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When it comes to Florida cuisine, the conversation starts with Norman Van Aken. The chef and author was among the first to realize the tropical food goldmine of the region, and his restaurants and cookbooks have had a huge influence on chefs in Florida and beyond. Now the chef/owner of Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando and Director of Restaurants at Miami Culinary Institute, Van Aken is at work on his next book, My Key West Kitchen (Kyle Books), due out in fall 2012. In the meantime, he’ll contribute to Food Republic with his “Word On Food.” 

I was a long ass way from home. We had hitchhiked from Chicago to Denver and on a total whim decided to fly to Hawaii to visit a buddy we left back there a year earlier. We rambled around the Big Island going nearly broke really quickly. But hunger is a fixed clock. Money was tight. I longed for a big plate of pancakes. Their hot, steaming buttery sweetness would pack my 19-year-old belly.

While many chefs collect recipes for all manner of meat, fish and fowl, I also collect them for pancakes. I’ve got stacks of them.

There are many stuffed, rolled and enfolded bread or batter type wrapped foods that fall into this vast category as well. I won’t leave our All-American flapjacks. I might give them some Latino flair by dropping slices of pre-caramelized plantains into my cakes as the first side sizzles, hisses softly and signals me with yeasty bubbles that she’s ready to be flipped over to become golden on her topside too. I might continue on my migration for tropical flavors and serve my Plantain Pancakes with some local mangos that are peeled, pitted, sliced and touched with only a drop of honey and a squeeze of orange.

But I begin to think of savory dishes and I recall one I’ve made for many years called “Duck Bang-Bang.” The name comes from the fact that the flavors of the duck and the attendant sauces I serve rush from one side of your palate to the other with such force that they almost seem to “bang” into your taste buds’ perimeters. Envision one of those pro-wrestler guys who purposely propel their muscle-swollen bodies off the ropes in their ringed playpens to gather momentum to send their opponents to some neural “la-la land.” That’s the way the flavors work.

The duck is braised with all manner of Chinese influenced good things. I use the meaty legs from the very large ducks called Moulard. It takes two days to make it. I use lemongrass, star anise, oranges, ginger, aromatic vegetables, herbs and other talismans of taste. When the duck meat can literally fall of the bone we shred meticulously by hand into soft strands and pile it into “two-tone” pancakes, which I make with saffron and red chilies molido.

Moving along the globe I think of the wonderfully perfumed enticement of Indian paratha cakes, redolent of the spice chests of that magic land.

And isn’t the great Mexican tortilla a type of pancake? It doesn’t quite seem to be a bread. All right, it can be either. But it must be eaten!

How many tortillas and the tacos, burritos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, chimichangas, chalupas and flautas that can be made with them have you consumed? “Not enough” is my answer.

I haven’t even yet mentioned the various French crêpes, Jewish latkes, Korean stuffed and steamed baos, or the “price be damned” beluga caviar laden blini I would love to have.

Perhaps my destiny is to go full circle. Perhaps I will open up some “21st Century Pancake Parlor.” I will offer the pancakes of every land that strike me as the most alluring, delicious, mouth-watering imaginable. And maybe some next generation drifter will drop his or her weary backpack down, grab a chair and let me restore them with whatever pancakes their heart desires or even just enough of whatever it takes to get them to the next place they dream to go.


Hungry for more international pancakes? Try these Food Republic recipes: