Through ingenuity, inspiration, or practicality in the culinary arts, humans across the globe have agreed upon a few universal truths: There is an unparalleled satisfaction in crunching on nearly burnt rice; gently cooked milk and eggs turn into silky custards; and salt-cured fish is a restaurant necessity, even before it’s made into croquetas de bacalao and salted fish fried rice. Like a delicious recurring dream, some ingredients just happen to be universal, existing at the intersection of different cuisines. From paella to bibimbap, creme brulee to pasteis de nata, and kiszka to morcilla colombiana, cooks the world over agree on the need for these true staples. Lucky for Philadelphians, there are dishes and cuisines galore that employ these universal ingredients — and countless ways to try them all in Philly.
Dried, salt-cured fish is a tasty and shelf-stable ingredient in Caribbean, Mediterranean, European, and Asian cuisine. (Home cooks, a heads up: You must rinse your fish repeatedly, sometimes soaking it for hours before cooking). You can get ackee and saltfish, Jamaica’s national dish, every day at Caribbean Feast Cuisine in North Philadelphia, Quality Taste Jamaican Restaurant and Little Delicious at 4821 Woodland Avenue in West Philly, Caribbean Delight in South Philadelphia, and on the Saturday brunch menu at 48th Street Grille in West Philly. Try it with a side of dumplings, boiled banana, callaloo, or cabbage.
Check out Cantonese-style salted fish fried rice with dried shrimp (and sometimes scallops), or a nice homey steamed minced pork with salted fish, at Tai Lake Seafood Restaurant and M Kee on 1002 Race Street in Chinatown. Try nasi goreng ikan asin (Indonesian fried rice with chicken and salted fish) at Sky Cafe and D’jakarta Cafe in South Philly.
French, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Spanish, and Italian cuisines have their variations of a salted cod dish. Indulge in pasteis de bacalhau, Portuguese codfish pastries, at Café Liz in North Philadelphia, as well as the croquetas de bacalao on the Portuguese menu at El Balconcito, with locations in North and Northeast Philly. Enjoy the Spanish tapas version, bunuelos de bacalao, at Oloroso in Center City and Barcelona Wine Bar in East Passyunk. On occasion, the French version — brandade, mashed and whipped with potatoes — is on rotation at Chris’ Jazz Cafe in Center City. The Russians eat volba as a snack like jerky, with lots of beer — you can stock up at Bell’s Market in the Northeast.
There are so many appetizing ways to cook with blood, and with such different textures! Black pudding is a U.K. staple; find it in the traditional Irish breakfast at the Black Sheep Pub in Rittenhouse, the Black Taxi in Fairmount, and the Plough & the Stars in Old City.
Other cuisines turn to blood in sausage form and put it to fire — grab some links of Polish kiszka at Czerw’s Kielbasy in North Philly or try the Colombian, Brazilian, and Portuguese take speckled with rice. Grab packaged links of morcilla colombiana at La Caleñita Bakery & Café and Colombian Bakery, both on North Fifth Street in Olney, for your next barbecue. Get a taste of it as part of a meat platter at Tierra Colombiana or if you’re lucky, catch it as a special at El Sabor de Maria in Olney. You can get Southern Vietnamese-style doi huyet pre-cooked and by the pound at Ba Le Bakery in South Philly.
Many Asian soups and stews call for a flavorful addition of gently boiled cubes of congealed blood. Try a comforting bowl of congee with pork blood at M Kee in Chinatown. Explore the more delicate flavor of poultry blood cubes, often with liver, kidney, heart, and gizzard, in Vietnamese noodle soups; order a platter of gently poached chicken and its juicy innards with a plain bowl of noodle soup to get the full effect — at Pho Ga Thanh Thanh in South Philly. Or try bun mang vit, a duck vermicelli noodle soup with pungent bamboo shoots and a mix of innards that pops up as a special item at Pho Ha Saigon in Northeast Philly.
Custards can be savory or sweet; with or without egg; steamed, baked, or cooked over the stovetop; eaten solo or as the shining ingredient in a tart. But one thing is absolutely certain: Humans love custard.
Dessert options — not including frozen custard — are boundless. For silky cooked cream, go smooth and dark with the espresso-laced panna cotta at Gran Caffe L’Aquila or pretty and tart with the lychee panna cotta from A La Mousse. The flan at Don Barriga in West Philly is so rich and dense your spoon can stand up in it. For creme brulee at its purest, head to the Bistrot La Minette in South Philly or its all-day cafe Gabi on North Broad. Pick up flaky, custardy egg tarts at Saint Honore, Portuguese-style with a bruleed top.
For savory, turn to East Asian steamed egg custards with delicate hints of sesame oil and scallion, often served as sides. Try the Korean version at Seorabol and the Chinese version at Good Harvest in Chinatown. Go for the steamed egg pudding — in boba, lychee panna cota, Viet flan, and royal pudding — at Paris Baguette, the double egg red bean custard whites only at Mango Mango, and the coconut custard tarts and custard buns at Bread Top House and Mayflower Bakery.
Perfectly steamed rice is an art form. Mastering a crunchy bottom, flavored with broth or loaded with meats and seafood, often demands patience and specialty cookware. It is endlessly satisfying to finish cooking the raw egg in the sizzling stone pot that makes dolsot bibimbap such a standout dish. Get it with veggies, rib-eye, tofu, spicy pork, or chicken, and mix it up with gochujang or chile garlic sauce at Buk Chon in Old City. Nooroongji, or cauldron-scorched rice, comes with soondubu stew at Dabu.
Head to Zahav for Persian wedding rice, cooked in a cast-iron pan and flipped onto a plate to show off its crunchy underside, studded with nuts and dried fruit. Shundeez Market in Chestnut Hill has been making tachin, Persian saffron rice cooked with yogurt, egg, chicken, roasted red peppers, and spinach since 1994. (While their stall has closed, you can call to place an order from Market at the Fareway at 570-726-7030 for delivery.) Spanish paella, also laced with fragrant saffron and typically loaded with seafood, chicken, and sausage, hinges on its socarrat, the crust that forms at the bottom. Crunch away at Barcelona Wine Bar in East Passyunk with paella mariscos, a bounty of the sea, with prawns, calamari, mussels, and clams; with morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), chorizo, and chicken; or the less-traditional vegetarian verduras variety, with cauliflower, squash, and Brussels sprouts.
Beans As Sweets
It’s true what they say: Beans are a magical fruit.
Bean pie, made with navy beans, is the popular Black Muslim American dish and a staple in the African American community. Developed by the Nation of Islam as an alternative to sweet potato pie, this custardy tart with warming spices is rich in protein. Join the lines at Sister Muhammad’s Kitchen and Bakery in Germantown for traditional and cheesecake bean pies (all day every day, until they sell out) or Muhammad Mosque 12 on Broad Street.
Find sweetened red beans every day — and pretty much every few feet — in Chinatown: Rich paste makes delightful fillings in chewy sesame balls and soft buns at KC’s Pastries and Bread Top House at 1041 Race Street (check all the bakeries come mooncake season); whole red beans in syrup serves as a sweetener in the subdued silky tofu dessert at Heung Fa Chun Sweet House on 112 N. 10th Street, with shaved ice (or as a hot dessert soup) at Mango Mango Dessert, and in crepes at the Prince Tea House and T-Swirl Crêpe on 150 N. 10th Street and in Haddonfield, NJ. Sip on Uji matcha red bean with milk or red bean milk tea at A Cup Of Tea at 115 N. 9th Street.
Get it all of the ways in the Cheltenham-Elkins Park area: in cookies, with shaved ice, and stuffed in mochi, bread, and donuts at Sol Levante Bakery in Elkins Park and in charming fish-shaped taiyaki or with shaved ice or milk snow at Cafe Clover. Go triple bean sweets with che ba mau at Bambu in South Philly — the tricolored Vietnamese dessert drink with red, white, and mung beans goes on overdrive with the addition of homemade taro, pandan jelly, coconut milk, and plenty of ice. And don’t forget to grab xoi vo, or coconut-infused sticky rice with sweetened mung bean, at Ba Le while you’re there.