When we published our first gift guide in 2017, our aim was simple: to share a highly-selective (and relatively short) list of products – some serious, others lighthearted – that our correspondents and guides eat and use, made by people they know.
But in this unprecedented year, which has left so many of us grounded and brought travel almost to a halt, the ability to experience new places has been severely curtailed. Moreover, the various lockdowns and anti-Covid measures have hit the food industry particularly hard – the culinary masters that we celebrate on our tours and trips and in our coverage have by and large seen a precipitous drop in business.
At a time when it’s so difficult to make connections between travelers and our local heroes, we put together a series of boxes featuring some of our favorite bites and ingredients from the cities where we work. It’s by no means a replacement for the experience of travel, but we hope to bring the flavor of these cities into your home and kitchen, while also supporting the essential work of our beloved spots and artisans.
As a result, the CB gift guide looks slightly different this year. We’ve still highlighted some of our favorite products, but most are included in one of our boxes. In a way, it has given us the chance to share some truly local products, ones we could never find abroad before.
Backstreet Plaka Box
Our Backstreet Plaka Box, like our food tour in this ancient district, uncovers the culinary diamonds in the touristy rough. Among the specialty products included – all made by small producers from across Greece – is a can of Liokarpi, an award-winning olive oil from Crete made using the robustly-flavored Koroneiki variety of olives, oregano and thyme from Tzekos, an organic herb grower in northern Greece’s Chalkidiki region, and sykomaida, a dried fig cake made with a touch of ouzo that’s a traditional specialty of Corfu. Order here.
Athens Online Cooking Class
Even if you can’t get together with your family this holiday season, you can still gather around the table with a private Athens online cooking class. Everyone can join the class from their own kitchens, cook a classic taverna meal together – in this case, gemista, soulful and satisfying stuffed vegetables; tzatziki, the tangy cucumber and yogurt dip that’s a staple of any taverna menu; and semolina helva, a comforting sweet somewhere between a pudding and a cake – and then stay on Zoom and chat while eating together. To book a private cooking class, contact us at email@example.com for more information.
Barrio Box: Gràcia, Born, Sants
When the afternoon hora de vermut comes around, our Barrio Box gives you almost everything you need to partake as if you’re in Barcelona (sadly we can’t ship the vermouth itself – but we include a list of recommended bottles). It features some of the very best bites from the neighborhoods that we visit on our food tours, including artisanal tinned seafood from Entrelatas, a favorite conservas shop in Grácia; Llargueta almonds roasted at Casa Gispert, a food shop in the Born neighborhood that opened in 1851 and has one of Europe’s oldest nut roasters; and heavenly olives in anchovy paste from L’espinaler, a Catalan brand that is synonymous with vermouth culture. Order here.
Istanbul Online Cooking Class
If you have a food-obsessed traveler in your life who is currently grounded, give them the gift of a transporting online cooking class. In this two-hour lesson, our instructor walks a small group from start to finish through the steps of preparing a classic meyhane meal: karnıyarık, a soulful stuffed eggplant dish; mercimek köftesi, flavorful and refreshing red lentil patties; and kabak şayan, a dip made of zucchini, yogurt and walnuts that achieves a surprising and deeply satisfying depth of tastes and texture. To purchase a gift certificate for our Istanbul online cooking class, click here. (If you want to book a private Istanbul cooking class for your friends or family, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.)
Homemade sourdough may be all the rage in 2020, but we’ve spent this strange year mastering yufka, the paper-thin sheets of unleavened dough used to make börek, Turkey’s preeminent savory pastry (we usually wrap our yufka around whatever’s on hand for a quick meal). Essential to this process is an oklava, a long, thin rolling pin that lets you roll out the dough to the final degree of thinness. We went for the cheap and cheerful version found here, but if you want a high-end oklava, handmade using select hardwoods, order here.
Backstreet Lisbon Box
To put together the Backstreet Lisbon Box, we visited the city’s traditional grocery stores – the ones that still keep neighborhoods fed – in search of the foods from far and wide that have now become staples in the Portuguese pantry. Like a bottle of piri piri oil made with local peppers and olive oil – though 16th-century Portuguese traders are credited with the proliferation of the chili pepper, these peppers are now grown in the hot and sunny south of Portugal. And an organic green tea made by Gorreana, a family business located on the verdant Azores islands, way out in the middle of the Atlantic, and the oldest tea producer in Europe. Order here.
Lisbon Online Cooking Class
Even if you can’t get together with your family this holiday season, you can still gather around the table with a private Lisbon online cooking class. Everyone can join the class from their own kitchens, cook a classic Portuguese meal together – in this case, arroz de tamboril, a homey and soupy stew made with monkfish and rice, and tarte de amêndoa, a toffee-topped almond tart – and then stay on Zoom and chat while eating together. To book a private cooking class, contact us at email@example.com for more information.
Backstreet Marseille Box
Marseille is influenced as much by France as it is by its location on the Mediterranean – the vibrant port has welcomed goods, immigrants and ideas since 600 B.C., resulting in a rich culinary heritage. Our Backstreet Marseille Box, like our culinary walk, speaks to this legacy through items like Le Phare du Cap Bon harissa, a piquant red pepper paste that has been made since 1945 on the tip of Tunisia, and a bag of freshly baked canistrelli, a Corsican treat that originated in Genoa (these square cookies have become a Marseille tradition thanks to the prominent Corsican community). Order here.
Backstreet Mexico City Box
Filled with products from the people who are part of our Mexico City tours and trips, our Backstreet Mexico City Box showcases the many layers of this incredibly diverse metropolis. Like the Almendrado mole from the family-run Moles México in Milpa Alta, a village-like area on the southern edge of Mexico City (while in town we also found a source for heirloom beans that are rarely seen outside of Milpa Alta’s markets). And the cacao treats from the family-run Chocolatería Macondo, located near the site of the 2,000-year-old Teotihuacan pyramids, including a cacao-rich bar for baking or nibbling on and a package of powdered chocolate to make hot or cold drinks. Order here.
Backstreet Naples Box
The chances are good that you’ve had a pizza margherita delivered to your home in the last few months, but our Backstreet Naples Box shows that there’s much more to Naples and the surrounding Campania region than pizza. Like freshly roasted and ground coffee from Caffè Mexico, one of the many beloved bars around town where the ritual of drinking coffee is performed several times a day. And a bottle of artisanal colatura di alici – a direct descendant of garum, the ancient fish sauce beloved by the Romans – made with anchovies caught by the fishermen of Cetara on the Amalfi coast. Order here.
Quesillo (Queso Oaxaca)
Quesillo, a type of string cheese that’s a member of the pasta filata (“spun paste” in Italian) family, is by far the most popular cheese in Oaxaca. In fact, it is so versatile and has become such a signature ingredient that it’s exported under the name queso Oaxaca, not quesillo. It’s a title that Oaxacans find outrageous, since it makes such a particular cheese seem like a very generic one. While this version is technically made in California rather than Oaxaca, it gives you a sense of the real thing, which is the only cheese we can imagine crowning tlayudas or filling squash blossom quesadillas. Order here.
“Oaxaca al Gusto” by Diana Kennedy
Although it’s a decade old, Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto is worth returning to again and again. We were reminded of the cookbook, which features around 300 recipes for traditional Oaxacan dishes, after watching “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” earlier this year – the documentary provides a candid look into the world of this British food writer, who has devoted her life to documenting Mexican cuisine. Order here.
Cork Fruit Bowl
It’s a historical puzzle why northern Portugal is full of cork companies, when the country’s cork oak forests are mostly in the south (we wrote about this riddle last year). Regardless, the cork industry has regained its stature in the past 15 years after being overshadowed by plastic for the latter half of the 20th century – cork is now seen as the eco-friendly choice and Portugal’s cork forests as harbors of biodiversity. We love the many ways this material can be used in our kitchens, like this large cork fruit bowl. Order here.
Pumpkin Jam in the Backstreet Lisbon Box
While all the items in the Backstreet Lisbon Box were sourced in Portugal’s capital, they come from across the country. Like the jar of our favorite pumpkin jam, which hails from the mountains of northern Portugal. We like to slather this onto fresh cheese or enjoy, furtively, by the spoonful. Order the box (which includes other goodies in addition to the pumpkin jam) here.
United Kitchens of Queens Box
With our United Kitchens of Queens Box, the culinary mix of the world’s borough – the area that encompasses the Queens neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights is one of the most diverse places on the face of the planet – can now become part of your own kitchen. The items included range from savory, like a bottle of Suka Pinakurat, a vinegary dipping sauce and marinade made out of fermented coconut nectar from the Philippines, to sweet, like a package of exquisite Colombian guava paste. Order here.
Bamboo Steamer Basket
We have long worshipped at the altar of xiaolongbao, Shanghai’s specialty soup dumplings. While we have our favorite joints for these steamed buns of goodness, lately we have (foolishly?) taken it upon ourselves to make them at home. To date the results have been lackluster, but we like a challenge and are enjoying playing around with the fillings. A bamboo steamer basket has proven necessary for these dumpling experiments. Order here.
Zhong dumplings have also been on the menu this year – this classic Chengdu snack is best paired with Fly by Jing’s Zhong sauce, a mixture of aromatic fuzhi soy sauce, slow-brewed with brown sugar, mushrooms, garlic and a blend of spices. We’ve been big fans of the chef and writer Jenny Gao since she launched her Fly by Jing food pop-up and supper club in Shanghai (and have been putting her Sichuan chili crisp on pretty much everything for years), so it’s exciting to watch her Sichuan seasoning business grow and develop. She recently shared her origin story in segments on IGTV – it’s well worth a watch. Order the versatile sauce here.
In Georgia, you cannot eat on an uncovered table. Even the old guys snacking on bread and cheese between games of dominoes lay down a supra, or tablecloth, of at least newspaper. Supra also means feast in Georgia, and these decorative tablecloths, which are based on traditional Georgian designs, are perfect for your own supras, whether festive or simple family dinners. Order here.
Each year we fantasize about sharing our favorite bottles of Georgian wine in the gift guide. Yet while Georgian wine is becoming easier to find abroad, the reality is that shipping alcohol across state lines in the U.S. is a quagmire. So even though we can’t get actual bottles into your hands, we can spread the Georgian wine love with kvevri socks. Order here.
Double-Brewed Soy Sauce
Both an ingredient and a condiment, soy sauce is so ubiquitous in Japan as to be rendered almost invisible. Yet the contents of these bottles shouldn’t be underestimated – what many people know as soy sauce is worlds apart in flavor from the many varieties of shoyu, as its known, on the shelves of a local supermarket in Tokyo. When we’re looking for a darker, richer flavor, we go for saishikomi, a double-brewed sauce with a more viscous texture than regular soy sauce. Order here.
For many in Japan, eating kakigori is a taste of childhood. But the simple sweet of shaved ice with syrup or toppings has experienced a boom recently, becoming ever more decadent and intricate (and Instagram-worthy). To make this cloud-like dessert, a block of ice is hoisted into a machine that shreds it into elegant flakes. These are softly patted into a smooth yet fluffy mountain, which is then coated in sauce. It’s almost like a form of art, which is why we’ve started making our own dazzling sculptures at home – we’re all about new creative outlets this year. Order a basic kakigori machine here, or a sturdier, more expensive version here.