Moorish contribution, so a connection between Peruvian empanadas and chicken bastilla seems perfectly plausible.

Having spent sufficient time researching my subject, I was ready to carry out my field work (I was hungry!). It was time to meet up with my dining companion and visit Inkawall. The details of that visit will be included in my next post.

References and Resources:

Resurrecting a Long-Forgotten PA Dutch Dish (and It’s Low-Carb!)

PA Dutch Gumbis – Baked casserole with layers of cabbage, onion, fruit, and ham. (It’s low-carb and gluten-free.)


“Low-carb” is not a descriptor generally applied to Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e. Pennsylvania German) cuisine. In many collections of PA Dutch recipes, you’d be hard pressed to find a single main dish that does not include some manner of dumpling, noodle, bread, or potato. If one were so inclined, low-carb or even gluten-free versions of chicken potpie and schnitz-un-gnepp (dried apple and ham dumplings) might be within the realm of possibility (though possibly not within the realm of desirability)? Perhaps soy flour could be used in place of wheat flour?

My purpose here is not to reinvent low-carb versions of starch-laden PA Dutch favorites, but rather to shine a light on traditional dishes that happen to be low-carb in their original, unadulterated state. My search lead me to the writings of William Woys Weaver, one of the foremost chroniclers of PA Dutch cuisine and food history. Weaver is the author of Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Food and Foodways and As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine. The latter of these contains a recipe for, and an in-depth discussion about, a once popular and now all-but-forgotten dish called gumbis – a deep dish baked casserole composed of layers of shredded cabbage, fruit, onions, and ham.

The origins of this dish can be traced to the Middle Ages, in regions that are now part of southern Germany and Switzerland. Early German immigrants brought the dish to the New World, and it remained popular through the mid-1800’s. The dish was frequently prepared on Saturday, baked overnight, and served for Sunday dinner.

The basic concept of gumbis was not completely foreign to me. I am three-eighths Pennsylvania Dutch, and one of the few related traditions that I grew up with was the custom of eating sauerkraut and pork (another one of the few low-carb Pennsylvania Dutch dishes) on New Year’s Day. Both gumbis and pork and sauerkraut combine some form of cabbage with some form of pork product. Despite this similarity, important differences define the flavor profile of each dish. One dish includes fermented cabbage (sauerkraut), and the other includes fresh cabbage. One dish includes cured meat (ham), and the other includes fresh meat (pork). One dish includes generous portions of onion and fruit, and the other does not.

I was eager to sample gumbis, but doubted that I would find it listed on any restaurant’s menu. A quick Google search confirmed these doubts. If I wanted to sample this ancient dish, I would have to create it in my own kitchen.

Following the recipe in Weaver’s book, I began the preparation by boiling two ham hocks. The meat would be diced to provide one of the dish’s four layers; the stock would be poured into the casserole to provide braising liquid. While the ham hocks boiled, I shredded the cabbage and sliced the onions and apples into “paper thin” slivers. I used Braeburn apples to provide a balance of sweetness and tartness.

After preparing the meat, I layered the ingredients – cabbage, onions, apples, ham, and spices. I then repeated the sequence one more time, and then topped the dish with an additional layer of cabbage. The spice mixture included equal amounts of coriander and summer savory. I had never used savory before. It had a wonderful scent that suggested two distinct smells: newly mown hay and celery seed. It combined perfectly with the coriander’s subtle citrus notes.

The casserole baked at 350 degrees for an hour. A satisfying, earthy aroma permeated the kitchen. When I pulled the dish from the oven, I found that the top layer had browned a bit. I mixed the casserole contents and placed in a serving bowl. Although the dish is intended as a one-pot meal, we happened to be on our way to an informal pot-luck dinner with friends. Gumbis would be our contribution.

Everyone enjoyed the dish. The flavor was rich and hearty. The braising process accentuated the earthy qualities of the vegetables and fruit, producing a pleasing nutty flavor which combined well with the ham stock. The time consuming preparation – i.e. the “paper thin” shredding and slicing – paid off. The cabbage, onions, and apples retained just a bit of crunch, creating the satisfying mouth feel of fresh coleslaw. From my perspective, the dish was lacking in only one respect – it needed a touch of sour. This was easily remedied with a few dashes of apple cider vinegar, which happens to be one of the most commonly used PA Dutch condiments.

For a vegan version of gumbis,  I suggest simply replacing the meat stock with vegetable stock and omitting the pork (or replacing with sauteed mushrooms).

Whatever your motivation – finding low-carb recipes or experiencing a taste of ancient culinary history – you may want to sample gumbis for yourself. The recipe that I used appears on page 188-189 of Weaver’s As American as Shoofly Pie. Another of the gumbis recipes compiled by Weaver appears on the following webpage:

References and Resources:

Exploring Lao Cuisine in Upper Darby (Part 2)



Green papaya salad – known in Laos as tam som and in Thailand as som tam – is one of the most popular dishes across Southeast Asia. Tam som literally means “pounded sour.” Like other pounded salads – for example, Mexican guacamole – tam som is prepared by combining various ingredients together with mortar and pestle. Shredded unripe green papaya is the main ingredient. Unlike the ripe papaya, familiar to many Americans, unripe papaya is not sweet. Its flavor is subtle and the texture is firm. It provides a perfect vehicle to absorb the bold flavors of the dish’s other ingredients, which may vary somewhat from region to region, and even from vendor to vendor.

Sa-Bai-Dee offers both a Thai and Lao version of the dish. I ordered the Lao version. Sensing that I might be a newbie to Lao food, the waitress asked whether I had ever ordered the dish before. “The flavors are very, very strong,” she explained. I confirmed that I was, in fact, a newbie, but I wanted to taste the dish as it was traditionally prepared.

The freshly pounded salad was served on a bed of green cabbage. The texture of shredded papaya and raw green beans was similar to a coarse-cut  cabbage slaw. While the texture was familiar, the intense flavor was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It also happened to be addictive. The flavor profile reflected the combination of fermented fish sauce, lime, chili, raw tomato, palm sugar, and brined crab. Each of these flavors was pronounced, and their combined effect was complex, surprising, and – did I already mention? – addictive!

While I thoroughly enjoyed this dish, I realize that many Westerners may find the prominent fermented flavors – specifically the fish sauce and brined crab – to be off-putting. If you happen to be a fan of fermented foods, I strongly recommend this dish. If you order this dish, expect to find bits of purple, hard-shell crab claws and legs. These are not salt-water crabs, but rather black crabs which are found in rice paddies and other inland waterways. The small claws include tiny portions of meat with a huge burst of flavor. It seems that all of the flavors of the dish are concentrated in these morsels.

Sa-Bai-Dee is located at 7038 Terminal Square, Upper Darby, 19082. They are open Tuesday through Sunday. Most entrees are priced in the $8-$10 range. Credit cards are accepted. BYOB.

References and Resources:



Exploring Lao Cuisine in Upper Darby (Part 1)

Exploring Lao Cuisine in Upper Darby (Part 1)

This is the second in a series of posts featuring the diverse array of ethnic eateries located in the heart of Upper Darby’s business district (just a short walk from 69th St. Station and the Tower Theater).

Sa-Bai-Dee offers “traditional Thai and Laos cuisine.” The word “traditional” should serve as fair warning to those with a taste for American Thai. If you visit Sa-Bai-Dee, expect to experience the full palette of flavors – bitter, salty, sour, sweet, pungent (heat), and umami (savory, brothy flavor) – during the course of a meal. In many instances, all of these flavors will be evident within a single dish.

American Thai, in contrast, seems to emphasize sweetness above all else, with saltiness playing a supporting role. Some degree of sourness and pungency is tolerated, but usually only in combination with sweetness. Bitterness is conspicuously absent. This trend is also evident in American cuisine more broadly. I lament the absence of bitter flavor in most American food, as I am a huge fan of bitter. I hope that certain recent food and beverage trends – the relative popularity of hoppy microbrews, the kale craze, and the meteoric rise in popularity of the once-maligned Brussels sprout – portend a brighter future for all things bitter. But I digress…

Sa-Bai-Dee offers both Thai and Laotian fare. In advance of my visit, I decide that I will sample – for the first time – Lao cuisine. In preparation, I do some research. Always on the look-out for fun food facts, I learn that Lao people sometimes refer to themselves as “Luk Khao Niaow,” or “descendants of sticky rice.” The Lao are my kind of people, I decide. I can’t help but respect a people who define their origins and cultural identity in terms of sticky rice (or any other food item). This prompts me to speculate about what my own ancestral food source might be.

I decide to begin my exploration of Lao food with two dishes, identified by numerous sources, as the signature dishes of Lao cuisine: larb and som tum. Both dishes are listed on the menu under the “Salads” heading. Larb is a ground chicken salad which resembles tabouli in texture and appearance. If you take tabouli and substitute minced chicken in place of the bulgur, cilantro in place of the parsley, and lime in place of the lemon, you have the basic concept of larb. While tabouli-like in many respects, larb offers a much more intense flavor palette than tabouli.

The menu’s description of larb is as follows:

Larb ($9) – Ground chicken, beef, or pork with roasted rice powder, red onion, and cilantro in spicy lime dressing.

I knew from my research that the meat concoction may be either cooked or prepared ceviche style (raw meat “cooked” in a lime marinade). I also learned that when chicken is used, the meat mixture will sometimes include minced liver and/or skin. Sai-Bai-Dee’s version included cooked meat without the addition of liver or skin.

A generous portion of the larb was served on a bed of iceberg lettuce. The crisp coolness of the lettuce provided the perfect foil for the larb’s intense flavors. The combination of chicken and roasted rice powder (a key ingredient in many Thai and Lao dishes) provides the dish’s nutty and savory notes. The cool, fresh, slightly bitter flavors of cilantro and lime provide the perfect complement to balance the dish’s intense chili heat. Tiny slivers of red onion provide visual appeal and a satisfying crunch.

I highly recommend Sa-Bai-Dee’s larb, with two caveats: (1) If you are one of those persons who has an aversion to cilantro – a condition that is well documented in the scientific literature – you will definitely want to avoid this dish, as the cilantro flavor is prominent. (By the way, if you do happen to be cilantro-averse, you may want to check out the following website and join the international community of cilantro haters: (2) If you have difficulty with pungent foods, you may ask to have the heat level adjusted to your preference.

I will devote a separate post to a discussion of som tum (truly one of the most unique dishes I’ve ever eaten).

References and Resources::





Upper Darby, PA: International Food Hub



Several years ago I attended a daytime meeting at Upper Darby High School, one of Pennsylvania’s largest high schools, located just beyond the western edge of Philadelphia’s city limits. As I found my way to the designated meeting space, a buzzer sounded and the hallway was soon bustling with students moving to the next class. Given my background as a high school teacher, much about this scene was familiar. At the same time, I sensed something very unfamiliar. It took me a minute to finally realize what it was. The conversations that filled the air were blending to create a rich linguistic tapestry. More than 70 languages are spoken by Upper Darby’s students. The municipality is one of the most ethnically diverse communities in Pennsylvania.

Culinary diversity is frequently one of the byproducts of cultural diversity. This is certainly the case in Upper Darby. In the heart of Upper Darby’s business district – just a short walk from the 69th St. train station and Tower Theater – a single city block is home to 14 eateries featuring 11 distinctly different cuisines: Chinese (Szechuan), Cuban, Columbian, Ecuadorian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Mexican, Peruvian, Thai, and Vietnamese. It is important to note that these restaurants primarily serve their respective ethnic populations. Therefore, they tend not to cater to the American palette. For some people, this may be a deterrent. After all, many people enjoy the Americanized Thai restaurants that have sprung up like mushrooms throughout the Philadelphia suburbs. The food served in most of these establishments bears little resemblance to authentic Thai cuisine. (The mantra of these restaurants seems to be “turn up the sweet; turn down the heat.”) Clearly, catering to the American palette makes very good business sense in most suburban communities. Upper Darby, however, isn’t your typical suburban community.

This series of posts will chronicle my visits to sample Upper Darby’s international fare. My first destination was the recently opened Northern Square Chinese Restaurant, which specializes in Szechuan cuisine. While the menu includes a sufficient number of obligatory American Chinese dishes, it also offers a wide selection of items that you probably won’t find at your local Chinese take-out. These include:

Green bean sheet jelly and cucumber in spicy sauce

Blood vessel in chile sauce

Sauteed tea plant mushroom with green pepper

Sauteed large intestines in chile sauce

For an appetizer, I selected the three-flavor dumplings. I knew that the term three-flavor dumpling can mean one of two things: three different types of dumpling (e.g. pork, shrimp, and chicken) served together on the same plate or three ingredients minced together to create a dumpling filling. In this instance, one variety of dumpling – containing a three-flavor filling – was served. The “three flavors” were leeks, eggs, and shrimp. The fresh flavor of the leeks was predominate, with just a hint of minced scrambled egg and shrimp. The perfectly steamed dumplings were served with a light plum sauce for dipping. To my surprise, both the flavor and texture of the filling reminded me of the spinach filling in the Greek spanakopita (spinach pie). The dumplings provided a light, but very satisfying, prelude to the main course.

For the choice of entree, I was torn between sour cabbage and vermicelli and boiled fish in pungent sauce, one of four dishes listed under the heading “Hot & Spicy Series.” Numerous items on the menu were labeled as “spicy,” but these four dishes somehow warranted a special designation (and probably served to pique my curiosity). I asked the waiter (who was also the chef) to describe the fish dish. In broken English, he said “very spicy fish upstairs and bean sprouts and cabbage downstairs.” Apparently gathering the ingredients to prepare this dish would involve trips to both the basement and second story. I felt a bit guilty, but the kind waiter/chef didn’t seem to mind. I ordered the fish.

The dish was served in an enormous bowl. Five large fish filets floated in a reddish-brown broth…made red by very generous portions of dried crushed chiles and made brown by equally generous portions of cumin. Floating beneath the fish, I found a pile of bean sprouts and chopped Napa cabbage…Oh! Now I understood! Sprouts and cabbage on the bottom of the bowl (“downstairs”) and fish on top (“upstairs”). The bean sprouts had the appearance and texture (and even some of the taste) of al dente spaghetti noodles. The cabbage retained just the right amount of crunch.

I suspect that the name of the dish – boiled fish in pungent sauce – was incorrectly translated into English. The fish was not boiled, but rather fried in a very light batter and then placed into the broth. While the translator may have missed the mark with “boiled,” he or she was spot on with “pungent.” The broth was wonderfully pungent and complex. The heat (spice heat) was intense, but it served to enhance rather than mask the other flavors. The cumin added a deep earthy, smoke flavor. (The cumin flavor in this dish was quite different than the cumin flavor that I associate with Indian cooking. After doing a bit of research, I suspect that this dish was made with black cumin, and the cumin flavor with which I am more accustomed is white cumin.)

I found the meal extremely satisfying! I realize that “pungent fish” is not for everyone, but the Northern Square menu offers a wide range of items for a wide range of tastes. The restaurant is a BYOB. They are open Monday through Saturday 11 am – 10 pm and Sundays from noon – 10 pm. They do take credit cards ($15 minimum).