Through ingenuity, inspiration, or practicality in the culinary arts, humans across the globe have agreed upon a few universal truths: Everything sesame touches turns to gold, grilled or braised tongue must burst beyond its bread or tortilla confines, and lemons only need salt and time to upend our understanding of what lemons can be. Like a delicious recurring dream, some of the best ingredients just happen to be universal, existing at the intersection of different cuisines from all over the world. From cassava pone to bolo de mandioca, mondongo to khashi, and tehina shakes to sesame brittle, cooks agree that ingredients like sesame, cassava, and tripe are true staples. Lucky for Philadelphians, there are dishes and cuisines galore that employ these universal ingredients — and countless ways to compare them.
Soft, sticky, and naturally gluten-free, cassava (also known as yuca) cakes have an irresistible pudding-like texture. Adding grated, mature coconut with its milk puts these cakes over the edge. Some cultures bake it, some steam it in banana leaves, and some add cinnamon or star anise. Others add pumpkin or taro root, and some add condensed milk or cheese. Try Caribbean cassava pone — kissed with vanilla and warming spices — at Brown Sugar Bakery & Cafe, a Trinidadian restaurant on 52nd Street in West Philly. Filipino cassava bibingka includes condensed and evaporated milks and has made appearances on the menus at Perla in South Philly, Kusina Philly in West Philly, and at pop-up events by chef Daps Manansala. For a Brazilian take on this pudding cake, head over to Kouklet Brazilian Bakehouse in South Philly for classic bolo de mandioca and mané pelado, baked in banana leaves with salty cheese. Other variations on the theme include Colombian enyucado, Vietnamese banh khoai mi nuong, Malaysian kuih bingka ubi kayu, and Fijian vakalolo.
Tripe Soups and Stews
Tender, honeycomb-shaped beef tripe takes the spotlight in many homey, comforting soups and stews. Sopa de mondongo, a tomato-based tripe and cow feet stew cooked with peppers, root vegetables, spices, and cilantro, shows up in many former Spanish colonies. Dominicanos in the Delaware Valley co-founder Yocasta Lora recommends Parada Maimon in Callowhill, La Tierra del Chicharron in North Philly, and El Placer Restaurant in South Philly, as well as Freddy & Tony’s in North Philly for the Puerto Rican version. The spicier Mexican version has yuca, potatoes, corn on the cob, lime, and three types of peppers — guajillo for flavor, bell for color, and chile de árbol for spice. Menudo, which is even spicier, uses hominy instead of fresh corn. Try both at Restaurant y Taqueria Don Chucho, Los Gallos Mexican Taqueria, Tamalex, and Taqueria La Veracruzana, all in South Philly. Callos, a Filipino version, is made with ox tripe, smoked sausage (chorizo or Chinese lap cheung), beans, potatoes, and bell peppers, and occasionally ham and olives.
D’Jakarta Café in South Philly serves Indonesian soto betawi, a coconut milk and tomato-based soup with tripe, beef, potatoes, and a side of rice. The Dinner House in Port Richmond serves flaki (“guts” in Polish) in a red paprika beef broth, flavored with marjoram, celery, and carrots.
At the opposite end of the color, spice, and texture spectrum is Georgian khashi — a beloved hangover cure — which is pallid in color but not flavor. Head to Restaurant Gamarjoba and Georgian Bakery & Cafe, both on Bustleton Avenue in the Northeast, for a big bowl of creamy, bone-white pieces of tripe, intestines, shank bone, and other goodies in a clear broth with a very large side of freshly minced garlic. Want to try tripe in smaller bites? Sharable Hong Kong-style dim sum tripe stew comes in a bowl of intestines, cubes of pork blood, ginger, leeks, and tender chunks of daikon radish. Try versions of this stew at Ocean Harbor and Ocean City in Chinatown and China Gourmet in Northeast Philadelphia.
Tangy, tart, and briny, the best jars of preserved lemons rely on only salt, water, and time to cure. Both salted and pickled preserved lemons shine in North African, West Asian, and Indian cuisines, but also creep into Mediterranean and Vietnamese menus.
You can find generous slices in Moroccan tagine and stewed meats, such as the succulent bone-in chicken tagine at White House Tajine in Bryn Mawr. Try two very different salads at establishments in Rittenhouse: Tunisian with greens and freekeh — an ancient grain — accented with preserved lemons at K’far Cafe. Or make a meal of it at Spice Finch, where kingfish carpaccio, peri-peri shrimp, whole roasted fish, and a vodka-and-prosecco cocktail all feature preserved lemon. Go Italian (and Italian American) with preserved lemon touches on the arancini and baby gem salad at Barbuzzo in the Gayborhood; the grilled vegetable hoagie at High Street; and squash blossoms stuffed with crab and hazelnut chile pesto at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Fishtown. Soda chanh muối, Vietnamese preserved lemon (or lime) soda, is both salty and sweet and goes amazingly well with savory broths and zingy fish sauce. Try it next time you’re at Café Diem, Nam Phuong, or Pho Ha in South Philly. Test the nuances of your palate and add variations to your pantry by heading to West Philly’s International Foods & Spices or Makkah Market and Dana Mandi 2 in Upper Darby for many brands of Moroccan preserved lemons and Indian lemon and lime pickles. Head to Di Bruno Bros. for Tunisian preserved lemons.
Grilled, pickled, or braised, tongue is a delicious muscle. You can reliably find it at taquerias, Jewish delis, and Asian barbeque spots. At Jewish delis, tongue is brined similar to corned beef before making its way into sandwiches. The sandwiches are huge, so prepare for leftovers for days at Schlesinger’s deli in Center City and Koch’s Deli in West Philly. Tongue is served in multiple ways (in a sandwich, with eggs, or sweet and sour) at Famous Fourth Street Delicatessen in Queen Village. Tacos de lengua are staples at most taquerías, including at Restaurant y Taqueria Don Chucho (where they spend eight hours tenderizing and seasoning the meat before cutting into chunks and sauteeing), Los Gallos Mexican Taqueria, Taqueria La Veracruzana, and Tamalex in South Philly. For an entirely different take, try tongue grilled over charcoal in dishes like thinly sliced sohyemit gui at Korean barbecue spots such as Kim’s BBQ Restaurant in Olney and Nine Ting in Chinatown and Northeast Philly. Decadent grilled wagyu beef tongue is served yakitori-style at Chubby Cattle in Chinatown and Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ in Callowhill.
In crispy cookies, buttery ice creams, or mochi-topped soup, we are blessed with creamy white sesame and nutty black sesame desserts for every season. Tempt a brain freeze with the famous vegan tehina shakes at Goldie or take your sweet time with a pint of sesame butter ice cream from Arctic Scoop. Indulge in black sesame creme brulee and afternoon tea at Chinatown’s Asian Euro chain Prince Tea House, originated in New York. On a cooler day, enjoy a cozy bowl of black sesame paste soup from Heung Fa Chun Sweet House and Mango Mango and take your pick of fried sesame balls filled with red bean paste at any and every bakery or dim sum house in Chinatown and North Philly. Crisscross the city and try sesame cookies at Italian, Middle Eastern, and Indian markets. Treat yourself to apple butter and sesame cookies from Isgro Pastries in South Philly and savory sweet lemony biscotti rolled in sesame seeds from Termini Bros. Go to markets like International Food & Spices and Makkah Market in West Philly and Dana Mandi 2 in Upper Darby for halva, sesame candy, and til chikki, Indian sesame brittle. Head to markets in Chinatown, North Philly, and South Philly for Chinese and Vietnamese versions of peanut sesame brittle.